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    November 2022
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    13 April 2022: A Bunch of Daffodils for GMB…

    Twenty-six years ago (on 13 April 1996), the soul of GMB passed over
    the Rainbow Bridge .. he is very well remembered !      Iain & Margaret

    13 April 1996… in Kirkwall Hospital, at 5.50 p.m., George Mackay Brown, left for his last journey. Did GMB actually left, I’m not sure. So deeply rooted was the poet in Stromness and Orkney that he must still be there in one way or other. Indeed, his influence seems to be more and more recognized in a number of places in Orkney such as Stromness Library, Stromness Museum and Kirkwall ICentre.

    The poet’s last words had been: I see hundreds and hundreds of ships sailing out of the harbour

    Ron Ferguson writes in his last chapter of George Mackay Brown The Wound and the Gift : “The evening star had appeared in the west; the tall masts were leaving the harbour, bearing the legend-maker into legend, on a farther, timeless shore.”


    On the road to Warbeth cemetery near Stromness in Orkney © 2003 Scotiana

    A little road winding its way in the midst of a colourful patchwork of fields… here and there a dry stone wall, a “dyke” as they call it in Scotland… sheep peacefully grazing… no sound except the wind, the waves  and the sea birds… the landscape is open, wintry and solitary… the view is breathtaking with the mountainous island of Hoy towering above the tumultuous Sound  and, in the distance, still hardly visible from the road, the two graveyards of Warbeth Cemetery, so close to the Ocean that they seem to end there… how a beautiful resting place for GMB, I said to myself when we first went there with our flowers and pebbles. George Mackay Brown, the Orkney bard, the venerated poet, the great story-teller lived in Stromness all his life up to his death on 13 April 1996.

    We will never forget our first pilgrimage to Warbeth Cemetery in 2003 and the mysterious old lady dressed in black who seemed to have arrived from nowhere “amidst the thousands of tombstones, dating back to sixteenth century”… we had stayed a long time there already, reading stone after stone in the old and new kirkyards, desperately looking for GMB’s grave. But we had to leave and I could not bring myself to go without finding GMB’s grave. I felt very sad. The only people we had seen there were two grave-diggers. They seemed to be eager to leave the place and didn’t know where GMB was buried. They had driven off in their car leaving us alone. Warbeth Cemetery is a very isolated place, it was wintry and cold in that day of mid-september and dark was falling. Then the old lady had appeared and said : “Oh ! The poet’s grave, look it’s there !” before vanishing as mysteriously as she had appeared.

    My last post about GMB was published  on October 2021 for George Mackay Brown’s birthday centenary.

    A former post was devoted to GMB’s books of short stories. I personally prefer short stories to long novels.

    GMB’s grave in Warbeth Cemetery Orkney © 2003 Scotiana

    “The poet of Hamnavoe is laid next to John Brown and Mary Jane Brown.
    His earthly journey is over.
    His spiritual journey is now in uncharted territory.”

    (George Mackay Brown – The Wound and the Gift – Ron Ferguson 2011)


    GMB’s grave… a small, simple pink sandstone with “a sun”, ‘a ship’, ‘a star’ and a cornstalk  engraved on it, key images taken from his poem ‘A Work for poets’. Warbeth Cemetery where GMB is buried near his parents is situated in one of the most beautiful places in Orkney, a place he loved so much and where he often went for a walk.

    To be there when the daffodils are in bloom and, along the way, picking up a bunch of these lovely and delicate flowers to put in front of GMB’s weatherbeaten grave.

    “Carve the Runes and Then Be Content with Silence”… the last two verses of A Work for poets are engraved on each side of the stone…

    A Work for Poets

    To have carved on the days of our vanity
    A sun
    A star
    A cornstalk
    Also a few marks
    From an ancient forgotten time
    A child may read
    That not far from the stone
    A well
    Might open for wayfarers
    Here is a work for poets—
    Carve the runes
    Then be content with silence.

    The poet did carve the runes, immortal pages of runes… he intended “to be content with silence” but his wonderful voice will never cease to echo in Stromness and around, in Orkney, Scotland and far beyond these frontiers…

    Letters From Hamnavoe

    The Orcadian articles 1971-1996 by George Mackay Brown

    “Exactly one week before his death, George Mackay Brown (‘GMB’ to all his readers in Orkney) was writing what was to be the last of his immensely popular weekly essays for the Orcadian. These had appeared almost without a break for a quarter of a century, first as ‘Letter from Hamnavoe’, and then for over twenty years as ‘Under Brinkie’s Brae’. The poet regarded this weekly exercise as a way of keeping in touch with his fellow islanders, a task – or more properly a labour of love – which he performed without fail every Thursday morning at his breakfast table.”

    (Northern Lights – A Poet’s Sources – John Murray 1999)

    ‘Those who look to have “real issues” discussed – like oil, fishing, tourism, agriculture – will find nothing to get their teeth into. There is little about politics or religion either – these attract hosts of “Letters to the Editor”, and I have neither the energy nor the desire to take part in such barren scuffles.

    Readers will notice how vividly northeners are aware of the quartered year with its equinoxes and solstices. Immense tides of light and darkness are woven into our existence.’

    (From GMB’s Introduction to Letters from Hamnavoe – 1975)

    I never tire of reading and re-reading the weekly chronicles GMB wrote for the Orcadian for years (1971-1996). There is always one or two of GMB’s books on my bedside table:  one of the four volumes of the Orcadian chronicles  and  a book of short stories (presently A Calendar of Love).  GMB’s writing is so positive, clear and luminous… I’ve found no better way to pass the mysterious frontier between day and night… When I received it, a few years ago, I was very happy to discover that my copy of Under Brinkie’s Brae had been signed by GMB in Stromness on July 3rd 1986. 😉

    GMB’s work seems to be more and more relevant in our cataclysmic times when our world and its values are being seriously questioned. GMB seems to have opened bridges between the good old days and the emergence of a new vision for the future, more respectful of the environment and of the people.

    Lovely April, Cruel April…

    “April – I think it is one of the loveliest words in the language. The sound it makes is exquisite – a little song. It is a poem of clean springing images: daffodils, lamb, garden, eggs, warm glowing showers”

    (Under Brinkie Brae – 7 April 1977)

    GMB’s last essay for the Orcadian was written on 3rd April and published on the 11th, only two days before the poet’s death.

    Lovely April, cruel April… GMB died on the very month he loved so much. But what a strange destiny that he would be buried the very day of Saint Magnus in the cathedral dedicated to the martyr and which shelters his relics.

    Magnus George Mackay Brown Quartet Books 1977

    The story of Magnus fascinated GMB as well as the Orkneyinga Saga, an inexhaustible source of inspiration from which he constantly drew to write his chronicles, poems, short stories, novels…

    Orkneyinga Saga Penguin Books 1981

    In the cathedral, there is a commemorative plaque dedicated to GMB.

    GMB commemorative plaque Kirkwall Cathedral Orkney © 2012 Scotiana

    Two other commemorative plaques hang on the wall, in memory of two famous people born in Orkney: Edwin Muir (1887-1959), a famous poet, novelist and translator. He was above all GMB’s mentor and great friend. In 1950 he had been appointed Warden of Newbattle Abbey College (a college for working-class men) in Midlothian, where he met his fellow Orcadian poet, George Mackay Brown.

    The First Wash of Spring George Mackay Brown Steve Savage 2006


    This morning – as I write – is April 3, and the first wash of Spring has gone over the earth.

    It is such a beautiful word – April – that even to utter it lightens the heart. It is a little poem in itself. It is ful of delightful images. It has its own music – little trembling lamb-cries at the end of a field. The first daring lark in light. (…)

    Soon all of Orkney will be stitched by golden threads of daffodils, a lovely spread garment for Primavera. (…)

    So we ought to relish each one of the thirty days of April, the month that tastes of childhood. Easter, too, often falls in April, and April the sixteenth is that wonderful day in the Orkney calendar, the martyrdom of St Magnus in Egilsay.


    GMB’s writing is a hymn to nature and life, to the changing landscape of Orkney, to its people whose life is so deeply influenced by the “turning wheel of the seasons”, be they crofters, farmers, fishermen, tinkers, to its culture so rich in myths and legends.

    Four important seasonal landmarks divide the year and mark the beginning of each new season: the spring equinox (21 March), the midsummer solstice (21 June), the autumn equinox (22 September) and the midwinter solstice (21 December). These dates may vary slightly on the calendar from one year to another. These symbolical landmarks have always been much celebrated in cultures with Celtic origins which is the case with Scotland, giving rise to many ritual ceremonies and traditional festivities, inspiring poets, writers and artists. The calendar festivals are all the more celebrated in Orkney and in the whole Northern Hemisphere, than life depends on the length of days and nights which varies considerably there according to the season. The impact of daylight on life is vital (in summer the days are long with up to 18 h of daylight and on the contrary, in winter, they are very short with about six hours  of daylight). We all welcome with joy l’arrivée des beaux jours but this happy feeling must be still greater when one lives in a place when the days are so dark and long in winter! Seasonal themes appear interwoven in GMB’s “Orkney Tapestry”…

    GMB’s love of Spring is reflected in his poems, chronicles, letters… he must have inherited his love for spring flowers from his mother of whom he paints a lovely and endearing portrait  in his autobiography For the Islands I Sing and in the chapter of Northern Lights entitled “Finished Fragrance”.


    Hoy Sound from a beach near Warbeth cemetery © 2012 Scotiana

    Light/Dark…  Life/Death

    Northern Lights A Poet’s Sources George Mackay Brown John Murray 1999

    “Northern Lights” presents George Mackay Brown’s writings on many of the places, people, legends and seasons that formed his vision and work. Included are memoirs of his father and mother, of friends and of legendary characters. Pieces on Rackwick, Yesnaby and Rousay sit alongside selections from his Orcadian column ‘Under Brinkie’s Brae’. Many of the pieces included in “Northern Lights” appeared there for the first time. Others were printed in “Orkney” or in national newspapers and magazines, but for most readers they will be as fresh and new as the rest. Taken together, they provide a view, through a unique writer’s eyes, of his sources and inspiration. Though George Mackay Brown rarely left his home islands, a fascinating contrast is provided here by his diary of a visit to the very different Shetland Islands with Gunnie Moberg and Kulgin Duval.

    Northern Lights: a poet’s sources (London: John Murray, 1999)

    Northern Lights was published posthumously. It  gathers a great variety of  texts shedding light on the “poet’s sources”.

    Warbeth Cemetery Orkney © 2003 Scotiana

    A labyrinth of celled
    And waxen pain.
    Yet I come to the honeycomb often, to sip the finished
    Fragrance of men.

    (From the poem ‘Kirkyard’ – 1971)

    So, the poet now rests in the kirkyard he used to visit so often during his life, in a place he loved so much, close to the Sound of Hoy with its spectacular view of the beautiful mountainous island of Hoy.

    I’ve always liked to walk in churchyards, never thinking it was a morbid activity. In Scotland there are many fascinating kirkyards, some of them situated in the midst of breathtaking landscapes. We’ve spent hours taking pictures of old graves trying to decipher their mysterious inscriptions, engravings and sculptures: hour-glasses, scythes, skulls, symbols of human activities such as craftsman tools, ships and so on..

    “Before his life changed for the worse, his adolescent self used to mooch around the tombstones of Warbeth cemetery on the edge of Stromness, reading the inscriptions.  (…)

    Warbeth is one of his favourite haunts. Down near the sea, with its clashing tides and the cliffs of Hoy as dramatic backdrop, it has an elemental feel.

    (George Mackay Brown – The Wound and the Gift by Ron Ferguson – Saint Andrew Press 2011)

    I knew GMB loved to “haunt” kirkyards. He wrote beautiful texts about these fascinating places of remembrance.

    “I like walking through Orkney churchyards, for reasons not entirely morbid. It is a relief to escape from the world of the present, with all its doubts and difficulties, into the fragrant storied past. Here, in the kirkyard, is the history of our ancestors, with its great stone pages that you turn over with endless fascination. It is an obscure jumbled history, full of hints and guesses, and, unless you bring to it sympathy and imagination, you will only be baffled and repelled.

    In the kirkyard that I like best of all, there are thousands of tombstones, dating back to the sixteenth century. (…)

    I can never forget my father saying, ‘There are more folk lying dead in this kirkyard than there are living nowadays in the whole of Orkney.’ It seemed, to my childish mind, a most powerful illustration of the transitory nature of human life.”

    (Northern Lights – “Finished Fragrance”)


    “There was one tombstone in particular that always fascinated us when we were children. It was the memorial of a girl who had died in 1858 when she was only seventeen, and it was the rhyme at the foot of it that troubled us with its wistful ghostly melancholy:

    Stop for a moment, youthful passer-by,
    On this memento cast a serious eye.
    Though now the rose of health may flush your cheek,
    And youthful vigour, health and strength bespeak,
    Yet think how soon, like me, you may become,
    In youth’s fair prime, the tenant of the tomb.

    Ellen Dunne was the girl’s name (…)

    GMB’s personal library in Stromness

    The Stromness branch of the Orkney Library

    The Ian MacInnes Collection at the Stromness branch of the Orkney Library, includes approximately 100 books from GMB’s personal library.

    GMB’s personal library in Stromness Library

    During the mid- or late 1980s GMB donated a large collection of books from his own shelves to the library of Stromness Academy (which he had attended as a boy). In 2017 the Academy deposited the volumes (though it did not transfer ownership) in the Orkney Library & Archive, which placed them in the Stromness branch of the library, where they now are. These books are kept in the library’s George Mackay Brown Room. (It should be observed, however, that not all of those books have been processed yet by the library; I will add new titles here as soon as soon as they appear in the library’s online catalogue.)

    Orkney Library & Archives in Kirkwall

    George Mackay Brown Trail !!

    A visit to Stromness Library, a walk on the  new GMB Trail, these are great ideas for our next journey to Orkney!

    The Orkney Arts Society, in partnership with the Stromness Museum and the George Mackay Brown Fellowship, is launching a GMB trail in Stromness. To celebrate the occasion, there will be an evening of readings from GMB’s books at the Stromness Church of Scotland Parish Church on 12 April.


    A special guided walk of the new George Mackay Brown Trail in Stromness, Orkney, designed to celebrate the life and work of one of Scotland’s greatest storytellers.

    We’re looking forward to going back in Orkney and we can’t wait to follow the GMB trail! There is still a long way to go and many books of GMB to read and re-read.

    But it’s time to put an end to this page though I would like to write on and on about the wonderful bard of Orkney.

    No better way to conclude this post than to listen to the poet’s voice in “The Valley by the Sea”  and to “Farewell to Stromness”, a beautiful piece of music composed by GMB’s friend Peter Maxwell Davies and played for GMB during his funeral on St Magnus Day, 16 April 1996.

    “The Valley by the Sea”… take time to watch this wonderful video. I never get tired of it, though I find it hard to understand some parts of this recording. There is something magical to be able to hear GMB’s voice  so many years after his death, all the more since he had a secretive nature and didn’t like to be interviewed.


    “The cathedral choir sings the Hymn to St Magnus, and also a lovely poem by GMB, ‘The Shepherds of Hoy’, which Sir Peter Maxwell Davies had set to music. Then a heart-stopping moment: Max himself, as a tribute to his friend and collaborator, sits down at the grand piano in the cathedral and plays his haunting ‘Farewell to Stromness’. Tears are shed.”

    (George Mackay Brown – The Wound and the Gift by Ron Ferguson)

    As I had suggested to Nathalie, our beloved daughter, that she should try to play “Farewell to Stromness” on her harp, she sent me the link to  this wonderful  YouTube video. 😉

    I would not have spent this day without paying tribute to GMB. A great poet, a wonderful story-teller and certainly one of the most-liked personalities in the Orkney. Many thanks to you GMB!


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