Far north isn't far if you live here - Richard Clubley

Regular contributor Richard Clubley is getting used to life in Orkney, complete with classes, coffee shops and community events.

It isn’t far to the shops.

I popped into the opticians to order some specs the other day and then went along to the surgery for my flu jab. Bev turns out for her morning jog. She runs three miles and it’s the same distance as a three-mile run at our old home south. She goes to her violin lesson and is back in little more than an hour. Monday’s choir practice is a pleasant evening out. There is no sense of being ‘remote’ or ‘a long way from civilisation’ or ‘at the back of beyond’. We are certainly north of Watford but not out on a limb. It is true, when one contemplates a journey away to visit family and friends, there are cost, time and logistical implications but we live here now. This is the centre of our world and everything is at hand.

The Broch of Gurness in Evie, Orkney

I’m doing an evening class: ‘Orkney and the Picts’ led by Dr Oisίn Plumb, lecturer at the Centre for Nordic Studies, University of Highlands and Islands. How great does that sound? I would have signed up for such a course no matter where I was living but in Orkney, when Oisίn talks about Broch of Gurness, it’s just up the road, I can go and see it. There are Pictish artefacts in the Orkney Museum too.

The course is actually held in a classroom at Kirkwall Grammar School on Thursday evenings. I love walking in from the car park. There are always people arriving for other activities, mums and dads collecting or delivering for football training or judo. The all-weather pitch is floodlit and buzzing, and the buzz-word is ‘community’.

I like to spend an hour, on most days, having coffee or lunch somewhere. I had my favourite spots in the south and have already settled on a few in Orkney. For the chance to hear a few strains of traditional music I like to sit in The Reel, in Kirkwall’s Broad Street. Fare is also excellent at Judith Glue’s, just across from St Magnus Cathedral. At Judith’s I can sit and look at all the puffin mugs, local foods and knitware for sale. For a contrast I go to The Old Library and might hear a rock band tuning up in a venue as modern as any in Edinburgh or London. In Stromness I frequent Julia’s and watch the ferry come and go. Music, memorabilia, modernity or marine scene – what more choice could I want with my cappuccino?

A view of the Stromness harbour-front from the Graemsay ferry

We went to the craft fair at Deerness one Sunday afternoon recently. The Orkney staples of a raffle, home bakes and bottomless tea pots were in evidence. Even though a good 15 miles from Orphir I saw three people I recognised. The trick is to place where I knew them from (it was the furniture shop in Kirkwall, the Orphir Kirk and a friend of a friend). If I pass someone in the street, and spend a millisecond too long wondering where I know them from, they smile and nod, probably wondering the same thing and wanting to be on the safe side.

It occurred to me, eating my bacon roll in Deerness and looking round at the folk, I was in the same community as the one much closer to home in Orphir. I probably recognised fewer people in Deerness, but they were all still part of the Orkney community. There is an Orcadian way of doing things, of greeting and treating people with a smile and a ‘whit like the day’ or ‘It’s no too bonny oot.’ The same was true in Yorkshire, of course, but I am witnessing it afresh here, with different words and sounds, and they are part of what makes both Yorkshire and Orkney beautiful places.

Local fishermen at work in the seas off Deerness, Orkney

Someone told me ‘You’ll never fully understand Orkney unless you had two Orcadian grandmothers.’ This worried me at first but the more I spoke to Orkney’s grannies, the more I recognised the values and attitudes of my own Nanna and Grandma. I had two Yorkshire grandmothers and that has made all the difference. East Yorkshire is largely a farming community, beside the sea, away from the big centres of population, self-sufficient, fertile and low-lying. My Aunty Kitty used to say the wind blowing in off the North Sea took the germs away and kept us all in good health. She would feel right at home in Orkney.

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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