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George Mackay Brown

ebook / ISBN-13: 9781848547872

Price: £12.99

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George Mackay Brown was one of Scotland’s greatest twentieth-century writers, but in person a bundle of paradoxes. He had a wide international reputation, but hardly left his native Orkney. A prolific poet, admired by such fellow poets as Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes and Charles Causley, and hailed by the composer Peter Maxwell Davies as ‘the most positive and benign influence ever on my own efforts at creation’, he was also an accomplished novelist (shortlisted for the 1994 Booker Prize for Beside the Ocean of Time) and a master of the short story. When he died in 1996, he left behind an autobiography as deft as it is ultimately uninformative.

‘The lives of artists are as boring and also as uniquely fascinating as any or every other life,’ he claimed. Never a recluse, he appeared open to his friends, but probably revealed more of himself in his voluminous correspondence with strangers. He never married – indeed he once wrote, ‘I have never been in love in my life.’ But some of his most poignant letters and poems were written to Stella Cartwright, ‘the Muse of Rose Street’, the gifted but tragic figure to whom he was once engaged and with whom he kept in touch until the end of her short life.

Maggie Fergusson interviewed George Mackay Brown several times and is the only biographer to whom he, a reluctant subject, gave his blessing. Through his letters and through conversations with his wide acquaintance, she discovers that this particular artist’s life was not only fascinating but vivid, courageous and surprising.


In Maggie Fergusson, Mackay Brown has had the good fortune to find the kind of biographer with whom every writer should be blessed. She writes lucidly, with restraint and without sentimentality. Her affection and sympathy for her subject shine through but she never shirks from showing his darker side. He was a deeply troubled man cursed with melancholia whose legacy was prose and poetry of luminous virtuosity. If there is a better biography of a 20th century Scottish writer I look forward to reading it
Sunday Herald
'Outstanding... This is an extraordinarily good book; it is sensitive, witty and has an excellent sense of the vitality of the apparently unimportant details that make up lives and characters.'
Lucy Lethbridge, New Statesman
'An affectionate but clear-sighted biography. Read it alongside his Collected Poems and step into the 'small green world' of [the Orkneys]'
The Times
Glasgow Herald
'[Fergusson's] biography is infused with love and understanding of the man and his work... she writes with a delicate precision'
Sunday Times, Jeremy Lewis
'Through his letter and conversations with many friends, Maggie Ferguson discovers that George's life was vivid, courageous and surprising'
Scottish Field
'He deserves a good biography but has got a magnificent one; sympathetic, affectionate, but not glossing over his weaknesses'
Allan Massie, Daily Telegraph
'This subtle, sensitive, beautifully-written biography is a superb example of an author wholly in tune with her subject'
Sunday Telegraph
'His world, in all its wondrous ordinariness, has been brought beautifully to life by Maggie Fergusson's painstakingly faithful labour of love . . . Exquisite and constantly illuminating ' - Sean O'Hagan
George Mackay Brown was the most elegiac and profoundly rooted of twentieth-century Scottish writers. Maggie Fergusson's biography is a deftly written and convincingly craggy portrait of this Orcadian genius
William Dalrymple
'Maggie Fergusson has captured the essence of the man with insight and elegance.'
Sunday Daily Express (Tom Fullerton)
'An excellent and surprising biography'
Kathleen Jamie, Guardian
This is an outstanding biography: deeply researched, sympathetic and full of insight into George Mackay Brown's magical ability to make poetry out of the simple ingredients of landscape, history and faith, it brings this extraordinary man to life on every page
Claire Tomalin
'She has drawn a portrait of this man which is both the perfect companion for a rereading of his works and also a fascinating story in its own right...This is an altogether remarkable book. I know it will be unforgettable, and that it will draw me back to many rereadings...It is that rare thing, a biography which is itself a work of literature, the story not merely of a lonely, weird man in an isolated part of the United Kingdom, but of an inner journey which the reader follows enraptured, every bit as exciting and strange as the life-journeys of men of action.'
Clear, detailed, vigilant, droll and beautifully written, this biography achieves what only the best accounts of a life can: the scent and texture of the departed subject's spirit, and, in this case, the spirit of a very particular place, which Maggie Fergusson conveys with the grace of the born writer
Candia McWilliam
This is a truly magnificent achievement. One sign of an outstanding biography is when those who knew - or thought they knew - the subject find surprises and fresh illumination on nearly every page. This beautifully written book evokes both Orkney and the spirit of its master story-teller with a delicate yet unostentatious skill which is the literary equivalent of perfect pitch ... Maggie Fergusson may not have said the last word, but she has stylishly delivered the best and most brilliantly satisfying word so far'
Glasgow Herald
'From this unpromising hank of material, Maggie Fergusson has fashioned an affectionate and enlightening life of the poet George Mackay Brown.'
Literary Review (Andro Linklater )
'A significant monument to an elegiac writer of genuine literary muscle' - Iain Finlayson
The Times
'An outstanding work of research which no-one interested in George Mackay Brown can afford to be without . . . This is a distinguished example of the art of the biography, beautifully produced in every respect . . . at once sympathetic and professional'
'And, behold, a miracle! In one of his many letters (and this book makes me long for a big collected edition of his letters) Brown wrote "There must be a secret wisdom inside us all that directs our lives, often against our wills and desires". Maggie Fergusson seems to have tapped into this secret wisdom. She has drawn a portrait of this man which is both the perfect companion for a rereading of his works and also a fascinating story in its own right...She herself writes with a poet's accuracy. The setting of the Orcadian scene in the opening pages is masterly, but she also has the poet's knowledge of when to produce the telling detail....As well as being a preternaturally acute exponent of what makes Brown's poetry work, Maggie Fergusson is wonderfully wise and deep in her explorations of his emotional and religious life.. 'This is an altogether remarkable book. I know it will be unforgettable, and that it will draw me back to many rereadings. It is that rare thing, a biography whi
'After reading this book every reader will feel at home in the harsh, rewarding world of the Orkneys'
'Remarkable man. Remarkable art. Fine book that illuminates them both'
'Strangely, this is what I would call an inspiriting story...and it is very well told'
'Fergusson's biography of Scottish poet George Mackay Brown ignores the modern trend of looking down gleefully from a dunghill height at the subject.'
Irish Times
'A stimulating and elegantly written biography, an excellent companion to Mackay Brown's "Collected Poems", which were co-edited by... Archie Bevan, and appeared last year from the same publisher, John Murray.'
The Economist
'Maggie Fergusson treats Brown's sexuality with delicacy and respect'
Times Literary Supplement
'Loving study'
Jeremy Lewis, The Sunday Times
'One of the best lives of a poet I have ever read is Maggie Fergusson's George Mackay Brown. She creeps up, not only on her subject, but also on her reader, wooing and cunning. Out of his inner life in a remote place, Fergusson has made a great book about a great man. She is brilliant at understanding the things which did not happen, as well as the things which did, in her subject's life (sex, for example). I seldom feel envy when reading modern books, but I wish I wrote as well as she has done'
An Wilson, The Observer
'A real treat: a sensitive record of a neglected modern poet that made a convincing argument for his genius'
Tim Martin, Daily Telegraph