As well as its daily batch of book returns and visitors to its archive, the Orkney Library has been welcoming something a bit different in through its doors over recent weeks.
More than a hundred hand-knitted and beautifully-designed hats have arrived at the library during the summer as part of the ‘A Hat for George’ campaign, aimed at celebrating the centenary of Orcadian poet and writer George Mackay Brown.
Launched by the Orkney Library & Archive and the George Mackay Brown Fellowship, the project has encouraged folk around the world to use Mackay Brown’s work as inspiration to create a collection of unique knitted hats. They’ll all be displayed in the library before being auctioned off to raise money for local charities.
“We’ve had hats from Orkney and all over the UK, and we’ve also received ones from as far afield as Austria, Germany, Spain and the United States,” says Alison Miller from the GMB Fellowship. “I think it’s something that has appealed to people who already knew and were fans of George’s work, but it has also persuaded those who didn’t know him well before to read more of him – especially if they were looking for inspiration for their hats.”
The knitters taking part were encouraged to name their designs after a novel, story or poem by George Mackay Brown, or even a location, character or line quoted from his work. With hats entitled ‘An Orkney Tapestry’, ‘Hamnavoe’, ‘The Beachcomber’ and ‘Greenvoe’, it appears those taking part have fully immersed themselves in his work.
“Several of the hats have been knitted using his poems as inspiration with recurring themes such as sea, boats, fishing, whales, barley and harvest,” says Karen Walker from the Orkney Library & Archive. “We’ve also had novelty hats, children’s hats and more because the project has appealed to those who just wanted to donate and help us raise money for a local charity.”
It’s not the first knitting-related activity organised through the local library. The hugely popular ‘Yap & Yarn’ group met regularly before the COVID-19 pandemic and its periods of lockdown, with some of its knitters and crocheters making a comeback for the GMB project. In fact, according to Alison, lockdown was one of the main drivers behind the campaign.
“We knew at the start of the year that we would unlikely be able to have a big ‘in person’ event at the time of George’s birthday in October, so we tried to think of creative ways to mark it and keep people involved throughout the year.
“Everybody was pretty fed up, so I thought that knitting a hat for George would appeal to people stuck at home, looking for things to do; that it would engage people we didn’t normally reach; that it would be comforting and therapeutic and encourage the knitters to be connected to George’s centenary, to the library, to each other.”
Although in one of his columns written for ‘The Orcadian’ Mackay Brown lamented the fact that people only think about poets on their centenaries, the Fellowship knew that this year couldn’t pass without it being marked in some way. The organisation was launched to promote new creative writing in Orkney, as well as to celebrate Orcadian writers of the past, but for 2021 it is focusing entirely on highlighting Mackay Brown’s centenary.
Other events taking place include another collaboration between the library and the Fellowship, the online book group ‘Seven Books’. The group looks at a different book once a month for seven months, with the Zoom events attended by folk from around the world – from Orkney to Canada, Sweden and Slovenia. The book groups will all be available to view online.
A new publication, ‘Gousters, Glims and Veerie-orums’ will be available soon, Orkney Camerata will perform works inspired from new creative writing related to Mackay Brown’s work, and the GMB Memorial Lecture will be held online later this year.
The library also has displays of his works in both Kirkwall and Stromness, and a new Archive exhibition will be launched in the coming weeks.
It has been an incredibly busy time for the team behind the centenary events, but as far as Alison is concerned, it has been time well spent.
“Rereading George’s work over such a short timescale has made me appreciate it more and differently,” she says. “It’s almost as if I can see him more clearly as a writer, as a man and as a lifelong inhabitant of and lover of Orkney.”
Find out more about the ‘A Hat for George’ project via the Orkney Library & Archive website, where you can also see images of the hats that have been submitted. The hats will be auctioned around 17 October 2021, which would have been Mackay Brown’s 100th birthday.
Find out more about George Mackay Brown and the Fellowship in his name via the official website, which also contains details of all the activities planned for the centenary.