‘When all the dancers and masks had gone inside
His cold stare
Returned to its true task, interrogation of silence.’
George Mackay Brown was born in Stromness, Orkney, on 17 October 1921. He was educated at Stromness Academy, Newbattle Abbey College (1951-52) and Edinburgh University, from which he graduated MA in 1960. He received an MA from the Open University in 1976. His many awards include a Society of Authors Travel Award, 1968; SAC Literature Prize, 1969; Katherine Mansfield Menton Short Story Prize, 1971; Hon. LLD from Dundee University, 1977; OBE, 1974; James Tait Black Memorial Prize 1987 (for The Golden Bird). He was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1994 for his novel Beside the Ocean of Time.
Mackay Brown was the youngest of six children of John Brown, tailor and postman, and Mhairi Mackay, a Gaelic speaker. He grew up in fairly straitened circumstances as his father was unable to work through illness. Mackay Brown himself suffered from tuberculosis as a young man. In his twenties he worked as a journalist on the Orkney Herald, but at the age of thirty left Orkney to study at Newbattle Abbey College, near Edinburgh, where he met Edwin Muir, who was Warden at the time, a meeting that had a profound influence on him. Muir encouraged his writing and wrote the introduction to Mackay Brown’s first full collection of poems. He went on to study English at Edinburgh University, graduating in 1960. He did some post-graduate research on Gerard Manley Hopkins.
In Edinburgh he fell in with the Milne’s Bar crowd: Sydney Goodsir Smith, Hugh MacDiarmid, Norman MacCaig, et al., and became briefly engaged to Stella Cartwright, the muse of Milne’s; they kept in touch by correspondence until her death in 1985. Mackay Brown never married. After graduation he began teacher training but ill health forced him to give up and he returned to Orkney and to Stromness (the ‘Hamnavoe’ of his poems and stories). His second book of poems, Loaves and Fishes, published in 1959, was a critical success. In 1961 he was received into the Roman Catholic Church, which became a great source of inspiration, especially in its liturgical and ceremonial aspects.
A settled home, which he rarely left, a settled religion, which he loved – and a dram or two – were to sustain him and his writing till his death in Stromness on 13 April 1996. He wrote regularly for the local newspaper – lively articles and essays – produced several short story volumes (some say his best work), and novels, and of course the poems on which his reputation rests.
He once wrote (in Contemporary Poets, 1980) that his themes were ‘mainly religious (birth, love, death, resurrection, ceremonies of fishing and agriculture)’, that the verse forms he used were ‘traditional stanza forms, sonnets, ballads, vers libre, prose poems, runes, choruses, etc.’ and his sources and influences were ‘Norse sagas, Catholic rituals and ceremonies, island lore’ – which seems a pretty fair summing-up of his position. But it was a position which meant he was basically opposed to modern life, to the values of capitalist materialism, to Progress, which he characterised as ‘a rootless utilitarian faith, without beauty or mystery’. (‘Tomorrow is the day of the long lead pipe.’) As a consequence he has been accused of escapism, of backward looking, to an alleged Eden, like Muir, but in his defence it must be said that island fishing and farming communities (as in Fishermen with Ploughs) are just as valid a subject for exploring humanity as industrial cities – folk are folk. Or he might have echoed Iain Crichton Smith (writing from Oban): ‘Let those who love the city deal with them [the problems of the city]’.
He carried out this exploration in crystal clear language and images. Litany and ritual combine with sharp, often humorous, observation of people and the seasons in poems memorable and moving for their ‘austere, elegiac beauty’ (Keith Harrison). However, as Roderick Watson has pointed out in The Literature of Scotland: the twentieth century (2007), ‘the poet’s cyclical themes do tend to lead always to the “same people”, until the timeless is in danger of becoming merely static.’ It can be argued that his somewhat narrow range limits his appeal, but it cannot be denied that Mackay Brown remained true to his Orkney muse and to himself. His poetic creed is in the words on his gravestone (taken from the poem ‘A Work for Poets’): ‘Carve the runes / Then be content with silence’.
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