Being Orcadian - Richard Clubley

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

During a Christmas episode of Celebrity Mastermind John Humphries asked the question: “An Orcadian is a native, or inhabitant, of which islands?” The contestant didn’t know but the answer given was “The Orkneys.” I know there are those who will say one can’t be truly an Orcadian unless born here – and it’s ‘Orkney’ not ‘The Orkneys’ – but we are committed to a life here now and wouldn’t object to anyone calling us Orcadians. I am a Yorkshireman but can I be an Orcadian too?

Skara Brae was home to some of the earliest Orcadians - image by Colin Keldie

I guess not, but it was a nice idea while it lasted. After all, I was born near Hull so am qualified, by birth, to play cricket for Yorkshire – one can’t have everything. Nevertheless there are a lot of incomers who have been here a long time and have made major contributions to Orkney life. They have helped make Orkney the thriving, vibrant, attractive (best in the UK) place to live. A neighbour was telling me recently that Orkney is very different from the Orkney of his childhood – largely due to the huge influx of New Islanders bringing new ways and ideas to the county. He didn’t say whether he thought this was for the better or the worse. A bit of both I suspect.

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies came ‘in fae off’ and left an enormous legacy. A firm friendship with the native writer George Mackay Brown gave Orkney, and the world, the wonderfully enduring St Magnus Festival. St Magnus himself was born here, incidentally, in 1080. Another Orcadian, John Rae, was born in Orphir and through almost super-human travails showed us the way through the North West Passage*

The Hall of Clestrain in Orkney, childhood home of John Rae

Domenico Chiocchetti came from Italy but was brought to Orkney as a prisoner of war. He was billeted in a hut, on the tiny island of Lamb Holm, and set to work during the day building causeways between islands. In their spare time Domenico and friends built the most beautiful Italian Chapel from scrap. When released at the end of the war he stayed to finish it, and then came back in the 1960s to carry out restoration work. Not an Orcadian but most definitely a much loved and respected character in the islands’ history.

Orkney's Italian Chapel

Maria Sutherland survived the war in Europe by the skin of her teeth. As she opened the front door to step outside, a bomb fragment came in and flew straight down the hall and out through the back wall of the house – no one was harmed. Had the shrapnel hit the closed door she may well have been killed.

After the war Maria came to Orkney, via London, married Alex Sutherland, an Orkney farmer, and has lived here ever since. Maria’s two daughters – Monica and Kathleen – were born here, as were her five grandchildren – Ryan, Natalia, Alan, Linda and Graham. Alan, sadly, passed away far too young but there are now four great grandchildren – Archie and Kerry (twins) plus Jenna and Becky. Most of them are still here in Orkney but Kathleen lives in Spain and Natalia, an archaeologist, goes where the work takes her.

The twins were born in an Aberdeen hospital. Their mum had only gone for a scan and did not make it back to the islands before their arrival, but woe betide anyone who might suggest they are not Orcadian. The swirl of humanity picks people up and casts them on the world’s shores to be of service, hopefully, to whichever community they find themselves in. We’re all just part of the human family in the end.

More recently, between Christmas Eve and Boxing Day in fact, Tarik Scollay, Ronnie Leonard, Thorfinn Stuart Fraser and Olivia Mary Soames-Moodie arrived in Orkney by way of the Balfour Hospital. They are among the newest Orcadians. Who knows what journeys and adventures they will embark upon? What achievements in the world will make their islands proud of them?

Orkney's new hospital is currently under construction and will replace the Balfour Hospital. Image courtesy of NHS Orkney

There is one accident of birth that’s less important now than in earlier times. The Ba – a Kirkwall street game played each Christmas and New Year Day – is contested between the Uppies, born in the south end of the town, and the Doonies from the north. You belong to one camp or the other according to where you were born in, or first entered, the town. (In 1988 I arrived along the main road from Stromness, so I’m a Doonie). These days, however, most Orkney children are born in Uppie territory at the hospital, so Tarik, Ronnie, Thorfinn, Olivia and the others will be allowed to choose sides according to family affiliations.

Kirkwall's famous Ba' game in full flow - image by Premysl Fojtu

I was watching otters the other day and got chatting to an Orcadian-born lady who happened to be there too. “Well, I hope that whether your stay be long or short you’ll be very happy here,” she said. A two-winter visitor? I don’t think so.

*Climate change might lead us to wish we didn’t have such an easy route today.

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. Newsletter

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