Catch up with author Richard Clubley's Orkney experiences as his move to the islands starts to become reality.
I drove north on the first day of spring. I’ve tried various ways of reaching Orkney from my home in Derbyshire.
There’s the drive to Aberdeen and ferry (a long day and arrival past bedtime); flying (can’t take the dog or crates of tranclements*); drive to Caithness and ferry (one very long day or two short ones).
I don’t care how I get here. To reach the most sublime places on Earth you have to make an effort. Time is not such a pressure these days so I opt for the two-day drive. Dog and I have our traditional comfort breaks at Scotch Corner, The Cedar Café then Perth A9 Travelodge (they have a dog-friendly Vintage Inn next door and the whole experience makes a pleasant break).
The second day brings breakfast at The Newtonmore Grill where I once sat outside in glorious sun and a temperature of -4°C, surrounded by snow-covered mountains. Dog likes Golspie Beach and there’s a nice sun trap at Golspie Inn.
And, of course, we’re in The Highlands now. This trip is not to be rushed in any season. The autumn colours and snowy hills are my favourites, roads are quieter then too. The causeways at Cromarty Firth and Dornoch Firth are definite way-points. We are in such open country now that these bridges have cut many miles off the journey. They wouldn’t look out of place in Alaska.
No matter how well the driving goes I am still exhausted on boarding MV Hamnavoe in Scrabster for the crossing to Stromness. The freshly cooked fish, chips and peas, with a mug of tea, restores energy. The pager I am given as I order (to tell me when it’s ready) would wake the dead, which is just as well as I regularly nod off with the early motion of the boat.
On previous trips I have checked the progress of the daffodils to see whether I can expect flowers before I Ieave. This year it looks promising but I’m not so anxious. I am coming to live in Orkney so, from now, I’ll catch the daffs no matter how late or early. We may even have some of our own. I won’t miss the Ba’ either or the Folk Festival or St Magnus Festival or flowers in the cathedral or the northern lights, or the big tides or the whales…
Orkney is unique. So many of our dormitory towns and high streets in the south are clones. Not Orkney. In Orkney we will live cheek by jowl with nature, with the weather, with our food production and our energy supply. We will know our neighbours, be on first names with our shopkeeper and the men who built our house.
Already I am starting to think and feel differently though. Having finished writing my book, I am doing some work for someone else. My time is not entirely my own anymore and I find myself driving from A to C and passing B without looking. Hang on a minute, B is world famous and I passed it without thinking. I’ve never done that before. I begin to worry I will cease to notice the treasures that have, thus far, drawn me back to Orkney again and again.
I don’t think so. How can one fail to see the ever-changing sky, the morphing sea. The sound and feel of the wind as it practices its scales across the lumb demand attention. We have come to live in a farming community where the calendar is marked by the comings and goings in the fields. The soil warms and dries and the grass runs through fifty shades of green in a season. Fifty shades a day more like, as the sun brightens or the clouds darken the land.
It feels as though we live under a Perspex dome in the city. We still get weather in town, of course, but it is muted and diluted. We are cossetted, blindfolded and sheltered from most of it. Most of the wildlife is something we drive out to the countryside to see, along with the sheep and cows. Here the dome is removed, the air is raw. It is whatever blows in from the sea – the icy cold, the stinging sleet or the burning sun and gentle breeze. Nothing is filtered through dust or slowed by tower blocks. We are like travellers to Mars who have stepped out of the podule to walk on the surface.
Buzz Aldrin said he was too busy on the surface of the moon to gaze around. ‘We had practised so much on Earth it all looked familiar anyway’ he said. I intend to look around in Orkney.
*tranclements – thanks to Pauline Welsh for this word, it means bits and pieces, treasures, ornaments etc.
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.