Everyone is our neighbour - Richard Clubley

Read the latest from author and new Orkney resident Richard Clubley as he explores all aspects of island life

We’ve lived here just a year now. We louped off the ferry in August 2017. We were strangers, now everyone is our neighbour.

Good neighbours, traditionally, will lend a cup of sugar, without any thought of payment. The favour is always returned in kind, of course, and this is how the world turns in communities like Orkney. You may remember I told you about Ivan, who arrived with a ton of breeze blocks at six o’clock on the morning when Storm Caroline blew in last October. He had seen the panels of my new shed, piled on the drive waiting to be erected, flapping in the wind and came to secure them.

Storm Caroline brought wild weather to the islands, but Richard's neighbours helped him adapt
Storm Caroline brought wild weather to the islands, but Richard's neighbours helped him adapt

When I bought a small boat recently with which to go off exploring Scapa Flow I put a message on Facebook that I needed gear. Within the day I was invited to three sheds to “Have a look through and see if there was anything you want”. I paid for some items but came away with armfuls of gifted fenders, ropes, life jackets and a clever device that measures wind speed. Thank you lads, you know who you are. When the engine wouldn’t start I met John in the street who came to look at it. He phoned Norman who said “Bring it round”. It was soon fixed and plans for trips to islands were being made.

Richard will soon be getting out and about between Orkney's islands - image by Colin Keldie
Richard will soon be getting out and about between Orkney's islands - image by Colin Keldie

In shops I am getting used to: “Well, take them both home and see how you go, then keep the one you want and come back to pay for it some time.” Often, nothing is written down. “We’re short of change just now, come back and pay in a peedie while”. The classic one was Charlie the postman on our first day. “Leave your front door unlocked so I can deliver your parcels. If you can’t do that then leave your bathroom window open – but remember to put your toilet seat down.”

The carpark was full the other day but a man indicated he was leaving so I took his space. Just then my phone rang – Bev, as usual, reminding me of some chore or other. Walking to pay at the machine I saw the original owner of the space had waited until I finished the call to give me his ticket – which still had almost an hour left on it. (Sorry, OIC, if this is not allowed, but the opportunity to give and receive in this anonymous, neighbourly fashion far out-weighs any legal rules).

Kirkwall's harbourfront. Althouhg Orkney's biggest town, it's still small enough to meet someone you know every time you head down the street - image by Colin Keldie
Kirkwall's harbourfront. Although Orkney's biggest town, it's still small enough to meet someone you know every time you head down the street - image by Colin Keldie

One cannot be too precious about one’s personal goings on in Orkney. The nurse at the outpatients turned up sitting next to Bev at choir practice, and the lady dispensing my prescription said “Oh, Mr Clubley, hello, you’re my new neighbour.”

When I’m writing I often have to track people down. I start with the local phone book and dial everyone with the appropriate initials. If the wrong person answers they say “Oh, aye, I ken the one you want, it’s me brother. His number is 822470, but he’s away oot just noo, try the morn.” There is no guardedness, no suspicion that I might be trying to sell something or commit identity theft. I’m sure someone might take advantage of this from time to time, but most people here are open and honest so the approach works just fine.

I met the bird artist in the street one day, carrying a painting home from the framers. He opened the folder and I bought the image of curlews on the spot. Next day I was sunbathing in the garden (yes, that’s what I said.) when he ran down the side path, leapt over the fence into the field shouting “You’ve a rose coloured starling here – put the kettle on.”

Chaffinch in Orkney - image by @orknithology on Twitter
Chaffinch in Orkney - image by @orknithology on Twitter

This first year has flown by. The grass is established and I’ve planted trees but that may be fool hardiness – I’ll let you know in the spring. Between us we’ve joined a choir, a gym, taken up fiddle lessons and Park Running, studied the Picts and enrolled on an Orkney guiding course. In island tradition we have several jobs, including B&B, which add up to a whole, together with a couple of committees. Things we did last year are coming round again and that always gives one a sense of settled. We’ll know where to put the Christmas tree.

If I spend just a fraction too long making eye contact with someone in the street, trying to work out whether I know them or not, they assume we’re acquainted and say “Whit like the day.”

Everybody waves. I wave to coaches full of tourists as they pass my front garden. They wave back and I’m sure they’re thinking they’d like to live here, be my neighbours, and mow grass overlooking the sea. I certainly remember what it was like when I was on the outside looking in and, beuy, do I owe some sugar?


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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