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Tailor-made for the Orkneys

James Fergusson applauds the lantern-jawed Homer of the North; For the Islands I sing: an autobiography by George Mackay Brown, John Murray, pounds 16
George Mackay Brown was a writer whose voice was heroic and unmistakable - a miniature northern Homer. He wrote poems, short stories, novels, plays, reworking story-lines, revisiting his characters, like a thrifty bard of oral tradition. His world was one of farmers and fishermen, the period as likely to be the 12th as the 20th century.

That he placed that world 750 miles from the British capital, in those Orkneys he hardly ever left, confused the metropolitan critics. When shortlisted for the 1994 Booker Prize for Beside the Ocean of Time (he declined to attend the award ceremony) he was the butt of that sort of patronising concern which only the London critic can bestow. Editors despatched reporters to doorstep the "recluse". Brown did not want his autobiography published in his lifetime. When he died last April, the Scottish newspapers devoted leaders to him; even the southern papers were decorated with bold obituary pictures of that lantern jaw, those teasing eyes. The mysteries persisted: the English remained perplexed by his defiant self-sufficiency, the Scots acknowledged that, despite his prolific output, there was much unknown about him. What was it about Orkney? Why did he never marry? Was there a secret sadness?

Brown's deft prose dances around these questions. He gives no direct answers. But within the tentative pages of For the Islands I Sing can be discerned the lineaments of answers: unaffected, often unfashionable, sometimes a trifle perverse.

The youngest son of a tailor and postman in the port of Stromness, he was still at school (he rails against the Scottish educational system - what is it to "better oneself", he asks?) when he suffered the first twinges of tuberculosis. His status as semi-invalid set him apart and the recurrence of the disease ("my ancient ally") defined his somewhat barren CV: born 1921, no war service, no job, attended university only in his late thirties. He lived with his mother and, it emerges, took to the bottle. Born in a town that had voted itself "dry", he admired the "wild precarious freedom" of the drinking man.

Beer was the lubricant of his years at Newbattle Abbey, the college of adult education run by his fellow Orcadian Edwin Muir. His bar life at Milne's and the Abbotsford with Norman MacCaig, Sydney Goodsir Smith and the boys is the sub-plot of his six years at Edinburgh University. It was in the Abbotsford that he met Stella Cartwright, "the Muse of Rose Street", a tragic figure of whom he writes with love, the nearest we find to a secret sadness.

Brown defies curiosity with modesty, stops questions before they are asked. "The lives of artists are as boring and also as uniquely fascinating as any or every other life," he says. Their works are not their own but the product of their whole community. In his own, Orkney, there is evidence of continual habitation for over 5,000 years; he is merely another craftsman (like his cutter father) at the parish pump. Again, "Reality is the enemy of the imagination": he forestalls the metropolitan (the cosmopolitan) critic. Was Shakespeare ever in Elsinore or Dunsinane? Was Homer ever in Troy?

Pervading the crisp prose of George Mackay Brown is an elegant pessimism which might have a tendency to long-term gloom, were it not for the surprising low fire of his religious faith. Brown - perverse again, for it is almost unheard of in an Orcadian - was a Roman Catholic, a convert, for whom the potent imagery of the first church (Orkney being alive with antique Christian settlements) does good service, notably in his remarkable 1973 novel Magnus. His is a faith of obedience - "Thy will be done" - but also of unusual cheer and hope. "We are all one, saint and sinner," he concludes. "Everything we do sets the whole world of creation trembling, with light or with darkness. It is an awesome thought, that a good word spoken might help a beggar in Calcutta or a burning child in Burundi; or conversely. But there is a beauty and simplicity in it, sufficient to touch our finite minds."

Beauty and simplicity - Keats's truth and beauty - for him were enough.