George Mackay Brown: The Life
The inaugural George Mackay Brown Memorial Lecture was held in the Pier Arts Centre on 12 April 2007 and was given by writer and editor Maggie Fergusson who wrote the first full-length biography of the writer, George Mackay Brown: The Life (John Murray, 2006).
The book quickly garnered a clutch of awards: the Saltire First Book Prize, the Marsh Biography Award, the Yorkshire Post Book of the Year Award and the Scottish Arts Council Biography Award.
She revealed how she had become drawn into his work, discovering it in the library of the Royal Society of Literature where she had worked from 1991. In 1992, with Vinland due to be published, The Times gave her the chance to go to Orkney by to interview the writer. It was her first visit to the islands. Initially unforthcoming in response to her questions, George was hospitable, witty and engaging and a warm personal connection was forged.
Some time after that Hugo Brunner, the writer’s editor at John Murray Publishers, suggested to Maggie that she write his biography; George agreed and she visited him in Orkney a number of times before his death in 1996. There was help from his sister Ruby and a brother, Jackie. From his literary executor, Archie Bevan and from Ian MacInnes.
Further from Orkney there were unexpected sources that opened up seams of her subject’s life. Almost 200 uncatalogued letters deposited with Edinburgh University were opened shortly after the writer’s death and shared with Maggie – his letters to Stella Cartwright written in the period 1964-1985. Maggie found too, in the National Library of Scotland, the yet uncatalogued letters from Stella Cartwright to George. She described how other letters turned up in the final stages of writing the biography from the wide circle of people with whom George corresponded – rich sources providing insight into her subject and the times he lived through.
The lecture was recorded by Radio Orkney and broadcast in the GMB centenary year on Thursday 1 April 2021. You can listen to it here.
Maggie Fergusson is a freelance writer. She is the Literary Editor of The Tablet, and editor of the Royal Society of Literature Review.
She has written for newspapers and magazines including The Times, the Daily and Sunday Telegraph, Observer and the Independent magazine.
Her first book, George Mackay Brown: The Life (John Murray, 2006), won the Saltire First Book Prize, the Marsh Biography Award, the Yorkshire Post Book of the Year Award and the Scottish Arts Council Biography Award.
Her second biography, Michael Morpurgo: War Child to War Horse (Harper Collins, 2013) explores Michael Morpurgo’s life through seven biographical chapters, to which Morpurgo responds with seven stories.
Maggie is married with two daughters and lives in London.
Photograph: courtesy of Julian Anderson