Tonight I give the Christmas message at the Christmas Tree lighting ceremony for our little town of Stromness, Orkney. Thanks to Rev. Fiona Lillie of the Church of Scotland for the invitation. My plan is to read out a short poem by Orkney’s most famous poet, the late George Mackay Brown from Stromness. Its called “Hamnavoe Women and the Warbeth Bell: Midwinter” and by blogging my message here, this will be the poem’s first appearance online. I know this because I have been searching diligently and without success to find the whole poem, which, incorrectly referred to as two separate poems on a number of news articles, is the inspiration behind Sir Peter Maxwell Davies new Christmas carol for the Queen and Royal Family this year.
BBC says: The carol will be sung to the Queen and other members of the Royal Family at a private Christmas service in London. It will be performed by the choir of the Chapel Royal at St James’s Palace, accompanied by just an organ. Sir Peter – or “Max” as he is widely known – was appointed as the Queen’s Master of Music in 2004. Among the official duties of the composer, who lives on Sanday in Orkney, is to write a Royal carol every Christmas. It will remind the Queen of Scotland – and Orkney in particular – at Yuletide. Scotland is a place very close to her heart. He has based this year’s carol on Mackay Brown’s poem Hamnavoe Women and the Warbeth Bell: Midwinter, which opens with the lines: “One said, ‘I thought I heard on the stone a midnight keel.’ (It was the Yuletide bell.)”
So after coming up empty handed online, and getting a little desperate, I called up Joanna Lawson, writer and personal friend of George Mackay Brown. And sure enough, she had the poem in her collection and emailed it to me. Here it is:
Hamnavoe Women and the Warbeth Bell: Midwinter
by George Mackay Brown
One said, ‘I thought I heard on the stone a midnight keel.’
(It was the Yuletide bell.)
One said, ‘So cold! I heard the chain of ice in the burn.’
(The bell unleashed its tongue, Christ is born.)
One said, ‘A bairn, surely, a cry at the sea wall.’
(Through their salt sleep the bronze echoes fell.)
One said, ‘A wave broke, white on black, far out, on the Breckness Rock.’
(The bronze reeled and brimmed with another stroke.)
One said, ‘I dreamed an angel stood in our door.’
(Brightness on brightness unfurled through the bleak air.)
One said, ‘Five fish on my hungry doorstep I found.’
(There are waverings deeper than sound.)
One said, ‘I baked two sun-cakes on my hearth.’
(Gloria, cried the bell to the village and all the earth.)
(Written November 1987. ‘Christ is born’ and ‘Gloria’ are in italics in the original text. Found in ‘Travellers’, published by John Murray in 2001)
How amazing that . . .
a tiny poem becomes the royal song
a tiny village named Stromness,
inspires a world-class city to sing.
But isn’t this is the Christmas message?
A tiny baby,
born to a tiny band of witnesses,
is actually and fully and completely
the eternal God of the universe.
A tiny event
barely noticed by the locals
hides the singular most important event of the world,
God sending His Son to live and to die for our sins
so that all might be saved if we put our trust in him.
So I bring you Christmas greetings.
We bring Christmas greetings to each other.
And as we reorient the rhythm of lives
to allow for the Advent season
we join with George Mackay Brown,
and with the Warbeth Bell
and with the village of Stromness
and with the islands of Orkney
and with the Royal Family
and with the ends of the earth
and with the angels of heaven
in unleashing our tongues
and repeating the two phrases
italicised by George in his poem . . .
Christ is born
UPDATE: It went pretty well. I took my computer up with me so i could read the poem – computer has its own light source – but i covered it up so people didn’t see a big shiny apple in front of me.