In 1921, in a little house at the top of Pinnie’s Close leading to Clouston’s Pier, was born George Mackay Brown, the last of the six children of John Brown, tailor and postman, and his wife Mhairi Mackay. (Mhairi, from the Gaeldom of Sutherland, had come to work in Mackay’s Stromness Hotel.)
* Photo courtesy of Orkney Library & Archive
George enjoyed an idyllic childhood:
"The first house I remember was in a sea-close just off the main street of Stromness.
On his way home from the Royal, George would sometimes point to the upstairs street-facing window of his birthplace, and say: "From that window I first saw the light of day".
The nationally celebrated artist, Sylvia Wishart RSA, was born at Pinnie's Close, right next door to the birthplace of George Mackay Brown. She illustrated his book A Tapestry of Orkney. In later years George was a regular guest at her annual garden party. (See the map at the bottom of this page.) They took place at Heatherybraes, looking out to Hoy - and always on a lovely summer's day!
There, on the pier, fishermen worked at their lines and lobster-creels … The little town was full of shops in the 1920s, some of them sweetie-shops kept by old women.
These were places of delight … I [was] as wild a boy as any … we all went free as birds between the hills and the piers.
I was particularly good at football and I revelled in it." *
Along with his friends George devoured the comics of D. C. Thomson –Wizard, Rover, Hotspur and others, and was from the age of twelve a dedicated smoker.
He found school constrictive and boring, but there were gleams of promise:
"Composition was a subject dreaded by most of the pupils. To me, writing came effortlessly … I really couldn’t understand it when week after week our teacher said, 'George Brown has written the best composition again'."
George grew to enjoy the works of Shakespeare and the poems of Keats and Shelley.
On regaining his strength George continued to write –
and discovered the joys and sorrows of alcohol:
"The first few glasses of beer were a
revelation; they flushed my veins with happiness; they washed away all cares
and shyness and worries … over the years it has brought me happiness, laughter,
and misery of mind and body."
the bar George found himself among ‘characters’ who filled him with delight:
"Drink unlocked their tongues and made poets
of them … Every day I was one of the chorus in the pub. I didn’t like darts or dominoes,
only the beer and the stories and the laughter."
George’s exceptional literary gift was noted by Orkney’s director of adult education, Alex Doloughan, who in 1951 persuaded him to apply for entry to the adult education college Newbattle Abbey, near Edinburgh.
George was accepted.
The warden of the college, the Orkney-born poet Edwin Muir, thought so highly of his poems that he passed them on to the Hogarth Press, and they were published in the volume Loaves and Fishes.
(See more about Orkney's poet Edwin Muir and his lost island paradise here.)
Still dogged by tuberculosis George then spent six years at Edinburgh University, achieving an honours degree in English and two years of post-graduate study.
He became part of the scene in the Rose Street pubs frequented by the Scottish literati.
Also, after long consideration, he converted to the Catholic faith.
George returned to live in Stromness and maintained the discipline of writing, his sole means of income.
* Photo courtesy of Orkney Library & Archive
Modestly describing himself as ‘a wordsmith’on a par with other trades and crafts, he celebrated the lives of the farmers and fishermen – providers of the ‘loaves and fishes’ on which all depend for survival.
Stromness – ‘Hamnavoe’ – was a rich source for the writer.
George’s reputation received a major boost in 1970 when three stories from A Calendar of Love were televised by the BBC.
Poems and stories and novels flowed from his kitchen table at Mayburn Court, many to be translated for enjoyment around the world. His novel Beside the Ocean of Time was short-listed in 1994 for the Booker Prize.
Widely regarded as one of Scotland’s finest writers of the 20th century, by his death in 1996 George had published more than fifty works, including poetry and plays, novels, short stories, essays and children’s books.
An autobiography, For the Islands I Sing, was published after his death.
Listen to this great Scotland Outdoors podcast episode - all about George and Orkney
And finally ...
A special thank you to Bryce Wilson for his help and advice, and for letting me use his words.
George Mackay Brown in Orkney Map
For further reading:
Click on the titles below to order from our local Orcadian Bookshop website. They ship internationally!
You'll find more George Mackay Brown books with a bit of sleuthing ...
Looking for delightfully obscure Orkney books?
We suggest a scrounge through the virtual book shelves of the reputable book sellers below.
But first, a hint or two to help fellow bibliophiles to track down that elusive book ...
Out-of-print Orkney book prices are often more reasonable on the AbeBooks and Waterstones websites than on Amazon, but not always.
It's a good idea to check them all if you can't find a decent deal. Sometimes one site is advertising a ridiculous price, while another has a very reasonable offer. Check back occasionally if you don't see what you want. New sellers and new offers are constantly added to these sites.
And I'm sure I don't need to remind you of the happy chance that you'll discover unexpected bookish dainties while you browse.
Happy book hunting!
AbeBooks UK - AbeBooks has been acquired by Amazon, but many of their book sellers aren't on Amazon, so they're worth browsing. Most of the individual sellers on AbeBooks will ship internationally.
Waterstones - This UK-based company will ship internationally, too.
Orkney's Dr John Rae was one of the greatest Arctic explorers. His willingness to learn from the Inuit and First Nations people made him successful ... and highly unusual amidst Victorian England's prejudice and racial arrogance. So why have you never heard of him?
Art restorer Antonella Papa fell in love with Orkney before she knew of the WWII chapel built by Italian POWs. Read her story of the Italian Chapel restoration.
Mermaid image (Rhonda's pages) and storyteller image (Tom's pages), and all other illustrations except where noted are here by the courtesy of our dear friend - Stromness author, artist and historian, Bryce Wilson MBE, who owns all copyrights. Thanks, Bryce!