A Dream of Snow

Christmas as seen by George Mackay Brown

Stromness in Winter

The Orkney writer George Mackay Brown (1921-1996) was fascinated by the Christmas story, retelling it time and again in his poems, short stories, and plays.

His Christmas writings reflect his deep Catholic faith but also bring Christian and folk traditions together in celebration of the annual miracle of ‘light out of darkness’. Rather than setting the Nativity in the distant past, Brown portrays it in a modern Orkney landscape, populated by recognisably Orcadian characters.

To celebrate the writer’s centenary, we have selected items from our major collection of George Mackay Brown books and manuscripts, which cover the whole festive season from Advent through to Epiphany.

Join us on a journey through twelve days of Christmas as seen by one of Scotland’s greatest writers.

Dr Linden Bicket, Lecturer in Literature and Religion in the School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh, explores Brown's fascination with Christmas and introduces some of the exhibition's major themes.

Day 1: 'The Mystery of Light out of Darkness'

Many of George Mackay Brown's Christmas stories are collected in the 1995 anthology Winter Tales. In his ‘Foreword’, Brown identifies winter as the season of storytelling, when ears accustomed to workaday language are ready for more ‘ancient images and rhythms’. He places himself in the tradition of the Celtic Christian missionaries to Orkney, who brought 'greater breadth and depth' to the age-old ‘mystery of light out of darkness’ that had been celebrated at the Winter Solstice since Neolithic times.

'An ancient necessary nourishment’

The tales told by Brown and his predecessors are ‘an ancient necessary nourishment’ without which a community cannot ‘live fully’. He warns that the 'basilisk stare' of television and the mass media is withering the storytelling tradition and threatening ‘every community on earth’. We cannot survive without 'the treasury our ancestors have left to us'.

Day 2: 'The Inn of December'

For George Mackay Brown, winter meant both Nativity and the completion of the cycle of the seasons. He wrote many calendar poems and stories like ‘Dance of the Months’, illustrated here by a woodcut engraving by John Lawrence. The year culminates in December, which is portrayed both in secular terms—as the season of rest and conviviality —and in religious terms: the Star of Bethlehem and the inn to which Mary, Joseph, and the Magi (‘travellers, rich and poor’) all journey. As in many of Brown’s Christmas writings, Christ’s birth foreshadows his sacrificial death at Easter. The ‘loaf’ and ‘bottle of wine’ awaiting weary travellers at the ‘inn of December’ evoke the sacramental bread and wine of the Eucharist.

Day 3: 'Christmas Cards and Letters Typewritten - Reasonable Terms'

George Mackay Brown wrote short comic Christmas stories for the children of relatives and friends, which he would inscribe inside the front cover of books sent as Christmas gifts. Here we present the unpublished manuscript of one such story written for Brown’s great-nephew David Dixon in 1982. Brown had a great rapport with children and was particularly fond of David, who went on to read English Literature at Edinburgh University. In this story, he imagines David ('Dave') charging a fee to type Christmas cards and letters for all those 'who were too lazy, through watching TV, to write letters’. We should like to thank the Dixon family for permission to show this manuscript.

'10,000 begging letters to an old man in a red coat'

Brown depicts Dave typing out '10,000 begging letters' for the 'Arctic postman' to drag to 'the door of Santa's igloo'. The delighted 'old man in a red coat' promises that all the senders will receive a gift, and that Dave himself will get 'something special'. Just as Brown is content to merge Christian and Pagan motifs in his Nativity poems and stories, he shows here that he is equally happy to embrace modern folk traditions.

Day 4: 'A Dream of Snow'

In the essay ‘The Snows of Christmas’ (1972), Brown describes December as ‘a marvellous magical month’ in which a child exists ‘then and then only among the stars and the storms and the snow’. It does not matter that Orkney winters are generally snowless. In the world of the imagination ‘where a child lives half the time’, there is ‘always snow in winter’. When snow does fall, it turns Orkney into a ‘transfigured place’, sparking a ‘rare sweet wild ecstasy’.

The poem ‘Winter: An Island Boy’ captures this rapturous feeling, portraying a boy ‘lost on the hill till sun down | in a dream of snow’. While the boy experiences a sense of timelessness, Brown reminds us that Christmas is a symbol of rebirth, with the coming spring foreshadowed by the images of butterflies, birds, and flowers.

Day 5: 'Wicked young scoundrels'

‘Miss Tait and Tommy and the Carol Singers’ is a seasonal tale echoing Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Miss Tait is a Scrooge-like figure who turns away children collecting for charity. In revenge, at Halloween, the village children smear her doorknob with treacle and tie a tin to her cat’s tail. The furious Miss Tait promises to punish the ‘next young villain who comes round this house’. Two nights before Christmas, the village children go carol-singing but exclude clumsy Tommy who has ‘a voice like a crow’. After they have completed their round, the children call at Miss Tait’s house for a dare ...

'Tommy the outcast!'

Peering through Miss Tait’s window (illustrated here by John Lawrence), the children are astounded to see that 'Tommy the outcast' has brought driftwood for her fire and is contentedly eating an apple in her armchair. Miss Tait sees the children and invites them inside to eat and to receive a gift of a pound coin. In many of Brown’s tales and poems, outcasts and eccentrics like Tommy have a deeper spiritual understanding of the world around them and, in this case, of the true meaning of Christmas.

This tale is unusual, though, for its topical references. Miss Tait has been without coal since the outbreak of the 1984 Miners’ Strike. The 'shiny pound coin' was first introduced in 1983. Often criticized for resisting progress and yearning for the past, Brown shows himself to be alive to contemporary developments.

Day 6: 'Yule Log!'

In ‘The Kids of Hamnavoe: 1920s’, Brown recalls his own boyhood Christmases: sending letters up the ‘lum’ (chimney) to Santa; making paper-chain decorations at school; the baking of the ‘black bun’ fruit cake; the making of ginger wine; the end of lessons; the first snowflake; carol-singing. The poem ends with an evocation of the traditional Christmas Eve game of ‘Yule Log’, when a tree was felled, and two competing teams of young men strove to drag it to a victory line. Again, Brown cheerfully fuses Christian traditions (the 'shivering star’), Pagan festivities (the Yule Log), and modern folklore (Santa’s toy factory).

Day 7: 'A Horse for Christmas'

In ‘The Christmas Horse’, eight-year-old Billy Sabiston asks Santa for a very special gift:

Dear Santa, please can I get a horse for Christmas, just leave it at the end of the house as I know it won’t be easy for you to put a horse in my stocking.

I like horses more than anything. Just a horse will do, never mind fruit or sweeties.

On Christmas day, Billy is horrified to receive a wooden horse instead, and breaks it in anger. On New Year’s Eve, he writes a letter of apology to Santa, promising to wait for a real horse. Billy grows up to be ‘the most famous horseman in his day, in Orkney, Shetland and Caithness’, the winner of every ploughing match and the infallible curer of any sick horse. He is said to have died on the day the first tractor arrived in Orkney.

Day 8: A Victorian Orkney Christmas

The short story ‘The Poor Man in his Castle’ portrays the suppression of Christmas festivities by a Victorian Calvinist minister who sees them as ‘Papish rituals’ rooted in ‘Pagan superstitions’. The narrator, the laird’s son, is attracted by the Catholic Revival of the 1840s and defends the old Orkney Yule traditions. A mysterious child brings a gift of fish to the laird’s great hall and leads the narrator to an abandoned chapel where Mass is being celebrated. 30 years later, the narrator returns to the island, by now, like George Mackay Brown himself, a Catholic convert. He is glad that the great hall will go to ruin after his death, and that new legislation will return the lands to the islanders, for his ancestors had ‘usurped’ them three centuries earlier. At the tale’s conclusion, he joins the harvesting islanders and is brought food by the same mysterious Christ-like child he had seen three decades before.

In the autobiographical essay ‘A Child’s Christmas’, Brown recalls that, as recently as his father’s childhood, Christmas had not been celebrated in strictly Presbyterian Orkney. He was glad to see a revival of Christmas customs in his own lifetime.

Day 9: 'Three hungry gold-burdened men'

'Desert Rose' describes the journey of the Three Magi from the viewpoint of a neglected desert flower, another case of an isolated outcast having the clearest perception of Nativity. The rose’s stirred ‘incense’ and the ‘gold of the sun’ evoke the traditional gifts of the Magi (and there may be a sly echo of ‘myrrh’ in the ‘murmur’ of the Star of Bethlehem). The Star’s underlined words (‘All beyond time are made’) reveal Brown’s vision of the Nativity as an eternally recurring event, an annual miracle of rebirth and renewal. The reference to the ‘gold-burdened’ Magi similarly stresses that it is a season of spiritual regeneration. The poem concludes with an allusion to the wine of the Eucharist, with Christ’s birth once again foreshadowing his death at Easter.

Day 10: 'A refugee bairn wrapped in a sack'

George Mackay Brown’s Christmas poems and stories often set the Nativity in the present day, showing that Christ is not a distant historical figure but a real, vital presence in contemporary life. The Christmas card poem ‘The Three Kings’ (1966) sets the journey of the Magi against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, the Second Kashmir War, and the Rhodesian Bush War. The Three Kings leave their homelands in search of ‘a new Kingdom, peace and truth and love, | Justice and order’. They follow a star across a war-ravaged landscape, where they witness a contemporary Massacre of the Innocents (‘Herod’s captains hunting | with dogs and horns’). The star leads them to Christ in the form of a ‘refugee bairn | wrapped in a sack’. They return to their homelands, troubled but with new hope, to await the coming of Christ’s Kingdom.

'Herod's Captains Hunting'

The Christmas card poem ‘The Three Kings’ is accompanied by an image by David McClure (1926-1998), which similarly places the Magi against a backdrop of both ancient violence (the Massacre of the Innocents) and contemporary, mediatized warfare. According to the artist’s son, Robin McClure, former Director of Painting at The Scottish Gallery, ‘the linking of religious content to current strife and bloodshed was very much part of [McClure’s] publicly viewable work at the time’. Beginning with 'a series of enigmatic religiously-themed works' in the early 1960s, his paintings became more 'biting, gruesome and specific in their references', largely due to the ‘much publicized and often graphic’ media images of the First Mafia War, which broke out in 1962 in Sicily, where McClure had earlier lived and worked. We should like to thank Robin McClure for permission to exhibit his father’s design and for commenting on his father’s work.

Day 11: 'The boy blew notes from his pipe'

In ‘Midnight Words’, the Three Magi speak to a serving boy at the inn in Bethlehem. The red king (stanza 1) tells the boy that he is too small to lift his luggage and gives him money for a treat, foreshadowing his gift of gold to the infant Christ. The yellow king (stanza 2) compares ‘icicles’ to ‘gray daggers’, recalling the Massacre of Innocents. The unlikely sight of ‘icicles’ in Bethlehem again suggests that Brown is transferring Biblical events to a modern, northern setting. In stanza 3, the black king's vision of the boy’s ‘cold face’ against ‘blue silk’ suggests the star that the Magi have followed to Bethlehem. In stanzas 4-5, the shepherds come down to the inn, and the boy leads both kings and shepherds to the manger. Brown does not portray the Nativity scene itself, but the infant Christ is prefigured by the lowly serving boy.

Day 12: 'Enter a King'

Apples and Carrots is an unpublished Nativity play that Brown wrote to be performed by the children of Hoy School, Orkney. The main characters are not Mary and Joseph, but two serving boys: Walter and Tommy, who work for the innkeeper and shepherds respectively. Again, these two lowly children prove most attuned to the true meaning of the Christmas miracle. Tommy is the first to see the Star of Bethlehem and to hear the celestial choir, while Walter brings a seasonal gift of apples and carrots to the ox Sammy and donkey Betsy. Sammy and Betsy also have speaking parts, which is at once consistent with the pantomime style of school Nativity plays and a reflection of Brown’s Franciscan Catholicism, with its belief that animals too serve and praise God. The anachronistic names Walter, Tommy, Sammy, and Betsy again show Brown placing the Nativity in the Orkney here-and-now.


This exhibition was curated by Paul Barnaby, with assistance from Elizabeth Lawrence and Bianca Packham.

The cover photograph is by Mark Ferguson Photography.

We should like to thank the Estate of George Mackay Brown for permission to exhibit George Mackay Brown manuscripts. We should also like to thank the artists John Lawrence and Rosemary Roberts for permission to exhibit their work, and the Estate of David McClure for permission to exhibit 'The Three Kings'.

Research for the exhibition drew extensively on Dr Linden Bicket's monograph George Mackay Brown and the Scottish Catholic Imagination (Edinburgh University Press, 2017). We should like to thank Dr Bicket for recording a video introduction to the exhibition.

See George Mackay Brown Papers for more information on Edinburgh University Library's major collection of George Mackay Brown manuscripts.

This exhibition was made possible through the support of the Digital Imaging Unit (DIU). The DIU supports learning, teaching and research through the digitisation of and long-term digital access to rare and unique research collections acquired or created by the University of Edinburgh.