This is a magnificent poem by George Mackay Brown.  I think Hamnavoe is the old name for the Orkney Islands; Brown lived in Stromness where the poem is set.  The language and imagery are stunning.  I am not one for pulling poetry apart, preferring rather to enjoy the turns of phrase via the whole experience, but his use of word gull really caught my eye and called to mind a strong feeling of gulls everywhere there – on land, sea and air.  Perhaps one day I will travel north and confirm this.


My father passed with his penny letters
Through closes opening and shutting like legends
When barbarous with gulls
Hamnavoe’s morning broke

On the salt and tar steps. Herring boats,
Puffing red sails, the tillers
Of cold horizons, leaned
Down the gull-gaunt tide

And threw dark nets on sudden silver harvests.
A cart-horse at the sweet fountain
Dredged water, and touched
Fire from steel-kissed cobbles.

Hard on noon four bearded merchants
Past the pipe-spitting pier-head strolled,
Rosy with greed, chanting
Their slow grave jargon.

A tinker keened like a tartan gull
At cuithe-hung doors. The brass
Tongue of the bellman fore-tolled
`Coon concert!’… ‘Cargo of English coal!’…

In the Arctic Whaler three blue elbows fell,
Regular as waves, from beards spumy with porter,
Till the amber day ebbed out
To its black dregs.

The boats drove furrows homeward, like ploughmen
In blizzards of gulls. Gaelic fisher girls
Flashed knife and dirge
Over drifts of herring.

And boys with penny wands lured gleams
From the tangled veins of the flood. Houses went blind
Up one steep close, for a
Grief by the shrouded nets.

The kirk, in a gale of psalms, went heaving through
A tumult of roofs, freighted for heaven. Ploughboy
And milklass tarried under
The buttered bannock of the moon.

He quenched his lantern, leaving the last door.
Because of his gay poverty that kept
My seapink innocence
From the worm and black wind;

And because, under equality’s sun,
All things wear now to a common soiling.
In the fire of images
Gladly I put my hand
To save that day for him.

George Mackay Brown: Selected Poems 1954-1992 (c.) Archie Bevan

Posted on August 18, 2013, in Poetry and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Hamnavoe is a deeply nostalgic poem, a yearning for an Orkney before the invasion of the modern world. This nostalgia, which touches much of George’s poetry, apparently grew out of a journey he made to the nearby island of Hoy just after the war. He was nearly 25 when he first made that short boat trip to the island and its hidden valley of Rackwick. When he came here, he said that the beauty of Rackwick struck him like a blow. It is a landscape of rare and quite astounding grandeur. The green valley was a crucial physical place of escape for George. He would come here in the summer when it was warm, and sit around the peat fires and tell stories and drink with his friends.

  2. I loved the vibrancy and clarity of ‘ Hamnavoe Market’ and set out to get permission for its publication on TP. However, although I found the name of the literary executor for George’s poems I had no contact. After much research I finally had an aha moment and a few minutes later was talking to Elizabeth, the wife of George’s literary executor. I was busy explaining about my love of the Orkneys and my long ago visit, as a prelude to asking for permission, when she surprised me by saying she remembered it. As it turned out, they were the lovely folk who had given the three of us hospitality, on our first night in Stromness and it was there we met George. So thank you Elizabeth and Archie for your hospitality then and for permission to use George’s poem here today. And thank you Jane for reintroducing me to his poetry.

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