Week 349: The Black Furrow, by George Mackay Brown

It’s no easy thing to capture an authentic flavour of the old ballads, but I think George Mackay Brown manages it in this tale of a fiddler lured away, like Thomas the Rhymer, to elfland. I have an idea that I first heard the poem broadcast as part of a radio play, ‘A Spell for Green Corn’, many years ago.

The Black Furrow

“Darst thu gang b’ the black furrow
This night, thee and they song?”
“Wet me mouth wi’ the Lenten ale,
I’ll go along.”

They spied him near the black furrow
B’ the glim o’ the wolf star.
Slow the dance was in his feet
Dark the fiddle he bore.

There stood three men at the black furrow
And one was clad in grey.
No mortal hand had woven that cloth
B’ the sweet light o’ day.

There stood three men at the black furrow
And one was clad in green.
They’ve ta’en the fiddler b’ the hand
Where he was no more seen.

There stood three men at the black furrow
And one was clad in yellow.
They’ve led the fiddle through the door
Where never a bird could follow.

They’ve put the gowd cup in his hand,
Elfin bread on his tongue.
And there he bade a hunder years,
Him and his lawless song.

“Darst thu gang through the black furrow
On a mirk night, alone?”
“I’d rather sleep wit’ Christian folk,
Under a kirkyard stone.”

George Mackay Brown

Week 183: The Death of Peter Esson, by George Mackay Brown

Another craggily individualist elegy by the Orkney poet George Mackay Brown.

The Death of Peter Esson
Tailor, Town Librarian, Free Kirk Elder

Peter at some immortal cloth, it seemed,
Fashioned and stitched, for so long had he sat
Heraldic on his bench. We never dreamed
It was his shroud that he was busy at.

Well Peter knew his thousand books would pass
Grey into dust, that still a tinker’s tale
As hard as granite and as sweet as grass
Told over reeking pipes, outlasts them all.

The Free Kirk cleaves gray houses – Peter’s ark
Freighted for heaven galeblown with psalm and prayer.
The predestined needle quivered on the mark.
The wheel spun true. The seventieth rock was near.

Peter, I mourned. Early on Monday last
There came a wave and stood above your mast.

George Mackay Brown, 1959

Week 111: Hamnavoe, by George Mackay Brown

I first met the work of the Orkney poet George Mackay Brown (1921-1996) through the short stories in ‘A Calendar of Love’, and for a while assumed that he was a prose writer who dabbled in poetry, till I realised that this was as unjust as seeing him as a poet who tried his hand at prose: the work is seamless and stamped in both forms by strong individuality and a kind of elemental clarity. As in this poem in memory of his father, that both celebrates and transcends the particulars of his Orkney life.

‘Cuithe-hung’ refers to the practice of hanging cuithe, a kind of fish, round the doors of houses to dry: they took on a woody texture and gave off a kind of phosphorescence.


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 stallion 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,
Holy with greed, chanting
Their slow grave jargon.

A tinker keened like a tartan gull
At cuithe-hung doors. A crofter lass
Trudged through the lavish dung
In a dream of cornstalks and milk.

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. And lovers
Unblessed by steeples lay 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