Coincidentally my New Year resolution was to do more walking, then the prime minister said just about the only thing you can do at the moment is go for a walk.
I’m not big on New Year resolutions, the last ones – in 1991 – were to run a half marathon and visit St Kilda. I kept both so I’d better keep this one now.
We are so lucky in Orkney to be on the very edge of Scotland and yet still in it. On the one hand is the super, new NHS Balfour Hospital and, on the other, miles of open moorland, cliffs and beaches for allowed outings. Shops, cafes, theatres and cinema are shut so my first thought every morning is not what to spend money on, and where to go for coffee, but to check the forecast and plan the walk.
The most satisfying walks often start and finish at the front door. There is less preparation and they have the purity of being carbon neutral. A short drive to a starting point is often needed, however, and that is acceptable too. Repetition need never be a detraction. Familiarity with things passed on the way is a bonus, as is the opportunity to watch spring advancing day by day – in the blooming of the flowers, the progress of tree buds, the return of the seasonal birds and the lambs.
My walk is circular and there are usually one or two folk on it. They mostly seem to favour anti-clockwise whereas I’m a clock-wiser. That often means two meetings, at opposite sides of the route, so at the second I gauge my progress by how far we have each got since the first.
The track is wide so plenty of room for social distancing, yet safety for a few moments of social intercourse.
‘Whit like the day?’ ‘No bad, yersel?’ ‘Fine, we’ll all be fit by the time this virus is over.’ ‘Aye’ said one ‘I’m fairly unsociable anyway, so I don’t mind the peace’.
Approaching the cliff top the turbine gives an indication of the breeze I’ll encounter once the edge is gained. This week it’s been stiff but sometimes Scapa Flow is like a mill pond. Eider ducks, wigeon and mallard poke about the shallows. There are a few fulmars on the vertical faces and the odd oystercatcher on the rocks. Great skuas (bonxies) have been at sea in the Atlantic all winter but they are patrolling again, on the look-out for anything to steal. It’s too early for other birds’ chicks or eggs, so it must be a lean time for them, relying on fish, offal and maybe a rabbit – not much on the shelves you might say.
At the end of the cliff the path drops to sea-level and crosses a burn below the cemetery. Meg Peckham and Ida Woodhams rest here, having chosen to live for thirty years in splendid self-isolation on Cava in the Flow. I wonder what they would have made of the present situation. They would have begun to suspect something was wrong when people stopped visiting, then a passing fisherman may have hailed them with the news.
Winter storms cast up so much ware and tangles the burn was stopped and the bridge swamped. Luckily the road could still be gained, dry-shod, through the field. A glorious avenue of daffs make the up-hill stretch a joy. Nip, the farm collie, stands on daily guard at her gate but can never be induced to step out for a freck. A dip in the road is over-arched by trees and this bit of the walk is often the most sheltered. Walking, not driving, allows the sound of woodland bird song to reach our ears* and this is a treat in Orkney. We do have trees and small woodlands but not so many as in some other counties.
The marsh marigolds have started in the damp places, I have looked for them in the same place since I came to live in Orkney. The celandines are lovely and Orkney wears the daffodils like an endless scarf. I think it’s the exact shade of muted green in the fields that sets them off. The verdant hue of July might be too much. The gorse flowers shine bright in the sun. They never desert us – kissing would go out of fashion if they did.
Soon the incomparable sea pinks will be on show. They will bring a smile to everyone’s face. I hope we’re through the worst by then.
*More precisely: the birds set up vibrations in the air which our brains, and the brains of other birds, interpret as song. If a bird sings, and there’s no one there to hear it, it really doesn’t make a sound, so let’s try to hear it all this year.
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 Promoting Orkney project has been part financed by the Scottish Government and the European Community Orkney LEADER 2014-2020