In Orkney, during Scotland’s Year of Stories, it's impossible to overlook one person in particular.
George Mackay Brown isn’t just one of the greatest writers to come from the islands, he’s perhaps one of the country’s greatest, and his work is celebrated around the globe.
He wrote poems and novels, plays and short stories, and even a regular column in Orkney’s weekly newspaper, The Orcadian. His subject was Orkney, its people, legends and history. He captured the atmosphere and ambience of the islands, and was renowned for his ‘astonishing clarity and sureness of imagery’.
Stromness was his home and inspiration for many of his works. He was born in the town and spent most of his life there. Many of its people and places helped shape his stories, and now a special trail has been created so folk can visit some of the very sites that influenced his writing.
The trail takes you from his birthplace in the heart of the town through the street that he described as ‘uncoiling like a sailor’s rope, from north to south’. You can follow the path of his life and many of the local houses he stayed in, taking in the views he grew up with.
If you’re feeling energetic, and the weather is welcoming, you can continue to Warebeth and the cemetery when he was laid to rest in 1996. Another additional route takes you up Brinkie’s Brae for beautiful views of the town. The whole trail will take around two to three hours, although those tight for time could miss out the additional sections.
The trail is the work of the Orkney Arts Society, with the support of the George Mackay Brown Fellowship and the Stromness Museum, and the Society’s Piers Cain hopes both locals and visitors alike will enjoy the experience. “There’s so much to see in Stromness so hopefully the trail will provide the perfect introduction. It offers an opportunity to see parts of the town that can be overlooked, and at the same time give a glimpse into the life of George Mackay Brown and his work, which is much loved here in Orkney and further afield.”
You can download a copy of the trail leaflet, or view our map below to discover more about the life and times of George Mackay Brown.
GMB Trail stops
- 1. No. 80, Victoria Street
Start at No. 80 Victoria Street (Clouston’s Pier), located on the left-hand side as you approach from the Pier Head. The entrance is round the corner, one building on from the Orca Guest House. George Mackay Brown (GMB) was born here on 17 October 1921.
- 2. No 69-73, Victoria Street, the former Commercial Hotel
Immediately opposite is the former Commercial Hotel. John Brown, GMB’s father, worked here part-time as a tailor in the shop of Peter Esson - at the bottom of Church Road. Esson was a tailor, librarian, kirk elder and veteran of the Great War; ‘Open until eight o’clock in the evening for the farmers, the shop was a sort of unofficial club where a particular group of Stromness men exchanged news and commentary, and tales about local folk reaching back as far as the early nineteenth century’.
- 3. Stromness Books & Prints
Continue down Victoria Street until you reach Graham Place. Stromness Books and Prints at No. 3 Graham Place is on your right. The bookshop was founded in 1968 by Charles Senior, confidant of GMB and fellow poet from his days as a student in Edinburgh.
- 4. No 3, Melvin Place
Continue down the street 700 yards past Khyber Pass. No. 3 Melvin Place is just before Hellihole Road, the second in a row of three cottages, on your right next to No.1. GMB’s parents moved here in 1928, ‘a dark house with a drain running under the flagstone floor’ after the landlady of 80 Victoria Street took against Mhairi Brown, GMB’s mother.
- 5. The Old Post Office
The old Post Office is at the bottom of Hellihole Road on the corner with Alfred Street. It is the building with the ‘Museum 200 M’ sign on the side. John Brown, GMB’s father, worked here as a postman.
- 6. No 3, Mayburn Court
Continue along Alfred Street until you reach the Stromness Museum on your left. No. 3 Mayburn Court is across the road, marked with a blue plaque. GMB moved here after his mother’s death. The Council flat, which he later bought, is on the site of a former distillery. He lived here from 1968 until his own death, on 13 April 1996, in the Balfour Hospital, Kirkwall.
- 7. No 9, Ness Road
Continue along the street (South End, which later becomes Ness Road). Hopedale, No. 9 Ness Road is on your right, overlooking the sea, the home of Archie and Elizabeth Bevan. Archie attended school with GMB and was a lifelong friend.
- 8. George Mackay Brown Memorial Garden
Continue along Ness Road to the George Mackay Brown Memorial Garden. It contains an art and poetry installation, Travellers, by artist Orla Stevens and writer Gabrielle Barnby. It was commissioned in 2021 by Orkney Islands Council to celebrate the centenary of the birth of GMB.
- 9. No 27, Guardhouse Park
Follow the road round the corner. No.27 Guardhouse Park is the last but one dwelling in the second terrace block on your right. In 1934, GMB’s family moved here, a Council house, in rather better condition than Melvin Place. GMB lived here with his mother (with periods away in hospital or for study) until just after her death in 1967. Visitors who would like a longer walk can continue along the shore to visit GMB’s grave (Site 10). If not please continue the trail towards Site 11.
- 10. Warebeth Cemetery Walk
Head back to the shore and carry on straight into and through the Campsite. Follow the scenic shore path for about two miles to Warebeth Cemetery where you will find the grave of GMB. Beside him lie his parents: John Brown, who died in 1940 and his mother Mary (Mhairi), who died in 1967. GMB’s resting place is in the middle part of the cemetery, marked by a solitary piece of sandstone among the verticals of marble. This section will take about 70 minutes to complete.
- 11. The former Braes Hotel
Return the way you came until you reach Site 5 at the bottom of Hellihole Road. Walk up Hellihole Road (quite a steep climb) past Whitehouse Lane. Site 11 is the large private building to your left at the top of the road, formerly The Braes Hotel. GMB used to take visitors here such as the American poet, novelist and academic Jay Parini.
- 12. No 17, Franklin Road
Turn around and take the side road on your left, opposite Site 11 (Franklin Road), across from the red light. Franklin Road is narrow, barely wide enough for traffic. Follow the street as it winds down and round past houses. Thistlebank, No.17 Franklin Road is on the left, above the road and reached by a path that climbs upwards past a terrace of houses. It was formerly the home of Ian MacInnes, artist and later headmaster of Stromness Academy. One of GMB’s closest friends, he entered Stromness Academy at the same time. He illustrated GMB’s first collection of poetry, The Storm, published 1954.
- 13. The Old Academy
Carry on past Springfield Crescent, crossing Christie’s Brae and rejoining Franklin Road, straight ahead. The Old Academy, is ahead and above you on your left, between Franklin Road and Back Road. It now houses, among others, the European Marine Energy Centre, part of the Orkney Research and Innovation Campus. Shortly before his fifth birthday in 1926, GMB was sent to Stromness Academy, the ‘huge grey unimaginative building’. He wrote, ‘Of all the dolorous noises I have heard on this earth that bell of Stromness Academy takes some beating’.
Visitors who would like a longer walk can continue up to the top of Brinkie’s Brae (Site 14). If not, please continue the trail to Site 15. Warning: the hill is steep and the path is not suitable for those with mobility issues.
- 14. Brinkie's Brae Walk
Take the steps on your left and walk up through the car park and buildings of the Old Academy, take the access road that emerges on the Back Road. Cross over on to Downie’s Lane. Take the waymarked footpath immediately on your left and follow it up to the stone seat on Brinkie’s Brae. At the age of eight or nine GMB wrote his first poem in praise of Stromness, sitting on the top of Brinkie’s Brae. Allow about 15 minutes for this section. Retrace your path back downhill and through the European Marine Energy Centre to rejoin Franklin Rd.
- 15. The Stromness Hotel
Turn left on Franklin Road, passing the Orkney Research and Innovation Campus (Rendall Building) on your right. Turn right down Bank Lane (steep) immediately past the Rendall Building. Turn right at the bottom. Sites 15 and 16 are on your right. Site 15, the Stromness Hotel is where GMB’s mother Mhairi Mackay worked as a waitress and chambermaid when she first arrived in Stromness, before she was married. Also GMB met the poet Edwin Muir and wife Willa here in 1951. It was to prove to be a turning point in GMB’s career. Muir became a mentor, and as an established influential figure on the international literary scene, he was instrumental in launching GMB’s career and reputation beyond Orkney.
- 16. The Flattie Bar
Site 16 to the right of the main hotel entrance was the Flattie Bar. Until 1947, Stromness was a ‘dry’ town. In 1945 GMB began a campaign in the Orkney Herald for the introduction of a few pubs in Stromness ‘for the benefit of the male population’. When the bar reopened after 27 years, GMB was one of the first customers.
- 17. The Pierhead
The Pierhead, the social centre of Stromness, is in front of you. GMB used to spend time at the Pierhead picking up local gossip.
- 18. Stromness Library
Retrace your steps 100 yards. Stromness Library in the Warehouse Buildings is in front of you on the right-hand side of the street. The library has on display several portraits of GMB. The George Mackay Brown Room includes approximately 100 books from GMB’s personal library.
The trail has been supported by the Year of Stories 2022 Community Stories Fund. This fund is being delivered in partnership between VisitScotland and Museums Galleries Scotland with support from National Lottery Heritage Fund thanks to National Lottery players