George Mackay Brown Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 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).

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

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Glyn Maxwell (review date 11-17 May 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 385 words.)

Andrew Wawn (review date 28 August 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jonathan Coe (review date 24 September 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 863 words.)

Jane Roscoe (review date 24 June 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Publishers Weekly (review date 29 August 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Publishers Weekly (review date 26 June 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Ray Olson (review date July 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Richard Henry (review date Autumn 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Patrick Crotty (review date 6 October 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 826 words.)

Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 January 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 345 words.)

Ray Olson (review date 1 February 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Mel Gussow (obituary date 16 April 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Christopher Andreae (review date 8 July 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Joseph J. Feeney (essay date 3 August 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Publishers Weekly (review date 30 September 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 249 words.)

Ray Olson (review date 1 November 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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."...

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