A bard's life illuminated

9th September 2011 at 01:00

George Mackay Brown: the Wound and the Gift

By Ron Ferguson

St Andrew Press (pound;19.99)

4 OUT OF 5

Take a close look at the front cover. The fine portrait of George Mackay Brown (GMB) lacks the boyish grace and shy twinkling eyes we associate with Orkney's prolific poet, novelist and short story writer. Instead we see a face suffused with reflective suffering, a figure who has lived long with sorrow. This striking image sets the direction of travel for Ron Ferguson's critical but affectionate biography of one of Scotland's best writers in the second half of the 20th century.

Maggie Ferguson's award-winning account of GMB began the task of demythologising the life of this elusive character, who was only partially understood by many who thought they knew him well. Ron Ferguson carries it further and in a different direction: he tracks GMB's journey from Presbyterianism to Catholicism, reflecting on the consequences of this for his life and art. In parallel he explores the spirituality - "the search for meaning in human lives" - of these two Christian faiths which have dominated Scottish society throughout our history as a nation.

Ferguson is well suited to this task: he is a gifted journalist, the author of many books, including fiction, drama and biography, and - not least - was the charismatic minister of St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall. His back catalogue of postings include Easterhouse in Glasgow and leader of the ecumenical and radical Iona Community.

Ferguson reveals GMB to be a complex character, a conscious wearer of defensive masks: gentle and charming, but at times vicious and hurtful. In the midst of crushing depressions - often fuelled by drink - his salvation is to pick up the cheap Biro and keep on writing. He emerges as a selfish man, emotionally needy and ardent for female love and affection. He finds a reciprocated attraction in women of all ages but is unable to take responsibility for these relationships and absents himself if threatened.

Ferguson has tracked down new letters between GMB and Stella Cartwright that make poignant reading: two vulnerable and sensitive people, both lost in alcohol, seeking and giving solace to one another. We hear a strikingly direct, emotional voice from the poet with the nuanced and crafted mask of the skald removed.

This biographer has cast his net wide, dealing perceptively and persuasively with all aspects of his subject's life and art. In doing so, he has recruited the views and opinions of many writers, friends of the poet, artists and thinkers from Orkney and Scotland, who reflect upon GMB, religion and art, and their place in Scottish life. This results in an authoritative and exhaustive account of his subject.

If Ferguson is at times over-generous in allowing others to discourse on GMB, it is more than compensated by his own observations that carry their weight lightly in an informal, inclusive style. For example, while GMB and his spiritual mentor Edwin Muir are deeply critical of Calvinism, Ferguson mounts a spirited defence of John Knox as a progressive, well-rounded thinker, dismissing the ahistorical and ill-informed views that have characterised him as a "morose Scottish Orangeman". This book deepens our understanding of Scottish literature today and illuminates the life and work of one of its central figures.


Ron Ferguson, who was described by George Mackay Brown as a true craftsman in literature, is an award-winning writer and former Presbyterian minister of Orkney's St Magnus Cathedral.

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