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GMB’s ‘Greenvoe’ Explored by BBC Alba

A new BBC ALBA documentary uncovers the eerie story behind Orkney author George Mackay Brown’s 1972 debut novel – Greenvoe.

In the programme Cathy MacDonald explores the themes of his debut novel, Greenvoe.

Greenvoe imagined an Orkney community called Hellya, based on Stromness, being threatened by a mysterious defence project – ‘Operation Black Star’ – that would tear the island apart.

In real life, a few years later in 1979, plans were laid to mine uranium around Stromness.

You can read about that here: Orkney’s Uranium Protests

In the documentary, Dr Peter MacKay of the University of St Andrews said:

“Orkney isn’t just a subject for him, it’s everything to him, it’s a world to him.”

Cathy MacDonald is pictured reading a copy of the book Greenvoe
Cathy MacDonald detects some Gaelic in George Mackay Brown’s family.

Orkney writer, Alison Miller, who knew the author, said:

“Parochialism is interesting, because, if you get the small and local right, it becomes universal. And I think that at his very best, George gets the local very, very right and it is universal and that’s really shown by the extent to which he’s loved all over the world.”

Presenter Cathy MacDonald detects a Gaelic influence in the Orcadian’s writing, and reveals that Mackay Brown had a Gaelic-speaking mother – Mhairi Sheena Mackay – who was brought up in Sutherland.

Brown credited his mixed Orkney-Gaelic heritage for his style and inspiration.

“My mother came from the Highlands of Scotland and was a Gaelic speaker. Some people have noted a mystical element in my work which they claim is alien to the Orcadian. I admit it, and hope that at its best it might enhance my writing here and there.” – GMB

Ill health prevented George from serving in World War Two, leaving him with low self-esteem.

However, a meeting with Orcadian poet Edwin Muir set him on course for Newbattle Abbey College and Edinburgh University where he fell in with the poets who frequented the Rose Street pubs – Sidney Goodsir Smith, Norman MacCaig, Tom Scott and Hugh MacDiarmid.

The poets inspired the young Orcadian, who went on to become an acclaimed poet and author.

Summing up George Mackay Brown’s career, fellow-poet Peter MacKay told Cathy:

“He was a very special poet, because of the way he could tell a story, create a community and create a world from that – and he was drenched in Orkney’s ancient history.

“You couldn’t separate GMB and Orkney – people and stories from that island – you couldn’t beat him.”

Sar-sgeoil: Greenvoe airs on BBC ALBA on Tuesday 21 March at 9pm and will be available to watch on BBC iPlayer for 30 days after.

the George Mackay Brown Memorial garden in Stromness overlooking the harbour with long posts each with a quote from his work on them
The George Mackay Brown Memorial Garden, Stromness

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