Mackay Brown rarely
left Orkney, his birthplace, but his journeyings into history, myth and
legend produced a vast body of lyrical novels, short stories, poems and
essays. The composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, in a unique
collaboration, set over thirty pieces of his work to music.
Greenvoe, GMB's first novel, remained in print for thirty years.
Beside the Ocean of Time, weaving together myth and reality in a
search for peace and freedom of mind, was shortlisted for the Booker
Prize in 1994.
GMB had a life-long
interest in the Orkneyinga Saga, the medieval account of Orkney's
history and Norse connections. He had a fondness too for the
fast-fading simple life, giving him an understanding of the roots of the
present. And an understated sense of the spiritual reveals an awareness
of the deep rhythms of life and death.
From this mingling came
novels such as Magnus, the story of the twelfth century Orkney
Earl and ruler, in which GMB touches timeless chords.
Magnus, as a reluctant schoolboy, has a conversation with Brother Colomb
through the classroom window:
'It's too dark in there,' said the voice. 'I won't come inside
today. There's a seal hurt, down at the rock. Didn't you hear him
crying out? I'm trying to reach him, but I can't till it ebbs a bit
'Tell me your name,'
said Brother Colomb quietly, leaning out.
There was a silence.
Then the hidden mouth said, 'Names are wrong. Men are imprisoned in
their names. Angels and animals don't need names. I do not like my
name. It means 'great, powerful'. I don't want to be great and
powerful. The world is sick because of people wanting to be great and
For forty years GMB
published short stories, in anthologies and in thirteen collections of
his own. His ability to 'discover the marvellousness of the ordinary'
is evident in the allegorical stories. The Island of the Women
is a mythological story of love and possessiveness centred round the
arranged marriage of the daughter of an Orcadian landowner and a
Norwegian lord. For loving the Prince of the seals, she is accused of
witchcraft and sentenced to burning at the stake. Commentary by a monk
Men .... will sift the atoms of creation
through their fingers. They will end by building temples on the
stars. [woman] is a far more earthy creature .... she looks at her
world far more penetratingly; and understands the actuality of seals and
grass and stones
– that is to say with a dark mysterious wisdom that belongs to the
subtle changing moon rather than to the sun .... Occasionally she may
take in at the earth-fissure a passionate sun-burst, for
her womb is the
seed-jar of the future; there must be children to till the loved acres
after she and her sun-mate are dust. [ii]
More than twenty poetry
collections have been published to date; the number grows as his
literary executors continue to gather work previously unseen. In his
poems, GMB brings simplicity and concision to his lyricism. Seamus
Heaney wrote: "he transforms
everything by passing it through the eye of the needle of Orkney. His
sense of the world and his way with words are powerfully at one with
each other." This sense of the world
included more than the prosaic:
"Creation of a word,
this place. What word? The word is streaming
holding this place and all planets and all grains of dust in a pattern,
a strict equation. I am always trying to imitate the sound and shape and
power of the unknowable word. Dry whisperings: a poem."
shows in his poem on the death of a child
This second door stood open only a short while.
Now close it
and tenderness in a poem
for a new baby –
Wait a while,
On the shore, with seapinks and shells.
Will take a few summers to build
That you must make your voyage in. [v]
And of course, living all
his life in an island community, his poems are often vivid word pictures
of man's relationship to sea and land, typically expressed in Haddock
We probe emptiness all
Unyoke; and taste
earth-food, beef and a barley scone.
Sunset drives a butcher blade
In the day's throat.
We turn through an ebb salt and sticky as blood.
More stars than fish. Women, cats, a gull
Mewl at the rock.
The valley divides the meagre miracle. [vi]
Perhaps his most succinct
lines of all are written on his gravestone overlooking Hoy Sound at
Stromness in Orkney:
Carve the runes
Then be content with silence. [vii]
first pub 1973
Island of the Women and other stories, pub 1998
Kinds of Poet, pub in Tavellers, 2001
for a Child, pub in Travellers, 2001
[v] A New
Child: ECL, pub in Following a Lark, 1996
Haddock Fishermen, pub in Fishermen with Ploughs, 1971
A Work for Poets,
pub in Following a Lark, 1996