59 degrees of northness - Richard Clubley

Read the latest from author and new Orkney resident Richard Clubley as he continues to adapt to island life.

On a windy Sunday in January I parked beside the Peedie Sea Model Boating Lake in Kirkwall. A captain was remotely navigating HMS Ark Royal through proportionately mountainous seas.

The waves on the Peedie Sea are always worst at the down-wind side, the low, encircling parapet at the sheltered side affords some protection and that is where I found the ducks: mallard, goldeneye, long-tailed and wigeon. Ringed plover huddled on the shore and a few gulls were hanging about.

Goldeneye in Orkney - image courtesy of @orknithology

The goldeneye is a fabulous bird. The male in winter – which is when we are most likely to see him here – has a predominantly white body, green-glossed black head with a bold white spot behind the base of the dark, triangular bill. It has a golden eye.

The summer breeding territories of the goldeneye are the lakes and rivers of the forested taiga zone, which extends across northern Eurasia and North America. There have been a few breeding reports in Scotland but mainly the birds come here to escape the harsher winters at home, so when I see them I feel a true connection with the far north. I am glad we offer them sanctuary and play our part in their eventual breeding success.

The goldeneye’s cousin, the long-tailed duck, is also here. Slightly smaller, the long-tailed is beautifully marked with a pinkish bill band, dark cheek patch, white and pale grey body and a long tail. Seeing these birds is a bit like looking through a window, into the true north. One imagines wolves and bears roaming about – just beyond our reach.

We have the northern lights in Orkney too, although I’ve yet to see them properly. I did see a green smudge once but I live in hope. The pictures posted on social media, and in books, are produced by cameras, of course, which are much more sensitive to the extremes of colour than the human eye. What you see in a photograph will often be better than with the naked eye. It may even have been worth my snapping the green smudge – who knows what might have been lurking behind?

The Northern Lights over Orkney's east mainland - image by Premysl Fojtu

Orkney is equidistant from London and Iceland (about 550 miles) and only 300 from Bergen in Norway, even less from Faroe. In Viking times Orkney was at the cross-roads in the emerging trade routes between Scandinavia and southern Europe via the North Sea, Ireland and the west via Cape Wrath. Sea traffic still braves the hugely powerful tides between Orkney and Caithness. Only a couple of years ago a cruise ship got caught, on a flat calm night, in an eddy so powerful passengers fell down stairs, the buffet ended up on the floor and folk were clinging on for dear life. The ship righted itself in a few moments with no lasting harm done. Standing orders now require all engines to be started and extra officers be on the bridge when approaching the Pentland Firth.

During Orkney winters there is enough light every day, but only just, to carry on an outdoor life. The darkness is punctuated by glorious sunrises and sunsets. No sooner has one ended than the other starts. Whenever we see the sun in December or January it seems to be rising or setting. It sets a challenge for the postman, the farmer and the builder but for us dog walkers and birdwatchers it just requires a bit of organisation. I don’t have to feel guilty about sitting in my chair as night falls over Scapa Flow at three in the afternoon. It feels north, and other, and special.

Winter sunset over Orkney's west coast and Hoy

I followed an Orkney Brewery van the other day, advertising “Latitude” beer. This set me thinking, here’s another measure of our northness – pride. Shetlanders call their on-line magazine 60°North, and Orkney aren’t far behind at 59°. Why else would a beer be called “Latitude”? Somerset cider makers and French wineries are proud of their sunshine but they don’t make much of living close to the 50th parallel. That extra 10° gives us real cred.

Also close to 60° North are Nunivak, Cape Farewell and Anchorage. We are further north than Moscow and Lake Baikal. If you asked anyone what all those places had in common they would say northness.

We are tough – able to take the wind and rain, whilst clinging to the edge of darkness. But there is more to it than swagger. There is a beauty to northness we could call pure, stark, rugged. Some see it as inhospitable, challenging and forbidding but I don’t believe the dwellers at Skara Brae ever thought like that 5000 years ago. So far as we know they were not aware of their position on the globe.

Orkney's Neolithic village of Skara Brae

Through trade they may well have known there were warmer places south but, when the January evenings fell early, I’ll bet they enjoyed closing the flaps and gathering round the fire, safe and secure for the night.

I think they will have loved Orkney too.

Richard contributes regularly to Scottish Islands Explorer magazine and his first book: 'Scotland’s Islands – A Special Kind of Freedom' was published in 2014. His new book 'Orkney – A Special Place' is available from all the usual outlets now.

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