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A Song of the Islands

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An Orkney Tapestry sits quietly at the heart of George Mackay Brown’s prolific output as a writer of poetry, stories, novels and plays, created over a life that was longer and richer than he or anyone else expected. (Following a diagnosis of TB as a young man, before the introduction of penicillin, he must have felt he was living on borrowed time for almost all his adult life.) For those who have never read him, this small book about his native Orkney serves as a wonderful introduction. For those who have already fallen under his spell, it is something they return to and quote from, and love like an old friend.

My copy is tatty, well-thumbed and browning, and full of torn strips of paper marking certain passages. With its drawings by GMB’s friend the Orkney artist Sylvia Wishart, the book has an evocative magic; just to hold it conjures up George and his Orkney, more than anything else he wrote. Somehow, Orkney and George are fused, and while Stromness, his home town, seems to have absorbed him in its stone walls, piers and crow-steps, his absence is still noticeable, a gap in the town, which has changed over the years but also stayed essentially the same. Last year it was twenty years since he died, but I still miss him. (My first ten years in Stromness overlapped with George’s last, during which we had a quiet but strong bond to do with poetry, shy on my part.) Picking up An Orkney Tapestry is like hearing his voice again.

It’s a hard book to sum up because it’s a bit of a mishmash of history, description, essay, poetry and even a short play. It shouldn’t hold together at all, but it does, wonderfully, and in fact the pure essence of GMB as a writer is here, set down in his characteristically distilled, poetic prose. The book started out as a commission, and the assumption is that the publishers had in mind a kind of contemporary guidebook to the islands as seen through his eyes. But that kind of writing, involving facts,

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An Orkney Tapestry sits quietly at the heart of George Mackay Brown’s prolific output as a writer of poetry, stories, novels and plays, created over a life that was longer and richer than he or anyone else expected. (Following a diagnosis of TB as a young man, before the introduction of penicillin, he must have felt he was living on borrowed time for almost all his adult life.) For those who have never read him, this small book about his native Orkney serves as a wonderful introduction. For those who have already fallen under his spell, it is something they return to and quote from, and love like an old friend.

My copy is tatty, well-thumbed and browning, and full of torn strips of paper marking certain passages. With its drawings by GMB’s friend the Orkney artist Sylvia Wishart, the book has an evocative magic; just to hold it conjures up George and his Orkney, more than anything else he wrote. Somehow, Orkney and George are fused, and while Stromness, his home town, seems to have absorbed him in its stone walls, piers and crow-steps, his absence is still noticeable, a gap in the town, which has changed over the years but also stayed essentially the same. Last year it was twenty years since he died, but I still miss him. (My first ten years in Stromness overlapped with George’s last, during which we had a quiet but strong bond to do with poetry, shy on my part.) Picking up An Orkney Tapestry is like hearing his voice again. It’s a hard book to sum up because it’s a bit of a mishmash of history, description, essay, poetry and even a short play. It shouldn’t hold together at all, but it does, wonderfully, and in fact the pure essence of GMB as a writer is here, set down in his characteristically distilled, poetic prose. The book started out as a commission, and the assumption is that the publishers had in mind a kind of contemporary guidebook to the islands as seen through his eyes. But that kind of writing, involving facts, figures, lists and much tedious research, was not to his taste, and he turned the commission into an opportunity to encapsulate all that was precious and rich about the land and the people of Orkney, in the face of dubious progress, the pernicious influence of television, and the uniformity of thought and opinion imposed by the mass media. For GMB, everything had a context or a ghost: words, thoughts, stories and people; and everyone in the islands was woven together with a shared history and ‘fable’ (or vision) of themselves, based on the past, which is everywhere evident. He wanted Orkney people to understand and be proud of this fable, and to define their uniqueness in the context of a kind of woven garment of history. GMB was born in 1921, and he wrote An Orkney Tapestry in his late forties when, after a long, slow start, he was truly finding his voice as a writer and his place as a fully fledged and independent person. At the time of writing his mother had recently died, and he had moved into his own council flat in Stromness; he had emerged from some years of heavy drinking verging on alcoholism; he was gaining recognition as a poet and short-story writer; and he was firmly back in his home town, after his only spell away from Orkney at Newbattle Abbey College and Edinburgh University. Not only that: after the failure of his brief engagement to Stella Cartwright, the ‘muse’ of many of the Edinburgh poets, he was accepting (not unhappily) that he was destined to remain single, live alone and dedicate himself to writing. Also, significantly, he had converted to Catholicism, rejecting his Presbyterian upbringing; a bold and unusual step in Orkney. He had found himself, and his voice, and in some ways An Orkney Tapestry is his manifesto as a writer, and all his creative and spiritual preoccupations and inspirations can be found in this book: the Sagas, the lives of St Magnus and St Rognvald, the Christ figure, the ordinary people, the land, the sea, the drunks and outsiders, and the communities which are sources of strength, resilience and continuity, as well as judgement and narrow-mindedness. Apart from anything else, the book also contains his most captivating description of the Orkney landscape and weather:

A city shower is a meaningless nuisance, a liquidity seeping into collar and trouser-leg. In the north, on a showery day, you can see the rain, its lovely behaviour over an island – while you stand a mile off in a patch of sun – Jock’s cows in the meadow a huddle of ghosts, Tammy’s oat field jewelled; the clouds a rout of fabulous creatures dissolving at last through their prism . . . Nothing is more lovely than the islands in a shifting dapple of sun and rain.

There’s a whole chapter on Rackwick, in North Hoy; one of the most beautiful and rarefied places in Orkney, which GMB loved and often visited. For him, the beauty of the place was underscored by the harshness of the lives of the people who had eked a meagre living from the land and dangerous sea. The valley was gradually depopulated until the only farmer left there, Jack Rendall, married, and the first child born in Rackwick for many years, Lucy, arrived in 1980 – a joyful, hopeful event, celebrated in GMB’s acrostic poem ‘Lullaby for Lucy’, and later set to music by Peter Maxwell Davies. Published in 1969, An Orkney Tapestry was still fresh and new when Peter Maxwell Davies (Max) came on holiday to Orkney in 1970. He bought the book in Stromness, stayed up all night reading it and, by one of those strange coincidences, met George the following day in Hoy and first set eyes on Bunertoon, a ruined cottage high up on the cliff at Rackwick, which would become his home for the next thirty years. GMB’s poetry inspired some beautiful new music, not least the opera The Martyrdom of St Magnus, which opened the first St Magnus Festival in 1977. From that chance meeting, based on Max’s enthusiasm for An Orkney Tapestry, so much grew. And yet An Orkney Tapestry remains out of print, at GMB’s own request. It’s to be found fairly easily second-hand, but it’s an intriguing and troubling thought that GMB himself was not happy with the book. He was characteristically tight-lipped about the reasons for this. Perhaps he felt it was a bit of a jumble of thoughts and ideas. Perhaps the very things that people love about it did not please him (he was a severe self-critic). It was certainly longer than anything he had written before, and his under-confidence about his ability to sustain a long piece of prose, expressed when his publisher suggested a novel, might be based on a sense of failure to make a coherent whole of An Orkney Tapestry. And yet, very soon after, he went on to write the wonderful Greenvoe, followed by a string of others, culminating in Beside the Ocean of Time, shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1994. For me, everything GMB wrote came from a deep well of poetry, and a poet’s sensibility informs the beauty and distillation of his prose. He is sometimes portrayed as a diffident, even naïve writer, which might be true in some sense; but he knew what he was trying to achieve, and he knew he was good. Far from being some sort of ‘mystic sage’, he was funny, occasionally mischievous, and very interested in the doings of the town. He worked with great discipline through illness and bouts of depression, and was a generous, perceptive mentor to younger writers. From his flat in Stromness, he roved through time and space, and channelled his single-minded vision into a body of work that speaks universally. And in the lovely conglomeration of An Orkney Tapestry he wove a portrait, a fable for Orkney, whose ongoing threads are deeply rooted here in the islands, but encompass everyone.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 53 © Pamela Beasant 2017


About the contributor

Pamela Beasant lives in Stromness, Orkney. She is a poet, playwright and non-fiction writer, and has been director of the Orkney Writers’ Course for the St Magnus Festival since 2011.

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