Books - George Mackay Brown and the poet's social role

2021 would have been the 100th birthday of the world-renowned writer George Mackay Brown. To mark the occasion, Edinburgh-based publishers Polygon are bringing out three new editions of his work, and the St Magnus Festival on his native Orkney has commissioned films, plays and more. Here, Kathleen Jamie reflects on his poetry, and how he took the "I" out of his poems in order to write "documentary lyrics"
St Magnus Festival logo 2021St Magnus Festival logo 2021
St Magnus Festival logo 2021

In his scant, posthumous autobiography George Mackay Brown tells us how, as a young man and a committed drinker, he frequented pubs, listened to yarns and discovered that "under the drab surface complexities, there exists a ritualistically simple world of joy and anger.” He quit drinking, but took this revelation forward into his creative life: it was an idea he cleaved to and developed. What Brown sought in his poetry and stories’ work was ritual, enduring and returning powers. It was an unfashionable stance in the mid-20th century, but for Brown it was an empowering one.

The “drab surface complexities” he had least interest in were his own; he was in no way concerned with self-revelation, or self-exploration. In fact, the first-person singular is almost entirely absent in his work, unless used by a persona. A rare exception is his elegy for his father, and his father’s lifeway, “Hamnavoe.” (Hamnavoe was the Viking name for the harbour town now called Stromness, Brown’s native place.) This erasure of the self functioned as a stepping-back in order to see better into the lives and rituals of others. It allowed him to become a craftsman.

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From the outset, even as a young man, his poetry concerned itself with his island home. Indeed, almost the first line Brown ever published was “For the islands I sing.” Rather than confessions, he wrote what Douglas Dunn called “documentary lyrics.” His concerns were the ancestral world, the communalities of work, the fables and religious stories which he saw as underpinning mortal lives.

Portrait of the poet George Mackay Brown (Picture: Werner Forman Archive/Shutterstock)Portrait of the poet George Mackay Brown (Picture: Werner Forman Archive/Shutterstock)
Portrait of the poet George Mackay Brown (Picture: Werner Forman Archive/Shutterstock)

Even in his first collection, The Storm, published in 1954 when he was 33, these poetic concerns were already laid out: his dramatis personae already in place, fishermen and farmwives. There already is the crofting year, the voyaging, the figures from the near-mythic past. Brown believed from the outset that poets had a social role and his true task was to fulfil that role. This is not the attitude of a shrinking violet, tentatively exploring his “voice.” Art was sprung from the community, and his role as poet was to know that community, to sing its stories. But there was also room for introspection; the poet’s task was simultaneously to “interrogate silence.”

The islands, for which he sang, were of course, those of the Orkney archipelago. It’s well known that Brown spent almost all of his life in the harbour town of Stromness, finding there more than enough of symbols and stories, images, characters and history to sustain a long creative career. Following his mother’s death, he lived alone. He never married, but he enjoyed the muse-company of spirited young women such as Stella Cartwright of Edinburgh, to whom he was briefly engaged; in later life he may have had an affair or two. There were no children. He had plenty of friends and correspondents. He may or may not have been shy in his private life. (Shy, or irritated by interruptions in his true task? Solitary, or adept at finding ways not to be distracted?) In later years he occupied a small ex-council flat, which served as a harbour from where his imagination ranged in time and space. A storyteller, novelist and dramatist as well as a poet, in one sense he was very much of the 20th century, in that he was born after the First World War, in 1921, and died just as the century was closing in 1996. Ill health was his life’s companion; he had tuberculosis, but it spared him from being conscripted in the Second World War, and helped save him from tiresome travels or day-jobs. In one sense he went nowhere, in another, he knew exactly where he was going.

Writing was his self-rescue from a life of pained listlessness. A disciplinarian, he wrote every day at his small table, in pen and ink. But his imagination wasn’t an easy escape: it brought its own travails. He was subject to depression and fatigue.

Brown’s champions and critics alike all feel obliged to address his island-dwelling. Some critics did sniff at what they misheard as wistfulness or feyness, and regarded his Orkney-universe as limiting. But for Brown, Orkney was enabling. For him, cyclical, liturgical or agricultural stability was enabling. (It is this stability of place and attitude which is both beguiling and frustrating to some modern readers, who may misread in it a political conservatism.) At a time when many in Scotland had left the land and their native parishes, for good reason or ill, and had become a proletariat, Brown was blessed in having a place of his own, and finding that place a boundless resource. He neither escaped from Orkney nor escaped to it. As he put it himself, in “Fisherman and Boy”: “you will learn more in Orkney / than Mansie did / who made seven salt circles of the globe.” (Note that kenning, the “salt circles,” and the number seven – ever the magic, resonant number.) Or, as his admirer Seamus Heaney put it: “He transforms everything by passing it through the eye of the needle of Orkney.” And of course, Brown wrote in English, a global language. Accented English, island English maybe, but he did not write in Scots or Orcadian dialect. With English as his chosen medium, he could reside in Stromness and speak to the world. As master of such a language, he was not so isolated or remote as some like to believe.

Furthermore, even if Brown’s world was limited geographically (an accusation hard to sustain under the vast skies and ocean horizons of his archipelago), it was not limited in time. Like his novels and short stories, he found poetry in the figures and tales of the past: both the historical and fabled, which were as vital to him as the present. Or rather, certain figures occupied an immanence in his mind, and they were haloed with an eternal presence, both secular and religious. Figures arise from Orkney’s Norse tradition, and especially the early Christian martyr St Magnus, to whom Brown returns over and again throughout his life. (In 1961, the middle of a secularising century, Brown became a Roman Catholic.) He was adept at co-mingling past and present.

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Freed from his “surface complexities,” Brown was able to develop his skills as a wonderful craftsman. Over the decades, he embraced and mastered new poetic forms, and his concerns deepened. But his intuitive grasp of image and symbol, and his ear for language which was apparent from the start remained unshakable. His writing voice is warm, rich and dramatic. He didn’t employ a special “poetry voice” – the same tapestry of sound is audible in everything he wrote: novels, letters and plays. Within his poetry, he could write ballads (and loved the Scottish ballads, with their fast, feudal, fate-driven compressed narratives). He could turn sonnets, such as “The Old Women” and “The Death of Peter Esson.” He had a pitch-perfect ear for free verse and yet could devise his own complex rhyme schemes. He wrote prose poems, such as those in Fishermen with Ploughs (1971), and his gift for image-making meant haiku moments came naturally. “Sing” is a word he often uses, but “dance” might better describe the way he conducts language. His rich lyric world is a multi-handed dance, in which a whole sonic community is involved; his poems are like reels or strathspeys with no one excluded. To appreciate the luxury of his soundscapes, take the small poem “Taxman,” which is tucked within his major sequence Fishermen with Ploughs. The poem-cycle concerned the then deserted village of Rackwick on Hoy; Brown re-imagines its early settlement and abandonment.

Seven scythes leaned at the wall.

Beard upon golden beard

The last barley load

Swayed through the yard.

The girls uncorked the ale.

Fiddle and feet moved together.

Then, between stubble and heather

A horseman rode.

Read closely, it becomes apparent that not one vowel sound, not one consonant lives alone. Each is announced then re-deployed throughout the poem. Take for example the poem’s first vowel, the “a” which occurs twice in “Taxman,” and which reappears in “last” and “barley” and “yard.” Or the “b” of “beard” and “barley” and “stubble," or the “o" in “uncorked” and “horseman,” not to mention the alliteration, and the full and half rhymes. The sounds of the poem enact the cohesion and integrity of the community, and the harvest home dance they enjoy. Even the taxman is grudgingly accepted. We know that because he is brought into the weave of sound, the original “a” of “Taxman” recurring twice in the line “A horseman rode.” And “rode” completes the poem with a full rhyme on “load” five lines before. No revolutionary moment here! It’s a dance about a dance, every consonant or syllable, having been used, is let rest a moment before it is brought into play again. Like an Orcadian Strip the Willow. Or, if you prefer, tight-plaited as a corn dolly, made at harvest’s end.

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This rich aural quality can be traced from poets Brown admired, Keats and Hopkins, through to those who admired him: Heaney being the obvious one. This ear is evident throughout his prose too. Add to that a comfort with his native Orcadian speech rhythms, his Northern sensibility, and you have a unique poetic voice.

One of the pleasures of Brown’s work is his “accessibility.” If his work ever becomes “inaccessible” it will not be because it is overly intellectual or theoretical – he abhorred that – but because his very objects, the homely wares of the poems, the poems’ nouns, will become obsolete. Readers of the future may ask, “What was a scythe? What was a tinker? A croft ?” Being born in the 1920s meant that Brown witnessed the beginning of the end of an agricultural lifeway that had endured for centuries. Knowing that this lifeway was passing may possibly have given his work traction – as in his novel Greenvoe (1972). He wasn’t ignoring change, as some claim, but agitated by it.

Or perhaps change was a mere “drab surface complexity.” In an essay written for the St Magnus Festival in 1990, when he was in his 69th year and nearing the end of his life, Brown named four “powers” which, he said, whether we like it nor not, condition our human lives. They are: Time, Fate, Chance and Mortality. He wrote, “This is the use of poetry: to enable us to come to terms with those powers that cannot be denied, that surround us wherever we turn. We can actually hold a dialogue with them, through the medium of poetry . . . it may be in the end we shall find the courage to turn and face them.”

And on his island gravestone, his own line is given as epitaph: Carve the runes, then be content with silence.

Carve the Runes: Selected Poems by George Mackay Brown, edited by Kathleen Jamie is, published by Polygon (£12.99, paperback)

The St Magnus Festival in venues across Orkney and online marked George Mackay Brown’s centenary including a series of new commissions from local fiddlers inspired by his poem Fiddlers at the Harvest Home; a series of his poems read by Orcadians and filmed in locations all over the islands; and a film of his 1976 drama The Storm Watchers, which has been directed remotely during lockdown by Gerda Stevenson. For details, visit