Review of "Beyond the Swelkie", celebrating the centenary of George Mackay Brown

(eds Mackintosh/Philippou, pub. Tippermuir)

The “swelkie”, for the avoidance of doubt, is the fearsome swirling current in the Pentland Firth that makes the crossing to Orkney more of an undertaking than its length would suggest. It has nothing to do with selkies, those mythical shape-changing creatures irritatingly over-used in poems (GMB did use one in An Orkney Tapestry, but typically he gave it an original twist; his is a seal-man, not a seal-woman).

This memorial is divided more or less equally between poems and essays. Some of the poems are about GMB, others inspired in some way by his own poems – you might be surprised by how many poems carry the epigraph “after George Mackay Brown’s ‘Beachcomber’” and imitate the structure of that poem. I think this can sound a bit like an exercise, and on the whole I preferred those which took a line or image of his and then spun off in a new direction, like David Bleiman’s “A Wee Goldie”, which has for an epigraph the line “He woke in a ditch, his mouth full of ashes” from “Hamnavoe Market”, but which deals with the guilt of those who out of mistaken goodfellowship enable alcoholics and end up at their funerals: “so here we stand in rain, who stood our rounds”.

Some poems are set in the kind of landscapes that inspired GMB, like Mandy Haggith’s “Knap of Howar” and Lynn Valentine’s curiously moving “Pilgrimage”, about the street in Stromness where he lived so many years. Only one didn't seem to me to have much to do with him at all. Disclaimer: I have a poem in this myself but am reviewing the rest of the book.

The essays are a blend of personal reminiscences (I never knew before that GMB was barred from the Stromness Hotel!) and critical appraisals.  Alexander Moffat’s account of painting GMB’s portrait was absorbing, and Ros Taylor gives an affecting and sometimes surprising picture of him as an uncle – his habit of telling tall tales may be no more than was to be expected, but his helping his teenage niece collect Beatles press cuttings was more unpredictable. 

I also wasn’t aware, until reading Pamela Beasant’s essay, that he prevented his early work An Orkney Tapestry from being reprinted – various reasons are suggested, but I suspect it may have been because he mined it so thoroughly for later work, especially Magnus. The most interesting of the critical pieces is Cait O’Neill McCullagh’s “An Orkney Worlding: George Mackay Brown’s Poetics as Waymarkers for Navigating the Anthropocene”. As the title would suggest, it is very jargon-heavy, full of words like poeisis and solastalgia, and I am finding it correspondingly hard going, fathoming a few sentences at a time before my head starts to ache, but what I have managed so far is very thought-provoking. 

This essay, like several others, makes the point that GMB’s antipathy to “progress”, ie uninterrupted economic growth, looks a lot less quaint and old-fashioned now than it did some decades back. No doubt his reluctance to travel and his habit of keeping household goods till they wore out, and sometimes longer, were partly down to a disinclination to be bothered. But his rootedness and lack of interest in consumerism make him a landmark writer for a more eco-conscious generation.


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