Stone ship on waves of song - Richard Clubley

Join regular contributor Richard Clubley as he navigates his way through his first winter as an Orkney resident.

Jocelyn Rendall likened Orkney’s churches to stone ships.*

I couldn’t help thinking of this, sitting in St Magnus Cathedral on the first Sunday in December, listening to the Winter Choir and Orkney Camerata performing works by Vivaldi and Britten. The cathedral is like a stone ship – massive, solid, dependable. If I turn it upside down in my head the roof becomes the keel and the nave the hold – maybe a bit like The Ark. It has carried the souls of a millennium, safely, across the sea of troubles.

Over the heads of the violins and cellos were the soprano and alto ladies, gorgeous in their black dresses and red button holes. Above them the white-shirted and bow-tied tenors and basses. Higher still the massive pillars, soaring vaults and fabulous round window kept drawing my eye upwards.

Inside St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall

I am still at the ‘pinching myself’ stage, having only moved to live in Orkney four months ago. ‘Am I really sitting here?’ I thought. ‘Am I really sitting in this beautiful place, listing to this super sound swirling and crashing all around me?’ Bev, my wife, was singing with the sopranos. It was her first go at singing anywhere in public, let alone in a cathedral choir. I can’t be sure but I think I heard her angelic voice drifting down to me where I sat, proudly, in the front row. Then again it may just have been a regular angel sitting somewhere up in the triforium or clerestory.

It had been my idea to live in Orkney. Bev had been very busy with other projects in the south so I know she gave up a lot to come north, and I know she worried she would not be fully occupied. I feel a huge responsibility for her happiness here. The choir only took up one evening a week to rehearse, and then one Sunday to perform, but it represented a new challenge and a new achievement. We didn’t come here simply intending to replicate our old lives, with a new view from the window, we came for a new life. The choir, and other things, are certainly part of that.

St Magnus Cathedral in the winter sunlight

Storm Caroline blew in earlier this month. Dog woke me at 7am to go outside so I pulled the Helly Hansen over my dressing gown. Just outside was fairly sheltered but beyond the corner of the house I was almost blown off my feet. My glasses were blown off my face however and now, of course, I couldn’t see to look for them. Fetching a spare pair from the house, holding them on with one hand and torch in the other, I soon found the first pair, about ten feet across the lawn – undamaged. Motorists passing on their early morning commute must have enjoyed telling the story at coffee break: “That guy at the new hoose was oot in the gale, wi’ his dressing gown blowin’ up rooned his waist.” They’re entitled to smile.

When my shed was piled in sections, waiting to be erected, during an earlier gale, I was out in the dark again (yes, dressing gown and Helly Hansen), arranging heavy timbers to prevent it blowing away. Bright headlights pierced the gloom and a huge tractor with scoop full of breeze blocks trundled down the drive. It was Ivan, a neighbour from the hill opposite who had seen my plight (and more besides I shouldn’t be surprised). “I thought you might be needing these.” He said. I hadn’t met Ivan before but he and I worked together to arrange the blocks round the shed panels and then went inside for tea and a blether. Ivan wasn’t being heroic, it wasn’t even the greatest act of kindness, generosity or neighbourliness ever, but I will always remember his help that morning whenever I think of him from now on. Incidentally, I wonder if that’s why they’re called breeze blocks?

Storm Caroline brought high seas and strong winds to Orkney in early December

Whenever one moves to a new community one has to pick up on local etiquette fairly quickly. Our first strong wind arrived on a Friday – dustbin day in Orphir – I was unprepared. The bin and its contents would surely be scattered. I could see the amber flashing lights of the bin lorry back up the village so, thinking quickly, I reversed my van to the kerb and secured the bin to the door handles using a bungee. The bungee would give a quick release and not slow the men, I thought. Sadly, they left it unemptied.

I phoned the council to see what I’d done wrong. “It was the bungee,” the lady said, “dustbin etiquette forbids them.” Between gales I built a sturdy rail with galvanised chain and hooks. Even Storm Caroline couldn’t prevent our bin collection that day.

Steering the Stone Ships – The Story of Orkney’s Kirks and People, Jocelyn Rendall (2009)

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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