George Mackay Brown letters

The letters that tell of a writer's love

Letters which tell the story of a remarkable friendship that inspired one of Scotland's greatest modern writers have been acquired by the National Library of Scotland.

George Mackay Brown — the so called 'Bard of Orkney' — was 64 when he first met Kenna Crawford who, at 26, was less than half his age.

That was in 1986 and over the next few years around 100 handwritten letters and several poems were sent by Mackay Brown to the woman who was his last muse. He credited her with inspiring a new period of creativity after a time when he had written very little.

'How you get the poems out of me,' he wrote, 'Like a snake charmer bringing a cobra out of a basket.' The relationship was entirely platonic, but it is clear from the letters that Mackay Brown was in love with the young Edinburgh College of Art graduate.

They were introduced on Kenna's first visit to Orkney by Nora Kennedy, a fellow artist, with whom Mackay Brown is said to have had the only full-blown love affair of his life. In a poem written for Kenna’s birthday in 1987, he writes:

'Know Kenna? Well I remember most lovely
Eyes, and hair the colour of honey or of cornstalks
Near harvest time.
Not easily forgotten, the first sight of Kenna
A new star, sea brimming, over the islands.'

This was an acrostic poem where the first letters in every line spell out a word, in this case Kenna's name. Mackay Brown sent her such a poem on her birthday every year until he died in 1996.

The papers acquired by NLS also include an uncorrected typescript of 'The ballad of the golden bird', later published as 'The golden bird: Two Orkney stories'. It was dedicated to Kenna by the author who wrote: 'I give it to you with all my heart. You can show it to your grandchildren and say, "This man in Orkney loved me a long time ago …"' The book later went on to win the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, Britain's oldest literary award, whose winners have included D H Lawrence, Arnold Bennett, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh.

One letter sent in July 1986 came enclosed with 'a blade of thatching grass, a buttercup, a stalk of eyebright, and a sliver of stone from a croft house wall', that are all still in the envelope posted by Mackay Brown.

The letters to Kenna Crawford will enrich the Library's existing Mackay Brown archive which includes many of his important literary papers and correspondence, much of it with other writers. They have been sold by Ms Crawford to make them widely available to scholars and students of Mackay Brown's work.

Sally Harrower, Manuscripts Curator, said: 'This is a wonderful acquisition. In the letters George Mackay Brown describes daily life in Orkney and talks about his interests, ideas and his creative process. They give a real insight into his life during his late creative period.

'They also tell of his love for Kenna. It was always a very pure relationship — she had a boyfriend and he was 40 years older — but it is clear that he was captivated by her. At the height of the friendship, he was writing every second or third day and storing up the letters and poems to send them off in batches.'

The correspondence is available at NLS for anyone with a library card to see. It was bought with the assistance of a grant from the Friends of the National Libraries, a voluntary organisation consisting mainly of individual members, which was founded in 1931. Its purpose is to help libraries in the United Kingdom acquire books, manuscripts and archives.


See also our news story on the George Mackay Brown letters.

10 October 2012

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