GMB 100: The Centenary of the Birth of George Mackay Brown 1921-2021
On the 17th October 1921, in a small house in Stromness, a baby boy was born. The youngest of six children born to John Brown, a tailor and postman, and Mhairi Mackay. She was a Gaelic speaking native of Sutherland who had come to work at Mackay’s Stromness Hotel, which was owned by a relative of her family. Poverty and ill health plagued his youth. Tuberculosis saw him being declared unfit for military service at the outbreak of World War II.
The influx of service personnel into Orkney was generally welcomed by local people, but George’s blood boiled when he read the army poem ‘Bloody Orkney’, which lambasted his much loved native islands. It starts with the lines:
This bloody town’s a bloody cuss
No bloody trains, no bloody bus,
And no one cares for bloody us
In bloody Orkney.
While the poem is attributed to a Canadian, Captain Hamish Blair, it is in reality a standard military poem into which you inserted the name of your posting. There was even one for the Libyan desert, with heat and sand replacing the cold and ice. George picked up his pen and wrote a letter to the local military newspaper, The Orkney Blast, which was printed on the 4th June 1943:
“…Whenever I mention to servicemen stationed in Orkney that I have never seen a city or a theatre, and that trams and trains exist only in my imagination, I am answered by looks of shocked amazement or amused pity. I don’t quite know why this should be; for I have met servicemen who, until they came to Orkney, had never seen the sea, had never beheld a farm-house or a haystack, and had never watched a fish, other than a goldfish, swim in the water, yet I do not regard them as abnormal creatures.
… in spite of this mutual tolerance and good will I believe there is an undercurrent of animosity, very faint but persistent, between the civilians and the Servicemen of Orkney. … there is a pernicious tendency among men of the services, admittedly the more illiterate ones – to regard Orcadians as ignorant and debased yokels of the most primitive type! … We welcome you to our islands as brothers and comrades-in-arms. If you like Orkney, we are glad and thank you. If you don’t, better landings next time!”
George would later find his place in the world by attending the adult education college at Newbattle Abbey near Edinburgh (under the guidance of the warden, the Orcadian poet Edwin Muir) and later Edinburgh University. Here he worked on his poetry, drawing on inspiration from his island home. The influence of Dylan Thomas can be seen in his poem about his home town, Hamnavoe:
My father passed with his penny letters
Through closes opening and shutting like legends
When barbarous with gulls
Hamnavoe’s morning broke
On the salt and tar steps. Herring boats,
Puffing red sails, the tillers
Of cold horizons, leaned
Down the gull-gaunt tide
And threw dark nets on sudden silver harvests.
A stallion at the sweet fountain
Dredged water, and touched
Fire from steel-kissed cobbles.
George would go on to write short stories and novels, as well as continuing with his poetry. He became a highly respected writer around the world and his works have been published in many languages but he remained living in his native Stromness. He drew on the islands’ history for inspiration, especially the Orkneyinga Saga and the story of St Magnus in particular.
.As a Catholic convert George saw in St Magnus all that was good and pure contained within the character of this Orkney Jarl. He was guided by his faith and forgave (or ignored) references to a more warlike Magnus, considering him a martyr who died in order to bring peace to Orkney. George died on the 13th April 1996. His funeral in St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall took place on the 16th April; St Magnus Day. He would have loved that.
In this centenary year the Orkney Museum will be paying tribute to the writer by holding an exhibition that will tell his story and feature his works. When I approach an exhibition like this I want to make it personal, to tell a story in the person’s own words, where possible. Using George’s autobiography, ‘For the Islands I Sing’, along with his poetry and extracts from his stories and newspaper articles, I want to give a balanced view of the man and the influences that shaped his writing and his life.
This is only one of a whole series of events that will be held during the year to make the centenary, either live or online (we are not in a position to plan these things yet). The Orkney Museum exhibition will run from June-October, to take in the date of George’s birthday. We will be working with our colleagues at Stromness Museum and Orkney Library & Archive to create the exhibition. I am indebted to Jenny Brown Associates for permission to quote George’s work throughout the exhibition.