“Beside the Ocean of Time” by George MacKay Brown

“Beside the Ocean of Time” by George MacKay Brown (1994) – 217 pages


Imagine you are in the cold windswept Orkney Islands which are even north of Scotland.  It is easy to imagine the Orkney Islands when you read a novel by George MacKay Brown. 

 It doesn’t happen often, but once in a great while, you can tell by the first three short sentences of a novel that you are reading a special book.  Here are the first sentences of “Beside the Ocean of Time”. 

 Of all the lazy useless boys who ever went to Norday school, the laziest and most useless was Thorfinn Ragnarson.

 I don’t know what to do with you, you’re useless,” said Mr. Simon the teacher.  “I’ll speak to your father.”


 “He’s no good at farm work either ,” said Matthew the farmer.  You’d think he’d be good at something – everybody has a gift of some kind, don’t they? – but Thorfinn drifts about as idle as a butterfly.”  

 Thorfinn is a boy who instead of paying attention in the school classroom or doing his farm chores, is always off in his own world daydreaming.  Mr. Simon the teacher is discussing the Norsemen (Vikings) in Constantinople 800 years ago, so Thorfinn daydreams that he is a boy crewman on the Swedish ship Solan Goose going down the Volga River back in those times.  Thorfinn’s adventures on the Norse sailing ship in the twelfth century are the first chapter of “Beside the Ocean of Time”. Other chapters are built around Thorfinn’s daydreams about Scotland’s battle with England at Bannockburn in the fourteenth century and other more recent events on the Orkney Islands where Thorfinn lives. 

 So who really is this lazy useless boy who is perpetually daydreaming?  Although it is never explicitly stated, I’m pretty sure Thorfinn grows up to be our novelist George MacKay Brown.  I would imagine vivid daydreaming is almost a prerequisite for a writer, and I’m guessing that in a lot of cases their parents and teachers didn’t like all the time their ‘idle and useless’ kid spends daydreaming.

 It is always a special occasion for me when I read one of the books by George MacKay Brown.  I’ve read at least three of his books now, and he is one of those authors I will come back to again and again.  He passed away in 1996.  The main thing to remember about George MacKay Brown is that he chose to live in the relative isolation of the Orkney Islands for most of his life.   When you read one of his books, you can almost feel the cold wind blowing across these far northern islands.  His stories are simple, uncluttered, usually about the seas or the farms around Orkney..  He was a poet also, and it shows in his plain unadorned sentences.

 “Beside the Ocean of Time” is actually made up of separate stories tied together only by Thorfinn Ragnarson , his three sisters, and his father.  I may have given the impression that the stories are mainly a boy’s daydreaming fantasies, but there are also romantic stories involving Thorfinn’s father, his sisters, and Thorfinn himself.  Most of these stories are about life on the Orkney Islands.

 “Beside the Ocean of Time” was shortlisted for the Booker prize in 1994 and was judged Scottish book of the year that year by the Saltire Society. 


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