Read the latest musings from author Richard Clubley as he begins his new life in Orkney...
A few years ago I was wandering on Stromness pier one Sunday afternoon when I met a group of young lads doing the same. We passed the time of day for a while and they told me they liked living in Orkney ‘…because we are free.’ They were too young to have arrived at that idea themselves, I thought. They surely hadn’t experienced the other side of life enough to have made the conclusion on their own. It is an idea handed down by older generations in islands, but no less valid for that.
I was writing a piece about the Stromnessian author George Mackay Brown at the time so I asked the boys what they knew of him. ‘He wrote poems.’ Said one. ‘He had blue eyes,’ said another, ‘there’s a painting of him hanging in our school.’
I asked if they still fished for sillocks from the pier, as George had done in his youth. ‘Oh, yes, we give them to people for their cats.’ They were shocked to learn that GMB and friends had sold them ‘to wives with cats, four for a penny.’ Orkney youngsters must be a lot better off these days as the thought had not occurred to them.
The spirit of young enterprise is, however, alive and well at Craigiefield Park, Kirkwall, where Allisia Burton runs The Peedie Bun Box. ‘I love baking,’ Allisia told me, ‘my dad teased me about it and suggested I open my own business – so I did. I designed the Bun Box and dad (Albert) made it in his shed.’
The Peedie Bun Box, gaily painted blue and white to resemble a beach hut, operates an honesty system outside the Burtons’ home. Whenever Allisia gets a break from her hospitality course at Orkney College, she fills it with home bakes and gives a shout out to her regular customers on facebook. She also does special charity bakes for MacMillan Cancer Support and Maggie’s Family Cancer Support in Aberdeen. Allisia works part-time in a local bakery and is determined to own and operate her own bakery one day. I wouldn’t bet against her.
The honesty box is a feature of island life I have long admired. Stories are legion, like the Shetland bus shelter with all mod-cons and the Kerrera phone box, at the pier, where shopping is left for folk to collect*. Honesty has to be taught, of course. Respect for others and for property doesn’t just happen it is learned at a young age.
Nowhere have I seen a better example of such a lesson than at the Höfn youth club in Westray. Höfn is an Old Norse word meaning ‘harbour’ or ‘place of safety’, an excellent name, I thought, for an Orkney youth club. The building was provided by Westray Development Trust funding at the time of the millennium and has been in good use ever since. The unique feature of the Höfn, as a youth club, is that there is no adult supervision. Every eligible youngster on Westray (aged 12-17) has a swipe card for the door and they can come and go freely.
‘It’s open 24/7,’ one of the girls told me, ‘you could sleep there if you wanted to – but I don’t think anyone has yet. We have games consoles and stuff, no one would steal them, what would be the point? Everyone would know who’d done it.’ I went to have a look at the Höfn. It was clean, tidy and orderly. I left wondering why the same principles of trust can’t transfer to our big cities.
For my new book: Orkney – A Special Place (to be published by Luath Press at Easter) I spoke to some Kirkwall Grammar School students, to get their take on living in Orkney. Here are a few of their thoughts:
‘Growing up in Orkney has not only left me with blissful childhood memories – of horse and plough matches, hay bale forts and huts in the grass – but has also shown me who I am and hope to become. Like a mother, Orkney has offered me security yet given me the freedom to explore. This is how Orkney raises independent, yet home loving children, who never really leave it behind even if they move on, its traditional music beating through their hearts, no matter where they go.’ (Esme Andrews).
‘If all gravity was lost, and I was flying up into the atmosphere, I would be glad that all these ‘hooks’ I’d created over the years were the things grounding me home, in Orkney.’ (Ellie Sinclair).
‘I like to live here because at night I can look over Kirkwall and the lights are glizzering.’ (Ryan Watt).
*Someone once ordered a bottle of whisky. It was still there, in the phone box, three days later when he collected it.
Richard contributes regularly to Scottish Islands Explorer magazine and his first book: 'Scotland’s Islands – A Special Kind of Freedom' was published in 2014. He is working on the sequel: 'Orkney – A Special Place' which will be published in the spring.