Every six months or so, the sale ring of the Orkney Auction Mart in Kirkwall is swept clean with a stiff byre broom, and made ready for a sale of Orkney books. The muscular Limousin steers or prime Texel lambs usually passing through this ring make way on these occasions for other products of the islands’ agricultural hinterland. Dusty copies of Eric Linklater’s magnificent Orkney novels. Sooty collected folk tales or histories by Walter Traill Dennison or Ernest Marwick. Slim volumes of exquisite verse, written by Robert Rendall or Christina Costie in the Orcadian variety of the Scots language, their pastel-coloured dust-jackets faded with age. The air carries a powerful smell of livestock. On the surrounding benches – usually populated by canny Aberdeenshire buyers – assembles a discerning local clientele. The auctioneer begins his rhythmic chant. The gavel cracks.
One book above all others has the power to create a frisson among the seasoned Orkney book buyers: The Storm and Other Poems, by George Mackay Brown. It’s more than sixty years since this maiden work of the great poet appeared, and the story of its publication has become a local legend. The young Brown was dogged by a black combination of tuberculosis, depression, and near-alcoholism. Had it not been for the love of a devoted mother, Mhairi Brown, and the guidance of a poetic mentor, the Orcadian modernist Edwin Muir, the great bard of Stromness might never have made it into print. But thanks to the encouragement of Muir, who wrote of the ‘grace’ of these early poems, and the help of the historian Ernest Marwick, who published two of them in An Anthology of Orkney Verse (1949), Brown found the self-belief to complete his first collection, and the courage to take it to a Kirkwall publisher, The Orkney Herald. A modest run of three hundred copies of The Storm and Other Poems went ahead, after which the press was dismantled. The book promptly sold out, and the rest is Scottish Literary History. Over the next three decades, George Mackay Brown became internationally famous, earning the acclaim of poets and critics the world over. A fragile copy of The Storm and Other Poems that has lain in a drawer in an Orkney farmhouse, the damp air of sixty northern winters rusting its staples, has the power today to excite the passions of even the most reserved and conservative of book buyers at the Orkney Auction Mart.
Some of the poems in The Storm and Other Poems brim with a kind of Hopkinsean gusto that is typical of Brown’s early work. The title poem especially is loud, dramatic, and flamboyantly musical. And there are occasional flashes in The Storm and Other Poems of a punky young poet, setting out to sing ‘for Scotland, that Knox ruined nation’, nationalistic and confrontational in a way that readers of the later Brown wouldn’t quite recognise. But of course, his perennial themes – land and sea, farming and fishing, sanctity and sacrifice, history and cycle – are all there from the outset.
Brown was born to be the poet of his community. His point in history enabled him to create a bridge between the ancient agrarian and maritime Orkney of the peasants and the jarls, and the modern world of international communication, publishing and poetry. His circumstances dictated that he would never be able to hold down any other kind of job, and so there was an inevitability to his development as a poet and author. And his rise to prominence during the sixties and seventies coincided with wider New Age ideals of a reversion to innocence and a seeking after pure sources. For many metropolitan migrants these ideals extended to uprooting themselves and moving lock, stock and barrel to some of the ‘remoter’ parts of Scotland. Brown’s work, which is scathing towards modernity, science, technology, and nuclear weaponry, struck a chord with an idealistic generation of southern readers.
Critics lauded Brown’s ‘unadulterated’ art, and were blown away by the ‘purity’ of his poetics, imagining that this meticulously crafted and painstakingly developed poetry had somehow always been here in the distant north, like Neolithic treasure waiting to be lifted by southern hands from the damp northern clay. And while it may represent part of the truth of GMB’s art, this view fails to sufficiently recognise his dedication, his extensive reading, his literary network, or his individual genius – not to mention a certain canniness, his sense of the wider audience sitting round the sale-ring.
A cynic might say that those ‘pure sources’ of Brown’s poetry have all but dried up in Orkney today. Wind turbines grind out their clean energy. Every square metre of pasture or tilth is satellite-mapped, assessed, and subsidised. Hundreds of thousands of tourists spill from ocean liners to shuffle round the rocks at Skara Brae and the Ring of Brodgar. The tides, the waves, and the very seabed have been leased to renewable energy developers. You can drive the roads of the West Mainland late in a summer evening before harvest time, seeking George Mackay Brown’s mythology, but all you’ll find are ghosts, stones, the sunset.
(Adapted from the introduction to Orcadians: Seven Impromptus by George Mackay Brown with illustrations by Simon Manfield, published by Kettillonia: http://kettillonia.co.uk/pamphlets/poetry/orcadians-seven-impromptus/ )