A POET of the islands, George Mackay Brown (1921-96) was centred in the Orkney archipelago off the north coast of Scotland, his poems exploring, with patience and bright imagery, his land and seascapes, its history and legends, celebrating the generations of his parents and grandparents and Orkney’s richly textured past.

His central themes are of the essential rhythms of the everyday, the rites and rituals that help keep things sacred. The theme of sacrifice enacted in the particular martyrdom of St Magnus on the island of Egilsay was something he returned to repeatedly.

He lived almost all of his life in Orkney, a poet, novelist, short story writer, dramatist and local newspaper columnist writing for the people of the islands. References in his poems might be religious, esoteric, sometimes obscure, and themes in his novels and stories might draw from less familiar aspects of history and myth, but his address was not primarily to a specialised readership.

His affirmations frequently returned to a common humanity, an open sense of vulnerability and the pleasures and illuminations brought by literature and the arts, and a sense of value and safekeeping, unsentimentally treasuring qualities that a more ruthless world dispenses with too quickly and too easily.

A Roman Catholic convert, his personal self-sufficiency – he never married though he had many friends, affectionate and close – his dedication to the modest, regulated practice of the writing life, and his loyalty to pastoral ideals (like that of his mentor Edwin Muir) seem at first reading very different from the more spontaneously engaging contemporaneity of his peers.

His beliefs in the proper relation between individuals and society were deeply conservative. Yet his poetry, stories – especially those collected in A Calender of Love (1967), A Time to Keep (1969) and Andrina and Other Stories (1983) – and the novels – especially Greenvoe (1972) and Magnus (1973) – have important things to say about the ecological and political crises of the 20th century, the value of sacrament and the sacral world and the social obligations of the individual and the community.

His output is varied, ranging from writing of crystalline brilliance to the virtually twee, and sometimes he adapts the formula of simply going through rites quite mechanically: the days of the week, the seasons of the year, the stations of the cross.

However, part of his singularity and distinction lies in the fact that he was a self-conscious celebrant of art and a deft portraitist in verse as well as prose. He commemorates the islanders, going back to the great Norse sagas, developing a poetry written in sparkling, precise English, wonderfully cadenced (his student research centred on Gerard Manley Hopkins), capable of engaging profound matters with a delicate touch, and finding qualities of permanence in the acts of ordinary days.

In “Hamnavoe” and “Hamnavoe Market” he paints an inimitable portrait of Stromness, the town he lived in most of his life. In “The Funeral of Ally Flett” and “Old Fisherman with Guitar” he presents local characters both in their essential, almost universal identities, and yet also utterly differentiated and unique. In “The Five Voyages of Arnor”, “Tinkers” and “Dead Fires”, he ranges through history, moving out from and returning back to Orkney. “Stations of the Cross” goes through the series of designated moments in the journey to Christ’s crucifixion with due observance, yet sharply felt immediacy. “Uranium” – in its first version, published in the book Seven Poets (1981), edited by Christopher Carrell, and not in its subsequently revised and weaker version, remains among the most memorable poems of a world in the context of nuclear power, horrifying in its restraint.

The best place to begin is An Orkney Tapestry (1969), a collection of stories, poems, essays and drawings which introduces not only his style and preferred subjects and themes, but also quickly draws you into Orkney itself, delivering both reverence for, and engagement with, the life of the islands and the lives of the islanders, through time and across the various islands of the archipelago.

Iain Crichton Smith (1928-98) is associated with the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, where religious austerity and bleak landscapes confirmed the self-questioning character of his childhood imagination. Gaelic was his first language and he never abandoned it, but the tensions of different tongues were always with him. Between Gaelic and English, Smith was determined to find a point of balance and a kind of continuity. This determination charged him with urgency in a quest to see beyond the enclosures of any language to the elemental world. The silent stare of the “Deer on the High Hills” is eerie and eloquent beyond words:

A deer looks through you to the other side

and what it is and sees is an inhuman pride.

The central tension in Smith’s work is between the inhuman world and the desired ideal of a humane community, between absolute dogma and diffident actuality. He feels the weasel’s teeth in the rabbit’s neck, observes an owl in a nocturnal landscape, where “All seems immortal but for the dangling mouse.” The deer sees past the human to the real and metaphysical landscapes surrounding it, but human words are all we have to come to terms with either.

Exile is a central theme, both from place and from language. While cripplingly serious at times, it evolves in his work towards a wry, chuckling, quizzical humour. His novels, stories, radio plays, and his personality at literary gatherings in his last twenty years, were often full of boyish laughter and warm modesty. His imagination seemed endlessly playful.

Even in his earliest collection, The Long River (1955), alongside “Poem of Lewis” (“Here they have no time for the fine graces / of poetry…”), there is also the exhilaration of childhood:

Some days were running legs

and joy and old men telling

tomorrow would be a fine day


The worlds of books and other media often mingled in his poems: Hamlet, Homer, Orpheus, Chaplin, Shane, The Sound of Music, Alien, spangles of neon in wet Oban nights. For Smith, Scotland was both “the land God gave to Andy Stewart” – a dismal caricature of a country, a tartan cliché-corner, a monstrous, malignant deformity – and yet it was also the country where the mountains rage in dignity:

The Cuillins stand and will forever stand.

Their streams scream in the moonlight.

Pathos characterises “The Departing Island”: “It’s the island that goes away, not us who leave it…” The island is real, but it’s also childhood, and the language of our childhood: a loss any adult might feel.

If Smith’s vision is ultimately accommodating and comic, it is also riddled with intensities, passions, and anger. The tyranny of puritanism levers pressure upon him and the absurdities of everyday life are also potentially the pitfalls of the unhinged or unattached imagination.

He can be a poet of domestic aridity (“what room was Mr Bleaney in? It’s like / going to any tenement and finding / any name you can think of on the door…”), a poet of forgotten bricabrac (“Old beds, old chairs, old mattresses, old books… / How much goes out of fashion and how soon!”), but he is also a poet of realistic hope.

In a world of small “Scottish towns with Town Halls and with courts, / with tidy flowering squares and small squat towers,” “Stout fleshy matrons send their pekinese / on wolfish expeditions” and “The butcher’s hairy hand raises an axe” while “distant Belsen smokes in the calm air”.

And yet this world of “Milk jugs, cups, / pastries with pink ice” is also a world of “Waitresses with frilly aprons” who might be transformed out of their jobs and costumes, into the “Two Girls Singing” on the upper deck of a city bus at night, “for miles and miles together”:

And it wasn’t the words or the tune. It was the singing.

It was the human sweetness in that yellow,

the unpredicted voices of our kind.

The great virtue of Smith’s vision of Scotland is that it's a country not only occupied by the “voices of our kind” but also that those voices are “unpredicted”. Brown would have understood that too. And that’s what we have to live up to.