I know that I have done mostly contemporary (or at least semi-contemporary) authors and books. George Mackay Brown is not necessarily one of that group. Born in 1921 and died in 1996, Mackay Brown was a Scottish poet and novelist. And though he certainly is recognized as Scottish, you could make the argument that he is not really Scottish at all. Mackay Brown was Orcadian, meaning he came from the northern islands called the Orkneys. These islanders do not all consider themselves Scottish, rather, they identify first as Orcadian, mostly because the Orkneys were a gift to the Scots from Norway in the 1400s. You can read all about the history of the islands if you choose, but this separation from the majority of Scottish culture does inform some of Mackay Brown’s writing. (BTW, Mackay is pronounced Mac-kI, not Mac-Kae).
Probably because Mackay Brown was a poet, his prose also reads with a defined musical quality. The first of his books I read was Beside the Ocean of Time. It was an assigned novel for my study abroad class in Scotland. The story centers on a young boy named Thorfinn who constantly daydreams. He places himself in historical fantasies, including working on Viking ships (a sign of the Orcadian history) and as a warrior for Bonnie Prince Charlie (a sign of Scottish influence). The book jumps ahead to Thor as a grown man, returned from a German POW camp in WWII. He has discovered a love of writing, and wonders if his earlier imaginations contributed to his gift. I cannot say enough about the gorgeous writing style that Mackay Brown gives in this book. Even though the overall novel is comprised of short stories, its themes are wonderfully crafted. Even though I read Beside the Ocean of Time a couple of years ago (for the second time), I still marvel in its brilliance.
I think Mackay Brown really belongs in the world of the short story. I have read both A Calendar of Love and Winter Tales, and loved each and every piece he gives. Most deal with simple occurrences on the island, or changes to the usual landscape of people. They read beautifully, as if each is a piece of chocolate that you must savor for as long as possible. Sadly, some of the stories are far too short or feel as if he could have given us even more to savor. They present the culture of the Orkneys with such love, and yet they give a bit of realism to the picturesque island life. After all, he does not shy away from the hardships or from the ugliness that people can exhibit no matter what point on the map on which they live.
For instance, in “Five Green Waves” of Calendar of Love, we follow a young boy around the island. John (we only learn his name in the last couple pages of the story), has been asked to leave school because he did not learn Pythagoras’s theorem. He wanders through the island instead of returning straight to his strict father. He cannot let his father know that he was asked to leave school early that day. He meets up with an older couple, the husband a retired seaman. While the husband tries to sing a ballad of an Orcadian sailor, the wife continually interrupts to explain the ballad. “Shut up,” her husbands tells her when she comments. Their interaction alone make the story worthwhile. They are the true married couple, one secure in their relationship to say what they think.
John wanders off for a dip in the ocean, and then through town where they have a dance. It is here where we find perhaps the most beautiful passage I have ever read:
An old shawled woman stands alone, in the shadow of the church. No one speaks to her; the seal of separation is on her. She is the guardian of the gates of birth and death. In this village she comes to deliver every wailing child, she goes to shroud every quiet corpse. Her eyes are in the dust, from which all this vanity has come, and to which it must return.
How beautiful. Mackay Brown can express something so true, so connected with his world and yet indicative of the lives of so many others. He is a master of words, and a master of bringing you in to his Orcadian life.
Mackay Brown often focuses upon the child’s imagination, and perhaps their parents’ disapproval of their dreaming. John wants to sail, to explore, to live. His father wants him to be a doctor or teacher, someone of standing and worthy of the life that he has laid out for his son. While John tries to tell his father what he really wants, his father continues talking of school, throwing in an aside of how John’s imagination must come from his mother. The story ends with his father calling the tinkers and John thieves. The tinkers because they wish to trade for something of which he has no use. His son because John does not want the life that was planned for him. We are not sure what John says to this, but we only hope that he continues to dream.
There are some people who are simply meant to write, and George Mackay Brown was certainly a master of the craft. In his prose he utilizes a blend of poetry that bring his words to life as gentle and forceful as waves upon the sand.