Poem of the Week: Beachcomber by George Mackay Brown

  13 Jul '21   |  Posted by: Birlinn

Alexander McCall Smith selected George Mackay Brown‘s poem ‘Beachcomber’ for his anthology of Scottish poems, A Gathering. He writes:

George Mackay Brown wrote about Orkney, and that, of course, is very different from the world of Scotland’s western islands. Orkney is a place of cultivation as much as it is of fishing. Its history is different. Hebridean islands were in the orbit of Ireland; Orkney still feels Norse. ‘Beachcomber’ refers to a day when the harvest of the sea was exciting and exotic. Today it is plastic. And that chimes with two lines in [Brown’s] poem, ‘Hamnavoe’. The poet writes: ‘And because, under equality’s sun, / All things wear now to a common soiling . . .’ These lines might refer to the flattening effect of modern culture, where difference and colour, as well as character, are eroded by the bland and the international.

The ocean’s harvest now, as it was then, is a reflection of what we put into it. Our holiday beachcombing may now be as much litter-picking as making glinting discoveries, but the ocean still throws back at us a reflection of ourselves.

George Mackay Brown

 Monday I found a boot –
 Rust and salt leather.
 I gave it back to the sea, to dance in.

 Tuesday a spar of timber worth thirty bob.
 Next winter
 It will be a chair, a coffin, a bed.

 Wednesday a half can of Swedish spirits.
 I tilted my head.
 The shore was cold with mermaids and angels.

 Thursday I got nothing, seaweed,
 A whale bone,
 Wet feet and a loud cough. 

 Friday I held a seaman’s skull,
 Sand spilling from it
 The way time is told on kirkyard stones.
 Saturday a barrel of sodden oranges.
 A Spanish ship
 Was wrecked last month at The Kame.
 Sunday, for fear of the elders,
 I sit on my bum.
 What’s heaven? A sea chest with a thousand gold coins. 

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