I do like to be beside the seaside. In Orkney one is never far from water, either the salty stuff, or a fresh inland loch.
I was in Stromness on a warm, sunny day in May, sitting at a pavement café having lunch when the ferry from Scrabster – MV Hamnavoe – blew its horn to alert boaters of its imminent arrival. I could see her upper works against the line of roofs – they were only things moving so I knew what they were. How lovely, I thought, to be sitting here with this great big ship arriving and reminding me of where I live, between the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. I looked around for more evidence, as if my fresh, Westray crab sandwich wasn’t proof enough.
On the pier two men were painting a wooden fishing boat, lifted from the harbour and perched, above my eyeline, on blocks for the purpose. I could see all the bits usually in the water so the proportions were unfamiliar. I had been watching their progress for a couple of weeks and every time I passed it reminded me where I was.
Winter in Orkney is a thing used to impress visitors, compare with neighbours and brag about to southern softies. I have done two winters now (two usually qualifies one as a stayer) and they have been quite mild although lately I’ve sensed some nostalgia for really severe winters, by older folk who sound as though they want them back. Even so there is nothing to beat a lovely, calm, sunny (hot?) day in May. Anything around 15°C or more, warm and sunny enough for tee shirt and sunglasses, is fine. We get plenty of those days in Orkney. Friends arriving from south during the heat wave of last summer stepped from the plane into our 15° heat and declared how nice it was to be comfortable.
Along the cliff path the thrift is forming its pink cushions again. Dandelions are already going to seed and all those little blue and purple flowers are out.
The low willow bushes and things with berries later are in leaf. The ditch beside the road is full of water blobs (marsh marigolds). Gold they are, so I climbed in to get a picture, conscious they would be passed all too soon. There are poppies, bluebells, daisies and buttercups. The snowdrops of January seem pale by comparison now.
‘Puffins are back,’ can be a greeting in the street, ‘they’ve been spotted at Marwick Head, Westray, Burwick and the Brough of Birsay.’ Bonxies (great skuas) patrol the cliffs whereon fulmars sit, hopeful of a chick. Hares race round the fields in gangs and the curlews’ ‘bubbling’ landing flight goes on all day and night. The oystercatchers complained all winter and continue to protest. Are they never satisfied?
There’s a cruise ship in today – a big ‘un, 3,000 folk, from Canada I think. It was mostly Germans yesterday and will be Japanese tomorrow. My usual seat for coffee had been taken but I didn’t mind squeezing onto a table to be interrogated: ‘Do you live here? Really? You’re so lucky. This is our first visit. It’s fabulous. We’ve been all round the island and seen the standing stones and the little chapel. The weather is glorious. Someone on the ship had said it rained and blew gales all the time.’
The spring colours of Orkney are like nowhere else. Blues, greens and whites basically, but what blues, greens and whites? The grass (there’s a lot of grass) makes chlorophyll again and turns its most verdant; the strengthening sun penetrates the sea and lochs and switches on the deep blue lights to shine from below. Across the loch there’s more green and then a band of different blue – the sky – plain or with bright, Daz-white clouds to give your photos a bit of background (hint: use a polarising filter if you have one). When the sun goes in the colours switch off.
It was open day at our fabulous, new state-of-the-art hospital. I took my shades off to go inside but it was so light and airy I could have kept them on. It is a super investment in the people of Orkney and their futures. All that sea and sun; all those wild things and wide, open spaces, but we can live here too, secure in the knowledge we are safe and cared for.
Come for a week, or a fortnight if you can. You won’t be disappointed. Fifty years ago Neil and Buzz enjoyed two hours on the surface of the moon and declared themselves happy with the grey. You’ll go home happy too. There’s nowhere like it.
Oh, did I mention the turquoise?
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.
The Digital Orkney project has been part financed by the Scottish Government and the European Community Orkney LEADER 2014-2020