GMB — What the Pier Head Is Saying (1964)

The following “What the Pier Head Is Saying” columns by George Mackay Brown were published in the Orcadian during 1964, signed with his initials only.


19 November 1964, p. 4. “The Pier Head, of course, had its own Budget debate after it was all over.” ¶ 26 November 1964, p. 4. New Year was once “the great winter festival,” but now Christmas, increasingly commercialized, is the dominant holiday.

3 December 1964, p. 4. “It is a long time since the debates at the Pier Head were chronicled (owing to the fact that the chronicler was unavoidably absent from the Pier Head) and in the interim several familiar Pier Head characters are no longer with us.” ¶ 10 December 1964, p. 4. “Sometimes the Pier Head discusses T.V. and the current programmes. As usual, marked likes and dislikes emerge.” ¶ 17 December 1964, p. 4. Disputing the claim that “Stromness is getting wickeder and wickeder.” ¶ 24 December 1964, p. 4. “The Pier Head notes with approval the resurgence of an old Orkney custom which seemed to be in danger of dying out – the making of home-brewed ale.” ¶ 31 December 1964, p. 2. A review of the past year. “A quiet year it was. Happy is the town that has no history.”

GMB — What the Pier Head Is Saying (1969)

The following “What the Pier Head Is Saying” columns by George Mackay Brown were published in the Orcadian during 1969, signed with his initials only.


16 January 1969, p. 3. “They speak sometimes about colour television at the Pier Head, and they wonder if it will come to Orkney in their time.” ¶ 23 January 1969, p. 4. “Robbie Burns’ Day on Saturday . . . is one date in the calendar that the Pier Head never forgets.” ¶ 30 January 1969, p. 4. “Solemnly at the Pier Head they debate the pros and cons of one-way traffic in Stromness.”

6 February 1969, p. 3. “Snow has a queer effect on the Pier Head folk.” ¶ 13 February 1969, p. 3. A “magnificent blizzard” – followed by complaints from “the Pier Head folk.” ¶ 20 February 1969, p. 4. Daydreams about summer holidays. ¶ 27 February 1969, p. 2. “So we are, in all likelihood, to have a new Warehouse Pier in Stromness. The Pier Head folk are quietly pleased about that.”

6 March 1969, p. 4. The pleasures of the Eventide club room “on a cold wet winter afternoon.” ¶ 13 March 1969, p. 4. “A variety of topics at the Pier Head last week,” including a final blizzard of the winter. ¶ 20 March 1969, p. 4. “Sometimes, especially in such terrible weather as last week, they speak at the Pier Head about summer and the tourists, to keep their hearts up.” ¶ 27 March 1969, p. 4. The good and bad of television.

3 April 1969, p. 4. “The West Shore is still, at week-ends, the favourite walking-place for Stromnessians.” ¶ 10 April 1969, p. 4. Affectionate memories of the Stromness cinema. ¶ 17 April 1969, p. 4. The Stromness Museum. ¶ 24 April 1969, p. 4. A visit to Edinburgh, where he encounters many Orkney students.

1 May 1969, p. 4. Beards have returned in the Edinburgh taverns. ¶ 8 May 1969, p. 4. Thoughts of spring in Edinburgh and Orkney. ¶ 22 May 1969, p. 2. “. . . women have been known to join in a discussion [at the Pier Head], but in the end they are gently frozen out, as they inhibit complete freedom of expression – the whole spectrum of the language cannot be used.” ¶ 29 May 1969, p. 4. Alexander Graham’s fountain at the Pier Head.

5 June 1969, p. 4. Watching “Tomorrow’s World,” a television program about the technological marvels of the future. ¶ 12 June 1969, p. 4. “The gaming machines have come to Orkney, all except Stromness.” ¶ 19 June 1969, p. 4. “They sat all last week bewildered with heat at the Pier Head.” ¶ 26 June 1969, p. 4. “The imminent death of the half-penny is causing some concern at the Pier Head.”

3 July 1969, p. 4. The old women who were the first doctors of Stromness. ¶ 10 July 1969, p. 3. “It seems like only yesterday since the first Shopping Week was opened, on a fine Monday morning in July 1949, by Provost G. S. Robertson at the Pier Head.” ¶ 17 July 1969, p. 4. A quiet Sunday morning. ¶ 24 July 1969, p. 4. An afternoon squall and an amazing cloud.

7 August 1969, p. 4. “Was there ever such a Shopping Week as the one just past?” ¶ 14 August 1969, p. 4. The Dounby Show. ¶ 21 August 1969, p. 4. Walking to Warbeth. ¶ 28 August 1969, p. 4. Many children now actually enjoy school.

4 September 1969, p. 4. Many of the Pier Head regulars are at home watching television. ¶ 11 September 1969, p. 4. Various minor religious groups in Stromness. ¶ 18 September 1969, p. 4. “Probably the greatest single event in Stromness this year is the Swimming Pool.”

2 October 1979, p. 4. “After being in the doldrums for years, the Pier Head is glad to note a great resurgence of interest in football, on the part of young folk.” ¶ 9 October 1974, p. 4. The pleasures of making beer at home. ¶ 16 October 1969, p. 4. “A great silence has descended on the town: the hush before winter.” ¶ 23 October 1969, p. 4. “Naturally the Pier Head was delighted with the Highlands and Islands Development Board decision to keep Stromness as the Orkney terminal of the Pentland Firth ferry.” ¶ 30 October 1969, p. 7. “In that longish spell of mild weather through October – ‘the peedie summer’ – creation turned back a little from the cold of winter.”

20 November 1969, p. 4. “Last week in the Youth Centre the Heritage Society gave a show of local slides, with commentaries by Ernest W. Marwick, E. Balfour and Ian MacInnes. It was intended to show the precious things – nature, streets, houses – that history has bequeathed to us, and that are perhaps in danger of being sacrificed to notions of progress and planning.” ¶ 27 November 1969, p. 4. “With St Andrew’s Day looming up . . . the Scottish Nationalists at the Pier Head are working up a fine head of steam.”

4 December 1969, p. 4. “Twopence on a pint of beer – that was the shock news that hit the Pier Head last week-end.” ¶ 11 December 1969, p. 4. “. . . it is very important . . . that that there should be a central pool, such as the Heritage Society or the Museum, for gathering and preserving these [old] photographs.” ¶ 18 December 1969, p. 4. “They are standing at the Pier Head these nights . . . dyed with multicoloured lights. It is of course the Christmas tree in the Town House garden and the festive web strung athwart the Fountain, that is scattering such richness.” ¶ 25 December 1969, p. 4. Christmas, which was once seen primarily as an English festival, is now vigorously celebrated in Orkney.

GMB — What the Pier Head Is Saying (1967)

The following “What the Pier Head Is Saying” columns by George Mackay Brown were published in the Orcadian during 1967, signed with his initials only.

5 January 1967, p. 3. The television documentary about Scapa Flow. ¶ 12 January 1967, p. 3. Changing New Year customs. ¶ 19 January 1967, p. 4. “The Pier Head approves of Robbie Burns. They feel he is one of themselves.” ¶ 26 January 1967, p. 4. “The Pier Head was shaken one day last week when they got to know that Jo Grimond had resigned as leader of the Liberal Party in the House of Commons.”

2 February 1967, p. 4. The rainiest January in memory. ¶ 9 February 1967, p. 4. “Stromness is one hundred and fifty years old as a burgh this year.” ¶ 16 February 1967, p. 4. The local fascination with Kosygin. ¶ 23 February 1967, p. 4. The Pier Head is enthusiastic about the “Big Freeze” of wages and prices.

2 March 1967, p. 4. “As the members of the Pier Head get older, they become more and more amazed at the goings-on of young folk. . . .” ¶ 16 March 1967, p. 4. “This is a time of year dreaded by the Pier Head members, because of the spring cleaning.” ¶ 23 March 1967, p. 4. Persons to whom Stromness ought to give the Freedom of the Burgh on its “one hundred and fiftieth anniversary as a burgh.” ¶ 30 March 1967, p. 4. The westerly gales of the past winter.

6 April 1967, p. 4. “The Pier Head members have been having nightmares for a week and more about huge tankers half-a-mile long going ashore on the Brough of Birsay or the Pentland Skerries or the Mull Head and saturating Orkney with oil.” ¶ 13 April 1967, p. 4. The town is full of visitors from Kirkwall because of a holiday there. ¶ 20 April 1967, p. 4. “All smiles at the Pier Head last week, as spring came at last after the wettest, stormiest winter in living memory.” ¶ 27 April 1967, p. 4. Extreme wealth and poverty in Edinburgh (where GMB is visiting).

4 May 1967, p. 4. Watching the Students’ Charities Day procession along Princes Street in Edinburgh. ¶ 11 May 1967, p. 4. Traveling on the St. Ola ferry across the Pentland Firth. ¶ 18 May 1967, p. 4. “The Pier Head members are beginning to turn their attention to the 150th anniversary of our burgh, which is to be celebrated early next month.” ¶ 25 May 1967, p. 4. Comments on Stromness, a booklet by J. A. Troup and F. Eunson.

1 June 1967, p. 4. Thoughts about “the most famous football match of 1967, Celtic’s 2-1 victory over Inter-Milan in Lisbon. . . . The Pier Head members, usually (as far as nationality goes) in a kind of no-man’s-land between Scandinavia and Scotland, definitely decided they were Scotsmen. . . .” ¶ 15 June 1967, p. 4. The pleasures of the most recent Stromness monthly holiday. ¶ 22 June 1967, p. 4. “Houses falling, houses rising. Slowly and imperceptibly the appearance of the town changes.” (One of his examples is the group of new council houses on the site of the old distillery, where he was later to live.) ¶ 29 June 1967, p. 4. The new benches at the Pier Head.

6 July 1967, p. 4. “Now is the time of summer visitors to Stromness. There is more activity than usual round the Pier Head this year. . . .” ¶ 13 July 1967, p. 4. “Stromness is full of Edinburgh folk just now (it being the trades holiday) and for the next fortnight beginning on Monday the accents of Clydeside will be heard on our streets.” ¶ 20 July 1967, p. 4. “Cars sometimes get on the nerves of the Pier Head – even worse than transistors. Every year cars and vehicles of all kinds get denser in Stromness.” ¶ 27 July 1967, p. 4. Pondering the possibility of a home-brew drinking contest during Shopping Week.

3 August 1967, p. 4. “The Pier Head is amazed at the number of gulls this year. Where have they all come from so suddenly?” ¶ 10 August 1967, p. 4. The Dounby Show causes some reflections on modern holidays. ¶ 24 August 1967, p. 4. The BBC weather forecasters gave misleading advice about the day of the Dounby Show. ¶ 31 August 1967, p. 4. The disintegration of the British Empire and its implications for the future of Orkney.

7 September 1967, p. 4. Memories of the old Stromness Lammas Market Day. ¶ 14 September 1967, p. 4. “The Pier Head members were delighted one day last week when they heard that Stromness Academy had won the premier place in Scotland with its magazine, ‘The Stromnessian.'” ¶ 21 September 1967, p. 4. The regulars at the Pier Head don’t stray very far for their holidays.

5 October 1967, p. 4. With the approach of winter, the Pier Head group is inclined to stay home – usually watching television. ¶ 12 October 1974, p. 4. Pensions are going up soon, but that extra money will disappear with the arrival of higher prices. ¶ 19 October 1967, p. 4. The centenary of the Stromness lifeboat.

23 November 1967, p. 4. Talk about devaluation of the pound. ¶ 30 November 1967, p. 4. What Christmas was like in earlier years.

7 December 1967, p. 4. Changes in the Stromness skyline, especially the new flats going up at the site of the old distillery. ¶ 14 December 1967, p. 4. “On these days, with snow swirling out of the norther, those at the Pier Head wish they were bears who could sleep in a cave all winter.” ¶ 21 December 1967, p. 4. How we observe the winter solstice – and how it was understood in earlier centuries.

GMB — What the Pier Head Is Saying (1965)

The following “What the Pier Head Is Saying” columns by George Mackay Brown were published in the Orcadian during 1965, signed with his initials only.


21 January 1965, p. 4. “The Pier head gets very concerned sometimes about rising prices and inflation.” ¶ 28 January 1965, p. 4. “. . . Burns has a numerous following in Stromness.”

4 February 1965, p. 4. The death of Winston Churchill. ¶ 11 February 1965, p. 4. “They speak forever about the weather at the Pier Head; it ranks high in the conversation charts above politics and local genealogies.” ¶ 18 February 1965, p. 4. “The pipe smokers at the Pier Head (and no doubt they are in the majority) preened and perked up one day last week, and looked pityingly at their cigarette-smoking brethren. For they had just heard on their radios, or read in the papers, that the government had banned the TV advertising of cigarettes.” ¶ 25 February 1965, p. 4. “Wednesday is the busy day at the Pier Head, and if you want to hear a good debate that is the day you should take your seat.”

4 March 1965, p. 4. “Two or three afternoons towards the end of February the Pier Head observed the first ‘spoot ebbs’ for a long time, when very low tides uncovered the sandy bottom between Ness and the Outer Holm.” ¶ 11 March 1965, p. 4. “The Pier Head, when the historical mood is on it, sometimes wonders about Alexander Graham. They can hardly avoid thinking about him sometimes, for Graham’s memorial, the Fountain, has bee right there in front of their eyes since 1901.” ¶ 18 March 1965, p. 4. “One noticeable change at the Pier Head over the years is that the old Kirkwall–Stromness rivalry is dying out.” ¶ 25 March 1965, p. 4. “Is there a thinning of the ranks at the Pier Head? Many a morning one would swear there is.”

1 April 1965, p. 4. Stanley Cursiter once suggested that “the present Warehouse Buildings – built in the early 19th century for a rice store” – should be made into a new town hall. ¶ 8 April 1965, p. 4. “Often the Pier Head, in reminiscent mood, speaks of the great number of peedie shops that there used to be in Stromness, usually kept by old wives with shawls.” ¶ 15 April 1965, p. 4. “The Pier Head is a bit disillusioned with factories and talk of factories. . . . What does rouse their enthusiasm at the mere mention of it is the great herring fishing days in town at the turn of the century. . . .” ¶ 22 April 1965, p. 4. What title the locals would like to assume if they were made a lord. ¶ 29 April 1965, p. 4. “The news that ITV (Grampian) is shortly to be available to Orkney viewers got a mixed reception at the Pier Head the other day.”

6 May 1965, p. 4. “. . . the other day splendour came to the Pier Head, when Alexander Graham’s fountain got its annual coat of paint.” ¶ 13 May 1965, p. 4. The strong sense of connection between Stromness and the sea. ¶ 20 May 1965, p. 4. Changes along the West Shore. ¶ 27 May 1965, p. 4. Memories of “the years when Stromness Athletic dominated Orkney football, and were top of the league years after year.”

3 June 1965, p. 4. The arrival of tourists. ¶ 10 June 1965, p. 4. Plans for summer holidays. ¶ 17 June 1965, p. 4. “A favourite occupation at the Pier Head, now that summer is here, is to watch the ‘St Ola’ discharging her passengers and cars.” ¶ 24 June 1965, p. 4. The South End of Stromness was once the center of many activities, and it is now again showing signs of life.

1 July 1965, p. 4. The trows once associated with midsummer. ¶ 8 July 1965, p. 4. Gloomy talk about the weather and Shopping Week. ¶ 15 July 1966, p. 4. Tales about gold near the Black Craig. ¶ 29 July 1965, p. 4. Why the name of Shopping Week should be changed.

12 August 1965, p. 7. Population decline in Orkney. ¶ 26 August 1965, p. 4. The end of summer brings back recollections of school in earlier years.

2 September 1965, p. 2. The reopening of the local cinema; memories of films during the war. ¶ 9 September 1965, p. 4. Lammas Market Day during pre-war days. ¶ 16 September 1965, p. 4. Playing the football pools. ¶ 23 September 1965, p. 4. “Three or four times a year Stromness is invaded by small fleets of Norwegian fishing boats, and our cousins from over the North Sea step ashore to see what our town can offer them.” ¶ 30 September 1965, p. 2. “The reporter of the debates at the Pier Head regrets that he has been unable to attend recently, as he is on holiday in the south.”

7 October 1965, p. 4. A series of photograph albums, created by George Ellison, at the Stromness Museum. ¶ 14 October 1974, p. 4. “Winter has come to the Pier Head.” ¶ 21 October 1965, p. 4. “Most members of the Pier Head watched with great interest on T.V. one night last week the Magnus Magnusson programme on the Faroe Islands.” ¶ 28 October 1965, p. 4. “. . . the Pier Head is alive to the natural charm of their town, and they would not like to see it destroyed by the forces of progress.”

4 November 1965, p. 4. Preparations for Guy Fawkes Day. ¶ 11 November 1965, p. 4. The gradual appearance of women on the pier head benches. ¶ 18 November 1965, p. 4. “The Pier Head is certain that the day is coming, and that not far distant, when there will have to be some kind of one-way traffic system in Stromness.” ¶ 25 November 1965, p. 4. Christmas was once a less important festival.

2 December 1965, p. 4. “The Pier Head was delighted to read the other day of the success of the Stromness Academy magazine ‘Stromnessian,’ runner-up among 150 magazines from Scottish schools.” ¶ 9 December 1965, p. 4. “Never, never in all their long and checquered lives, does the Pier Head remember a winter so ferocious in its beginning as the present one.” ¶ 16 December 1965, p. 4. “The Pier Head was thrilled the other week to learn that Miss World 1965 was born in Stromness, at 5 Alfred Terrace, the home of one of the best-known Pier Head members, Arthur (‘Attie’) Campbell.” ¶ 23 December 1965, p. 4. The Yule Log competition on the streets of Stromness. ¶ 30 December 1965, p. Remembering the big events of the past year.

Orkney Poet’s Play (17 August 1972)

“Orkney Poet’s Play Highlight of St. Magnus Fortnight.” Orcadian, 17 August 1972, p. 1.

GMB’s The Loom of Light (about St. Magnus) will be performed on 20 August as part of a series of events to raise money for the restoration of St. Magnus Cathedral.

“Under Brinkie’s Brae” (1980)

The following “Under Brinkie’s Brae” columns by George Mackay Brown were published in the Orcadian during 1980 and were signed with initials only. Most were reprinted in GMB’s Rockpools and Daffodils (1992), cited here as RD.


3 January 1980, p. 7. “We still retain some shadow of the ancient Christmas that lasted 12 days.” ¶ 10 January 1980, p. 4. Robert Rendall’s books should be reprinted. ¶ 17 January 1980, p. 4. A meditation on the lives of the earliest inhabitants of the Orkney islands. Repr. RD 20–21. ¶ 24 January 1980, p. 4. Description of a very early (but undated) souvenir booklet about “Stromness and Vicinity.” Repr. RD 21–22.

7 February 1980, p. 4. The pleasures of examining Ordnance Survey maps of Orkney. Repr. RD 22–23. ¶ 14 February 1980, p. 4. Memories of exploring Stromness’s interesting closes. Repr. RD 23–24. ¶ 21 February 1980, p. 4. Recollections of Gray’s Pier (which still existed in his younger days). Repr. RD 24–25.

6 March 1980, p. 4. About his diary-keeping. Repr. RD 25. ¶ 13 March 1980, p. 6. “We do not realise sometimes what a powerful force television is in our lives.” ¶ 20 March 1980, p. 4. A fictionalized account of Bessie Millie’s encounter with John Gow. ¶ 27 March 1980, p. 4. Spring has arrived – but “now, suddenly, Winter is back!”

3 April 1980, p. 6. Poems in childhood. ¶ 10 April 1980, p. 4. A walk along the shore on Palm Sunday. Repr. RD 26. ¶ 17 April 1980, p. 4. A discussion of the plays of Sean O’Casey. Repr. RD 26–27. ¶ 24 April 1980, p. 4. On the anniversary of the death of St. Magnus, he visits Birsay; a day earlier he was at St. Magnus Cathedral and saw where his bones were immured. Repr. RD 27–28.

1 May 1980, p. 4. April and daffodils. ¶ 8 May 1980, p. 4. May Day; the failure of his television. ¶ 15 May 1980, p. 4. Memories of World War Two. Repr. RD 28–29. ¶ 22 May 1980, p. 4. The warmth and sunshine of spring. ¶ 29 May 1980, p. 4. Possible local subjects for Orkney authors to write about. Repr. RD 29–30.

5 June 1980, p. 4. Days spent in the country when he was a boy. Repr. RD 30. ¶ 12 June 1980, p. 4. A walk up Brinkie’s Brae. Repr. RD 31. ¶ 19 June 1980, p. 6. A fierce thunderstorm. Repr. RD 31–32. ¶ 26 June 1980, p. 4. The opening of the Corrigall Farm Museum. Repr. RD 32–33.

3 July 1980, p. 4. A visit to Rackwick on Hoy. ¶ 10 July 1980, p. 4. A series of paintings by children of St. Magnus and the construction of the St. Magnus Cathedral. Repr. RD 33–34. ¶ 17 July 1980, p. 6. The pronunciation of Orkney place names. Repr. RD 34–35. ¶ 24 July 1980, p. 4. “It has been a good summer in Orkney so far.” ¶ 31 July 1980, p. 4. Walking around Stromness early in the morning on the third day of Shopping Week.

7 August 1980, p. 4. “Summer passes, so quickly. Today is the first of August. In a few weeks’ time the shadows of autumn will begin to cluster around us.” ¶14 August 1980, p. 6. “Where have all the insects gone this summer?” ¶ 21 August 1980, p. 6. What it must have been like for young Orkneymen forced to serve on ships two centuries ago. Repr. RD 35. ¶ 28 August 1980, p. 4. An excursion on the sailing ship Marques to Rousay. Repr. RD 36.

4 September 1980, p. 6. The end of summer. ¶ 11 September 1980, p. 4. British and other monarchs who have visited Orkney through the centuries. Repr. RD 36–37. ¶ 18 September 1980, p. 6. “. . . to sail from Norway to Orkney on a Viking longship must have been a deeply uncomfortable experience.” ¶ 25 September 1980, p. 4. Again, the end of summer. Repr. RD 37–38.

2 October 1980, p. 4. The story of Hundi, the son of Earl Sigurd, who was taken hostage. Repr. RD 38–39. ¶ 9 October 1980, p. 4. “October has come in with a half-tempest from the south-west.” ¶ 16 October 1980, p. 4. Accounts of crime on television and heroism in the Orcadian. Repr. RD 39–40. ¶ 23 October 1980, p. 4. “One of the great life-experiences is to come, unexpectedly, upon a writer whose work leaves one struck through with admiration and praise.” ¶ 30 October 1980, p. 4. Halloween in the past.

6 November 1980, p. 4. Memories of early gramophones and wireless sets – and now the arrival of television. ¶ 13 November 1980, p. 4. Guy Fawkes day. Repr. RD 40–41. ¶ 20 November 1980, p. 6. The Orkney habit of understatement. Repr. RD 41. ¶ 27 November 1980, p. 4. The loss of older words in Orkney: “More and more our speech is approximating to Standard English; with, it’s true, the music of the islands in them still.” Repr. RD 41–42.

4 December 1980, p. 6. Various thoughts on a cold winter day. ¶ 11 December 1980, p. 4. Memories of the sweeties he bought during early boyhood. Repr. RD 42–43. ¶ 18 December 1980, p. 6. Reflections on the changing seasons in antiquity. Repr. RD 43–44. ¶  25 December 1980, p. 4. An Orcadian version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, with Rolph Scroogeson as the central character. Repr. RD 44–45.