Born: 1921 in Stromness, Orkney Islands
Died: 1996 in Stromness
First Book: The Storm (Orkney Press, 1954)
Awards: Short-listed for the 1994 Booker Prize for Beside the Ocean of TimeGeorge Mackay Brown is considered to be one of the greatest Scottish poets and authors of the twentieth century. His technical mastery and control of both prose and verse attracted a world-wide readership. Although never reaching bestseller status, his books were published in more than a dozen countries around the world, drawing hundreds of avid fans to his house in Orkney each year.
Born on 17 October 1921 into a poor family living in Stromness in the Orkney Islands, Mackay Brown attended the local Stromness Academy. It was here he discovered a talent for writing, excelling in the weekly compositions set by hisEnglish teacher.
His time at school was brought to a premature end when he contracted tuberculosis and was sent to a sanatorium in Kirkwall. He was troubled by the disease throughout his life and never completely returned to full health. His illness excluded him from service during the Second World War, and made him essentially unemployable on a long-term basis.
However, the extended periods of rest which the disease enforced upon him meant that he was able to read and write extensively, thereby developing his literary talent. By the early 1940s his prolific writings were beginning to emerge publicly with news stories, reviews and a regular column in the Orkney weekly newspaper. This column was a constant feature throughout the rest of his life, with his final piece appearing just two days before his death on 13 April 1996.
After his initial success in the early 1940s he began to drink heavily and only wrote occasional poems and his column for the local newspaper. This lifestyle continued for almost ten years before he received an invitation to become a mature student at an adult education college in Dalkeith in 1951. The college was run by Edwin Muir, a poet and fellow Orkadian whose work Mackay Brown greatly admired. Much of Muir’s work, and especially his 1940 The Story and the Fable (which Mackay Brown read when he went to the University of Edinburgh two years after graduating from the Dalkeith college), interweaved Orkadian life and history with myth and legend, and had a profound effect on the future style and subject-matter of Mackay Brown’s later achievements.
In the summer of 1970, he met – entirely by chance – the composer Peter Maxwell Davies in the remote valley of Rackwick in Orkney. In the subsequent years, the two men forged a fiercely strong friendship and went on to collaborate together to produce many of Maxwell Davies’ Orkney-inspired works.
Following the publication and success of Booker Prize short-listed Beside the Ocean of Time, Mackay Brown wrote two collections of short stories, the second of which was published posthumously. When he died on 13 April 1996, he left a legacy for both Scottish literature and the communities of the Orkney Islands. Able to transcend the common and often mundane perception of Orkadian life and history, Mackay Brown’s writing was ethereal and timeless, filled with strong universal truths that deeply touched his global readership.
A Calendar of Love, Beside the Ocean of Time, Greenvoe, Hawkfall, The Island of the Women, A Time to Keep, Vinland, and Winter Tales are all available from now Polygon. Selected pieces are also published by Polygon in Lament: Scottish Poems for Funerals and Consolation and Scottish War Stories, and an extensive interview with Mackay Brown is featured in Scottish Writers Talking.