George Mackay Brown (1921-1996) was born in the remote Orkney Islands off the north coast of Scotland and apart from two periods of education at Newbattle Abbey College and the University of Edinburgh, he lived there all his life. The history of the islands, from the distant mythical past to the present, their landscape and seascape and the occupations and character of their people form the entirety of his subject matter. His output included short stories, plays and novels as well as poetry. He also collaborated with the composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, writing opera libretti for him. Mackay Brown established the internationally renowned St Magnus Festival, named after the islands' patron saint, which Maxwell Davies carries on today. The integrity and unity of Mackay Brown's vision and diction are remarkable from his first collection in 1959, Loaves and Fishes, to his last, Following a Lark, in 1996.
The poems on the Archive come from a private recording made by fellow Orkney resident and friend, Archie Bevan, who later became Mackay Brown's literary executor and editor of his Collected Poems. Although he did make some recordings for the BBC, Mackay Brown never read his work in public which makes these renditions of some of his most famous poems, such as 'Hamnavoe Market', all the more valuable and rare. In his own words Mr Bevan describes how these recordings came to be made and the atmosphere of them:
"The poems were recorded at varying intervals over a period stretching from the late Sixties to the middle Seventies, using an old reel-to-reel machine belonging to Stromness Academy. As head of the English Department at that time, I suggested to George that we should make a start on creating a sound archive for the school by recording some of his poems. I was surprised and gratified when George agreed to this proposal. Up till this time he had been notoriously reluctant to get involved in public performances of any kind, and he was to remain so for most of his life.
"George would stroll over to Hopedale for lunch on a Saturday or Sunday, and we would lubricate the occasion with a pint or two of home brewed ale before settling at the fireside with the ancient four-speed recorder between us, and the microphone perched on the arm of George's chair. The atmosphere at these readings was totally relaxed. Usually the tape was left to run non-stop, which allowed space for a brief and frequently humorous comment from the poet.
"The poet himself decided what he wanted to record. I realised afterwards that he was making a critical selection, and that some of his texts had apparently been already consigned to the outer darkness. This habit of rigorous self-criticism was to become more evident in later years, and was to cause his editors some heart-searching when they came to establishing the definitive texts of the Collected Poems."
The group of five poems on the Archive represent those qualities for which Mackay Brown became famous; the depth of knowledge of his island community as in the beautiful elegy for his father 'Hamnavoe' (his name for his home town of Stromness); the influence of traditional stories and rhythms in 'Hamnavoe Market' and 'April the Sixteenth' and his sensitivity to the bleak beauty of his surroundings as in 'The Hawk'. In 'The Poet' Mackay Brown ends by revealing the true calling of the poet, "the interrogation of silence" - we're lucky that on these occasions he was persuaded to speak, his soft accent at one with the words describing the islands he loved.