Described as the Bard of Orkney, George MacKay Brown is considered one of the great Scottish poets of the 20th century. Here Richard Longstaff gives a brief history of the man and his poetry
Born in 1921 George McKay Brown came from a poor background. His father was a postman and his mother a gaelic speaking housewife. He found school life boring and the work monotonous, but he was a bright child and found that writing, short stories and poems filled his days.
Upon leaving school Brown was ready to join up but was diagnosed with tuberculosis, leaving him with time and space to write. After publishing his first collection of poems The Storm in 1954 he got a scholarship to study English Literature at Edinburgh University. It was here that he honed his skills as a writer.
Brown could have taken several well-paid jobs in Scotland but in 1960 his health once more took a fall. This coupled with the death of his father lead to his return to Orkney, the island that would remain his home up until is own death in 1996.
All Brown’s verse is centred on the wind swept island. The people, the myths and the folklore of Orkney come alive through a poetry, which is much more than the sum of its parts. Brown takes you into the heart of his world, opening the landscape and it’s people to you with such clarity that you can almost taste the salt of the sea and hear the tales of the fishermen.
In his most famous work, Hamnavoe, the story of his father delivering letters on his round around the town, there is a perfect example of Browns beautiful use of words. Stanza four, “Hard on noon four bearded merchants, past pipe spitting pier head strolled holy with greed, chanting their slow grave jargon”. The line unfurls like silk on the tongue and must sound so much richer and intense with a warm Scottish accent to speak it.
It is one example of many. Every poem evokes a rich picture for you to discover. It is clear that George loved the islands so deeply that he could think of nowhere else on earth he wanted to be or anything else he wanted to write about.
In his autobiography, ‘For The Islands I Sing’ he wrote the following, “I live in a world of great clamour and endless babble, and am I glad only that I don’t have to endure these things in a great city”. To me it sums up his work and life completely. He restricted himself geographically and yet freed his mind to produce some of the greatest poetry, prose and novels ever written.
To conclude my short look at McKay Brown I want to leave you with another stanza from one of his poems, Childsong. "The moon's a clown tumbling through the clouds, his circus face mapped with all moods." This is Brown at his simplest and best. The words, short and direct, so descriptive. The very factors that make a poet not good, but great.
For more information about the life and work of George McKay Brown go to http://www.georgemackaybrown.co.uk