Am Bratach No. 251
September 2012

by Kevin Crowe

George Mackay Brown: “The Wound and the Gift” by Ron Ferguson, Saint Andrew Press, 2012. £19.99.
Orcadian George Mackay Brown is one of the giants of twentieth century Scottish literature, equally at home with poetry, fiction and essays. He was also a convert to Roman Catholicism and in one his poems described Scotland as “the Knox-ruined nation”. The author of this biography, Ron Ferguson, is himself a writer of some note and a Church of Scotland minister who for eleven years was in charge of St Magnus Cathedral on Orkney.

Despite their differences, they became friends and Ferguson has written a sympathetic but not uncritical biography, one that focuses on Brown’s spirituality and its relationship to the all too material demons that haunted him.

The book is divided into four sections. In the first part, he looks at his early life, focusing on the beginnings of his spiritual quest; the second primarily uses Brown’s own writings to examine his spirituality; the third examines relationships between art and suffering; and the final section concentrates on his ageing and his death. As well as using Brown’s own writings as a resource, Ferguson also interviews a wide range of people, some of whom knew him, some of whom were fellow writers and some of whom help to shed light on his possible state of mind at various stages. He also quotes from Brown’s correspondence, particularly the letters between him and his one time fiancé, Stella Cartwright.

He met Cartwright during his time in Edinburgh (one of the rare occasions he spent much time away from Orkney) in the 1950s, when he was part of the male dominated Rose Street literary crowd. Like Brown, Cartwright was an alcoholic, and she spent much time in the company of poets like Norman MacCaig, Stanley Roger Green and Hugh MacDiarmid, and had affairs with some of them. Ferguson describes Brown and Cartwright as being “…an odd couple, this shy, coughing poet from a poor island background, and this upper-class lover of poetry and of certain poets.”

When he returned to Orkney, he continued to correspond with Cartwright until her lonely death in 1985, aged 48. Though he did not attend her funeral, his letters to her attest to his fondness and concern for her. As we are taken through these letters, we get an insight into his guilt and the way this increased his addiction to alcohol. He expresses his guilt at the way he treats his mother, feels responsible for Cartwright’s plight, regrets his own enslavement to “John Barleycorn” and urges Cartwright to renounce her affair with alcohol.

Brown was diagnosed with TB at the age of 20, and at various times in his life the illness returned, undoubtedly not helped by his drinking and smoking. Ferguson suggests that this experience of ill health influenced both his literary and spiritual development.

In 1961, Brown became a Catholic, a move he had been contemplating for some time. Ferguson recounts Brown’s journey from his Presbyterian upbringing through his antipathy to Calvinism and his growing interest in Norse spirituality (both Pagan and Christian) and the eighteenth century Anglican metaphysical poets to embracing Catholicism. Ferguson, a Presbyterian, argues that the way Catholicism — despite its internal divisions, regular changes of attitudes and at times unpalatable history — has managed to remain intact as a world wide church attracted Brown. He contrasts this with the many divisions between Protestant denominations.

It is instructive that one of Brown’s favourite writers was the English Catholic novelist Graham Greene. Greene’s greatest novel “The Power and the Glory” features an alcoholic priest on the run from a totalitarian government. The priest is flawed, often selfish, far from holy, yet has the courage to risk his own life by providing Communion to the poor. It is interesting that Ferguson, like Catholic doctrine (and Brown and Greene), does not believe “…the validity of sacramental action depends upon the character of the presiding minister”.

Ferguson is, quite rightly, critical of much of Brown’s antipathy towards the Presbyterian tradition, which was often not only historically inaccurate, but sought to defend the indefensible. Yet despite this, the two remained friends, and Ferguson agreed that his church could be used for a Requiem Mass.

This moving and instructive book tells us a lot about one of our greatest writers; equally, we learn much about the author, who is one of the progressive and liberal clerics within the Church of Scotland. I would have loved to witness their debates.



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