A changing view - Richard Clubley

Catch up with author Richard Clubley's Orkney experiences as his move to the islands begins to take shape.

Our house in Orkney is coming along nicely. Bob has erected a tea hut for his men to shelter and take their breaks. He has spread out some pallets around the door so they don’t churn up the mud as they go in and out.

His first task on site had been to lay a substantial, hard-core area so vehicles did not do any churning either. ‘Much better to do that first,’ he said, ‘so we are not battling the mud as we work.’ The ground is not dry and our plot seems to be particularly damp. Nevertheless Bob has kept things very tidy, organised and un-boggy so far. Two years ago the ground was so wet in Orkney that cattle could not be turned out until July. That was an exception so we’re hoping for a drier summer and for building to be completed in comfort.

Before too long I will have to organise a fence. The rule in Orkney seems to be that my obligation is to fence things out, if I want too, rather than fence things in. Presumably, if I had no objection to my neighbours sheep and cattle wandering in to eat the dahlias, I wouldn’t need a fence. I will need to make the garden safe for Dog anyway so I’d better make plans.

One of the gardens open during the forthcoming Orkney Garden Festival - proof that beauty and colour are possible in the northern Scotland climate!

Rosa rugosa (rugged rose or Japanese rose) seems to be a hardy, Orkney favourite as a hedging plant and already a few folk have promised me as many cuttings as I need. The plan is to erect a wire stock fence and then plant stuff in front to make it look better. Rosa, willow and fuscia should be good. Any other suggestions gratefully received.

I’m still living in the wooded south at present and, as the trees burst into leaf, I’m looking at them afresh and wondering how much I’ll miss them. A lot of my southern friends have said this would be a problem for them but I think I’ll be OK. It’ll be nice to visit and have a foliage fix from time to time though.

The drive through the Highlands in autumn is as good as that through New England in the fall I reckon, so I’ll certainly be planning an October visit to family by road most years. One can’t have everything anyway.

My favourite view in Orkney is that over Orphir from the top of the road leaving Kirkwall – Scapa Flow and Hobbister moor on the left, Hoy hills in the far distance in front and Kirbister Loch appearing on the right. The sky is never the same twice in this panorama and trees wouldn’t improve it one bit. I shall enjoy both at different times.

The view towards Hoy from Hobbister in Orphir

One shouldn’t imagine Orkney to be totally tree-less anyway. Berriedale Wood in Hoy is Britain’s most northerly, natural woodland. A stand of native Orkney tress huddles in the bottom of a deep cleft between the hills on the way over to Rackwick, from the pier at Moaness. Orkney’s native trees are listed as downy birch, hazel, rowan, aspen, willows, roses, honeysuckle and juniper, all having been around since the end of the last Ice Age around 10,000 years ago. Not mighty oaks but lovely plants for all that, so I need to lower my eyes a bit and see the beauty nearer the ground. I wonder how many of those species I will be able to establish in my hedge. The problem might be the exposed nature of the site, overlooking Scapa Flow.

The remote Berriedale in Hoy - the UK's most northerly natural woodland

While I wait for my forest to mature I’ll be able to walk in Binscarth Wood, just outside Finstown, and listen to the songbirds in the spring. There’ll be snowdrops and bluebells too and lots of other things in their season. There’s Olav’s Wood in South Ronaldsay, created by Helen and Stephen Manson with Olav Dennison back in the 1970s. Olav’s is four and a half acres and open for the public to enjoy. It began when Helen asked Olav to help and he started bringing assorted saplings back from trips south. ‘These were often self-seeders,’ said Olav, ‘I was doing people a favour by clearing them out of ditches and the like.’

Part of the stunning Olav's Wood in South Ronaldsay

Orkney’s wildlife is fragile. It needs protecting, like wildlife everywhere. I watched a TV series about the Galapagos Islands recently and even that jewel in the world’s wild crown is under threat. It will be difficult for me to help Galapagos directly but I am looking forward to doing whatever I can for Orkney – our own, fabulous archipelago.

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.

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