Holiday reading can be a funny thing can't it, and Orkney certainly wasn't the place to sit with my nose stuck in a riveting novel all day long when there was so much to see. But if there is a 'best ' book to read during on Orkney sojourn, I can't think of a better one than Findings by Kathleen Jamie. I had enjoyed reading Sightlines so much earlier this year that I have had a job to keep my hands off Findings... but I had wanted to read it in a perfect setting and I knew that the first piece 'Darkness and Light' was about Kathleen Jamie's own trip to Orkney.
How special to read it when I am actually there, and at the opposite end of the year, because on the day of the Winter solstice, and there specifically to catch the dying rays of the setting sun on the shortest day casting a light down the tunnel and into the burial chamber at Maeshowe, sadly Kathleen Jamie was thwarted by cloud. Yet somehow, and fortunately for this reader, Kathleen Jamie is a writer who can turn every thwart into something favourable and fascinating that will strike a chord with me.
'...you can't argue with the moon, and the moon was almost full. It shone through a smir of cloud, spreading its diffused light across the water. The moon had around it an aura of un-colours, the colours of oil spilled on tarmac.'
I wish I'd thought of that because it it so right, and in my mind's eye imagine those colours perhaps to be a little like these surrounding a Tamar Valley winter's moon...
It is plenty dark though and Kathleen Jamie guesses she must be sailing past the coastal towns of Brora and Helmsdale, we drove through them on a bright mid-summer's evening and looked out to sea instead. The ferry will take six hours to arrive in Kirkwall and though Kathleen Jamie arrives at midnight she offers a wonderful description of Orkney..
'The Orkney islands, if you don't know them, are green and supine for the most part; a sculptural, wind-honed archipelago. Many of the islands are inhabited. The islands are whale-shapes, as their poet George Mackay Brown has noted...'
Sadly the weather closed in before we could get to Hoy, but next time.
But that weather did all give me a rest from looking, and some time to soak up the poetry of George Mackay Brown. My Collected Poems bought most appropriately at Maeshowe has this to say...
'The helmsman called 'whale islands'
And we saw, through grey whirls,the Orkneys...'
And in one of his Letters From Hamnavoe, Hamnavoe the Viking name for Stromness meaning peaceful or safe harbour, and the letters, George Mackay Brown's weekly column for the local newspaper The Orcadian, the Orkney poet invests more depth and meaning to this view...
'You can never lose Hoy on the roads of the West Mainland, except where now, they dip into hollows or tilt towards the Atlantic. These noble, lovely shapes haunt Orcadians wherever they go, like immemorial heraldry, and (one must believe) in some sense mould our community life and outlook.'
Kathleen Jamie has much to say about 'the redundant metaphor of Darkness and Light' and the way that the metaphorical darkness, 'the death dark', is much maligned, suggesting that as result we have lost the wonder of the natural dark, having filled it with fear and foreboding.
Living as we do in a place where any light pollution is ours alone and all we have to do is pull the switch in order to plunge ourselves into velvet black pitch darkness, it was something we quickly had to learn to cope with when we first moved here. Somehow the estate agent hadn't included this on the details, but it was quite a big mind-leap for us and children to grow used to and confident with, and the electrical storm that took out all our power in the middle of the night soon after we had moved in was our first very big lesson.
Where on earth were the candles??
Exactly how many stairs were there...we hadn't lived here long enough to know for sure and no way could we see them.
And on top of that the stupid burglar alarm went off on a high-pitched frolic of its own which just added to the chaos and confusion.
I hadn't realised quite how suffocating and claustrophobic pitch dark can be when it comes on you so unexpectedly. Ever thereafter we have had torches and candles in strategic places from which they are never moved, but we have also become very accustomed to the dark.
In a place like Orkney, which, as Kathleen Jamie suggests, most certainly 'recalibrates your sense of time' it is a natural step to start imagining what life and darkness and light must have been like for the Neolithic residents as they moved around their Neolithic beachside housing estate at Skara Brae...
'There is preserved a huddle of roofless huts, dug half underground into midden and sand dune...'
Complete with stone furnishings, imagine stubbing your toe on that dresser in the midst of the winter darkness ...
'There you can marvel at the domestic normality, that late Stone Age people had beds and cupboards and neighbours and beads. You can feel both their presence and their day to day lives, and their utter absence....'
And as George says so astutely...
'That ancient Orkney tribe had no reason to believe that the darkness might not go on increasing - the sun might rise no more and all the earth and the sea might be bound in an endless frost of death...their myths pointed to a perpetual recurrence of light, a renewal out of the death of the year, but there was no guarantee; some year their gods might decree otherwise.'
Well heavens above, by this time my imagination was away with the fairies wondering about it all.
But lest you think I was getting a bit too carried away with all this, losing touch with reality and things, I would like you to know that I made astute observations of my own, and there it was staring me in the face in the exhibition at Skara Brae...
Obviously Neolithic Women had tumble dryers...