Waders and wet meadows.

I woke to the sound of gulls fighting over a fish.  Possibly both herring.  I lay still and let the sounds of the day come to me.  Swallows chittered softly somewhere and house sparrows chattered to each other from the bushes in the garden below.  There was a sharp rhythmic pinging sound as a rope slapped against a flagpole that proudly flew the flag of Orkney.  Bright sun leaked around the edges of the blinds, even though it was only just gone 5 o’clock.  Here, the tilt of the Earth brings early mornings and late evenings; there is no midnight sun, but the days of summer are long.  Compared to the tram bustle and traffic drone of Melbourne, such sounds are a lullaby and I quickly fall back into sleep.   Strangely, even the morning sounds of a place I have never visited before sound more familiar than the soundscape I have awoken to for more than 20 years.  That may explain why my return to sleep was so rapid, so predictable.

A couple of hours later I wake for real.  The gulls have gone, but the slap, slap, slap of the rope against the flagpole remains.  A breeze of varying strength will be my companion for the next few days; an Orkney weather constant I am told.  I suspect that I can also hear the whispered conversations of the local people, saying that the sunny weather will not last, cannot last.  But it does.

After breakfast we go in search of birds.  The mainland of Orkney does not have the abundance of wildlife of some places, but what it does have is a way of taking you back in time, to when plenty was a given, and rarity was not the new normal.  It’s a place where you expect, rather than just hope, to see things.  It’s a place where fields hold birds and flowers as well as grass and cows.  It’s a place where the edges are soft and uncertain, where diversity thrives in the absence of the ruler’s edge and the laser’s guide.  Field corners and fence posts hold surprises; owls fly unexpected over the road and flocks of eider, hidden by the edge of the shore, take flight on wings that whistle.  We hear the creaking call of a corncrake, a bird that winters in Africa and breeds in the long summer days of Scotland.  It’s a bird ill-suited to modernity, a bird that needs long grass and untidy corners in which to thrive.  Empathy may be impossible, the mind of the bird an unknown, but I think I know how it feels. 

It is undoubtedly an illusion, but heading to the southern islands of Orkney feels as if you are going down hill.  To the north, there are tall cliffs that are home to Fulmar and Guillemot, and a few Puffin; the people’s favourite.  Rock Doves, the wild first fathers of the urban pigeon, live in fear of Peregrine and you are never far from the sound of wave on stone.  Atop of Marwick Head a monument to Kitchener overlooks the cold waters where he died, his boat hit by a mine.  It’s both a strange and an appropriate place to commemorate World War One’s poster boy.  The long shadow of war reaches even to these cliffs, which seem to be haunted by more than just gulls.

The road south from the hotel takes us over a Churchill Barrier, another intrusion from the world of war into these cold waters.  The great natural harbour of Scarpa Flow is surrounded by Orcadian Islands, and the water the flowed between these islands could have brought submarines to attack the great fleet sitting at anchor.  So the ways were blocked, first with sunken ships and then, more lastingly, with barriers of stone and concrete.  The ships are fading with time, tumbling down to rust and broken beams.  But the barriers are still there.  Where they once brought protection they now bring changes.  Currents that flowed for thousands of years stopped in a geological heartbeat and sand that was once washed away formed new beaches on old rock.  Built by Italian prisoners of war, the barriers produced a landscape that looks more Mediterranean than Scottish, although my experience of both is weak.  In the strand line Ringed Plovers search for food in short rushed journeys, pausing to watch us watching it, pausing between tiny morsels of food.  Their stop start motion seems never ending, a life full of searching and uncertainty.  A dog bursts from the sand dunes, all flailing ears and disjointed limbs.  This is too much for the plovers, which take flight with sharp, ringing calls.  The wind, ever present, pushes the birds inland, over the dunes, out of sight.

The owner of the dog appears though a gap in the dunes and the Plovers never come back.  The dog runs in the waves and bites the water in excitement.  The owner takes a different approach and sits at the dune edge and watches.  The sea brings more sand to the beach and the wind takes some away.  Our footprints fill behind us, while the sand to our front is smooth and unbroken.  The wind keeps blowing. 

All hints of morning cloud have been shifted away by the wind, and the sky is deep blue and vast.  Sea smells and sounds fill the air.  From the far end of the beach the laughter and happy screams of cold-water swimmers add the only human sound.  Overhead, Little Terns screech protests at the dog and his owner, both of whom seem oblivious to the presence of the birds.  The terns are as tiny as their name suggests, but their voices are much louder.  They are flashy flyers with rolls and steep, wing bending turns and dives.  Plastic replicas, convincingly coloured, but unconvincingly still, sit on empty nests, presumably to encourage more authentic breeding.  The real terns are too fast and too tiny for pictures – and I suspect that the letter of the law prevents too close an approach.  These are bird for wonder and watching; there is little need for anything else.

On the hills beyond the edge of the island, a little further south, the view opens to show the line of the Barrier back towards the Mainland island.  The block ship sticks from the water, broken teeth, jagged with rust.  It’s only later that I find out that these sunken ships failed in their last task – to protect the great ships of war that sat vulnerable at anchor in Scarpa Flow.  834 men paid with their lives for that failure when the Royal Oak was sunk by a submarine in the autumn of 1939.   In the bright sun, with the wind pushing land waves of tall grass towards us, it is hard to believe that so much death and horror could come to a place so far from the centre of things.  Orkney has been many things to many people, but a vision of the islands as charnel house and slaughter field is hard to conjure.  Such things should be remembered by those who would lead us back to the Little Europe of the past that killed its young and its best with little thought or consequence.

The wind keeps blowing, but it seems people do not hear the words it carries.

Down by the coast a grey farmhouse sits, four square and firm in the lea of a small slope.  Its windows are small and the porch over the door large.  This is testament to the real weather of these islands, and the possibility that bright sun and blue skies are far from the norm.  Out to sea a boat passes with high kicked spray.  Fishing and farming.  In the field across the road a Curlew sounds its bubbling call.  A hint of the old ways in a new age. 

Land and sea.  Sky and sound.  The past in the present, with history in the rear view mirror as we drive away.  Heading south, looking for waders and wet meadows.

A maze of roads covers the southern end of South Ronaldsay.  Roads meet and depart from each other for reasons which may have made sense once, but now that reason seems to have been lost.  Navigation seems both pointless and futile; all roads lead nowhere and end up, eventually, back at the same place.  Ring roads and farm bypasses with white lines replaced by a median strip of grasses and weeds.  In the folds of the land yellow flowers bloom and sway.  Every field seems flanked by roads and pathways, ghosts from a time when each patch of land had a different name and a well-known purpose.  Calving fields, lambing fields, fields that offered shelter when the wind was from the east and fields fresh with the promise of early spring feed.  People have tilled and toiled here for so long that each and every inch of the land is known.  Only old places hold such a network of knowing.  There is the strange feeling that the roads are looking after you, guiding you back to a place that you know – it’s a small place, a place where you may not know where you are, but in which you never feel lost.

On a fence post a Redshank tells the world that this is his patch and that intruders will be dealt with.  Down in the mud and the long grass there must be a nest, or huddled young ones, as dependent on the adults as the adults are on these wet pastures.  To be complete both need the other.  It’s the way things are supposed to be.  A Curlew with a field running chick displays to lead us away, predators that we must be.  A few Lapwings feed in the mud.  I grew up calling this bird a peewit, a name that seems to have slipped from usage.  The name and the places in which they breed, both pushed back into memory, recalled only by the old and those of us who do not always accept that modernity is the same as progress. 

Down by the shore we sit in the shelter of a stone bank, thrown by winter storms and high tides.  Behind the bank a small church, built of rough cut stone, and haunted by the calls of Swallows, stands without a village or congregation.  The building is old, deconsecrated and for sale.  No running water, except that which falls from the sky.  No electricity.  Just four low walls and a sturdy roof.  As the UK prepares for isolation and America embraces lunacy, it seems the perfect place to be.  A place that, for a while at least, seems free from the constraints of idiocy and the constriction of possibility.  A family of Eider swims by the shore and a seal bobs in the water.  The air is clear and the sky open and fresh.  I wish my family could see this place.

A few hours later I drop my bag on to the floor of my hotel room in Glasgow.  My coat smells of salt air and sunshine.

As the day fades I hope the waders of Orkney survive the short summer night and wonder what it would be like to return in the winter, with its daylight famine and stormy darkness.

Barrow and beach.  Storm and stones.  Waders and wet meadows.  Sometimes the impact of place does not depend on the duration of the visit.  I suspect some places will linger longer than others.

By the time I am fully gone, I know I want to go back.

An Offshore Account

I don’t like to be late.  And I don’t like to be lost.  I find both states deeply unsettling, breaking, as they do, the temporal and spatial maps we hold fast to in our heads. 

So, if I manage to be late or lost, my brain does little intracranial loops and tends to get a bit cross.  But crossness in the face of your own stupidity is a waste of time and energy – you need to save crossness for things that are important.

I started to feel just a tad uneasy when I could not find my flight in the departure board, so I checked and double-checked, but no, it was not there.  I walked up to the check in desk (which was suspiciously quiet) and asked: 
“Where do I go for this flight?”
“Aberdeen” came the reply.

I let that sink in for a while – looked at my ticket and felt pretty stupid.  There I was, in Glasgow airport, looking at a ticket to Orkney from Aberdeen airport.  A mere 3 hours away by road – and the flight was departing in 90 minutes.


Lost and late.  Well maybe not lost, given that I was where I thought I ought to have been, but where I ought to have been was somewhere else.  

Ah.   Shit.

I produced my credit card, booked on to the next flight – which was at 10 am the next morning – and spent a not insubstantial sum patching up the errors of my ways.  I went back to my hotel, ate some cheese, drank some wine and went to bed.  In the end, it was the only option I had.

The next morning I was neither late nor lost, turning up at the correct airport, the correct time.  Glasgow continued to outshine itself, with a clear sky morning promising fair weather to come.  At just past nine in the morning, I was shocked to see a tall woman in a sky blue ball gown walking down a grey concrete walkway by the rush hour busy road.  The whole scene was strange beyond experience, like a mirage brought on by the heat and repeat viewing of The Matrix.

“Either a very early start or a late finish” I suggested to the driver who agreed, but pointed out that we were passing a University and that there was some form of graduation at this time of year.  “They like to get dressed up, especially the lasses,” he added in a way that suggested he knew what he was talking about.  Never judge a book by its cover.

Much as the night before had been a (self-inflicted) stuff-up of massive proportion, there was an up side.  Taking the later flight would mean I would be on the same plane as my brother, who being older and (so he says) so much wiser than me, had actually arrived at the right airport at the right time. 

For many people a trip with your brother may not be that remarkable.  But we aren’t that sort of family.  As a round figure we had not really lived together, at the same address, for 30 years, and the number of holidays we had taken together at any time, without other family being present, was precisely zero.  Much later, in the long evening twilight of an Orkney over a pint, we would realise that it would be probably the first time we had ever slept in the same room together. This really was a long way from adjacent rooms in a damp and failing cottage in Somerset.

The dozen of islands that form Orkney are scattered across the sea about 30 miles beyond the northern tip of Scotland.  The number of islands depends on the state of the tide and the shape of the wind.  To the west there is nothing but water until you reach Canada, to the east lies Norway.  The islands spread over three sheets of the Landranger map series, that classic of mapping with the bright red cover that weathers down to trademark pale pink with use.  1:50,000 scale, perfect for almost all things, wonderful in its detail and miraculous in completion.  Much can be learned from the close observation of these maps; old names, out of place today, pass on a history that can be read and understood.  Viking names; farming names; field names.  Names from a time when each place had a special role and purpose.  Names that would tell you if there was water underfoot, or peat for winter fires.  Summer places, winter places, places where eagles nested and seals gave birth.  The land made the words and the words we gave shaped our understanding the the land.  These maps may well be one of the finest, but least appreciated, accomplishments of human endeavour. 

With a little practice, and a shot of imagination, you can use maps like these to build a picture of a world you cannot see.  You can see ahead of yourself and over the next hill.  The flow-lines of contours allow you to build the shape of the land in your own head, they allow you to predict things you have not seen.  In the hands of an expert, this skill can become close to miraculous, and even I can manage some crude approximation of this skill.  These maps allow for a kind of spatially creative magic that builds the shape of the land within your own head – the maps do not show the reality of the land, they are a 2D cypher of a 3D planet.  By definition they cannot be accurate, the world is not Cartesian, but the map is.  They are a wondrous tool for the creation of a mental illusion, which often bears a striking resemblance to the real world.

But when you start to look, and maybe think a bit, the maps show more that just the relative locations of objects and the shape of the land.  They also contain an archaeology of the people who made them.  The maps I grew up with contained symbols for Post Offices and public phone boxes, both of which were of far more significance than they are today.  Their inclusion says something about the society that existed within the landscape in which they were found.  And the removal of these from the maps tells us something about how the world around us has changed.  The symbol at a road junction which said ‘here is a device with which you can talk to the world’ has become as redundant as the device itself.  Equally, on the 30 year old maps that sit on my shelves, you can find the location of both pubs and churches (with or without a tower).  These were included as places of both community and connection, where people filled themselves with one form of spirit or another.  I wonder how long these symbols will retain their utility as we abandon community and connection.

For maps to be able to work their wondrous magic they need to be based on meticulous observation and measurements.  Hundreds of distances and angles, forming triangles that march over the landscape in a remarkable trigonometry.  Maps are based in the human observation of the world as it actually is.  I may declare the world flat, and assign it four corners, but the measurements say something else.  The measurements are not biased by politics, cant or religion. Additional lines can be added to the maps after wars and agreements, but the triangles and measurements remain unchanged: political maps are a human invention laid over the top of the shape of the land.

Today, we take maps and their technological surrogates for granted – we have come to rely on them.  Maps plot our journeys forward, both in time and space.  And we think that we clever beyond measure.

But when you stand in the landscape of Orkney, you are challenged to think again about the measure of our achievement.

Possibly more than anywhere else on Earth, Orkney gives us a view into the landscape of the past and the way that early people mapped and predicted their world.  When you stand in the centre of the Stones of Stenness and come to see that the stones line up with specific events – solar and lunar – you cannot help but be amazed.  How was this done?  How did the engineers of the Stone Age create these great maps of the sky and the future?  Stone circles that speak of both direction and time, crafted by hand, pulled from the Earth by a people we have the temerity to call primitive.

The landscape of Orkney is rich in human symbols and measurement.  The bumps and barrows, henges and hill top circles are the result of measurement and observation just as meticulous as those used by our modern mapmakers.  Stones align with each other, with hilltops and with solstice sunrises.  Precisely what these alignments meant to the life of the people who built them we may never know, but the intact Stone Age landscape of the Orkneys suggest a degree of sophistication that was never communicated to me at school. The laughable New Age nonsense of Druids or the conspiracy of Alien Intervention devalues the simple fact that these structures are remarkable. But one thing is entirely clear; the Stones of Orkney are based on the observation of the world as it is – or was 4000 years ago.  Far too many of the stones align with the events of space for their placements to be luck.

The light that shines down the entrance tunnel of Maeshowe on the winter solstice meant to do so, and the Barrow was built by people who wanted that to happen.  We don’t know why, but we do they achieved it.   And yet it seems we are still not fully ready to give the people who build these structure from the cooperative Orkney stone the full credit they deserve.

While we were stood within the circle of Stones of Stenness we were told in no uncertain terms that the shape of the stones themselves had no meaning.  This seems fair enough after you have seen the broken stones at the Ring of Brodga where a recent (ish) lightning strike felled one of the monoliths – but as a general statement it seems to be a rather sweeping one.  The care with which both the location of the stone circles and the stones within them suggests (at least to me) that ‘any old stone’ would not have been chosen.  Would Capability Brown have designed the sweeping aspects of his landscapes and then said ‘just stick a big rock up there’ to finish off?  I don’t think so. And neither, I suspect, would the builders of the circles on Orkney.

At Skara Brae an even more remarkable expression of the care these Stone Age Orkadians took in the use of stone comes, not from a grand monument, but from domestic furniture.  In 1850 a Stone Age village started to reappear from the sand dunes after a winter storm.  This was a village that is still recognisable as such today.  The round houses have beds made from the flat stones and ‘fish tanks’ that were lined with clay where bait or lobsters could be kept fresh and alive.  But most remarkably, some of the houses have storage cupboards – side-boards if you like – with a wide flat top and shelves.  Some people think these may have been used in some form of ritual manner, but others suggest that they were simply storage units.  In fact if you copied the layout of this stone furniture, gave it a strange, vaguely Nordic name you, could sell it in Ikea.  There are grindstones next to at least one of these ‘cupboards’ and many of the houses have ‘box gutter’ plumbing to take away all the foul things a family can produce.  Many, many people live today in houses that have less amenities than these. And in case you missed what I was saying there – these Stone Age houses had a form of plumbing, built of stone stabs that still functions today. 

It takes almost no imagination to see how families could live in these houses, gathered around the central fire and eating meals of grilled sea-bass and shell fish.  And when you bring this to mind, the idea that the same people, sophisticated and recognisable, would just say ‘F**k it, just use any old stone,’ in their circles and monuments, seems even more far-fetched.

And where did all this kind of thinking start – well, it started right here: when I found a benchmark cut into one of the stones of the Ring of Brodga.  A benchmark is a sign that a mapmaker has been here and determined the height above sea level – it’s a fixed point around which the information of the cartographer flows, and from which maps are drawn.  A modern symbol on a Stone-Age monument, thousands of years apart in their creation, but linked by the common purpose of their manufacture – to help people navigate the world.

People have lived and found their way on Orkney for thousands of years, and for a few days I was glad to join them.