George MacKay Brown

By Bernie Bell

I’ve been trying to think of what to write to acknowledge the 100 year anniversary of the birth of George MacKay Brown.

I very much admire, appreciate and connect with what he writes about and how he writes it, and would like to laud him in some way – place a laurel wreath on the man’s brow.

I’m reluctant to focus on his being Orcadian – though no doubt Orkney made him – his people were of Orkney and his life, blood and bones were of the place, but, for me, the main thing about GMB is that he wrote of ….people….and….the earth, the sky, the hills, the rocks, the sea, the beasts of the land and the sea.  LIFE.  And what he wrote applies to….anywhere, anyone and anything.

Some years ago, as part of the Orkney International Science Festival  the !Gubi family – a group of traditional musicians and dancers of the San people – came to Orkney from their home in Corridor 18, in the Kalahari Desert, Namibia.  The visit was organized by a group called Indigenous People .  The heritage and way of life of the San people is being stolen from them  – fences are being raised which stop them from moving from place to place as they have done for possibly millennia.  Notice that where they are now ‘allowed’ to live is referred to as …Corridor 18.  I’m pretty sure that isn’t their name for that area.

I was talking with the young woman who had facilitated their tour, including their visit to Orkney, and saying how their situation reminded me of the story in GMB’s novel ‘Greenvoe’, in which the way of life of the people of an island is being suppressed – in fact destroyed – by outside influences, but they persevere, and thereby preserve their ways.  In fact, next time I saw her, I gave her a copy of the book to read, as I believe it holds a message of hope to any peoples who are being suppressed in this way.

And, of course, this relates to the Clearances in Scotland, and Ireland and….how many other places?

For me, that’s why GMB is such a wonder – he writes of LIFE – people, people from way back, and now, and in between, and how those times can merge, overlap and interweave, as in his novel ‘Time in a Red Coat’…….

I know it’s blurred – it turned out that way, and I think it fits, so I left it!

I get the impression he could be a bit of a grouch, which can be what happens when a person sees and feels so much – it can be a bit too much to deal with – and some kind of survival strategy for living in this world needs to be put in place.

When a person becomes well-known for being creative, sensitive etc., they often become ’sainted’, particularly after they have died.  It happens in families, too.  So, to say that maybe he was a bit of a grouch, might bring down coals of ire on my head. Personally, I can entirely see why he might have been a bit of a grouch – who wouldn’t be, who sees and feels as he did?

I find it hard to clearly say what it is about his writing which made him such a joy to discover.  It gets harder and harder to find new, good writers, and finding George Mackay Brown, was a God-send.  His work is full of life, and light, and all that IS. 

What it comes down to, for me, is that it a re-assuring thing to discover a writer who sees, feels and expresses so very, very exceptionally well.  I’d never heard of him until I came to Orkney – another reason I’m grateful that I did so.  And now, he’s among the ones I honour and recognize for …breadth of vison, insight, thought, feeling…humanity.

Orkney is rightly proud of GMB, as Sligo is right to be proud of WB Yeats, but neither of those people are only writing of where they were from – they were writing about  – everything – everyone – LIFE!

Happy Birthday GMB – where ever you are now.

There is an exhibition to mark GMB’s centenary at the Orkney Museum, Tankerness House, Kirkwall………..

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2 replies »

  1. When I started to write this piece, I got out the books to take photos, and found that we have no copy of Greenvoe – must have given our replacement copy to someone too – it’s that kind of book – but realised that we have a copy of ‘A Time to Keep’ which someone might like to own. It’s not a first edition, it’s a second impression – 1970. It’s hard back, in good condition, and has a dust cover – a rather sad dust cover, but it is there.
    Mike and I are both more comfortable reading cheap paperbacks – in particular I am, as I do tend to get things that I’m eating, on things that I’m reading!

    It occurred to me that someone might like to buy this copy, and donate the proceeds towards the restoration of the Hall of Clestrain by the John Rae Society .

    If so, would anyone like to make us an offer – donate, and we’ll post you the book?

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