Orkney's George Mackay Brown

George Mackay Brown
Selected Poems of George Mackay Brown
An Orkney Tapestry by George Mackay Brown
Visit the George Mackay Brown Website for further information about his life and many books. For a comprehensive list of his publications, visit Books by GMB on the George Mackay Brown website. Shop here for numerous books by GMB.
George Mackay Brown was born in Stromness, Orkney on 17th October 1921 to John Brown, Postman of Stromness, and Mary Jane Mackay Brown from Braal, Strathy, Sutherland. He was the last of six children. He went to primary school in Stromness, the centre of his universe.

At Secondary School he grew to enjoy mathematics. In his autobiography he describes how the first line of Shakespeare he ever encountered was so entirely appropriate to his life. 'In sooth, I know not why I am so sad [...] It wearies me.' He traces the growth of his interest in literature from Grimms' Fairy Tales to Shelley and Keats whose poetry intoxicated him.

When George was twelve, two things occurred which were to have an impact on the rest of his life. He started smoking, and an epidemic of measles hit the school. George's ears, eyes and lungs were affected and he emerged shaken. After a year of semi-deafness, his hearing returned to normal, but his eyes and particularly his lungs didn't recover. The weakness in his lungs was exacerbated by smoking.

According to his autobiography, George suffered greatly in adolescence, inhibited in class, hiding behind his hands. Despite his, having little aptitude for a trade or profession, he remained in education until he was eighteen.

The year GMB left school, 1940, was notable for events outside Orkney. In March that year, a German air-raid caused the first British civilian casualty at the Brig-o-Waithe when a German pilot scattered his bombs about the hamlet.

In 1940, George suffered a personal tragedy too. His father, John Brown, died suddenly while working on Hoy. And so George could no longer escape the adult world. At eighteen he left secondary school.

The next year, 1941, George Mackay Brown was diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis. At that time there was no cure, and the prognosis must have seemed terrifying to a young man of 19.

He began to write poetry, and his mother took in lodgers during the war, one of whom was influential in George's life. Francis Scarfe had already published two books of poetry. Scarfe befriended George, and they corresponded until Scarfe's death in 1988. The Manchester composer Sir Peter Rackwick was another artist whose friendship George Mackay Brown enjoyed.

George Mackay Brown died in April 1996.

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