The George MacKay Brown Fellowship was formed in 2006 to promote new creative writing in the islands and to celebrate Orkney writers, past and present. Its main activities include running a book festival, writing residencies and other literary events. It supports the annual Orkney Writers’ Course, run by the St Magnus International Festival.
The quality and range of art activities in these islands make it one of the most vibrant and stimulating communities of its size anywhere in the country. The vigour that characterises the artistic life of Orkney today is founded on a buoyant economy, a rich and distinctive culture and a strong and deeply rooted sense of community.
Orkney’s Literary Heritage
One of the key elements in Orkney’s sense of itself today is a literary heritage that stretches back to the era of the Sagas. Twentieth century writers of the calibre of Edwin Muir, Eric Linklater and George Mackay Brown have had a marked influence on literature nationally and internationally, and many successful contemporary authors are based in Orkney. There is a flourishing network of local writers involved in workshop activity, as well as a considerable number whose work is published regularly in newspapers, books and anthologies.
The Orkney Writing Fellowship
Before the GMB Fellowship, the organisation Orkney Writing Fellowship made a significant contribution by helping to foster and support a strong local interest in creative writing. The last fellowship held under the previous title was with playwright Jan Natanson in 2004/2005. The post was previously held by Struan Sinclair (2002/2003), George Gunn (2001), Janet MacInnes (1999) and Todd McEwen (1997).
Funding and other local circumstances, as well as the desire to give due recognition to George Mackay Brown and other writers associated with the county, made it possible to reconsider the scope and purpose of the Fellowship, and to begin work anew in this important area, under the new title. The first George Mackay Brown Fellowship, which was held by Orkney-based writer Pamela Beasant in 2007, was extremely successful. It was funded by pARTners through the Scottish Arts Council and HIE, and managed by Orkney Islands Council. Events included the George Mackay Brown Memorial lecture, a writers’ retreat on Hoy, and a three-day literature festival, Shore to Shore, with members of the Edinburgh Shore Poets. Other projects included collaborations with film-makers and musicians, resulting in two short animated films, and the commission of an original piece of music. Workshops were held with the Kirkwall and Stromness writing groups, two groups of young adults with learning disabilities, and on several of the north isles. In the course of the year the Fellow travelled to Edinburgh, Glasgow, Shetland and Brittany. Two publications were produced: A New Orkney Anthology, with around 50 contributors, and Our A-Z, with poetry by primary age children.
Following this, the Fellowship evolved into a charity and company, and found funding through the Scottish Arts Council, private sponsorship, Orkney Islands Council and Leader.
The second GMB Fellow (2009-2010) was Nalini Paul, who was born in India, grew up in Canada, and has been living in Glasgow in recent years. In a memorable programme of events as Fellow, she held workshops on the theme of Memory, Migration and Landscape in collaboration with the RSPB, Historic Scotland and the Orkney College archaeology department. The successful literature Festival Voice was held in April, featuring writers Tessa Ransford, Mandy Haggith and Christie Williamson, along with local contributors. Nalini wrote the script for the Johnsmas Foy at the St Magnus Festival, and curated an exhibition featuring local professional artists. She compiled two anthologies: Navigating Home and Setting Sail, featuring work produced at workshops throughout the year, and from visiting writers. Nalini read her work in Orkney, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Shetland.
The George Mackay Brown Fellowship aims to continue within the spirit of previous fellowships, enabling the benefit of the fellowship to become more deeply embedded within the community. The Fellowship, now a Scottish charity and limited company, is managed by the board of directors, who act as a steering group for the Fellow.
The Fellow works with the local community, delivering workshops, providing one-to-one advice and support to writers, developing and facilitating events, community based projects, lectures, readings, and visiting schools. Importantly, the Fellowship provides time for the development of the writer’s own professional writing and practice. It is also a central aim of the project that the Fellowship should contribute significantly to engagement with and celebration of the work of George Mackay Brown, marking its significance locally and nationally. The scope of this extends to reflect the importance of the context of his work, giving due regard to earlier Orkney contemporaries such as Edwin Muir, Eric Linklater, Robert Rendall and Ernest Marwick, as well as the work of his peers in the wider literary world in Scotland and Great Britain generally.
George MacKay Brown Fellowship Patrons
The establishment of the fellowship has been warmly welcomed locally, and recognised as an appropriate tribute, by writers, arts organisations, the estate of George Mackay Brown, and his friends and colleagues. It is widely felt to be a development of which George himself would have approved. In addition, the Fellowship is proud to have three distinguished patrons: Sir Andrew Motion, Stewart Conn and Liz Lochhead.