It was one of those strange coincidences. Radio 4 devoted a whole poetry programme to the life and poetry of Orcadian writer George Mackay Brown in its Poetry Please slot on Sunday. The following day I was listening to the beautiful lilting melody of ‘Farewell to Stromness’ on the car radio – the composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, George Mackay Brown’s close friend, collaborator and fellow Orcadian, had died.
I’d been alerted to the George Mackay Brown programme by a friend but didn’t get round to listening to it until later in the week. There was a good selection of his work, input from his biographer Maggie Fergusson, and even a reading of Edwin Muir’s classic poem ‘The Horses’. I knew Muir had been born and spent his early childhood in Orkney but I had forgotten that he had also been Warden of Newbattle Abbey adult education college where he greatly encouraged George Mackay Brown.
As I listened to the programme I remembered that George Mackay Brown and Peter Maxwell Davies had undertaken several collaborations together. The composer was originally from Salford but he went to Orkney in the summer of 1970. He started reading George Mackay Brown’s An Orkney Tapestry in his hotel room and immediately musical ideas started to form in his mind. The next day he took the ferry to the island of Hoy where he met George Mackay Brown who was visiting friends at Rackwick. It poured with rain.
When I went to Orkney some years ago people said ‘When you go to Hoy you must go to Rackwick’. So I did. Arriving at Lyness on Hoy by car ferry was a shock. Abandoned Navy buildings were strung along the road - a depressing scene of dereliction. Thousands of naval personnel were stationed on Hoy during the Second World War (it was a vital defensive base, guarding the strategic route between the Atlantic and the North Sea). But next day I went over to Rackwick. The path passed Loch Sandy with its red-throated divers, climbed up to a pass between Hoy’s highest hills and then dropped down to a deep remote valley, beautifully light and green and facing south to the Pentland Firth. There were a few scattered crofts, sheer rocky cliffs and a wide boulder-strewn beach. I could see why people said I must visit Rackwick and I could see why Peter Maxwell Davies decided to live there and compose.
I heard Peter Maxwell Davies’ Orkney Wedding, With Sunrise played with great enthusiasm by the Northern Sinfonia a few years ago. The piece was written after the composer had attended a Homecoming (a traditional celebration for those unable to attend the wedding itself) for the Rendalls at Rackwick. It’s great fun, especially the bit where the musicians are supposed to pass the whisky round and slump into a tipsy stupor. The players revive and the dawn of a new day is symbolised by the dramatic arrival of a piper – on this occasion the piper was Evelyn Glennie, better known as a brilliant percussionist.
It was Rackwick that provided the inspiration for Peter Maxwell Davies’ setting of George Mackay Brown’s poem, ‘Lullaby for Lucy’. The poem was written to celebrate the arrival of the first child to be born in Rackwick for over three decades. It is an acrostic on the baby’s name, Lucy Rendall, the daughter of the couple whose Homecoming inspired Orkney Wedding. The lullaby was performed at Lucy’s own wedding in St Magnus’ Cathedral, Kirkwall, in 2005.
Peter Maxwell Davies and George Mackay Brown collaborated on over twenty pieces. Together they started and ran the St Magnus Festival, a festival which combines music and poetry. Past participants have included Carol Ann Duffy, Seamus Heaney, Jackie Kay, Gwynedd Lewis, Liz Lochhead, Andrew Motion and Don Paterson.
There’s a Collected Poems of George Mackay Brown published by John Murray but my 2005 edition does not include the collaboration with photographer Gunnie Moberg, Orkney Pictures and Poems. The short lyrical poems contain, in my view, some of his best work (and the photographs are stunning in their elegant simplicity). Here’s the end of the prefatory poem, a fitting epitaph to composer and poet:
We may note, page by page, the new
And the old works of time; how all
Fall into ruins, or go dancing
Towards green April harps.
Forever, somewhere are joy and dancing.