Biography

George Mackay Brown, the poet, novelist and dramatist, spent his life living in and documenting the Orkney Isles, situated off the north coast of Scotland. He was born in Stromness on the Orkney mainland in 1921, the son of a tailor and postman. Educated at Stromness Academy, his health was impaired by a severe bout of measles at the age of 12 which weakened his lungs and would be the basis for recurring respiratory problems throughout his life. Uncertain as to his future, he remained in education until 1940, a year which brought with it a growing reality of the war, and the unexpected death of his father. A further shock came the following year when he was diagnosed with (then incurable) Pulmonary Tuberculosis and spent six months in hospital in Kirkwall, Orkney's main town.

Around this time, Mackay Brown began writing poetry, and also prose pieces for the Orkney Herald for which he became Stromness Correspondent, reporting events such as the switching on of the electricity grid in 1947. In late 1950 Mackay Brown met Edwin Muir, a fellow Orcadian, well known as a poet and translator in the Scottish Literary Renaissance, and his wife Willa. Muir recognised Mackay Brown's talent for writing, and would become his literary tutor and mentor at Newbattle Abbey College, an adult education centre in Midlothian, which he attended in 1951-2. Recurring Tuberculosis forced Mackay Brown to spend the following year in hospital, but the interest in writing and in literature forged at Newbattle spurred him to apply to Edinburgh University, where he read English Literature, returning to do post-graduate work on Gerard Manley Hopkins.

After these years, Mackay Brown rarely left Orkney. He turned full-time to writing, with his first collection of poetry, The Storm, published in 1954. In his writing he explored the experience of life on the Orkney isles, and his work is a rich and unique celebration of the history and traditions which make up Orkney's distinct cultural identity. Together, there are several poetry collections, five novels, eight collections of short stories and two poem-plays, as well as non-fiction portraits of Orkney, an autobiography, For the Islands I Sing (1997), and published journalism.

Many of Mackay Brown's works are concerned with protecting Orkney's cultural heritage from the relentless march of progress and the loss of myth and archaic ritual in the modern world, an anxiety which was further influenced by his conversion in 1961 to Catholicism. Reflecting this, his best known work is Greenvoe, a novel published in 1972, in which the permanence of island life is threatened by 'Black Star', a mysterious nuclear development.

Mackay Brown's literary reputation grew steadily. He received an OBE in 1974 and was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1977, in addition to gaining several honorary degrees. His final novel, Beside the Ocean of Time (1994) was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and judged Scottish Book of the Year by the Saltire Society. Mackay Brown died in his home town of Stromness on 13th April 1996.

Works

In the twentieth century, the Orkney Isles produced three writers of exceptional vision and ability, Edwin Muir, Eric Linklater and George Mackay Brown. While each of these writers have been influenced by and written about Orkney, it is George Mackay Brown whose work is foremost in articulating the history and identity of the islands' distinctive cultural heritage.

On his death in 1996, Mackay Brown left almost fifty publications, a collection that ranges through poetry, fiction, history, journalism and drama, and, from his first poetry book, The Storm, published in 1954, focuses on the community in which he was born and, but for a few short years, spent his whole life.

Orkney's island position has, in the twentieth century, acted as a natural defence from the speed with which it is introduced to change and technological advances. Mackay Brown was highly critical of notions of 'progress' (although he acknowledged he had benefited from medical advances) and of the effects of urban modernisation, which he saw as spiritually hollow. His anti-modernity stance is best expressed in Greenvoe (1972), his most widely-read novel, in which 'Operation Black Star', a classified nuclear installation, is foisted on an Orkney community by an anonymous and unaccountable organisation.

Despite this assault on island life, however, Mackay Brown's vision is an affirmative one, as the destruction of the community is seen as merely a phase in the longer continuum of island history. Greenvoe, like much of his fiction and poetry, explores the certainty of recurring agricultural and seasonal cycles and the permanence of life these suggest. Connecting the present day to the distant past, his work often has a sense of timelessness, set in an unidentifiable but pre-industrial era. As in his final novel, Beside the Ocean of Time (1994), Greenvoe emphasises the cyclical nature of life and, through the 'roots and sources' of the past, the possibility of resurrection.

The Orkney Isles are, in Mackay Brown's words, 'a rich broth pot of races' and much of his work is influenced by an interest in the history of the peoples who have lived there. This Viking theme is best seen in the novels Magnus (1973) and Vinland (1992), but also in works such as A Celebration for Magnus (1987), a musical collaboration with fellow Orcadian, the composer Peter Maxwell Davies. Norse mythology (and in particular the thirteenth century history Orkneyinga Saga) is evident throughout Magnus. Its impact on Mackay Brown is apparent both through the sparse, figurative prose of his earlier writings and through his continual re-working of episodes such as the murder of Magnus, who later became Orkney's patron saint.

Mackay Brown converted to Catholicism in 1961 and although he argued that the conversion 'never had any cataclysmic impact on the way I thought or believed', having developed over a long period of time, it clearly informed the way in which he portrayed Orkney's turbulent past. This religious perspective can be seen in the poetry of The Year of the Whale (1965) and again in Vinland and Magnus, the two novels in which he specifically examines the shifting religious tensions during Orkney's slow conversion from pagan lore to Christian doctrine at the height of the Norse period. More generally, his faith can be seen to inform his focus on the ritual interpretation of life, endlessly reworking rites of passage such as birth, death, love, resurrection, and the Stations of the Cross. Furthermore, and somewhat controversially, in Magnus, Mackay Brown juxtaposed the fate of the medieval Earl with the murder of the German pastor and philosopher, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945, shifting the tone of his writing from its usual timeless and symbolic qualities to twentieth-century reportage and shock journalism.

Mackay Brown's exploration of Orcadian culture also extended to his non-fiction and readers may be interested to read his island history, An Orkney Tapestry (1973); his collected journalism, Under Brinkie's Brae (1992), and his autobiography, For the Islands I Sing, which was published posthumously in 1997.

Reading Lists

Novels

Greenvoe (1972)

Magnus (1973)

Time in a Red Coat (1984)

The Golden Bird  (1987)

Vinland  (1992)

Beside the Ocean of Time  (1994)

Poems

The Storm  (1954)

Loaves and Fishes  (1959)

The Year of the Whale  (1965)

The Wedding  (1968)

Twelve Poems  (1968)

Poems New and Selected (1971)

Lifeboat and other poems  (1971)

Fishermen with Ploughs  (1971)

Four Poems (1973)

Five Voyages of Arnor Winterfold  (1976)

Selected Poems  (1977)

Voyages  (1983)

Christmas Poems  (1984)

Two Poems for Kenna (1988)

The Wreck of the Archangel  (1989)

The Sea and the Tower  (1994)

Selected Poems 1954 -1992  (1996)

Water (1996)

Following a Lark  (1996)

Travellers  (2001)

Short Stories

A Calendar of Love  (1967)

A Time to Keep  (1969)

Hawkfall (1974)

The Sun's Net  (1976)

Witch and other stories  (1977)

Andrina and other stories  (1983)

Christmas Stories  (1985)

The Hooded Fisherman (1985)

The Masked Fisherman and Other Stories (1989)

The Sea-King's Daughter  (1991)

Winter Tales  (1995)

The Sixth Station  (1997)

The Island of the Women and Other Stories  (1998)

Non Fiction

Let's See the Orkney Islands Tourist guide (1948)

Stromness: the Orkney Islands  (1955)

An Orkney Tapestry  (1969)

Letters from Hamnavoe  (1975)

Edwin Muir: a brief memoir (1975)

Under Brinkie's Brae  (1979)

Portrait of Orkney  (1981)

Letters to Gypsy  (1990)

Orkney: Pictures and Poems (1990)

Rockpools and Daffodils  (1992)

Northern Lights: a poet's sources  (1999)

For Children

The Two Fiddlers  (1974)

Pictures in the Cave (1977)

Six Lives of Fankle the Cat  (1980)

Autobiography

For the Islands I Sing  (1997)

Drama

A Spell for Green Corn  (1970)

Three Plays  (1980)

Loom of Light  (1986)

A Celebration for Magnus  (1987)

Other

Songs for St Magnus Day  (1980)

Keepers of the House  (1986)

The Scottish Bestiary  (1986)

Four Poets for St Magnus  (1987)

Stained Glass Windows  (1988)

In the Margins of a Shakespeare  (1991)

The Lost Village  (1992)

Brodgar Poems  (1992)

Foresterhill  (1992)

Orfeo  (1995)

The Rose Tree (2001)

St Magnus Poems  (1998)

Secondary

Rowena Murray and Brian Murray, Interrogation of Silence: The writings of George Mackay Brown (2004)

Hilda D Spear, George Mackay Brown - A Survey of His work and Full Bibliography (2000)

Osamu Yamada, Hilda D. Spear, David S. Robb, The Contribution to Literature of Orcadian Writer George Mackay Brown (1992)

'George Mackay Brown: an Appreciation' Chapman no. 84, ed. by Joy M. Hendry

(Also Chapman nos. 60, 93 and 100-101)

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