Rough jottings and early shapings: George Mackay Brown in the archives


A teaching fellow at the University of Edinburgh provides a fascinating glimpse into the creative processes of one of Scotland’s finest writers and shares a very personal connection with the material he left behind.

The year 2016 marks the twentieth anniversary of the death of George Mackay Brown (1921-1996), one of twentieth-century Scotland’s finest, and most prolific writers and poets.  For a while it looked as though Brown’s work might drop off the critical map, as has happened with many other Scottish Catholic writers, including A.J. Cronin, Bruce Marshall, and George Friel.  However, the publication of Brown’s Collected Poems (2005) and Maggie Fergusson’s revealing biography, George Mackay Brown: The Life (2006) have not only secured Brown’s reputation, they have catalysed a new interest in the life and writings of this shy Scottish convert.  New studies on themes as diverse as community, religion, and Brown’s creative engagement with European literature in his writing continue to be published.  But one fascinating area of his work that deserves more attention is Brown’s large unpublished oeuvre, which exists mainly in manuscript form and is held in various archival special collections.

In late 2011, I was lucky enough to create the most recent collection of Brown’s work for Orkney Archive.  After he died, Brown left a huge number of hand-written manuscripts, typescripts, letters, and other ephemera to his late literary executor, Mr Archie Bevan.  This material required a good deal of careful collation and care, and with the aid of a British Academy grant, I was able to work on cataloguing these treasures so that they formed the first archival collection of Brown’s work in his native Orkney.[1]  This collection is now available for the public to view, alongside Orkney Archive’s wealth of other historical and literary records.

The first thing that struck me about the materials that Brown had left – apart from their quantity – was the unique insight into their author’s personality that they provided.  The discipline with which Brown approached his literary craft is clear in his handwritten manuscripts.  They are written with care, in a small, neat, almost runic hand.  Revisions and augmentations are added in a different colour of biro, and these frequently take the form of pernickety, self-deprecating marginalia, and notes of caution for future work.  Often in the margins of stories, Brown writes ‘dreadful story’, ‘pretty awful’, or, simply, ‘NO.’  Brown’s notes are sometimes constructive, steering his story along a clearer narrative path, and they regularly reveal a creative process in which cluttered prose is stripped back and made leaner, starker, and more pellucid.  But the self-censorship for which Brown was known (especially in his later years) is frequently in evidence here, too.  Therefore, it was good to see instances where Brown was a little less hard on himself, for example in a comment, written in pencil, at the top of a page: ‘Story: very unpromising.  Well – it has possibilities.’

Brown’s manuscripts also reveal the tricks of his trade, or – perhaps more appropriately – the tools he used as a wordsmith.  He produced over eighteen volumes of poetry, and one particularly notable scrap of paper demonstrates that he was aided in creating his elemental, ceremonial poems by lists of vocabulary.  ‘Corn, King, Queen, Sea, Earth, Water, Light, Sun …’.  These helpful prompts and useful little nouns were used to populate poems.  The bard of Orkney was thrifty with his materials too, never wasting paper, frequently using the backs of envelopes, calendars, and the empty spaces in magazines for jotting down his notes and ideas.  One alarming find at the bottom of a particularly dusty cardboard box of typescripts was a life-sized (but death-like) decorative wooden mouse, which had a paperclip fixed beneath it.  It held together the typescripts of a short story called ‘Prince and Poet: A Game of Chess’, and had done a good job for many years, but it frightened the life out of me as a felt around the bottom of the box.

Brown is not known particularly well as a dramatist, but this collection displays his keen interest in the form, and includes a number of plays, which most likely became short stories and scenes within novels later on.  The medium of drama seems to have allowed Brown to work out plot and revise dialogue.  There are also a huge number of essays and reviews in this collection, several of which have been collected in books of Brown’s journalism such as Under Brinkie’s Bray and The First Wash of Spring, but many which have not.  And as well as novels, in this collection there are a large number of short stories – some of which are familiar from Brown’s critically acclaimed books – but many remain unpublished.  It was difficult not to become distracted from the task of collation during my archival project, and it was especially hard to resist the lure of the story ‘The Mad Viking’: A Boxing Story’, which turned out to be a sort of Orcadian Rocky.  Less comical, but uniquely eerie and gripping, was the story ‘Explorers: Franklin and Rae’.  This details Dr John Rae’s search for John Franklin’s doomed Royal Navy expedition, which set off in 1845 to discover the Northwest Passage.

The George Mackay Brown collection in Orkney Archive displays Brown’s tenacity, self-doubt, creativity and dedicated craftsmanship.  It was a privilege to work with his manuscripts for the six weeks that it took to create his archive.  And, as I neared the end of my task, it became clear to me that the process of ordering, numbering, and collating was not solely my own work.  Brown had begun the process of collation decades ago when he began to carefully collect his scraps of paper and weighty manuscripts in folders, boxes, and bags.  My sense that I was helping to complete a task initiated by Brown a long time ago was confirmed when I read his article, ‘Scraps of Paper’, from 1973. In it, Brown writes:

‘There used to be a time – not so long ago either – when people who wrote for a living threw away all their rough jottings and early shapings, and even the fair copy that is produced with so much sweat and labour.  Nothing mattered in the end but the finished article – the ordered print on the page, with its imaginings and rhapsodies or mere information.  All that has changed of recent years. [..]

Today, it seems there is a market for anything. […] Among other things they want the scrawls of writers, however fragmentary, messy and incomprehensible.  Why?  In order, possibly, that some student in the year 2000, avid for a PhD, might sieve through all those blots and scratchings in order to find out the way a certain person’s mind worked in the nineteen-seventies.  Well, good luck to the unborn scholars, and deepest sympathy.  Whatever the reason, the little scraps of paper with a few words on them, and the scarred and gory rough work, and the neat immaculate fair copies – that I used to light the fire with in the mornings of yore – are now carefully labelled and put away in a drawer until the arrival of the manuscript dealer’.[2]

In 2011 I was that very student, avid for her PhD.  It comes as no surprise to me that the self-deprecating Brown would describe his manuscript treasures simply as ‘blots and scratchings’.  But I am tremendously grateful for the opportunity to work with his fascinating manuscripts, and complete a process long in the making.

Readers can browse the online catalogue for the George Mackay Brown archival collection at Orkney Library and Archive’s website:

Photographs are reproduced with permission of the Literary Estate of George Mackay Brown.

Dr Linden Bicket’s book, George Mackay Brown and the Scottish Catholic Imagination will be published later this year by Edinburgh University Press.

[1] The British Academy generously awarded Professor Kirsteen McCue a Small Grant of £7,500 in 2011.  As Research Assistant on the project ‘George Mackay Brown: A Literary Executor’s Archive’, I carried out the work for this project over six weeks in Orkney.
[2] G.M. Brown, ‘Scraps of Paper’ (23/8/1973), Letters from Hamnavoe (London: Steve Savage Publishers, 2002), pp. 126-127.

Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.