4: Bairns’ Stories

Seven Books by George Mackay Brown

For the fourth of the Seven Books series we have a rather different event, a recorded discussion chaired by writer, GMB Fellowship Board member, and Orkney Scriever, Alison Miller. Here she speaks to two sisters, writer Morag MacInnes and writer and artist Fiona MacInnes, and to the artist, sculptor and lecturer Anne Bevan. George Mackay Brown was a close friend of their parents, and a frequent visitor to their homes.

You can view the discussion online on Thursday 29 July 7.00-8.30 pm. Email gmbfellows@gmail.com for the link and passcode.

The recording will be available here soon.

Writing for Bairns

GMB published three books for children: The Two Fiddlers (1974), retellings of Orkney folk tales (dedicated to Anne Bevan); Pictures in the Cave (1977), a collection of short stories, each set in a different period of Orkney’s history from neolithic times to World War 2 (dedicated to Fiona and Mhairi MacInnes); Six Lives of Fankle the Cat (1980), a sequence of stories linked by the persona of Fankle, Anne Bevan’s childhood pet (so named by George), was dedicated to the Dixon children. A fourth book that was perhaps for bairns old and young was Letters to Gypsy (1990), written to a small black cat who lived with her owner in a pier house in Stromness. Gypsy received regular visits from the writer and also enjoyed holidays at his flat in Mayburn Court when his owner, Nora Kennedy, to whom the book is dedicated, was away from Orkney. A story of George’s, The Martians are Coming (2010), was illustrated by cartoonist Alex Leonard – as a boy the writer had loved comics or ‘twopenny dreadfuls’ – and published, with an introduction by Morag MacInnes, by pupils at Stromness Academy.

Besides these popular collections of children’s writing, GMB wrote acrostics to celebrate the births of the children of friends, and sometimes for subsequent birthdays too. He also told special stories to Morag and Fiona and wrote ‘letters from fairies’ for Anne.

Six Lives of Fankle the Cat is available in Stromness Books and Prints and in The Orcadian Bookshop. The other books are out of print but can be found in – and borrowed from – Orkney Library and Archive and Stromness Library in the Warehouse Building, Stromness.

George Mackay Brown and Friends

George Mackay Brown lived all his days in Stromness in Orkney, apart from his time studying at Newbattle Abbey and later at Edinburgh University. He had lifelong friendships with Ian and Jean MacInnes and Archie and Elizabeth Bevan and visited their houses regularly.

George had started school with Ian MacInnes in 1926. A photograph of the class shows Ian in the centre holding the slate with ‘INFANTS’ written on it and George slouching at the end of the same row. Ian MacInnes was an artist, as well as a teacher of art in Stromness Academy, and he illustrated George’s children’s books, The Two Fiddlers, Pictures in the Cave and The Six Lives of Fankle the Cat. He also did the cover art for several of the earlier books: The Storm and Other Poems, Greenvoe, Magnus, Hawkfall; and one of his portraits of George was used for the jacket of the autobiography, For the Islands I Sing

Archie Bevan taught English in Stromness Academy and encouraged the pupils to read George’s work. Later he became involved with setting up the St Magnus Festival along with composer Peter Maxwell Davies and others and George’s writing formed the core of many of the Festival productions. Later still Archie became George’s Literary Executor.

In Bairns’ Stories, which will be available here some time after the July screening, three of the bairns of Ian MacInnes and Archie Bevan speak to Alison Miller of their memories of GMB. They talk to her about the stories the writer told them, never printed or published, and his influence in their later lives.

Those bairns are now grown women, of course! 

Morag MacInnes

Morag is the second oldest of the four daughters of Ian and Jean MacInnes. She is a writer of fiction, essays and poetry. She has been widely published in short story anthologies. Her poetry includes Alias Isobel, linked poems about a young Orkney woman who posed as a man to work in the Hudson’s Bay Company in Canada, before her pregnancy outed her; and Street Shapes, a book of poems about Stromness with artist Diana Leslie. Morag has worked as a community artist, lecturer, creative writing tutor, has produced community plays and collected & edited oral histories and anthologies.

Fiona MacInnes

Fiona, younger sister of Morag, is an artist, a painter, and also a writer of fiction, poetry and non-fiction. Her collection of poetry, To Step Among Wrack, has a foreword by George Mackay Brown. She has also published a novel, Iss, about a young woman in a Stromness edgier than you will find in George’s writing. His children’s book Pictures in the Cave is dedicated to Fiona and her younger sister Mhairi. Fiona worked till recently with Orkney Fisheries Association to represent the needs of Orkney’s fishing fleet and safeguard the activity of local fishermen. 

Anne Bevan

Anne, youngest of Archie and Elizabeth Bevan’s children, is an artist and sculptor. The list of her exhibitions and artworks reads like a poem: nova, wanderweg, rosengarten, source, moonrock, undercover, moon pool, level, shimmer, lifting light, soundings. She has collaborated with many people, including writer Janice Galloway and currently with archaeologist Mark Edmonds. She is Curriculum Leader in Art & Design at the University of the Highlands & Islands in Orkney College. The Six Lives of Fankle the Cat features Anne’s childhood pet.

Stromness pier with boat winch and bairns: pastel drawing by David G. Harnden

7pm Monday 19 April 2021

Ron Ferguson Magnus

7pm Monday 17 May 2021

Simon Hall The Year of the Whale

7pm Monday 7 June 2021

Pamela Beasant Letters from Hamnavoe

7pm Monday 23 August 2021

Malachy Tallack Simple Fire: Selected Short Stories

7 pm Monday 20 September

Linden Bickett and Kirsteen McCue: An Orkney Tapestry

7pm Monday 18 October 2021

Maggie Fergusson: For the Islands I Sing

Return to GMB Centenary 2021

Featured image: photograph of George Mackay Brown (detail) by Gunnie Moberg courtesy Orkney Library and Archive

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