George Mackay Brown’s Orcadian independence folly
POET, novelist and dramatist George Mackay Brown spent most of his life living in and documenting the Orkney Islands, and almost two decades after his death, a previously unknown short story has surfaced in which Orkney declares independence from Scotland.
The Golden Goose - which he wrote in 1976, three year’s before Scotland’s ill-fated devolution vote - tells how Orkney faced financial disaster after trying to go it along and suddenly running out of oil.
The short story has emerged amid calls for Orkney to be declared independent in the event of the SNP winning this year’s referendum.
In the long-lost story, which is set in 2001, Orkney adopts a “ridiculous” national anthem, elects an “intelligent” farmer as president and applies for membership of the EEC before its unexpected economic collapse.
But in the writer’s vision of the future, it stages a dramatic recovery by returning to industries like farming and fishing, and helps to inspire the creation of a host of smaller nations around the world.
The Golden Goose is published in full by The Scotsman today as part of The Write Stuff, a regular feature showcasing the talents of Scotland’s best writers, after it was discovered hidden amongst a bundle of his papers in the vast archive of his work held in the Orcadian capital Kirkwall.
Until last year, when it was transferred to the main library for the islands, the archive had been stored in the attic of Mackay Brown’s long-time friend and his literary executor after his death, Archive Bevan.
Orcadian writer Morag MacInnes, whose father Ian was another of Mackay Brown’s close friends, came across the short story when she was leafing through a bundle of unpublished material, some of which the writer had dismissed as not good enough to see the light of day, but did not throw out.
She told The Scotsman: “George was a notorious hoarder, he never threw anything out and there is an incredible rag-bag of stuff in the archive, with things written on the back of shop receipts and other pieces of paper. He would often write things like ‘rubbish’ on them if he wasn’t happy with what he had written.
“I was looking through a pile of unpublished stuff when I came across this, and knew right away it was something that deserved it because I’m very familiar with his archive and it was not his usual subject, although he did write a bit of science fiction.
“It looked as if he had put it to one side or lost in the middle of a load of stuff. It was written on about seven or eight scraps of paper, in both pencil and pen, held together with a paper clip.
“It’s not really a surprise that there are unpublished stuff in the archive, he was quite a critic of his own stuff and I wouldn’t be surprised if there are other stories hidden away in envelopes somewhere.”
Born in 1921 in Stromness, Mackay Brown started his writing career working on The Orkney Herald newspaper and went on to become one of Orkney’s most successful atists after a period living and studying in Edinburgh, where he met the likes of Norman MacCaig, Edwin Muir and Hugh McDiarmid.
He lived and worked in Stromness from the early 1960s until his death, landing a Booker Prize nomination, and winning two of Scotland’s two literary awards, the Saltire Book of the Year and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. He was awarded the OBE in 1974.
On this death in April 1996, he left behind a vast literary legacy of more than 50 different publications, dating back to his first poetry collection, The Storm, in 1954, and including his best-known work, Greenvoe, which was published in 1974.
Edinburgh-based literary agent Jenny Brown, who is now handling Mackay Brown’s literary estate, said the discovery of the short story had coincided with a revival of interest in his work, triggered by the reprinting of many of his books by publisher Birlinn and the ongoing release of 17 of his titles on ebooks by John Murray.
She said: “The Golden Goose picks up themes familiar to readers of Greenvoe – that progress can be threatening, and in the long run may deliver little to celebrate.
“What’s more interesting is that Brown plays, more directly than in his longer fiction, with politics. ‘Small is beautiful’ is the message.
“But it’d be a mistake to think he’s nailing his sails to any mast; quite the reverse. It’s a simple fable, full of quiet wit, in which time comes full circle despite the histrionics of mankind.”