GEORGE MACKAY BROWN website
A Marvellous Journey
A peedie look at the life and work of GMB
the years between A Time to Keep and the publication of Greenvoe
[1969 and 1972], a radio play, A Spell for Green Corn, and
several books of poetry came out. The play is a chronicle is six scenes relating the story of
an innocent girl burned as a witch.
The idea came from some seventeenth century records, which were
reproduced when the play was published in 1970, again by Hogarth.
Fishermen with Ploughs, appeared in 1971, an epic poem cycle about the history of the people of Orkney and their relationship with land and sea, set in his beloved Rackwick. Reviewers began to use glowing phrases: 'one of the consummate masters of poetry in Britain today' [Peter Porter, the Guardian]; ' superb story-teller in verse, a master of concision and clarity' [Alan Brownjohn]; 'there can be few poets in Britain .... who can write with such power, vision and clarity.' [British Book News]
Most notably, his first major collection, Poems New and Selected, was published by Hogarth in 1971, containing selections from Loaves and Fishes and The Year of the Whale as well as some 14 new poems.
Letters from Hamnavoe, the column in The Orcadian newspaper, began in February 1971. His brief was to entertain the 1,600 people of Stromness, as well as to remind the thousands of Orcadians living elsewhere what they were missing, whether it was the calendar of local events or the gossip along Victoria Street and Franklin Road. In 1975, the first collection of these essays, ranging from 1971 to 1975, appeared in book form, and has since been re-issued in paperback.
George wrote countless times about Earl Magnus, martyr and saint, but perhaps never so powerfully as in his 1973 novel Magnus 'where plot merges with poetry'. The story was dear to his heart, and here the twelfth century happenings take on new meaning with relevance to George's own time.
In his autobiography, George describes how 'quite suddenly, one morning, as he was thinking of ways to tell the story of the actual martyrdom in Egilsay in 1117, it came to him that a contemporary reader would possibly find the story remote and unconnected to the twentieth century. He believed these stories – past and present – were linked by archetypal patterns and soon came up with a modern counterpart for his setting – a concentration camp in central Europe in the spring of 1994. Magnus received great acclaim: 'a distinctive and distinguished novel' [Sunday Times]; 'the most beautiful contemporary book I have ever read' [Times].
Hawkfall and The Two Fiddlers, collections of stories, were published in 1974, the latter his first Orkney tales for children, and both drawing on the reality and myth of Orkney. In spite of this perhaps limited landscape, George was far from limited in his vision, drawing out the rhythms of life, the resonances of past and present using the imagery of poetry.
The Orcadian column changed its name the following year. Eventually published in book form in 1979, Under Brinkie's Brae spanned the years 1976 to 1979 and is full of reminiscence. George is now well into the flow of writing these little essays, and his enjoyment comes through. Their success continued in an almost unbroken stream for a quarter of a century, the last one appearing two days before his death in April 1996.
1976 produced poems in Winterfold, stories in The Sun's Net. A bumper publishing yield in 1977: another collection of children's stories Pictures in the Cave with illustrations by his old friend, Ian MacInnes; Witch and other stories and Selected Poems from Hogarth. Selected Poems included the selections from Loaves and Fishes and The Year of the Whale and a dozen of the new poems already published in Poems New and Selected ; these were augmented by a selection from Fishermen with Ploughs. Witch was one of the few commercially recorded readings George made; a long playing record of it had been made, along with poems, in July 1971 by Claddagh Records. Paddy Maloney [of Chieftains fame] came to record it in the Stromness Hotel. George reports that in spite of stopping and starting to cut out the revving of car engines outside the window, they managed with the help of a drop of whisky to record twenty poems and a story. He thought the finished record technically excellent, with not the least sound of a car engine, nor the least breath of Highland Park. The record was eventually released in 1977.
Again, there was a limited edition and a special issue during this time. Poems in Lifeboat and other poems ; Four poems published by Grays School of Art in Aberdeen, . George also tried his hand at biography; Edwin Muir: a brief memoir came out in limited edition in 1975, a tribute to his mentor from his Newbattle days.
George had met the composer, Peter Maxwell Davies, in 1970 [see Ch11 for more detail] and a lasting bond had developed. In 1977 they [along with other enthusiastic and dedicated bodies] were instrumental in initiating the first St Magnus Festival, which now takes places annually at midsummer. The first Festival marked the première on 18th June 1977 of the opera The Martyrdom of St Magnus: libretto by George Mackay Brown, music by Peter Maxwell Davies. The opera was commissioned by the BBC for the Silver Jubilee of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. In such a packed decade there was no shortage of significant events, but this must have been no small satisfaction to George.
Leafing and Blossoming of the Imagination
1980, another book of children's stories appeared, The Six Lives of
Fankle the Cat illustrated by Ian MacInnes.
That old sixpenny-prize-winning pairing from the school sports
days produced another winner. 'Reading
this lovely book is pure joy and fun' said the Scotsman reviewer, and
that was just the adult view. 'Fankle
is Jenny's cat. Jenny's
bad for its beginnings, whiling away an idle hour, in the sunshine in a
friend's garden during the hot summer of 1976.
small departure the following year when he wrote Portrait of Orkney,
for Hogarth Press. Finely
illustrated with photographs by Werner Forman, and poems, some of his
own making, and other poems and stories by Edwin Muir, Eric Linklater
and Robert Rendall. It
was re-issued in 1988 by John Murray with an additional chapter and
photographs and drawings by Gunnie Moberg and Erlend Brown, George's
novel, Time in a Red Coat, came out in 1984. George said it was
not received with rapture, yet he was glad to have written it.
It contains some of his own preferred writing.
Along with Christmas Poems and Three Plays, this
ensured his output in print remained steady for the year.
The three plays were The Loom of Light , written and
staged in 1972 to raise funds for the preservation of St Magnus
George used the play as a framework for the novel Magnus.'
Well was written specially for the St Magnus Festival in 1981, and The
Voyage of St Brandon, drama 'rooted in history and suffused with
magic' was broadcast on
Radio 4 at Easter 1981, using a cast of Orkney players and Cyril Cusack
was published in the same format the following year, along with another
collection of stories The Hooded Fisherman with illustrations by
Charles Shearer. These
limited editions, beautifully presented, were becoming popular
collector's items. More
soon followed; stories in Keepers of the House , and The
Scottish Bestiary  – a collection of Orkney myths with
drawings, etchings and prints. Loom of Light was published as a single play with
photographs by Gunnie Moberg, and illustrations by Simon Fraser.
1987 and the end of the decade, several small volumes of poems and
stories, plus special editions, were published.
The most notable was The Golden Bird, two stories, one
telling the story of the slow decline of an island community and the
other, the hard life of a crofter; it was awarded the James Tait Black
Memorial Prize in 1988. The
collection of new poems The Wreck of the Archangel appeared in
1989, published by John Murray who had taken over from Hogarth/Chatto
and Windus as George's main publisher.
Archangel was subsequently published in paperback and
reprinted in 2001. It was
described in Time Out as 'luminous, articulated with a crackling,
concentrated energy', and by the Herald as 'a deeply satisfying
another book of short stories, The Masked Fisherman, came into
print in 1989, a different telling
of one of his favourite passages from the Orkneyinga saga; the crofter
meeting the hooded stranger at Sumburgh, Shetland.
It was originally printed in special edition as The Hooded
and Orkney are forever linked in the to-ing and fro-ing of rulership at
a time when they shared the old common language, Norn, and George's
sense of history and people and places seemed enhanced during this trip.
on the shore at sunset,
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