Books - George Mackay Brown's Orkney Vision

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, Linden Bicket and Kirsteen McCue reflect on his 1969 work, An Orkney Tapestry, a rich fusion of ballad, folk tale, short story, drama and environmental writing
The poet George Mackay Brown (Picture: Werner Forman Archive/Shutterstock)The poet George Mackay Brown (Picture: Werner Forman Archive/Shutterstock)
The poet George Mackay Brown (Picture: Werner Forman Archive/Shutterstock)

In 1969, the Orcadian poet, short story writer and novelist, George Mackay Brown published his seminal work entitled An Orkney Tapestry. Described by the composer Peter Maxwell Davies as "the most wonderfully poetic evocation of a place I’d ever come across", this rich fusion of ballad, folk tale, short story, drama and environmental writing was a landmark in Brown’s development as a writer. It is now more than 50 years since Tapestry’s original publication by Victor Gollancz in 1969. Although Quartet books released a smaller paperback edition in 1973 (reprinted in 1974 and again in 1978), the text has remained out of print since the 1970s. While Brown must have been content with the paperback reprints, he appears to have been unenthusiastic about reprinting the Tapestry in his later life. Yet this text captures, at an early stage in his career, a number of the key themes of Brown’s later work and is now frequently referred to within Scottish literary and cultural criticism. Moreover, it sits, alongside such works as Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain (first published in 1977), as an important precursor of new nature writing by the likes of Kathleen Jamie and Robert Macfarlane.

Brown’s first collection of published poetry, The Storm, was produced by the Orkney Press in 1954, and in 1959 a second collection entitled Loaves and Fishes appeared, published in London by The Hogarth Press. They then published Brown’s next poetry volume, The Year of the Whale, and his first collection of short stories, A Calendar of Love, in 1965 and 1967 respectively. All three productions were critically acclaimed. It should thus be little surprise that Gollancz would think of approaching Brown, already closely associated with his native archipelago, to produce a new and definitive introduction to the Orkney Islands.

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The details of the commission were shared by Brown in his correspondence with the book’s dedicatees, Charles and Carol Senior. Brown had met Charles Senior, one of the Edinburgh Rose Street poets and writers, during his time in the city in the 1950s and the two wrote regularly to one another from that point on. In his letter of 28 December 1967 Brown announced that he had "been asked by Gollancz to write a book about Orkney". He continued that this "isn’t the kind of work I like doing but it should bring in a couple of hundred quid or so, and will take me to parts of the islands I haven’t been to before". This was only a few weeks after he had told the Seniors that the Hogarth Press had accepted another book of stories, namely A Time to Keep which would also appear in 1969. Maggie Fergusson rightly concludes that Brown’s various payments for the Tapestry amounted to a "handsome sum" when one considers that Brown’s annual rent for his last home at Mayburn Court was a total of £34 16s. Brown himself recalls, in his autobiography For the Islands I Sing, that he agreed to the commission at once because "At that time I was still poor, and £200 was a lot of money".

An Orkney TapestryAn Orkney Tapestry
An Orkney Tapestry

Throughout January 1968 Brown was "busy" planning his new book, regularly expressing his doubts to the Seniors, and confessing that he was not so good with research and reappraisal and that he had "no idea where the drift of history is taking the Orcadians". He spent time trying to find "some valid and original way to tackle" the project, deciding quite quickly that he would not "write some kind of glorified guidebook", but it was not until Candlemas Day (2 February) that he "made a start".

Brown began with a chapter on local Orcadian poet and naturalist Robert Rendall, who was a close friend and who had just recently died. Brown wished to "contrast him with a medieval Orkney poet" – eventually to be "The Ballad Singer". He planned, from the start, to have a chapter on Rackwick, the isolated coastal community on the east side of Hoy, that he visited regularly, and he also thought "tentatively, of a chapter on Birds and Flowers", telling Senior that for this he would rely heavily on him and other friends, Becky Bullard and Bessie Grieve. By 9 February he had drafted out the Rackwick chapter and woven in some of his own poems and he proudly stated that he "finished with a flush of achievement" even though "the cold light of a second scrutiny will no doubt discover a hundred flaws". That month he also struggled with finding ways of working in elements of the sagas, noting that this creative process "was very difficult". His letter of 22 February mentioned his excitement that the Seniors would be moving to Orkney in just five days. Brown may well have decided to dedicate the book to them as a welcome gift. After many years living in Edinburgh and Inverness, the Seniors had decided to make their home in a newly-renovated house not far from Brown in Stromness.

On 21 January 1969 Giles Gordon sent an advance payment of £25 and on 31 March he wrote to Brown to tell him that The Scotsman had agreed to publish an extract which would appear the weekend before the scheduled publication on 26 June. Brown’s enthusiasm for the project is clearly articulated across these letters, yet his initial hope to see parts of the islands he had not already visited remained unfulfilled. This was, for Brown, an imaginary and creative, rather than physical, journey. The work was a veritable "tapestry" of ideas, themes and preoccupations which became the central drivers for much of Brown’s creative work in the decades after the book first appeared.

Brown was aware of and heavily influenced by a group of contemporaries whose publications on Orkney played a central role in the Tapestry. He was close friends with the scholar Ernest Marwick (1915–1977), whose deep knowledge of Orkney folklore, tradition and history was unrivalled. In the Tapestry Brown reproduced a number of the texts included in Marwick’s Anthology of Orkney Verse (1949), including verses of Old Norse poetry, Orkney folksong and more recent works by his contemporaries, including Ann Scott-Moncrieff and the older poet Robert Rendall. Indeed, Rendall was so important to Brown that the Tapestry contains a section dedicated exclusively to his memory and his poetic craft. Brown appears to have wanted to celebrate these Orcadian contemporaries and their work within the Tapestry and he also relies on John Firth’s evocative compendium of ritual, agriculture, and custom entitled Reminiscences of an Orkney Parish (1922), J Storer Clouston’s A History of Orkney (1932), John Mooney’s St Magnus, Earl of Orkney (1935) and last, but possibly most important of all, AB Taylor’s translation of Orkneyinga Saga (1938).

Orkneyinga Saga (and Njal’s Saga) is a powerful presence in An Orkney Tapestry. In his autobiography, Brown describes the Saga as a literary "realm of gold" and, after discovering it as a younger man, he feasted richly on its accounts of Norse battles, feuds, poetry and martyrdom. Brown wrote to Senior, in February 1969, that he had been "translating (or rather, freely adapting) Norse heroic verses for the Gollancz book". This process, he stated, "stretched all my faculties to the utmost, but it’s good for writers to tackle something hard now and again", and he added, "Nothing like it for wiping off the complacent smile". Brown’s admiration for the austere but often humorous tales and heroic cadences of the Icelandic sagas remained with him over the next three decades. But it was the story of the martyrdom of St Magnus – described so richly in the Saga – which was the cornerstone of Brown’s imaginative oeuvre and perhaps even his faith. Brown’s first sustained retelling of the story of Magnus Erlendson’s death and subsequentmiracles appears in the Tapestry, and this becomes the literary DNA for a large number of future works dealing with Orkney’s Patron Saint – including his play The Loom of Light (1972), the novel Magnus (1973), the opera libretto for The Martyrdom of St Magnus (created by Peter Maxwell Davies and based on Brown’s novel) and poetry spanning his whole career.

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While the sources of An Orkney Tapestry are a significant part of its creative genesis, the book also provided a fertile ground for much of Brown’s future writing, and its themes matured within Brown’s imagination across the years. Much of the poetry in the Tapestry found a new creative home in Fishermen with Ploughs in 1971. The Tapestry depicts martial and devout Norse heroism, and this can be traced across Brown’s short stories and notably in his novel Vinland (1992). Orkney’s gentle pre-Reformation Catholicism is a key seam of the Tapestry, published eight years after Brown’s conversion in 1961. The text’s blending of pre-Christian ritual and Catholic liturgy and devotion were to be a consistent feature across the range of his work. The influence of his early teacher, the poet Edwin Muir (1887–1959), can certainly be traced in the "Rackwick" sections of the text, which present a stark, even polemical account of the Reformation in Orkney. This criticism of Calvinism in the Tapestry was, however, considerably softened in Brown’s corpus as the years wore on. The myth of progress is also a concern within the early chapters and this is something that Brown railed against – to one degree or another – in many later writings. Brown’s apparent antipathy towards a reprint of the Tapestry later in his life may well have reflected his view that this was a young and experimental text, and that later versions of some of the Tapestry’s warp and weft better represented Brown’s art. But it might also mirror Brown’s growing discomfort with expressing his political views quite so freely and stridently. In addition, Brown may well have been bruised by some of the critical reception of the Tapestry in 1969.

While most critics hailed the chapter on Rackwick as the text’s finest moment, several reviewers remained unconvinced by the unevenness of the work and Brown’s outspoken views on progress. Fellow Orcadian writer Erik Linklater’s review in the Guardian opened with the harsh comment that Brown "is a poet, and a poet cannot be expected to compose a guidebook". He was critical of Brown’s preoccupation with the Orkney of the past rather than the present, though he did praise Brown’s retelling of AB Taylor’s translation of the sagas and liked Wishart’s drawings. Janet Adam Smith, in The Times Saturday Review, stated that the Tapestry is a "rich, uneven mixture of poetry, drama, history and jeremiad". She underlined Brown’s aspiration that his readers, and modern Orcadians, recognise the value of community and of their past, within a fast-moving world, but she concluded that Brown is a "far better poet than preacher and some of his diatribes on the present run too glibly".

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We have been unable, so far, to find any of Brown’s comments on this mixed critical reception, though undoubtedly he would have been disappointed by such criticism. That said, the sales of the Tapestry were far in excess of those of Brown’s next poetry collection Fishermen with Ploughs: within just two weeks the Tapestry had sold some 3,000 copies, and the paperback reprints suggest that there was still a market for this text in the years to come. Many readers of Brown’s An Orkney Tapestry have travelled north to visit the islands as a direct result of reading and loving this text. The most famous of these was the aforementioned composer Peter Maxwell Davies (1934–2016), who happened to be carrying a copy of the Tapestry as he headed over from Stromness on the Hoy ferry. Brown’s guest Kulgin Duval was also on the boat, recognised the book and offered to introduce Davies to its author. That evening, in Rackwick, with the help of Brown’s close friends Archie and Elizabeth Bevan, the plan to renovate a Rackwick house was born. It would be here that Max would produce many of his finest works in the decades to come.

One reviewer for the Listener (21 August 1969) did, however, see what Brown intended and was able to appreciate it. He commented on Brown’s poetic voice as being that of the 20th century but that "it utters with the excited plain confidence of the ballad". He suggested that some readers might find Brown to be "eccentric, even exotic". And he understood that, if Brown’s poetry was, at this point, regarded as "the peak of his work" then this book "represents the geology that projects and sustains it". The reviewer was the Irish poet Seamus Heaney. For Heaney the Tapestry was "a spectrum of lore, legend and literature, a highly coloured reaction as Orkney breaks open in the prisms of a poet’s mind and memory". It was a "social history compressed into imagery, imagery expanded into elegiac reverie".

"The whole thing" he concluded, "is a kind of loosely organised poem although there isn’t a loosely written sentence in the book. The style is what holds the essays together, plain and carefully locked as a dry-stone wall". Re-reading the book 50 years on as part of Brown’s centenary will hopefully give readers a chance to re-evaluate this work in the context of Brown’s complete oeuvre and to decide if, in Heaney’s words, Brown does indeed "transform everything by passing it through the eye of the needle of Orkney".

An Orkney Tapestry by George Mackay Brown edited by Linden Bicket and Kirsteen McCue is published by Polygon (£12.99)

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