A Companion Guide to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery
2008 edition, p.194:
The poet, novelist and short story writer, George Mackay Brown, was born in Stromness on the mainland of Orkney. His mother was a crofter-fisherman’s daughter and his father was the local tailor and postman. Due to the onset of tuberculosis in his teens, Brown was unable to attend university, do military serice or go to sea. It was not until he was in his late thirties that he attended the University of Edinburgh, after a formative period at Newbattle Abbey College under the poet Edwin Muir. In these years he became a member of the circle of distinguished poets in the capital, which included Sydney Goodsir Smith and Norman MacCaig.
After this sojourn in Edinburgh, Brown returned to Orkney where he spent the rest of his life. His writings draw on Orcadian folklore, tales of the sea, and Scandinavian sagas. A convert to Roman Catholicism at the age of forty, his work is marked by a spirituality and a kind of Christian fatalism. Another poet, Douglas Dunn, has said of him:’He was very unusual among Scottish poets in that there is not a trace of aggression in his work’. In some ways he might be seen as the poetic antithesis of Hugh MacDiarmid. Brown’s character was gentle, benevolent and melancholic. In a revealing passage of his autobiography, he writes: ‘The first line of Shakespeare that I experienced intrigues me:
“I sooth, I know not why I am so sad
It wearies me…”
These words should be carved over the lintel of my door: in a way they express perfectly my life and my way of looking at things—a tremendous melancholy, a mystery through which are glimpsed and guessed from time to time forms beauty and delight.’