George Mackay Brown’s First Collection
George Mackay Brown was in Eastbank sanatorium in Kirkwall when he decided, in 1954, to publish his first collection, The Storm and other Poems. He had it printed at the Orkney Herald where he worked and the cost, he said, was kept to rock bottom. It was published in June that year, with an introduction by the writer and poet Edwin Muir.
It was Muir who had encouraged him to continue his education at Newbattle Abbey, just south of Edinburgh, where he was the Warden. When George had to return home in spring 1953 due to ill health, Muir wrote to him, encouraging him to make the most of his ability as a writer: ‘You have a gift that most people pass their lives without having . . . and you can do something with it, to our good and your own.’
In the introduction to The Storm he described what impressed him about the younger writer’s work:
He has the gift of imagination and the gift of words: the poet’s endowment. ‘Dream of Winter’, ‘St Magnus in Egilsay’ and ‘Gregory Hero’ are beautiful and original poems, with a strangeness and a magic rare anywhere in literature today . . . I read them first, along with others, when Mr Brown was at Newbattle Abbey, and what struck me then was their fresh and spontaneous beauty. Now, after reading them again, I am impressed by something I can only call grace . . . in all these poems, both the serious and the lighter ones.
Clearly, he recognised in George’s work a voice that could speak widely:
His main theme . . . is Orkney, past and present, and, if only for that reason, this book should be in every Orkney house. But it is as a poet, not only as an Orkney poet, that I admire him.
It seems the collection did find its way into many homes in Orkney; the books sold out in just two weeks. A further printing had not been anticipated and the typeset was dismantled. If some were disappointed, it may be that George was not. He was critical of his work, wary of intellectual pretension, and still questioned the value of the work of writing when he witnessed the hard labour of people working on the land and on the sea. He told Ernest Marwick another collection would be different: ‘simple and forthright and such as a crofter or fisherman would read or remember with pleasure.’
As time went on, Muir’s belief in the writing he saw at Newbattle and in The Storm was amply justified.
The poems in The Storm have lived on, appearing in later volumes of selected poems. The entire collection was included in The Collected Poems of George Mackay Brown in 2005. A new edition of The Storm and Other Poems was published in 2019 with a foreword by Kathleen Jamie.
The writer and poet’s reputation grew as further volumes of poems, short stories, novels and collections of journalism were published. In the first poem in The Storm, titled ‘Prologue’ he had set down his aim as a writer:
For the islands I sing and for a few friends; not to foster means or be midwife to ends.
But in speaking to the Orkney community he belonged to, his words and imagery ring with concerns and themes that speak to other communities too, all over the world.
The Verb – BBC Radio 3
Available for over a year
The Verb celebrates Orkney and the work of George Mackay Brown in his centenary year. One of Scotland’s greatest 20th century writers, George Mackay Brown was a poet, novelist, columnist and chronicler of Orcadian life.
Released On: 15 October 2021
Ian McMillan is joined this week by the novelist James Robertson who is fascinated by ‘time’ in George Mackay Brown’s work and has said his writing is ‘full of beautiful sentences, big ideas, mischievous comedy, powerful tragedy and, again and again, simple observations that make you pause and say, yes, that’s it, that’s how it is’. James’ most recent novel, News of the Dead, also explores time.
Alison Miller is National Library of Scotland and Orkney Library & Archive’s Scots Scriever – she shares her love of George Mackay Brown’s poem ‘Them at Isbister’ which appears in The Storm and other Poems, his first collection. Alison invites listeners to contact BBC Radio Orkney if they have a copy; only 250 were printed and she is part of a project to track as many down as possible (email@example.com).
Josie Giles has just published a verse novel called Deep Wheel Orcadia which has Orcadian dialect at its heart. Deep Wheel Orcadia itself is described as ‘a distant space station struggling for survival as the pace of change threatens to leave the community behind’. Josie reads poetry in Orcadian dialect and in English translation and explains how the English has been made less transparent.
Artist Anne Bevan grew up in Orkney and George Mackay Brown was a family friend. She reads letters from two ‘fairies’ ( Moonbeam and Rosebud) which George wrote for her when she was a child, and reads the poem he dedicated to her when she was at art school. Anne explains how he still inspires her art. http://www.annebevan.co.uk/
Chasing The Storm
Click the title above to read about the Radio Orkney and GMB Fellowship project for the GMB Centenary to find out how far copies of The Storm and Other Poems have travelled and what stories their owners might have about them.
Stories of The Storm
Click the title above to read the accounts of the 1954 copies of The Storm and Other Poems.
The Storm and Other Poems: the Making of a Print
Copies of the print, made in limited edition of 100, are now on sale and details of how to purchase one are available here.
We still have more to add to this page. Here you will shortly be able to read more about how artist Erlend Brown created a print of the cover image of The Storm using, as the starting point of the process, the printer’s block made from the original drawing by artist Ian MacInnes, a friend of George Mackay Brown from his schooldays.
GMB Centenary 2021
Click the title above to return to GMB Centenary 2021.
Use the links in the navigation bar at the top of the page if you would like to read more about the work of the George Mackay Brown Fellowship.