Saturday 15 May 2021
George Mackay Brown was a young writer aged 33 when he decided in 1954 to publish his first collection of work, The Storm and Other Poems. ‘For the islands I sing,’ the first poem begins; the book is a celebration of the place and people of Orkney, from the twentieth century back to Neolithic times, 5000 years ago and more. It was printed, at his own expense, at the Orkney Herald for which he wrote a weekly column. We understand 300 copies were made. Soon after printing, the typeset for the book was broken up; another run was not anticipated. But within just two weeks all the copies were sold.
Here Susan Leonard tells the story of how she became interested in the book and – eventually – acquired her own copy.
“I was only fourteen and at Stromness Academy when The Storm came out. While we had heard about the new author, we were more familiar with the works of Eric Linklater, Edwin Muir and, especially, the dialect poems of Robert Rendall. Then we were read ‘The Storm’ (the poem) by our English teacher and we were really impressed. So much so that the next day two of us rushed down to Rae’s shop at lunchtime with a precious four shillings in our hands to buy the book. Of course, we had left it too late. They were all gone! Imagine our disappointment!
Later, during my first year at Aberdeen University, I was on my regular Saturday hunt for second hand text books at The Market behind Union Street. To my amazement, I saw a copy of The Storm. I grabbed it with both hands and bought it – for a whole shilling. I smiled all the way home. I still have it and it is in good condition as you can see from my photo.
Many years later, my cousin, John Yule, who is also a book collector, saw it in my bookcase. Being younger than me, he had not known about it. He immediately bought it from the internet. It cost him SLIGHTLY more than a shilling. He has allowed me to mention him.”
We are grateful to Susan Leonard for allowing us to share her story.
As part of celebrations to mark the centenary of the birth of George Mackay Brown, Radio Orkney and the GMB Fellowship have invited owners of the writer’s first collection of poems, The Storm and Other Poems, to get in touch with the station or with the GMB Fellowship with any stories or information they are willing to share with us.
How far have copies of the book travelled to homes throughout the islands? Where have they reached in the UK? Are there copies in other countries?
What memories do people have of how and when they acquired their copy? What importance do they have to their owners? What impact did the poems have on them when the book was new – or when it was discovered later?
Radio Orkney plan to make a programme about the book to be broadcast in autumn.
And the George Mackay Brown Fellowship look forward to hearing more stories and, with the writers’ permission, sharing them here.
We’d love to know where the surviving copies are, and would be delighted if there were more stories you could tell us about them.