For the islands I sing
and for a few friends:
not to foster means
or be midwife to ends.
I don’t read a lot of poetry, but I found, when I picked this volume up, I didn’t want to put it down.
I’ve had a fascination for the Orkneys since I studied the prehistoric remains there during my archaeology degree, and the poetry brings the place alive. The verse above is from The Storm, one of his early poems.
I first came across George Mackay Brown in a magazine which printed his prose poem The Silent Girl from Shetland, in which a poor family saves up all year to take their daughter on pilgrimage to Orkney to visit the tomb of St Magnus the Martyr, hoping for a miracle. It was the detail of everyday life that captivated me – the cheese making, and gleaning, and the girl’s mother knitting a jersey for the skipper of the boat in return for passage to Orkney.
There’s a lot more about everyday, traditional life in the poems. Fishermen with Ploughs, published in 1971, follows the history of the valley of Rackwick through the centuries, from the first boats arriving in the 9th century, and taking in crofters, lairds, fishermen, shepherds, peat cutting – and showing the life of the valley slowly changing, with a school and, later, tractors replacing oxen in the fields. The last part of the poem cycle tells the story of a new group of people coming to the depopulated valley under the command of the Skipper, escaping from the Black Flame which has destroyed everything where they have come from. Nuclear war was the great fear, back in the late 1960s when the poems were written, and it’s a bleak end to the poem cycle.
George Mackay Brown on Orkney
As well as the traditional way of life of the islands, George Mackay Brown writes about the religion of the islands, in The Stations of the Cross and The Twelve Days of Christmas, St Magnus’ Day and the Epiphany Poem. There is a lot about death, in an unsentimental way. There is a lot of nature, too – whales and seals and bright buttercups dancing to yellow rags.
Another preoccupation is the history of the islands, right back to prehistoric times – The Brodgar Poems talk about the building of the stone circle, and Crusaders in Orkahowe talks about the Norwegians who carved graffiti into the stone of the ancient burial mound of Maeshowe.
When I read these poems, I want to go to Orkney.