GMB — If I Had to Compile an Anthology (26 December 1963)

GMB. “If I Had to Compile an Anthology of Orkney Prose . . .” Orcadian, 26 December 1963, p. 4.

“A few years ago an excellent anthology of Orkney poetry was published by Mr Ernest W. Marwick. I have sometimes wondered since why nobody has thought of compiling a companion anthology of Orkney prose. And if such a book were published, what would most likely be in it?” GMB then offers his own suggestions, beginning with the Orkneyinga Saga.

Scott — Orkney as Pairt o an Eternal Mood (1990)

Scott, Tom. “Orkney as Pairt o an Eternal Mood.” Chapman, no. 60 (Spring, 1990): 32–38.

“This title, adapted from MacDiarmid, sums up the central vision of George Mackay Brown’s unique achievement both in verse and poetry. The Orkney experience in his own lifetime – Stromness in particular, his home – its history and literature, especially the Orkneyinga Saga, are seen in an eternal context of the spiralling of the years, unchanging in nature though not identical” (p. 32).

GMB — Letter from Hamnavoe (1974)

The following “Letter from Hamnavoe” columns by George Mackay Brown were published in the Orcadian during 1974 and were signed with initials only (except for 30 May 1974, which was unsigned). Most were reprinted in GMB’s Letters from Hamnavoe (1979), cited here as LH.


10 January 1974, p. 3. New Year in Stromness when he was a child. ¶ 17 January 1974, p. 4. Reflections on a Daniell print of the Bishop’s Palace, Kirkwall. Repr. LH 97–99. ¶ 24 January 1974, p. 4. Burns never mentioned Orkney in his writings, but there are allusions to it in various other literary texts through the centuries. Repr. LH 99. ¶ 31 January 1974, p. 4. The history of the name of the St. Ola ferry.

14 February 1974, p. 4. Local political talk; a high tide. ¶ 21 February 1974, p. 4. Approves the decision to close down television (“old one-eye”) at 10:30 p.m.; the death of the poet Douglas Young. Repr. LH 100. ¶ 28 February 1974, p. 4. Memories of past election days in Stromness. Repr. LH 100–01.

7 March 1974, p. 4. Tribute to the career of Eric Linklater on his 75th birthday. Repr. LH 101. ¶ 14 March 1974, p. 4. The end of the miners’ strike leads to some thoughts about the history of mining in Stromness. Repr. LH 102. ¶ 21 March 1974, p. 4. “Today is the vernal equinox, one of the four magical times of the year. In the everlasting struggle between light and darkness both forces are locked together and motionless, on this day. From now on the darkness begins to give way.” Repr. LH 102–03. ¶ 28 March 1974, p. 4. Fine weather and the sighting of swans near Stromness. Repr. LH 104.

4 April 1974, p. 4. Even 300 years ago Orcadians were notorious for heavy drinking, but they are rarely interested in betting. Repr. LH 104–05. ¶ 11 April 1974, p. 4. He imagines what would happen if Shetland were to declare its independence. ¶ 18 April 1974, p. 4. The egg symbolism of Easter. Repr. LH 105–06. ¶ 25 April 1974, p. 4. The problem of getting rid of old books; the story of how Peter Maxwell Davies gave a copy of the Orkneying Saga to Jorge Luis Borges. Repr. LH 106.

2 May 1974, p. 4. Conversations at the Pier Head. ¶ 9 May 1974, p. 4. Short story about an old woman and her granddaughter on a May morning. ¶ 16 May 1974, p. 4. Memories of going to the cinema in Stromness when he was young. Repr. LH 106–07. ¶ 23 May 1974, p. 4. Review of G. S. Robertson, A History of the Stromness Golf Courses. Repr. LH 107–08. ¶ 30 May 1974, p. 4. Unsigned. In 1842 “there were over 40 places in Stromness where drink could be bought. But most of these premises would not have been ‘pubs’ as we understand them. They would have been ‘ale houses’, where you drank the ale that was brewed on the premises.” Repr. LH 108.

6 June 1974, p. 4. The death of James MacTaggart; recalls the time when MacTaggart filmed a television drama based on three stories by GMB, the first of which was set in Rackwick. Repr. LH 110. ¶ 13 June 1974, p. 4. Gloomy thoughts about Dounreay, the nuclear reactor visible across the Pentland Firth. Repr. LH 111. ¶ 20 June 1974, p. 4. The pleasures of riding in a friend’s car around the island. ¶ 27 June 1974, p. 4. Imaginary letter written 150 years ago about the Orkney hilltop bonfires on midsummer’s eve (Johnsmas). Repr. LH 111–12.

4 July 1974, p. 4. Visiting an exhibition at the Stromness Museum. ¶ 11 July 1974, p. 4. Reflections prompted by John Firth’s Reminiscences of an Orkney Parish (reissued by the Stromness Museum). Repr. LH 112–13. ¶ 18 July 1974, p. 4. An account of the life of Phin, who was (mistakenly) thought to be the founder of Finstown. Repr. LH 114. ¶ 25 July 1974, p. 4. Story about a Stromness man who retreats to another island in order to escape the crowds of Shopping Week.

1 August 1974, p. 4. A day on a boat with friends in Burra Sound. Repr. LH 114–15. ¶ 8 August 1974, p. 4. A visit to the Dounby Show (of farm animals). Repr. LH 115–16. ¶ 15 August 1974, p. 3. The problems of reading the Sunday newspapers. ¶ 22 August 1974, p. 4. Praise for the week-long Orkney Orchestral Summer School in Stromness. Repr. LH 116–17. ¶ 29 August 1974, p. 4. Summer visitors in Stromness.

5 September 1974, p. 4. The pleasures of looking at an old map he has just bought, “A Map of Orkney Shire, drawn from the best Authorities by T. Kitchin.” Repr. LH 117. ¶ 12 September 1974, p. 4. Unsightly military relics throughout Orkney. ¶ 19 September 1974, p. 4. An imaginary account of a school day forty years ago. Repr. LH 117–20. ¶ 26 September 1974, p. 4. The autumnal equinox. “If only we could read the great stone book of Brodgar! It was undoubtedly erected with some reference to, and reverence for, the waxing and waning of the fruitful year.” Repr. LH 119–20.

3 October 1974, p. 6. “Another election! – the second within a year – what a bore!” ¶ 10 October 1974, p. 4. “They were discussing the election at the Pier Head . . . one afternoon recently.” ¶ 17 October 1974, p. 4. Listening to a radio program about plants and farming. ¶ 24 October 1974, p. 4. The death of John Shearer, former Director of Education and once a science master at Stromness Academy. Repr. LH 120–21. ¶ 31 October 1974, p. 4. Listening to awful news on radio and television; reading Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

7 November 1974, p. 4. The telephone box in front of the Stromness Museum. Repr. LH 121–22. ¶ 14 November 1974, p. 4. His cooking and eating habits. Repr. LH 122–23. ¶ 21 November 1974, p. 4. A new St. Ola ferry has arrived. Repr. LH 123–24. ¶ 28 November 1974, p. 6. Possible origins of the name of the hill behind Stromness, Brinkie’s Brae. Repr. LH 124–25.

5 December 1974, p. 4. Fictional narrative about an Orkney boy’s misunderstanding of the Ice Age. Repr. LH 126. ¶ 12 December 1974, p. 6. Electrical problems in his kitchen; the acquisitiveness of modern society. ¶ 19 December 1974, p. 4. How a boy named Josie might have experienced Christmas at the beginning of the twentieth century. ¶ 26 December 1974, p. 3. Memories of the past year.

GMB — Letter from Hamnavoe (1973)

The following “Letter from Hamnavoe” columns by George Mackay Brown were published in the Orcadian during 1973 and were signed with initials only. Most were reprinted in GMB’s Letters from Hamnavoe (1979), cited here as LH.


4 January 1973, p. 3. The South End of Stromness, where he lives, was once a much more lively part of town. Repr. LH 65–66. ¶ 11 January 1973, p. 3. Holiday advertisements in the Sunday newspapers. “There is magic in Orkney indeed in summer, but it is not the kind of magic that can be caught in holiday brochures, even with the help of coloured photographs. The essence of Orkney’s magic is silence, loneliness, and the deep marvellous rhythms of sea and land, darkness and light.” Repr. LH 66–67. ¶ 18 January 1973, p. 3. An imaginary account of how Robert Burns might have traced his ancestry to the island of Sanday. Repr. LH 67–68. ¶ 25 January 1973, p. 4. How he cooks for himself. Repr. LH 68.

1 February 1973, p. 4. He imagines what it was like when the first wheelbarrow arrived in Stromness. Repr. LH 38–69. ¶ 8 February 1973, p. 4. He thinks about a potential volcanic eruption near Stromness. ¶ 15 February 1973, p. 4. Trying to write while suffering from the flu. Repr. LH 69–70. ¶ 22 February 1973, p. 3. “The first snow for two winters has come to the islands, and is reluctant to go away. . . . But where are the sledges? . . . One grows old, and forgets. But I swear there seem to be far fewer snow vehicles than there used to be 40 years ago.” Repr. LH 70.

1 March 1973, p. 4. Memories of being a Celtic supporter when he was in school. Repr. LH 70–71. ¶ 8 March 1973, p. 4. Recounts the legend of Helen Waters and Henry Stewart (the latter of whom disappeared just before their wedding); concludes by wondering whether the story is true. Repr. LH 72–73. ¶ 15 March 1973, p. 4. A visit to the site of the battle of Summerdale (1529) on Orkney. Repr. LH 73–74. ¶ 22 March 1973, p. 4. His memories of the first air raid on Orkney in March 1940. Repr. LH 74–75. ¶ 29 March 1973, p. 4. Remembering the record players of his childhood.

5 April 1973, p. 4. A discussion of some of the most important books about Orkney and his recollections of purchasing them. Repr. LH 75. ¶ 12 April 1973, p. 4. Foul weather and a disturbing television drama. ¶ 19 April 1973, p. 4. Watching the Eurovision Song Contest on television; Picasso; various scholars who have visited him and asked questions about Edwin Muir. ¶ 26 April 1973, p. 4. A television adaptation of Forster’s A Room with a View; John Holden’s letters in the Orcadian; “. . . the meaning of precious old things [such as St. Magnus Day] is gradually seeping away, like honey from a comb.”

3 May 1973, p. 4. “There has never been an April like this for a long time, with cold northerly winds streaming over the islands day after day.” But now the weather has turned pleasant, and he remembers idyllic days of his childhood. Repr. LH 76–77. ¶ 10 May 1973, p. 4. “Nearly everyone who writes to me from the south mentions, somewhere in the letter, and in tones varying from apprehension to horror, the black wave about to break over Orkney – OIL.” But then he remembers a reassuring line by Gerard Manley Hopkins: “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” Repr. LH 77. ¶ 17 May 1973, p. 4. The performance of two of his stories, Witch and The Return of the Women, as plays in Glasgow; place names within Stromness. Repr. LH 77–78. ¶ 24 May 1973, p. 4. “Last summer, it seemed to this unbiased observer, Orkney had about as many tourists as it could take.” A book published in 1810 records an instance of hostility by an Orkney crofter toward strangers. Repr. LH 78–80. ¶ 31 May 1973, p. 4. Discusses the recent theatrical productions by the 7:84 players on Orkney; connects the Highland clearances and the drilling for oil. Repr. LH 80.

7 June 1973, p. 3. Instead of sponsored walks, perhaps there should be a sponsored “attack on littler.” ¶ 14 June 1973, p. 3. The publication of his An Orkney Tapestry leads to some reflections on the pleasures of buying paperbacks when he was younger. Repr. LH 80–81. ¶ 21 June 1973, p. 4. The old tradition of complaining about the weather. ¶ 28 June 1973, p. 4. The pleasures of a bus trip to Kirkwall on Midsummer Day. Repr. LH 81–82.

5 July 1973, p. 4. An imaginary account of how Finstown acquired its name. Repr. LH 82. ¶ 12 July 1973, p. 4. He conjectures what Shopping Week in Stromness will be like in 2049. ¶ 19 July 1973, p. 4. “As I write this on the eve of Shopping Week, the flood of tourists is reaching the high level.” Lists the most quiet places in Stromness. Repr. LH 83. ¶ 26 July 1973, p. 4. A fanciful history of the Standing Stones of Stenness. Repr. LH 84–85.

2 August 1973, p. 4. Various editions of the Orkneyinga Saga. Repr. LH 86. ¶ 9 August 1973, p. 4. Visitors arriving in Orkney to discover “a thin persistent saturating drizzle.” ¶ 16 August 1973, p. 4. A day-by-day account of the rainy weather in early August. ¶ 23 August 1973, p. 4. Nowadays a writer’s rough drafts are thought to be valuable. “Whatever the reason, the little scraps of paper with a few words on them, and the scarred and gory rough work, and neat immaculate fair copies – that I used to light the fire with in the mornings of yore – are now carefully labelled and put away in a drawer until the arrival of the manuscript dealer.” Repr. LH 86–87. ¶ 30 August 1973, p. 4. Has recently seen a group of drawings by Ian MacInnes intended for a new edition of the Orkneyinga Saga that was never published; hopes they will appear in print eventually. Repr. LH 87.

6 September 1973, p. 4. Accompanying a friend who was whelk-hunting on Marwick beach. ¶ 13 September 1973, p. 4. A local legend about King James V of Scotland, the embryo of GMB’s story “The King in Rags.” Repr. LH 87–88. ¶ 20 September 1973, p. 4. The Lammas Market as it was in Stromness during his childhood. Repr. LH 88. ¶ 27 September 1973, p. 4. His experiences in guiding visitors around Orkney. Repr. LH 90.

4 October 1973, p. 4. Cars in the street causing interference on his television; investigating the meaning of “grouting”; the wealth of nations does not correspond with wealth of individual citizens. ¶ 11 October 1973, p. 4. A story about the men who built the Suleskerry Lighthouse. ¶ 18 October 1973, p. 4. Reading about St. Brandon; approaching winter; Israelis in a state of seige; books about Orkney in the Stromness library. ¶ 25 October 1973, p. 4. “Looking through the sittingroom window, I can see a segment of harbour, and further off, between the Outer Holm and Clestrain shore, a thin gleam of sea. It suddenly struck me this afternoon that that piece of sea was where Gow the pirate cast anchor on a winter day in 1725.” Repr. LH 90–91.

1 November 1973, p. 4. How they celebrated Halloween in Stromness when he was a child. Repr. LH 91–92. ¶ 8 November 1973, p. 4. A typical week when he was a schoolboy. Repr. LH 92. ¶ 15 November 1973, p. 4. Old and new place-names in Stromness. Repr. LH 92–93. ¶ 22 November 1973, p. 4. Describes how John Renton, an Orcadian sailor, became the victim of a conspiracy in San Francisco in 1867. Repr. LH 93–94. ¶ 29 November 1973, p. 4. The sad depopulation of Rackwick. Repr. LH 94–95.

6 December 1973, p. 4. Some of the traditional holidays, such as St. Andrew’s Day and Burns Day, are no longer widely celebrated. Repr. LH 95. ¶ 13 December 1973, p. 4. Pedestrians in competition with cars on the narrow main street of Stromness. ¶ 20 December 1973, p. 4. A visit to Maeshowe on the winter solstice: meditations on the shaft of light that strikes the interior of the tomb on that one day of the year. Repr. LH 95–97. ¶ 27 December 1973, p. 4. Unhappy local news during the past year.

GMB — Orkney Common Reader (1953–54)

From August 1953 to April 1954 – while he was convalescing in the Eastbank Hospital and the Balfour Hospital, Kirkwall – GMB contributed a series of literary columns entitled “The Orkney Common Reader” to the Orcadian. They were signed with initials only.

“Solitude.” 6 August 1953, p. 3. “Solitude is a recurring theme in Orkney literature.” ¶ “Biography.” 13 August 1953, p. 2. “Our island literature is extremely poor in biography and autobiography.”

“Island Folk Culture.” 3 September 1953, p. 2. “It is . . . a strange thing that Shetland, in all the creative arts, lags far behind Orkney nowadays.” ¶ “Reading Robert Rendall’s Verse.” 24 September 1953, p. 2. “Mr Robert Rendall is a Jekyll-and-Hyde among poets. That is to say, he can write wonderful poetry, and shockingly bad poetry, with equal fluency, and the extraordinary thing is that the poet himself is apparently unaware of the yawning chasm between his good work and his bad.”

“The Sea in Orkney Poetry.” 15 October 1953, p. 4. “You would think that the sea would figure largely in Orkney literature. But a quick glance through the ‘Anthology of Orkney Verse’ shows that it really bulks surprisingly small.” ¶ “The Novel in Orkney.” 22 October 1953, p. 4. A survey of the Orkney novels of Walter Scott, Walter Traill Dennison, and Eric Linklater.

“The ‘Mighty Line’ in Orkney Poetry.” 5 November 1953, p. 3. A discussion of powerful lines in poetry: “Lately I have gone through a few volumes of island verse and have been astonished at their frequency.” ¶ “The ‘Immortal Tongue’ of Ann Scott-Moncrieff.” 12 November 1953, p. 3. An analysis of Scott-Moncrieff’s poem “The Brig o’ Waithe,” written in Orkney dialect.

“Orkney’s Own Saga.” 17 December 1953, p. 3. “The finest piece of literature we islefolks have is ‘The Orkneyinga Saga.'” ¶ “Two Sonnets.” 31 December 1953, p. 2. The sonnets are “Sons of the Isles” and “Kirkwall” by Duncan J. Robertson; but another of his poems, “Waith and Wrack” is better.

“Eric Linklater.” 11 February 1954, p. 2. “I would like to give a purely personal impression of the writings of our celebrated fellow Orkneyman, Eric Linklater.”

“An Edwin Muir Poem.” 8 April 1954, p. 6. An analysis of Muir’s “Merlin.”

 

Island Diary (1955)

The following “Island Diary” columns by George Mackay Brown, all signed “Islandman,” were published in the Orkney Herald during 1955. (From 1948 onward, most of the “Island Diary” columns had subheads, which I have here recorded at the start of each entry.) A few of them were reprinted posthumously in GMB’s Northern Lights (1999), cited here as NL.


“Earl Patrick and the Ministers.” 4 January 1955, p. 6. Description of the execution, in 1615, of Patrick Stewart, Earl of Orkney, in 1615, and the Calvinistic clergy who made h­is last hours miserable. ¶ “A Lodging in San Francisco.” 11 January 1955, p. 5. The semi-fictionalized story of a young Orkney sailor who was shanghaied in San Francisco in the 1860s. ¶ “Snow.” 18 January 1955, p. 4. Following a heavy snowstorm, he reflects on the meaning of snow for children and older adults. ¶ “After the Blizzard.” 25 January 1955, p. 4. The hazards of walking in the snow.

“Orkney Trows in America.” 1 February 1955, p. 4. Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle is an Orkney story in an American setting; the population drift from Orkney; a conversation with Robert Rendall; wondering what the ale in the Orkneyinga Saga tasted like; the thaw after the blizzard; his distrust of Billy Graham. ¶ “Orkneymen versus Highlanders.” 8 February 1955, p. 4. The differences between Orcadians and Highlanders; England’s victory in the Fourth Test Match; misleading names of political parties; darts and “a spectacular increase in arithmetical knowledge in Orkney these last few years”; corduroy now associated with “spivs.” ¶ “Not So Healthy.” 22 February 1955, p. 5. An account of the recent drama festival. (The “Island Diary” headline was omitted from this column.)­­

“The Old Winter Weariness.” 8 March 1955, p. 5. The second great snow of the winter (which prevented the publication of his column the previous week).­ ¶ “Talking with Edwin Muir.” 15 March 1955, p. 5. Recollections of some of Muir’s literary conversations and lectures. ¶ “Three Letters on Drama.” 22 March 1955, p. 5. Replies to his comments about drama festival (see above, 22 February). ¶ “The Death of Sweyne.” 29 March 1955, p. 5. “Sweyn Asliefson [in the Orkneyinga Saga] was the great Orkney poet of the flesh and its glory”

“Read All about It.” 5 April 1955, p. 4. Because of a strike, he has been without the London daily newspapers (for which he is grateful); the political views of Jo Grimond; listening to Billy Graham on the radio; Eric Linklater; the end of March. See reply by R. Johnson, “Islandman and the Newspaper Strike,” 3 May, p. 4, and a rejoinder by GMB. ¶ “The Egilshay Crofter’s Story.” 12 April 1955, p. 4. A short story in which the martyrdom of St. Magnus is described by an ol­d crofter on Egilshay. ¶ “The Eve of the Battle.” 19 April 1955, p. 4. A speech by Jo Grimond in Stromness Town Hall; the plans of the Kirkwall and Stromness Film Societies for next winter; the Holy Shroud of Turin; James Bruce, curator of the Stromness Museum. ¶ “April at the Housing Scheme.” 26 April 1955, p. 4. An April morning near the council houses in Stromness; the story of a Stromness man who accidentally dropped a bag full of beer bottles; the political scene in Orkney.

“Waiting for the Fireworks.” 3 May 1955, p. 4. “It’s the dullest general election in Orkney for a very long time”; Brenda Clouston, a local sculptor; a proposed museum in Tankerness House; Billy Graham’s effect on Orkney folk; Robert Rendall’s latest visit to Italy. ¶ “Home Sweet Home.” 10 May 1955, p. 4. “Last Saturday afternoon I found myself alone in a house all a-gleam from the recent spring-cleaning.” ¶ “Election Notes.” 17 May 1955, p. 4. “I have never known a tamer election in Orkney.”

“The Pier Head, Stromness.” 7 June 1955, p. 4. The Pier Head is the absolute center of life in Stromness. ¶ “Tam.” 14 June 1955, p. 4. Short story. Repr. in New Shetlander, September–October 1955. ¶ “Magazines, Bere Bannocks, Dandelions.” 21 June 1955, p. 4. The latest issue of the New Shetlander; Orkney food; wild flowers. ¶ “The Mysterious Harray Loch.” 28 June 1955, p. 4. “On Thursday afternoon we went for an hour’s fishing on Harray Loch.” Repr. NL 114–16.

“The Stenness Black Mass.” 5 July 1955, p. 4. Short story about a midsummer Black Mass. ¶ “Portrait of Stromness.” 19 July 1955, p. 4. The history and character of the parish of Stromness. ¶ “Jock.” 26 July 1955, pp. 4–5. Short story.

“The Temporal Abstinence of Mr Melvin.” 2 August 1955, p. 4. Short story. ¶ “The Reds and the Blues.” 23 August 1955, p. 4. “I went to the inter-county football match with G.” ¶ “‘To the Unborn’.” 30 August 1955, p. 4. Review of David Balfour’s privately-printed collection of poems, To the Unborn.

“Dounby Market.” 6 September 1955, p. 4. A visit to the agricultural fair. ¶ “A Forgotten Tomb.” 13 September 1955, p. 4. Meditations on the tombstone of Ellen Dunne, a local girl who died at the age of 17 in the nineteenth century. Repr. NL 120–23. ¶ “‘The Seasons’: An Orkney Farmer’s Poems.” 20 September 1955, p. 4. Review of John Skea, The Seasons and Other Poems. ¶ “A Book from Toronto.” 27 September 1955, p. 4. An anonymous reader in Toronto has sent him a copy of The Collected Poems of Robert Service; Jimmy Harvey, recently retired harbor-master of Stromness; R. T. Johnson’s Orcadian Nights, a collection of stories about the imaginary Stenwick.

“Summer and Winter.” 4 October 1955, p. 4. “Winter has a thousand consolations. . . .” ¶ “A Fine Library.” 11 October 1955, p. 4. Visiting the County Library in Laing Street, Kirkwall; rabbits dying of myxomatosis; an unsatisfactory BBC program about the Orkney accent. ¶ “Street Names.” 18 October 1955, p. 4. Some unsatisfactory street names in Kirkwall and Stromness. ¶ “Old Houses.” 25 October 1955, p. 4. The best old houses should certainly be preserved; “yet . . . we cannot have a town like Kirkwall crammed with old, insanitary beautiful buildings, which serve no purpose at all.”

“The Unfolding Week.” 1 November 1955, p. 4. A day-by-day account of his week. ¶ “Debaters in Birsay.” 15 November 1955, p. 4. A debate between the Rev. Hector G. Ross and Ian MacInnes. ¶ “The Trafalgar Veterans.” 22 November 1955, p. 4. The Orkney men who fought on the Victory at Trafalgar; the historic roots of the game of draughts in Orkney; a relative of his who saw fairies. ¶ “St Andrew’s Day.” 29 November 1955, p. 4. The feast days and holidays of autumn.

“The First Week of December.” 6 December 1955, p. 4. Disappointment with the radio program Matter of Opinion; admiration for a series entitled “Some Annals of an Orkney Parish” that is now being published in the Orkney Herald; the gradual depopulation of Orkney might be solved if residents were allowed to make their own whiskey. ¶ “Another ‘Victory’ Sailor.” 13 December 1955, p. 4. William Bruce, an Orcadian who fought at Trafalgar (see 22 November above); conversations with Jehovah’s Witnesses; the first signs of Christmas. ¶ “The Island Magi.” 20 December 1955, p. 4. Short story. ¶ “Prospect for 1956.” 27 December 1955, p. 4. His whimsical predictions for each month of the next year.

Island Diary (1954)

The following “Island Diary” columns by George Mackay Brown, all signed “Islandman,” were published in the Orkney Herald during 1954. (From 1948 onward, most of the “Island Diary” columns had subheads, which I have here recorded at the start of each entry.) A few of them were reprinted posthumously in GMB’s Northern Lights (1999), cited here as NL.


“New Year’s Day.” 12 January 1954, p. 4. Because he’s in the hospital, he hasn’t suffered the usual after-effects of Hogmanay; watching the Ba’ in Kirkwall. ¶ “The Ballad of Andr­­ew Ross – Second Version.” 19 January 1954, p. 4. Another version of a nineteenth-century ballad that interested his readers. ¶ “The Star o’ Rabbie Burns.” 26 January 1954, p. 4. An assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of Burns as a poet.­

“Look Out, It’s Coming.” 2 February 1954, p. 4. Is uneasy about the possible arrival of television on Orkney; recollections of his earlier encounters with television in Dalkeith and Edinburgh.­­ ¶ “At the Bull Show.” 9 February 1954, p. 4. Going to the Bull Sale at Kirkwall Auction Mart for the first time in his life; the depopulation of Rackwick; the hundredth anniversary of the Orcadian; the “old weather witch” who mistakenly prophesied a hurricane in January. ¶ “Taken to Task.” 16 February 1954, p. 6. Responding to a letter from a reader, he surveys other great Scottish writers besides Burns and defends his praise of the Orkneyinga Saga. ¶ “The Cruel Sea.” 23 February 1954, p. 4. “That story, in the national press last week, of the fishing boat skipper who drew up in his nets a drowned body, and ordered it to be given back to the sea, roused a great deal of interest in Orkney.”

“The Long Night.” 2 March 1954, p. 4. “I heard a good story the other day, said to be true, which could perhaps be worked up into an effective one-act comedy”; the county ploughing match; “a spin in the car round Scorriedale and Houton”; the Drama Festival in Stromness. ¶ “Lure of the Map.” 9 March 1954, p. 6. The old place names of Orkney; dramatic local weather. ¶ “Inquest on a Radio­­ Programme.” 23 March 1954, p. 6. “I should like, in the next few weeks, to discuss some of the programmes we hear regularly on the Scottish Home Service”; review of a program about an Orkney family in the eighteenth century; watching films at the hospital; Herman Wouk’s The Cain Mutiny. ¶ “Take Your Choice.” 30 March 1954, p. 6. “The news that there is to be a large atomic pile (or whatever is the right name) in Caithness has roused various reactions in Orkney”; declining Presbyterian church membership in Orkney (mainly thanks to John Knox); the radio program Just as You Please.

“The Night of the Falling Bombs.” 6 April 1954, p. 4. Remembering the first bombing raid on Orkney during World War Two; review of Judgment Day, a radio play by Elmer Rice. ¶ “Earl Haakon’s Testament.” 20 April 1954, p. 4. “This week ‘Islandman’ imagines Earl Haakon, in the last year of his rule in Orkney, telling the story of Magnus’s death, from his own point of view.” Reply by “Reader” and response by GMB, 27 April, p. 4. ¶ “On Reading the Great McGonagall.” 27 April 1954, p. 4. The poet William McGonagall of Dundee.

“Island Politicians.” 4 May 1954, p. 4. Various Shetland politicians, including John W. Eunson; rooks in Kirkwall (which he has observed from the hospital windows); peat smoke on Orkney. ¶ “The Second Miscellany.” 11 May 1954, p. 4. Review of the second volume of the Orkney Miscellany, consisting of “seven papers read before the Orkney Record and Antiquarian Society last winter.” ¶ “Peerie Sea: Princess or Trull.” 25 May 1954, p. 6. The debates about Kirkwall’s Peerie Sea; new houses in Kirkwall; the most recent issue of the New Shetlander.

“A New Scottish Magazine.” 1 June 1954, p. 6. Review of the first issue of the Saltire Review; a friendly letter from a woman in London, but “some week soon, for your entertainment, I must print here some of the savage bitter letters I get from readers”; playing the game of Monopoly in the hospital. ¶ “The Great Song Famine.” 8 June 1954, p. 6. “I wish someone with ability would try to compose one or two decent Orkney songs, for those we possess are dreadful beyond belief”; an encounter with Andrew Manson, who had a phenomenal memory; Orkney poetry. ¶ “Thou Shalt Not Read!” 15 June 1954, p. 6. The banning of books by public libraries; wonders whether his own book, The Storm, mostly “a collection of innocuous little poems,” published yesterday, might be publicly attacked; a booklet recounting the history of King Street Church, Kirkwall; Orkney books at a recent Kirkwall auction. ¶ “A Visit to the Cathedral.” 22 June 1954, p. 6. An afternoon at St. Magnus Cathedral with Ernest Marwick. Repr. NL 108–10. ¶ “A Day in Rendall.” 29 June 1954, p. 6. A bus trip to visit friends in Rendall. Repr. NL 111–13.

“June Days.” 6 July 1954, p. 6. Bad weather and a recital of terrible events associated with June in Orkney. ¶ “The Jew and the Spaniard.” 20 July 1954, p. 4. Two surprising past members of the King Street Church; an American visitor named George Brown; extract from his diary about the solar eclipse. ¶ “Shopping Week Overture.” 27 July 1954, p. 4. Description of the beginning of Shopping Week in Stromness.

“Black Pat’s Palace.” 3 August 1954, p. 4. The ruins of Earl Patrick Stewart’s palace in Kirkwall. ¶ “The Stenness Witches.” 24 August 1954, p. 4. Modern witches allegedly in Stenness; visit of a spiritualist medium; Orkney tombstones; has been made an honorary member of the Doglovers Club’ Hugh MacDiarmid’s lapses as a poet; the Stromness Regatta; the Multiple Sclerosis Society. ¶ “Three Ambitions.” 31 August 1954, p. 4. Paradox, a book of poems by Jean Macdonald Watt; the abundance of painters in Orkney; the need for lyrics to accompany some old Orkney music; changing golf fashions; recent stormy weather; three ambitions (including a visit to Rackwick) for the summer not yet realized.

“An Afternoon in Stromness Museum.” 7 September 1954, p. 4. A history of the Museum and a description of its current displays. ¶ “An Orkney Convict Poet.” 14 September 1954, p. 4. The story of J. T. Wilson-Bonchord and his Poems Composed in Prison. ¶ “Evening at the Black Craig.” 21 September 1954, p. 4. A walk up the Black Craig, near Outertown, on a Sunday evening; Ferguson’s Scottish Proverbs by David Ferguson (1641); a dying rabbit near his home.­ ¶ “The Great Orkney Judas.” 28 September 1954, p. 5. The story of the mutiny led by John Gow.

“John Rae and the Franklin Expedition.” 5 October 1954, p. 5. The arctic adventures of John Rae. ¶ “A Defence against the Cold.” 12 October 1954, p. 5. Despite the early arrival of winter weather, he finds pleasure in reading older books about Orkney. ¶ “Kirkwall’s Black Sabbath.” 19 October 1954, p. 5. The Rev. Charles Webster’s denunciation of sabbath-breaking in 1888. ¶ “The End of Gow.” 26 October 1954, p. 4. John Gow’s trial and execution in London.

“Edwin Muir’s ‘Autobiography’.” 2 November 1954, p. 4. A long, laudatory review. ¶ “A Forgotten Masterpiece.” 9 November 1954, p. 4. James Wallace’s Description of Orkney (1693). ¶ “Portrait of Geremy.” 16 November 1954, p. 5. Gerald G. A. Meyer, the editor of the Orcadian. ¶ “Sir Walter Scott in Orkney.” 23 November 1954, p. 4. Scott’s unhappy visit to Orkney in 1814; his The Pirate (1822), which grew out of that visit, is a terrible novel. ¶ “Gow on the High Sea.” 30 November 1954, p. 4. “So many readers have asked for another article on Gow, that ‘Islandman’ has written a few more. . . .”

“The Other Kingdom.” 7 December 1954, p. 4. How he was introduced to poetry as a child.­­ ¶ “The Gale Warning.” 14 December 1954, p. 4. Taking a walk on a stormy day; the fortieth issue of the New Shetlander; Melville’s Moby Dick. ¶ “A Large Christmas Card.” 21 December 1954, p. 4. The difficulty of writing another Christmas column; seasonal greetings to several of his friends. ¶ “The End of a Sinister Year.” 28 December 1954, p. 5. The worst weather in living memory; Orkney’s shrinking population is connected with the sickness of modern life.