George Mackay Brown on Stromness Library

Image of George Mackay Brown and Gypsy the cat by Gunnie Moberg.
Gunnie Moberg Archive, Orkney Library & Archive

The Stromness Library featured in George Mackay Brown‘s weekly columns for The Orcadian. The writings are collected together in Letters from Hamnavoe 1975, Under Brinkies Brae 1979, Rockpools and Daffodils 1992 and First Wash of Spring 1995.

Here, with the kind of permission of his estate executors, librarian Becky Ford has gathered together George’s library related dispatches.

The Public Library

Stromnessians, it seems, are not making full use of their Library. The number of borrowers is only about half of Kirkwall’s. It is not that the folk in the west are more uncultured than their fellow Orcadians; but perhaps over the decades they have fallen out of the habit of reading.

Nowadays there are powerful enemies of the book abroad. The chief of these is television. How easy it is, in the evening after the day’s work, to sit back in the armchair and let the facile images flood through the mind. Another enemy is the newspaper. Instant sensation – the separation of everything into black and white; that is much more soothing than having to reflect upon what Bernard Shaw, or H. G. Wells, or even Zane Grey, meant by putting it in such a way.

But in just the same way as we go for a walk before supper, to tone the system up and to sleep better, so it is always a good thing to give the mind a little exercise; or bit by bit it will wither – it will accept anything and everything it is told – it will be soil ripe for the dictator or the super-bureaucrat.

Therefore we ought to cherish our library at the foot of Hellihole, which was presented to the town by Mrs Marjorie Skea or Corrigall in the year 1904.

The Stromness Library has never been in better shape, or so well stocked, as it is today. Recently it was enlarged by the taking over of a large part of the gloomy reading-room, and now it is a delight to wander among the thousands of books available to us. (The reading-room, too, is much the better for being made small and intimate.)

Furthermore a treasure of old Orkney books is about to be made available to Stromness readers. This is made up in large measure of the Garson collection, bequeathed to the town in 1928. Theoretically, of course, it was always possible to consult these local books by requesting permission, but in actual fact hardly a soul did so. They remained shut up in their great locked bookcase prison. But soon the Garson collection is to be removed downstairs into the main library, and now that there is such an interest in Orkney’s past, there’s no doubt that that treasury will be made full use of.

We should think ourselves lucky with our new-look library. The first library came to Stromness in 1819, but it seems not to have been serious enough for the city fathers, for, in the words of the New Statistical Account (1842) – “For some years past, novels have been excluded, and works of a more solid character substituted in their place. The annual subscription is seven shillings….”

Letters from Hamnavoe, 1975, p.57

Leaves on a Winter Tree

I dropped into the Reading Room of our library the other day; which I often do when it’s raining or when I’m tired after carrying a heavy bag of messages along the street.

In that peaceful oasis you can spend a pleasant hour, with the large variety of newspapers and magazines on display – all tastes catered for, from “Weekend” to “The Guardian” and “The Spectator”.

The racks, on the day I looked in, had been swept bare as if by a hurricane! Of daily newspapers two had survived, frail leaves on a wintry tree – “The Scotsman” and “the Press and Journal”. (“The Orcadian” was there still, and without disrespect to “the Orcadian “ I wondered why, since presumably every household in Stromness and environs gets “the Orcadian”, until it was pointed out that “the Orcadian” file must be kept up to date. And apart from that, there are visitors and tourists who, presumably, will go for “The Orcadian” before anything else.)

The slaughter among the magazines had been equally frightful. If you want to know what the intelligentsia of the world is saying and thinking, from now on you will have to buy your own “Spectator” and “New Statesman”.

One sits in the Reading Room now with a feeling of desolation – a few dry bones in a desert place. It is no longer an oasis where you can spend a pleasant afternoon.

And this cactus of austerity has blossomed from one of the best-off communities in Britain.

The Reading Room, since the Library building was completely reconstructed inside, is a pleasant little place. If you get tired of reading, you can rest your eyes on the street outside, that goes past Melvin Place and Gray’s Noust, and then surges up, a stone wave, to the top of Hutchison’s Brae.

Before that, the Reading Room was a vast dark chamber – far too big for its purposes. On the shelf mouldered an ancient set of Harmsworths Encyclopedia; and a box for donations with knife-marks on it. There was the strangest collection of magazines – that, I imagine, was not a reflection of Stromnessians’ tastes, but they were simply there because they cost nothing. I remember “The Vegetarian News”; and one article in particular from the thirties – the author wrote scornfully about those who advocated meat-eating and instanced the ox (that powerful animal) that ate only grass…And there were “The Anti-Vivisectionist”, “The Elim Evangel”, and many another…

Even so, the tree of knowledge in that other era of austerity – the 1930s – had richer foliage than today.

Under Brinkie’s Brae, 1979, p.18

A Week in April – an extract
WEDNESDAY: Dropped into the Reading Room of the Library to discover that “al losses are restored” – the papers and magazines that were subtracted, for national economic reasons a year and a half ago, are back on the racks: “Times”, “Daily Telegraph”, “Glasgow Herald”, “Daily Express”, “New Statesman”, “Illustrated London News”, etc….

The first wave of tourists has come and has almost gone. I had a visit this evening from two American young women and an Indian. They wanted books signed. They gave me, in exchange, and apple and a piece of Orkney fudge. A very pleasant conversation altogether.

From Under Brinkies Brae, 1979, pp.101-102

Peter Esson
24 August 1995

Someone has asked me to write a note about Peter Esson, to be included in an anthology of poetical epitaphs over the centuries. Why, readers of the anthology would want to know, write a poem about such a man?

Even in Stromness,nowadays, most people don’t know who Peter Esson was… But, fifty years ago, every Stromnessian knew.

He had a small tailor shop at the foot of the Kirk Road, its door opening on to the street.

I visited there from the age of four onwards, because my father worked part-time beside Peter and his brother Willie Esson and his daughter Effie Esson.

There I went on urgent feet every Friday to get what those tailors called my ‘pension’, a halfpenny: immediately translated into sweeties at Janetta Sinclair’s sweetie shop on the other side of the street.

In the evening men would drop by and sit on Peter’s bench. Most of them were retired seamen. The stories went on for hours. (When those legends were being wrought, I was of course curled up in bed at home.)

Tailoring was a trade in decline in the twenties and thirties. People were buying their suits ready-made.

So Peter had a secondary job. He was the town librarian, issuing books twice a week – I think, Wednesdays and Saturdays – from the library that is still there at the foot of Hellihole Road. Peter and his wife lived in the flat above.

But tailoring and giving out books were, in a sense, secondary mundane activities.

The most important place in Peter Esson’s life was the Free Kirk that towered over the adjacent buildings, including the tailor shop.

It might be said that Peter was acquainted with every stone in that building. He revered it, with a deep devotion. He knew all the ministers who had led worship there. (In fact, I have never known anyone who was so thoroughly acquainted with the highly complex history of Presbyterianism in Scotland, with all its schisms and branchings and reunions over four centuries.)

Peter was a Kirk elder. The expression on his face on Sundays seemed to be different from on the other days. There was a kind of earnestness and veneration.

Towards the end of each week the minister, Rev James Christie, entered the tailor shop carrying a bill concerning the Sunday service for Peter to put in his window.

That was always a hushed half-minute in the general tone of genial levity that prevailed, until Mr Christie had left again.

I have had to indicate something of the above – but far more briefly – in the note to be appended to the sonnet I wrote called ‘the Death of Peter Esson, Tailor, Librarian, Free Kirk Elder’, written soon after that most worthy Stromnessian died in 1954, I think.

The First Wash of Spring, 2006, pp.216-217


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