There was a boy who lived in a hamlet in Orkney called Hamnavoe. The boy’s name was Ranald. Ranald’s father had a small ship called the Snowgoose. Ranald’s father – his name was Sigmund Firemouth – did not like the land or anything to do with it, such as ploughs or horses or barns. Sigmund Firemouth was only happy when he was at sea, adjusting his sail to the wind, going from one port to another with cargo, and, sometimes, passengers. – Vinland, George Mackay Brown.
Orcadian Ranald Sigmundson comes young to adventure: at the age of twelve he flees from his violent sea-faring father, stowing away on another ship, This ship happens to be captained by the famous Leif Ericsson – and so by chance Ranald is one of the first Europeans to set foot on Vinland. The beauty of this unknown land, and the encounters with the ‘skraelings’ or ‘savages’, which move swiftly from peaceable and welcoming to violent after the actions of a mistrustful Norse cook, will haunt Ranald forever.
After the Norsemen are temporarily driven from what will become Newfoundland, and winter in Greenland, Ranald decides to take to the seas as a trader. Despite his young age it seems like he has a knack for it, beyond the abilities of adults around him. In fact, he has a knack for most things, including survival. This is a useful skill in the time and place in which Ranald lives, circa 1000 AD, in the area of Northern Europe ruled by the King of Norway but constantly jostled by factions of minor kingships, murderous earls, and viking raiders.
However, as Ranald he grows up he becomes aware of his fealty to the land of his ancestors, and turns his hand to farming, and his back on the call of the sea, on the chaos of politics and war, and eventually even on his family, in favour of seeking a new land, beyond this one –
An admission: I wanted this book to set me on fire, and it didn’t. I think it was my cliff-high expectations: Mackay Brown’s Greenvoe, a novel about life on an Orkney island, a beautifully poetic, slow read, is one of my favourites, and I was expecting a similar kind of richness to the prose here.
What Vinland gives is a crisp rendering of a life of adventure in the Northern seas, political intrigue and disenchantment, and subsequent settling into quiet, meditative old age, all done in the style of a Norse saga. And this was just not what I needed at that moment. It feels like something I would have loved reading as a child, though it is definitely an adult book, particularly in the religious elements that Mackay Brown weaves into the latter half. Religious sensitivity goes hand in hand with a strongly environmental, humane message, which is essentially about living in harmony in the world.
It is, on its own terms, a compelling book with language that has the quality of a beaten-steel sword, and action that flows seamlessly along the highs and lows of one year to the next.