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George Mackay Brown


Scotland (1921 - 1996)

George Mackay Brown, the poet, novelist and dramatist, spent his life living in and documenting the Orkney Isles.

A bout of severe measles at the age of 12 became the basis for recurring health problems throughout his life. Uncertain as to his future, he remained in education until 1940, a year which brought with it a growing reality of the war, and the unexpected death of his father. The following year he was diagnosed with (then incurable) Pulmonary Tuberculosis and spent six months in hospital in Kirkwall, Orkney's main town.

Around this time, he began writing poetry, and also prose for the Orkney Herald for which he became Stromness Correspondent, reporting events such as the switching on of the electricity grid in 1947. In 1950 he met the poet Edwin Muir, a fellow Orcadian, who recognised Mackay Brown's talent for writing, and would become his literary tutor and mentor at Newbattle Abbey College, in Midlothian, which he attended in 1951-2. Recurring TB forced Mackay Brown to spend the following year in hospital, but his experience at Newbattle spurred him to apply to Edinburgh University, to read English Literature, returning to do post-graduate work on Gerard Manley Hopkins.

In later life Mackay Brown rarely left Orkney. He turned to writing full-time, publishing his first collection of poetry, The Storm, in 1954. His writing explored life on Orkney, and the history and traditions which make up Orkney's distinct cultural identity. Many of his works are concerned with protecting Orkney's cultural heritage from the relentless march of progress and the loss of myth and archaic ritual in the modern world. Reflecting this, his best known work is Greenvoe (1972), in which the permanence of island life is threatened by 'Black Star', a mysterious nuclear development.

Mackay Brown's literary reputation grew steadily. He received an OBE in 1974 and was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1977, in addition to gaining several honorary degrees. His final novel, Beside the Ocean of Time (1994) was Booker Prize shortlisted and judged Scottish Book of the Year by the Saltire Society. Mackay Brown died in his home town of Stromness on 13th April 1996.

He produced several poetry collections, five novels, eight collections of short stories and two poem-plays, as well as non-fiction portraits of Orkney, an autobiography, For the Islands I Sing (1997), and published journalism.
 
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