Sometimes the things I am afraid of are not those I need fear at all and things that frighten me often come unexpectedly, particularly when feeling a sense of peace, thus making them all the more alarming.
From my otter watching sitting spot at Vasa Point, the reinforced concrete battery at Salt Ness is just that, a look out point and gun housing, not essentially of high interest to me. Having decided the beach walk to it to be too challenging, I approach instead from the road and find it is somewhat more than I thought, both in area and interest. An area of perhaps one square mile shows remains of concrete bunkers, Nissan huts reinforced with concrete, underground structures, gun housings and concrete pad scars in the grass. The gun tower is but a tip of the iceberg.
Exploring desolate spots that carry a sense of mortality is not something I find easy. My fears are hard to pinpoint, they revolve around things that might spring out on me, anxieties about whether I might be trespassing and a heightened sense of the supernatural. I endeavour to quieten my minds chattering voices and try to imagine what it might have been like to be stationed here. Many days, I imagine, would have been quiet and perhaps even a joy during summer months. It is hard to picture this possibility now though as concrete bunkers are flooded, waist high and I wonder whether soldiers might have been wading around in winter. The pasture around the bunkers is soft and boggy, the bunkers are dug in, sit submerged in shallow pits. Has the ground level risen I wonder with sand blown in over the years, or the heavy structures sunk into the soft ground or whether they have drainage systems that no longer work.
I do not like leaving the path to walk in the hummocky mire, which is both flooded and sports fresh cow pats in places, but I cannot explore unless I do so. The possibility of meeting a herd of bullocks adds to my anxieties but although I see electric fences around me, I concentrate my thoughts and reassure myself that I have neither gone through gate nor fence. The distance from the car is a lot further than it appears as the farm track zig zags, taking the line, no doubt, prescribed by Lord Balfour when he claimed land from local peasants and divided it up, ten acre fields across the island, keeping the greater part, of course, for himself.
The wind is brisk (I suspect ‘brisk’ is no longer meaningful. Later I will discover that I am describing gale force gusts, such is the wind to which I have become accustomed.) The car is now out of my sight yet I still have a good way to go. There has been nothing so far, that would have stopped me driving this way and part of me wants to retreat and return within my own metal reinforcement. I never get used to or overcome these feelings of fear when exploring unknown places. I constantly expect something to happen and seem to live in a heightened state of anxiety when ever I am in unknown surroundings. I need things to be familiar before I can feel safe.
The track has been recently repaired with granite chippings and in these places there is no danger of sinking into unseen mire. I continually scan for movement of animals as I approach a concrete Nissan hut but it turns out to be pigeons that startle me, erupting, perhaps more than fifty birds, clumsily tumbling, wrestling for space as they fly out towards me.
The hut has been crudely fenced off at the end and it was cows I was expecting to see, so was unnecessarily alarmed by the birds. The structure holds a few pieces of rusting machinery and shows holes in the roof. The original corrugated framework is rusting and peeling away from the inside leaving a shell of concrete and I wonder how long before it collapses and falls. Straggling pigeons continue to plummet as if caterpaulted out from their roost before rising and heading off into the sky.
Walking down the final stretch of track towards the gun tower itself, I look behind me to memorise the turns I have taken and trace the line back towards my hidden car. I also look for potential shortcuts across fields if I need them when marauding buffalo come after me! I consider the electric fences but without livestock, tell myself these will be switched off and that of more danger to me today, are hidden streams and ditches, which cut, unseen, across the field. A shortcut is not an option I will explore today.
I cannot adequately describe the conflicting feelings I have, an inquisitiveness, a thirst for knowledge, wanting to see in order to understand yet coupled with a fear of finding something I do not want to find. This confusion compels me onward but also holds me back as I approach the tower. However, the thick mud and long tussocky marsh in front of me are one step too far and I retreat without having explored the inner life of the tower. Confronting my fears whilst on patchy firm ground is a different matter from trying to escape through quagmire. I wish I were braver or at least understood my fear more carefully. There is no one here, there are no livestock here, the crumbling cliff edges have been carefully fenced, the footpath has been signposted. I have nothing to fear but fear itself.
My only childhood memory that I can begin to relate to this involves clay pigeon shooting. My father had told us that a local farmer would pay us for collecting unbroken clays from the previous days shoot, so I think it was my younger brother and I who set off with sacks to gather clays. I recall a sense of fear that guns might still be out shooting and a discomfort of being in unknown surroundings. At some point a very angry farmer came out and demanded to know what we were doing, said we were trespassing. Confused we retreated leaving our wasted mornings work behind, it turned out that the farmer had not said he would pay us to gather them, quite why my father thought this a good idea I am unsure. I am pleased to have made it as far as I have, would have liked to have entered the tower to explore but accept my limits and am relieved to begin my retreat.
Seeing is believing. I think about my knowledge of the First and Second World Wars and know it to be insufficient. I have learned more this year, I think, in Poland and this trip than perhaps I ever did at school. I don’t even recall studying it at secondary school. I have never been one to learn easily from books alone.
Orkney, I now understand to have been the Northern defence line against German and Russian invasion, against the submarines that patrolled these waters trying to get inside British defences and attack the naval fleets lying in sheltered waters. Such was the reason for the sinking of ships during WW1 between the southern islands of South Ronaldsay, Burray, Glimsholm and Lambs Holm, to protect the naval base at Scapa Flow against submarine attack. Later, Churchill built the barriers, still in use as roads today after a submarine got through and torpedoed a battleship killing all on board.
My journey back to the car will be an easier one, my fears have abated, the Homerun is always easiest, I have achieved my aim and now merely need to go home. Walking uphill, I approach the closest of the concrete Nissan huts when a strange and menacing jarring sound draws my attention. It is just the wind I think as more pigeons stumble from their roost and I try to recall noises of the many pieces of rusting metal and flapping objects but it feels too regular to be the wind and too pressing and gravelly to ignore.
Looking up, a large black bird is patrolling the sky, circling around me. I wait for it to attack but it does not do so, I cannot make it out, is it crow or bird of prey. It is too black for anything other than a crow but too aggressive for such. A pair of them now, fly away, circle before returning, swooping, eyeing and growling at me. October is not nesting time, why are they upset by my presence? I need to identify them, to understand them, they look to have a bit of a pronounced, maybe hooked beak, raggedy ends to their wings and tail in flight but are dexterous birds, climbing, soaring and plunging. I feel they must be a bird of prey as I listen and watch them approach me menacingly but they do not come too close. I am remembering the Arctic Skuas of Faroe and how one took the glasses from the top of my head the first time it swooped down on me. They were silent though when on the attack unlike these birds.
I am pleased when I retrieve my car in which, I can watch while these birds continue to soar and play and even, it seems, follow me up the road when I leave, stay with me. From the safety of my car I manage to take some photos. I want to visit the castle, was pleased, last evening to listen to a radio programme about it but when I enquire at the shop, I am told no, I may not visit, it is all private. I am matter of fact about this, I prefer poor mans history any day.
RSPB Mill Dam offers birds before sundown but I take the opportunity to study all the identification charts and conclude my predatory birds were ravens. Ravens! They were certainly large enough and loud enough but did not recognise crow like flight patterns.
Oh my goodness, is she back? My peace is abruptly disturbed. A text, I’m back, will you let me in please. It is eight forty five, Thelma has returned, I do not have the day to myself as I had thought. Scurriedly, I get up, abandon my words and with a feeling of guilt, of being caught out, begin to prepare for the day. I quickly shower and dress before descending but joy oh joy, there is otter, fishing in the bay outside my bedroom window. I watch him a while, unsure initially if it is the otter or a diving bird until his tail pops out and I see both ends of him, a pose with which I am now familiar.
Gone is my leisurely walk and vegetable omelette breakfast, I am back into eating muesli before work. I have no reason to feel I have transgressed but this is another perpetual weakness of mine, thinking I always doing things wrong, always expecting to be in trouble for unknown misdemeanours. But Thelma announces she has a meeting, will depart and leave me with Paulo to continue my tasks and perhaps I might walk him first. This last piece of information is a joy for I have regained permission to sit in the wind and write.
A ferry plies the water in front of me, taking the shorter inner Skerry route for the second day in a row. Paulo lays a short way away from me, waiting for me to throw the ball but he does not bring it close enough for me to reach. He learns. I notice deep tyre marks in the ground, a tractor has been here, I have not previously seen these tracks.
I watch a pair of red kites, circling and soaring. Ben is here, in my head, with me today, hi Ben. It is ten twenty am, I am not usually down at the point at this time. Another ferry plies a different route, it is the third of the three ferries, the smaller one with the lifeboat on top, the one Thelma pointed out on our first walk down here, my only walk here with her. The ferry is headed way further off to the left than I am used to seeing, I will check routes later. Yesterday, I began to try to identify the islands I can see.
It is only through having had time alone that I have fully appreciated my time here on Shapinsay. Paulo waits patiently as I write and throw and think, write and throw the ball for him until it is time to return. Perhaps in Stromness I might find myself a suitable spot and sit each morning to digest the previous day.
There is no let up in the grey of the sky or the bitter wind, no sign of the sun or blue peeping through today but as I clean and tidy, a tractor down on the shore catches my attention. I stop and watch vehicles gathering seaweed from the beach, a small digger with orange trailer. I will finish cleaning my room, pack my belongings and leave Shapinsay before I will learn that it was shingle not seaweed that they were collecting.