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About George Mackay Brown

George Mackay Brown (1921-1996), was a key figure in 20th-century Scottish literature, achieving equal prominence as poet, novelist, and short-story writer. His work was rooted in the history, mythology, landscape, and speech of his native Orkney.


George Mackay Brown was educated at Stromness Academy and, after leaving school, worked as a journalist on the Orkney Herald. He began writing poetry in the 1940s and came to the attention of his fellow Orcadian Edwin Muir who was to play a major role in Brown's early career. Muir wrote an introduction to Brown’s first volume of poems The Storm (1954) and persuaded the Hogarth Press to publish his second collection, Loaves and Fishes (1959), which provided Brown with his first critical and public success. Muir also secured Brown a place at Newbattle Abbey College, an adult education centre, near Edinburgh, where Muir himself was Warden.  Brown went on to read English literature as a mature student at Edinburgh (1956-60) where he became part of the circle of poets associated with Milne’s Bar, including Hugh MacDiarmid, Norman MacCaig, and Sydney Goodsir Smith.

After graduating, Mackay Brown began teacher-training at Edinburgh’s Moray House but was forced to give up due to ill health. Following his convalescence, he converted to Catholicism (1961), which exerted a major influence on his subsequent writings. He began a post-graduate degree on the work of Gerald Manley Hopkins, but in 1964, he returned permanently to Orkney and became a full-time writer.

Major Works

George Mackay Brown was a prolific and versatile author. He published thirty-one books of poetry, many of which are limited editions, or collaborations with artists, but which also include substantial collections such as The Year of the Whale (1965), Fishermen with Ploughs (1971), Winterfold (1976), Voyages (1983), and The Wreck of the Archangel (1989). He published twelve collections of short-stories, including A Calendar of Love (1967), A Time to Keep (1969), Hawkfall (1974), and The Sun’s Net (1976), which, for many critics and readers, have proved his most distinctive and durable work. Brown wrote five novels: Greenvoe (1972), Magnus (1973), Time in a Red Coat (1976), Vinland (1992), and the Booker-short-listed Beside the Ocean of Time (1994). His essays, many originally published in The Orcadian, were collected as An Orkney Tapestry (1969), Letters from Hamnavoe (1975), Under Brinkie's Brae (1979) and Portrait of Orkney (1981). He achieved success as a children’s writer with The Two Fiddlers (1974), Pictures in the Cave (1977), and The Six Lives of Fankle the Cat (1980). Perhaps less well-known is Brown’s dramatic work, which included radio plays and opera libretti, such as The Martyrdom of St Magnus, a collaboration with his friend, the composer Peter Maxwell Davies. An autobiography, For the Islands I Sing, was posthumously published in 1997.

Public Recognition

Although often seen as a reclusive figure, George Mackay Brown played a prominent role in Orkney’s cultural life, helping to found the St Magnus Festival in 1977 and writing a regular column for the Orkney Herald from 1944 to the last week of his life. He was also familiar to a wider Scottish public through BBC radio broadcasts and through his reviews for the Scotsman newspaper (where his poems and short stories were also often published). Brown's work also received widespread critical, public, and official recognition. He was awarded an OBE in 1974, and became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1977. His many literary prizes include the James Tait Black Memorial Prize 1987 for The Golden Bird (1987) and the Saltire Scottish book of the year for Beside the Ocean of Time (1995). Brown is also one of 20th-century Scotland's best-known writers abroad. To date, his work has been translated into eighteen languages.

Further Reading

  • Timothy C. Baker, George Mackay Brown and the Philosophy of Community (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009)
  • Alan Bold, George Mackay Brown (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1978)
  • George Mackay Brown, For the Islands I Sing (London: J. Murray, 1997)
  • Maggie Fergusson, George Mackay Brown: The Life (London: J. Murray 2007)
  • Rowena Murray and Brian Murray, Interrogation of Silence: The Writings of George Mackay Brown (London: John Murray, 2004)
  • Sabine Schmid, Keeping the Sources Pure: The Making of George Mackay Brown (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2003)
  • Hilda H. Spear (ed.), George Mackay Brown: A Survey of His Work and a Full Bibliography (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2000)

Online Resources

Includes a biographical profile, a selection of poems, lists of biographical and critical resources, and links to publications by and about George Mackay Brown in the Scottish Poetry Library's online catalogue. The Scottish Poetry Library is open to everyone to use and free to join.