GEORGE MACKAY BROWN website
A Marvellous Journey
A peedie look at the life and work of GMB
Mackay Brown's birth was registered at Victoria Street, Stromness,
Orkney. Apart from six
years away studying in Edinburgh, all his life was spent in Stromness
where he loved the stone houses creeping up the steep hill or jutting
out on piers into the harbour.
earliest memories are of living in a little house on the corner of
Victoria Street and Clouston's Pier, with views over the harbour to
Orphir and Scapa Flow. A
fisherman's pier and slipway was at one end, Stromness's main shopping
street at the other. He
remembered fishermen baiting their lines there, women cleaning
fresh-caught haddocks, and of course boys bathing off the piers in
As a child George didn't appreciate Melvin Place on any level. Women artists used to set up their easels and capture it on canvas; he could never see why until years later.
The house at Melvin Place
The family stayed there about 6 years, moving next to a new council
house at Well Park now called Guardhouse
Park where they stayed for some 34 years.
The rent was seven shillings and sixpence, about 37p now, for the
three bedroom house. It was
considered a bit steep, but they had a bathroom and gas lighting, and
Mary had a garden of her own, front and back for the first time.
It was from this house that his siblings started to make their
own lives. George's three
older brothers had moved out by the time war came; they served in the
RAF. Families were obliged to take in lodgers.
Space was limited and since fuel was scarce, lodgers could not
have a fire in their room. George,
his sister Ruby, and Mary shared fire and board with a succession of
strangers; George described the arrangement as 'inconvenient'.
became a teacher, eventually on Rousay.
Mary died in 1967 and George was left alone in the house. Soon afterwards in Autumn 1968, he left Well Park for what he
called his watchtower house at Mayburn Court, a maisonette on the first
and second floors at a rent of eighteen shillings and sixpence per week.
course, he had many helpers on the day, and the uprooting took less time
than he imagined, He expected chaos at the other end, Mayburn Court, but
he need not have worried. His
friends got into a rhythm of such sweetness and precision that within an
hour, his new home was quite habitable.
By mid-afternoon, empty ale bottles filled the table, and again
the furniture stands in for his feelings as he describes how, as the
hours passed, it began to look at peace in the new house.
He even went so far as to say that all might yet be well before
winter. For the first time, at the age of 57, he was living alone in a
house of his choosing. His first floor living room had three windows, one looking
over the harbour, and there were two bedrooms on the second floor.
a practical man as the self-deprecating stories in his weekly column
attest, George wasn't given to DIY.
He happily ignored the growing gloom of his house, gloom brought
on by staining of walls and ceiling from the open fire and from pipe
smoke. After 12 years,
enough friends and visitors had commented on the state of the place for
something to be done. While
George spent a long weekend away with friends, dreading the chaos of
disordered books and space, another friend went in and dealt with the
problem. He returned home to a clean fresh living room, and soon the
kitchen was given the same treatment.
a tenant of the council had its advantages.
More DIY was spared; whenever anything needed repairing, it was
fixed with a minimum of discomfort.
The immersion heater, the coal-shed door, leaking pipes, all the
wear and tear of daily living.
came a period of several years when council house rents were climbing
steeply. In April 1977, the
rent on Mayburn Court rose from £4.50 to £5.25 a week;
in 1985, a single leap from £12.77 to £16.44 per week.
By then, George was considering the wisdom of buying his rented
house. The council were offering reasonable terms, but he was
wondering why, on the verge of the old-age pension, he would want to
burden himself with the ownership of a house.
It wasn't until the Spring of 1989, after 21 years of renting it,
that George applied to purchase 3 Mayburn Court.
By November of that year, it was his.
remained at Mayburn the rest of his life, pinning his little messages to
the door when he didn't want to be disturbed at his writing,
entertaining friends, receiving visitors from all over the world, lovers
of his writing. Some of his
best work was done there, sitting at the little breakfast table
surrounded by the trappings of breakfast, in his rocking chair before
the fire in the evenings, perhaps with a glass of ale, reading a recent
manuscript testing words for sound and meaning.
In April 1996, the strange little watchtower of a house lost the
light from its windows.
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