George Mackay Brown
14th April, 2016
Last year I pitched the idea of writing about my favourite Scottish poet & writer George Mackay brown to a few publications here in Scotland. I say pitched, really i sent a couple of emails and didn’t hear back - i think pitching involved a bit more follow up & effort. After rejection I toyed with the idea of trying my hand at a radio programme or podcast, even contacting a few producers. Ultimately though I came to the conclusion that my appreciation and love of GMB (that’s what he’s known as in print) was too intertwined with the way I think, perhaps even too personal to really make a coherent (or entertaining) radio programme or newspaper article. In Lieu of all this, but wanting in my own way to mark the 20th anniversary of GMB’s death, i thought i’d just put a few ideas and thoughts about him down here
If you’re not familiar with GMB - have a look on wikipedia, or if you’ve got more time, read Maggie Fergusson’s excellent biography of him ‘The life’. To summarise though - GMB was born in Stromness in the Orkney Islands and aside from a spell living in Edinburgh in his thirties, spent all his life in the town on the islands. His poems, short stories, novels and plays are all set in The Orkneys and it is where he drew all of his inspiration. He was an Island poet in the old norse tradition, describing the world through the lens of Stromness.
Stromness is one of Scotland's prettiest towns - the first time i visited was in 1992 - I came with my parents and we stayed in Stromness youth hostel - We were travelling around the highlands and northern isles and we came during something called ‘Stromness shopping week’ which I though would consists of a few more coffee mornings than usual, maybe an outdoor stall or two - not 1,000 people getting drunk and having a party in the main street all night long. It was like some long lost wild link to their viking tradition. If i’d have been 19 or 20 I would have probably been into it - but i was 15 and with my parents staying in a youth hostel.
the morning after the sleepless night i walked into Stromness books & prints and bought a copy of George Mackay Browns ‘a calendar of love’. There was a display of all his books in the window. I had heard of him, but never read him. I was a keen reader, starting to explore Scottish writers after years spend reading American ones. I bought another two GMB books on that trip to the orkneys ‘A time to Keep’ and ‘Greenvoe’ which i read as we travelled around staying in various youth hostels and B&B’s.
At that time I had no idea that GMB lived about 200 metres from the bookshop, this was 1992 and although elderly and frail, he was alive and very much still a part of Stromness life. I have thought about his many times since and wondered if i walked past him. Or if i walked past his window and he looked out and saw me carrying one of his books.
in 1996 GMB died. He was 76 year old. I read the obituary in the newspaper and re-read all the books of his I had, going out to find the books i didn’t in second hand bookshops. I had discovered his poetry by this point, and was now 20 years old, living in Edinburgh and had formed Idlewild. We had started to play gigs and since i was the singer & lyricist I had started to pay much more attention to GMB’s poetry - his use of words & clipped phrases - very much influenced by the norse sagas - never a word wasted.
I went back up to Orkney in 1998 on holiday with my girlfriend at the time. By this stage I was a major GMB fan, enough to bore my girlfriend (who was a Scottish literature student so that’s saying something). I never visited his grave, but I stood outside the house he lived in for most of his adult life - 3 Mayburn court - wondering about the layout, hoping that the new residents weren’t wondering what a young man was doing staring at their house from across the cobbles.
the following year we were back up with the band - playing at the Kirkwall theatre on our first tour of the Scottish Highlands and islands just as ‘little discourage’ was being released as a single. The NME were following us for that tour and there wasn’t much time for me to indulge in my GMB pilgrimage, so i had to make do with the battered book of poems I’d brought along, reading them over on the ferry and as we drove from Stromness to Kirkwall, and then over a glass of Scapa ale at the bothy bar before and after the show. The late NME journalist Steven Wells - known for his punk credentials and outspoken confrontational style was writing the feature and was particularly dismissive of my love of this ‘dead, pastoral poet’ as he put it (Steven was the last of the heavyweight NME writers who defined the paper in the 90’s. His endorsement was seen as a seal of approval - even if he started slagging us off right after ‘100 broken windows’ was released)
after that there was a 15 year absence from the orkney islands. The books though remained a touchstone - the same way that a Dylan record is never too far from the record player, a GMB book is never far from the bedside table, or the fireside, or in the suitcase for a tour. He was a companion.
Idlewild finally made the trip up to Orkney again in the autumn of 2014 to play an acoustic gig at the new theatre in Kirkwall high school. We spent the following morning of our day off in Stromness, and I got to visit the GMB grave at Warbeth cemetery and pay my respects - it took us quite a while to find the grave, as it is understated and not obvious. George lies amongst the community that he wrote about and his beautiful and modest headstone reads only ‘George Mackay Brown - Poet - ‘Carve the runes, then be content with silence’
Afterwards we walked around the town, stopping at 3 Mayburn court again. Andrew, Lucci and Rod were interested in all my facts & fandom so I got to feel like finally i really could enthuse - thanks guys! - afterwards we retired to the Stromness hotel for a bottle of Orkney Blast (Orkney is rightly famed for it’s long brewing tradition and is home to some of Scotland's greatest beers & ales - GMB would approve). Even though the carvery lunch was unremarkable, the bar & building itself are handsome, old and a good place to spend a few hours - and also a haunt of GMB in his day. There was something poignant to me about the meal and the visit. The gig the night before was good too, idlewild had just started playing again after a break and I felt that i’d reached a stage in my life (probably at the same age as GMB) that this is what i do and what i will continue to do, regardless of trends, criticism, popularity - all that comes and goes like the tide. What matters is the work, and the search for meaning through the work. I think this is a revelation GMB also had as he sometimes faced criticism for the repeating themes and motifs in his work - sometimes his books were popular, other times they weren’t. He carried on regardless - and in doing so created a large body of work with a real (and unusual) sense of clarity. What i like about it so much and what keeps drawing me back is that all life is there in GMB's Stromness - the town is the world. The orkneys are the world. I have travelled a great deal more than GMB ever did, and lived in various places and countries, but i have no more insight than he does about the human condition from doing so - just more photographs.
when asked about GMB’s place in the cannon of Scottish Literature Edwin Morgan commented - “ who can predict? I think people will always enjoy his clarity, his storytelling, and the whole background of an anciently inhabited group of islands. I am less sure of the ritualistic, often simplistic Catholic element of his work and i am incline to think that his stories will stand the course better than his poems. But he is certainly a part of that creative generation and he is an original”
GMB was certainly an original. There is always something new to discover in his work. I can’t recommend him enough, and on the 20th anniversary of his death I encourage you all to go and seek out his poems & stories.