HE was one of Scotland’s finest writers, a poet, author, journalist and dramatist.

Today (October 17) would have been the 100th birthday of George Mackay Brown, the national bard of Orkney.

Exhibitions and readings have been held to mark his centenary and tributes were paid to him on social media.

SNP MP and former broadcaster John Nicolson tweeted lines from Mackay Brown’s poem To A Hamnavoe Poet of 2093:

Language, unstable as sand, but poets

Strike on the hard rock, carving

Rune and hieroglyph, to celebrate

Breath’s sweet brevity.

Nicholson added: “Spending a day in Stromness interviewing him was one of the great joys of my career.”

Lord Lieutenant of Orkney, Elaine Grieve, tweeted one of his best known remarks: “George Mackay Brown – poet, author, Stromnessian. Your legacy is real. Vibrant. ‘In Scotland, when people congregate, they tend to argue and discuss and reason; in Orkney, they tell stories.’”

The well-known literary agent Jenny Brown tweeted another of his sayings: “There are stories in the air here. If I lived to be 500, there would still be more to write.”

Scotland’s new Makar, Kathleen Jamie, commented: “GMB teaches us about place, imagination, compassion, identity, and time, all with a flawless ear for language.”

Almost since he started publishing poetry in the 1950s, Mackay Brown has been studied by students in Scotland’s schools and universities and many people across the nation will have marked the centenary of a favourite writer.


GEORGE Mackay Brown was born in Stromness, Orkney, on October 17, 1921, the youngest of six children of John Brown, tailor and postman, and Mhairi Mackay, a Gaelic speaker.

The family were poor and Mackay Brown suffered early illnesses that left him with respiratory problems for most of his life. These problems included tuberculosis which at least had the benefit of invaliding him out of the Second World War and gave him time to start writing, becoming a journalist on the Orkney Herald in 1944.

He entered further education as a mature student at Newbattle Abbey College at the age of 30 and met the warden, his fellow poet and Orcadian Edwin Muir. who encouraged him to write a volume of poetry, The Storm, which was published in 1954 and for which Muir wrote the introduction.

The National: Moffat, Alexander; George Mackay Brown (1921-1996); Orkney Islands Council; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/george-mackay-brown-19211996-167530.

Mackay Brown then studied at Edinburgh University and joined in the literary life of the capital along with Hugh MacDiarmid and Norman MacCaig – they mostly coversed in Milne’s Bar, it should be admitted, and Mackay Brown did love a dram.

He broke off studies for teacher training because of illness and went home to Stromness, which he rarely left for the rest of his life. His poetry, usually centred on Orcadian life, became internationally renowned,

Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney said of him that: “He transforms everything by passing it through the eye of the needle of Orkney.”

By almost universal consent his most famous poem is Hamnavoe, with its striking opening lines:

My father passed with his penny letters

Through closes opening and shutting like legends

When barbarous with gulls

Hamnavoe’s morning broke

On the salt and tar steps. Herring boats,

Puffing red sails, the tillers

Of cold horizons, leaned

Down the gull-gaunt tide

And threw dark nets on sudden silver harvests.

Hamnavoe, the former name of Stromness, is a tribute to his father that, in common with all his finest works, features Orkney life writ large.

He turned to novel writing and was nominated for the 1994 Booker Prize for his book Beside the Ocean of Time. Mackay Brown, who suffered from shyness, was acutely embarrassed at the thought of winning and having to give a speech but in any case lost out to fellow Scot James Kelman’s How Late it Was, How Late. He received an OBE in 1974.

Mackay Brown converted to Catholicism in 1961 and it became a major theme in his work. Though he was engaged at one time, he never married.


HAVING beaten TB and bowel cancer, Mackay Brown died after a short illness on April 13, 1996. He is buried in the Warbeth Cemetery near Stromness overlooking Hoy Sound. Etched on his gravestone are the last lines of his poem ‘A Work For Poets: “Carve the runes, Then be content with silence.”

In 2005, a memorial plaque was unveiled in the Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh. It is engraved with a quote from Hamnavoe: “In the fire of images, Gladly I put my hand.”