On my recent trip to Orkney to pay my respects to George Mackay Brown on the centenary of his birth, I was given both a warm welcome and a grand send-off. A visiting photographer took the same bus as me from Kirkwall airport, and we quickly established a great rapport. He’d never heard of George Mackay Brown but liked what I could tell of him. And then the taxi-driver who took me from my B&B in Kirkwall back to the airport was from Stromness and knew George personally, describing him in very flattering terms. He was touched at my effort. He could barely believe the passing of time and that George would have been 100 years old. I choked up as I told him of my recent bereavement (the death of my wife, Ann Bilde, last October), and he commiserated in a very tender tone and put his hand on my shoulder. It was like a blessing from the poet himself.
I spent three nights in the Ferry Inn in Stromness.
I’m pretty sure this inn is the setting for GMB’s short story, “The Wheel”, in A Calendar of Love.
I went along to his flat on several occasions.
It’s just across from the Stromness Museum.
I bought the three anthologies published this year at Stromness Books & Prints:
I visited George Mackay Brown’s grave on his birthday. Quite a walk, but I was lucky with the weather. From Alfred Street climb up Hellihole Road and carry on along Outertown Road for about a mile. Just after a postbox there’s a sign to Warbeth Beach. Warbeth Kirkyard lies down by the water in a beautiful setting, where the hills of Hoy – an island that was very important to George – cup the departed.
GMB is buried beside his parents at the start of the twelfth row on the left from the entrance to the first kirkyard. Their stones are modest compared to the others.
The last two lines of his poem, “A Work for Poets”, are engraved in golden letters round the edge of this pink sandstone: “Carve the runes/ Then be content with silence”. There are four symbols: a sun, a ship, a star, and a cornstalk. George never liked the idea of the poet or artist being set up on a pedestal. He saw himself as a craftsman, nothing more and nothing less.
On my last day in Kirkwall I visited the Orkney Museum, which had a special exhibition to celebrate GMB’s centenary.
I also had a sea view from my B&B:
If the spirit of GMB is alive anywhere today, then it would be in Kenneth Steven. I read his novel, Glen Lyon, from 2013, on my journey home to Denmark:
It’s a contemporary yet timeless tale told in simple, strong, poetic language. Like GMB, Kenneth Steven has a cohesive, caring vision of Scottish identity, history, myth, and geography (the western isles and Perthshire in his case) as well as a deep curiosity about, and understanding of, the lot of the craftsman. I found it very moving indeed.