Chasing The Storm
In the centenary of the birth of George Mackay Brown in 1921, the GMB Fellowship and BBC Radio Orkney have launched a joint project to trace as many copies as possible of the writer’s first collection, The Storm and other poems published in 1954. The radio station plans to broadcast a special programme in the autumn, as close as possible to the centenary of GMB’s birth. As well as learning where copies have found homes – in Orkney, Scotland, the UK, the world! – we would be glad if owners were willing to share any stories they have of the books. How they came to own them, what they know of their history, what they mean to them now. The stories will form part of the BBC Radio Orkney programme for the centenary, but in the months ahead we will publish them here on the GMBF website.
You can read the accounts of the 1954 copies in Stories of The Storm
If you have a copy of The Storm and would be willing to tell us about it please contact us at:
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 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.
Click here to go to Stories of The Storm
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