The story of the extraordinary poem George Mackay Brown gifted his friend on the birth of her daughter

It hangs on the wall of her empty childhood bedroom in Stromness as she makes her voyage in the world, just as the poet said she would.

A New Child: ECL was written by poet George Mackay Brown to celebrate the birth of Emma Catherine Lawson, the daughter of his close friend, Joanna Ramsey, back in 1993.

The benediction on childhood, growth and life’s wondrous journey was recently described by writer Alexander McCall Smith as one of Scotland most beautiful poems of the 20th century.

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For Joanna and Emma, the handwritten poem in the bedroom speaks both universally - and also just to them.

Portrait of the poet George Mackay Brown of Stromness, Orkney. An old friend has spoken of the gift of one of his most loved poems, A New Child: ECL, which he wrote on the birth of her daughter. Photo by Werner Forman Archive/Shutterstock (8527420a)

Joanna has spoken about the friendship she struck up with George Mackay Brown after she relocated to Stromness from London and the extraordinary gift she received from the poet.

Initially unaware of Mackay Brown’s work, the former librarian at Stromness Academy first encountered the poet after writing him a thank you letter for donating a batch of rare books to the school.

It emerged the librarian and the poet were near neighbours and the pair – she in her 30s and he in his 70s – struck up a kindly and fun friendship.

She regularly visited for a cup tea, which he would prepare in the kitchen, usually while singing a hymn as she read the Radio Times and waited in his sitting room.

Joanna Ramsey has spoken of her friendship with George Mackay Brown and the special place he took in her family life. PIC: Contributed.

“People talked about him as a recluse but that really wasn’t the case. I found him to be very sociable. George could not have been more fun and we just clicked,” she said.

The two would venture out in her Austin Allegro, sometimes to Warebeth Beach near Stromness from where they could see the hills of Sutherland, from where his mother was from.

“He loved looking at those hills. Once we drove down the Brodgar road and the moon was out by the stones. He also liked to go to Birsay. We’d sit and talk about books. He loved EM Forster and DH Lawrence.

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"When I first moved here, he was so helpful. He would give me the backstory on everyone, sometimes it would go back generations.

George Mackay Brown's former home in Stromness. PIC: Contributed.

“He took an interest in my life. I was a divorcee and George knew that I really wanted to settle down and have a child, if not children.

"So when I met my second husband, a teacher at the school, and I got pregnant at aged 40 or 41, he really was delighted for me."

The birth of Emma revived their friendship, which “wax and waned” over time, partly as newly married life took up more of Joanna’s time.

She said: “He suffered from depression, I suffered from depression. When I got married, the patterns of my life changed so I wasn’t free just to wander up to George’s.

George Mackay Brown and his friend, Joanna Ramsey. PIC: Contributed.

"But after my daughter was born, I feel our old friendship was restored. He would send little acrostic poems. I really feel honoured to have these things.

"George used to come down and sing songs for Emma and tease her. We had a cat and he would sit and make meowing noises.

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“The strange thing is I couldn’t remember when he gave it to me. I think it’s probably because I had to go into hospital again after Emma was born.

"It was written on two or three sheets of paper and I had no idea how well known and important it was going to come.”

Joanna says she has received occasional messages about the poem over the years.

"It’s wonderful to know other people love the poem. I do think it is exquisite. It just speaks to you and it is lovely to know other people feel the same.”

The handwritten original version of ECL: A New Child, which still hangs in the bedroom of Emma Catherine Lawson in Stromness. The poem was later altered for publication. PIC: Contributed.

Emma, who now lives and works in Berlin as an editor and translator, has also held the poem close.

"George died when she was very young but she did remember him. I told her George had gone to heaven and one night she said to me ‘George is here’. The hairs went up on the back of my neck,” her mother said.

Emma, 29, said it took her a while to appreciate the poem that has followed her through her life.

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"It feels like a big honour and feels very reassuring and special - like someone is always looking out for you,” she said.



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