George Mackay Brown

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George Mackay Brown (1921 - 1996) was an Orkney poet, novelist and essayist.

He was born 7 October 1921 in Stromness, the youngest child of John Brown and Mhairi Sheena Brown (née Mackay). His father was a tailor who had to eke out a living by serving as a postman.

My father passed with his penny letters
Through closes opening and shutting like legends
When barbarous with gulls
Hamnavoe's1 morning broke
On the salt and tar steps....

It was a presbyterian family, but he later converted to catholicism. He suffered from ill health all his life. Encouraged by Edwin Muir he persisted with using his gift for writing and particularly poetry. He lived nearly all his life in Orkney, which was the main setting for his poems, novels and short stories. In 1970 he met Peter Maxwell Davies and later collaborated with him in founding the St Magnus Festival2 in Orkney and by providing libretti for musical works. He died on 13 April 1996.

Although some of his early poems were dense and complex, he soon developed a spare but suggestive and allusive style. He issued several collections of poems, and one "poem cycle", Fishermen with Ploughs. Like Robert Graves and other poets, he had to take to novel-writing and journalism to make a living, and made his own characteristic contribution. His novels include Magnus (based on the life of St Magnus), Greenvoe and Beside the Ocean of Time. He published several collections of short stories and some of essays.


1. Hamnavoe is the name of the inlet on which Stromness stands, applied by GMB to the town itself. The quotation is from Hamnavoe, which appeared in the early collection Loaves and Fishes (1959).

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