Tag Archives: George Mackay Brown

A welcome to new life


Here and below, four scenes of Orkney photographed in 1992.


I had never heard Peter Maxwell Davies’ song “Lullaby for Lucy” until six months ago, when I heard it performed by Genesis Sixteen at the Cumnock Tryst. Since then, I keep bumping into it, most recently as the finale of the BBC Radio 3’s Composer of the Week programmes dedicated to the late composer.

The text of the piece is a poem by George Mackay Brown , only eleven lines long but still resonant with trademark references to nature, food and drink and spirituality.

Maxwell Davies set it to music in 1981, bringing what to my ear are medieval influences into the undulating harmonies.

The back-story of “Lullaby for Lucy” is often repeated. Mackay Brown wrote it in acrostic form to mark the birth of Lucy Rendall, the first child born for 32 years in the parish of Rackwick on the Orkney island of Hoy. The circumstances of her parents’ meeting were suitably unusual.

What happened to Lucy after her birth was marked, exceptionally, by two world-famous creative artists? The internet does have one newspaper article about her forthcoming wedding in 2005.

Maxwell Davies was a prolific composer, working, like Benjamin Britten and James MacMillan, in many forms and for many types of musicians. His style moved from modernist and avant-garde in the 1960s to more conventionally classical later, influenced, it is usually agreed, by his move to Orkney in the 1970s.  





“Unite…celebration…new…a pledge and a promise…brightness and light”.  “Lullaby for Lucy” is a fittingly uplifting piece, in both words and music, for spring and for Eastertide. 


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The kings’ riding


Happy New 2015!

T.S. Eliot may well have written the best known Epiphany poem, as suggested this time last year, but another fine one is George Mackay Brown’s “A Calendar of Kings”.

Following the Brueghel tradition, the poem  shows us that the landscape which the three kings travel through is quite as dramatic and memorable as the characters themselves or their gifts or the child whom they seek to find.  As the seasons change, they encounter ice melting, spring flowers, earlier sunrises, colourful countryside shrubs and plants, fields being harvested, dark winter nights.

The poem has further  inspired visual artists and composers.



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A seer, a sage


The most famous writer I have ever met in person is the late George Mackay Brown. Visiting my sister and brother-in-law in Orkney, I encountered him fleetingly after Mass once in Stromness, in a tiny congregation where he was a self-effacing although (due to his familiar features)  a highly visible part. 




Reading Mackay Brown’s Collected Poems, it is significant to see how many are full of religious imagery. The original collections bore such titles as Loaves and Fishes, The Wreck of the Archangel and Corpus Christi. Many individual works draw from the Lent and Christmas Christian narratives.  Yuletide examples include “King of Kings”, a prose-poem of the letters which the inn-keeper at Bethlehem writes to one of Herod’s security officials; “Winterfold” and “Stars : a Christmas Patchwork”, dramatic speeches by the various characters of the Nativity story; and shorter pieces like “The Lodging”, “Midnight Words” and “Carol : Kings and Shepherds”.

More striking still, though, is how all his poems are immersed in, and imbued with, the life and history of his native Orkney Islands. Poems full of seasons, weathers, tides, travel, crops, food and drink. Poems full of Orcadian place names, and of characters historical and fictional. Poems of different shapes and sizes and forms, often more like pieces of prose or drama.




To his poems, you could certainly apply the cliché that they have a timeless quality. The way he uses words is reminiscent of Chaucer, classical poetry, medieval poetry, Burns; especially when the subject matter is centuries-old crafts and trades such as crofting and fishing. However, you can certainly also identify his kinship with more recent poets like Eliot, Yeats, Dylan Thomas, Manley Hopkins, Hughes and Heaney.




You sense that, as a person, he might have come across as austere and a bit old-fashioned, but in his writing these characteristics are present in the best possible sense. They show someone who understood and appreciated qualities and values from the past and knew how to pass them on: a seer, a sage.




Some of my favourites from Collected Poems are the early “Chorus : Soon Spring Will Come”; “The Stranger”, with its Rashomon- style multiple perspective narrative; the often-anthologised “Hamnavoe”;  “The Sailor the Old Woman and the Girl” , with its hints of Keats and traditional ballads; “New Year Stories”, where the favourite device of an assembly of colourful local characters is adapted towards a wish to bless the forthcoming year; and “The Return of the Women” which is a play really, about the group of women in a tiny community dominated by Saul the Skipper.




More of Mackay Brown’s poems can be sampled here


Reference :  Bevan, Archie and Murray, Brian (eds)(2005)    The Collected Poems of George Mackay Brown   London : John Murray



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