A new life in Orkney - Richard Clubley

Author Richard Clubley is one step closer to his new life in the islands...

We’re moving to Orkney and must choose a name for our new house.

In January we turned over the first sod on the plot in Orphir and the next task was to dig a trench to bring in the electricity supply. A temporary meter has been installed so Bob, the builder, can use his power tools on site.

No such luxury was afforded the builders of Skara Brae or Ness of Brodgar, but then they probably didn’t have impatient customers like me saying ‘when can we move in Bob?’ – then again, perhaps they did.

Skara Brae in Orkney - did the occupants demand quick results from their builders? Image by Paul Tomkins

Archaeologists seem to agree, however, that for Neolithic monument builders the process was the main thing – they just built without any clear idea of what the finished thing would look like, or even when it was finished. I must remind Bob to stick to the plan; we’re not quite ready for a chambered tomb yet. A sauna might be quite nice though.

In due course, when our house in the south is sold, I plan to put a caravan on the plot, to live in during the last few months of the building process. The electricity supply will come in very handy for kettles, heaters and the like. ‘A caravan is no place to be on a coorse day in Orkney’ said Bob, but I’m hoping it will be OK come the spring. I have some stout lorry straps I might be able to secure it with.

From the plot I can look out over Scapa Flow and many of the islands at the Stromness end: Flotta, Cava and Fara are visible, as well as the curiously named Barrel of Butter, just off-shore. Barrel of Butter is a low, wave-washed islet, a major hazard to shipping were it not for its light tower. From a distance it looks not unlike a surfaced submarine and was indeed mistaken for one, and shelled, during the First World War.

The view over the village of Orphir with Scapa Flow in the background

The name Barrel of Butter comes from the practice in olden times of locals paying one barrel of butter per annum to the land owner in return for the right to hunt seals there. The rent had originally been a barrel of seal oil but, as seals became scarcer, it was reduced to butter.

Barrel of Butter appears as the name of the rock on maps and charts at least as far back as 1761 but it was originally known as Carlin Skerry, a name which also appears alongside Barrel of Butter on Admiralty charts as recently as 1920 and 1944. Carlin is defined as an old woman, hag or witch in a variety of sources. There are several references to it in the literature, not least in Burns’ Tam O’ Shanter:

They reel’d, they set, they crossed, they cleekit; Till ilka carlin swat and reekit. (They danced till all the women sweated and smelled, basically).

Jacqueline Riding, in her excellent 2016 book, Jacobites, describes an encounter between Charles Edward Stuart, disguised as a maid, and a member of Flora Macdonald’s family. She did not recognise the prince and cried out: ‘such a muckle Trollop of a Carling make sick lang Strides through the Hall.’

Old Norse has the word kerling which I checked with Dr Ragnhild Ljosland at Kirkwall’s Centre for Nordic Studies. Kerling means, similarly, old woman, ogress or witch. The derivation of the word, however, is the masculine karl meaning a free man.

On a much gentler note the word carlin also denoted the last sheaf cut at harvest, or the corn dolly made from it. Carlin heather is bell heather and gorse is also carlin spurs. Bell heather grows in profusion around Orkney and there’s a nice showing on the Orphir cliff top overlooking Carlin Skerry.

Taking in the harvest has been a major part of life in Orkney for centuries - image courtesy of the Orkney Library and Archive

So, after much deliberation, we’ve decided to call the house Carlin Skerry. We very much wanted it to have an authentic, local name (Cava, Barrel of Butter, Kirk Field and Skiran were all considered, plus an assortment of bird and flower names).

With Carlin Skerry we can think of ourselves as Witch House, Heather House, Gorse House, Sheaf House, Corn Dolly House or Freedom House, depending on mood. We will be preserving an old word by using it and it will make a good talking point for visitors.

In the meantime the next job is to lay in the groundworks, the concrete base and the first few courses of blocks. Bob will make the wooden frame in his shed during the winter and there will be a grand erecting of the sections around April. The wind will cease, the sun will shine and the rain will hold off.

Between now and then we just have to concern ourselves with choosing colours, floor coverings, kitchen and bathroom stuff and where to put the Orkney chair.

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' will be launched at the Orcadian Bookshop in Kirkwall on Friday 24th March at 2pm.

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