George Mackay Brown came to Edinburgh in the fifties. He spent a year at Newbattle Abbey College outside the city, went on to study English literature at the University of Edinburgh, and then on to Moray House for teacher training. He also published a collection of poems while in Edinburgh, after receiving great encouragement from Edwin Muir. He is one of the writers in the painting 'Poet's Pub' by Alexander Moffat, an imaginary conjuring up of the various Rose Street writers including Sorley MacLean, Norman MacCaig, Hugh MacDiarmid and Edwin Morgan who would often go to Milne's.
Yet to play up the importance of Edinburgh in Brown's creative life would be to endanger the central place Orkney has in his work. Born and brought up in Stromness and returning there after his few years in Edinburgh, most of Brown's fiction features the island, as we will find paying special attention to 'Celia'. A long, short story partly but far from exclusively about the titular woman, Brown offers a portrait of compact island life where everybody knows everybody, everybody knows everybody's business, and where an outsider's presence is immediately felt. The outsiders are the visiting Norwegian fishermen who at the start of the story are drinking in the Hamnavoe bar. The islanders' insularity is evident early on, with talk of a "bloody foreigner" and "a bloody drunken foreign sailor". The sailors leave the next morning but are back again later in the story when an altercation takes place between the skipper Per Bjorling and Ronald Leask.
Leask has long been in love with the titular character but Celia loves nothing more than alcohol, and various men often appear at her door and receive a little affection in turn for "a little drink." As she says to the local minister: "I don't believe in your God. It's no good. You're wasting your time. What the Hamnavoe folk are saying is true. I'm a bad woman. I drink. Men come about the place all hours of the night. It isn't that I want them fumbling at me with their mouths and their hands. That sickens me. I put up with it for the drink they have in their pockets. I must drink." Ronald, though, isn't one of the exploitative fumblers; he wants to marry Celia. "I want you for my wife. I love you." Celia's feelings for Ronald in return are ambivalent. She has supposedly told the step-father shoemaker she lives with and looks after (and who looks after her) that she loves Ronald."The shoemaker says Ronald is "a fellow any girl would be proud to have for a man...and what's more...you love him, because you told me with your own lips not a fortnight ago." Celia denies it and the truth of the claim lies in what she does love: the booze.
If Edinburgh has no place directly in the story, then anecdotally it seems vital. While living in the Scottish capital, Brown was briefly engaged to Stella Cartwright, a point his memoir For the Islands I Sing denies but that numerous other sources have confirmed, including the Scottish Poetry Library, where Brown "became briefly engaged to Stella Cartwright, the muse of Milne's [pub]; they kept in touch by correspondence until her death in 1985." Numerous poets fell for Cartwright but she was like Celia a great lover of alcohol: "By her late twenties alcohol was taking over her life. She had always drunk heavily, but drink made her aggressive and out of control." (Scotsman) She died aged 47. In a letter, Brown said: "The girl in the story is called Celia and a good deal of her is based on Stella Cartwright, so you can see she's a dear and fascinating sort of person." ('George Mackay Brown's "Celia": The Creative Conversion of a Catholic Heroine') Quoting a passage from Brown's memoir, Linden Bicket notes the similarities in how the narrator describes Celia and how Brown describes Cartwright. In the memoirs, he says: "she was open, to a dangerous extent perhaps, to the suffering of others; she made instant instinctive response to a torn bird, or some old one too sick to do housework or shopping." In the story Celia tells the minister: "I drink because I'm frightened. I'm so desperately involved with all the weak things lonely things, suffering things I see about me. I can't bear the pity I feel for them not being able to help them at all." If Cartwright was well known as the muse of Rose Street, that status continued for Brown long after he had left Edinburgh. Edinburgh hadn't quite left him.
But if Celia's story is tied to Edinburgh, the tale remains very much an island one, and never more a combination of the island and the tale than when Ronald is in the local bar and the fishermen, now returned from Norway, come in for a drink. Most are married but not Per Bjorling, the boat's skipper, a man described by one of the local drunks, Sammy Flett, as "like a film star", while an older Norwegian sailor says "Per is at liberty to find a girl where he likes...Per is good looking, is handsome, there is no trouble that Per our skipper will find a beautiful girl." The beautiful girl for the moment is going to be (and has been) Celia, and when Ronald hears this "he turned and hit Per Bjorling with his fist on the side of the head." It starts a proper stramash, with glasses breaking, the floor awash in whisky and beer, and Ronald lying on the ground after Per wins. Per apologises to Ronald but the other Norwegians see it as poor Scottish hospitality, believing Roland has hit a man for no reason.
He has and he hasn't his reasons but these aren't the same as justifications. He would be hurt that any man might be with Celia and maybe all the more those who are only temporarily on the island. He would also be jealous of this much more handsome man. These might be reasons that clarify the apparently, inexplicable one: why he starts the fight. Yet this hardly makes him a better person for doing so. Brown draws on broad-brush stereotypes of brawling locals and Viking hordes but he also puts right at the heart and soul of this story a woman so messed-up that any man who falls for her is looking for trouble - and Roland finds it in the bar. Yet there is a difference between trouble and troubled, between someone who is a catalyst for men's affections as she plays with their feelings, and a woman who cannot quite countenance love when she sees so much despair. When Celia says to the priest "tell me this, was God in the Warsaw ghetto too? I just want to know..." this shoudn't be much of a problem for a woman living in Orkney. But it is. Describing a gull and a water rat she says, "the gull came down on the rat and swallowed it whole...I could see the shape of the rat in the blackback's throat...the bird broke up in the air. It screamed. Blood and feathers showered out of it. The dead gull and the living rat made separate splashes in the water." "It seems", she says, most folk can live with that kind of thing. Not me I get all caught up in it."
There may be reasons for Celia's feelings of vulnerability as the story makes clear she lost both her father when she was twelve and her mother three years later. She has been living with her stepfather ever since and he is likely to add to her sense of vulnerability, not alleviate it. In moments as vivid and terrible as Celia's description of the bird and the rat, the narrator tells us of the shoemaker's tuberculosis as he says to Celia that he is a nuisance to her. "But as always when this sickness was on him, he had hardly torn the purulent fungus from his bronchial tree when a new growth rose about it, blocking and strangling his breath." Brown would have known what he was talking about: he contracted tuberculosis when young and made it difficult for him to remain in Edinburgh and pursue teaching. This isn't to reduce Brown to the autobiographical, but it is to elevate the work to the experiential. It isn't always the best advice to write about what you know - here, however, Brown vividly captures the exhausted, spluttering body that was also his own.
But Brown uses not only his own bodily ailments but also the island he knew so well, seeing in it the religious influence, the Viking presence and the importance alcohol can often have in an insular community and a harsh locale. It was an importance Stromness tried to limit: In 1920, the first Local Veto Polls took place. The results ensured that Stromnessand Holm became 'dry' parishes, with no alcohol license at all. (Orkney Archive) It remained dry for 27 years, during the first 26 years of the writer's life.
What Brown does is use the island environment to create a sense of harsh insularity and then fills it with bustling moments of aggression, and even more with a tender need to observe the fragile. Celia may be a prostitute and a drunk, and that is how she will be seen by a narrow and nosy community, but the community is more than that, and Celia is perhaps closer to a saint than many a non-sinner. Brown may have been living on a Protestant island but he had converted to Catholicism and Bicket quotes the Catholically-inflected thinker, Charles Peguy, who says "the sinner is at the very heart of Christianity. Nobody is so competent as the sinner in matters of Christianity. Nobody, except the saint." Celia is nearer a sinner than a saint but closer to God than the sanctimonious, and while Edinburgh might not feature at all in the story, his closeness to Cartwright and her Edinburgh life could be seen to sit behind the tone and thrust of the tale nevertheless. It is a story about life's difficulties but, even more, it can be seen about life as a particular type of trial.
© Tony McKibbin