Stafford — Starting Lines (2000)

Stafford, Fiona. Starting Lines in Scottish, Irish and English Poetry: From Burns to Heaney. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

See “What’s Past Is Prologue,” pp. 30–33, and, as an epilogue, GMB’s poem “All Souls,” pp. 328–30.

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.

GMB — Letter from Hamnavoe (1972)

The following “Letter from Hamnavoe” columns by George Mackay Brown were published in the Orcadian during 1972 and were signed with initials only (except for the column of 11 May 1972, which was unsigned). Most were reprinted in GMB’s Letters from Hamnavoe (1979), cited here as LH.


6 January 1972, p. 3. “January is a month when . . .” [a long list]. Repr. LH 31–32. ¶ 13 January 1972, p. 3. What Sunday was like during his childhood. ¶ 20 January 1972, p. 4. “Next week Orkney will once more be celebrating Robbie Burns.” Repr. LH 32–33. ¶ 27 January 1972, p. 4. The spread of flu in Orkney – but it turns out that his own illness was only “a bit of a cold.” Repr. LH 33.

3 February 1972, p. 4. The mixing of races and nationalities in Orkney’s history. ¶ 10 February 1972, p. 4. The traditional rivalry between boys of the South End and the North End of Stromness. “Nowadays that old rivalry seems to have completely withered away among the young – and whether that is a good or a bad thing I would not care to say.” Repr. LH 35. ¶ 17 February 1972, p. 3. “The Scots above all love to wear masks before the world”; the former cathedral on the Brough of Birsay.

2 March 1972, p. 4. He visits Perth to watch a rehearsal of his play A Spell for Green Corn. Repr. LH 36-39. ¶ 9 March 1972, p. 4. A stroll about Perth, and a performance of J. M. Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton. Repr. LH 36–37. ¶ 16 March 1972, p. 4. “One Saturday morning I took a bus to the royal burgh of Falkland in the interior of Fife, to visit my friends Kulgin Duval and Colin Hamilton.” Then he rides with them to their new home on Loch Tummel in the heart of the Highlands. Repr. LH 37–38. ¶ 23 March 1972, p. 3. Growing pollution in Orkney: “We must have faith that somewhere, deep down at the very roots and sources of life, there is an endless upsurge of health and renewal.” Repr. LH 38–40.

6 April 1972, p. 3. “After the dance of the bulldozers, Gray’s Pier is no more. When I got back from Perth at the end of March, there was a tall wooden stockade along the seaward side of the street, and a padlocked gate.” Memories of the people who once lived in the vicinity. Repr. LH 40. ¶ 13 April 1972, p. 4. “We had better relish the flavour of every day we live from now on, because very soon the life of the place is going to be radically altered. Oil is going to change everything. . . . But there is more than oil in Orkney; somebody has discovered traces of uranium at Yesnaby.” Repr. LH 41. ¶ 20 April 1972, p. 3. ¶ 27 April 1972, p. 4. An account of John Louttit, Kirk Officer of the Secession Church in Stromness during the early nineteenth century, who was removed from office for butchering whales on the sabbath. Repr. LH 41–42.

4 May 1972, p. 3. Admiring daffodils alongside the road on the bus journey from Stromness to Kirkwall. Repr. LH 42–43. ¶ 11 May 1972, p. 3. Unsigned. The pleasures of listening to his transistor radio. ¶ 18 May 1972, p. 4. Advice to tourists on the best things to see in Stromness. Repr. LH 43–44. ¶ 25 May 1972, p. 3. “I have a rent book that goes back to 1934.”

1 June 1972, p. 4. A visit to Edinburgh for “a literary gathering, a cocktail party for my new book Greenvoe”; but there is a delay in returning to Orkney, and he finds himself staying briefly with friends in Aberdeen. Repr. LH 45. ¶ 8 June 1972, p. 3. “‘The Orkney Croft’ is the title of this summer’s exhibition in Stromness Museum. . . . It is a memorable exhibition, one of the best that the Museum has put on (and that’s saying something). I have been to see it twice and I hope to go back a few times yet before September.” Repr. LH 45–46. ¶ 15 June 1972, p. 3. Heavy automobile traffic in Stromness. ¶ 22 June 1972, p. 3. “Here we are, near midsummer, and how pleasant it would be, among all these dull days, to have a splash or two of sunshine. The weather has been meagre with his gold as a miser this year.” Repr. LH 46–47.

6 July 1972, p. 3. “Our ignorant great-grandfathers had a relationship with the sun that was intense and meaningful. Midsummer for them was a mysterious time. . . . Nowadays we just get tanned, and drink iced lager, and have a little holiday.” Repr. LH 47. ¶ 13 July 1972, p. 9. “Stromness is being pleasantly invaded by troops of young folk.” Account of an evening spent with Jeremy Rundall, a journalist from London. Repr. LH 47–48. ¶ 20 July 1972, p. 4. Affectionate memories of an Orkney childhood – rather different from the experiences of the young today. Repr. LH 48–49. ¶ 27 July 1972, p. 4. “It’s such a gay, giddy, coloured wheel, Shopping Week [in Stromness], that when it’s all over . . . it’s difficult to separate the various incidents.” Repr. LH 49–50.

3 August 1972, p. 4. “Nobody seems to know anything nowadays about The Book of Black Arts: though in my young days all the old men could tell the story in different versions.” Repr. LH 50. ¶ 10 August 1972, p. 3. ¶ 17 August 1972, p. 4. A day of heavy rain at the annual Dounby cattle show. Repr. LH 50–51. ¶ 24 August 1972, p. 4. A visit to Rackwick. “The old magic of Rackwick is stronger than all its threnodies and desolations.” Repr. LH 51–53. ¶ 31 August 1972, p. 4. A day at the Lammas Fair in Kirkwall: “I never saw such a crowd in Kirkwall as last Wednesday afternoon.” Repr. LH 53–54.

7 September 1972, p. 4. Watching the Olympics on television. ¶ 14 September 1972, p. 3. A depressing town holiday; heavy traffic in Stromness. ¶ 21 September 1972, p. 4. For the past fortnight he has been exploring the roads of Orkney: Mainland, Burray, South Ronaldsay. Repr. LH 54. ¶ 28 September 1972, p. 4. The problems and pleasures of letter-writing. Repr. LH 54–55.

5 October 1972, p. 4. Affectionate memories of various pens he has used during his lifetime. Repr. LH 55–56. ¶ 12 October 1972, p. 4. The arrival of postcodes in Orkney. ¶ 19 October 1972, p. 4. Reflections on various Poets Laureate, including the only two who are known to have visited Orkney (Betjeman and Tennyson). Repr. LH 56–57. ¶ 26 October 1972, p. 4. “The Stromness Library has never been in better shape, or so well stocked, as it is today.” Repr. LH 57.

2 November 1972, p. 4. A parable about what we have lost in the modern world. Repr. LH 58. ¶ 9 November 1972, p. 4. Reflections on the observance, past and present, of Guy Fawkes Day in Stromness. Repr. LH 58–59. ¶ 16 November 1972, p. 4. A young American visitor is disillusioned to discover that GMB does not live in a croft and has modern conveniences (including a radio and an electric fire) in his modern council house. Repr. LH 59–61. ¶ 23 November 1972, p. 4. His morning routine. Repr. LH 61–62. ¶ 30 November 1972, p. 4. (Unsigned.) Description of a typical week at home. Repr. LH 62–63.

7 December 1972, p. 4. Memories of Christmas during childhood. “December for a child is a marvellous magical month. He exists then and then only among the stars and the storms and the snow, without hindsight or foresight.” Repr. LH 63. ¶ 14 December 1972, p. 4. Stromness sweetie shops that he frequented as a child. Repr. LH 64. ¶ 21 December 1972, p. 3. Various incarnations of the St. Ola ferry since the nineteenth century; suggests that the next one be renamed St. Olaf, of which St. Ola is merely a corruption. Repr. LH 64–65. ¶ 28 December 1972, p. 4. “Every year, once it’s gone, has its own flavour. 1972 leaves a pleasant taste in the mind, all things considered.”

GMB — What the Pier Head Is Saying (1968)

The following “What the Pier Head Is Saying” columns by George Mackay Brown were published in the Orcadian during 1968, signed with his initials only.


11 January 1968, p. 3. The gloom of early January; envy of “Shetland’s Up-Helly-Aa revels on the last Tuesday of the month.” ¶ 18 January 1968, p. 4. The recurrent claim that “Robert Burns was really an Orkneyman.” ¶ 25 January 1968, p. 4. Rising rents in council houses.

1 February 1968, p. 4. Local attitudes toward Scottish nationalism. ¶ 15 February 1968, p. 4. “The loss of three fine Hull trawlers within a short period has caused great talk at the Pier Head. . . .” ¶ 29 February 1968, p. 4. “The change to British Standard Time the other week-end was not something that moved the Pier Head members to enthusiasm.”

7 March 1968, p. 3. Praised for the Orkney Drama Festival. ¶ 14 March 1968, p. 4. Changes in historic place-names. ¶ 28 March 1968, p. 4. “This week the Pier Head chronicler has no idea what the Pier Head is saying, because he is two hundred miles away in the South [i.e. in Edinburgh].”

11 April 1968, p. 4. Inflation and rising bus fares in Edinburgh. ¶ 25 April 1968, p. 4. The invasion of city culture.

2 May 1968, p. 4. Optimists and pessimists at the Pier Head. ¶ 9 May 1968, p. 4. “There is no immigrants’ problem in Orkney, at least not yet. . . .” ¶ 16 May 1968, p. 4. Pulling down Gray’s Buildings in Dundas Street; “we spoke too soon the other week about the early summer, at the Pier Head.”

20 June 1968, p. 4. “. . . the finishing touches are being put to the new houses at the old Distillery site. The scheme will be known as Mayburn Court. . . .” ¶ 27 June 1968, p. 4. The loss of old traditions (such as the Johnsmas Fires) and stories.

4 July 1968, p. 2. Singing has returned to bars. ¶ 11 July 1968, p. 4. Recent losses by the Stromness football club. ¶ 18 July 1968, p. 4. Shopping Week.

1 August 1968, p. 4. Afternoon cruises across Scapa Flow. ¶ 8 August 1968, p. 4. Memories of sunshine in earlier summers. ¶ 15 August 1968, p. 6. The Dounby Show. ¶ 22 August 1968, p. 4. The football pools. ¶ 29 August 1968, p. 4. Recalling the Stromness Market between the wars.

12 September 1968, p. 4. Orkney’s traditional connections with Norway. ¶ 19 September 1968, p. 4. “It is pleasant . . . to see that at the new Mayburn scheme the courtyard is being laid with the old flagstones – a bit of old Stromness mingling with the new.” ¶ 26 September 1968, p. 4. This summer’s visitors have been pleased with the Orkney weather.

17 October 1968, p. 4. “. . . there has been quite a revolution in the Pier Head’s diet in the past decade or two.” ¶ 24 October 1968, p. 4. Jumble sales. ¶ 31 October 1968, p. 4. Halloween.

7 November 1968, p. 4. “Winter came with a rush in the middle of last week and scoured the Pier head bare as a bone.” ¶ 14 November 1968, p. 4. The reassuring comings and goings of the St. Ola ferry. ¶ 21 November 1968, p. 4. The disappearance of the old small shops in Stromness. ¶ 28 November 1968, p. 7. Complaints about the new Budget, which seems to be aimed mainly at smokers and drinkers.

5 December 1968, p. 4. British Standard Time is ruining the rhythm of Orcadians’ days and nights. “The more the Pier Head people think about it, the more they are convinced that in Westminster they legislate primarily for people in the south-east of England, where most of the industry is nowadays.” ¶ 12 December 1968, p. 4. The traditional rivalry between the North End and South End of Stromness. ¶ 19 December 1968, p. 4. The approach of Christmas. ¶ 26 December 1968, p. 4. More preparations for Christmas.