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Clothed In His Five Wounds - Easter with GMB

Tuesday 13 April this year will mark the fifteenth anniversary of the death of George Mackay Brown. Just a few days before he died, he had completed “The Harrowing of Hell”, perhaps the most beautiful religious poem he ever wrote. Clothed in the five wounds of his crucifixion, Christ makes a silent, spiral, luminous descent into the underworld, moving deeper and deeper into the past as he meets and frees first Solomon, then David, Joseph, Jacob, Abel. Finally, on the seventh step of Christ’s descent, Adam – “tall, primal dust” – turns to him from the shadows with a cry of joy. The way is now prepared for the resurrection:

Tomorrow the Son of Man will walk in a garden

Through drifts of apple blossom.

What were the roots of his vision and his faith? For an Orkney boy like George, growing up in the 1920s, to feel drawn to Catholicism was a very unusual thing indeed. The Stromness of George’s childhood had no Catholic church, and no Catholic priest, and the children imbibed from their parents a vague suspicion of what was referred to as the “Church of Rome”. The words that clustered about it – rosary, pope, confession, relics, purgatory, penance – sounded sinister. “I can’t remember that we were ever instructed to hate Catholicism or Catholics,” George later wrote. “It was just that Catholicism and its mysteries lay outside our pale, and it was better so.”

Yet even as a small boy, George was mesmerised by the beauty of the psalms, and by stories both from the Old and the New Testaments. “Stories” is perhaps misleading: growing up as he was in a fishing and farming community, the parables and miracles were very real to him. In one of his most famous poems, he sees the Stations of the Cross in the endless, arduous cycle of the farming year. And the Nativity especially caught his imagination: “As a child between the ages of five and eight,” he once wrote, “Stromness seemed to me a place very like Bethlehem, where a child might not be surprised to meet angels, shepherds, kings on a winter night.”

When George was fifteen, his English master one day read aloud to the class Francis Thompson’s “Hound of Heaven”. George was overwhelmed, and read the poem again and again until he had it by heart. “And I knew,” he later reflected, “that the man reeling from delight to vain earthly delight was a Catholic – a very sad and weak and fallible one – and that the Hound in relentless pursuit of him was Christ, or the Church. And, for some reason, these facts gave the poem an extra relish.”

After school, just as he was on the point of following his brothers into the RAF to do his National Service, George was discovered to be suffering from TB, for which there was then no cure. For a decade, he led a limbo existence, largely confined to bed. And here, propped up against his pillows one winter’s afternoon, he opened for the first time a book that was to affect him more profoundly than any other piece of literature he ever read. The Orkneyinga Saga tells the story of three centuries of the Orkney earldom under Norse rule, and is the distillation of poetry, stories and songs handed down from generation to generation over hundreds of years. One man from the saga intrigued George more than any other. Early in the eleventh century, the earldom of Orkney had been divided between two cousins, Hakon Paulsson and Magnus Erlendson. Magnus, the Saga relates, had not only all the attributes one would seek in a ruler and statesman, but also saintly qualities. For many years, he and Hakon got on well enough; then they fell out. On Easter Monday April 1117, the cousins met on the island of Egilsay, purportedly to negotiate peace. It had been agreed that each should bring with him no more than two ships. Hakon, however, sailed to the small island with eight, fully manned and armed. For the sake of peace, Magnus gave himself up for execution. He walked to his death, in the words of the Saga, “as cheerful as if he were invited to a banquet”. Magnus’s body was carried to Birsay, and the poor and afflicted of the islands were soon flocking to it as a place of pilgrimage. In 1134, he was acclaimed a saint.

Amidst the tales of Viking intrigue and revenge, the martyrdom of Magnus shone out, for George, “like a precious stone”. “For me,” he wrote, “Magnus was at once a solid convincing flesh-and-blood man, from whom pure spirit flashed from time to time.” His death by axe stroke became the “still centre” around which much of George’s thought and work now began to move.

Being a Scotsman, and cautious, George took no precipitate action. For more than two decades he allowed words and phrases from poetry and prose of every age – from Chaucer, Lorca, Herbert, Hopkins – to nudge him slowly further along the road: words luring him towards the Word. It was, he later wrote, “like gathering jewels”. Then at Midnight Mass, on Christmas Eve 1961, at the age of 40, he was finally baptised and received Communion for the first time.

This moment changed everything for him, and nothing. “Without the explanation that Catholicism provides,” George wrote towards the end of his life, “I would not see any clear meaning in life at all.” And though by no means all his work is overtly religious, all of it is shot through with the vision and understanding and hope given him by his faith. Yet he was far too canny, too well acquainted with the human condition, to imagine that his conversion would shield him from suffering.

George had an extraordinary capacity for joy: it is the keynote of his writing, and it inspired Seamus Heaney to christen him “the praise singer”. But he had also inherited from his postman father a crippling tendency to depression. “The black bird has been with me all my life,” he wrote just after his sixtieth birthday. “When it comes and sits on my shoulder and whets its beak it is unpleasant to say the least.” These depressions could go on for weeks, months even, with hardly a break, and could become so intense that he longed for oblivion. “Sometimes such a mass of dark clouds pour through my skull,” he once wrote, “that I wish I was dissolved into the 4 elements.” He was plagued by a groundless but nagging sense of guilt – “The sun is flashing off the snow on to the back of my head as I sit writing in the kitchen,” he tells a friend one winter’s morning, “and all that brightness makes me feel what a filthy creature I am.” In his worst states he felt that the writing to which he had devoted his life was not only worthless, but somehow “a pollutant”.

So how did he cope? Certainly, Sunday Mass was a source of profound consolation. “Christ opened himself to the worst rejection, pain and desolation,” he wrote. “In the Mass, the sacrifice is repeated, over and over, every second of every day, all over the world; but Golgotha is made beautiful and meaningful by ‘the dance of the altar’, the offering of the fruit of people’s labour as they themselves journey to death, suffering and rejoicing: the bread and the wine. It is the wayside inn where we stay awhile for refreshment and rest… The simplest Mass is the most beautiful event imaginable.”

He was comforted too by a belief that suffering is never wasted. “One feels desperate with solitude often,” he once wrote to Stella Cartwright, the woman he loved, “and then it is salutary to know that one is not alone, but is ‘involved with mankind’. And that means, as I understand it, that whenever you are brave, enduring, uncomplaining, then the whole world of suffering is helped and soothed somehow. This is sacrifice, and fulfilment and renewal: an incalculable leavening.”

On St Magnus Day 1996, George’s funeral was held in St Magnus Cathedral, in Kirwall: the first requiem Mass held in the cathedral since the Reformation. When they came to clear his little flat, his friends found a trove of unpublished work. Amongst this was an essay in memory of his mother. It ends:

I have a deep-rooted belief that what has once existed can never die: not even the frailest things, spindrift or clover-scent or glitter of star on a wet stone. All is gathered into the web of creation, that is apparently established and yet perhaps only a dream in the eternal mind; and yet, too, we work at the making of it with every word and thought and action of our lives.

George Mackay Brown: The Life by Maggie Fergusson, which won four prizes, is published by John Murray, £12.99.

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