IT’S difficult to imagine two novelists further apart in temperament, disposition, appetite, background and character than George Mackay Brown and Alexander Trocchi. Bringing them together reveals contrasts far more than comparisons. Yet those contrasts illustrate the range of the spectrum of modern Scottish fiction and there’s no reason why readers should not take in the whole range. This isn’t a matter of exclusivity.

George Mackay Brown (1921-96) was pre-eminently a poet but he was also a playwright with A Spell for Green Corn (1970) and Three Plays: The Loom of Light, The Well and The Voyage of Saint Brandon (1984). Bur more impressive than his plays are his short stories and novels. Perhaps Brown’s best stories are in his earliest collections, A Calender of Love (1967), which notes in its Foreword that “Orkney is a small green world in itself”, and A Time to Keep (1969). Further story collections include Hawkfall (1974), The Sun’s Net (1976), Andrina and Other Stories (1983) – in which the title story is one of the most haunting, economic in style and emotional restraint – The Masked Fisherman (1989), The Sea-King’s Daughter (1991), Winter Tales (1995) and, published posthumously, The Island of the Women (1998).

Both A Calender of Love and A Time to Keep establish and return to his favoured themes and questions: archetypes (tramps, ministers, lairds, shopkeepers), Christian rituals (nativity, transfiguration, passion, death and resurrection), worrying matters of technology, progress and commercial exploitation. All these tropes are set against the perennial virtues of the stories, songs and traditions people bear. “Bear” is the word: these things form a people’s culture, they are carried, a cargo, a valuable weight that demands effort but also a real nourishment for present and future, drawn from the past. They require both respect and good use.

READ MORE: Masters of the fine art of literary fiction

Travel and residence are his characters’ polar determinants: the urge felt by some, to travel and return, and the role of those who do not roam, but whose residence might also hold a yearning to leave and see the world. Time, mortality, violence and sacrifice are cradled in a distinctive archipelago where everyday acts of kindness and support are valued, treasured, performed gratefully.

All Brown’s work presents a shifting, kaleidoscopic reimagining of Orkney, from its ancient past to late in the 20th century. The single best place to start is An Orkney Tapestry (1969), a collection of stories, poems, short plays and essays, but this is not to underestimate the deepening meditations on sanctity and the value of sacredness in the modern world, especially in his essays from The Orcadian newspaper, collected in Letters from Hamnavoe (1975), Under Brinkie’s Brae (1979), Rockpools and Daffodils: An Orcadian Diary, 1979–91 (1992) and The First Wash of Spring (2006), and his autobiographical writing in For the Islands I Sing (1997) and Northern Lights (1999).

The National:

His most lastingly impressive novels are Greenvoe (1972) and Magnus (1973) but there are others, well worth exploring. The grim cycles of warfare happening all through time, all over the world, encountered in Time in a Red Coat (1984), are cautionary but the graceful lucidity of his last novels, Vinland (1992) and Beside the Ocean of Time (1994), is deeply refreshing and heartfelt.

Edwin Morgan declared a preference for his first novel, Greenvoe. It has a multi-layered structure: “On one level, we follow the gossipy, ingrown, and not very edifying lives of a small community in the imaginary island of Hellya. A historical extension is provided by the Skarf, who writes up the island’s past in an old cash-book.” There is “a quasi-futuristic element towards the end” when “the military-industrial Dark Star project first quickens and then kills the village. A less persuasive mythical cult of The Horsemen promises resurrection.” Morgan summarises judiciously, judging that the book is “striking” and there is “precision in the writing”: it is “a poet’s novel”.

But I’d say Brown’s strongest novel is Magnus, which dramatically retells the story of the martyr and his place in Orkney history, and startlingly connects it to political violence and human bloodshed throughout history, specifically in the Second World War. Nazism is not demonised but seen as an understandable human evil, the realisation of the worst of human potential. It is presented in Brechtian terms as the exaggeration and aberration of recognizably human motives and it shows their horrific results. It is the toughest of his books, gathering the deepest questions his writing addresses, the value of locality, character and community, the human worth of art and sacrifice, the tension between the natural world and the end of all things, the threat of apocalypse.

Historical evocation of the 12th-century Magnus, the seemingly perennial cast of peasants, tinkers, crofters, businessmen, courtiers, landowners and aristocracy, and figures from a Nazi concentration camp, the cook and butcher, the officers, the helpless and obedient, the resistant, the powerful, all come into a configuration of social conflict and power which is never easy to accept and disallows complacency completely. It is unsettling reading and its value as a permanent challenge to orthodox assurances is profound. In that respect at least, Brown stands beside Trocchi, whose rejection of the orthodox, unlike Brown’s, was sensational and infamous.

ALEXANDER Trocchi (1925-84) may seem to have more in common with the American Beat writers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, or the European contemporaries he published, Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco, than with Scottish writing, but he re-entered the commercially fashionable literary world of the 1990s partly through the enthusiasm of that inescapably Scottish historical enfant terrible, Irvine Welsh. He had never really been away since his famous confrontation with Hugh MacDiarmid at the Edinburgh Festival in 1964. MacDiarmid was seen by some at that time as an outdated, outmoded “nationalist” parody figure in clichéd kilt, a champion of reactionary extremist politics, while Trocchi represented a new cosmopolitanism, disregarding national Scottish priorities in favour of internationally fashionable weariness and opposition to anything to do with “the state”. Yet as their correspondence at the time suggests, Trocchi saw MacDiarmid as a true revolutionary whose example he recognised, and did not scorn or dismiss. Deeper reading of his own two novels show his investments of sympathy, self-consciousness and writerly skills. Brown may seem to emerge from an oral, storytelling culture, whose skills of narration and recording go back at least as far as The Orkneyinga Saga of the early 13th century, but Edwin Morgan’s emphasis upon the “precision” of his writing applies equally to Trocchi. In this regard, as literary craftsmen, they are not so far apart as first it appears.

The National:

Trocchi’s first novel, Young Adam (1954), is an existential murder mystery mainly set in the liminal space on the barges along the Forth and Clyde canal. The moral ambiguities at its heart are definitive aspects of post-war Scotland. In its film version (2003), erstwhile Star Wars and Trainspotting actor Ewan McGregor plays Joe, the central figure. From the moment when Joe witnesses, and is perhaps responsible for, the death of his girlfriend, at the beginning of the novel, a whole world of unease opens up: questions of guilt and responsibility, to oneself and society, to others, remain unanswered. Is it cowardice to turn away, or is there courage in refusing the traps of social morality? No easy answers come, and in the end, with horrible, haunting uncertainty, everything begins “to dissolve”.

READ MORE: Joan Ure: The Scots poet and playwright who set a precedent

Young Adam’s successor, Cain’s Book (1961), while ostensibly set on the Manhattan waterfront in New York, includes the central character’s recollections of humorous, touching scenes of his family life back in Glasgow. It’s an equally intense study of character, motive, the individual, relationships and the morals of society typical of its era. It is the first novel to introduce the word “cool” into Scottish literature, in its opening paragraphs, referring to a state of mind which Trocchi says may be experienced through the use of heroin, but it is also referring to a style of writing: level, restrained, continuously edged with unspoken personal passion and social judgement, dangerous (always on the point of violence) and accented by an omnipresent sense of threat. It’s an unmistakably Scottish take on what the French critic and cultural theorist Roland Barthes called “writing degree zero”.

Edwin Morgan, in his list of Twentieth-Century Scottish Classics, describes it thus: “Joe Necchi lives on a scow in New York harbour, drifting with the tides as his life drifts between heroin fixes, forays into New York to talk to friends or to score, and sessions with the typewriter he has on the scow, tapping out the lucid sentences” of the novel itself. He is “one of the existential exiles and outsiders of the 1950s, looking for a real identity”. His yearning for that identity inevitably calls up memories of the Glasgow and Scotland he has determined to leave behind.

If George Mackay Brown writes from within the crucible of a changing yet treasured community, Trocchi’s courage is in his sustained representation of the life of someone removed from any access to such a community, who, perhaps, would not want it, but who dreams of what it might be, remembers something of it, and whose very act of expression, the writing itself, registers a need for some kind of recognition, or in other words, for readers: that is to say, for others.

For Alexander Trocchi as much as for George Mackay Brown, the world is always in need.