Virginia Barton

George Mackay Brown, A Brief Encounter

The Chesterton Review, February 1991


george-mackay-brownOriginally my intention was to write about The Masked Fisherman and The Wreck of the Archangel, two books by George Mackay Brown published by John Murray in 1989. The first is a fine collection of short stories, the second, a collection of poems.

Rather than discuss two books that were widely and enthusiastically reviewed at the time, I prefer to offer a personal memoir of the man described as Scotland’s greatest living writer – because, in 1989, I had the rare privilege of actually meeting George Mackay Brown. I shall come to that encounter presently.

Of course, an author is accessible to his public through his books. More than most writers, George Mackay Brown’s works are so much of himself as to be his very limbs. He is a prolific writer, of plays, novels, poems, essays, and stories for children. He has not published an autobiography; in a sense this is unnecessary since the world may meet and know him through a few lines of poetry or a simple story. But biographical details add insight, and most readers are keenly interested in the nuts and bolts that maketh the man.

George Mackay Brown was born in 1921, in Stromness, a seaside town in Orkney, the youngest of six children. His mother, a Gaelic speaker, came from Sutherland; his father, a tailor turned postman, was a native of Stromness. George went to the local school where his teacher attributed his “good essays” to the fact that he read “good books” (George remembers a diet of Wizard, Hotspur and Rover, the tuppenny dreadfuls of the time). He was a fervent supporter of Glasgow Celtic and thought of a career as a football writer. Ill health meant long weeks in bed at home, reading. He was fifteen when he read (and re-read, until he knew it by heart) Francis Thompson’s Hound of Heaven, a poem he now finds flawed but just as thrilling as he found it on first reading.

In 1951 he enrolled for a happy stay at New Battle Abbey College near Edinburgh, where Edwin Muir had recently become Warden. George greatly admired the Orcadian poet and critic and it was Muir’s perceptive encouragement that led to the publication of George’s early stories and poems. After four years as a mature student at Edinburgh University (where “friendship was more rewarding than books”), there followed two more as a post-graduate, absorbed in the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins.

In 1961 he became a Catholic. This was a gradual rather than a sudden conversion. He first discovered Catholicism in Orcadian history, and literature did the rest; besides Thompson and Hopkins, he has cited Newman, Corvo, Green –and, curiously, Strachey’s essay on Manning, in this connection.

In The Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series Vol. 6. George Mackay Brown wrote that “For an artist … Catholicism is a rich inexhaustible storehouse. My own writing would be much poorer, lacking those treasures of symbol and image.” An article in The Tablet (June, 1982) sheds partial light on the effect of his faith on his writing. He is a godly writer: his is a sideways approach rather than a head-on confrontation with God.

I suppose that Magnus (London, 1973) is the most overtly Catholic of his novels. The book concerns the Saint, slain at Egilsay, and contains a wonderfully moving description of the Mass. Magnus is an heroic tale. It opens, shockingly, with a peasant harnessing his wife to a plough because he has no beast. The history of Magnus is found in The Orkney-inga Saga, a book that had a profound influence on Brown. “Without that source-book, I would be a very different writer.” Where the Saga provides the skeleton, Brown breathes life, tempering savagery with humanity, fantasy with reality. Actually, many of his stories and poems are set in the distant past. But because he is so thoroughly at home there, because so many of his characters are archetypal, and because, in fact, human nature doesn’t really change, the stories are timeless.

Is it because the author has lived all his life in a virtually unchanged land and seascape that he is able to recreate the past and people it so convincingly? He excels at stripping off the superficial to expose the bone and soul of a man. He begins inside – then tells a very good story (in splendid prose, or glorious poetry) in words that are often rich and strange to the modem ear. Words like hirple, selkie. Such words can sound pseudo if the author lacks total command of his backcloth or character. We who live and work in the modern state of perpetuam mobile are unlikely to possess that command and intimate knowledge.

Light and shade, day and night, sun and storm, are the natural weave against which children shuttle to school, the Lammas Fair enthralls an entire community, fishermen cast their nets, and crofters work the soil. Leather, horn, stone and wood recur rhythmically; the author persuasively presents these natural and ordinary things until we see them afresh. In The Golden Bird (Edinburgh, 1987), Peter is teaching English to the Gaelic-speaking Lois; simple words like “moth”, “star”, and “fern” take on new meaning for him as she repeats them. The same is true of the reader, forced to re-appraise familiar words and to absorb the subtle, unpretentious use of new ones. And climate becomes almost a character in its own right – no one lying on a sun-drenched tropical beach could have written so incisively of raging tempests, huge and hungry seas, enormous skies where the zephyr breeze seems to be a rarity. It is often a raw and angry scene, clearly wrought in the latitudes peculiar to Orkney.

I referred at the beginning to the rare privilege I had in meeting George Mackay Brown. I used the word rare deliberately, first, because he is a very shy man, a true recluse, and thus, the chances of meeting him are scarce; second, the occasion was rare in the sense of precious because he, of all living writers, is the one I would most wish to write like. It is unlikely that I shall ever meet him again. This seems an appropriate moment to put that meeting on record. It is a glimpse that may not be without interest in a future where dust has returned to dust.

It was the author’s first visit south of the Scottish border – bar a ten minute dash to Berwick years before, an adventure that smacks of a dare. He had been persuaded to come south by his friend and editor at John Murray, Hugo Brunner, and it was at the invitation of Hugo and his wife Mary Rose that I met him. It was hot – hotter even, because so unexpected in England. Picture an Oxford garden with vivid green lawn, neat hedges, herbaceous border, thick with flowers and trundling bees, a birthday-card garden. Next door children played, their thin screams sometimes interrupted by the lazy bark of an overheated dog.

Into this English idyll, it seemed, an alien had wandered. Scotland’s greatest living writer, my hero, sat on a garden seat resembling nothing so much as a drift of autumn leaves; or a yarn of his own familiar seaweed, washed up by a freakish tide. He is a thin, spare, boney man, with a quietness that is disconcerting. The neophyte would have his idol chatty, expansive, mouvementé. He has an islander’s eye, full of sky and distance, and he listens; listens so intently that it’s almost as though he were eavesdropping. He is a man harrowed, not hewn. By harrowed I mean not agonised, or tortured, but as if turned up out of the ground. He is as natural as the people and the things that he writes about.

All my carefully prepared questions fly out of my mind; they seem impertinent or trivial. It is restful being with him, for he is a man of great strength, a concealed strength forged by a knowledge of weakness. Kind, gentle, humorous – he is all these things. Magically (and there’s a deal of magic about George) they were all embodied there, briefly, in an Oxford garden.


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