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Twenty of the Best: George Mackay Brown, A Poet’s Magic

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Recently I began a series looking at the three authors who, no matter what my mood, can stir my soul to song. Last week saw me reflect on the magnificent Roald Dahl. This week, we have an author and poet many may not have heard of; George Mackay Brown.

My introduction to George Mackay Brown came when I visited the Writer’s Museum in Edinburgh during the early days of my backpacking odyssey. Although primarily featuring the work of famous authors from Scotland’s capital (such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) there was a special section set up to commemorate the life of Mackay Brown, who had died a few years earlier in 1996.

Commonly referred to as the Bard of Orkney, Mackay Brown wrote extensively of the islands and the Orcadian way of life. A poet, novelist and columnist his work has been described as categorized by “the absence of frills and decoration;the lean simplicity of description, colour shape and action reduced to essentials, which heightens the reality of the thing observed”, while his poetry “became informed by a unique voice that was his alone, controlled and dispassionate, which allowed every word to play its part in the narrative scheme of the unfolding poem”

My introduction to his work was Beside the Ocean of Time, for which he was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and although my initial reaction was that of ‘meh’ by the time I reached the final chapter I was completely and utterly hooked; a chapter that has become one of my favourite closing chapters of all time! After reading this book I dipped into Mackay Brown’s work whenever I could, eventually collecting a near-complete collection of his bibliography (I was missing only three titles!)

During the dark days of depression I turned to his poetry for inspiration and hope. I succumbed to the beauty of his prose for comfort and rejuvenation. I relished in the stark, simplistic beauty of his life, thoughts and talent. Always reminded of my love for the isles that sung in his heart.

In a time when we seem to have forgotten the power of poetry and literature (thanks EL James) perhaps the world needs to rediscover the magic of George Mackay Brown.

“Here is a work for poets-
Carve the runes
Then be content with silence”
(from Work for Poets)

~ 8 ~
Following a Lark

Until this book I had only ever invested in poetry collections (usually involving titles along the lines of A Compendium of Scottish Poetry) featuring work from a number of different writers. Following a Lark was the first poetry book from a single author I’d ever purchased, and I never once regretted it. No matter how hard I’ve tried in my life I’ve never been able to write poetry, ever, so there is always an element of jealously when I read poems as I wish I was able to summon such lyricism and rhythm in my own writing.

Wait a while, small voyager
On the shore, with seapinks and shells.
The boat
Will take a few summers to build
That you must make your voyage in.

You will learn the names.
That golden light is ‘sun ~ ‘moon’
The silver light
That grows and dwindles.
And the beautiful small splinters
That wet the stones, ‘rain’.
(from New Child)

~ 7 ~

This was the fourth novel I read from George Mackay Brown after finding an ancient hardback edition on eBay in 2002. Originally written in 1973 it is a fictional account of the life and execution of the twelfth century Saint, Magnus Erlendsson, Earl of Orkney. Although at times a little too religious for my taste, it is hard to get past the meditative nature of Mackay Brown’s writing.

~ 6 ~
The Island of Woman and Other Stories

Between Scotland and Canada I spent an ill-fated period working as a waiter on the Isle of Mull. On one of the rare occasions I took a ferry to the mainland I found a dog-eared copy of this collection in a charity shop. Whilst reading it on the ferry back I lowered the book for a moment to allow my soul to breathe and right in front of me couldn’t believe my eyes; a school of dolphins was merrily frolicking before me. Although not the first time I’d seen dolphins in this stretch of water, seeing such a sight whilst spellbound by Mackay Brown’s words is a moment I have never forgotten, and doubtful ever will.

~ 5 ~
Six Lives of Fankle the Cat

Beautiful. Wonderful. Amazing.
I have read this book so many times I’ve lost count. I will tell you nothing about it other than it is about a cat called Fankle and the amazing lives he’s lived (pirates, ancient Egypt, China!) So get ye to a bookstore and grab yourself a copy of this magnificent children’s book.

~ 4 ~

A love letter to his home of Stromness and a magnificent novel. It is best approached cold, so shall refrain from spoiling it’s beauty.

~ 3 ~
Beside the Ocean of Time

This was the first George Mackay Brown book I read and as such will forever live in my heart. Based in the 1930s, it follows the life of Thorfinn Ragnarson from Norday as he regularly daydreams about key moments in Scottish history, eventually beginning to see a correlation between his daydreaming, history and his own future.

This book, quite rightly, won the Saltire Society award for Book of the Year and shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Unfortunately, I can’t complain too much about Mackay Brown’s loss as he missed out to James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late – an exceptional book.

~ 2 ~
An Orkney Tapestry

Forget the Lonely Planet, forget Rough Guides, should you ever visit the Orkney Isles this is the book to take as your guide. Mingling folklore, legend, poetry and prose, Mackay Brown weaves a spellbinding tapestry of the life and history of these great Islands. Perfectly illustrated by Sylvia Wishart An Orkney Tapestry captures a sense of place better than any book I’ve ever encountered.

If you’ve never wanted to visit the Orkney Islands, I guarantee you will after reading this definitive work.

~ 1 ~
Northern Lights: A Poet’s Sources

For many, many years this book was nestled in my top five books of all time. Published posthumously this is a collection of previously published and unseen material ranging from poetry, diary extracts, short fiction, observation and folklore. It is one of the finest collections of writing I have ever encountered and gives a unique insight into the mind and inspiration of this literary genius.

~All quotes © George Mackay Brown~

My Life in Books
Twenty of the Best: Roald Dahl, Champion of the World
The unnoticed bias of the Booker prize (
Exploring Orkney: Scotland’s Rugged Northern Isles (

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