Brown, George Mackay

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BROWN, George Mackay

Nationality: British. Born: Stromness, Orkney, Scotland, 17 October 1921. Education: Stromness Academy, 1926-40; Newbattle Abbey College, Dalkeith, Midlothian, 1951-52, 1956; Edinburgh University, 1956-60, 1962-64, B.A. (honors) in English 1960, M.A. Career: Writer. Awards: Society of Authors travel award, 1968; Scottish Arts Council prize, 1969; Katherine Mansfield-Menton prize, 1971; James Tait Black Memorial prize, 1988.M.A.: Open University, Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, 1976; LL.D.: University of Dundee, 1977. D.Litt.: University of Glasgow, 1985. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1977. O.B.E. (Officer, Order of the British Empire), 1974. Died: 13 April 1996.


Short Stories

A Calendar of Love. 1967.

A Time to Keep. 1969.

Hawkfall and Other Stories. 1974.

The Sun's Net. 1976.

Witch and Other Stories. 1977.

Andrina and Other Stories. 1983.

Christmas Stories. 1985.

The Hooded Fisherman. 1985.

A Time to Keep and Other Stories. 1987.

The Golden Bird: Two Orkney Stories. 1987.

The Masked Fisherman and Other Stories. 1989.


Greenvoe. 1972.

Magnus. 1973.

Time in a Red Coat. 1984.


Witch (produced 1969). Included in A Calendar of Love, 1967.

A Spell for Green Corn (broadcast 1967; produced 1970). 1970.

The Loom of Light (produced 1972). Included in Three Plays, 1984.

The Storm Watchers (produced 1976).

The Martyrdom of St. Magnus (opera libretto), music by Peter Maxwell Davies, adaptation of the novel Magnus by Brown (produced 1977). 1977.

The Two Fiddlers (opera libretto), music by Peter Maxwell Davies, adaptation of the story by Brown (produced London, 1978). 1978.

The Well (produced 1981). Included in Three Plays, 1984.

The Voyage of Saint Brandon (broadcast 1984). Included in Three Plays, 1984.

Three Plays. 1984.

A Celebration for Magnus (son et lumière text), music by Peter

Maxwell Davies (produced 1988). 1987. Edwin Muir and the Labyrinth (produced 1987).

Radio Plays:

A Spell for Green Corn, 1967; The Loom of Light, 1967; The Voyage of Saint Brandon, 1984.

Television Plays:

three stories from A Time to Keep, 1969; Orkney, 1971; Miss Barraclough, 1977; Four Orkney Plays for Schools, 1978; Andrina, 1984.


The Storm. 1954.

Loaves and Fishes. 1959.

The Year of the Whale. 1965.

The Five Voyages of Arnor. 1966.

Twelve Poems. 1968.

Fishermen with Ploughs: A Poem Cycle. 1971.

Poems New and Selected. 1971.

Lifeboat and Other Poems. 1971.

Penguin Modern Poets 21, with Iain Crichton Smith and NormanMacCaig. 1972.

Winterfold. 1976.

Selected Poems. 1977.

Voyages. 1983.

Christmas Poems. 1984.

Stone. 1987.

Two Poems for Kenna. 1988.

Songs for St. Magnus Day. 1988.

The Wreck of the Archangel. 1989.

Tryst on Egilsay. 1989.

Selected Poems 1954-1983. 1991.


Let's See the Orkney Islands. 1948.

Stromness Official Guide. 1956.

An Orkney Tapestry. 1969.

The Two Fiddlers (for children). 1974.

Letters from Hamnavoe (essays). 1975.

Edwin Muir: A Brief Memoir. 1975.

Pictures in the Cave (for children). 1977.

Under Brinkie's Brae. 1979.

Six Lives of Fankle the Cat (for children). 1980.

Portrait of Orkney, photographs by Werner Forman. 1981; revised edition, photographs by Gunnie Moberg, and drawings by Evlend Brown, 1988.

Shorelines: Three Artists from Orkney (exhibition catalogue), with Tessa Jackson. 1985.

Keepers of the House (for children). 1986.

Letters to Gypsy. 1990.

Eureka! (for children). 1991.

Sea-King's Daughter. 1991.

Editor, Selected Prose of Edwin Muir. 1987.


Critical Studies:

Brown by Alan Bold, 1978; The Contribution to Literature of Orcadian Writer Brown: An Introduction and a Bibliography by Osamu Yamada, Hilda D. Spear, and David S. Robb, 1991; "The Binding Breath: Island and Community in the Poetry of George Mackay Brown" by David Annwm, in Poetry in the British Isles: Non-Metropolitan Perspectives edited by Hans Werner Ludwig and Lothar Fietz, 1995; "A Sequence of Images: George Mackay Brown" by Bob Tait and Isobel Murray, in Scottish Writers Talking, 1996.

* * *

Many of the themes that George Mackay Brown introduced into his poetry also find their way into his short fiction—faith and renewal, death and resurrection, the real and the mythical past. And there are other links. In all of his short stories, especially in his religious work, there is a natural fluency that extends from the directness of his lyrical descriptions to an ornate narrative with intricate internal rhythms.

Indeed, many of Brown's favorite poetic themes recur in his short stories, most of which are firmly rooted in the everyday communal life of his native Orkney from the time of the Viking invasions of the 12th century to the 1960s. The tales are told with a simple lyrical intensity, and they are concerned both with the matter of everyday life and with legends from the history and mythology of his native islands.

A Calendar of Love was Brown's first collection, and the title story is rich with the symbolism of seedtime and harvest and with the renewal of life through pain and suffering. Jean Scarth, an innkeeper who is loved by two men of wildly differing temperaments, becomes pregnant. Tormented by the community's condemnation, she faces disgrace but finds deliverance in the rhythms of nature after the first snowfall of winter.

"Witch," a horrifying story set in sixteenth-century Orkney, continues this theme with its account of the trial of Marian Isbister, charged with witchcraft after refusing the advances of Earl Patrick Stewart's factor. While the local people are happy to participate in the barbarous execution, the only person to show her any pity is the executioner who strangles her before the fire is lit. The narrator is a clerk who records all that he sees, but the prose is imbued with a lyrical quality that counterpoints the horror he is describing.

Also set in the same period is "Master Halcrow, Priest," a fine study of an old priest's attempts to keep his faith at the time of the Reformation. "The Three Islands," "Stone Poems," and "The Story of Jorkel Hayforks" all take place at the time of the Norse period in Orkney's history. The latter involves a Viking's personal voyage from violence and revenge to forgiveness and salvation. As with other tales dealing with the past, there is a unity in Brown's writing that allows him to spin several variations around a common theme.

Brown's second collection, A Time to Keep, contains two sensitive studies of alcoholism and loneliness: "Celia" and "The Eye of the Hurricane," in which an old sea captain drinks himself to death and despair. In both stories the central characters are not presented as worthless layabouts but rather as ordinary beings with all of humanity's failings. "The Eye of the Hurricane" also contains a fine Ibsenesque scene in which past and present become one as the dying skipper imagines that he is back at sea, steering his ship through a ferocious storm. The narrator is a novelist based on Brown himself, a technique he uses again in "The Tarn and the Rosary" from Hawkfall. During the course of his musings on the old seaman's life Brown introduces the word "hawkfall" as a symbol for impending death.

This concept is expanded in Brown's third collection, which not only has Hawkfall as its title but which also takes a stage further his reflections on death and destruction, salvation and renewal. The title story spans the centuries and follows a flat-nosed generation from the Bronze Age to the present, when it dies out in ignominy. In "Tithonus" a laird grieves for the death of his island and the absence of physical love in his own life. This is a story prompted by the Greek myth of Tithonus, who is given the gift of immortality but not eternal youth. "The Cinquefoil" contains five connected sketches about an island community, each one building to the conclusion that love alone can overcome tragedy and bind people together. In three tales of the abnormal, "Sealskin," "The Drowned Rose," and "The Interrogator," Brown goes to the heart of the mystery of death and proves that love can triumph over even the greatest evil.

A sense of celebration returns in the stories collected in The Sun's Net and in Andrina. It is true that the title story of the latter collection is a ghost story with several familiar motifs—doomed relationships, the sailor returned from the sea, the ever changing seasons—but there is a new tenderness in the description of the old sailor's love for his ghostly granddaughter and his awareness that emotions live on from one generation to the next.

This theme had already been explored in "A Winter Tale," "Stone, Salt and Rose," "Soldier from the Wars Returning," and "Pastoral," all in The Sun's Net, in which Brown presents man as the seed provider and woman as the seed nourisher. Both play a vital role in maintaining the sense of continuity that is vital if a community is to survive. "A Winter Tale" is as much a Christmas fable as a straight short story. For Brown, a convert to Catholicism, each birth is a matter for celebration, being a reenactment of the advent of Christ.

Many of Brown's historical stories or fables have their origins in the Orkneyinga Saga, the thirteenth-century chronicle of the Earls of Orkney, and much of the imagery comes from the evidence of prehistorical sites on Orkney. In keeping with the themes he pursues, however, his vision remains his own, starkly original and deeply spiritual. Indeed, it could be said that by imposing history, myth, and fable onto his narratives, Brown finds in Orkney a microcosm of the general human condition.

—Trevor Royle

See the essay on "A Time to Keep."

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Brown, George Mackay

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