Great Scots

For the islands he wrote: George Mackay Brown’s Orkney

In the centenary year of George Mackay Brown’s birth, we revisit Orkney and view the isles through the eyes of the local-born poet

Words: Gavin D Smith

Many writers are identified with specific places. Take Thomas Hardy and Dorset, and William Wordsworth and the Lake District, for example. However, perhaps no author has been so intimately associated with their locale as George Mackay Brown.

For Mackay Brown, the Orkney Islands, where he was born, grew up and spent almost all his adult life, are at the heart of practically everything he wrote. For a writer of international reputation, he rarely strayed far from the little port of Stromness, where he first saw the light of day 100 years ago, on 17 October 1921.

His father, John, was a postman and tailor, while his mother, Mhairi Mackay, was a native Gaelic speaker from northern Sutherland. George was the youngest of their six children, and his early life was blighted by tuberculosis. The illness did, however, mean that he had time to read and write, first contributing to the Orkney Herald newspaper in 1944. In later years he wrote a weekly column for The Orcadian, featuring musings on everything from a wartime German bombing raid on Orkney to his latest batch of home-brewed beer. Having discovered alcohol when the first bar opened in Stromness after a period of prohibition, Brown had a lifelong love affair with a pint and a dram.

He studied at Newbattle Abbey College near Edinburgh 1951-52 and later read English Literature at the University of Edinburgh, going on to commence teacher training, before deciding he was not cut out to teach and returning to Orkney in 1961. Back in Orkney, he converted to Roman Catholicism.

Rackwick bothy on Hoy, Orkney. Credit: David Robertson/Alamy

During his time in Edinburgh, Brown caroused in the ‘writers’ pubs’ of Rose Street with Scottish literary greats such as Hugh MacDiarmid, Sorley MacLean and Norman MacCaig, and fell in love with ‘the Muse of Rose Street’ Stella Cartwright, to whom he was briefly engaged. He wrote a birthday poem for her every year until she died in 1985, aged just 47.

Brown’s first volume of verse, The Storm, was privately published in 1954, with just 300 copies being printed, making it an extremely rare volume today. Five years later, his collection of poems titled Loaves and Fishes was published by Hogarth Press and was very well received by critics and public alike. It was followed in 1965 by the poem cycle The Year of the Whale, which includes the poem ‘Hamnavoe Market’, (Stromness was formerly known as Hamnavoe). The opening lines of the poem typify Brown’s poetic style and subject matter.

They drove to the Market with ringing pockets.
Folster found a girl
Who put wounds on his face and throat,
Small and diagonal, like red doves.
Johnston stood beside the barrel.
All day he stood there.
He woke in a ditch, his mouth full of ashes.

The style is spare and lean, and characters such as Folster and Johnston populate much of his poetry and fiction. Despite the apparently parochial nature of his work, Brown’s themes are universal, and resonate far beyond Orkney.

He did not believe in ‘inspiration,’ declaring in a 1976 interview for a Scots Magazine feature, “I have my work to do, and I must just get on with it.”

This is an extract. Read the full feature in the September/October 2021 issue of Scotland, out on 20th August.

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