Poet George Mackay Brown

George Mackay BrownOn this day in 1921, the Scottish writer George Mackay Brown was born. He is known mostly for his poetry and since that is all that I’ve ever read, I will stick to that.

He was actually from the Orkney Islands — an archipelago just north of Scotland. And he spent pretty much his entire life there. He was born into a very poor family and was himself greatly limited because he suffered from tuberculosis from a young age. But at least he could write. In fact, in his early 20s, he began to do some writing for the local paper.

His hometown was Stromness, which even today has only a population of about two thousand people. Since before Brown was born, it had be “dry” — not allowing any alcohol. But in 1947, the town lifted the ban. So at the age of 25, Brown had his first taste of alcohol. He liked it. He later wrote, “[T]hey flushed my veins with happiness; they washed away all cares and shyness and worries. I remember thinking to myself ‘If I could have two pints of beer every afternoon, life would be a great happiness.'” Apparently, many people thought he drank too much for the rest of his life, but I don’t especially see evidence of that.

His first book of poetry, The Storm, was published in 1954. It sold quite well. But it wasn’t until the mid-1960s that he was able to support himself. Until then, his mother had supported him. I find his work charming and direct. But not easy. Here is “Taxman” from The Collected Poems of George Mackay Brown. I don’t fully understand it. But I like the slice-of-life quality to it: the harvest done, the celebration starts, the taxman comes?

Seven scythes leaned at the wall.
Beard upon golden beard
The last barley load
Swayed through the yard.
The girls uncorked the ale.
Fiddle and feet moved together.
Then between stubble and heather
A horseman rode.

And here is a wonderful spiritual poem, “Beachcomber.” I won’t try to interpret it even though it begs for a thorough discussion. Just enjoy:

Monday I found a boot —
Rust and salt leather.
I gave it back to the sea, to dance in.

Tuesday a spar of timber worth thirty bob.
Next winter
It will be a chair, a coffin, a bed.

Wednesday a half can of Swedish spirits.
I tilted my head.
The shore was cold with mermaids and angels.

Thursday I got nothing, seaweed,
A whale bone,
Wet feet and a loud cough.

Friday I held a seaman’s skull,
Sand spilling from it
The way time is told on kirkyard stones.

Saturday a barrel of sodden oranges.
A Spanish ship
Was wrecked last month at The Kame.

Sunday, for fear of the elders,
I sit on my bum.
What’s heaven? A sea chest with a thousand gold coins.

Happy birthday George Mackay Brown!

4 thoughts on “Poet George Mackay Brown

  1. George Brown also wrote a number of very good novels which evoke Orkney and the Orcadian life – I’d recommend Magnus, Greenvoe, Beside the Ocean of Time, Vinland and Northern Lights as well as a sliver of autobiography – For the Islands I Sing. Owning up I live on Orkney, although I’m not an Orcadian.

    • Thanks for the recommendations. I see my way to read one, anyway. Orkney sounds like an interesting place. Has oil money changed the place?

      • very much so – the islands are prosperous with (so far) a good balance between tourism and maintaining the domestic economy, with the prospect of marine renewable energy replacing oil as the catalyst for the future; the infrastructure is modern and developing and the best sign is that an increasing number of Orkney graduates can find good jobs at home. We do good festivals too – arts and classical music (St Magnus), folk and jazz and blues.

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