A joint appeal by BBC Radio Orkney and the George Mackay Brown Fellowship – to mark the centenary of the Orcadian writer’s birth this year – has found 66 copies of his first published collection of verse, The Storm and Other Poems.
The story of the discovery of the books has been told in an episode of the station’s arts series Tullimentan. The search began in May after the station and the Fellowship teamed up to try and track down as many copies as possible, and to hear the stories of how and where they’d survived.
George Mackay Brown’s biographer, Maggie Fergusson, tells the programme that her copy would be the first book she’d rescue if her house caught on fire.
She describes the slim A5 paperback, published in 1954, as ‘a kind of magical volume’.
Scotland’s Makar, or national poet, Kathleen Jamie edited a new collection of George Mackay Brown’s verse, and wrote an introductory essay when The Storm and Other Poems was re-published in 2017.
But she doesn’t have a copy of the original 1954 edition, and says she’d love to own one, because the volume was ‘the beginning of something special.’
The programme has uncovered letters in the Orkney Library and Archive in which George Mackay Brown describes editing the poems that were to go into the book, and how ‘disgusted’ he was with them, when he saw the typed up copies that were being sent to the printer.
But reviews published in the now defunct Orkney Herald and in The Orcadian hailed the collection as ‘a book of beauty, sympathy, sincerity and exceptional talent’, and praised its ‘exquisite craftsmanship’.
When it went on sale – in June 1954 – it was priced at 4 shillings (20 pence), and sold out within perhaps as little as two weeks. But there’s been some uncertainty about how many copies were ever printed – with sources putting the number at either 200 or 300..
But the programme contains new evidence to settle that, in the form of a letter from George Mackay Brown to his friend – the farmer and self-taught scholar – Peter Leith, in which he writes ‘they printed 250 copies, and made it as cheap as possible’.
Programme producer BBC Radio Orkney’s Huw Williams said: ‘250 copies were printed in 1954, but we can assume perhaps half that number no longer exist – because they’ve been thrown away or lost.
‘That means there are perhaps 125 surviving copies. And we’ve tracked down more than half of them, and heard some remarkable stories of what those books mean to the people who own them now.’
The programme was broadcast as an episode of the station’s arts strand Tullimentan. The series takes its name from an Orcadian word which describes the glittering beauty of the stars against a dark winter sky.
The episode of Tullimentan can be heard on BBC Sounds HERE.
George Mackay Brown was born in Stromness in Orkney on 17 October 1921. He was educated at Stromness Academy, Newbattle Abbey College (1951-52) and Edinburgh University, from which he graduated MA in 1960. He received an MA from the Open University in 1976, and an Hon. LLD from Dundee University, 1977. He was awarded the OBE in 1974, and was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1994 for his novel Beside the Ocean of Time.