George Mackay Brown (1921–1996) was a Scottish writer with a remarkably distinctive personality and outlook. Like Thomas Hardy (with whom he occasionally compared himself) and Wordsworth, he is a major British literary figure closely connected with a specific provincial setting: born in Stromness, Orkney, on a cluster of islands off the northeast coast of Scotland, he lived in that small harbor town nearly all his life except for the years when he was studying at Newbattle Abbey and the University of Edinburgh. (His sole journey outside Britain was a quick dash over to Ireland in 1968, and even England he visited hurriedly in old age only at the urging of friends.) The islands, littered with ancient monuments and ruins, produced in Brown a deep sense of connection to their neolithic, Viking, and pre-industrial pasts, and from that vantage point he was able to offer a wry, often dark, perspective on the mechanized world of the twentieth century. In particular, the arrival of oil-drilling off Orkney’s shores – as well as the discovery of uranium near Stromness – prompted a series of meditations, in both prose and verse, about the potential collapse of civilization. His conversion as an adult to Roman Catholicism obviously reinforced a lifelong tendency to look backward to the Middle Ages, while his grim interpretation of humanity’s future was also connected with an awareness of global warming (a phrase he was using as early as 1992, incidentally) and nuclear warfare.
For decades Brown followed a quiet routine in his modest Stromness former council flat, sitting at the kitchen table every morning as he wrote weekly columns and other articles for local newspapers and, increasingly, composed poetry and fiction for a larger audience beyond the insular world of Orkney. His casual, self-deprecating manner disguised the fact that he was a surprisingly busy figure: he produced nearly fifty books during his lifetime, collaborated extensively with Peter Maxwell Davies in the creation of songs and operas, and assisted (always discreetly in the background) in the founding of a major annual festival of the arts in Kirkwall. When he died in 1996, his flat was crammed with manuscripts and typescripts, many of them unpublished.
On this website I am attempting to bring together a wide array of bibliographical information about him: annotated checklists of Brown’s own writings in books and periodicals, his musical joint productions with Davies, the occasional forays into radio and television, his plays, and the growing body of commentary on his work. From time to time I will also list and describe websites devoted to some aspect of Brown’s life or writings, but here I will be cautious, because – as we all know from sad experience – Internet links can become obsolete surprisingly quickly. On the other hand, the Web addresses of library catalogues are more likely to remain stable, and I have therefore sprinkled such links freely throughout the entries. My rule of thumb is that for each of his books I have tried, if possible, to provide connections to one or more libraries in Scotland, England, and the United States.
As a matter of policy, I am making an effort to personally examine the first editions of books by Brown, though for reprints I have sometimes relaxed that rule. (Alas, the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020 means that in a few instances I have had to rely on digital copies in creating my descriptions of first editions.) On the other hand, even though I cannot claim to have located or seen all the reviews of his books, I thought it would be useful to list as many as possible in order to convey a sense of Brown’s growing reputation.
During his early years as Stromness correspondent of the Orkney Herald, many of Brown’s contributions were unsigned or signed with pseudonyms. I have occasionally included some of these anonymous pieces, but I have always tried to make such attributions cautiously; another bibliographer going through the Orkney Herald files might well produce a slightly different conjectural list of his unsigned articles.
I should add that I am not recording the existence of GMB’s manuscripts – which have survived in great abundance, mainly in Kirkwall and Edinburgh – except when I can connect them with specific publications. Similarly, though I have read a good deal of GMB’s unpublished correspondence, which has often provided useful bibliographical clues, I have made no attempt here to list those letters.
I wish to express here my gratitude for the important pioneering bibliographical work by Osamu Yamada, which was originally published in 1991 and subsequently revised and reprinted in a volume edited by Hilda Spear (2000). Though I am conscious of following in his footsteps, it will also be obvious that our approaches are quite different. I am finding a considerably wider range of material – mainly, I suspect, because of the current abundance of information from digital sources – and since an online work does not share the space limitations of a book, I am describing Brown’s publications in much more detail and am making use of illustrations whenever possible. I should add that I am also indebted to a master’s thesis by Stuart MacBeath (University of Glasgow, 2017), which offers a list and close analysis of Brown’s early contributions to the Orkney Herald.
Finally, I am very aware that putting such an enormous amount of material on a website introduces complex problems of organization. (In particular, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by his thousands of weekly essays for the two local newspapers, the Orkney Herald and the Orcadian.) My suggestion is that you find your way through this bibliography by making heavy use of the search box, the chronological categories, and the tag list to the right. You should also bear in mind that the search box treats multiple words as Boolean and searches; if you want to find exact phrases, place quotation marks around them. As for the tag list, it displays the hundred most frequently occurring tags on this site: click on any of them. As a further aid to navigation, I am also providing (see above in the header) a simplified, chronological list of Brown’s books as well as lists, arranged by date, of GMB’s regular newspaper columns (“Bookshelf,” “Island Diary,” “Letter from Hamnavoe,” “Stromness News,” “Under Brinkie’s Brae,” and “What the Pier Head Is Saying”). His other contributions to the two Orkney newspapers will be posted as individual entries below.
I have also decided, rather belatedly, to include on this website a lengthy list of the the books (and a few periodicals) that GMB is known to have owned. The list and a discussion of his library can be found on the page above entitled GMB’s personal library.
William S. Peterson (email@example.com)
Acknowledgments: I am grateful to many individuals who have contributed to making this website possible, but I feel particularly indebted to my wife Sylvia Holton Peterson, who has provided much assistance; Morag MacInnes, who has answered many questions and has given me access to her personal collection of George Mackay Brown’s books; Robert E. and Kim Foden, who have allowed me to digitize some years of the Orkney Herald for research purposes; and David Mackie, Senior Archivist at the Orkney Library and Archive, and Lucy Gibbon, Assistant Archivist, who have been unfailingly helpful.
Photographs above: Stromness from Brinkie’s Brae (by Fionn McArthur); George Mackay Brown, 1990 (by Gunnie Moberg).