Orkney - a working landscape

Keep in touch with the latest blog from author Richard Clubley as he continues his move to becoming a full-time Orkney resident.

An Orkney friend has just had built a wonderful sun room extension to her house, overlooking the harbour from high on the hillside. I had been waiting, patiently, for several weeks, for a slot to open for lunch so I could help her admire the view from the cushioned window seat. Chilled drinks (with ice-cubes) came from the new American fridge; gentle back-ground music drifted down from the built in speakers (it is a smart room) and draughts were efficiently excluded by the triple-glazed, Norwegian windows.

The working landscape of Orkney, with the oil and gas industry in Scapa Flow - image by Colin Keldie

It’s at times like this that one studies the landscape anew. Things that had become familiar and largely unseen get re-examined as one experiments with the luxury of the expanded view. ‘It is a working landscape’, Caroline said as she pointed out the drained reservoir-turned-builders yard; the work boat placing markers for a new fish farm; the ferries coming and going on the daily shuttle between Kirkwall and the other islands and the inevitable wind turbines.

The previous night I had been standing outside the remote farm cottage in which I was staying. It was close to midnight, the sky was clear and the air unusually still. After a few minutes of eye adjustment it became apparent there are far more stars in the heavens than I had previously thought when living south, in the big city. Layer upon layer of ever fainter and ever more distant objects came into focus. I could hear the curlews calling, and the odd oystercatcher protesting as it flew over (oystercatchers are always complaining about something or other).

Orkney's dark skies are perfect for star-gazing - image by Premysl Fojtu

What little light pollution there is outside the bothy comes from the oil terminal, six miles away, across Scapa Flow. When the breeze blew towards me I could hear, just, the generator hum of a tanker waiting in the Flow to transfer its cargo at the terminal. Would I prefer the terminal and the tanker were not here? I thought. Yes, came my reply, but if they were not here, and if the turbines, fish farms, builders’ yards, ferries, radio masts, tarmac roads (and road works), dustbin lorries, traffic wardens and tractors were not here either, then neither would I.

As my friend said: Orkney is a working landscape (Orkney has always been a working landscape). The Neolithic folk who built Skara Brae and Ness of Brodgar left a bit of decoration behind but, mostly, they left tools). There are still plenty of square miles in which to get lost here on high days and holidays – or every day if one is lucky enough to be retired. There are deserted beaches, empty moorlands and soaring cliff-top walks but, in between these fabulous places, there is what we have come to call industry and infrastructure.

The landscape in Orkney works in harmony with industry and infrastructure - image by Colin Keldie

In Orkney you can do just about anything you might fancy: go to a concert, the cinema, theatre, play squash, golf, eat out, sail, dive, knit, blether or just sit quietly in the award-winning library and read free magazines. You can buy pretty much anything too. Recently I purchased a pair of boots, some organic muesli, a wood-burning stove, a 50m builders tape (from a choice of four) and a kitchen tap that delivers water at 100°C, thus doing away with the need for a kettle.

This all adds up to saying Orkney is a comfortable place to live. Some Scottish islands are picture postcard places and nothing more. There are beautiful islands home only to millions of seabirds, but I couldn’t live there. People have chosen the hermit life in days past – monks lived in bee-hive cells while shepherds and their families dwelt on isolated, rocky outcrops. Ronald Lockley, Frank Fraser Darling, Robert Atkinson and Bryan Nelson have all, famously, stayed more-or-less alone on otherwise uninhabited islands and written about their experiences. Even today there are hardy souls living on Auskerry (2) and Vaila in Shetland (2) but they are a rare and possibly endangered breed.

A secluded beach on the uninhabited Orkney island of Pharay - image by Premysl Fojtu

Within living memory there are islands in Orkney – Swona, Cava, Pharay, Fara – that have been lived on, but no more. People loved the way of life but the most common reason for abandonment was that life was easier on the bigger place. ‘I would go back tomorrow if I could take my washing machine,’ said one lady, shortly after leaving Stroma for life in the Caithness mainland.

In the end, the working landscape is a safe and comfortable place to live. I will continue to seek out empty beaches, cliff tops and moors. I will take deep breaths of fresh, sea air. I will collect shells, watch birds and enjoy flowers. There are places in Orkney I can walk all day and not meet another soul but, when I need a new tap washer, internet connection or a take away curry, well, I can have them too.

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 he hopes will be out in 2017.

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