No sooner do we get back into bookish ways on the scribbles, after all that Rio Madness, before it's time for Bookhound and I to set off on our Ruby Wedding anniversary trip north to Orkney.
The Kayaker (bless him) is installed for a couple of weeks to dog/cat/house sit and we are off on an adventure and very much looking forward to it.
The only question is...do we listen to The Archers...or not.
The week of Helen's trial and the hour-long special episode on our anniversary evening, how could they.
For our Silver Wedding anniversary (the actual day was awful ...9/11) we did a three week tour of Europe the following summer; railcards and rucksacks, night trains from Bilbao to Barcelona and Mediterranean ferries... needless to say, fifteen years older, been there, done that, this time we are driving in our nice air-conditioned Yeti and staying put in some very lovely places. The furthest I hope to carry a weighty bag is from the car to a door rather than from Genoa to Grindelwald.
On that pre-Kindle-invention occasion I took all the wrong books with me and ended up ditching them rather than carrying them, before buying a copy of The Awakening by Kate Chopin in Barcelona and reading it as we crossed the Med...memorable. This time I am being more circumspect because I know a wonderful bookshelf awaits us in Orkney as well as The Orcadian Bookshop. However I am currently very engrossed in Leviathan, or The Whale by Philip Hoare and will be paying careful attention to all things whale-ish in Stromness Museum. As well as the whale's eardrum I will be seeking out my favourite scrimshaw...
I am also taking Sea Room by Adam Nicolson just in case I fancy reading about islands and 60 Degrees North by Malachy Tallach just because we're going that way too. Oh yes, and we will be stopping in the Lake District so the Little Toller edition of The Shining Levels by John Wyatt...and not forgetting Shorelines, the lovely anthology of seaside poems from Lautus Press... that'll do fine along with 354 books on my Kindle just in case.
As per New Zealand I will be posting pictures of gorgeous scenery on Instagram over here <<<<< as well as the occasional picture (but few words) on here when WiFi permits and which I hope you will enjoy and share in the journey along with us.
I'll be back properly in a couple of weeks, doubtless inspired all over again in new directions and with lots to tell you, but meanwhile I leave you with 'Echoes' one of Leila Thomson's wonderful Hoxa tapestries (yes, we will be visiting Hoxa Galleries) along with my favourite island lines from Jo Shapcott's poem Northern Lights..
..... I have stolen some of the light which drenches you this midnight to wish you all the islands in the world and every one a different kind of peace.
The Outrun is where the ewes and their lambs graze in the summer, it is a 'stretch of coastland at the top of the farm where the grass is always short, pummelled by wind and sea spray year-round.'
As a newborn baby, Amy Liptrot arrives back on Orkney from Scotland, in the arms of her mother just as her father is being wheeled to the plane in a straitjacket. He is on his way from the family farm to a secure mental hospital. It is the briefest of encounters on an airport runway, pre-memory for Amy but one that will stay with her nevertheless. Amy's father has suffered a manic episode brought on by her premature birth and it will be many months before they see each other again.
It is a dramatic start to a life and to a book and one that resonates throughout as Amy struggles with her own demons.
I am afraid I am as guilty as anyone else who hasn't lived there.
I too see Orkney as a paradise.
For me what the islands may lack in charm (there is nothing quaint or twee about Orkney) they more than compensate for in atmosphere, scenery, big skies and vast expanses of space, sea and history . Witness yesterday...sorry I got a bit carried away and it seems to be happening again...
It is the sort of place that either penetrates your soul or it doesn't. If it does then an addiction follows, a long-distance love affair and a sense of affinity. To be born and raised there is an entirely different matter and for Amy the need to leave dominates...
'Growing up in the wind leaves you strong, sloped and adept at seeking shelter.'
Whilst her mother seeks solace in evangelical religion Amy heads to London for that shelter and what can only be described as a life on the edge. Relationships and employment dissolve in a two-year miasma of drugs and alcohol, homelessness and destitution prevail, yet throughout it all those deeply embedded echoes of Orkney are everywhere.
There is a moment when cycling through London and Amy is reminded of geese flying across a moonlit Orkney sky..
And with it comes ' a quietly vibrating sense of loss and disturbance.'
It's not just alcohol coursing through Amy's veins, Orkney is flowing freely too, but it is the alcohol that is now doing the greater damage. 'A slave to the habit of pain,' and a sudden bout of desperation and insight leads Amy into months of rehab in London. Alcohol had become her default method for alleviating anxiety and dealing with stress, and when the 'unwanted fond thoughts of home' creep in and ambush her Amy knows that it might be time to acknowledge those echoes of Orkney and return.
'I wonder if it's possible to really come back once you've lived away for a while. or if it's called coming 'home' when you never belonged.'
With reconfigured priorities Amy washes up on her island again and embarks on a journey of rediscovery and renewal. That all sounds a bit cliched and dramatic, even predictable perhaps, but not so.
Old and previously arduous chores become new and refreshing experiences as Amy returns to help her father on the family farm (by this time her parents have divorced) very significantly she is drawn to wall-building, and she starts to explore the uninhabited islands around the coast too. London clubland and night life is replaced by corncrake conservation with the RSPB, and when she heads for a cottage on the remote island of Papay for the winter it will be here that Amy truly rediscovers herself.
'My ties and traditions are my own to make. I can choose where I will belong.'
The internet, and being able to keep in touch with the outside world as well as seeking knowledge play a big part in recovery, so you will be pleased to know it isn't all hair shirts and self-denial. In fact, it's wet suits and snorkelling for Amy, and her analogy with the legend of the Selkie, as she peels off her wetsuit, made me wonder why it has taken so long for someone to think of that comparison. Sea swimming becomes exhilarating and cleansing opening up new worlds and (as usual) made we want to go and dive in somewhere.
'I feel as if I've opened a door that has always been in my house but I had never noticed.'
Astronomy suddenly becomes fascinating too, whilst natural phenomena like the Fata Morgana (a form of superior mirage where cool air below warm air creates a visual inversion that can be seen but never approached ...or something like that) and the Northern Lights, fondly called the Merry Dancers on Orkney, replace those highs induced by drugs and alcohol in the past.
I still feel I'm making it all sound a bit too good to be true for which I apologise because Amy Liptrot does no such thing, and nor does the book read in that way. This is about one woman's struggles and when the cravings for alcohol invade they are a harsh reminder that The Outrun is a book about addiction and temptation, about salvaging and restoring a shipwreck of a life, refloating, reprovisioning and repurposing (I could go on, all the re-words fit here and defeat all the de-words) and with the help of and by paying careful attention to the natural world Amy Liptrot achieves it.
The fault lines in the cliffs mirror the cracks and crevasses in her life..
The waves breaking on the shore...there is only so much height any wave can sustain before it breaks and crashes down...
Beachcombing after a storm...empty shells and picking up the pieces.
Awaiting the unexpected yet knowing in her heart that there will no return to addiction, Orkney cares for and works its magic on one of its own.
The Outrun a book I will read again, and maybe again.
The sun was shining through the blind onto the sofa...
I was about to put something in this bowl and had to stop...why spoil it with stuff...
And then I see things that will make wonderful shibori designs all over the place, and now have to be dragged out of Poundland before I buy any more dolly pegs, or clamps, or clips, or hairbands, or marbles, or trays or buckets. And then I shoot off to the charity shops looking for shapes that will do for clamp resist, or bits of fabric that I can mess about with.
And suddenly, because this thing was bound to seep its way across from my creative hemisphere to my other one that reads, all the books I am reading, or want to read seem to match my recent shibori experience. I'm starting to see gorgeous blue book covers everywhere.
And yes, The Mighty Dead - Why Homer Matters is still on the tbr pile but The Silk Roads has edged its way in first.
But a blue cover wasn't my real reason for wanting to read The Outrun by Amy Liptrot so much that we actually drove all the way into Waterstones in Plymouth on a wet Maundy Thursday afternoon to buy a copy before Easter. Amongst other things it is about our beloved Orkney and suddenly it had to be my reading for the holiday weekend, nothing else would do.
I wonder if a book need grabs you in this same urgent way.
Even ordering online isn't fast enough, it has to be acquired yesterday.
On one of his early solo visits to Orkney the Tinker drove all the way out to the gallery, three miles beyond St Margarets Hope, to buy me Leila Thomson's book, so it was wonderful to visit for ourselves when we went together a few years ago. I think the Tinker and I both knew this would be his last visit so we made the most of it and I created memories to draw on in the future.
And now I am supposed to be writing about The Outrun and all I can think of is that Orkney blue...
Hoy and Scapa Flow..
and Waulkmill Bay..
and the curlew...
and the lovely picture that Bookhound scratched onto slate while we sat on the beach...
and the beach...
and the beachcombing...
and Skara Brea...
and the scraps of rainbows...
and the ferry into Stromness passing the Old Man of Hoy...
And now I'm dreaming about Orkney as well as indigo, and I all I want to do is go back, and it's our Ruby Wedding anniversary this year so we might. I've been wanting to use the words sui generis for ages, and now I can, about Orkney and about The Outrun.
This is all Amy Liptrot's fault and I haven't even told you a thing about her astonishingly good book yet.
It is excusable I suppose, to the generation of today, that October 14th. 1939 means very little, but to over 1000 men aboard HMS Royal Oak, a battleship at anchor in St. Margarets Bay in the Naval anchorage of Scapa Flow in the Orkney islands, it meant a great deal. 833 of those men died that night when German Captain Gunther Prien in U47 fired three torpedoes, within thirteen minutes the ship rolled over and sank.
It is now a war grave for those 833 men who still lay inside the upside down wreck fifteen feet below the waterline in a hundred feet of water and there is a commemorative memorial in St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall.
I arrived on the scene just ten weeks later in December, 1939 to join HMS Iron Duke in Scapa Flow, which incidently had been hit by a German bomb during an air raid three days after the sinking on 17th. October, 1939. I was a fourteen-year old Royal Marine Boy Bugler and though I don’t have any memories of HMS Royal Oak's sinking I did know the two boy Buglers who went down with the ship , Harry Mountford and Aubrey Priestley both only fifteen years old.
Every year, a ceremony is held over the wreck site on October 14th to commemorate the 833 men. A new Royal Navy Ensign is taken down and placed on the wreck by two divers and numerous wreaths are laid by the marker buoy. I was asked by the Royal Navy Association of Kirkwall if I would like to lay their wreath this year, but it later turned out that other arrangements had already been made, but I am deeply honoured to have been asked to do the ceremony next year (2013). I do however have a very good picture of Mountford and Priestley which I have sent to my contact in Scapa Flow, Kinlay Francis, who has agreed to enclose the picture in a lead sealed frame engraved with their names and the words from Laurance Binyon’s poem “ We shall remember them” which the divers will lay on the wreck for me during today's ceremony.
October 14th. will always be a date I shall remember.
And of course I will remember it now too.
We met Kinlay Francis who runs Orkney Uncovered whilst we were in Orkney this year, his family owned the holiday cottage that we rented, the one with the gorgeous views that we couldn't stop staring at...
and I hope Kinlay won't mind me using an extract here from an email that he sent to the Tinker this week. It reveals the care and attention to detail that he had paid to the Tinker's request and for which we are very grateful indeed...
I thought I would give you an update about October 14th. The HMS Royal Oak memorial will start at 10:00am at Scapa Pier... we will be going straight out to the Oak site to lay the wreaths and your Plaque container and then back to the Kirkwall Royal British Legion afterwards.
As for my role: I will be laying two linked Poppy Cross wreaths for you. One for Harry and one for Aubrey. I have also hand crafted a lead memorial plate (more like a medium envelope) which I have enclosed the picture of H & A inside and a well wrapped piece of clear plastic, which is watertight and taped. I have then folded over the lead sections and sealed them down with waterproof silicone before hammering the sides to make it completely watertight. I wrote below the boys picture: To my friends Harry and Aubrey, we will remember you. Forever, Len Chester. On the actual plaque I have inscribed your exact instructions:
As a novice lino-cutter, i.e. one done at the age of seven and another done last week, I am not yet aspiring to wallpaper but that doesn't stop me dreaming and drooling over everyone else's, so I was delighted to read this email from St Jude's. If any of you felt moved to vote, please do...
Based on an original linocut print by Mark, Harvest Hare is a single colour wallpaper, printed in the UK using water-based inks and paper from sustained forests. Available in 3 colourways: blue slate, corn and chalk white. The awards take on a slightly different format this year with no specific categories - the six nominees with the most votes will be announced as winners at the end of October.
I have stayed on Orkney for this months colourboration on the theme of stones, given that we saw so many, and if you click on this picture I think you may get a slightly larger one to see more clearly... Working clockwise from top left...
The Neolithic equivalent of a Bank Holiday weekend trip to Ikea, and the dresser built with probably the odd nut and bolt missing, doubtless buried in the sand....and Mr Neolithic saying to Mrs Neolithic 'Do you really have to buy this stuff...what was wrong with the old one.' This part of the furnishing of a Skara Brae household.
Plenty of Celtic carving, and inspiration for quilts and lino cuts galore in my photo album.
A tiny shot of The Old Man of Hoy (better picture here) but truly symbolic as we both approached and departed the islands.
When you get close up to those stones on the Ring of Brodgar you can see aeons-worth of Kilroy Was Here markings engraved on them, everyone it seems needed to leave their mark here down the ages. We very respectfully touched and stroked, but no gouging of 'dovegreyreader was here' took place.
The swirls and whorls on the beachside cliffs were a little thing of beauty to stop and stare at on our beachcombing expeditions.
We went to the Kirkwall churchyard where it all ended for these Norwegian wartime casualties, but where it all began for a fourteen-year old Tinker in 1940 who was summoned to play Last Post at the big military funeral held for these men...and then burst into tears when he got a few notes in. You can read the full story in his little memoir Bugle Boy and of his return journey to Orkney sixty years later to finally finish what he had started, though this time not on a bugle but whistled.
Runes are it in Orkney, very much the logo of the island's giftware, and those carved on the side of this stone some of the earliest discovered and now in Kirkwall Museum.
And talking of runes and slightly to do with stones, the Tinker bought me a really special necklace while we were there. A piece of Ola Gorie jewellery. Everything by Ola Gorie is beautiful and I have a few pieces bought here in Tavistock years ago. Given free range I was hard pushed to choose but in the end settled for the Ingibiorg necklet, the design a derivation of the runic script engraved on the walls of Maeshowe, the burial tomb through which the sun shines on the shortest day. 'Ingibiorg is the most beautiful of all women' wrote the lonely Viking as he took shelter from a terrible snowstorm in 1153, so exactly 800 years before I was born.
I love it.
Oh yes and one more final stone. A little sketch that Bookhound did on one of our beachcombing expeditions, picking up a piece of slate and using a piece of tide-smoothed glass as a pencil... Clever Bookhound.
Now I wonder what Ellie has been looking at on Wherevertheroadgoes... and I happen to know it is Ellie's birthday today... 'the big roundieth scary half a century one' so here's wishing her a very happy day, been there Ellie, it's not so bad :-)
One of the many highlights of our Orkney week had to be seeing and touching the standing stones that are scattered around the island. I say 'scattered' which of course they seem to be to us, because no one really knows why they are there, or why they are where they are, or what the significance of them and their arrangement might be.
All a big mystery so a lot of 'possibly' and 'maybe', but no certainty.
Our residence was very near to the Standing Stones of Stenness.. and just around the corner from the Ring of Brodgar, twenty seven stones in a circle over a hundred metres wide... and we had a lovely walk up there one evening to the backdrop of a magical Orkney sky. There is something amazing, and very difficult to describe, about standing and touching these stones knowing that Neolithic men and women did likewise. I can get quite carried away wondering how the stones got there and stayed upright, and what ceremonies or rituals may have taken place around them.
And what did the people know of the world and what was out there.
Just along from the Ring of Brodgar is the Ness, now for six weeks of the year the site of a major archaeological dig instigated seriously following a BBC programme which we too had happened to see on New Year's Day this year. In A History of Ancient Britain - Orkney's Stone Age Temple, Neil Oliver highlighted the fundamental importance of the site and the contribution it makes to our understanding of Neolithic man. It was apparently built centuries before Stonehenge which surely gives Orkney the edge in the 'How-To' stakes, though as all the archaeologists agree this is not a competition, but there is now great excitement surrounding the discoveries at Brodgar.
We found it astonishing to look at the reconstruction images put together for the BBC programme which envisaged the original site looking like this... Sadly we missed the annual six week Ness of Brodgar dig which has just finished, Bookhound would have loved to have set too with his trowel, but we did take in the exhibition at the museum while we were there and have been following the dig's progress this year on the Orkneyjar blog.
It has been a real treat to look back through the Orkney pictures this week and thank you for your company. Tomorrow's Colourboration will wind up the this virtual visit (for now, I fully expect more little inspirations to creep in now and again) but here's my favourite picture... the Tinker saying farewell to Stromness this time, and just before we realised they were about to serve breakfast on the ferry so off we dashed, and of course we have all promised ourselves a trip back.
There is another little place I want to whisk you to on our virtual visit to Orkney because, as everyone says, if you go to Orkney you absolutely must see the Italian Chapel so we did. In fact the first time we stopped by (on our way to Hoxa Tapestry) we were followed in by a coachload of tourists...I know we were tourists too, I'm not knocking them, but we knew it would be too crowded to see anything, so we returned later in the day... only to find they were about to start a service so it was still rather a quick look.
The chapel is a relic of Camp 60 which was home to several hundred Italian prisoners during the Second World War, captured during the Italian campaign and sent to Orkney to help construct the Churchill Barriers. The Barriers were fascinating too, and not only for the way they sought to create an attack proof defence of Scapa Flow after the sinking of the Royal Oak. On 14 October 1939, Royal Oak was anchored at Scapa Flow when she was torpedoed by a maverick German submarine. Of Royal Oak's complement of 1,234 men and boys, 833 were killed that night or died later of their wounds.
We drove alongside Scapa Flow, and on the morning of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. We had the service on the radio and as I stopped to take this picture the Diamond children's choir were singing that beautiful anthem, and the words 'I am here...I am with you...' floated out of the car. It is hard to imagine that wartime carnage at such a time of national pride and celebration, and taking place in waters that looked so utterly benign and peaceful ... Whilst it is also hard to imagine what such exposure to war must have felt like for the Orcadians, who could surely have expected to be so far-removed and remote from it all but for the fact their islands possess 120 square miles of the most sheltered and natural anchorages in the world, large enough for several naval fleets. War artist Eric Ravilious knew it well too...
Leaving Scapa Flow ~ Eric Ravilious
We paid homage at the Royal Oak memorial in St Magnus Cathedral while we were there. Never forgotten...
The Tinker, as that fourteen-year old boy bugler, was sent to the battleships on Scapa Flow just a few months after the sinking of the Royal Oak, which is now a designated war grave. The Churchill barriers are also interesting for the way they subtly changed the face of the islands, several of them were bridged by the barriers, and thus in road rather than boat contact with each other for the first time.
The Italian prisoners felt the lack of a chapel very keenly, as did the War Office Inspector of P.O.W. Camps who urged the provision of one, and in 1943 two Nissen huts were made available, placed end to end and joined together to create the framework. As luck would have it one of the prisoners was the artist Domenico Chiocchetti who set to and proceeded to paint the frescos on the inside. This picture of Chiocchetti's return to do some restoration work in 1960 feels highly symbolic of the mutual respect accorded by both sides despite any wartime enmity and, as the guide books suggests 'the way that faith can flourish in adversity.' The chapel really is a beautiful little treasure now lovingly preserved, a real and unexpected jewel. Quite breathtaking when you step inside and then marvel at how so much was created by so few, and with minimal resources beyond faith and dedication and a lot of talent.
Everything you see...every brick and stone effect is painted onto a plasterboard surface. and all lovingly preserved, hallowed and respected as part of Orkney's historic heritage as much as any Neolithic village.
Talking of which, you might like to get your jumpers on, we will be taking a bracing evening walk up to the Ring of Brodgar next, and bring along your archaeology trowel, we might have ourselves a bit of a virtual dig.
Our progess through the paved streets of Stromness would have been slow and leisurely had it been a sunny day, but as we emerged from the Pier Arts Centre and headed on through the town in very VERY wet rain, and spotting Khyber Pass, we might have thought we were actually in Afghanistan... and to be dashed past as quickly as could manage...these little lanes that led down to the open sea and which were like intermittent wind-testing tunnels... But never mind because we got there in the end and Stromness Museum didn't disappoint...in fact nothing disappointed us about Orkney. It is containing its tourist industry well whilst holding onto its character.
I re-read Letters From Hamnavoe while I was there, and how much more relevant it is to read when you are actually in the place. These are a collection of George Mackay Brown's weekly columns for the Orcadian newspaper, and in a piece written in 1973 he ponders how Orkney can possibly compete with the allure of the Bahamas and the Costa Brava and attract visitors when...
'There are no beaches where you can grow as brown as a nut through long, sun-drenched weeks. There are no amusement arcades where one can wander in a daze of noise and novelties...'
Really I have to say this is Orkney's blessing, because instead it has something far more precious...
'The essence of Orkney's magic is silence, loneliness, and the deep marvellous rhythms of sea and land, darkness and light.'
And I had wanted to visit Stromness Museum ever since I had seen that picture of the whale's eardrum there, in Kathleen Jamie's latest book Sightlines, and see it I did... It's a bizarre thing, and was it Kathleen Jamie who wondered what that ear may have heard..I can't find the quote, but that thought was enough to leave me standing staring at it for an age.
Stromness Museum opened in 1837, and I hope they will forgive me for saying this because I mean it in the nicest possible way, it is a perfect example of my new favourite word...a sort of orderly gallimaufry, and a museum as we love to see it. An old, unmodernised setting cluttered with whales' eardrums next to hairballs from cows' stomachs, and everything else inbetween that will nevertheless give you a remarkably clear picture of the life and history of a community, the essence and what mattered to them.
In fact take a little tour yourselves and see if you get the gist... and reading my new best friend's Orcadian newspaper column for October 21st 1971...
'The other afternoon as I was sitting reading in the rocking chair there was an unusual sound - a rattling,stottering, surging. hissing noise sweeping southwards along the street. I should have known what it was by the preceding gloom and coldness. I looked out of the window and the steps and doorways were firnged with grey sleet.'So,' I said to myself, 'here comes winter.'
and there it was around the next corner in the Stromness Museum...George Mackay Brown's chair, not the sleet that is, though it could easily have been winter outside.
That holiday on Orkney seems light years ago now, but the Kayaker is home and has been editing the 900 pictures down into something manageable for us, and adding some music ( an exquisite album called Cora by Orkney band Skalder) so that we have a nice DVD to watch in the depths of winter. You know those days when you sometimes need some lovely holiday memories to fall back on, and looking at the pictures again reminded me that I still have more to share on an Orcadian theme here. This is the final week of my summer sabbatical from my online day job, back into the swing of things again next week, so I will squeeze those posts in before then and hope you won't mind if I soak up a bit more of that feel-good holiday factor to see me through.
A bit like Bank Holiday Monday here in the UK, it was a very wet old morning in Stromness back in early June... and so we were mightily relieved to find a warm welcome in the Pier Arts Centre, where very sensibly they have a place for you to hang up your coats.
It is at this point that the Tinker suggests he might find a nicer one to put on when he leaves... he didn't.
But what a complete surprise this art Collection was. An unassuming street-frontage leads onto an amazing sequence of exhibition spaces that yielded unexpected riches; the building originally used as the offices and stores of The Hudson's Bay Company and now sympathetically and very cleverly converted in 2007 with the help of lottery funding. The back of the building is to the extreme left of this picture, as seen from the ferry..
"The Pier Arts Centre in Orkney was established in 1979 to provide a home for an important collection of British fine art donated to ‘be held in trust for Orkney’ by the author, peace activist and philanthropist Margaret Gardiner (1904 – 2005)."
And goodness me, did Margaret Gardiner have an eye for arrt.
But firstly an exhibition of printmaking (all now fuelling my tiny steps into lino-cutting) which included a wonderful collaboration between George Mackay Brown and local artists and printmakers to produce The Scottish Bestiary. This along with a series of tiny wood carvings by Sister Margaret Tournour sent to George Mackay Brown as part of a correspondence between the two through the 1990s offered delicate and intricate pieces to view, and the magnifying glass supplied with each display allowed the chance to see just how detailed these were.
Also represented, the name of the moment, Anish Kapoor (who can forget the Olympic Orbit tower) and his 2007 portfolio 12 etchings.
But the best was yet to come.
We probably like to think that with Tate Modern down here in St Ives we are sitting pretty with the best collection of Hepworth, Nicolson and Wallis in the country, but now I have seen what is hiding in Stromness I'm not so sure.
Margaret Gardiner was a friend of Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicolson and with an astute eye on Modernism gathered together a seminal collection of work from the St Ives artists which she then gave to the people of Orkney.
It was hard to believe what we were looking at, let alone think about its value.
Hepworth sculptures that we could see and touch... and surely these were made to touch, and wind your hands around and follow the smooth curves, and let your eye be deceived by the seemingly impossible shapes, and then notice how the eye is led around and through the holes... Countless paintings by Ben Nicolson... and Alfred Wallis... and many more.
A real jewel in the Orkney crown and after several days of seeing Neolithic and standing stones this all provided a wonderful and modern contrast, as if to prove that Orkney is most certainly capable of delivering surprises at every turn.
'No Orkney weather lasts long, and you can see new weather coming a long way off. There are frequent scraps of rainbow...'
One thought has led to another on here this week, flow and inspiration of a different sort to that total immersion we were talking about on Monday, but perfect connections, and thank heavens Kathleen Jamie had tipped me the wink about the Orkney rainbows as I read Findings, because we then did Rainbow Watch at the first hint of a shower, and it actually made the rain a thing of beauty... honest. We are still feasting off the wonderful memories of our stay back in June, and this week the Kakayer has painstakingly sat down and edited my 900 pictures down to 300 'best' ones, before setting them to music ( a beautiful and highly-recommended-by-me CD, Cora by an instrumental group called Skalder which the Tinker bought in Kirkwall) and then creating a DVD slideshow that we can watch as and when.
George Mackay Brown, the Stromness poet much admired by Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney and Charles Causley, notices the rainbows too...
Orkney : The Whale Islands.
Sunset. We furled ship In a wide sea loch. Star- harrows Went over our thin sleep. Dawn. A rainbow crumbled Over Orc, 'whale islands.'
Then the skipper, 'The whales will yield this folk Corn and fleeces and honey.' And the poet, 'Harp of whalebones, shake Golden words from my mouth.'
It's hard to know when summer dawn is on Orkney given that it hasn't really got dark, but this was our very own dawn rainbow, because we all just stood and stared at in our pyjamas, so it must have been early, and how very easily we could have missed it.
Now if this, and all your encouragement, doesn't inspire me to revive that little scrap of weaving...
Talk of creativity and 'flow' on Monday reminded me that I went to a weaving day at Cowslip Workshops years ago and still have the table loom to prove it, carefully strung and holding an unfinished morsel of a masterpiece with which I was well pleased... and then the usual thing... I haven't picked it up since. The fun of the day was learning a new craft with an inspiring teacher in a room full of other learners whilst being so in that moment that the world oustide almost ceased to exist. Suddenly, when faced with my solitary loom, propped up on my solitary kitchen table, the attraction didn't seem so exciting, the piece not quite such a masterpiece and so there it has stayed, for about the last six years or more. Now I look at it again I can recall the immersion of that day and the enthusiasm flickers again anew. I could probably turn it into something Orkney-ish I'm sure, and so I am going to revive it and weave onwards and upwards. The biggest danger might be to spy a proper table loom...or even a free-standing one down in the sale room for £10ish. I wouldn't be able to stop myself, this I know.
So a visit to the Hoxa Tapestry Gallery at St Margaret's Hope on Orkney was very high on my list of priorities while we were there. I had dispatched the Tinker there on his last island visit and he had brought me back a copy of weaver Leila Thomson's book which has been a treasure ever since... But there's no substitute for the real thing and in such an inspirational location too...
We were a bit early for Sunday afternoon opening (I told you I was keen, we'd barely been on Orkney a day) so we all trooped up to the very well-placed and very welcome Hoxa Tea Rooms for lunch and just sat and stared at the most amazing views from our table...
Whilst it was 'No Photos' in the gallery itself I did ask if I could take one of the shop for you..
and it was lovely to meet and talk with Leila while I was there.
Not suprisingly I came away laden with cards and prints, and with the images of the 'real thing', giant tapestries, etched in my mind's eye and replete with the most glorious array of colours.
In the end I think Echoes was my favourite, sadly not available to see as it now resides in Australia...
And on the subject of weaving, I hear news this week (bless the Twitter and thanks to @stjudes and @PineHillNotes for the heads up) of an excellent exhibition, Weaving the Century at the Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh. This is the largest collection of tapestries ever exhibited in the UK, the Knit Angel has already been and waxes lyrical. I am just going to have to visit vicariously for now and perhaps try to catch it at Compton Verney later in the year because how I would love to see Edward Bawden's Farmyard tapestry.
Having named the cat in honour of a cathedral and a saint the least I can do is elaborate, because I can honestly say I have never had much cause to wonder who St Magnus might be until we tripped over him at every turn on Orkney, so I have been appraising myself of his qualities.
Magnus the Tiny of Devon by the way...who thanks you for all your kind wishes, has gained three ounces and learned how to run / jump / chew wires / stand on three legs and not fall over and generally start being a proper kitten in the space of just four days...
The other Magnus story goes like this...
Earl Magnus inherits the Norse Earldom of Orkney jointly with his cousin, Earl Haakon Paulson. The cousins fight and an attempt to make peace in the year 1116 leads to an arrangement to meet on the island of Egilsay. Now you might guess there is going to be a good guy and a bad guy here... and you might then guess which, given that the cathedral in Kirkwall is not dedicated to St Haakon Paulson. Earl Haakon breaks the agreement to bring just two ships each and arrives with a whopping eight ships full of armed men. Chickening out of the final debacle and rather than killing Magnus himself, Haakon the Yellow (my spin) orders a cook to do the deed, and Magnus is martyred for the sake of peace in Orkney. Stories grow into legend and sanctity is assured, so when the cathedral was founded in 1137 Magnus's remains were interred there and the place was his.
Bookhound and I love a wander around a jolly good cathedral, and the warm red sandstone of St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall looked very inviting on a chilly, blowy day on Orkney. Having warmed up with a bowl of butternut squash and ginger soup ( the most delicious soup I have tasted in a very long while and having sourced a recipe I will be making lashings of it) we headed into the Cathedral for a mooch...
...and past this precarious-looking weather-beaten stone pillar as we walked in the door...
Cathedrals can be rather dark and forbidding places we have found, but on this occasion we were greeted with the sonorous depths of the organ being played at full throttle, a rare occurrence unless services are in progress but we had struck lucky (and my apologies for the blurring, this is the only picture I took but it brings back lovely memories, so on here for posterity) A visitor had apparently arranged to have a spin on the pipes, and when they stopped playing someone from the staff scuttled out and asked them to carry on as we were all enjoying it so much, so were treated to something completely unexpected, but quite magnificent and truly memorable as we wandered around.
There was something about the sound reaching every corner that made us look upwards and through and along and around every bit of this lovely building which just exuded a very welcoming warmth. Even John Rae, the explorer who discovered the fate of the Franklin expedition looked pretty relaxed and seemed to be enjoying it all... and the cathedral yielded plenty of inspiring patterns too..
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.
Boarding the night ferry Hrossa at Aberdeen and craving the darkness, Kathleen finds the biggest challenge will be the moonlight
'...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...'
and we noted it too.. In fact I don't think I shut up about it all week, because once it had been pointed out to me the islands of Hoy took on a complete life of their own in my imagination.
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...
We have never been as far as page fifty-eight on our road atlas before.
We live on page three and these days might occasionally get as far as page sixteen, but page fifty-eight is going it some and by rights that end of the book should be pristine, except the atlas fell in a puddle a while back necessitating a dry-out in the bottom oven, so it's now a sort of dessicated, wrinkled, prunish thing, but I do now know every inch between here and John O'Groats and back again.
As you can see, very cold and very windy at John O'Groats and it wasn't long before I succumbed to the allure of an earflap hat on this holiday, but at least we can say we've been there. I really think Bookhound, the Tinker and I deserve an award for negotiating ourselves around this at 4pm on a wet and windy afternoon. Bookhound and I for driving and navigating it respectively without grounds for divorce pending, and the Tinker for saying A720 at the right moment when a sign and a lane suddenly appeared out of nowhere. We were heading home via the east coast and Dunfermline and the agreed plan was to cross the Forth Bridge, avoid Edinburgh city centre at all costs, find that A720 ring road somehow, and then get off it onto the A702 and head on south towards Silverburn. Having resisted the temptation to borrow the Gamekeeper's SatNav before we left I'll own up, I was momentarily wishing it would apparate on the dashboard, because there seemed many a slip(road) twixt South Queensferry and the Silverburn road and surely an argument in off-the-beaten-track Musselburgh beckoned.
But no... thankfully peace and harmony prevailed, we found ourselves on the right road and gave ourselves a pat on the back as we ticked off the conquest of another major conurbation.
In typically disorganised fashion I have moved backwards from The Old Ways to reading the second book in Robert Macfarlane's trilogy, The Wild Places and his thoughts on maps have really chimed with all this.
'The commonest map of Britain is the road atlas. Pick one up and you will see the meshwork of motorways and roads which covers the surface of the country. From such a map it can appear that the landscape has become so thickly webbed by roads that asphalt and petrol are its new primary elements... an absence also becomes visible. The wild places are no longer marked. The fells, the caves, the tors, the woods, the moors, the river valleys and the marshes have all but disappeared...'
So I was delighted that we had thought to take an Ordnance Survey map along with us too.
It's a sobering thought as you travel that you can live in a country as comparatively small as the UK all your life and just never have seen bits of it. I had never been further north than Glasgow and so I really didn't want to miss anything. Our planned route north through the Great Glen was wonderful, I'd love to go back and walk it someday, but with a decent map I could at least look and wonder whilst offering a running commentary with useful things like..
' Those are the Monadhliath Mountains over there...'
'Oh this is original, someone ran out of names here ...Loch Lochy.'
And as maps go there is a serene and inquisitive beauty about this one isn't there... I want to 'be' in and on all those mountains and then make me a quilt.
I have been reading Nan Shepherd's book The Living Mountain, an exploration of the essential nature of the Cairngorms (slightly to the east of this map) which was Nan Shepherd's 'secret place of ease', and though she feared 'too many boots, too much commotion' with the increase in tourism, she balances that with a generosity of spirit that I must remember when our little West country corner is soon heaving with visitors... 'but then how much uplift for how many hearts'.
The soulless and purely functional nature of the road atlas, complete with its legacy of dried-out damp patches, doesn't thrill or inspire me quite so much...
The journey through Glencoe and on through the Great Glen from Fort William to Inverness has to be one of the most spectacular in the UK... and with a stop at Spean Bridge for the Tinker to pay homage to the Commando memorial, remembering all those who died in the Second World War and since. This is where the commandoes trained for action in WW II and the attrition rate was high even in training, let alone in the theatre of war, the location is spectacular, the memorial incredibly moving with its Garden of Remembrance to more recent casualties in Afghanistan.
Robert Macfarlane goes on to suggest this about maps...
'The land itself, of course, has no desires as to how it should be represented....but maps organise information about a landscape in a profoundly influential way...they create forceful biases in the way a landscape is perceived and treated...It can take time and effort to forget the prejudice induced by a powerful map. And few maps exert a more distortive pressure upon the imagination than the road atlas....it encourages us to imagine the land itself only as a context for motorised travel. It warps its readers away from the natural world.'
Not something I had actively considered before but now I see it very clearly, and though the road map was sadly essential or we would have been hopelessly lost, with an OS map alongside I also have a real feel for this land of 'stone, wood and water' of which Robert Macfarlane writes. The Wild Places is his own prose map, an attempt to
'...make some of the remaining wild places of the archipelago visible again.. to link headlands, cliffs, beaches, mountain-tops, tors, forests, river mouths and waterfalls.'
From this journey and this book I see that I now have my own memorable illustrated prose map in my mind and imagination too.
How about you..SatNav or road map??
Any spectacular journeys that have given you that mind map too??
I can't put it off a minute longer, I'm back... and I have to say I have surprised myself by sticking to my 'NO INTERNET' sabbatical very rigorously. I have almost forgotten where the plugs are and how to switch my wireless keyboard back on and things.
I can see you have all been having a good time while I've been away and my huge thanks to Fran for those virtual chocolate brownies and to you all for your comments.
So finally we have all been to Orkney together, to that 'foreign' land so dear to the Tinker's heart and it's not hard to see why he loves it so dearly.
Our first sighting was in the distance, from Thurso as we headed for the ferry to take us to Stromness... and I discover there is something inordinately exciting about heading towards an island by sea. The simple and obvious fact that it gets nearer and nearer, and clearer.. I remember the televised climb of the Old Man of Hoy back in the 1960s and took rather more pictures of it than I would ever need, but along with the cliffs at St John's Head it was all so majestic, I couldn't stop clicking. We had chosen a place to stay from a distance, but with the help of google earth knew we had chosen well and would have a beach to walk along, and this is the view of the mountains of Hoy that we woke up to each day. Going to sleep and waking up is of course another very extraordinary thing, because now I know exactly what the 'simmer dim' is, Orkney sufficiently far north that it barely gets dark and the perma-gloaming creates another landscape entirely.
Naturally I took enough books with me to last about two years and read hardly any of them. But I did read Findings by Kathleen Jamie, half a book about St Kilda on my Kindle, a bit of The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane, The Orcadian newspaper, and dipped into an anthology of writing about Orkney. All perfect reading for an island holiday.
But very best of all I discovered the poetry of Stromness-born writer George Mackay Brown, more of which eventually except I just have to quote this...
A wife must be early at cheeseboard, Beehive, spinning wheel, hearthstone, Not dimpling daylong upon needles and coloured wools...
I did of course buy plenty of wool and will be doing a lot of daylong dimpling with it this summer.
We also did a great deal more before we had to make our own farewells to Stromness and I'll tell you about that too gradually, and in between the usual dovegreyreader things over the next few days and weeks.
Team Tolstoy A year-long shared read of War & Peace through the centenary year of Count Lyev Nikolayevich Tolstoy's death, starting on his birthday, September 9th 2010.
Everyone is welcome to board the troika and read along, meeting here on the 9th of every month to chat in comments about the book.
Team Tolstoy Bookmark Don't know your Bolkonskys from your Rostovs?
An aide memoire that can be niftily printed and laminated into a double-sided bookmark.
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