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Significant Scots
George Mackay Brown

George Mackay BrownGeorge 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 more.'

'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 powerful.' [i]  


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 says:

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

across time, 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." [iii]


Gentle compassion shows in his poem on the death of a child

            This second door stood open only a short while.

Now close it gently. [iv]


and tenderness in a poem for a new baby


Wait a while, small voyager
       On the shore, with seapinks and shells.
The boat
       Will take a few summers to build
That you must make your voyage in.


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 Fishermen:


We probe emptiness all afternoon;
Unyoke; and taste

The true 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. 


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.


[i] Magnus first pub 1973

[ii]  The Island of the Women and other stories,  pub 1998

[iii]  Four Kinds of Poet, pub in Tavellers,  2001

[iv]  Elegy for a Child, pub in Travellers, 2001

[v]  A New Child: ECL, pub in Following a Lark, 1996

[vi]  Haddock Fishermen, pub in Fishermen with Ploughs, 1971

[vii]  A Work for Poets, pub in Following a Lark, 1996

Sue Tordoff
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