Tuesday Poem – Hamnavoe Market by George Mackay Brown

They drove to the Market with ringing pockets.


Folster found a girl

Who put wounds on his face and throat,

Small and diagonal, like red doves.


Johnston stood beside the barrel.

All day he stood there.

He woke in a ditch, his mouth full of ashes.


Grieve bought a balloon and a goldfish.

He swung through the air.

He fired shotguns, rolled pennies, ate sweet fog from a stick.


Heddle was at the Market also.

I know nothing of his activities.

He is and always was a quiet man.


Garson fought three rounds with a negro boxer,

And received thirty shillings,

Much applause, and an eye loaded with thunder.


Where did they find Flett?

They found him in a brazen circle,

All flame and blood, a new Salvationist.


A gypsy saw in the hand of Halcro

Great strolling herds, harvests, a proud woman.

He wintered in the poorhouse.


They drove home from the Market under the stars

Except for Johnston

Who lay in a ditch, his mouth full of dying fires.




George Mackay Brown
George Mackay Brown

George Mackay Brown (17 October 1921 – 13 April 1996), was a Scottish poet, author and dramatist, whose work has a distinctly Orcadian character. He is considered one of the great Scottish poets of the 20th century.  To read more go to this biography from Wikipedia.

Two years ago my friend Jane Carswell, sent me the above poem. Because I revere Jane’s ability to write the most beautiful poetic prose, I trust her taste…so I hastened to read it. The memories came flooding back. What Jane didn’t know was that I had once, met George briefly in his hometown of Stromness, main seaport for the Orkneys.   At the time, and together with two other young Kiwis, I was exploring Scotland and some of its outer islands.

Hamnavoe is the old name for Stromness and also refers to the bay on which Stromness is situated.

Stromness and Hamnavoe taken from Ward Hill on Hoy
Stromness and Hamnavoe taken from Ward Hill on Hoy

I loved the vibrancy and clarity of ‘ Hamnavoe Market’ and set out to get permission  for its publication on TP. However, although I found the name of the literary executor for George’s poems I had no contact.  After much research I finally had an aha  moment and  a few minutes later was talking to  Elizabeth, the wife of George’s literary executor. I was busy explaining about my love of the Orkneys and my long ago visit, as a prelude to asking for permission, when  she surprised me by saying she remembered it. As  it turned out, they were the lovely folk who had given the three of  us hospitality, on our first night in Stromness and it was there we met George.  So thank you Elizabeth and Archie for your hospitality then and for permission to use George’s poem here today. And thank you Jane for reintroducing me to his poetry.

George once wrote (in Contemporary Poets, 1980) that his themes were ‘mainly religious (birth, love, death, resurrection, ceremonies of fishing and agriculture)’, that the verse forms he used were ‘traditional stanza forms, sonnets, ballads, vers libre, prose poems, runes, choruses, etc.’ That his sources and influences were ‘Norse sagas, Catholic rituals and ceremonies, island lore’ (Orkney is a magical place with a long history).  It’s what he does with these themes that makes him a great poet. For me it’s the clarity, the rhythm  and the power of his imagery. Go here for an excellent workshop on Hamnavoe Market (the above poem) published in The Guardian.

To listen to George himself reading Hamnavoe Market go here.

I have always loved this poem and am not the only one as this post has been popular with others as well. So I have decided to repost it. Hope you enjoy it too.

Please click here to return to the Tuesday Poem Hub where Rethabile Masilo gives us a poem titled The room of books, a beautiful poem in which he compares a face to a library of books but it is so much more that that and you must read it yourselves. Yes I said must!