George Mackay Brown

Northern lights : a poet's sources, ed. by Archie Bevan and Brian Murray

John Murray

London, 1999
bibliothèque insulaire



parutions 1999

Northern lights : a poet's sources / George Mackay Brown ; ed. by Archie Bevan and Brian Murray. - London : John Murray, 1999. - XII-336 p. : ill., maps ; 23 cm.
ISBN 0-7195-5949-9
NOTE DE L'ÉDITEUR : Northern Lights presents George Mackay Brown's writings on many of the places, people, legends and seasons that formed his vision and his work. Throughout the book, poems appear in counter point with prose.

Included here are memoirs of his father and mother, of friends […] and of passing strangers like George Bernard Shaw. Pieces are collected on Rackwick, for instance, or Yesnaby or Birsay, Harray Lock or the Cathedral of St Magnus. Legends like that of the ship that struck the moon, the taking of Orkney or the fiddler of Fara are gathered, and, in a selection from his Orcadian column « Under Brinkie's Brae », the Northern seasons are celebrated. Though George Mackay Brown so rarely left his home islands, a fascinating contrast is provided here by his diary of a visit to the very different Shetland Islands with Gunnie Moberg and Kulgin Duval.

Many of the pieces collected in this book are published for the first time. A few were printed in Orkney and national newspaper but for most they will be as fresh as the rest. Taken together, they provide a view, through a unique writer's own eyes, of his sources and inspiration.

George Mackay Brown was born in Orkney in 1921 and died there in 1996. Following his first book in 1954 he published many more, including plays, novels, and collections of short stories and poems. Sir Peter Maxwell Davies has set much of his work to music. In 1988 he was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Book Prize for The Golden Bird.  In 1944 his Beside the Ocean of Time  was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and judged Scottish Book of the Year by the Saltire Society.


Ninety pages of this book are devoted not to Orkney but to the neighbouring archipelago of Shetland, islands that the poet had never visited until 1988, when he was persuaded to rise from his sickbed for a 12-day excursion with friends. In these pages, which are a combination of a diary and notebook entries that are described as a search for symbols, Mackay Brown allows his imagination to flow, and just occasionally this intensely private man lets slip a personal view, such as the following, that seems to encapsulate his artistic credo : « To someone like me who sees poetry draining away remorselessly from even the quiet legendary places of the world, as the word loses its power increasingly to the number, the richness and strength of a people are not in oil terminals and overfishing (the breaking of the ancient treaty between man and the creatures) and literacy, but in their inheritance from the past, the riches of music and lore and imagination ».

The Sunday Times, 18th July 1999


mise-à-jour : 17 septembre 2006