Look where I am

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

In the 1988 film ‘Working Girl’ directed by Mike Nichols, Melanie Griffiths makes her film acting career breakthrough playing secretary, Tess McGill, also looking for the big break in business.

SPOILER ALERT: If you don’t want to know what happens then skip the italics.

Of course Tess makes it and the final scene is one of my all-time favourite movie moments. She is taken on by a big company and, to her surprise and delight, given her own office and assistant. The first thing Tess does is phone her old mate in the typing pool down town to say ‘Guess where I am’. The pal stands and screams the news to the whole pool, everyone cheers, Carly Simon hits that great opening note in ‘Let the River Run’ and the credits roll.

Since moving to Orkney I often think ‘Look where I am’ but worry I might start taking it for granted so am collecting a few views, walks and activities as reminders. My rule is that I must pause for a moment and appreciate them each time they occur. They are my touchstones.

The walk, late each night with Dog, is down the lane and back. It would be very easy, especially in wet and windy weather, to turn quickly, and hurry home but I pause and look at the sea spread below me. Duncansby Head lighthouse flashes clearly, way across the Pentland Firth, in the gap between Flotta and South Ronaldsay.

View towards Caithness from Flotta


I imagine the current and wonder which way the swirling mass of tidal water is moving, east to the North Sea or west to the Atlantic? Much closer are the light beacons on the rocky islet, Barrel of Butter, and the uninhabited island of Cava in Scapa Flow. The moon may light the water with ships at anchor. Sheep move like ghosts in and out of the weak spread of light from the last lamp post. Geese and oystercatchers call. There’ll be no more ferries until the morning. A friend on Stronsay loves seeing the last ferry leave in the evening because then he feels truly safe – no one can come or go in the night.

Stromness Harbour is a meeting place. Walkers, shoppers, visitors, fishermen, leaners-on-rails and passers-of-time are all there. The Pier Head Parliament meets – small groups of (mostly) men huddle in doorways, or on benches in fine weather – to comment on government policy, council policy and the activities of their pals not present.

Stromness harbourfront


Herring birds call from the roof of the lifeboat shed to remind me where I am so I look afresh at the ‘salt and tar steps’ and the ‘gull gaunt tide’ described by George Mackay Brown in his poetry. There is a café, with outdoor seating in the season, where I drink coffee and watch the ferries come and go. Willick (85) steers his boat to the creels on most days. ‘I feel better when I work’ he says. The harbour throws its arms around seafarers to keep them safe and I feel its protection too.

Orkney is fabulously well off for facilities. What other population of just over 20,000 has an airport, cathedral, leisure centre, hospital, delightful restaurants and stylish shops? We have a cinema, too. The latest releases are a bit later than in the big cities but all come eventually. They don’t stay long so you may have to catch a flick at 11am on a Tuesday if it’s a must-see. I could easily forget where I am in the pictures were it not for the low-tech practice of making my own coffee in the foyer. A table is laid with hot water dispenser, sachets, cups and, this being Orkney, there’s an honesty system for payment at the kiosk. It makes me smile every time. I have never enjoyed a drink in a theatre so much or at such good value. It’s a little bit of homespun left over from the island tradition of help yourself in everything.

Pickaquoy Centre Cinema


Earlier today I saw the Hoy ferry being buffeted by the waves as she made her way round Cava into the pier at Houton. The little blue and white steamer is a familiar sight, making the crossing several times a day but what a joy to watch her progress from my work chair.

Would that I never take any of this as given. Let me see the greens and blues of spring, fresh every time. The birds can wake me whenever they like. If something is not already here I can live without it, just give me the big skies and the weather and I will treasure them.

Hoy Head ferry


Good gracious, is that the time? I must sign off now and get down to the Strathspey and Reel Society in the town. Listening to them play on Thursday nights is the ultimate reminder of where I am.


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.

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