Boreas Domus Mare Amicus
(the north our home, the sea our friend)
“Now tell me this,” said Edwin Harrold, with a twinkle in his eye and a much-too-solemn face, “if a hen and a half lays an egg and a half in a day and a half, how many eggs will three hens lay in three days?”
Oh, no, it was riddle time, and there was no right answer; some of the possible replies were
1. 3 eggs, the expected answer?
2. you can’t have half-hens laying half-eggs, true but boring
3. 6 eggs, disappointing?
Which would be best? #1 would give the pleasure of seeing the ferrylouper (incomer) fall into the trap; #2 would label you as an anorak; #3 would be a nuisance – a more cunning trap needed.
But it was too wondrous a place to worry overmuch, because we were in Happy Valley, which Edwin had created out of a rather dismal stretch of moorland, converting it into a tiny paradise by planting trees and creating waterfalls in the little burn. Edwin’s house grew heather on its roof and had an electric light bulb which lit up when Edwin pulled a wire which caused a little paddle-wheel to dip into the water of the burn and generate electricity.
Edwin is no more, but he typified all that was attractive in the Orcadian: a fine craftsman, inventive, independent, happy with a kind of life that had hardly changed (except for the wire and the light bulb) in the last many thousands of years. Before retiring, he had repaired ancient monuments such as brochs for a living, and one could easily imagine him building a broch and living in it, cosily and efficiently, peaceful but ready to repel any invader, whether by riddle or by even sterner measures.
The ferrylouper had to be assessed to find out whether and where it might fit into the community, and was subjected to many tests, though none of them quite as difficult as the Happy Valley Inquisition. “What do you think of Orkney butter/cheese/homebrew?” was easy. But it was also very easy to put a foot wrong, through blind southern habit. There was a day that we took the canoe to Harray Loch, paddled up to the other end, a distance of about 4.5 miles, and beached the canoe, intending to walk back to the car; but no need, for up drove our car, helmed by our postman, who gently let us know the error of our big-city ways: “You’d taken the keys, so I had to hot-wire her.” We grovelled; but at least we hadn’t locked her, for we were learning.
|the road was drifted in|
It was an interesting winter, with a lot of snow drifting in wind which reached over 100 knots before it blew away the Kirkwall airport anemometer. In our house drifts of snow piled up inside tightly closed windows, and when I went out to fetch coke for the stove I was blown away up the iced tarmac and had to crawl back. The road was drifted in, but it was not too far to walk to Stromness, so long as I started about an hour earlier than usual; one morning when I set out around 7:30, with the full moon shining on an unnaturally windless and totally silver landscape and not a human nor a vehicle to be seen for miles, I have to confess that I turned back, with the excuse that the two-thirds of the pupils who were bussed in from the country would not be going to school that day. An inglorious decision, but a beautiful day, in which we built an igloo, and took a candle into it that evening and sat very cosily in sleeping-bags reading our books.
“The sea our friend” says Orkney’s coat of arms but the sea around Orkney has strong tidal currents; an online pilotage guide for small craft advises how to navigate the Pentland Firth:
when a swell is opposed to the tidal stream, a sea is raised which can scarcely be imagined by those who have never experienced it; and, if … the wind is light and with the stream, a sailing vessel becomes unmanageable.
The morning of 18 March 1969, when the maroon went off, I was teaching, and was struck by the indrawn breath and absolute silence in class; all eyes were fixed on the window, which looked out over the harbour. They knew what it meant, though I did not, having been in Orkney less than four months.
It meant a call-out for the lifeboat, all of whose crew were known to, or even fathers of, the pupils, most of whom also knew the reason for the call-out: the Longhope lifeboat had gone missing in the Pentland Firth the previous night, in a force 9 gale and 60-foot waves, on her way to help the Irene, in difficulties off the coast of South Ronaldsay. The Irene ran aground, and all her crew were rescued by breeches buoy, but the lifeboat had disappeared.
Later that day she was found, capsized, the entire crew drowned, a man lost from every home in the tiny community where the lifeboat was based. If 130,000 men were wiped out today in Edinburgh in the space of 24 hours it would parallel that catastrophe in numbers, but not in personal grief unless the 130,000 were all neighbours and friends of the entire population of Edinburgh; worse still, two families had each lost a father and two sons - what sort of parallel could you find for that in a big city? It was an incident in the face of which mere statistics tell you little of importance.
As this dire news trickled in, the whole island grieved, for, as we were coming to realise, this was a place where John Donne’s famous lines
no man is an island, entire of itself; … any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee
were part of the way of life for people needing to survive in a small group of islands nearer Norway than London.
So much for Mare Amicus. Perhaps Orcadians called the sea “friendly” in the same spirit that the ancient Greeks called the Furies Eumenides – “kindly”?
|Old Man of Hoy|
Our travel between Orkney and Scotland was usually two hours in the Ola, passing Hoy and its Old Man, across the Pentland Firth to Scrabster; it could be a lovely journey or unlovely-going-on-horrendous. One return to Stromness after a holiday south with the three bairns lives in the memory. Leaving Scrabster the word was that it was too bad to go the usual route west of Hoy, so we’d head eastwards and get into the shelter of Scapa Flow. Not many minutes out of Scrabster, mass passenger-puke started, and the luggage began to slither to and fro across the floor. Time passed, and the entrance to the Flow drew nearer, but so did the cliffs as the Ola fought against the tide-race off Hoxa Head (probably where the Longhope lifeboat had capsized), a fight that the tide-race won, so back up the Pentland Firth we lurched, past the awesome western cliffs of Hoy, round the corner into Hoy Sound, and finally into Stromness Harbour, where the luggage settled, colour returned to the passengers’ faces and, after more than seven hours, we were home. Well nearly, because there was no-one to meet us, the spouse having given up on us and gone to a party. But a car pulled up, its door opened and our doctor said “You’ll be needing a lift” and took us out to Kirbister.
In one day, the worst and the best aspects of life on an island. Hardly blemished even by finding the sink in the schoolhouse piled with a fortnight’s worth of washing-up.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
|coat of arms, 1975|
Boreas Domus: now that the north was our home, how appealing was the landscape to the eye of a mountain addict?
At first, unexciting: fields, fences, a bit of moorland, no rocks, no trees. But the periphery, cliffs interrupted by the occasional beach, was where the buzz lay. The coast near Yesnaby was just two miles away across moorland from our house; and there were miles of cliffs, caves, geos, sea stacks; in a few places one could get down to sea level, where on a stormy day the ground could be covered by sinister foam over welly-boot-height: sinister, because there was no telling what (if anything) lay underneath it, and because a big wave could come in and suck you away unless you kept a look out and were nimble; mostly the cliffs leaned outwards, and only from down at sea level could you see the caves that crouched below the overhang. The local wisdom was that Orkney was gradually tilting over to the west, whereas the rest of UK was tilting to the east; where, I wondered was the place where the two opposing tilts were grinding past each other – perhaps the middle of the Pentland Firth? No one would hazard a guess, or perhaps it was an ignorant question.
Two sea-stacks south of Yesnaby were once arches jutting out from the land until the middle of the arch collapsed into the sea; this was how the Old Man of Hoy had morphed from headland in 1750 to arch by 1820 and later become a stack (“ - for now!”, as scottishgeology.com gleefully adds).
|interesting rock detail|
Near Yesnaby was an arch across which you could reach a platform allowing a fine view of the cliff face; I went there a lot, with caution because a sudden gust of wind could easily hurl you down past all that interesting rock detail and smash you on the spikiness at its base, and also because the whole structure had the feel of something that might collapse at any time. I confided this thought to the local wisdom, a fount of geographical lore, and it bent on me a patronising smile of sympathy for my cowardice and said “It’s been there for thousands of years, it won’t be collapsing any time soon” – a train of logic that I found odd, considering the history of the Old Man of Hoy, and decided to stay cautious, fearful and (hopefully) unsmashed.
The next week end I went back to exercise my fearful caution once more … and it was gone. The whole lot, arch and platform, had fallen into the sea, and near the edge, where it had connected with the land, the ground now sported a series of parallel cracks, as though great chunks of the cliff edge were just about to dive off after their brothers into the friendliness of the sea.
|moors near Yesnaby in winter|
Often I would walk from Kirbister across the moorland to reach the cliffs; half–way there was a tiny tree, a prostrate juniper roughly two inches tall; I used to bend down and sniff its leaves for the gorgeous smell of gin that it gave off; one warm day I lay down beside it for a prolonged gin-snuffle and became aware that the ear pressed to the ground could hear the booming of the sea sucking in and out of the caves far below, a mile away from the edge of the land. Suddenly it felt like being on a honeycomb rather than solid ground.
|Yesnaby, looking south to Hoy|
There was a misty winter day when I’d left home later than usual, and darkness fell before I’d reached the sea, but I kept on, thinking no wind, not too cold, if necessary I could follow the cliffs north to Yesnaby and return by road. As heather and peat underfoot gave way to grass and gravel I knew that the edge of the cliffs must be near, but could see nothing through the foggy darkness. Until the feet stopped of their own accord and the ears told me that something had changed – there was a low echoing mutter that had not been there a second ago. As I stood there the mist drifted and parted, and I saw that I was standing a few inches from the edge, where the next step would have been my last … if the old lizard brain hadn’t done its job.
After all, this northern home, this friendly(?) sea had its excitements.