Scottish literary hero George Mackay Brown explored Greenvoe’s debut novel on BBC ALBA

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A new BBC Alba documentary reveals the chilling story behind George Mackay Brown’s 1972 debut novel Greenfo.

The BBC's Alba presenter Cathy MacDonald has revealed that there was some Gaelic in George Mackay Brown's family.
The BBC’s Alba presenter Cathy MacDonald has revealed that there was some Gaelic in George Mackay Brown’s family.

The Orkney Islands were the inspiration for Mackay Brown and he became a writer of international importance, winning praise for his poetry and short stories.

He wrote six novels, and more than half a century later, BBC Alba presenter Cathy MacDonald is exploring the themes of his first novel, Greenvoe.

Greenvoe imagined an Orkney community called Hellya, based on Stromness, being threatened by a mysterious defense project – ‘Operation Black Star’ – that would tear the island apart.

In real life, a few years later in 1979, plans to mine uranium around Stromness, a plan successfully resisted by the community, were drawn up with the help of Mackay Brown.

Orkney was the author’s mirror, as seen through the chilling Greenvoe prophecy, but his themes and interests were universal.

In the documentary, Dr Peter Mackay of the University of St Andrews said: “Orkney isn’t just a subject to him, it’s everything to him, it’s a world to him”.

Alison Miller, an Orkney writer who knew the author, said: “Narrow-mindedness is interesting, because if you understand right the small and the local, it becomes global.

“I think at his best, George gets the local very right and he’s global and it really shows through how well he is loved all over the world.”

Cathy MacDonald discovers Gaelic influence in Orcadian’s writing, and reveals that Mackay-Brown had a Gaelic-speaking mother – Mhiri Sheena Mackay – growing up in Sutherland.

Brown has credited his mixed Orkney-Gaelic heritage for his style and inspiration.

He said: “My mother came from the Highlands of Scotland and spoke Gaelic.

“Some people have noticed a mystical element in my work which they claim is alien to the Orcadian. I admit it, and I hope it enhances my writing at its best here and there.”

Ill health prevented Mackay Brown from serving in World War II, leaving him with low self-esteem. However, an encounter with the Orcadian poet Edwin Muir set him on his way to Newbattle Abbey College and the University of Edinburgh where he fell in with the poets who frequented the pubs of Rose Street – Sidney Goodser-Smith, Norman McKeag, Tom Scott and Hugh MacDiarmid.

The poets inspired the young Orcadian, who became a famous poet and author.

Summing up George Mackay Brown’s career, fellow poet Peter Mackay said: “He was a very special poet, for the way he was able to tell a story and create a community and make a world out of it – and he was steeped in ancient Orkney history.”

“You can’t separate GMB and Orkney – the people and the stories from that island – you can’t beat it.”

Sar-sgeoil: Greenvoe broadcasts on BBC Alba on Tuesday 21st March at 9pm and will be available to watch on BBC iPlayer for 30 days thereafter.

BBC Alba HD is available on the following platforms: Sky 117 (Scotland) / Sky 169 (Rest of the UK); Virgin Media 120 (Scotland) / Virgin Media 161 (Rest of the UK); freezat 109; BBC iPlayer.

BBC Alba SD is available on Freeview / You View 7 (Scotland only).

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