George Mackay Brown

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Glyn Maxwell (review date 11-17 May 1990)

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SOURCE: "Island Voices," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4545, May 11-17, 1990, p. 495.

[In the following review of The Wreck of the Archangel, Maxwell praises Brown as a creator of "pure and unadulterated" poetry.]

There can be few poets anywhere in the Western world writing as pure and unadulterated a poetry as that of George Mackay Brown. His line of descent begins with the Wanderer/Seafarer, alone with his language. But Mackay Brown is very much at anchor, partaking of what his mournful ancestor dreamed: "a fire, autumn beef and ale, welcomings there, / they warmed and worded them well". There is something wondrous about a contemporary poet who is not only alert to the chances given by the kenning, the compound, the archaism, but takes them—"wavecrash", "sunbright"—and, by dint of that awareness, enables the compounds we already have ("sweetheart", "starlight", "blackbird", "nightfall") to split and reform with freshened power.

Mackay Brown's phrases are hewn and stripped [in The Wreck of the Archangel], the whole poem an act of fierce reclamation from an unending sea that is not, like the one Crichton Smith sees, a call to memory or the imagining of what is beyond, but a dreaded entity: a man's feet are "in thrall always / To the bounteous terrible harp", and a life of craggy solitude on the bleak island is harvesting merely to survive. Whether aboard ship or on land, the hard sounds of the poet's farmers and fishermen are isolated by the ocean's sibilance. Mackay Brown possesses the great gift without which alliteration is merely decorative. He uses it to colour in, to point, to focus:

       The seamen stopped their lading. Poets are
       They remind men of the great circle of silence
       Where the saga sails forever.

His capacity to invigorate the limited scope of what is about him allows his religious conviction to come alive in the simplest of pieces. After all, one of the great joys of island life must be arrival at a warm inn; but this homely scene can absorb stars, shepherds, kings: "Far on, they saw what one took to be a star, / Or a man with a lantern", or the voice of the poet himself: "By midnight, I had stood at every door / In the island but one, / And it is a shelter for sheep."


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George Mackay Brown 1921–1996

Scottish poet, novelist, short story writer, essayist, dramatist, scriptwriter, journalist, librettist, and author of children's books.

The following entry presents criticism on Brown's works through 1996, including reviews of two posthumously published collections. For further information on his life and career, see CLC, Volumes 5 and 48.

One of Scotland's foremost contemporary authors, Brown incorporated in his writings elements from Norse sagas, Scottish ballads, medieval legends and myths, and Roman Catholic ritual. He commonly employed simple language and syntax and explored themes of history, religion, mysticism, and the people and life of his native Orkney Islands. Deeply committed to the values inherent in the elemental existence of Orkney's farmers and fishermen, Brown extolled the virtues that can be gained through hardship and emphasized the damaging effects of the forces of progress on Orkney society. While Brown's antiquated prose style and his preoccupation with Orkney were sometimes faulted for failing to engage contemporary realities, most critics complimented his intimate portrayal of a specific locality and his fundamental insight into the common concerns of human existence.

Biographical Information

Brown was born in the seaport town of Stromness on the island of Orkney, attended Stromness Academy from 1926 to 1940, and received bachelor's and master's degrees in English from Edinburgh University. Throughout his...

(This entire section contains 1265 words.)

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career, Brown was the recipient of a number of awards and honorary degrees, including fellowship in the Royal Society of Literature and officer's rank in the Order of the British Empire. Brown never married and remained a dedicated Orcadian throughout his life—he rarely traveled, and visited England only once. Brown died on April 13, 1996, in a Kirkwall hospital at the age of 74, and was buried near Stromness on April 16, the Feast of St. Magnus, a figure significant in his life and work.

Major Works

Brown began publishing his work at the suggestion of Scottish poet and fellow Orcadian Edwin Muir. In his introduction to Brown's initial collection of verse, The Storm and Other Poems (1954), Muir stated: "[Brown writes] beautiful and original poems, with a strangeness and magic rare anywhere in literature today." Using metrical unrhymed verse and images of arrested action that critics have compared to Muir's poetry, Brown introduced in this volume his contemplation of Orkney and his concerns with religious symbolism and myth. In his next volume, Loaves and Fishes (1959), which was praised for is mature themes and outlook, Brown displays his interest in Icelandic legend, Christianity, martyrdom, and Orcadian history. The pieces in The Year of the Whale (1965) employ evocative symbolism and are endowed with a vivid sense of character and place. Combining secular and religious themes, local and epic subjects, these poems range in setting from Orkney during the Viking era to the United States during the presidency of John F. Kennedy. Brown's conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1961 emerges in this volume through his use of litanies and his preoccupation with birth, love, death, resurrection, and religious ceremony.

Fishermen with Ploughs: A Poem Cycle (1971), a sequence of loosely connected lyrics and sections of prose, is often considered Brown's most impressive poetic achievement. Extending his stylistic forms to include triadic runes and incantations and utilizing poetic structures derived from the months of the year, the days of the week, and the Roman Catholic stations of the cross, Brown depicts Orkney life from its first settlements in the ninth century through its present depopulation and imagines future resettlement following a nuclear holocaust. Replete with apocalyptic despair and disillusionment, these poems solidify Brown's position against materialistic progress and exemplify a central idea in philosophy: "It could happen that the atom-and-planet horror at the heart of our civilization will scatter people again to the quite beautiful fertile places of the world." Winterfold (1976) contains a series of rune-like variations on the stations of the cross and "affirms [Brown's] belief that the journey of Christ parallels the fruitful journey of all things that follow nature to death, and resurrection in harvest," in the words of Dennis O'Driscoll. This volume has been interpreted as an optimistic postscript to the dark vision prevalent in Fishermen with Ploughs. Voyages (1984) continued Brown's interest in history, Norse medievalism, and the Orkneys. The Wreck of the Archangel (1989) confirmed Brown's position as an important poet.

Brown was also a prose writer, and produced a number of short story collections, novels, and essay collections. His first novel, Greenvoe (1972), describes the gradual decimation of a mythical Orkney fishing village after the construction of a secret military establishment on the island. By detailing the events of the five days preceding its final demise, Brown suggests that the banal existence of its inhabitants inadvertently contributed to the destruction of the village. Despite its bleak theme, Greenvoe concludes with an ambiguous but uplifting promise of resurrection. In Magnus (1973), Brown combines the starkness of Norse saga with the ornamentalism of the Roman Catholic mass. The story of the martyrdom and sanctification of twelfth-century Earl Magnus of Orkney, who was killed by his cousin and rival for supreme control of the Orkneys, Magnus extends Brown's fascination with the Christian theme of redemption. Brown's third novel, Time in a Red Coat (1984), is a fable that chronicles the experiences of a young Eastern princess as she journeys through distant countries and flees the devastation of her homeland by marauders. An innocent figure, the princess begins her travels in a white coat that gradually turns red due to the human folly and injustice she encounters. In Vinland (1992) "Brown has returned to the world of his beloved Orkneyinga Saga, that astonishing, bloody and darkly humorous chronicle of early Orkney which also provided material for his novel Magnus," Jonathan Coe remarked. Vinland chronicles the spiritual development of it hero, Ranald Sigmundson, from youthful seafaring adventures to old age. The fictional locale of Vinland "comes to symbolise a hope of release from the grip of the Orcadians' primitive, fatalistic Christianity, as well as providing a model of man in harmony rather than conflict with the physical world—a natural equivalent of the 'Seamless Coat' after which St Magnus was searching in the earlier novel," Coe noted. Beside the Ocean of Time (1994), which was shortlisted for the 1994 Booker Prize, again presents an island hero, a young dreamer named Thorfinn whose adventure fantasies illuminate the Orkney lifestyle.

An eminent chronicler of Orkney life and geography, Brown has published numerous collections of essays, including An Orkney Tapestry (1969), which Seamus Heaney described as "a spectrum of lore, legend, and literature, a highly coloured reaction as Orkney breaks open in the prisms of a poet's mind and memory." In Portrait of Orkney (1981), Brown intertwines contemporary descriptions and facts with history, legend, and anecdote. Brown's works for the stage include A Spell for Green Corn (1970), which is concerned with symbolism, ritual, and the supernatural, and The Loom of Light (1972), an adaptation of Magnus. He has also written radio and television plays and published several children's books, including The Two Fiddlers: Tales from Orkney (1974) and Pictures in a Cave (1977), and a biographical work, Edwin Muir: A Brief Memoir (1975).

Critical Reception

Most essays about Brown and his work describe him as a writer of unparalleled importance to Orkney society, and significant as well to readers of all nations. Although some critics have found his chosen narrowness of topics and locales limiting, others have praised Brown's body of work as valuable in its depth rather than breadth, agreeing with his assessment of Orkney as "a microcosm of all the world." Obituaries and tributes described Brown as "one of the great poets of place" (Ray Olson), "a giant of literature and much loved" (The London Tablet), "a major influence" and a leader of "the Scottish literary renaissance" (The Guardian).

Andrew Wawn (review date 28 August 1992)

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SOURCE: "Access to Eden," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4665, August 28, 1992, p. 18.

[In the following review, Wawn remarks favorably on the imagery employed in Vinland.]

[Vinland] is a strange and striking saga-novel by an Orcadian who long ago earned an honoured place on the runic roll of those post-medieval writers who have sought to recreate and respond to the world of the ancient Viking north. George Mackay Brown writes of feeling like "Aladdin in the enchanted cave", as he surveyed the huge deposits of Norse-related narrative over which his imagination could range. It seems an appropriate image, much favoured by early nineteenth-century Scandinavian writers as they discovered the genie within the long neglected lamp of Eddic poem and saga. Some of the accumulated textual tarnish was polished off by the great Arnamagnæan Commission series of editions, each with a facing-page Latin translation, which reached out to educated readers throughout Europe in the nineteenth century. British Icelandophiles, among them Sir Walter Scott, began to acquire these volumes; his splendid Orcadian novel The Pirate draws heavily on the painstakingly accumulated Icelandic holdings in his Abbotsford library.

The sagas used by Scott are among the identifiable impulses behind Mackay Brown's novel: Brennu-Njáls saga, Orkneyinga saga, the so-called Vinland sagas. The contrasting voices of the medieval Celtic lyric and Hans Christian Andersen also seem to catch the ear. The sour-spirited critic may grumble about inadequately assimilated sources. The specialist reader is much more likely to enjoy identifying the provenance of the oneliners, the gnomic saws, the motifs and the incidents with which the narrative is flecked; there is a convincing sense that the novelist has husbanded the material shrewdly and made it securely his own. The general reader will find many other features by which to be challenged, intrigued and moved, as the narrative pursues its laconic way in sinewy language and syntax which seeks constantly to challenge stale colloquial expectation.

At first sight, Vinland seems taken up with moods, gestures and epiphanies; it does not signal excitedly when important ideas appear in its narrative. Thus, at one level, we follow the fortunes of Ranald the hero, as he moves determinedly but uncertainly from a sea-roving youth, through agrarian middle age and on to visionary and rheumatic senility. We register, too, the narrative fate of other young men, "splits" of the protagonist, who were either less fortunate or more rebellious—as when Ranald the dutiful son fathers Einhof the runaway heir. Gradually, a pattern of ideas—of themes and variations—emerges. Ranald roves the seas between Greenland, Vinland, Iceland and Orkney, but the dilemmas of Viking life follow him like porpoises. For all the novel's gloomy sense of fate's tight fist, the North Atlantic hero has endlessly to exercise his (all too) free will in making hard choices: heroic enterprise or agrarian domesticity, lobster-fishing or learning Latin, ship or farmhouse, crew or family. He might also decide between the conflicting wishes of father and mother and loyalty to foreign king or to homeland—a fraught choice in a homeland in which "there are always two earls, sometimes three". Are the prizes worth the prices? Is civilization really just like old age; that is, tolerable only when you consider the alternative? It is no wonder that many a grizzled Orcadian soul took refuge in the strong libations supplied by Ord, the surly malt-maker of Papa Stronsay.

As Viking society struggles on stubbornly and unstably through days of fair and foul, feast and famine, the narrative generates consolatory images of permanence—poetry, memory, and religion. Poetry—a vision of the "Fatal Sisters"—is as powerful now in Mackay Brown's Orcadian vision as it formerly was with Scott, Thomas Gray, and on back via Torfæus's Orcades to the great Battle of Clontarf poem in Njáls saga. Indeed, as this seven-hundred-year span of literary continuity proves, poetry can offer permanence. Hence the novel's investigation of the creative processes of its poets; there are some half-a-dozen arresting poems among the sections of taut and gritty semi-alliterative prose.

While poems can outlive the poet, Ranald's dreams and memories go to the ship-shaped stone chapel of death with him. At least such visions had helped to make endurable the thistle-strewn path through old age. Ranald's youthful voyage to Vinland provided a crucial imaginative reference point for the rest of his life. In his dotage, he still ponders distractedly but obsessively the possibility of having a boat built which might take him back to make his peace with that wondrous land of grape and butter-nut. Vinland was an Edenic world, an earthly emanation of some divine harmony; and it was tainted by Viking man—by accident and fear as much as by malevolence.

Earthly access to true paradise is available to Ranald through the sacramental system of the Christian church, towards whose witness he turns with ever increasing intensity in his last isolated and ascetic years. For some Victorian recreators of the North—Sir George Dasent, for instance—the Christian religion in medieval Scandinavia had been a baleful authoritarian influence on the democratic, muscular-pagan world of the Viking sea-pirate. The new faith had led people to sit down and think, rather than go out and do; this was not the way to win—or retain—an empire. Mackay Brown's novel is more sympathetic. Its Christian vision is powerful, but its voice is not that of medieval Christendom. Both faith and language are rooted in the strakes and thwarts and wave-crests of the real boats of real sailors.

It is with such images that the book ends—and it is in this sensibility that the linguistic as well as the spiritual heart of the book lies. The author has clearly relished looting the neglected granaries of language, for the seductive delights of chidden dogs, unthonged bags, unbunged casks, slugabeds, gluttings, reeks of scorchings, crepitations of cinders, word-storms, boat-nousts, dottled farmers, blackavizedruffians, and the rest. Philology and literary creativity are thus fruitfully united by Northern enthusiasms.

Principal Works

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The Storm and Other Poems (poetry) 1954Loaves and Fishes (poetry) 1959The Year of the Whale (poetry) 1965A Calendar of Love and Other Stories (short stories) 1967A Time to Keep and Other Stories (short stories) 1969Fishermen with Ploughs: A Poem Cycle (poetry) 1971Poems New and Selected (poetry) 1971Greenvoe (novel) 1972Magnus (novel) 1973Hawkfall and Other Stories (short stories) 1974Winterfold (poetry) 1976Andrina and Other Stories (short stories) 1983Time in a Red Coat (novel) 1984The Wreck of the Archangel (poetry) 1989Selected Poems, 1954–1983 (poetry) 1991Vinland (novel) 1992Beside the Ocean of Time (novel) 1994Winter Tales (short stories) 1995

Jonathan Coe (review date 24 September 1992)

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SOURCE: "Sydney's Inferno," in London Review of Books, Vol. 14, No. 18, September 24, 1992, p. 22.

[In the following excerpt, Coe discusses Brown's exploration of "the riddle of fate and freedom" in Vinland.]

If you want to consider the struggle of the individual in the face of supernatural forces, to address what George Mackay Brown calls 'the riddle of fate and freedom', then you are best-off retreating into the distant past, as he has done in his fifth novel, Vinland. Here Brown has returned to the world of his beloved Orkneyinga Saga, that astonishing, bloody and darkly humorous chronicle of early Orkney which also provided material for his novel Magnus in 1973. This time, instead of drawing modern historical parallels, Brown has confined himself to putting fictional flesh onto historical bones, in a narrative which switches back and forth from the diplomatic warring between the rival Earls of Orkney and their sovereigns, the Kings of Norway, to detailed imaginative re-inventions of the lives of ordinary farmers, merchants and seamen forcing out a living from the islands.

On the face of it the book has an obvious structural flaw. It begins as a thrilling adventure story, with a young seafarer, Ranald Sigmundson, stowing away on a ship from Greenland which sets its course for the edge of the world and manages to end up in North America, which the explorersdub 'Vinland' on account of the lushness of its grapes. Initially friendly relations with the American Indians are promptly ruined by a callous act of violence from one of the seamen, and the colonisers are obliged to sail home, vowing to return one day and in the meantime cherishing a lifelong image of the newfound country as earthly paradise. After that, Ranald is introduced at the Norwegian court, returns to Orkney, grows up, becomes a respected farmer and travels to Ireland to assist at the disastrous battle of Clontarf, which takes place on Good Friday 1014 and from which he emerges mercifully unscathed. At this point Ranald, filled with a healthy disgust for politics and warmongering, beats a high-minded retreat to his farm: but 'those blood-splashed men in high places, and … their plots and counter-plots' continue to form the main substance of the narrative, while the protagonist who is clearly intended to channel our sympathies stands back, uninterested and aloof, and so the book becomes curiously diffuse, dwindling to a series of breathlessly disconnected episodes which remain colourful and exciting but fatally lacking in any central focus.

To insist upon this awkwardness, all the same, is to forget the thematic strands which hold the novel together, and to ignore the fact that, while it masquerades as an adventure yarn, its subject is really Ranald's spiritual development. With grace and economy, Brown draws a trajectory which transforms his hero from a golden-haired youth, brimful of hope, steaming ahead in the world of business and drawing the admiration of all who meet him, into a wise old dotard, groping his way towards a final understanding even as his mental and physical abilities are on the wane. In this way Vinland reminded me strongly of Hrabal's marvellous (though far jokier and more worldly) I served the King of England. Such a reading, however, makes the American prologue at first something of a puzzle. There's no authority for it in the saga which Brown uses as his source for most of the novel: could he simply have included it to make the opportunistic point, in this anniversary year, that the Orcadians' Nordic ancestors got there five hundred years before Columbus? Only in the closing pages do we realise that Ranald's boyhood memory of Vinland is central to his chances of redemption: 'every man born,' a priest tells him, 'is aware, now and then in the course of his life, of … a wild sweet freedom when all seems to be possible and good.' For Ranald, this awareness is 'lost somewhere in the dream of childhood' and represents 'a state beyond the dark operatings of fate, a place of light and peace'. Vinland, then, comes to symbolise a hope of release from the grip of the Orcadians' primitive, fatalistic Christianity, as well as providing a model of man in harmony rather than conflict with the physical world—a natural equivalent of the 'Seamless Coat' after which St Magnus was searching in the earlier novel. This symbolism may leave Brown in the position of idealising the American Indians, observing that they had 'entered into a kind of sacred bond with all the creatures, and there was a fruitful exchange between them, both in matters of life and death', but there is no denying the lethal accuracy and economy with which he portrays the hotheadedness of their invaders. When a seaman called Wolf misinterprets their ceremonial war dance and kills one of the Indians on the spot, his actions echo throughout the entire book: 'It's some great fool like you,' says his captain, 'that will bring the world to an end.' Brown's coolly horrified unravelling of the cycles of violence and acquisitiveness which follow from such behaviour mark Vinland as not only the work of a master storyteller, but a novel of fierce contemporary relevance.

Jane Roscoe (review date 24 June 1994)

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SOURCE: "Northern Light," in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 7, No. 308, June 24, 1994, p. 39.

[In the following review, Roscoe compares Vinland and Beside the Ocean of Time.]

John Donne once said in a sermon that if your mind wanders to other places, then that is where you are; you are no longer in the present. Thorfinn, the hero in George Mackay Brown's new novel [Beside the Ocean of Time], spends much of his childhood daydreaming. Through these dreams, Brown is able to dislocate time, mingling the past and the mythology of the Orkneys with the present, the 1920s and 1930s. Each dream is a tale that takes us into another time and world, from Vikings, broch builders and Robert the Bruce to press gangs and the legendary seal folk.

Thorfinn Ragnarson is known on his island of Norday as a "lazy idle useless boy". But his dreams tell us that he is a storyteller, the ancient bard; he has the "gift of language". His island world is abruptly destroyed when the government decides to build a military aerodrome on it. Crofters are served with notice to vacate land that has run through families for generations; crops are flattened by Nissen huts and concrete.

We next come upon Thorfinn in the role of Private Ragnarson, a prisoner of war. He is now writing in earnest. After the war Thorfinn spends several years in Edinburgh, becoming a successful writer, his books based on his childhood dreams. Yet he is dissatisfied with his work, and realising that he needs quiet and solitude to develop his writing, he returns to Norday.

Brown was born on Orkney in 1921 and still lives there. Those familiar with his work will recognise many of the themes that have always fascinated him, but it is the last chapter of this book that cannot help but bring its author into the foreground. The success of one of Thorfinn's novels echoes the success of Brown's Greenvoe, which also focused on the island community destroyed by modern technology. Thorfinn sadly comments that his one successful work was based on the life of an Orkney islander and "who nowadays is interested in the life of a poor islander?" Yet this is precisely what Brown's success is based on. But even while we jump to his defence, we know that it is really Brown's unique way of representing such lives that continually draws readers back to his work.

The title Beside the Ocean of Time links this book with Brown's last novel Vinland. In Vinland, the protagonist dwells at the end on an imaginary ship, a ship that will carry him on his final voyage: death. The voyage in this new work is one of life; a man's life is a voyage over the ocean of time.

Brown's hand has, I feel, been lighter, more subtle in his previous work. Although the language is as usual terse and austere, there are the odd times when he seems to be labouring his point. In his earlier short stories, one felt that the fire in the croft was life and must never go out. You did not need to be told.

The soul-searching of Thorfinn raises the question of whether Brown is dissatisfied with his own achievements. Thorfinn sees himself in search of the "grail of poetry"; he wants to "dredge something rich and strange" out of the mythology of the islands. In the end he appears to admit defeat. The prose poem he wants to write will be, for him at least, unattainable. No one could say that Brown himself has not been close to the "mythical past" of the Orkneys; he is in fact a master of this kind of writing, and his poems and stories brilliantly evoke the "rich and strange" of Orkney history.

Further Reading

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Kernochan, Rose. A review of Winter Tales. New York Times Book Review (31 March 1996): 18.

Brief review of Winter Tales.

Longley, Edna. "What the Doctor Said." London Review of Books 12, No. 6 (22 March 1990): 22-3.

Review of a number of works, including The Wreck of the Archangel.

McDuff, David. "Poetry Chronicle II." Stand Magazine 32, No. 1 (Winter 1990): 64-5.

Brief commentary on Brown's work.

McDuff, David. "Poetry Chronicle I." Stand Magazine 33, No. 2 (Spring 1992): 63-4.

Brief commentary on Brown's work.

O'Donoghue, Bernard. "Under the Rooftrees." The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4627 (6 December 1991): 24.

Positive assessment of Selected Poems, 1954–1983, drawing comparisons between Brown and other poets.

O'Donoghue, Bernard. "Orkney Idylls." The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4748 (1 April 1994): 20.

Discusses the main character's exploration of history in Beside the Ocean of Time.

Crotty, Patricia. "Et in Orcadia Ego." Spectator 275, No. 8723 (16 September 1995): 38-9.

Discusses the poems of Winter Tales.

Publishers Weekly (review date 29 August 1994)

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SOURCE: A review of Beside the Ocean of Time, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 241, No. 35, August 29, 1994, p. 63.

[In the review below, the critic offers a mixed assessment of Beside the Ocean of Time.]

[Beside the Ocean of Time,] Brown's sweet coming-of-age novel about a fantasy-prone adolescent growing up in the Orkney Islands just before WWII offers some moving passages and fine, delicate prose but is sabotaged by a paucity of plot and narrative drive. Thorfinn Ragnarson is the daydreaming son of a tenant farmer, avoiding both work and school despite the best efforts of family, friends and neighbors. Instead, the boy dreams up elaborate historical fantasies. In a series of odd yet intriguing chapters, Brown (Vinland) transforms Thorfinn into a Viking traveler, a freedom-fighter for Bonnie Prince Charlie and the colleague of a Falstaffianknight who participates in the Battle of Bannockburn. The author then hurls his protagonist into the future as Thor, who returns to the Orkneys as an adult and recalls his internment in a German POW camp, where he discovered his writing skills. Thor also reflects on the history of the islands, the links between dreaming and writing and the whims of fate. Brown's lyrical descriptions and gift for local color capture the flavor of the Orkneys (where he was born), but his thin and choppy story line undermines this otherwise worthwhile effort.

Publishers Weekly (review date 26 June 1995)

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SOURCE: A review of The Wreck of the Archangel, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 242, No. 26, June 26, 1995, p. 103.

[In the following review, the critic describes the poems in The Wreck of the Archangel as "stout fare."]

A poet of the Orkney Islands of northernmost Scotland, Brown (Voyages) is something of a relic. The stuff of these poems is stout fare: legends of the sea, fish and corn, crumbling kirks and stone jars full of ale. Elemental rewards are discovered in these provincial tales and evocations, as in the title poem, which opens the collection: "Then, under the lamentation of the great sea harp, / Frailty of splintering wood, scattered cries, / The Atlantic, full-blooded, plucking / And pealing on the vibrant crag." As clear images of historical and contemporary Orcadian life appear, so does the ripe intelligence of the collection; here is a real if pre-industrial culture, preserved by a skilled poet's fervent art in a variety of styles. A number of meditations and seasonal songs close the book with a sense of religious authenticity.

Ray Olson (review date July 1995)

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SOURCE: A review of The Wreck of the Archangel, in Booklist, Vol. 91, No. 21, July, 1995, p. 1855.

[In the following review, Olson finds that Brown's poems "telescope the centuries."]

Although not old-fashioned, Brown's poetry frequently seems ancient. [In The Wreck of the Archangel] Brown recalls the earliest history of his homeland—Orkney is the first archipelago north of the Scottish mainland and boasts some of the oldest Stone Age buildings in the British Isles—in verses that advert to Norse Vikings, the Romans before them, and, yet earlier, the semilegendary Picts. He often writes the oldest kinds of poems in English: calendar poems, riddling or question-and-answer poems, bestiaries, songs about the saints and holy days, verses on the most elemental things—a whole suite of poems here is about stone—in which the normally voiceless subjects speak their thoughts. He also writes splendidly of the experiences of the farmers, fishers, sailors, and children who are the principal actors in the long human drama of Orkney (see especially "Rackwick: A Child's Scrapbook" and "The Horse Fair"). Brown's poems telescope the centuries, returning us to an archetypal northern Europe as lively as the modern American rat race but far more significant.

Richard Henry (review date Autumn 1995)

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SOURCE: A review of Beside the Ocean of Time, in World Literature Today, Vol. 69, No. 4, Autumn, 1995, pp. 790-91.

[In the following review, Henry describes Brown's chronicling of island life in Beside the Ocean of Time.]

George Mackay Brown's Beside the Ocean of Time might have been subtitled "A Writer's Life." The novel recaps Brown's continuing preoccupationsas expressed in his weekly columns in the Orkney Herald in the 1940s and 1950s and the Orcadian in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, and in nearly two dozen volumes of poetry, ten collections of short stories, and a handful of novels. This substantial body of work rarely looks beyond the islands for its material and has earned him the unofficial status of chronicler of the Orcadian experience. It also serves as a sequel to that earlier and anonymous chronicle of the islands, the Orkneyinga Saga. Just as the earlier saga draws deeply from the past to demonstrate an essential "Orkney" experience validating its current chronicle, Beside the Ocean of Time further demonstrates this continuity by incorporating 800 years of Orkney history into a twentieth-century narrative on the life of Thorfinn Ragnarson.

The experience has changed little despite the technological upheavals of the past ninety years. Life on the islands remains sharply tuned to a number of cycles: those of the seasons, those of men and women from birth to death, and the inevitable series of invaders who surge and recede like the ocean tide. The cyclic nature of the Orcadian experience has provided ample material for Brown and serves as one structural frame upon which he builds his narratives. It also provides him with his most powerful means of asserting the continuity of Orcadian experience: argument by association. In the juxtaposing of two or more events, their shared features are made fully manifest despite the centuries separating them.

Beside the Ocean of Time comprises eight episodes from Ragnarson's life, from his childhood in the 1920s and 1930s, through the war of the 1940s, to a reflective look backward from the late 1960s. Despite the focus on Ragnarson, Brown is generally concerned with the social, historical, and natural facets of the islands. These concerns are explored in full as Brown reprises eight centuries of Orcadian history in the lives of the twentieth-century islanders. The distinction between past and present is most heavily maintained in the opening episodes, "The Road to Byzantium" and "Bannockburn," where a young Thorfinn dreams his journey with a band of Norsemen traveling down the Volga to Constantinople in the 1100s and his journey as squire to the Battle of Bannockburn (1314). In these opening stories the past is romantically figured and framed by an ordinary and mundane present. The distinction between past and present is not complete, however, nor is the past the only shaping force. In "Bannockburn," for example, the present informs the past—Thorfinn peoples his dream with the local innkeeper and the horse the black-smith is shoeing.

One of the experiences running through Beside the Ocean of Time is that of displacement—from the displacements of the islands' "original" people by emigrants from Alba, Cornwall, and Sicily nearly two thousand years ago, the conscription of young men by the press gangs of King George III, and the displacements initiated by the British government during World War II, when it requisitioned the entire island of Norday for an air force base (an event treated more fully in Brown's 1972 novel Greenvoe). Resistance is often passive and, with time, often successful. The emigrants from Alba, for example, build an impregnable castle and stow themselves away in it when invaders arrive. The islanders hide their young men in smugglers' caves until the press gangs leave. Even the commandeering of the island by the British is temporary. The islanders begin returning soon after the base is abandoned.

In addition to nicely juxtaposing two moments in time to expose their essential similarities, the tales are enriched by subtly juxtaposing Thorfinn with other members of the community. This further heightens Brown's assertion of the continuity of the Orcadian community in spite of, or even in the face of what appears to be utter annihilation. Like John Eagle in the novella "The Golden Bird" (1987), the Skarf in Greenvoe (1972), and Einhof Sigmundson in the novel Vinland (1992), Thorfinn, the dreamer/writer, is often physically and socially outside the normal sphere of his tribe. The locations of his fancies, the prow of a boat in a shed, on an isolated rock on the beach when everyone else is up on a ridge, as well as the status accorded him by his fellow human beings, the teacher's labeling him a lazy and useless boy or as a prisoner of war, permit him the special perspective from which he can describe the islands and his people. This perspective, both inside and outside the community and inside and outside the constraints of time, no doubt led to the shortlisting of Beside the Ocean of Time for the 1994 Booker Prize.

Patrick Crotty (review date 6 October 1995)

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SOURCE: "Orcadian Epiphanies," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4827, October 6, 1995, p. 26.

[In the following review, Crotty offers a mixed assessment of Winter Tales.]

The Orkney of George Mackay Brown's poems and fictions has always been an ideal glimpsed behind a contemporary island reality he finds unsavoury, if not quite so unsavoury as life on the mainland. Consumerist values infect even the furthest corners of his archipelago, threatening the harmony with elemental rhythms celebrated in each of the three dozen or so books he has published since 1954. The forces of modernity are connected in the author's mind with the Calvinist assault on "wonderment"—a term few other writers would dare employ—so that the primitive becomes synonymous with the sacramental, and the imagined, ulterior Orkney of the writing takes on an aspect simultaneously pagan and Catholic.

"The Paraffin Lamp", one of the shortest of the eighteen pieces in Winter Tales, brings a moralizing satisfaction to its account of an ageing islander's grudging acceptance of electric light: "He said that was a very handy thing, the electric light. He could see by it to fill his old lamp, and trim the wick, and light it with a wisp of straw from the fire." There may be a paradigm here for Mackay Brown's cussedly conservative art. This is a collection not of short stories—too literary a term—but of tales, tales born of innumerable northern winters when the harshness of the struggle for subsistence was relieved only by the exchange of narratives round the fire. Mackay Brown's "ballads in prose" derive from the oral traditions of Orkney; they do not, however, extend them. They are written fictions addressed less to a northern community—as eager as any in Glasgow or London for electronic entertainment in the evenings—than to a sophisticated metropolitan readership which needs to be reassured that ancient patterns of living persist at the latter end of the world. (The representatives of that readership put Beside the Ocean of Time on last year's Booker short-list.)

An encounter between the old Orcadian ways and the more powerful surrounding world lies at the heart of most of these tales (only "The Road to Emmaus", an over-explicit updating of the New Testament in the manner of school-magazine fiction, makes no reference to the islands). The precision and lucidity of Mackay Brown's style—or styles; he varies his idiom according to temporal setting—gives his writing more interest than its predictable and even static vision promises. Thus the diary-narrative of the protagonist's education in simplicity in "The Laird's Son" is enlivened by some finely realized detail of eighteenth-century Edinburgh. "Lieutenant Bligh and Two Midshipmen" elaborately fictionalizes the meeting, in 1780, in Stromness (always Hamnavoe in Mackay Brown's work), between Bligh and George Stewart, an Orkney man who was to end up on the wrong side of the Bounty mutiny and drown on his way home to face trial. Prompted by an authorial note external to the story itself, the reader's consciousness of the future course of the relationship between the two men lends the proceedings a genuine pathos. The pieces set in the Middle and Dark ages, where the antagonists are Norse crusaders and Spaniards, Celtic monks and Vikings, supply a validating historical context for the qualities of lyricism and simplicity which can seem mannered in some of the other stories.

The constantly shifting temporal focus underlines the permanence of Orkney in contrast to the fleeting human lives which replicate their patterns across the centuries. Mackay Brown's view of history is familiar from many of his earlier books, as is the maritime imagery he uses to render it. Remarkably, he can still make this imagery sound new-minted. In "Dancey", for instance, we were told that "Andrew Crag came home from the sea day after day and a wave of children broke about his knee".

For the Christian, the wave of time is steadied by the Incarnation: Christ's arrival on earth is the greatest of all winter tales. Story after story here makes reference to Christmas and the failure of Calvinistic Orcadians to celebrate it as their forebears did. Intimations of the eternal hover at the edges of island life, but though registered by the author's eye, they remain invisible to his characters. "A Boy's Calendar" ends with the report of a baby who survived the wreck of a ship called the Archangel to be brought up by crofters. "Since there was no way of knowing the child's name, they had called him Archie Angel." Another calendar story, "Ikey", concludes with a young tinker's breaking the window frame of a ruined inn to make kindling for a mother who has just given birth to a child in an adjacent byre.

Mackay Brown arranges his epiphanies with skill, but they can seem decorative and even sentimental to the secular reader. The other-worldly music of this fiction is haunting, certainly; it needs more of the ground bass of the contemporary to be fully convincing.

Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 January 1996)

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SOURCE: A review of Winter Tales, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. LXIV, No. 2, January 15, 1996, p. 82.

[In the following review, the critic describes the stories of Winter Tales as "always luminous if sometimes lifeless."]

Noted Scottish poet, novelist, and playwright Brown (A Time to Keep, 1987, etc.) celebrates the dark season of the year in the Orkney Islands with 18 always luminous if sometimes lifeless stories.

Suffused with old Norse and Christian beliefs, the tales are all set in the northern islands once ruled by the Vikings. Many characters, like the stubborn farmer in "The Paraffin Lamp," who uses the electric light only when he needs to fill his old lamp, still observe the traditional rituals, especially those of the Yule season, that ease the passing of winter. Inured to hardship and frugality, the islanders must contend with weather that is always changing ("one day is wind and flung spindrift, the next is loveliness beyond compare"). And this protean weather is sometimes center stage, as storms and blizzards dramatically take lives: In "A Boy's Calendar" and "Dancey," two babies, the sole survivors of ships wrecked by terrible storms, are adopted by childless women and become islanders. In other pieces, the weather is simply part of the fabric of daily life: Men and women race to harvest crops before the rain comes, or to harvest fish before a blizzard strikes. Three notables are "Lieutenant Bligh and Two Midshipmen," "The Woodcarver," and "A Boy's Calendar," in which, respectively, Bligh, of Mutiny on the Bounty fame, visits the islands and signs on two local men; an imaginative husband, who finds refuge from his acerbic wife in drink and carving, becomes an unwilling cultural icon; and a young boy describes the round of work and celebration in a typical year. Stories such as "St. Christopher" and "The Road to Emmaus" give the saint's life and the Crucifixion a local setting, while "A Crusader's Christmas" recalls the Viking era.

Cumulatively, an affectionate but muted portrait of a far place where both heart and spirit are strong, though the days are often short and bitter.

Ray Olson (review date 1 February 1996)

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SOURCE: A review of Winter Tales, in Booklist, Vol. 92, No. 11, February 1, 1996, p. 916.

[In the following review, Olson finds the stories of Brown's Winter Tales "as poetic as any of his verse."]

These 18 stories [in Winter Tales] by Orkney poet Brown are as poetic as any of his verse; indeed, the shortest, especially "Shell Story," about the widows of lost fishermen tossing scraps to gulls, are prose poems, although in the manner of folktales rather than the meditation or wry jape usual for the form. Several stories are, like many Brown poems, calendars consisting of 12 monthly sections, always ending at Yuletide. They range in style from the 12 tiny impressions that add up to "A Nativity Tale" to long character sketches, such as "Ikey," about a tinker (itinerant) boy who is a mascot to the stabler folk of the islands he tramps, and "The Woodcarver," a dourly comic look at a genuine folk artist. A few stories are sui generis, "Lieutenant Bligh and Two Midshipmen" outstandingly so; read it to learn what historical fiction ought to sound like—an aural slice of its era, not modern speech dressed, as it were, in period drag. This collection, like the star associated with its season, shines with gentle brilliance.

Mel Gussow (obituary date 16 April 1996)

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SOURCE: "George Mackay Brown, 74, Dies; Poet Steeped in Orkneys Lore," in The New York Times, April 16, 1996, p. B7.

[In the following obituary, Gussow recaps Brown's life and career.]

George Mackay Brown, a poet, novelist and short story writer whose work evoked the rugged life and the history and culture of the remote Orkney Islands in Scotland, died on Saturday in a hospital in Kirkwall in the Orkneys. He was 74.

Writing in the British magazine The Listener, Seamus Heaney said that Mr. Brown's imagination "is stirred by legends of the Viking warrior and Christian saint," and added, "It consecrates the visible survivals of history, and ruins of time, into altars that are decked with the writings themselves." Mr. Heaney said he had never seen Mr. Brown's poetry sufficiently praised.

Mr. Brown was born and remained rooted in the Orkneys, and his art was filled with the rich lore and humanity of the people he knew so well. He also explored Scottish myths and mysticism as well as rituals of the Roman Catholic faith. At the same time, he expressed a social consciousness, as in his first novel, Greenvoe, which described the death of a 1,000-year-old village at the hands of a military-industrial establishment.

Reviewing the author's collection A Time to Keep and Other Stories in The New York Times Book Review in 1987, Sheila Gordon wrote that in his "marvelous stories," the author "holds us in the same way the earliest storyteller held the group around the fire in an ancient cave."

Mr. Brown spoke with modesty about his own writing. He said he believed in "dedicated work rather than in 'inspiration,'" and added that writing was "a craft like carpentry, plumbing or baking; one does the best one can." With his thick thatch of hair and his strong jaw, and wearing the clothes of a workingman, he looked very much like the farmers and fishermen who populated his poems and stories.

He was born in the fishing town of Stromness. Leaving school at an early age, he worked as a journalist. At 30, he resumed his education at Newbattle Abbey College on the mainland, where he came under the tutelage of the poet Edwin Muir, who was also from the Orkneys. In 1954, Mr. Muir wrote the introduction to Mr. Brown's first collection of poetry, The Storm and Other Poems. Loaves and Fishes was published in 1959, followed by The Year of the Whale and Fishermen With Plows: A Poem Cycle, often regarded as his finest poetic work. His other books of verse include Winterfold and Poems New and Selected.

In the late 1980's he also began publishing books of short stories, beginning with A Calendar of Love and Other Stories. Among his other anthologies are Hawkfall and Other Stories and Andrina and Other Stories. The story "Andrina" was made into a television film by Bill Forsyth. In 1994, his novel Beside the Ocean of Time was one of six works of fiction shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

He collaborated with the composer Peter Maxwell Davies on a variety of musical works, including the opera "The Martyrdom of St. Magnus." In addition, he wrote plays, stories for children and essays about the Orkneys.

Christopher Andreae (review date 8 July 1996)

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SOURCE: "Orkney," in The Christian Science Monitor, July 8, 1996, pp. 16-17.

[In the following review, Andreae considers Brown's posthumously published Following a Lark and Orkney: Pictures and Poems.]

In an island, time is a simple pure circle.

The line is from a recently published poem by George Mackay Brown (1921–1996). Brown, a prolific source of poems, novels, short stories, and other forms of writing all closely connected with his native Orkney, had islands—and the concept of pure circles and cycles of time—in his veins.

Orkney, at the northeastern tip of mainland Scotland, across the Pentland Firth, is not, strictly speaking, "an" island. It is 67 islands. Sixteen of them are inhabited by people and cows; many more by birds. Even a hasty visitor (the only kind of visitor I have so far been) to this remote outpost of Britain immediately senses that to Orcadians, the archipelago is unquestionably the center of the known universe. It makes all those other places elsewhere seem peripheral and distant.

Brown was no visitor: He was virtually the one-man literary genius of Orkney, its voice.

Two books of poems by GMB (as he is familiarly known) have been published this year: Following a Lark and Orkney: Pictures and Poems. Both books have turned out to be post-humous. (Both are available only in Britain.)

The second book was unusual in its genesis. Brown's writing and Gunnie Moberg's photographs have been published side-by-side before. But on this occasion, the poems were written in direct response to the photographs. The Swedish-born photographer, who has lived on Orkney for 20 years (and in Scotland for almost 30) was not asked to illustrate a text; the procedure was the other way around.

For about six months, she lent Brown prints of the photographs she had chosen for the book, which was to be published at the opening of a first retrospective of her work…. The images were propped on an easel, several at a time, in Brown's sitting room. Moberg had asked him just for short captions. But secretly—until the final drafts—he wrote full-fledged poems, 48 in all.

Photographs and words together form an unusual procession of contemplative insights into the small part of the world that poet and photographer know so intimately.

There is a certain rightness about the Scandinavian nationality of the photographer. Although the Orkney Islands have been Scottish since 1468, their links before that were all with Scandinavia. As with Shetland, farther north still, Gaelic is not spoken in Orkney. Most of the place names here have a Norse ring to them. (Hypothetically, the Viking occupation was preceded by Piets and the "first Orcadians" spoke a Celtic language.) The main island used to be called "Hrossey." Norse for "horse island." GMB's poems are punctuated with such local names as Scapa Flow, Rinansay, Swona, Hamnavoe, and Egilsay.

Even though Orkney is the theme of the book, there is an intriguing counterpoint between its two covers. Brown could never be called an abstract writer. But Moberg's photographs do sometimes tend in that direction, as if the scale or specificity of a close-up rock pool or an aerial view over the land—an isolated church casting long morning shadows—have taken on a new and independent life of color and texture and light as photographs.

Brown rather literally brings them down to earth. He sees them as places. His verse is quietly informative, as if he realized the need to make these poems act as captions.

It is interesting to know that while Moberg recently had a period when she gave up photography because she felt it was too tied to "what's there," Brown was preoccupied undeviatingly with a theme and a subject, and he knew it. He never ceased to explore and re-explore its meanings and implications.

While Brown's concerns are the times and history—the folk history above all—of the place that absorbed him, Moberg mainly provides a sense of the landscape, both near and far.

Although much of the Orkney coastline is composed, spectacularly, of caves and sea-stacks and wave-cut inlets, the islands are not ruggedly mountainous; the hills are mainly low and rounded, the land fertile and green. There is heather. And there are pastures for sheep and cows.

But there are also rocks: flagstones of varying color, some making highly durable building material. Having been populated for an exceptionally long time by stone builders, Orkney is a paradise for archaeologists. Amazing discoveries continue to be made, as if the renowned prehistoric riches of the Skara Brae village, the brochs (or fortified towers) of Midhowe or Gurness, the burial cairn of Maes Howe, and the henges or stone rings of Stenness and Brodgar were not enough.

These have all become essential parts of modern Orkney and its tourism. Yet Brown and Moberg have not pieced together some trite tourist brochure, anything but. They potently insist that in spite of daytrippers and vacation-home dwellers, in spite of traffic and technology, Orkney survives as an ancient place of deep meditation.

Brown was a poet who looked across modern Orkney with a sense of history, a preference for the past, and the persuasive idea that time will tell.

The line quoted at the beginning of this article is from a poem in the book called Churchill Barriers. These barriers were built during World War II, partly to protect Scapa Flow, where a Nazi submarine had torpedoed a British battleship with great loss of life, and partly to make road crossings (instead of boat crossings) between several of the southern islands.

A guidebook today comments that the barriers have "probably saved these isles from postwar depopulation."

But Brown's poem suggests that these feats of engineering (built by "Italian prisoners, Glasgow navvies") meant that every islander woke one morning to say, "I am an islander no more!" and consequently that an "enchantment is gone from his days."

Characteristically, though, the poet ends by seeing time as coming full circle:

     What does Time say, in its circuits?      Spider-web, Earl's Palace, sea stack—      I bring all to ruin      And to new beginnings.      Will the stars shine over islands again?      Will sails fly from shore to shore to shore?      Although George Mackay Brown forever asked      such questions, there was something in the grit and      foresight of his writing that suggests he knew that      sometime, somehow, the answer would be yes.

Joseph J. Feeney (essay date 3 August 1996)

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SOURCE: "An Island World of Vastness: George Mackay Brown (1921–96)," in America, Vol. 175, No. 3, August 3, 1996, pp. 24-5.

[In the following tribute, Feeney explores Brown's career, noting Seamus Heaney's remark that Brown could "transform everything by passing it through the eye of the needle of Orkney."]

His work is craggy, granitic, primitive, as stark as the wind-seared rock of his native Orkney. Rarely leaving the "oystergrey" islands north of northmost Scotland, George Mackay Brown found there a world of local vastness, where he word-carved novels, stories and poems about prows and rudders, "sea sounds" and stars, wars and murders, and island chieftains for whom "Roots / cried, stars sang, / gulls wrote a name in the air and in water."

Though Brown thought himself a mere craftsman, his death this year in Kirkwall, Orkney's capital, brought tributes proper to an artist. In London, The Tablet called him "a giant of literature and much loved"; The Guardian found him "a major influence" and a leader of "the Scottish literary renaissance"; The Times named his last novel "a magisterial summing-up of the purpose and meaning of man's life."

"By drawing his boundaries tightly around himself," continued The Times, "Brown freed his imagination to sweep through time and space." Perhaps The Economist best caught his quirky localism; "He found all he wanted in Orkney, especially in its timeless traditions of farming and fishing, its handed-down stories and the long history of its inhabitants, whose physicallegacies stretch back 6,000 years and are never far from sight in the islands."

I first read George Mackay Brown ("Mackay" rhymes with "sky") in 1990, when a Jesuit friend, a Scot, urged the novel Magnus on me. It proved a feast: the 12th century reimagined; wildlands made vivid; places and persons starkly named (Birsay, Egilsay, Skail, Stedquoy; Mord Clack, Hold Ragnarson, Jorkel Hayforks); the peace-seeking earl Magnus Erlendson darkly murdered (to become St. Magnus Martyr); and—a final pleasure—Brown's craggy, lyrical prose: "I will speak first of the coat that is beautiful and comely, yet subject to the mildew and moth fall of time."

I also admired the novel's highly physical yet deeply religious sense of sacrifice, both primitive and Christian. In ancient Orkney, Brown wrote, "the animals honoured the god … with their broken flesh and spilled blood … I speak of priests, a solemn sacred ritual, lustrations, sacrifice. The kneeling beast, the cloven skull, the scarlet axe, the torrent of blood gurgling into the earth at the time of the new sun, the hushed circle of elders." And "when the hands of the priest and the elders dabble in the blood, the whole tribe is washed clean of its blemishes." Centuries and civilizations later, a newer and ultimately similar sacrifice graced a 12th-century kirk:

The old priest peered closely into the parchment that he held in front of him, and he read the Latin [of the Gospel] in a faded voice. Candle-light splashed the worn parchment…. [Then began] a slow cold formal dance with occasional Latin words—an exchange of gifts between God and man, a mutual courtesy of bread and wine. Man offers … the first fruits of his labour to the creator of everything in the universe, stars and cornstalks and grains of dust…. The bread will be broken, and suffused with divine essences, and the mouths that taste it shall shine for a moment with the knowledge of God. For the generations, and even the hills and seas, come and go, and only the Word stands, which was there … before the fires of creation, and will still be there inviolate among the ashes of the world's end.

Bardic and mystical, Brown found Orkney a "microcosm of all the world." Born in 1921 in the town of Stromness, he developed tuberculosis at the age of 20. Only a decade later could he resume his formal education, studying under the Orkney poet Edwin Muir at Newbattle Abbey near Edinburgh. Despite recurring illness, he did an English degree at Edinburgh University (1956–60) and graduate work on the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins (1962–64). In 1961, rejecting what he called a "life-denying" Scots Calvinism, he became a Roman Catholic—a rarity in Presbyterian Orkney—and deepened his sense of sacramentality and of liturgical festival.

Returning to his native Stromness in 1964, he wrote with quiet discipline. Six days a week, he sat at his kitchen table from 9 A.M. to 1 P.M., ball-point pen in hand, bond paper before him, his back to the window to avoid distractions. To fend off visitors, he posted a note on his front door, "Working all day. GMB." Brown never married and rarely left Stromness. Though granted a Travel Award in 1968, he got no farther than Ireland, where he stayed with his friend and admirer, the poet Seamus Heaney. He visited England just once, in 1989.

Writing came easily to him. "He was amazed," said a friend, "at the effortlessness of his writing, incredulous that anything so easily accomplished could have any value." Slipping smoothly between past and present, he linked ancient sagas and modern events. Yet though he wrote of Nazi Germany and Eastern desert kings, he was at his best when telling about Orkney's people—a "mingled weave" of Norsemen, Picts, Icelanders and Scots with "stories in the air." He devoted two books to his islands—An Orkney Tapestry (1969) and Portrait of Orkney (1981)—but all his novels, poems, stories, plays and children's books reveled in Orcadiana. Over 20 of his works were set to music by the Orkney composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies—most notably the opera "The Martyrdom of St. Magnus" (1977)—and together Brown and Davies founded the annual St. Magnus Festival in Kirkwall.

Never a self-promoter, Brown still won quiet fame through his poetry, his novels Greenvoe (1972) and Magnus (1973), his consequent O.B.E. award (1973) and Bill Forsyth's television film of his story "Andrina." (The filming of Greenvoe will soon begin.) Brown received honorary doctorates from the universities of Dundee and Glasgow, and his work has been translated into such languages as Polish, Hebrew and Japanese. He published 34 books, and his last novel, Beside the Ocean of Time (1994), was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Britain's major literary award, and won the Saltire Award for the best Scottish book of 1994.

This theme of time—"the ocean of time"—in a way defines him. "Haunted by time," Brown delved into Orkney's various pasts, while distrusting the modern technologies of North Sea oil drilling and uranium mining. Rigs and mines marred Orkney's sea and land, he felt, just as television corrupted storytelling, telephones distracted thought, and modern conveniences masked the rhythms of nature and life and language.

His poems keep these primal rhythms alive. Island women "have the silence of stones under / sun and rain." A local chief "died one shearing time, / webs of winter on him." After school, a boy "leaves / the sea smells, creel / and limpet and cod" to meet a girl with "cornlight / in the eyes, smelling / of peat and cows / and the rich midden." August is the "month of the sickled corn," and December brings "flute song, / star in the solstice tree." At Epiphany-time, "The three kings / met under a dry star. / There, at midnight, / the star began its singing." In spring, the crucified Christ was reduced to "flake of feather and slivers of bone," and "suffered himself to become, on a hill, / starker than seed or star." Such phrases as the above catch Brown's style: economy of words, sharp stresses, vivid images, Anglo-Saxon alliteration ("starker than seed or star"), Hopkinsian word-surprise ("pilgrim" as a verb) and old words and localisms ("skirls," "cuithe," "querns," "cruisie," "nousts"). His poems are minimalist—pared to verbal bone and forged image—and are often modernist as, while careful of form, he heaps up vivid fragments. He can make even a poet's fallow day poem-worthy: At day's end the poet's "seaward window smouldered, black and red. / Would a poem come with the first star? / Lamplight fell on two white pages."

On April 13, 1996, George Mackay Brown died in a Kirkwall hospital at the age of 74. The man who, according to Seamus Heaney, could "transform everything by passing it through the eye of the needle of Orkney," was himself transformed by death. After a funeral Mass at St. Magnus's Cathedral, Kirkwall, he was buried near Stromness on April 16, the feast of St. Magnus. But his work remains, for richness and delight. New work is also promised. His last poetry collection, Following a Lark, was published in May; and he left a trove of unpublished manuscripts: more poems and stories, one may hope, of ancient ships and heroes, of primal feasts and ceremonies, and of things—to use his words—as "ordinary as pebbles, shells, seapinks, stars."

Publishers Weekly (review date 30 September 1996)

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SOURCE: A review of Selected Poems, 1954–1992, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 243, No. 40, September 30, 1996, p. 84.

[In the following review, the critic describes Brown as gifted in "sharpening one's interest in genuinely rustic activities."]

Gathering the best-known work of one of the leading poets in the Scottish Literary renaissance, this volume displays Mackay Brown's gift for sharpening one's interest in genuinely rustic activities. In his world, a rough-hewn, remote island off the shore of Northern Scotland marked by anvils, spades and nets, stone kirks and bowls of ale, seasonal imagery and the lusciousness of agrarian life are explored with vigor and depth. After a day-long trip to the market: "The sun whirled on a golden hoof. It lingered. It fell / On a nest of flares." In another song, the poet recounts a blinding storm: "In summer's sultry throat / Dry thunder stammered. / … Next morning in tranced sunshine / The corn lay squashed on every hill; / Tang and tern were strewn / Among highest pastures." Mackay Brown (1921–1996) conjures the potent goodness of the pure, unsmogged world, and he allows the old, solid things of the earth to commerce freely with the world of song, and with the dance of English speech. Some of the poems are even directly religious, such as "Daffodils," which eulogizes three women who stayed at the base of Christ's cross while he died. Rhythmically, much of this work returns to the broken power of ancient "sprung" rhythms for its musical force. Mackay Brown's assertive, beautiful poems make this a collection worth having.

Ray Olson (review date 1 November 1996)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 265

SOURCE: A review of Following a Lark and Selected Poems, 1954–1992, in Booklist, Vol. 93, No. 5, November 1, 1996, p. 475.

[In the review below, Olson praises Brown as "one of the great contemporary poets of place."]

When Brown died on April 13, 1996, one of the great contemporary poets of place died. Nearly 75, he had spent virtually his entire life in Orkney, the islands directly north of Scotland, refusing even invitations to be honored in England, which he visited only once. As he lived in Orkney, so he wrote of Orkney, whose history and perennial occupations, farming and fishing, were, together with the Christian holidays, the stuff of his writing. These books [Following a Lark and Selected Poems, 1954–1992] are the last new collection and the last retrospective selection of his verse that he made. The work in them is modern in its specific vocabulary, its combinations of austerity and sensual vividness and of conversational and formal tones, and its sharp imagery. It is formal verse, often stanzaic and rhymically intentional, yet it seldom rhymes. Since for Brown events of a thousand years past were as present as those of his own boyhood, in his poems history, both great and little, comes to singing life. Here is King Macbeth talking with the earl of Orkney, and here, over and over, are seasonal labors in the fields and at sea and children going to school or to town on Saturday. And here, too, are the events of Easter and Christmas reset in Orkney with amazing power and cogency. "I hoard," Brown wrote, "before time's waste / Old country images." His hoarding is our treasure.


Brown, George Mackay (Vol. 5)