GEORGE MACKAY BROWN website
Essays on GMB and his work
say that Orkney was important to George Mackay Brown's art is to
understate massively. For Brown, Orkney was the source of his art. Its
presence is all-pervasive in his poetry and in his prose works. Its
history and myth provide Brown with the bulk of the material he used in
his fifty years as a professional writer. Brown was born and lived all
his life in Stromness, a small town on Mainland, the largest of the
Orkney Islands, situated off the northern coast of
"Orkney is a small green world in itself. Walk a mile or two and you willsee, mixed up with the modern houses of concrete and wood, the "old farmhouses sunk in time"; hall and manse from which laird and minister ruled in the eighteenth century; smuggler's cave, witch's hovel; stone piers, where the whalers and Hudson's Bay ships tied up; the remains of pre-reformation chapel and monastery; homesteads of Vikings like Langskaill where Sweyn Asleifson wintered, the last and greatest of them all; the monoliths of pre-history; immense stone-age burial chambers where the Norse Jerusalem-farers broke in and covered the wall with runes. Dominating all the islands is the rose-red Cathedral of Saint Magnus the Martyr in Kirkwall , called "the wonder and glory of all the north."
This Magnus was a twelfth-century Earl of Orkney, in a time of terriblecivil war. One April morning he heard Mass on the small island of Egilsay ; then he walked out gaily among the ritual axes and swords. Next winter the poor of the islands broke their bread in peace.
Round that still centre all these stories move."
Here, Brown in effect lays bare his whole worldview. The small green world of Orkney suffices as his canvas, and he returns relentlessly in all his work to that still center.
The title story in A Calendar of Love demonstrates Brown's engagement
with the cycle of the seasons, both in nature and in human relationships.
The story takes place over a calendar year, during which the central character, Jean Scarth, loses her father and becomes involved with two local men, the womanizing, hard-drinking crofter Thorfinn and the solitary fisherman Peter. She conceives a child, who is born as the snowdrifts of December mark the end of another year, a new life to replace the one that has been lost, just as nature's cycle turns. Brown describes events in starkly unadorned prose. His characters speak in a direct, almost child-like manner, without artifice, seemingly aware of the inevitability of their lives. Jean recognizes this inevitability as the first snow of winter falls and she nears the time of her child's delivery: "And then suddenly, everything was in its place. The tinkers would move forever through the hills. Men would plough their fields. Men would bait their lines. Comedy had its place in the dance too--the drinking, the quarreling, the expulsion, the return in the morning. And forever the world would be full of youth and beauty, birth and death, labour and suffering." Other stories in this collection share the same melancholy tone and sense of the ceaseless renewal made possible by the natural cycle.
Brown's next prose publication was also a collection of short stories,
A Time to Keep and Other Stories, published in 1969. The collection may
be seen as a companion volume to A Calendar of Love in that it focuses
on the same themes, with a similar cast of characters drawn from Orkney
past and present. Their world appears almost a timeless one, though Brown does not shy away from presenting the intrusions of the modern world: in "The Wireless Set," for example, Brown explores the impact of new technology on the lives of a couple whose loss of a son in the war is linked in their minds with the radio he brought to the house before he left. In "Celia," the eponymous anti-heroine turns to drink partly as a way of shutting out the horrendous reality of a contemporary world where apartheid is still in place and a vicious war is developing in
Between A Time to Keep and his next major prose work Brown continued to write and publish poetry, and his poetry formed the basis of his reputation until the publication of Greenvoe in 1972. This novel, Brown's first, represents one of his lasting achievements. It is an account of a week in the life of an Orkney community on the fictional island of Hellya as it faces up to its impending demise at the hands of a mysterious military-industrial concern called Black Star. The place is, as Brown describes it in his autobiography, "a kind of tawdry gossipy
The novel is written mostly in a realistic third-person narrative, although
one chapter takes the form of a letter written by Johnny Singh, an itinerant peddler on his annual visit to the island. Singh's story is interwoven with an historical narrative compiled by one of the characters, the Skarf, a former fisherman now a Marxist visionary. A third strand in the novel is provided by the rituals of the secret society known as the Ancient Mystery of the Horsemen. These rituals are presented, in a device used by Brown in some of his short stories, in dialogue form with stage directions at the end of each chapter.
The plot of the novel, which is slight, concerns the often-fraught relationships between the islanders. Their way of life is portrayed in five chapters, each charting a day in their doomed collective existence. The characters are reminiscent of those that inhabit the short stories: a mixed bag of the feckless, the earnest, and the drunk. The sensual and fertile
Into the unchanging lives of these people comes the classic outsider figure, a stranger who takes up residence in the local hotel. None of the islanders can imagine why he is there, and it takes another outsider, Singh, to reveal his function as an ominous agent of change in the form of industrial progress. He is, writes Singh, "Western Man arrived at a foreseen inevitable end." Singh also sees him as ruling the world "with a card index file," and indeed the final chapter of the novel reveals that Black Star does have files on all of the inhabitants of Greenvoe.
The six chapters of the novel are mirrored in the six stations of the
ritual initiation ceremony performed by the Lord of the Harvest and the
Master Horsemen. Each short ceremony represents a point in the natural
cycle of growth and decay. The five stations for the first five chapters--the Plough, the Seed, the Green Corn, the Yellow Corn, and the Dead--are enacted at the end of each day. The final chapter depicts the rapid disintegration of the community as the men from the Black Star project take over Greenvoe and the rest of the island. At first the workers turn the place into a kind of boomtown, but then the inhabitants, persuaded by money from the authorities, are forced to leave, their houses are bulldozed, and the island is turned over entirely to the Black Star project. In a coda that restores the previous rhythms of the narrative, the Lord of the Harvest and the Master Horsemen return ten years after the takeover, and more than eight years since the abandonment of the island by Black Star, to complete their ritual in the midsummer sun. The wheel has come full circle, and the very earth of the island demands that the natural cycle be taken up again. So the novel ends in a ceremony of resurrection, as nature reclaims what has been taken from her.
The novel remains one of Brown's most significant achievements. Its lyrical tone, the dextrous tapestry of its various interwoven narratives, and its darkly symbolic prose style mark it out as a distinctively individual novel, unlike any by Brown's contemporaries. Although it clearly stands against the march of technology at the expense of tradition, it is unsentimental but resolute in its faith in the interdependence of mankind and nature.
Brown's second novel, Magnus (1973), takes for its subject the central
figure in Orkney legend, St. Magnus the Martyr. The novel is not a straightforward historical narrative, however. Brown's starting point is the account in the Orkneyinga Saga of the martyrdom of Magnus, killed by his cousin Hakon after seven years of warfare between them over the sovereignty of the
The death of Magnus is seen as a martyrdom, and soon he becomes the subject of a cult among the common people, who seek cures for their ailments at the place of his execution. Hakon, against expectations, becomes a much respected earl of Orkney, and the new cathedral is dedicated to the now canonized Magnus. This story surfaces in many of Brown's works, and he acknowledged its significance for him in his autobiography: "These historical events form the backdrop to much of the narrative and verse that I have written. Without the violent beauty of those happenings eight and a half centuries ago, my writing would have been quite different. I was almost going to say, it would not have existed; but of course the talent that will not let one rest would have had to latch on to other themes. There are, fortunately for me, many legendary and historical sources in Orkney from later centuries that any native-born writer can seize on with delight--but still the great story of Magnus and Hakon is the cornerstone."
Onto this story Brown grafts the biblical concept of the "Seamless Garment" of Christianity, woven from the garment worn by Christ at the Crucifixion. The garment can be rewoven by a saint, and the central conceit of Brown's novel is that Magnus is engaged throughout his life on a preordained quest for the garment. Indeed, Brown suggests that there are three garments: the first is that of ordinary existence, the fabric of society; the second garment is the heraldic coat of state to which both Hakon and Magnus lay claim; and the third garment is the coat of sanctity that Magnus must wear for his marriage feast. This immaculate garment will lend a Christ-like status to the wearer, but in order to achieve his aim, Magnus is put to a series of tests, or temptations, all of which he succeeds in resisting, so that he is prepared for the sacrifice on Egilsay.
Brown's account of Magnus's death in chapter 7 of the novel is an ambitious attempt to universalize the event and to link it explicitly with Christ's Crucifixion. After an introduction in which the language of the Orkneyinga Saga is rendered in a style reminiscent of the Authorized Version of the Bible, there follows an account of the journey to Egilsay, in which it becomes clear that Magnus is aware of what awaits him and that he goes willingly to his fate. The narrative voice then changes abruptly, replacing Brown's impersonal narrator with a journalistic account of the peace negotiations. The context is now a twentieth-century one, as the report refers to "the dramatic developments in the peace confrontation." Brown's deliberate defamiliarization of the narrative serves to underline his contention that Magnus's martyrdom is as relevant in the twentieth century as it was in the twelfth. This idea is further pointed up when, in a dramatic shift, Lifolf the executioner is presented in first-person narrative as the man charged by a Nazi camp commandant with the execution of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The chapter also includes a section dealing with the kind of ritual sacrifice that might have occurred in the stone circles of Orkney during Neolithic times. Brown's purpose in these discursive passages is not easy to identify. Certainly, though, this central chapter of the novel establishes the archetypal nature of the sacrifice motif in history and religion.
The action of Magnus is largely confined to the events surrounding the
central character's death, and the novel is meditative in tone. It is the
most avowedly religious of Brown's novels, with the death of the protagonist seen as one of many re-enactments of the central event in the story of Christ. Brown concludes his meditation on the nature of the sacrament with this thought: "That was the one only central sacrifice of history. I am the bread of life. All previous rituals had been a foreshadowing of this; all subsequent rituals a re-enactment. The fires at the centre of the earth, the sun above, all divine essences and ecstasies, come to this silence at last--a circle of bread and a cup of wine on an altar."
Brown's next publication was another collection of short stories, Hawkfall
and Other Stories, published in 1974, a year that began with his award
of the Order of the
stories in Hawkfall and Other Stories are largely concerned with death:
those in The Sun's Net, published in 1976, celebrate life, with several
stories featuring birth as a central element. Another volume of short stories, Andrina and Other Stories, appeared in 1983.
Brown's novel-writing career was resumed in 1984 with the publication
of Time in a Red Coat. This novel is unique in Brown's canon in not being
set mainly in Orkney, although the central character does eventually land
on Ottervoe, "an island in the
narrative is a girl who, in a fairy-tale episode, is given gifts by a White
Guardian and a Black Guardian to help her in her journey through life.
The White Guardian's gift is a flute carved with the figures of a sun,
a horse, and a bird. From the Black Guardian she receives a bag of coins.
The main body of the text describes the journeys made by the girl through geographical and temporal space, ranging over the centuries and encountering violence in the shape of wars and battles.
The omens at the birth of the girl are not good. She is born in ancient
as she arrives in the world, the barbarians breach the Great Wall. The
first chapter describes the preparation for and performance of the masque, which is enacted by puppets. The puppets perform a masque of love and marriage and then one of death. The masque of birth is interrupted by the invasion of the Mongol army, and instead a real birth--the girl's--takes place, followed by a real death, that of her mother.
Armed only with her gifts, the child embarks on her journey through time
and space, seemingly condemned to roam the world forever. She does not age and is impervious to the danger she encounters at every turn. The bag of silver and gold coins--described by the Black Guardian as the "earth's whole heart's desire"--is used to pay her way through the centuries.
Clearly, there is little attempt at realistic narrative in this novel.
Rather, Brown loads his tale with symbols, repeatedly returning to the
dove of peace and the dragon of war. The various conflicts and battles
encountered by the girl are described in realistic terms, but the novel
operates at a more rarefied level. The narrative frequently takes on a
somewhat portentous tone, never more so than when dealing with the effects of the barbarism that is present at the opening of the novel. In a chapter headed "The Longest Journey," for example, a dying soldier --originally from Orkney--replays significant moments of his life as his soul dallies over which road to take, that of Life or Death. In a moment of spiritual enlightenment the soldier realizes a vital truth, described by Brown in words that recall his previous novel, Magnus:
These events, painful enough at the time of their enacting, came now
upon our traveller in all their starkness and pity: especially this, that
what we do for others' good on earth may end in bitterness and
terrible heart-wounds; and yet what we see as "an end" is not the
true end; no, all is gathered into a web beyond our computing or
comprehension; and while we must seek always to do good, yet that
good and every earthly striving to make
ignorance and the vain illusions of the self) but rags of the perdurable
seamless garment: Truth itself.
The soldier is saved from the Inn of Death by the voice of the girl, who
convinces his enemies to dress his wounds and look after him. It provides
her with an image of home, too, and in the final chapter an old woman,
who is apparently the girl, is now resident on Ottervoe and tells the story
of a girl who wandered through the centuries bringing the dove of peace
in place of the dragon of war. She says, "it's a lie, like all stories," but her granddaughter, who represents renewal and hope, seems to accept the tale as true. The redemption that ends all Brown's novels consists here in the girl's (and the soldier's) release from time, so that they can live out their lives as mortals.
Time in a Red Coat uses the techniques and language of fairy tale to make a powerful antiwar statement that never reads like polemic because of the poetic richness of the imagery Brown employs. As in all of Brown's works, the potential for renewal and redemption is always present, even at the darkest moments of history.
Brown continued to write poetry and short stories as a counterpoint to
his novel writing, producing two major collections of short stories (The
Golden Bird: Two Orkney Stories, 1987, and The Masked Fisherman and Other Stories, 1989) and some important poetry (in particular the 1989 collection The Wreck of the Archangel) between Time in a Red Coat and his next novel, Vinland, published in 1992. This work returns to the familiar historical heritage of Orkney and may be seen to be in some ways a prequel to Magnus. The events fictionalized in
The boy Ranald, son to Sigmund Firemouth, a sailor of Hamnavoe (the old name for Brown's home-town of Stromness), is born to the sea and voyages to
Ranald, like the girl in Time in a Red Coat, longs for peace, and as he
grows older he withdraws from public life to farm and to study. Eventually he lives a hermitlike existence as he prepares for his final voyage. The bold soldier-sailor has turned into a Christian philosopher by this stage, one who advocates peace in the words of the Song of Solomon, and in so doing envisions the advent of Magnus: "I am thinking now, rather of a saint who will confront these men of blood and compel them to beat their swords into plough-shares. He will walk through the island in a coat of light, when he comes at last, this saint. People will come to him gladly with their sick minds and bodies. He will set the seal of peace on our cruel history."
The tale of Ranald is told in Brown's characteristic deliberate prose
by an omniscient narrator whose approach mirrors the language of myth and fairy tale.
Brown's final novel, published in 1994 just two years before his death,
is the one that garnered more critical praise than any of his other novels.
The central figure in the novel is a boy, Thorfinn, who, like Brown himself, is a dreamer. His imagination provides the escape route from the dullness of his life as a schoolboy on the remote
The coming war casts its shadow on the island, and in a passage reminiscent of the arrival of Black Star in Greenvoe, the farms and settlements of Norday are destroyed to make way for the machinery of war; Thorfinn enlists and is eventually captured and imprisoned in a German camp, where he fills his time by writing the stories readers have encountered earlier in the novel. A kindly camp commandant (significantly, he is a southern German Catholic) encourages him, to the point of giving him a typewriter and helping him to dispatch his typescript to a
Beside the Ocean of
that manages to, in Thorfinn's words, "dredge something rich and strange
out of the mythical past of the islands." Thorfinn, like Brown, perhaps,
knows that "It is a seam of rich ore." Also like Brown, Thorfinn writes
about what he knows and invests his work with the ancient wisdom that is part of his inheritance.
Following the publication of Beside the Ocean of Time, Brown wrote two
collections of short stories, the second of which was published posthumously. The first, Winter Tales, was published in 1995 and gathers material published, often in obscure journals, over the previous twenty years. The thread that links nearly all the tales in this collection is the familiar one of the encounter between the old Orcadian ways and the forces of the external world. The stories are set variously in the Dark and Middle Ages, the eighteenth century, and the twentieth century; Brown's introduction suggests that they are mainly "calendar tales, that yield their best treasure in midwinter when the barns are full."
Possibly the most surprising and untypical piece is "Lieutenant Bligh
and Two Midshipmen," which deals with the relationship between Bligh of
the HMS Bounty and his midshipman, George Stewart, an Orkney man. The tale focuses on Bligh's first meeting with Stewart, while his ship was anchored at Hamnavoe. From this historical incident Brown fashions a narrative of some pathos, which is influenced by the note he prefaces to the story. In it he reports that Stewart joined Bligh's expedition on the Bounty and that he drowned on the way back to face trial after the mutiny. Another eighteenth-century story, "The Laird's Son," has as its first-person protagonist a son forced to abandon the newfound delights of
Other pieces in this collection cover more familiar ground. "A Crusader's Christmas" features Rognvald on his way to
concerns a master mason's year on a pagan
Brown's posthumously published collection of stories, The Island of the
Women and Other Stories (1998), remains true to his lifelong concerns.
The title story employs one of the islands' legends, that of the seal-man,
or selkie. Brown, as he had done so often, combines evocative historical
detail, in this case from the early period of Viking domination, with the
oral tradition of the folktale to create a hybrid form--lyrical prose with
the cadences of ancient storytelling. That Brown took his role as a storyteller and as a keeper of a tradition seriously is evident in his work. In "Poet and Prince: A Fable" he attempts a fictive account of the role of the writer in society. The story begins in an unnamed European state, where a competition for the post of official laureate is being held, and concludes on a remote Orkney Island, where, as Paul Binding in TLS: The Times Literary Supplement (14 August 1998) puts it, "patron and patronized are exiled in lonely symbiotic existence, mutually giving, mutually destructive." Brown's total identification with Orkney and its traditions perhaps lifts him above the status of the officially approved writer-worker; certainly, it is not too fanciful to see him as one of the last bards.
Brown's prowess as a poet led to many collaborations with the composer
Peter Maxwell Davies, often involving Brown's words set to his music, though occasionally taking more spectacular forms, as in A Celebration for Magnus, a "son-et-lumiere" production written to mark the 850th anniversary of St. Magnus Cathedral in 1987. He was also active as a dramatist, largely focusing on Orkney and religious themes in such pieces as A Spell for Green Corn (1970) and The Voyage of St Brandon (published in Three Plays, 1984). To a degree, then, his career as a novelist is secondary to his career in other fields of literary endeavor. The posthumously published Northern Lights: A Poet's Sources (1999) provides ample evidence as to the variety of his skills. In this volume many uncollected pieces of prose and poetry are interwoven with his reflections on Orkney life from his weekly newspaper column. A passage written in 1993 shows Brown reflecting on his art and its relationship with his environment: "The ethos and outlook of the islanders has changed greatly since I was a child. People are more prosperous, but
the community spirit has everywhere slackened, and the language becomes increasingly impoverished. But sea and islands and hills are still there, and I am thankful that I saw those everlasting things with a child's eye, and the vivid people who lived among them, and their ancient benign rituals."
Perhaps it is true to say that George Mackay Brown was a more accomplished poet than he was a novelist. Even so, the poet's eye informs his prose at every turn, rewarding his readers with a deeply evocative sense of place and history. The critic Tom Scott, writing in Chapman (Spring 1990), was accurate when he suggested that "His is essentially a narrative-poetic gift: and poetic means his language sings, intones, even in prose."
Dr. Rob Spence
Rob Spence is co-ordinator of the BA English literature programme at
Edge Hill College of Higher Education, a large institution in
Ormskirk,Lancs. His major research interest is in 20th century
literature, and his interest in GMB arose after his first visit to
Orkney 10 years ago.