Bookseller Charles Senior with the young poet George Mackay Brown alongside friends Susie Gilbertson, John Broom and Sylvia Wishart outside North House, Sylvia’s Rackwick home. This convivial scene offers a glimpse of the camaraderie and artistic energy that poet and artist along with other creative people brought to the valley.
Andrew Parkinson, Curator at the Pier Arts Centre in Stromness reflects on the artistic pull of Rackwick.
Hoy. The High Island in Old Norse – the very name sets the place apart.
Hoy has been a draw for artists over many centuries and Rackwick, Orkney’s sublime valley, held centre-stage in the mid 20th century as artists converged around the nourishing spirit of the place.
Following WWII a group of people with a deep interest in the history and culture of Orkney began to meet to discuss topics as diverse as poetry, folklore and archeology and by the 1950s Orkney’s cultural Renaissance was well underway. Ernest Marwick is perhaps the central figure at this time, travelling across Orkney collecting stories and images – applying his scholarly mind to all aspects of Orcadian culture.
Things were stirring creatively in Rackwick too. George Mackay Brown first visited in 1946 at the age of 25 1 and wrote shortly afterwards about travelling along the desolate road to the valley. He wrote…’At the end of it there is a sudden blaze of colour and majesty, like unexpected victory after defeat, like resurrection after death. At the end of it all is Rackwick.’2
The artist Sylvia Wishart had, by this time, renovated North House, a ruined croft in the valley, and spent long spells there painting. Rackwick became a central and abiding source of inspiration for both George and Sylvia. In 1969 An Orkney Tapestry was published with poems and reflections by George Mackay Brown and line drawings by Sylvia Wishart.
The work of the artist and poet around this time holds Rackwick up to a particularly intense light, attaining at its height a spiritual dimension. By the 1960s the year round population in the valley had diminished from a thriving community at the turn of the century to a solitary household, adding, perhaps to a feeling of a paradise lost.
The painter, teacher and politician Ian MacInnes shared George Mackay Brown’s love of Hoy and Rackwick in particular. Several abandoned crofts were renovated as holiday homes by Stromness families including the MacInness’. The place became a home from home for many artists and creative people.
Archie Bevan, another key figure in the cultural life of Orkney wrote in an appreciation of his old friend and teaching colleague MacInnes… “The full significance of Rackwick in the rich flowering of Orcadian culture in the late 20th century has still to be properly evaluated, but its importance is beyond question.”3 This growing importance was about to be underlined.
In 1970 a young composer named Peter Maxwell Davies visited Stromness and picked up a copy of George Mackay Brown’s An Orkney Tapestry. He was immediately captivated and stayed up all night reading the book. The following day he travelled to Hoy and Rackwick and met, by chance, the author in the company of Archie Bevan and his family. The poet and composer hit it off and various dwellings in the valley were suggested as potential places for the city-weary composer to live – Max had come to Orkney in search of the solitude he needed to work.
Rackwick soon became home to the composer and George and Max began a collaboration that endured until the poet’s death in 1996. The first St Magnus Festival was launched in 1977 with The Martyrdom of St Magnus, a new opera by Max with words by George Mackay Brown, signaling a powerful new creative partnership.4
Peter Maxwell Davies (Max) and George Mackay Brown meet in Rackwick at Bunnertoon the Bevan’s house. (courtesy of the Bevan family).
1 ‘The Wound and the Gift’, Ron Ferguson, Saint Andrew Press, 2011, GMB Timeline XV
2 ‘Northern Lights’, George Mackay Brown, paperback edition, 2007, Polygon, pp89
4 As referenced, http://infinite-scotland.com/poi/st-magnus-festival/ . As discussed in the article, Murder in the Cathedral, by Rowena Smith https://www.theguardian.com/music/2008/jun/06/filmandmusic1.filmandmusic137