GEORGE MACKAY BROWN website
A Marvellous Journey
A peedie look at the life and work of GMB
Jane Mackay Brown [Mhari Sheena]
Mackay Brown's mother came from Sutherland on the North coast of
Scotland. She was one of
nine children, born 4th June 1891 [see end note] to Hugh and
Georgina Mackay in a hamlet of half a dozen crofts, called Braal, near
Strathy in Sutherland. Hugh,
nicknamed Gow, was a crofter-fisherman, a common combination for
hundreds of years in Scotland and the islands.
George was named for his maternal grandmother.
believed his branch of the Mackay clan was uprooted during the
clearances in the 19thC, moved to the 'bare and bleak and stony' land
northwards, on the Pentland Firth coast.
Their old skills were not fitted for boat building and fishing.
They had rarely dealt in money, but bartered chickens and pigs.
spoke only Gaelic until she started school:
There, sixth of nine children,
schoolmaster punished the children with the tawse [leather strap] for
speaking Gaelic, even in the playground.
It must have been bewildering and fearsome for a tiny girl whose
only words of English were 'yes' and 'no'.
Little Mhari Sheena had to become Mary Jane.
she was about 15, Mary travelled to Stromness in Orkney on the St Ola to
find work in the new Stromness Hotel built and owned by a Mackay from
the same area as herself, a distant relative.
It wasn't an easy crossing in any sense; George describes her as
grey-faced from the Firth, and many questions must have filled her mind
about the sin of working on the Sabbath and the propriety of the
Stromness Town Hall dances – she had, by today's standards, a strict
religious upbringing in the Free Presbyterians, one of the sterner
time, Mary Jane Mackay was drawn to John Brown, perhaps at one of those
dances. They married on 23rd
June 1910 in the Free Presbyterian Church of Strathy; she was 19 and he
was 34. A passing company
of tinkers played the fiddle and danced at the wedding celebration,
bridegroom, he was drowning
Brown was a popular figure in Stromness, and to Mary's astonishment the
crew paid him the honour of decking the ship with flags for the
voyage back home with his bride. They
made their home in Alfred Street where their first child, Ruby, was
the Islands I Sing George describes Mary as a beauty with blue eyes
and dark curls who had an expression of great sweetness and gentleness.
She was a woman who was well-liked all her life, with one
exception. When the Browns
lived in a little rented house at Clouston's Pier [where George was
born], the owner lived further down the pier.
The woman became deranged, reputedly because she narrowly avoided
a bigamous marriage to a naval man, and she took against Mary for no
apparent reason. George
aged 6 came across his mother in tears; in that instant he felt his
mother turn into a stranger, a shattering experience for him.
Around the same time, Mary took George and his brother Norrie [Richard] to Braal for a summer visit. He hadn't even travelled as far as Kirkwall at that time. By his own admission, he was sensitive, upset by people or events not part of everyday Stromness life, so much so that he once fainted on the doorstep when a tinker woman came selling haberdashery. What effect would this first venture over the sea 'south' have on such a child?
relates that his childhood is remembered in 'gleams' an apt term for
those highlights of memory. One of the gleams was of the area around
Strathy which he found bleak and barren compared to the green Orkney
hills. He made it sound a fearful place where the 'rone monster' lived
on the sea cliffs, where he fell into a burn, and there wasn't even a
sweetie shop to make it endurable.
Stromness seemed like a throbbing
metropolis by comparison. He
remembers his stern Grandfather reciting long Gaelic prayers each dinner
a household of six children must have been hard for John and Mary.
One child, Harold, died in infancy.
They lived in little stone houses in various parts of Stromness;
after Alfred Street came Clouston's Pier off Victoria Street where
George was born, then Melvin Place. Space was at a premium as well as money, but though they had
little, the cupboard was never actually bare.
Mary liked flowers and would bring indoors a jar of bluebells or
maybe 'curly doddies' (white clover).
Amid the smells of steamy washing. hot ironing and the cooking of
oatcakes and bannocks, she kept a sense of beauty in her little cramped
houses. In Well Park, a new
council development in the 1930's, Mary finally had a bit of space
indoors and out, with gardens front and back and a riot of blooms.
days had an order for Mary as for most other folk in those days:
Monday for washing, Tuesday for ironing, Friday for baking.
Unlike many other women of her generation and later, she neither knitted
nor sewed. Her husband,
John a part-time tailor, made the children's jackets and trousers.
Saturday was for shopping. Her
days were full:
She was never free, like the lipsticked shop girls
suffered from asthma. Prostrating
attacks in the summer months left her unable to continue with her
household tasks for days at a time, sometimes as long as a fortnight.
she laughed and sang as she worked
and George had the feeling that the old Gaelic work chants and music
still lived in her. The
rhythms and cadences of her early Gaelic surely overlaid her late-learnt
English, and had an effect on the embryonic poet; his work is full of
lyricism so rich that Sir Peter Maxwell Davies set over 30 pieces to
George first became ill with tuberculosis in 1941, the year after his
father's death, Mary supported him for 2 years until he began to receive
some benefit via the National Health Insurance, even buying him
cigarettes on Fridays. He
describes those years of solitude and sickness and poverty as made
bearable by his mother's generosity. He quietly and subtly praises her
for her care, especially in the decade after his stay in the sanatorium
in 1941 when she would bring him breakfast in bed while he wrote what he
called his little poems. By
his own admission, he did nothing in the house.
Many folk, he guessed, thought he was a wastrel but Mary still
looked after him
the war, after John's death Mary took in lodgers. The sudden influx to
the islands of 60,000 soldiers plus thousands more construction workers
meant that many households did the same.
Fuel was scarce but she kept on with her baking in her
unflappable way. George was still at home along with his sister Ruby who
became a teacher. The three
other brothers all married.
his autobiography, written for posthumous publication and found among
his papers by his executors, George wrote about the difficulties and
pleasures of alcohol. It
must be difficult for any mother to witness a son's drunkenness, and
with Mary's Free Presbyterian upbringing, perhaps especially so.
But George relates that she was incensed when the neighbours
gossiped on one occasion when he was brought home by the police. She refused to believe he had been brought home in the Black
Maria, it was a grey van. Otherwise
he describes her attitude to his drinking as mild disapproval or silent
anger. The silent anger was
perhaps justified as he was often led home and dumped on the doorstep
like a sack of potatoes, while the dinner she had cooked
spoiled in the oven.
1967 when his first book of short stories A Calendar of Love was
published, Mary remarked that there was nothing in it but drinking and
pubs. And on reflection,
George decided this was true.
always loved to travel, though with little money there were few
opportunities apart from farm visits within Orkney.
Once she flew from Howe aerodrome near Stromness to Thurso, on
her way back to the family home in Strathy.
In later life, she made annual trips to Aberdeen, and Edinburgh
where she had three granddaughters and she loved to shop at Marks and
Spencers. Once she
travelled as far as Dorset.
her last trip to Edinburgh and Aberdeen, she stumbled and fell in the
corridor of the train. Whether
this fall did damage is not known, but from then on she deteriorated
rapidly through periods of suspicion, untypical anger and memory loss to
a great physical weakness. Periods
of relative lucidity came and went until finally she viewed George as a
records her death on 3rd November 1967 in Northern Lights:
At her name's telling,
can read between the lines of his feelings about Mhari Sheena.
And in the poem Mhari he writes a subtle poignant verse.
The first dark petal fell,
speaks in retrospect of the complex of guilts he felt when Mary died,
about causing her distress through over-indulgence in drink, for not
having conventional success, for falling sick, and for converting to
Roman Catholicism. Blame
and censure is often a mother's lot in today's post-Freudian society,
but Mary loved and mothered George, accepted him and his lifestyle with
cheerfulness and often with supreme tolerance.
He seemed surprised that, given her Calvinist upbringing, she
made no objection to his conversion, in fact she enjoyed the visits of
the priests. He writes an
enlightening paragraph at the end of his memorial to her in Northern
Lights where he cites
his belief that what once has existed can never die. His belief in the Eternal is expressed with his usual
lyricism, and there is no doubt of its meaning for him.
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