A special way of life

Join author Richard Clubley for his latest thoughts on life in Orkney.

I have written another book about Orkney.

'Orkney – A Special Way of Life' was due for publication by Luath Press at Easter 2020, but is finally being published on June 21 after a year-long COVID delay.

Book one, 'Scotland’s Islands – A Special Kind of Freedom' (2014) contained random explorations of 30-odd Scottish islands, including a few Orkney chapters. One story described the kayaking exploits of a friend – Nigel Laybourne – who had been promising an interview for the book for about two years. One day, out of the blue, he phoned to say he had motor neurone disease (discovered when his golf clubs kept slipping out of his hands) and was losing his speech. ‘We’d better get that story down while I still can still talk’ he said. Over two afternoons I recorded his account of kayaking round Islay and being storm bound in a cave for several days. Just as I was leaving, Nigel said ‘The Scottish islands provide a special kind of freedom’. The phrase struck a chord and I took it as my title. I dedicated the book to Nigel. I couldn’t think of anyone I knew who understood the pull of the islands like he did. When the box of books arrived from the publisher I put one straight in the post to Nigel and he was able to show it off to visitors for a few weeks before he died.

Book two became 'Orkney – A Special Place' (2017). The 30+ islands of book one had taken 30 years to explore so I thought I’d better stay put for the next one. I rented a cottage, on a farm by the sea, in Orphir and collected assorted stories. It was a traditional, thick stone-walled farm workers’ bothy but very cosy. Mid-afternoons in winter, sitting with the curtains open after the stove was lit are some of my happiest memories of that time.

I thought there would not be a third volume but then Gavin Macdougall at Luath Press asked me to do it. Publishing contracts do not grow on trees (especially not here) so 'Orkney – A Special Way of Life' was conceived. I kept ‘Special’ in the title so literary historians can refer to ‘The Special Trilogy’ after I’m gone. Bev and I moved to live in Orkney in September 2017. I had started writing a regular column for Orkney.com about the adventure. The first section of the new book is a collection of these short essays.

Gavin stipulated that, if I was to use the ‘way of life’ phrase in the title, I must make sure every chapter was about some aspect of the Orcadian way of life. I think Section One ticks the box well. Section Two is a set of essays about the life and times in some of the outer islands, some, such as Faray, no longer lived in. So far so good. Section Three is a mix of stories including essays on diving, fishing, lifeboats and the thoughts of school students on their way of life and hopes for the future.

When I started the book, and with Gavin’s condition ringing in my ears, I thought I’d better ponder what was meant by ‘way of life’, how many different ways of life are there and what is special about Orkney’s? I started with the first Orkney people – the Mesolithic hunter / gatherers perhaps 9,000 years ago. I believe theirs was a simple way of life to understand (if not to live) at least at a superficial level. They hunted and they gathered according to season and place. They lived in impermanent dwellings and moved about their range to find food. Since everything had to be carried they probably didn’t place great store by material possessions. Their culture was their language and traditions.

Round about 6,000 years ago there was an abrupt change to farming, at the start of the Neolithic period in Orkney. Permanent, stone structures were erected, first tombs then houses as people put down roots and began to domesticate plants and animals. The list was growing. I had two ways of life to write about and just needed a few more for a book. The trouble is I got stuck on two. Bev’s mum, after several weeks of being chauffeured around Orkney in all seasons and weathers offered the view that: ‘There seem to be a lot of farms around here.’

This is a very simplistic, macroscopic view however. Once I got down to looking at the schoolteacher’s life on Faray in 1930, what school students thought in 2019 or how it feels to blow up a torpedo, dive in Scapa Flow or sing in the cathedral, well then I had more than enough for a book. I hope you enjoy it. In any event let me know what you think.

Richard will be holding a virtual book launch on 21 June at 6pm, tickets are free and can be booked online.

Richard writes regularly for Scottish Islands Explorer. His first book: 'Scotland’s Islands – A Special Kind of Freedom' was published in 2014. 'Orkney – A Special Place' appeared in 2017. The books are published by Luath Press, Edinburgh.

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