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Brown, George Mackay

Entry updated 13 February 2023. Tagged: Author.

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(1921-1996) Scottish poet, playwright, journalist and author, active from the mid-1940s with The Orkney Herald and other local papers, where his casual-seeming but intensely felt essays on the history and fate of the Orkneys appeared until his death. With his first volumes of poems, The Storm, and Other Poems (coll 1954 chap) and Loaves and Fishes (coll 1959 chap) he began to establish himself as a poet of very considerable stature; he remains best known for this work, which includes a powerful sequence, Fishermen With Ploughs: A Poem Cycle (1971), that follows a constantly Reincarnated community of Orkney folk through the centuries until a Near Future Holocaust returns "the great song" to the beginning. The Collected Poems of George Mackay Brown (coll 2005), which is thorough, assembles it. Primarily for this work – though a tragic play A Spell for Green Corn (first performed 1967; 1970), was also influential – he was given an OBE in 1974.

Almost all of Brown's fiction, both short stories and novels, is set in the Orkney Archipelago north-east of Scotland; the stories in particular represent a sustained attempt to transform embedded traditional material, as initially laid down in the Orkneyinga Saga (thirteenth century) and elsewhere, into an edifice of interconnected stories about what may be called the Matter of Orkney (for Matter see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below), an array of tales whose complex manipulations of time and archipelagan geography, combined with an assured use of the supernatural, demonstrate Brown's deft grasp of the tools of Fantastika. They are assembled in various collections, beginning with A Calendar of Love (coll 1967), most of the tales with strong elements of the fantastic being assembled in Hawkfall and Other Stories (coll 1974), The Two Fiddlers: Tales from Orkney (coll 1974), The Sun's Net (coll 1976) and Andrina, and Other Stories (coll 1982); at least one of the solstice tales assembled in The Masked Fisherman and Other Stories (coll 1987) closes in the distant Near Future. Though all these tales give an impression that they could have been told to an audience, the last collection published before his death, Winter Tales (coll 1995), is specifically presented within a Club Story frame.

Brown's novels are of more direct sf interest. The pillaging of the Island of Hellya by a mysterious quasi-governmental force in Greenvoe (1972) extends into the Near Future as the inhabitants of the eponymous village are driven from their homes, which are bulldozed during the excavation of a vast Underground centre, called the Black Star, conceived by a sinister bureaucracy as a preparation for World War Three; but after the island is destroyed, the project is abandoned some years further into the future, just as mysteriously; the last story assembled in Pictures in the Cave (coll 1977) is set in the same universe, and elements of the novel were transformed by Peter Maxwell Davies (1934-2016) into the dramatic vocal symphony Black Pentecost (1979). Two eras are conflated in Magnus (1973): the twelfth-century story of the eponymous Earl of Orkney, whose transfigurative and fatal assumption of a Christian destiny leads to his martyrdom; and the story of the torture and execution of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) by the German Gestapo: both stories are represented as being the same story. Magnus was adapted as an opera by Maxwell Davies, The Martyrdom of St Magnus (1977). The protagonist of Time in a Red Coat (1984) Timeslips through the centuries searching for the lair of the dragon who has created war, her clothing gradually taking on the colour of blood as she heals the maimed; the protagonist of Vinland (1992) quests for spiritual Eden, which resides in the West, landing in America, where he commits a fatal sin; and the contemporary protagonist of Beside the Ocean of Time (1994) envisions, in a state beyond mere dreaming, the past of Orkney, and its future as well. Six Lives of Fankle the Cat (1980) is a children's fantasy and the posthumously published The Martians Are Coming (2010 chap) is Children's SF, set in the Orkneys and featuring attempted Invasion from Mars. [JC]

George Mackay Brown

born Stromness, Orkney Islands, Scotland: 17 October 1921

died Kirkwall, Orkney Islands, Scotland: 13 April 1996


collections and stories (selected)

poetry and plays (highly selected)


  • Under Brinkie's Brae (Edinburgh, Scotland: Gordon Wright Publishing, 1979) [nonfiction: coll: includes three essays of sf relevance from The Orcadian 1976-1979: hb/photographic]
  • Rockpools & Daffodils: An Orcadian Diary 1979-1991 (Edinburgh, Scotland: Gordon Wright Publishing, 1992) [nonfiction: coll: includes two essays of sf relevance from The Orcadian, 1979 and 1992: hb/photographic]


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