Morag MacInnes on Eric Linklater, Sealskin Trousers

A Love Affair with Orkney

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Eric Linklater was a bit of a force of nature. He was born in Wales, but wished he hadn’t been, so he conjured an Orkney childhood and let everyone assume he had been born there. His father was Orcadian, a master mariner. Perhaps he was honouring that, and the longing his Swedish mother felt for the place. But he was 70 before he admitted his Welsh beginnings.

He was convinced he was ugly, a weakling – so he became a soldier and wrote the definitive war autobiography, Fanfare for a Tin Hat. He escaped death by a whisker, thanks to said tin hat, which he kept on his desk as a memento mori.

His love affair with Orkney was long and complex. Yet he only actually lived there for thirteen years, and he spent most of that time abroad. He built a fine house, and made up an Orcadian-sounding name for it – Merkister. There he fished, shot, ate, drank, loved, wrote. It was, in many ways, his anchor.

It’s now a fishing hotel, hung with stuffed glassy-eyed behemoths and delicate bright flies with exotic names – Erland’s cat, Norsky lad, glister cormorant. There’s a plaque depicting his rather crusty domed countenance; he’s described as ‘writer, historian, angler’, which he’d have approved of.

He was an insecure, prickly sort of man, prone to roaring when thwarted, attacked by skin eruptions and stomach upsets. He behaved magnificently badly, then apologized equally magnificently. His children became accustomed to domestic explosions during which fruit and crockery were thrown in all directions, and his wife Marjorie gave as good as she got. He wrote too much because he needed money – over twenty novels, three volumes of autobiography, five children’s stories, ten plays, dozens of essays, histories and jobbing introductions. How could his output not be patchy? They’re in every second-hand bookshop, those novels

And yet. There’s another man under all the bluster. A hopeless romantic. An elegant stylist. A writer not so m

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About the contributor

Morag MacInnes is a writer from Orkney. She once played the heroine of Linklater’s novel Magnus Merriman in a BBC Scotland radio production; but her Orcadian accent was considered to be something of a disadvantage.

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