Why I'm a fan of the poet and author George Mackay Brown - Ian McMillan

This year sees the centenary of the birth of one of my favourite writers, the great Orcadian scribe and bard George Mackay Brown, whose work was introduced to me by my old English teacher Mr Brown (no relation).

Ian McMillan is a fan of George Mackay Brown. (Simon Hulme).

Mackay Brown was a poet and a novelist and on Mr Brown’s recommendation I ordered his Selected Poems from the library and when it arrived I rushed home and began to read it. I was so absorbed that I not only missed my TV treat Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea but I missed my other TV treat, The Avengers, as well.

The poems are a truly heady mix of folk tales, imagism, the natural world and a shrewd view of human nature. One of my favourite Mackay Brown poems is Hamnavoe Market, Hamnavoe being the fictional Orkney town much of his work is set in.

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In one way the poem is just a list of men who went to the market and what they got up to, but the tightness of the language gave me, and still gives me, unforgettable insights into the character of these men.

The poem begins with a single resonant line: “They drove to the market with ringing pockets” and instantly you can tell that they’ve been paid and they’re ready to spend their money. Each of the men gets three lines that tell the story of their day.

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You get the idea that Johnston liked a drink: “Johnston stood beside the barrel./All day he stood there./He woke in a ditch, his mouth full of ashes.” Grieve, on the other hand, had more innocent fun: “Grieve bought a balloon and a goldfish./He swung through the air./He fired shotguns, rolled pennies, ate sweet fog from a stick.”

I love the description of candy floss as “sweet fog from a stick”. I said that each of the visitors to the market only gets three lines, but poor old Johnston appears again at the end, as they go home: “They drove home from the market under the stars/except for Johnston,/ Who lay in a ditch, his mouth full of dying fires.”

If many of Mackay Brown’s poems tell stories, it’s true to say that his novels often work in a poetic way; here’s a lovely paragraph from my favourite novel of his, Greenvoe, which is about a fateful week in the life of an Orkney village: “Inga turned and climbed higher. She found a narrow sheeptrack and moved faster then, her body thrust forward from the hips.

"The cold rain dribbled from her saturated hair (what wasn’t covered by the plastic hood) and coursed thinly between her shoulder blades. Behind a rock a dead sheep festered, half way to a skeleton.”

I love the sense of movement in the writing and the way the dead sheep creeps up on us just like it seems to creep up on Inga.

Mackay Brown isn’t as well known these days as he should be, but I’d urge you so seek his work out. You might have to miss your favourite TV show once you get into him, though!