George Mackay Brown: Orkney bard honored on his 100th birthday


He was one of the best Scottish writers, poet, author, journalist and playwright.

Today (October 17) would have been the 100th birthday of George Mackay Brown, the national bard of Orkney.

Exhibitions and readings were organized on the occasion of his centenary and tributes were paid to him on social networks.

SNP MP and former broadcaster John Nicolson tweeted lines from Mackay Brown’s poem To A Hamnavoe Poet from 2093:

The language, unstable like sand, but poets

Hit hard rock, sculpts

Rune and hieroglyph, to celebrate

The sweet brevity of the breath.

Nicholson added, “Spending a day at Stromness interviewing him has been one of the great joys of my career.”

Lord Lieutenant of Orkney, Elaine Grieve, tweeted one of his most famous remarks: “George Mackay Brown – poet, author, Stromnessian. Your heritage is real. Vibrant. “In Scotland, when people come together they tend to argue, argue and reason; in Orkney, they tell stories.

Well-known literary agent Jenny Brown tweeted another of her words: “There are stories in the air here. If I lived to be 500, there would still be more to write about.

New Scottish Makar Kathleen Jamie commented: “GMB teaches us about place, imagination, compassion, identity and time, all with a perfect ear for the language.

Almost since he began publishing poetry in the 1950s, Mackay Brown has been studied by students in Scottish schools and universities, and many across the country will have celebrated the centenary of a favorite writer.


GEORGE Mackay Brown was born in Stromness, Orkney, on October 17, 1921, the youngest of six children of John Brown, tailor and postman, and Mhairi Mackay, a Gaelic speaker.

The family was poor, and Mackay Brown suffered from early illnesses that left him with respiratory problems for most of his life. These problems included tuberculosis which at least had the benefit of getting him out of WWII and gave him time to start writing, becoming a reporter for the Orkney Herald in 1944.

He continued his education as a mature student at Newbattle Abbey College at the age of 30 and met the principal, his fellow poet and Orcadian Edwin Muir. who encouraged him to write a volume of poetry, The Storm, which was published in 1954 and for which Muir wrote the introduction.

Mackay Brown went on to study at the University of Edinburgh and joined the capital’s literary life with Hugh MacDiarmid and Norman MacCaig – they mostly covered at Milne’s Bar, it has to be admitted, and Mackay Brown loved a dram.

He interrupted his studies for teacher training due to illness and returned home to Stromness, which he rarely left for the rest of his life. His poetry, generally centered on Orcadian life, has become internationally known,

Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney has said of him: “He transforms everything by putting it through the eye of the needle in Orkney.

By almost universal consent, his most famous poem is Hamnavoe, with its striking opening lines:

My dad came by with his penny letters

Through closes opening and closing like legends

When barbarian with seagulls

Hamnavoe’s morning is shattered

On the steps of salt and tar. Herring boats,

Blowing red sails, the rudders

Cold horizons, leaning

Down the scrawny tide

And cast dark nets over the sudden cash crops.

Hamnavoe, the former name of Stromness, is a tribute to his father who, like all his finest works, presents Orkney life at large.

He turned to writing novels and was nominated for the Booker Prize 1994 for his book Beside the Ocean of Time. Mackay Brown, who suffered from shyness, was very embarrassed at the idea of ​​winning and having to give a speech, but in any case he lost to How Late it Was, How Late by his Scottish compatriot James Kelman. He received an OBE in 1974.

Mackay Brown converted to Catholicism in 1961 and it has become a major theme in his work. Although he was engaged at one point, he never married.


HAVING conquered tuberculosis and bowel cancer, Mackay Brown died of a short illness on April 13, 1996. He is buried in Warbeth Cemetery near Stromness overlooking Hoy Sound. On his gravestone are engraved the last lines of his poem “A Work For Poets:” Carve the runes, then settle for silence. ”

In 2005, a commemorative plaque was unveiled at the Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh. It is engraved with a quote from Hamnavoe: “Into the fire of images, I gladly put my hand. ”

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