‘You should come in the winter,’ locals always used to say before we lived in Orkney, ‘if you think it’s nice here you should experience a good gale, and some darkness before passing judgement.’
So we did.
Driving up from Yorkshire on 30th December, to catch the 7pm ferry from Scrabster to Stromness, the snow covered Cairngorms were fabulous.
There was no gale but the blackness all around MV Hamnavoe was total, apart from a bit of the ship’s light whitening the bow wave as it slipped astern. The Old Man of Hoy was invisible and the only sign we were close was the turn into Hoy Sound. There’s another turn, sharply to port, as Hamnavoe, still doing a good speed, heels and slips into the outer Stromness harbour.
The town lights were a joy after the dark of the ocean, but more than that the strings, trees and windows of coloured Christmas lights, twinkling and glowing from the waterfront and from high on Brinkie’s Brae were unexpected. There was no reason at all why Stromness shouldn’t have Christmas lights of course, but I had only ever been in the summer until that point and had never thought to look for them. They were all the more Christmassy and welcoming for being a surprise. I first went to Sheffield in October, when the streets were covered with fallen leaves. For 30 autumns after that the leaves reminded me of that first time.
Christmas lights will always remind me of arriving in Orkney.
On the dark drive over Hobbister Moor, from Kirkwall to our home in Orphir Village, there are few lights. In the last couple of daylight hours the sky at this time of year is often fantastic and I do not regret the darkness beginning early. The lights from Flotta shimmer across Scapa Flow and we like the friendly face they offer. (We’re not supposed to like oil terminals, and we do long for an end to fossil fuels but, for now, they remind us we are not alone). Sweeping round the bend and over the brow in the road the village’s festive lights make driving easier for the last few hundred yards. There’s the tree outside the school, erected by Jordy and his team, plus illuminated reindeer, Santas, stars, angels and robins (blue), shining from successive lamp-posts. The last snowflake (red) is outside our house so we just make it into the glow.
Writing this on a Thursday I had The Orcadian to hand so leafed through looking for signs of Christmas. Parcel deliveries can sometime be an issue on islands. Generally we are well served but a local firm was exhorting us to let them handle our Christmas orders: ‘Have them delivered to our depots in the south for onward carriage’ they said. Many firms will deliver to Orkney but one supplier balked at the running machine we just acquired so the carrier did a very good job for us on that occasion.
There’s hand-bell ringing in a casual rally of seasonal music one Saturday morning in the cathedral but fitting it in with a visit to Stromness lifeboat Christmas sale might be difficult. ‘We can’t do everything’ Bev shouts from the kitchen. The St Magnus carol service comes a week later and another chance to be fathomed by the soaring magnificence of the red and yellow sandstone church (I read recently that ‘fathom’, derived from the length of outstretched arms, was originally used to mean ‘cuddle’. Who knew?)
Visitors are sometimes amazed by the Christmas and New Year street ball game known as the ba’. I won’t go into detail here but it’s big enough to have its own feature pull-out in the paper every year. Today Violet Grieve was photographed showing off the only two ba’s (the ball is also referred to as the ba’) to have been won by husband and wife. Violet won the women’s ba’ in 1946 and husband Bert won in 1968. The feat is unlikely to be repeated since the women’s ba’ was only contested twice – over the 1945/46 festivities.
The Red Hot Chilli Pipers are in town for a show which promises to be full on, supported by dancers I am told, but contrasting with those we’ll enjoy in the live streaming of Coppélia at the Pickaquoy Centre. As if they weren’t enough we already have our tickets for fiddle and guitar duo – the fabulous Wrigley Sisters – at Hogmanay.
There was also news that Orkney raised £26,713 for Children in Need, a page of local tree lighting photographs, hotels and restaurants advertising seasonal fare, Santa’s visit to Kirkwall announced, books and calendars to give as gifts and, as we say in publishing, much, much more.
Richard writes regularly for Scottish Islands Explorer and Living Orkney magazines. His first book: 'Scotland’s Islands – A Special Kind of Freedom' was published in 2014. 'Orkney – A Special Place' appeared in 2017 and look out for 'Orkney – A Special Way of Life' coming in 2020. The books are published by Luath Press, Edinburgh.
The Digital Orkney project has been part financed by the Scottish Government and the European Community Orkney LEADER 2014-2020