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George Mackay Brown.


Island Redemption.



ORKNEY, THE MAINLAND among seventy scattered islands, some twenty of which are inhabited by approximately 22,000 souls, is only an hour’s sailing from the northern Scottish coast, but has a very distinct character. Orcadians have always been concerned to establish their own, independent identity. There is an endless appetite across the islands for ‘Orkney books’, and the history of the archipelago has been minutely explored, recorded. ‘Orkney the Brand’, run by Orkney Enterprise and Orkney Islands Council in collaboration, is the latest version of the islands’ self-definition, now ruthlessly promoted to capitalize on contemporary mass tourism.

The author who has been systematically co-opted in this process of ‘monetization’ of the Orkneys is George Mackay Brown, a gifted writer of numerous novels, poems, plays and short stories.

The author who has been systematically co-opted in this process of ‘monetiz­ation’ of the Orkneys is George Mackay Brown, a gifted writer of numerous novels, poems, plays and short stories. In Strom­ness, he was known as George Brown – ‘Georgie Broon’; for his writing persona, he adopted his maternal grandfather’s name. Clan Mackay came from northwest Sutherland, and Mhairi Brown’s first language was Gaelic. Called ‘Mary Jane’ in Stromness, she would sing Gaelic songs as she worked in the kitchen. George Brown’s accent apparently ‘sounded exactly like his Sutherland mother’. 1

When in the 1820s, the Marquess of Stafford and the Countess of Sutherland cleared out their tenants in favour of sheep, Mhairi’s family had moved to the far northeast, desperately searching for somewhere to settle. They ended up at Braal, opposite the Northern Isles. I visited the site, a collapsed heap of stones, the house more like an animal shelter, and very close to the cliff edge. There was a palpable sense of a family desperate to find any piece of wasteland where they might be safe, not be cleared again. Aged 16, Mhairi Mackay was sent across the Firth to work as a maid in the Stromness Hotel.

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Though he adopted his west coast name for his new life as an author, Mackay Brown never drew on his Gaelic origins, never for instance, cultivated the friendship of Somhairle Mac Gill-Eain (Sorley MacLean), the greatest Gaelic poet of the twentieth century, keeper of the hoard of Gaelic culture and history. They knew of each other through the Saturday night gatherings of poets, writers and ne’er-do-wells at Milne’s bar, in Rose Street, Edinburgh. These meetings are sketched briefly in Greenvoe: ‘“We’re finished, poetry is finished, we don’t mean a thing any more to the people who matter …”’ 2 For all his very mixed feelings about Orkney and Orcadians, George Mackay Brown determined that they would be the hoard from which he would write. ‘This place is boring, like most places. There’s nothing I feel inclined to say about it … There are stones, piers, windows, chimneys, children of light and water that once he saw in a good dream – long forgotten: a poem.’ 3

As a devout convert to Catholicism, and a fierce opponent of materialist culture, Brown would doubtless be appalled to read the choice quotations from his poems that decorate the lounge bar area of the £28-million-pound ferry, Hamnavoe, bringing hundreds of tourists daily from Scrabster, on the Scottish coast, to Stromness. But Mackay Brown also suffered periods of severe alcoholism, and his quotes in the bar have a poignant presence.

A CARE-WORKER FOR thirteen years on the islands, I visited remote farms, and got to know many elderly Orcadians. I felt this as a rare privilege, which afforded me an at least partial insight into so many local families and their stories. And it provoked my intense interest in every aspect of the islands’ history and society. Care work only occupied three or four days a week, leaving time to explore as much of the landscape and coastline of Mainland and the outer isles as I could manage. The islands are very evenly settled, and it is difficult to find truly isolated places, but I loved to walk along the tops of the hills that separate East and West Mainland, meeting no one else for hours at a time, and with views that survey landscape and coastline to either side.

Two world wars left many marks on the Orkney islands. Scapa Flow was an ideal base for the British fleet, and the flat plain of central Mainland was a perfect site for airfields. There were few air raids over the islands, but the first civilian casualty of the entire war by air raid, James Isbister, was killed by bomb shrapnel, just outside Stromness, at the Brig o’ Waithe.

The wars were otherwise good to Orkney, when as many as 20,000 service men and women crowded the islands, bringing excitement, and occasionally romance, to otherwise lonely farmworkers. The price of butter and cheese inflated, and farmers did very well out of the wartime occupations. I took one of my clients out for a drive, and as we passed an out-of-the way thicket, he said, ‘Beuy, a whole lotta Wrens went down on their backs and their knees in there.’ Now, crumbling remains of gun batteries, command centres, cinemas, officers’ toilet blocks, are mute testimony to the martial invasions.

Throughout the twentieth century a group of writers in Orkney was concerned to produce work that genuinely reflected the nature of the islands: the historian and folklorist Ernest Marwick, the naturalist Robert Rendall, and Edwin Muir, the poet who became George Mackay Brown’s mentor, among others. ‘You can’t write for three hours every day, six days a week, without having something to show for it!’ 4 This was Mackay Brown’s working routine, in the sitting room of his council flat in Mayburn Court, halfway along The Street in Stromness, with a view out to the harbour. Twelve collections of poetry, three volumes of plays, six novels, nine collections of short stories, four books of essays, three collections for children, and an autobiography. For twenty-five years, he also wrote a weekly column, ‘Under Brinkie’s Brae’, in local papers, and attracted an enthusiastic readership. He felt that this was his major connection to, and service for, his community.

Visiting so many houses as I did, all over Stromness and surroundings, I often came across copies of his work, among all the other ‘island books’ that are so avidly collected by Orcadians. In one house, where my client was suffering from severe dementia, there was a complete collection of immaculate, signed first editions – Mackay Brown had been a friend of the family and he was generous with his works. For a few moments I entertained some very wrong thoughts. One tough and cynical old fisherman, who I had to help at the end of the day, would demand, when he finally managed to struggle into his bed, ‘Pass me an island book, beuy.’ He had a shelf of them next his bed, and sure enough, several Mackay Browns.

Many readers will know Peter Maxwell Davies’ lovely, simple piano piece, ‘Farewell to Stromness’ – I find it hard to listen to, sometimes – and maybe assume that it is about fishermen, or perhaps visitors, leaving the harbour for the crossing to Scrabster. In fact, it was intended as an elegy for the town, which in the early 1970s was threatened by a proposal to rip up the landscape from Stromness across to Yesnaby for the extraction of uranium to power Dounreay nuclear station, across the Firth. When you drive out of the village, opposite the Co-op is an old black tin shed, ‘Farewell Stromness’ painted on its side. You assume it’s a goodbye as you leave, but it was written at that time when Stromness was threatened with destruction by the power-station development. A concerted local and national campaign was successful in halting the actual scheme, which had been proposed by PM Margaret Thatcher. Ominously, it remains in abeyance, has never been definitively cancelled by the Secretary of State for Scotland. Greenvoe is a fable about a catastrophe like this.

Ian MacInnes’s cover for the first edition of Greenvoe shows a man, probably a fisherman, standing by a window, holding a tilly lamp. In front of him is the top of a chair, an Orkney chair, its back woven from straw. Through the window we see the prow of a boat, beyond it a roofless ruined house. The structure is made of stone, a chimneystack at either end, the traditional build of the islands. In a very few details, MacInnes captures essential features of Orcadian life before modernity. But the tilly lamp is somehow familiar, and the style of drawing, in thick black outline…Picasso. At the apex of Guernica, a woman holds a tilly lamp, just beneath the light bulb-sun-eye that looks down on the massacre below. MacInnes’s fisherman in left profile is at one with the four Guernica figures in profile, his mouth open, silently shouting.

The precise localism of MacInnes’s cover – the ruined house one of many in Rackwick, a deserted village on Hoy – draws on the universal disaster that Guernica portrays. The cover is true to Mackay Brown’s novel in exactly this way: Brown’s poetry and fiction, seemingly confined to the small community of Stromness on Orkney Mainland, consistently implied larger contexts, wider worlds. One of the fishing boats in the novel is called Engels. Someone asks a fisherman – who has come across on the ferry today? ‘President Nixon and Mao Tse-tung,’ says Ivan Westray. (Among that generation, Ivan was quite a common name, given out of fraternal feeling with the Russians during wartime. Now, huge Russian ‘trawlers’ electronically monitor any naval activity in the waters around the islands.)

The Skarf is an inshore creelman – his boat is the Engels – taking lobsters with his uncle. ‘You with all that brains. You should have gone on to the school, then the university.’  (I heard some of my clients say, ‘These islands have turned out just too many Professors, what’s the good of them?’) The Skarf is shiftless, irresponsible, he avoids going to the lobsters whenever he can, he draws National Assistance – means-tested benefit – rather than work. He says ‘the sun of socialism’ warms him, ‘however feebly’. But he is a writer: ‘Anyone looking in through his webbed window could see The Skarf moving between boxes of books and a table covered with writing paraphernalia.’ He writes the history of the islands in an old cashbook that was found on the foreshore, preaches socialism and atheism to any youngsters who will hear him.

He haunts the town hotel, ‘perched on the high stool in the corner of the bar’, where he holds forth, reading from his history. He gives a compacted, but compelling version of the long and complex story of the islands. Skarf – his name derives from Old Norse, meaning ‘to cut and join’, a term still found in timber boat-building. His language is ambitious – ‘In all the confusions of anabasis, domination, settlement that followed …’. ‘Anabasis’, a military advance into the interior of a territory, and the title of an epic poem written by the French diplomat, ‘Saint-John Perse’ (Alexis Leger), published in 1930 by T. S. Eliot, in translation made by Eliot working with the author. Had George Brown read Anabasis? There are lines and passages in the French poem that come very close to his preoccupations – ‘great turf-burnings seen afar and these operations channelling the living waters on the mountain’.5

On Friday, 13 October 1939, Commander Günter Prien’s U-47 penetrated Scapa Flow, the 125 square miles of sheltered anchorage in Orkney. U-47 torpedoed and sank the battleship HMS Royal Oak, killing 833 of the crew, including 134 boy seamen, aged between fifteen and seventeen. In 1943, over 600 Italian prisoners of war were put to building the ‘Churchill barriers’, causeways linking the islands to the south of Mainland, intended as defences against U-boat attacks on Scapa Flow. On the seventieth anniversary of the sinking, I was on my evening care round, and at most houses that I visited, families were watching the Royal Oak documentary; several of them began to remember. Billy told me they had heard the explosions, six miles away across Mainland. At the next house, Stan, frail from Parkinson’s, remembered how his grandmother had begun ‘greetin’’ – weeping – and then he wept too, seventy years later.

Among the thousands of soldiers who arrived on Orkney during the war to defend the anchorage at Scapa Flow was Francis Scarfe, an officer and Glasgow University lecturer. In 1944 he was billeted with the Brown family. Ten years George’s senior, they became close friends, and Scarfe passed on to George his enthusiasm for the writings of T. S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, D. H. Lawrence, and his passion for classical music, Beethoven in particular. Scarfe also praised Mackay Brown’s poetry and gave him confidence. Brown’s character ‘The Skarf’ was surely a kind of homage to this man. They would exchange Christmas cards every year until Scarfe’s death in 1988. Francis Scarfe was sent away to a distant posting in early 1945, and as the thousands of troops went home, few regretting ‘bloody Orkney’, the islands returned to their parochial tedium; ‘back to pre-war quietness – even loneliness, and a certain flatness’ wrote Ruby, Mackay Brown’s sister.6

Greenvoe’s style is curt, and also the prose of a poet in standard English. There is very little dialect spoken in Greenvoe.

THE NARRATIVE STYLE of Greenvoe is curt, in which sentences follow one another with minimal, only implied connection. The lupins are up early. The new schoolmistress would give anything for a man. The shop is out of fisherman’s stockings. (Purple/blue lupins, strangely suburban, grow wild across the island; they were thought to improve soil condition.) Greenvoe’s style is also the prose of a poet. A bowl of apples ‘glows in the stillness. They tumbled inexorably and silently out of the region of ripeness. They shone and rotted slowly.’ Mackay Brown chose to write his fiction in Standard English, there is very little dialect spoken in Greenvoe. He intended to be read widely, not confined to a small readership in the Northern Isles.

Just occasionally, there is a more local word; Samuel Whanness’s boat ‘nosed and ettled into the grey sprawl of waves’ off Red Head. In the ritual ceremony at the end of section four, The Lord of the Harvest asks The Sower, ‘Can you thole the burden of ripeness?’ On one of my visits to an elderly wife in Stromness, a wonderfully vivid person, full of stories about the town, I had to take off very tight surgical stockings from her shins. I rolled them down as carefully as I could manage, but they pulled flesh away, and she shouted out, ‘I canna thole it!’ Unbearable, but we managed to remove them, and dress her bleeding shin. Back at my house, I took out my Compact Edition of the OED: thole, to bear, sustain, a word from Old English via Norse, first recorded in Beowulf and an eighth-century saint’s life, ‘now northern dialect or archaic’.

Brief episodes drive the narrative, again often with little apparent connection. Seamus Heaney and Mackay Brown became close friends, admiring each other’s poetry. Heaney described Brown’s writing as being ‘crosslit in a way that always appeals to me. On the one hand there was a daytime reliability to it, these scenes and characters could be lifted from a documentary; on the other hand, they could have been dreamt, there was a gleam of the uncanny at the northern and the western horizon.’ (Ferguson 2011: 64). Another visitor to Orkney who became a close friend – and collaborator – with Mackay Brown was the Manchester-born composer Peter Maxwell Davies. He bought a small stone house close to Rackwick Bay, on Hoy, where the wild, beautiful scenery inspired many compositions.

Maxwell Davies’s response to the uranium mining threat was ‘The Yellow Cake Review’, ‘Comments in words and music on the threat of Uranium mining in Orkney. For voice and piano. Text by the composer’.7 The ‘Composer’s Note’ to the score describes the pieces as ‘cabaret style numbers’, and they were first performed at the St Magnus Festival in June 1980 – Maxwell Davies had established the Festival in 1977, largely as a vehicle for performing his work. It is now one of the most successful cultural gatherings in Scotland, after the Edinburgh Festival. The first performance of ‘The Yellow Cake Review’ was given in the upstairs bar of the Stromness Hotel, with Max at the piano, and Eleanor Bron the soloist. It must have been a wonderful evening. ‘Yellow Cake’ refers to refined uranium ore, and Maxwell Davies’ Note describes ‘the threat … to the economy and ecology of the Orkney Islands, which islanders are determined to fight, down to the last person.’8

Timmy Folster is Greenvoe’s simple soul. His cottage has a sheet of corrugated iron in place of a door. Timmy climbs in and out at his window. (Corrugated iron litters the island. A sheet flying through the air in a storm nearly shattered my windscreen, one wild night.) Timmy goes to the grocery shop, to draw his National Assistance and buy his week’s ‘messages’, food for himself and his cat, and a bottle of methylated spirit. The grocer is concerned that Folster is drinking the lamp fuel, speaks seriously to him. Working as a carer, I was sent to the council house of the village’s lost soul. He was always to be seen, talking to himself at the harbour, friendless. His house was shocking, a series of filthy empty rooms, his bed an unmade mattress on the floor, excrement everywhere. He was one of a large local family, all living close by, none of whom ever visited or looked out for him. I once visited a woman on one of the outer islands, similarly abandoned.

The laird, Colonel Fortin-Bell, drives his niece down to the pier, where she will meet the new teacher, Miss Inga Inveraray, an Edinburgh missie, who arrives carrying her paperback copy of Women in Love. (Mackay Brown began reading widely when Penguin paperbacks first arrived at John Broom’s tiny Stromness bookshop – ‘My hands trembled as I took down from the shelf Neil Gunn’s Morning Tide… or E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India9). The boatman Ivan Westray – the local stud – shiftily admires Inga’s chest. From her car, Inga watches him until he is out of sight. The laird’s niece and the teacher greet each other ‘with shouts and kisses’, watched with disbelief by the locals at the pier, whose own greeting, ‘even after a decade of absence, was a murmur and a dropping of the eyes’. This is very true to Orcadian reticence, as I witnessed it, a tacit agreement never to show excessive emotion, and which can feel like coldness. ‘In the north it is considered shameful to show one’s feelings and emotions’.10 When my mother died, and I would let people know in passing,was often given this impassive response. I took it for brutality, at first, but then came to appreciate the unstated sympathy it could imply.

DAYS CAN FEEL endless, on the island, especially in the long light of summer. How to fill the time, all those empty afternoons, ‘always the quietest time in the village’. In the manse, the parson’s mother, Mrs McKee (Brown’s own favourite among all his characters), knows that during her afternoon she will be persecuted by the invisible court that sits in session upon her, four times a year. Every minor slight and misdemeanour committed by Mrs McKee comes back to haunt her, in these hearings, ‘an assize of suffering’, one above all. Her memory forces her back to July 1916, when, as Miss Elizabeth Alder, she is attending the twenty-first birthday party of her friend, Miss Millicent Brae, at Leith. Her fiancé, Second Lieutenant Alan McKee, has been away at the Front in France since May. Fred Somerville, on leave from the Royal Flying Corps, asks her to dance, and in the excitement of the party, she reluctantly accepts. He holds her too tightly, kisses her on her throat. She is horrified, and then finds that he is to drive her home. He sets her down, and her memory now becomes a film playing in slow motion. ‘Observe: it is the woman who is kissing the man. And it is not just a goodnight kiss, a formal salute on the cheek … [it] is what I would call one of utter voluptuousness, and it lingers …’. She is frozen with horror at her memory. ‘Outside the rain plucked and spat and drummed on the windows.’

Mrs McKee is a terrible victim of Calvinist conscience, superego, which can persecute believers on the islands, and beyond: ‘Textures of Calvinism, generations old, are still part of me and I think I will never be rid of them.’11 Orcadians in general are thoroughly secular in their outlook, ‘noo very churchy’ as they say, empirical, grounded in routine. It was therefore even a brave decision for George Mackay Brown to convert to Catholicism in 1961. He received Communion for the first time on Christmas Eve, at the modest Church of Our Lady and St Joseph, in Kirkwall. This was a singular choice, given the low-church Presbyterianism or plain Anglicanism of most of the islanders, and Mackay Brown must have had compelling reasons to embrace the Church of Rome. There are three quite separate Presbyterian congregations in Stromness; Brown saw this as proof of their bigoted intolerance, even with each other. His new faith did not make him a better man, he continued to drink far too much, wasting days in recovery from appalling hangovers, much to his mother’s disgust.

What appealed to Mackay Brown in Catholicism can be guessed from his writing: the transforming, sacramental nature of ritual.

What appealed to Mackay Brown in Catholicism can be guessed from his writing: the transforming, sacramental nature of ritual. The mass is time’s purest essence, gathering all human history and experience into its sacral moment. The labours of the peasant farmers, and the sacrifice of the beast creation to their needs – our needs – are all caught up in the sacrament of bread, perhaps in this instance, an Orkney bannock. ‘Out of earth darkness men set the bread on their everyday tables. It is the seal and substance of all their work; their very nature is kneaded into the substance of the bread; it is, in an ultimate sense, their life.’12

In Greenvoe, Samuel Whaness washes his hands when he comes home from the fishing; he ‘dipped his hands into the water bowl as though it was a sacramental act’.  Each of the six parts of Greenvoe closes with dramatic ritual, a version of the mass, but drawn from quite different mysteries. Mackay Brown’s own plays are very close to these episodes. At the end of the first section, young Hector Anderson is initiated into the Ancient Mystery of The Horsemen, his passage from boyhood to adult status and ‘the ploughman’s estate’. The ritual has something of a masonic initiation, but with Mackay Brown’s dramatic additions: The Novice knocks on the floor with the horse-shoe three times. The Master Horseman raises a flagstone. The Novice hangs over a dark opening. 

The Masonic Lodge in Kirkwall is a huge building, freemasonry being well-established in Scotland, but it does not invite visitors. Pierre Bezukhov, in War and Peace, copied out the transactions of the Scottish rite as he pursued his obsession with masonry, and related to his colleagues what he had learnt on his travels to Prussian and Scottish lodges. Mackay Brown invests his own initiation ritual with trappings from freemasonry – ‘He spread over a stall the master’s regalia – an apron crudely stitched with yellow wool in the form of a blazing sun. The other men put their sashes on; a more modest decoration, plough and sickle and quern stitched with black and grey wool.’

The only time I came close to any of these mysteries was on a visit to an elderly bachelor, another simple soul, living in a ramshackle wooden house in the middle of the island. The kitchen was a shambles, I did what I could, then went through to his bedroom. He was lying in a box-bed, the traditional arrangement that had long vanished from most houses. The bed is inwith its own small space, effectively, panelled off from the rest of the room, as described by Lockwood, on his first visit to Wuthering Heights – ‘a large oak case, with squares cut near the top resembling coach windows … a singular sort of old-fashioned couch, very conveniently designed to obviate the necessity for every member of the family having a room to himself’.13

Local history books about the island describe how entire families would have packed themselves into a single box-bed in the nineteenth century, and before. If one sleeper turned, all turned over. There were rumours of luxurious box-beds on the outer isles, some with improvized mini-bars, televisions, even. Freddie had his box bed to himself, no refinements. He was often doubly incontinent, despite the best efforts of his frustrated carers. A box bed may be a charming survival to admire in the Museum of Rural Life, but stripping and changing soiled bedding as if you were working in a wardrobe is a different matter.

Cleaned up, and eating his dinner, Freddie became talkative. I relaxed into his stories. During the war, his frail wooden house had been surrounded by the huge airstrip on Mainland. He went to sleep, woke up to the (beautiful) sound of Merlin engines as Spitfires landed, took off. He had fond memories of the pilots, ‘fine beuys’, with whom he had made some friends. He reached under his pillow, and brought out a creased, browning photo of a Spitfire and its pilot, who had autographed the souvenir, ‘For Freddie’. On his table, I noticed a card, some kind of invitation, with a horseshoe on its cover. To make conversation, I asked Freddie what he was being invited to. He smiled in a knowing way, ‘Ah beuy, that will be a secret. As secret as the Horseman’s Word.’

I HAD HEARD of this, and read about it, a potent, secret word that riders whispered into their horse’s ear to calm it, control a horse if it threatened to bolt. The mystery was local to north-east Scotland, whence it spread south.14 There were other rumours that island friends would tantalize me with – The Black Book, a grimoire, existing in only one copy, full of arcane spells, that was itself cursed, had to be handed on to an unknowing stranger, it had last been seen on one of the far outer islands….

Section Three of Greenvoe introduces a new character, Johnny, an itinerant fabric seller, bringing exotic materials from Kashmir. He writes to his uncle Pannadas in Leith, acutely observing Hamnavoe life. There were such intrepid visitors, who knocked at remote doors throughout the Highlands and Islands, and Mackay Brown would have met them on their rounds. He is kindly, spends profitless time with the ‘impecunious’ Timmy. Passing the school, Johnny hears the children being drilled in historical events, a series of battles: ‘1066 Battle of Hastings 1314 Battle of Bannockburn 1513 Battle of Flodden…’ They touch with innocent mouths a vast unimaginable welter of blood and gules and horror. ‘1943 Battle of Stalingrad.’ Owing to his poor health, hospitalized for six months in 1940 with pulmonary tuberculosis – at the time, incurable – Mackay Brown was exempted from active service during the war. But he took the atrocities of the conflicts deeply to heart.

Mackay Brown, childless himself, was unsentimental about children, describing the sadistic cruelty of which they can be capable…

Mackay Brown, childless himself, was unsentimental about children, describing the sadistic cruelty of which they can be capable: Gino Manson, ‘half a tinker and simple-minded’ is beaten by his school mates and forced into a dirty pool. He limps home, ‘a sodden scarecrow … towards the gentler animals of [his farm] Blinkbonny.’ Brown also loathed his time at school, where he was made to feel inferior by snobbish teachers, just the son of the local postman. Stromness Academy seems to dominate the middle of the town as you enter the harbour, an ominous building, which Mackay Brown graphically described as a ‘huge gray unimaginative machine’.15 But Mackay Brown also loved children, and could be kind and generous to the bairns of relatives and friends, often dedicating moving poems to them.

A stranger arrives on the ferry to Greenvoe, bringing a brief-case, typewriter and a tape recorder. Ivan Westray tries to charm him with local knowledge, but the man remains silent, impervious. When he signs the guest-book, it is not a name, ‘more a strange involuted squiggle, a sign or a hieroglyph out of the remote past or the remote future.’ Kashmir Johnny finally reaches the Hamnavoe hotel, and begins to systematically to knock at all the rooms, in the hope of making more sales. He reaches a corridor of rooms under the roof, and knocks at the end door; no one answers, but he enters. The man from the ferry sits at a table, his back toward Johnny, and does not answer, but turns slowly round: ‘An axe-like profile, then the full face, meagre and puritanical; sieving abstracted eyes behind a thick glimmer of spectacles … He is a bureaucrat. He is Western Man arrived at a foreseen inevitable end. I see it now. He rules the world with a card index file…(He was, it was said, a German).’

The stranger is here to begin the planning of ‘Operation Black Star’, a massive construction site that will tunnel into the centre of the island, creating a huge central chamber. ‘What went on in the dome itself, that would be most secret, most beautiful – a pure rite of science.’ No one knows its purpose, not even the navvies at work on the structure. It transforms the landscape, flattening large parts of the village, finally, fencing off the entire island. Greenvoe is remarkably prophetic. Brown had effectively foreseen what would be the impact of the Piper oil field on Orkney, developed by the Occidental Group in January 1973, the year after the novel’s publication.16 The oil field’s massive processing plant is located on the small island of Flotta that was in many ways transformed, for better and worse, as the novel envisaged. But the Black Star enterprise collapses, withdraws, abandoning the island to its silence, the perimeter fence now guarding nothing. Greenvoe ends with a transforming ritual, as Mansie Anderson, Tom Kerston, Johnny Corrigall, Gino Manson, Sidney Fortin-Bell and the young Skarf enact an enigmatic, resurrection mystery that in some sense reclaims the island from the Black Star, and from modernity. ‘The smell of the earth came to them in the first wind of morning, from the imprisoned fields of the island; and the fence could not keep it back.’

Mackay Brown despaired of modernity, and felt that the time-honoured worship of ‘the Word’ was now replaced by worship of ‘the Number’. He rarely left Orkney, and only visited England once, a traumatic trip to London, where the scale of the city appalled him, and he only left Scotland again to stay with his friend Seamus Heaney, in Ireland. Mackay Brown travelled widely in his imagination and through his reading: Tolstoy and Thomas Mann were particular favourites, The Magic Mountain perhaps close to his own experience of debilitating illness. In his later years he rarely went very far from his flat; his habitual route was up the steep hill behind the town to The Braes Hotel and bar, where he became a fixture, next to the window with a wide view across Stromness and out to Orphir, Hoy. For Mackay Brown, Hamnavoe – his Stromness – and Orkney were all he needed to create his impressive range of work. He was by no means uncritical of Orcadians, he had once bitterly denounced them as ignorant and complacent. Some of them in turn saw Brown as a disillusioned layabout with a drink problem.

However paradoxical George Mackay Brown’s feelings for the place, he said that if he lived another 500 years, he would never be short of stories to tell about Orkney and its people.

Nigel Wheale is the author of Raw Skies: New and Selected Poems (Shearsman 2005) and The Six Strides of Freyfaxi (Oystercatcher 2010). His academic texts include The Postmodern Arts (Routledge 1995) and Writing & Society: Literacy, Print and Politics in Britain 1590-1660 (Routledge 1999). An archive of his work for the Fortnightly may be found here.


Brontë, Emily (1847: 1963), Wuthering Heights, Bungay: Penguin.

Brown, George Mackay (1972), Greenvoe, London: Hogarth Press.

– (1973) Magnus, London: Methuen.

– (1982), Travellers, London: Hachette UK.

Davies, Peter Maxwell (1980), ‘The Yellow Cake Review’, score, New York, London and Berlin: Boosey & Hawkes Music Publishers. (Thanks to Mick Gowar for loan of his copy).

Ferguson, Ron (2011), George Mackay Brown. The Wound and the Gift, Edinburgh: St Andrew Press.

Fergusson, Maggie (2006), George Mackay Brown. The Life, London: John Murray.

Neat, Timothy (2002), The Horseman’s Word. Blacksmiths and Horsemanship in Twentieth-Century Scotland, Edinburgh: Birlinn.

‘Perse, Saint-John (1930), Anabasis. A poem by St.-J. Perse, with a translation into English by T. S. Eliot.


  1. Ferguson 2011: xxvii.
  2. Brown 1972: 268.
  3. Brown 1982: 143.
  4. Ferguson 2011: 152.
  5. Perse 1930: 33.
  6. Ferguson 2011: 184
  7. Davis 1980.
  8. Davis 1980: ii
  9. Ferguson 2011: 163
  10. Brown, in Ferguson 2011: 41.
  11. Brown in Ferguson 2011: 297.
  12. Brown 1973: 169.
  13. Brontë (1847) 1963: 31.
  14. Neat 2002.
  15. Ferguson 2011: 24.
  16. Fergusson 2006: 221—2.
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Morag MacInnes
Morag MacInnes
2 years ago

though your comparison of my dad’s cover pic for Greenvoe to Guernica is interesting, I can assure you it was not in his mind!

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