My friend Sarah has many good ideas. We have been friends for 40 years but as we live 180 miles apart we have not seen each other since October. Sarah suggested we do a virtual walk, somewhere where there was a route we could follow and visit interesting things along the way. We chose St Magnus’s Way in Orkney: the route is 55 miles long, begins in Egilsay and finishes in Kirkwall on Mainland, following a route themed on the saint’s life.
So we began our walk on 1st March, spending a little time, virtually, at the bird sanctuary on the small island of Egilsay and looking up the story of the saint’s death, and at photos of his church. Then we followed a rocky path along the north cliffs of the Mainland arriving in Birsay after three days. The next bit of the route was a flat and straight road between some of the lochs that can be found all over Orkney. We arrived in Dounby on 7th March.
By this point my researches had roused in me a desire to visit Stromness (mostly because of the music, Farewell to Stromness by Peter Maxwell Davies which I play on the piano) but also because it has a reputation as a pretty town with a museum that contains a whale’s ear drum. And more than that, we both wanted to visit the Neolithic archaeology of the island, and St Magnus’s Way would not be taking that in. So we diverted to Skara Brae.
And here, my friends prepare yourselves, I sustained an injury by twisting my ankle and breaking it. I was not able to continue the walk. So we consulted on whether to give up, perhaps to start again later. And here was Sarah’s second brilliant idea: we should hunker down in a bothy and read books about Orkney until I was fit to continue.
So we did. We agreed to read Beside the Ocean of Time by the Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown. I ordered a copy of Outrun by Amy Liptrot for Sarah. And I reread the account by the Scottish poet, Kathleen Jamie, of a Neolithic village dig on the island of Westray, north of Mainland, in Surfacing.
Beside the Ocean of Time by George Mackay Brown
Thorfinn Ragnarson is a dreamy boy who is unlikely to make anything of himself, according to the school teacher on Norday, a fictitious island in Orkney. His daydreams form the chapters of this book, taking us from the time, long before the Vikings to the death of the island after the Second World War. He explores the rivers of Eastern Europe, just misses the battle of Bannockburn, helps Bonnie Prince Charlie, and with the islanders outsmarts the press gangs of the 18th century.
The island’s unchanging nature, the families, the crofts handed down through countless generations, the myths and legends of the islanders, their history, their rituals and needs are all evoked. The death of the island is sudden and brutal. It is used as an aerodrome in Second World War, and crofts, land, animals and people are erased despite their long history.
Beside the Ocean of Time by George Mackay Brown, published in 1994 by Polygon books. 197pp. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize 1994.
The Outrun by Amy Liptrot
I can see why this memoir was much lauded when it was first published. The writing is very clear, very unemotional and very sharp. She does not ask you to be sorry for her, although she got herself into terrible difficulties.
The first part of this book describes how the author was plunged into alcoholism, out of control in Hackney in the ‘90s. Eventually she decides she has to sort herself out. She returns to her childhood home in Orkney and through working on her father’s farm, for the RSPB and living more or less in isolation on Papay island through the winter, she achieves two years of sobriety.
The book is full of beautiful descriptions of landscape, finding meaning in astronomy, bird life, farm life and the ways of the islanders. Change, seasons, people’s fallibilities, these are the backdrop to her story. That the farm is situated just north of Skara Brae where I was hunkered down, lends more details to our walk and our delay in the Neolithic village.
The Outrun by Amy Liptrot (2016) published by Canongate. 280pp. Shortlisted for the Wellcome and Wainwright Prizes in 2016.
Surfacing Kathleen Jamie
Kathleen Jamie is a Scottish poet. She also has a way of connecting archaeology with people’s lives in her essays. She writes with great calmness and humility about her visit to the site of an abandoned Yup’iq village in Alaska which is being gradually washed away by the Pacific Ocean as a result of rising sea levels.
She visits another archaeological site, this one a Neolithic village on the island of Westray, north of Mainland in Orkney. The Links of Noltland are in danger from lack of funding. The dig has found a large community, built over centuries from stone, recently uncovered by the winds. If funds run out the elements will destroy what remains of settlements built on the remains of the homes of previous generations. You can find the link to my post on Surfacing here.
Surfacing Kathleen Jamie, published in 2019 by Sort of books. 247pp
Now my ankle is good enough to make a slow progression towards The Ring of Brodgar, on its isthmus between two lochs: Stenness and Harray. We pass broch, tumuli, stone rings and cairns. This land has been occupied for perhaps 8000 years. Before the Vikings arrived, Neolithic and Bronze age peoples came and lived, farming and raising cattle, living among the seals, the migrating birds and on the edge of the sea. I move slowly with a stick and my friend for support.
And Sarah writes:
One of the most difficult aspects of the last year has been not walking with you Caroline. I value these days so much, for the sense of exploration and movement, and for the way we pace our talking along with our walking, sometimes offloading, sometimes musing, always laughing and learning.
So a virtual journey seemed like a good idea if it was all we could do. I’m not on the whole a great follower of travel guides, or reader of travel books, but we knew we needed a route where we could find views and terrain described. I must say though that it was photos and the BBC 4 archaeology programme that really captured my imagination at first, not the written word. I quickly tired of St Magnus who seemed to have done not much to be sanctified and remembered so long.
In a way your injury, forcing us to rest at Skara Brae, was a happy accident. Well, not happy obviously but a useful turn of events. I started to feel the wind, smell the sea and hear the birds right on the edge of this tiny island. Farewell to Stromness captures the excitement perfectly. Beside the Ocean of Time mostly disappointed me (I found the dreaming child so dull) but it does paint a picture of Orkney not as remote but as linked, through its widely-travelling inhabitants, to many world events and historical moments.
Mostly when I travel, not virtually but actually, I am interested in how people live in this place which is new to me. Literally how do they survive and thrive, and how do landscape and human behaviour interact here? What is important to them, and what isn’t? I am half way through The Outrun and although this is mainly the story of one woman’s journey into and eventually out of self-destruction, I’m appreciating a much broader impression of the physical and emotional context of life on Orkney. Sea and sky and land of course, and enviable familiarity with the sight and sound of so many different kinds of bird. But interwoven with all the natural beauty and the strong sense of community, grimmer pictures are painted of life for individuals and families: the smell of the ferry, the old freezer left to rust in the farmyard, her father’s caravan home, her job cleaning the accommodation for oil terminal staff, houses and farms left deserted and rotting away, boats breaking on rocks. It all feels very real and true, and quite different from a travel book.