Great Orcadians and where to get close to them

Header image: Linklater and Greig Entering Yesnaby Noust, a painting by Stanley Cursiter image © Copyright estate of Stanley Cursiter. Photo © Copyright Stromness Museum

Orkney punches above its weight for cultural contribution. These beautiful isles have birthed and inspired poets, artists, musicians, writers, explorers, naturalists and many more who have made their mark on the world.

Here we introduce you to some of our famous folk and where in Orkney you can experience the places that inspired their words, thoughts and work.

Here we introduce you to some of our famous folk and where in Orkney you can experience the places that inspired their words, thoughts and work.

George Mackay Brown and the Stromness waterfront
George Mackay Brown and the Stromness waterfront photo © Copyright the Estate of George Mackay Brown

George Mackay Brown (1921-1996)

Our very own Rabbie Burns, George Mackay Brown’s atmospheric writing is revered the world over. The sources and influences for his poems, stories, plays and novels were Norse sagas, Catholic rituals and ceremonies and island lore, and Orkney remained his muse throughout his life.

You can walk in his footsteps on the George Mackay Trail, launched in 2021 for the Centenary of his birth. It takes you from his birthplace in the heart of Stromness through the street and past many of the local houses he stayed in, taking in the views he grew up with. Continue to Warebeth and the cemetery where he was laid to rest in 1996. The whole trail will take around two to three hours, but there are options to undertake shorter routes.

Artist Stanley Cursiter painting at Yesnaby on Orkney's west coast, c.1960s
Artist Stanley Cursiter painting at Yesnaby on Orkney’s west coast, c.1960s photo © Copyright Stromness Museum

Stanley Cursiter, CBE, RSA (1887-1976)

Born in Kirkwall, Stanley Cursiter was one of Scotland’s most prolific twentieth-century painters as well as being a writer and curator. Although in his younger years he worked away from Orkney, he returned during summers to paint sea-scapes, cliffs and landscapes, sometimes staying at a wooden fishing hut at Yesnaby. There are fine examples of his work at the Stromness Museum, The Pier Arts Centre in Stromness and another at Skaill House near Skara Brae in West Mainland. In later life Cursiter returned to Orkney permanently and made his home at Stenigar, the house he built from a former boatyard in Stromness.

Cursiter played an important role in introducing modern art to Scotland and initiated the campaign to create a Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. He was appointed Director of the National Galleries of Scotland in 1930 and King’s Limner for Scotland in 1948. Locally, he was involved in launching Orkney Museum and the St Rognvald’s Chapel in the former presbytery at the east end of St Magnus Cathedral in 1965. 

John Rae by Stephen Pearce
Sir John Rae image © Copyright Stephen Pearce

Dr John Rae (1813-1893)

Born at the Hall of Clestrain in Orphir, Arctic explorer Dr John Rae enjoyed an outdoor childhood, hunting, shooting, fishing and sailing.  His father was a factor for The Hudson’s Bay Company, recruiting Orkney men to serve on the wild frontier. After qualifying as a surgeon in his twenties, Rae made his way to the North American factories and thrived in the testing environment, soon becoming a well-respected leader of men. He found fame for discovering the last navigable link of The North West Passage, as well as the remains of the doomed Frankin Expedition, for which he was pilloried. Rae mapped around 1,750 miles of Arctic coast either on foot or in small boats, earning the nickname ‘Aglooka’ – meaning ‘long strides’.  

The John Rae Society is working to save and restore the dilapidated but A-Listed Hall of Clestrain and visits can be made by arrangement (visit A statue of John Rae can be found at Stromness Pierhead, his personal items can be viewed in Stromness Museum, and a beautifully sculpted memorial is inside St Magnus Cathedral, while his grave is at the back of the graveyard.

Bessie Skea, who wrote as The Countrywoman
Bessie Skea, who wrote as The Countrywoman photo © Copyright the Grieve Family

Bessie Skea (1923–1996)

Writing as ‘The Countrywoman’ for almost 40 years for local papers, Bessie Skea (also known as Bessie Grieve), vividly captured Orkney’s natural world like no one before her. George Mackay Brown was a great admirer of her painterly prose bringing Orkney to life. Bessie was born at Ostoft in Shapinsay into a farming family. She married James Grieve in 1942 and they lived in Rousay and Birsay, before settling in Harray. Published works include anthologies of her columns, as well as short stories and poetry that capture many places across Orkney. A new collection, A Glisk of Sun was released in 2023 to mark her Centenary.

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies photo © Copyright Gunnie Moberg Archive, Orkney Library and Archive

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (1934 – 2016)

Iconic composer and the Queen’s Master of Music Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, or Max as he was known, found his home in Orkney in the early 1970’s, almost by chance. On his first trip to Orkney, he took a ferry to Hoy, was introduced to poet George Mackay Brown and found the ruin that would become his home, all in a matter of hours.

He remained for almost 40 years in Rackwick, living in a hill croft above the valley, before moving in his later years to the flatter landscape of Sanday. Hoy, its landscape and people, are embedded in his compositions. But Farewell to Stromness is among his most immediately accessible and most enchantingly simple melodies. It was written as a protest against a proposed uranium mine that would have been centred in Stromness. Famously it was part of the wedding ceremony of the then Prince of Wales and Camilla Parker Bowles.

Cheryl ChapmanBy Cheryl Chapman
Cheryl has been writing and editing for more years than she cares to mention! She cut her professional writing teeth in journalism, worked in PR and marcomms and has written and edited newspapers, magazines and websites. Find her at

Pin it!Great Orcadians and where to get close to them

Pinterest image: Bessie Skea, also known at Bessie Grieve at home with her cat photo © Copyright the Grieve Family