Thirty-nine writers contributed fifty-one pieces of new writing – poems, a haibun and several prose poems to Words into Music, our collaborative project with Orkney Camerata for the George Mackay Brown Centenary. Here we have new writing by people in Orkney and far beyond, written in response to the work of George Mackay Brown and its themes of change and continuity.
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Working with Words: Poems and Prose
Vicky Allen lives on the south-east coast of Scotland. Her debut poetry pamphlet is Broken Things and other Tales (Hedgehog Poetry Press, 2020). She has loved George Mackay Brown’s work since first coming across a battered copy of An Orkney Tapestry in a second-hand bookshop while studying illustration in Dundee. His poetry has been a formative influence.
Lucy Alsop is an Orkney writer, singer, artist and maker who works as a proofreader. She remembers meeting George Mackay Brown as a child, and says ‘singing his words throughout my adult life has made me more aware of how Orkney changes with the seasons.’
C. E. Ayr
C. E. Ayr, author of Sound Bite Fiction and prolific poet, song-writer, blogger and YouTuber, has featured in magazines and anthologies and on local radio. Inspired by GMB, the man – as much as any specific writing – Ayr adds ‘I find “Fisherman and Croftwoman”, the closing chapter of Beside the Ocean of Time, particularly uplifting.’
Gabrielle Barnby lives in East Mainland, Orkney and writes short stories, poetry and full-length fiction. She has run writing workshops for many years, encouraging young writers and supporting creative discovery. She has a particular interest in writing for well-being. She is the author of four books and her work has been included in anthologies and magazines.
Jeanne Bouza Rose
Jeanne Bouza Rose, an artist and print-maker, lives in Orkney. She says: ‘Words and paint have been my methods of responding to and sharing my joy of the place . . . I found George when I found Orkney . . . [he] wrote a passage around the reflecting pool at Woodwick House where I first stayed.’
Penni Brown lives in Edinburgh but grew up in Stromness and George Mackay Brown always nodded his chin to greet her when he passed in the street. She once interviewed him for her school magazine. Originally a lawyer, she has only recently started writing poetry.
Lorraine Bruce is an artist, born and brought up in Holm, now living in Kirkwall. She started writing two years ago when she joined the writing groups Orkney Voices and Open Book. ‘I find my art and writing complement one another,’ she says. And it was at the writing groups that she became interested in George Mackay Brown’s work.
Vera Butler was born 62 years ago at Millbrae in Tankerness, where she has lived, worked and brought up her family. She has worked as a home carer for the last 14 years. She says, ‘I started writing with a great group called Orkney Voices about four years ago and wrote “On the Road” after we read GMB’s fantastic poem “Ikey’s Day”.’
John Butterfield retired as minister of Stromness parish kirk in 2022 and now lives in Orphir where he keeps busy in his polycrub. He enjoys the writing of GMB, saying that ‘it highlights that which is special, and the unique in the mundane, everyday world.’ He thinks that George’s influence lives on in the Orkney community that was the foundation of his life and work.
Piers Cain grew up in Ruislip, a ‘Metroland’ suburb of Greater London. A history graduate, he has travelled extensively (Europe, Africa, and Asia), building up a rich professional experience. Having lived in London, in the US and in Europe, he has settled, with his passion for poetry, in Stromness, Orkney.
Louise Farquhar lives in Milngavie and discovered George Mackay Brown when visiting Birsay in the early 1990’s. With a family home there, she enjoyed many holidays over the years, falling in love with Orkney and the rich artistic landscape. George’s writing continues to be a source of inspiration in her daily life.
Fiona Fleming has worked with single homeless people and old folk, as a joiner, woodwork tutor, bookseller, teacher of English. She acquired George Mackay Brown’s Collected Poems during the first week of her sixteen years in Orkney. Her haibun, Frashoketeri, 17 April is a journal entry on (the) time(s) and Magnus.
Ellen Forkin lives in Orkney with her menagerie of animals and semi-wild rook. She discovered George Mackay Brown’s work upon moving to the islands and is inspired by the rhythm of his words and captured time and place.
Sheila Garson is an Orcadian with a lifelong interest in the culture and heritage of the islands. She is a member of the Orkney Voices writing group and particularly enjoys writing in dialect.
Jenne Gray is a Glasgow-based writer/poet who has had work published in various print and online anthologies and broadcast on local radio. She has worked with people from many countries and is fascinated by language, time and the sea. This has drawn her to the works of George MacKay Brown.
Ingrid lived in Stromness during her school years and remembers George Mackay Brown as a ‘weel kent face aboot the toon’, always ready with a gentle smile and hello as you passed by. His work, so richly steeped in Orkney life, resonates with Ingrid’s work as an Orkney landscape artist.
Barbara Johnston is an Orcadian who lives in Kirkwall. Her hobbies are photography, painting and writing, mostly in dialect. Excellent teachers inspired a love of poetry, and as a teacher, she introduced the children to GMB’s poetry. Orkney Voices has been very influential in recent work.
Áine King is a writer and dramatist living in Orkney. Her background is London-Irish, and the musicality and rythms in peoples’ different ways of speaking have always fascinated her. This, she says, is one of the many reasons why she is drawn to GMB’s work.
Julie Laing is a Glasgow-based writer and visual artist with work published in Gutter magazine, Speculative Books and Studies in Photography. Julie was recently mentored through the Clydebuilt/St Mungo’s Mirrorball Poetry Apprenticeship scheme and in 2022 won the Wigtown Poetry Prize. She collaborates on the exhibition of visual poetry and coordinates a peer- led crit group for photographers supported by Street Level Photoworks.
Miriam Landor now lives in Deerness, Orkney. On arrival in Stromness in 1980 she first saw George, her literary hero, through the window of Hamnavoe Restaurant (formerly Richans), dining with friends. Beachcomber is her favourite of his published poems; most treasured is the acrostic he wrote for their newborn son.
Halszka Leleń is Assistant Professor of literature at the University of Warmia and Mazury in Olsztyn, Poland. She explores George Mackay Brown’s lyrical and narrative warp and weft, as well as popularizing Scottish literature and culture. She writes poetry as a hobby, along with painting and growing things. She has been to Orkney twice.
Colin J. Leythorne
Colin Leythorne has lived long-term in England, Scotland and Wales. ‘Maybe,’ he considers, ‘Ireland is still to come?’ George Mackay Brown, he says, ‘would seem to offer much in one’s greater appreciation of and for’ Orkney.
Jane McKie’s first collection, Morocco Rococo (Cinnamon Press), was awarded the 2008 Sundial/Scottish Arts Council prize for best first book of 2007. Recent collections include Woman, Stay (2020) and Jawbreaker (2021). Jane is a member of the Edinburgh-based Shore Poets, and she works as a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh.
Lesley M. McLetchie
Lesley McLetchie was born in Aberdeen and was at that time the youngest baby ever to fly from Aberdeen home to Kirkwall – she still has the press cuttings. She says, ‘I consider myself as Orcadian as I spent the first eight years of my life in Kirkwall. George Mackay Brown told me to keep writing.’
Sue Mara lives on North Ronaldsay, where she practises art photography, makes small artist’s books, writes songs and poetry, and proofreads the island newsletter. ‘Years before moving here, it was George Mackay Brown who first sparked my curiosity about Orkney, and I’ve been exploring his work and the islands ever since.’
Selin Tuzlan Mead
Selin Tuzlan Mead is an English Literature MA graduate from Durham University who is currently residing in London. ‘Growing up in Turkey, my acquaintance with Orkney Islands was randomly facilitated by a National Geographic article on North Ronaldsay. I managed to visit Orkney a couple years ago, spending most of my time in Evie. Unfortunately I couldn’t visit North Ronaldsay!
Donald S. Murray
Donald S. Murray was raised in Ness, Isle of Lewis, and lives in Shetland. His novel As the Women Lay Dreaming won the Paul Torday Prize. For the Safety of All – the Story of Scotland’s Lighthouses (HES) appears in May 2021. George Mackay Brown’s work inspired him to write while a teenager.
Larissa Reid is a freelance science writer. She lives on Scotland’s east coast and has published poetry and prose regularly since 2016. She first met George Mackay Brown’s words whilst studying Scottish Literature at Aberdeen University, and his stories and poems have woven their way throughout her life ever since.
Orcadian George Rendall served for some years on the board of St Magnus Festival alongside George Mackay Brown. During that time he directed, amongst other things, a stage production of GMB’s radio play, ‘The Road to Colonus’. His time is now mostly taken up caring for his wife.
Margareth Richards has worked in Orkney for 40 years as a Community Nurse covering most of the islands. She lived first in the West Mainland and latterly in Kirkwall where she is now retired. She says works of George Mackay Brown such as Greenvoe (1972) and ‘The Sea: Four Elegies’ (Winterfold, 1976) encapsulate our relationship with the ocean, the subject of her poem in this volume.
Olive M. Ritch
Olive M. Ritch is an award-winning poet from Orkney. Brought up on a farm in the parish of Stromness, she knew George Mackay Brown as a presence in the town. She was also fortunate in having his friend, Mr Bevan, teach his work at Stromness Academy, which encouraged a life-long interest in his poetry.
Dilys Rose is a Scottish fiction writer and poet living in Edinburgh, and has received many awards and fellowships. Her most recent publications are Stone the Crows (Mariscat Press 2020) and Sea Fret (Scotland Street Press 2022). ‘I met George on my first of several visits to Orkney,’ she writes. ‘It was a wild November night and we sat by his fire.’
I live in Orkney for part of the year. I first read George Mackay Brown’s work during my first visit to Orkney in 1990 and found his genius so captured the islands. My latest collection Exposure is about Orkney (Turas Press). I am a poetry tutor.
Fiona Sanderson is an artist, maker and writer who lives in Stromness. She says: ‘I wrote a letter recently, to a lighthouse keeper, who had said that was the best way to be in touch. No emails there! I wrote it sitting at my kitchen table, where, if I turn my head, I can see George’s old place through the window’.
A writer, Babs has lived in Quoyloo for the past seven years, having visited Orkney since 1980. Having been familiar with some of George Mackay Brown’s work from school, she says, ‘I was delighted, on one of my early visits, to have the pleasure of meeting him’.
Poet and translator from the US. His work has featured in Gutter, Magma, The Dark Horse, London Magazine and other journals. He is a doctoral candidate in literary translation at the University of Glasgow. ‘George Mackay Brown,’ he says, ‘was first brought to my attention by the Scottish poet Don Paterson’.
I am a poet, playwright, fantasy writer and spoken word artist from Shetland. Shetland and Orkney have an interlinked history which George researched well. My work is inspired by the culture I share with George Mackay Brown. George spurred me to celebrate the northern isles’ arts.
Douglas Thompson works in architecture in Glasgow. He has published 15 novels and short story collections since 2009, and has poetry collections from Diehard in 2018, and Red Squirrel in 2021. He says, ‘I’ve just finished reading my late mother’s copy of Time In A Red Coat she bought in Stornoway in 1986′.
Lesley Traynor is published nationally and internationally. She is one of a hundred British female writers invited to write on women’s’ suffrage for the 100 Voices project. In 2018 she was commissioned to contribute to the centennial celebration of film maker Margaret Tait. She is a former Director of Scottish Writers’ Centre.
Gordon Wright, born in Edinburgh in 1942, trained as a camera-operator at the Edinburgh Geographical Institute. He visited Orkney for the first time in 1974 as a representative of the Scottish Association of Magazine Publishers. He purchased a copy of An Orkney Tapestry at the Stromness bookshop and immediately became absorbed in GMB’s writing and all things Orcadian.
Featured image: screenprint (detail) by Christina Sargent