George Mackay Brown and BOSLIT: ‘through the eye of the needle of Orkney’ and into the world beyond

In this note, Dr Linden Bicket from the University of Edinburgh explores the BOSLIT database, outlining the international reception of George Mackay Brown, the bard of Orkney, whose centenary was recently celebrated in 2021.

The centenary year of George Mackay Brown’s birth in 2021 brought with it a number of fresh appraisals of Brown’s life and writing, not to mention some lovely new volumes and editions of his work. A new Selected Poems edited by Kathleen Jamie, a Selected Short Stories anthologised and introduced by Malachy Tallack, and a new edition of Brown’s An Orkney Tapestry edited by myself and Kirsteen McCue, have all reflected on the idea that Brown’s ‘fidelity to Orkney’ (as Tallack puts it in the film ‘About George’) was absolute. Brown’s work is nearly all set in the Orkney Islands. In his poems, short stories, novels, and plays he explores Orkney’s past and present, and lovingly (though not uncritically) catalogues the people who have made a home there throughout time.

That Brown drew deeply from the history and lore of his native islands is not in doubt, but it shouldn’t lead us to suppose that he isn’t widely read across shores far distant from his own. Browsing the BOSLIT catalogues demonstrates this beautifully. Here, in Japanese, is Brown’s meditation on cyclic patterns of loss and renewal, Beside the Ocean of Time (1995). And here is the German edition of Brown’s novel Magnus (1973), with the intriguing new addition of a subtitle: ‘korset och svastikan’ (the cross and the swastika). This subtitle foregrounds the penultimate chapter’s startling leap forward from the twelfth-century execution of St Magnus to the death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Flossenbürg concentration camp in 1945. Perhaps the subtitle’s inclusion renders Brown’s superlative narrative jolt a bit less surprising, but it recognises what Brown saw as the timeless quality of martyrdom, which is perhaps the central theme of his novel.

GMB. La croce e la svastica [Magnus], Trans. Carmine Mezzacappa. Milan: G. Tranchida, 1999.

The BOSLIT entries for Brown show the bard of Orkney’s works translated in Bulgarian, Italian, Czech, Belarusian, Hungarian, and beyond. Brown may have ‘transform[ed] everything’ by ‘passing it through the eye of the needle of Orkney’, as his contemporary, Seamus Heaney, recognised. But his work continues to be enjoyed by readers all over the world, as attested by this fascinating resource.

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