GEORGE MACKAY BROWN website
A Marvellous Journey
A peedie look at the life and work of GMB
Man of Wit and Humour
John was a master shoemaker who married Margaret Sinclair on Hoy on 5th October 1865. They lived in Brown's Close at the South End of Stromness.
reports in his autobiography that several generations ago there were
many Browns in Stromness; they had to be differentiated by prefix.
His branch of the family were known as the Duckie Browns –
because they kept ducks round a pond, now long gone. Of course,
this may be apocryphal.
was the first-born of John and Margaret Sinclair.
He became an officer in the Salvation Army and later a
Congregational Minister. Three
daughters followed before John, George's father, was born in Stromness
on the 20th December 1874, and then another son and two more
younger brother James married a woman with some mental affliction.
Eventually he left her; George remembers a melancholy uncle
coming for dinner on Monday afternoons.
In the mid 1930's he went missing, and his body was found in the
harbour a few days later.
was well liked in the town, cheerful with ready wit and laughter.
He must have been delighted to be able to bring his young bride
back to Stromness on the mail boat St Ola, brightly decked with flags
especially for the occasion.
young man, George's father had heard (twice in one day) William Booth,
founder of the Salvation Army, preaching to a huge throng of people in
Glasgow. This made a big
impression on him. He had a
deep sensibility about conditions facing the poor and always took their
side against the wealthy and over-privileged.
weekly event was preceded by a ritual George remembered fondly.
His father would rise and
light the fire while the rest of the family was still in bed.
Then he made breakfast, carrying a tray up to Mary and George,
who had sneaked into the vacated warm place next to her.
profession, John was a tailor, working in the Stromness shop of Peter
Esson at the foot of Kirk Road.
But progress meant that suits were coming ready made to the
islands, fresh from factories in the south, and his tailoring work was
part time to his main job as postman.
George had an abiding memory of him coming into the
kitchen-living room at Clouston's Pier with rain streaming off him.
As all postmen did then, he wore a lantern pinned to the lapel of
his overcoat, and the wick needed trimming.
remembers him as small and stout, but early photos show him in a line of
post office workers looking small and wiry, almost lost under a large
thought that his father, with his ability as a mimic and his fine tenor
voice, had the makings of a good actor. In fact, he cut quite a dash in
amateur drama circles. Especially
when the whisky was flowing, he loved to sing Edwardian music-hall songs
and sentimental hymns, his favourite being The Old Rugged Cross.
as a child, George was also privy to a melancholy side of his father. He
listened at his father's door while John paced to and fro, speaking
aloud his doubts and worries, half frightening, half intriguing the
child to hear this stranger. George's
realisation of the complexities of human beings, the masks we all wear
to face the world, began about then.
Later he used this insight to good effect in his writing.
the family moved to Melvin Place around 1927-28, John became very ill
with rheumatic fever. He
recovered but suffered for the rest of his life, his hands and feet
twisted by the disease. He would send one of the children for a bucket of sea water,
not harbour water but good Atlantic water from Hoy sound, to bathe his
feet in the hope of relief.
doctor suggested that his teeth might be at the root of his troubles.
John had them all extracted at one sitting.
He – and the
dentist – consumed half a bottle of whisky during the extraction.
read books borrowed from the public library, especially in his fifties
when he was ill in bed with severe arthritis.
Eventually he could no longer manage the postal round in all
weathers, and put in a few hours with Peter Esson, painfully cutting and
stitching with his twisted hands. He
felt himself to be a burden to his family, who were very poor during his
times of illness.
In the last few years of John's life, George began to discover poetry and read aloud to him. John read the first few verses written by his son, and George believed he approved of them.
the second World War began and the naval supply base was being built on
Hoy, there was such a demand for work people that John managed to get a
job as a hut-tender, keeping the living quarters of the other workmen
clean and their beds made.
July 1940, John died suddenly in Lyness, Hoy, aged 64, from coronary
thrombosis. The police
informed Hugh, the oldest son, who broke down in tears.
He was particularly attached to his father.
John was brought home and the coffin stood in the little bedroom
downstairs. George equated
death with the remoteness of stars, and the coldness of the touch of his
father's forehead stayed with him. Both find their way into his writing.
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