George Mackay Brown: An Appreciation

by Mike Dillon

A virtuoso with words, the prolific Scottish poet, novelist, short story writer, playwright, and essayist George Mackay Brown remains too little known in literary circles. “I have never seen his poetry sufficiently praised,” no less than Seamus Heaney opined. Heaney repeatedly extolled Brown’s work, claiming “since the beginning of his career he has added uniquely and steadfastly to the riches of poetry in English.”

Shadowed by tuberculosis most of his life and in his later years by cancer, Brown died in 1996 at age seventy-four. In 2021, to mark the centenary of his birth, Scottish publisher Polygon issued Carve the Runes: Selected Poems and Simple Fire: Collected Short Stories. The same year, Polygon also published a new edition of Brown’s classic 1969 treatise, An Orkney Tapestry.

A Roman Catholic convert, the intensely private, granite-jawed author with an impish smile was given to spells of depression. Especially in the early stages of his career, he took refuge in drink; ill health placed the lifelong bachelor on the government dole. Biographical speculation on Brown’s relationships with women is wrapped in a cloud of unknowing.

“I think the only perfect poem or piece of music is pure silence,” Brown said in a 1987 interview in Ron Ferguson’s George Mackay Brown: The Wound and the Gift, one of the few book-length critical works on the author. “The silence which follows a beautiful piece of music or poem is richer and more perfect—something towards which the music or poem aspires, but never quite achieves.”

Numerous honorary degrees and awards came his way, including the Order of the British Empire. When his 1994 novel, Beside the Ocean of Time, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Brown fretted over the attendant publicity and gave no public readings. The final poem in the last book Brown published in his lifetime, Following a Lark, captures his stance:

A Work for Poets

To have carved on the days of our vanity
A sun
A star
A cornstalk

Also a few marks
From an ancient forgotten time
A child may read

That not far from the stone
A well
Might open for wayfarers

Here is a work for poets —
Carve the runes
Then be content with silence

The Orkney archipelago, with its roots in fishing and farming and Viking inheritance, lies off the north coast of Scotland. Brown grew up in the seaside town of Stromness on the biggest island, Orkney, otherwise named Mainland. Most of his life was spent there, except for stints in Edinburgh, where he studied under fellow Orcadian poet Edwin Muir at Newbattle Abbey College. Once in the big city, Brown became part of the circle of hard-drinking poets who frequented the Rose Street pubs—Hugh MacDiarmid, Norman MacCaig, and Iain Crichton Smith among them.

Brown did for the Orkneys what William Faulkner did for his fictional Yoknapatawpha County: he conjured a literary universe, often set in the past, from the daily life of ordinary people. The Orkneys bear a hard, elemental beauty from which this bard shaped a sacramental dimension, as in “The Death of Peter Esson: Tailor, Town Librarian, Free Kirk Elder,” an exquisite sonnet that begins:

Peter at some immortal cloth, it seemed,
Fashioned and stitched, for long had he sat
Heraldic on his bench. We never dreamed
It was his shroud he was busy at.

A Calendar of Love, Brown’s first book of short stories published in 1967, prompted a review in The Observer to note the author “really does possess the magician’s touch. . . . to lighten up the most humdrum detail of an ordinary life and transform it into something unforgettable.”

Brown’s first novel Greenvoe appeared in 1972 and won the Scottish Arts Council Prize. In this bittersweet comedy, an Orcadian island finds itself in the shadow of a sinister, mysterious military-industrial project called Operation Black Star, which leaves the precious patterns of island life suddenly vulnerable: “Afternoon was always the quietest time in the village. The fishermen were still at sea. The crofters had not yet unyoked. There was little sound in Greenvoe on a summer afternoon but the murmur of multiplication tables through the tall school window, and the drone of bluebottles among Mr. Joseph Evie’s confectionary, and the lapping of water against the pier.”

A year later came Brown’s most ambitious novel, Magnus, the story of a saint and martyr that stands at the center of the author’s entire output. As told in the Orkneyinga Saga, Magnus Erlendson vied with his cousin for the Earldom of Orkney. After years of civil war, the two met on the island of Egilsay for a peace conference, and to end the conflict, Magnus went willingly to his execution, a blood sacrifice echoing Christ’s. Brown’s telling adds a dash of magic realism when the 12th-century story of Magnus fast-forwards to the modern era and the martyrdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer at the hands of the Nazis. The time-shift reminds us that the old patterns come around again and again wearing new clothes (or uniforms).

Magnus features a striking meditation on Christ’s martyrdom: “That was the one and 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 posthumous Collected Poems appeared in 2005. A year later came Maggie Fergusson’s essential biography, George Mackay Brown: The Life. Along with Polygon’s centenary titles, these books offer readers access to a singular literary figure, one who railed from his remote outpost against Western culture’s post-World War II torrent towards standardization. There are critics who consider him a Luddite, but better to say Brown staked out his ground as bold counterpoint to the white noise that would snatch us away from the numinous. Brown set out to re-enchant the world, and at his best, he did. Let’s give him the final word:

Death, critics say, is a theme that nags through my work: the end, the darkness, the silence. So it must be with every serious artist, but still I think art strikes out in the end for life, quickening, joy. The good things that we enjoy under the sun have no meaning unless they are surrounded by the mysterious fecund sleep.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2023 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2023