Tourist Night Rider 21.10.17
I can see my day’s writing time unravelling before my eyes. A tourist day. I plan a quick two hours of cleaning windows and then out for the day, with built in writing time. Shapinsay is a small island with just three hundred and twenty inhabitants, but I have many thoughts I need to digest.
Before I even begin, I see my recording time disappearing before my eyes. My plan is to take the last ferry over to Mainland giving me an hour before the AGM of the Orkney Field Club which will be followed by a talk Otters in Orkney. I am booked on the out of hours late ferry home. I plan to have plenty of time before and after the otter talk to digest my thoughts but a text arrives, ‘Let’s meet up, I’ll meet you off the ferry’ and my time begins to drift out of my grasp.
The day is still, it is the first day since I arrived on Shapinsay that few wind turbines are moving. I find it disconcerting how the wind can change so suddenly, from heavy gusts to stillness without me noticing.
First stop the shop for milk, eggs and carrots. I’m still not used to not putting on my seatbelt but at least can now predict the length of time it will take for the car to stop complaining about it. Speed is rarely more than forty miles an hour and passing another car is uncommon. Mind, if vehicles do not leave the island they do not need an MOT so perhaps I might think this decision more carefully if I were wise.
I anticipate a conversation in the shop and am ready to answer questions. Last time I popped in, a young girl was serving and showed no interest in me as a stranger. I need to enquire where the boathouse is, in readiness for tomorrow’s writing group. I find carrots and milk but the eggs are hidden, tucked well under a bottom shelf out the back.
I make my purchases and ask about the boathouse. The girl is polite but perfunctory. No interest or enquiry. Perhaps this is a trait of Orcadians, that they accept whoever passes though without undue interest. Although that wasn’t how I saw it when the ferryman commented a few days ago, something about me being the new nurse on the island. I should have played along!
I head off and see the boathouse as described, a cream coloured hut, opposite the school and a sign saying ‘open’ but I do not want to explore or intrude on whatever it is that is open today. My agenda is archaeology and natural features.
The roads on the island are simple and as I drive through it occurs to me that this feels rather like detached commuter belt. There are few houses in the immediate vicinity of the shop, most people drive there and back, there’s not much of a village centre per se, nowhere visible to ‘hang out’, properties are spread across the island as is the case with farming. I feel a sense of soullessness here in October, perhaps it is more lively in summer months.
I think back to Nolsoy, in Faroe, a third fewer people, but living tightly packed in a small village community, the only spot of the island really suitable for housing. Colourful houses line the streets, theres a live music pub, a cafe and a shop with benches outside where people sit. Here, in Shapinsay, the buildings are mostly uniform beige or grey with just doors to sometimes give a hint of colour. I conclude that I need more incidental people in my life than I might find here. More opportunity to mix without it being too much hard work.
I use a map in a magazine for navigation, it looks straightforward enough on paper but turns out to have lanes, roads and rutted tracks marked identically. Footpaths are red dotted lines but otherwise everything is equal black lines. I stop fretting about the map, see a sign for the church and head there. It is locked. This surprises me on an island where no one seems to lock their car or their house. Why would the church be locked? Facebook has a tendency to portray all aspects of a community and whilst mostly it is a joyous deliverer of knowledge, I have been surprised by the number of reports of pickpockets, thefts and criminal damage along with comments suggesting vengeance. I have not yet reached any balanced sense of Orkney and the locked church adds to my confusion.
I head, instead, towards Burroughstone Broch which I find easily, marked with a brown tourist sign. The Broch is the remains of an Iron Age settlement on the coast and reported to make an ideal seal watching spot. I think I will spend a good deal of time here. I begin to walk along a narrow, wet grass path, rutted and muddy with long blades tangling in my laces. Barbed wire and electric fences are on either side of me and cows with calves begin to blaw. In the other field beside me, a herd of young bullocks respond, their attention drawn to my presence, by the blawing.
The bullocks are excitable and begin to trot towards me. I hope the barbed wire is strong but know that they can easily reach over and lick me should they wish and fear for them pushing through. I am afraid of their excitability. Although theoretically safe behind fencing I speed up and wonder if they will reach me before I arrive at the safety of the gate that leads to the Broch. I don’t want to run, the ground is not conducive and it would only serve to excite them further. Tons of prime beef canter towards me and then abruptly stop and stare, back off as I raise my arms and shout ‘blearh’ before finally reaching the last section of path and safety of the kissing gate.
I am mistaken, the kissing gate is full of bog, as is the land on the other side, but this, is also full of hoof prints and cow splats. The Broch is visible but where are the cows? I think perhaps some of these bullocks got out earlier and search for gaps in the fencing. The cow splats are very fresh. I have a herd of steaming bullocks behind me and hidden cattle somewhere in front. This is not my best moment!
Slowly I edge my way through the mire onto higher ground. I dare not go in to the Broch itself, the entrance hides the centre and perhaps cows are in there! I carefully progress to the cliff edge and realise that I am actually in a field, a cliff edge cow field, whose occupants, appear to be some distance away from me and seem disinterested at present. There are no seals in the sea and no sign of seals on the rocks so I turn back to the Broch and feeling a little braver in my environmennt, venture inside.
The Broch is well preserved, the remains of an iron age round house made from stone with rooms, fire pit and well. Other than missing a roof and some partition walls there is enough of it here for me to imagine living conditions more than remnants of post hole markings back at home. I understand there are alignments for the sun but I am too anxious to study information boards carefully for the cliff edge cows are on the move.
I edge back through the slurry to the kissing gate and the bullocks, all of whom are now firmly squashed in one corner of their field, looking expectantly at me, snorting, tossing their heads and giving little stamps of impatience with their feet. Surprised to find it, I pick up a piece of wood to wave at over friendly beasts before making my way through the mired kissing gate. Now for the narrow path of dread. Thankfully, as soon as I come close they back off a bit and with nothing to excite them they seem to have realised I’m no fun and do not attempt to chase me. Spider webs, that I brushed away on my way down, have draped themselves across the path once again and I brush them away from my face, time and time again. When i reach the end, I drop the piece of wood, where it might easily be seen, in case someone else might need it.
I head to the far North of the island, known locally as Ness Beach but others are here before me. It is a small shoreline and I don’t feel dog friendly so watch the rabbits a while, think how tame they seem and abandon any ideas of a coast path walk in the mud so turn and head in the direction of a standing stone.
My road runs high along a hill, the air is now so still, that wind turbines across the island, have ceased moving. Midges annoy me, which surprises me in October. The surface of the sea displays clouds and rays of light reflected in it and as I ponder on the profile of the gentle islands, I notice a large bird of prey flying close to the ground. The bird, perhaps a hen harrier, with long wings and slender body, floats down the field and across the marsh where my attention is drawn to bobbing black heads of seals and I lose my harrier.
I return to the road and progress, looking once more at my magazine map, seeking the left turn by the telephone box. I pass abandoned buildings and recall grumbles on Facebook that properties here, are not for sale. Now I am here, I understand the reasons why, families hold on to them. No matter how much in disrepair, for it matters not, whether this generation or the next or the next, might want a piece of land, to develop for themselves. I have seen new builds scattered around the island and have come to understand that young people value living here and want to stay, often taking apprenticeships and then building their own houses.
I reach the marked telephone box but the road to my left is nothing more than an inaccessibly deep, rutted, muddy track so I drive on. A six seater plane flies over en route to a smaller or more distant island. I remember that I have not as yet obtained the form that will give me cheap access to flights both within and out of the islands. I need proof of residency letters before I can apply for this but look forward to an aerial perspective. I decide not to squelch to the standing stone after all when I arrive, but admire it from a distance, and imagine it being once much taller, it having been shortened when some ruler rebelled against pagan symbols and knocked it down.
Water does seem to be a problem this year. I have seen two waterfalls whilst swimming, one at Ingagness, the other Scapa but on pointing them out, others have expressed surprise, saying they are not usually there. Facebook too has carried stories of a combine harvester failing to manage the harvest because of sinking in to the field or sliding sideways down a sloping hill while trying to gather in the late harvest.
I want to go down towards caves but my map has brought me instead to the bottom road across the island. Perhaps I will don wellies and go search the caves another day. I have heard there is an old church but do not expect much from it. Instead it becomes a highlight of my island tour! An interesting mix of thick lichen encrusted gravestones beside tomb pillars with ancient but shiny marble ‘acorns’ and new black granite headstones. This is clearly a cemetery still in use even if the church has long since fallen into disrepair. I am taken in thought, to the ruins of an early cathedral in Faroe and am surprised, when googling it, to find that it was the ruins of the Magnus cathedral at Kirkbujøur.
My surprise is because Kirkwall Cathedral is also named after St Magnus who was clearly influential and someone I need to learn more about. I recall a story of how he and his brother inherited the islands, governed them together, of Magnus being a peaceable fellow whereas his brother wanted full control for himself. Legend has it that when the islands were taken by the Norwegians, the brothers were sent to battle to claim further land but Magnus sat in the prow of his boat and prayed, eliciting calm amongst his crew instead of fighting. When asked why, he told the conquerors that the people of the islands had done him no harm and he wished to come in peace. That was the end of him but he gained a sainthood as a result at some point in history. There was also a story about him swimming to an island but I need to check details before I can pretend to know more. Elements of these stories echo those of Faroe and in just the same way, these Norse legends are equally complex and made more so by the fact that most characters seem to have very similar names. History has never been a strong point of mine.
Brilliant sun now escapes the clouds and the day goes from being grey and still, to carrying glorious sunshine, but with dark menacing clouds lurking in the distance. I am still walking in the graveyard and notice several wreaths strewn across the grass. I wonder about picking them up and repositioning them but am anxious not to put the wrong wreath on the wrong grave and in so doing cause inadvertent disquiet! I think perhaps they need a tether if they are to be placed, successfully here.
The carcass of the church itself holds remains of wooden planks, fallen perhaps from the roof, but I am surprised these have not long since been taken as firewood. Cavernous holes stand where windows once stood. Beyond the church is a smaller building, more gentle in its aspect and full of plants growing in its walls, stonecrops and ferns. There are stone walls across the island, built with horizontal flat stones and topped with a vertical soldier layer. Very different from Yorkshire stone walls having been built from the sedimentary underlying rock which is also the reason there are more flat slabs of stone on beaches than rounded rocks.
Driving across the the top road to Ness Point gave views earlier across the islands and I need to drive that way on a beautiful day for today, they were shrouded by grey. Now though, in the sunshine, I am descending along the southern coast and am surprised by the sight of the harbour and Balfour castle looking most endearing and almost village like from a distance. The castle itself is a Victorian folly and around it a row of workers cottages and walls which enclose it on all sides. Google earth tells me there are woods in there and indeed I have seen the tops of trees. Pheasants run blindly around on the roads over here and appear to be particularly dozy. Thelma explained they have been hand reared and just been set free, to learn to fend for themselves and make good shooting sport for the winter season. I get the impression the castle is not much revered on the island.
I take my final turn towards home and envisage stopping to view the buffalo at close quarters if they are there and to visit Milldam RSPB reserve. Both are rewarding. The buffalo, unlike the cattle earlier, are most uninterested in me, don’t even respond to me calling them but I do manage a raised head for a second or two when I whistle. The bird hide is well worth another visit, there are posters of species likely to be seen, several pairs of binoculars and even a telescope, carefully secured, but nevertheless a telescope for use by the public. I make a donation in the box as I leave.
My day has not yet ended though. I head home to leave my mud behind and then back out again. I remind myself I must remember to hand over an old pound coin as part of my two pounds fifteen ferry fare. Ive become less careful at checking for these in my change, initially, I was saying, no thanks, you can keep that one, but now I have become accustomed to just using them despite, I thought, them going out of circulation some twenty days ago. My coin is accepted without a second glance.
Having booked the out of hours ferry for my return home, I check to find out where I need to wait for it, it will be a small boat not needing a slipway. I am shown the ‘Corn Slip’ beside which are floating pontoons. My friend meets me and we head out for a drink. She is full of the music festival, Wrigley and the Reel, very much enjoying being invited to play along with bands who have performed. I am pleased for her that she is so energised by her music but as I listen, I rue the time I had set aside for writing.
The AGM of the Orkney Field Club is held in the The St Magnus Centre, a warm, light, disused church with a brightly painted interior, good loos and a coffee machine. I avail myself of all the facilities before heading in. I see Maria, whom I met on the fungus foray walk, last weekend, and say hello. We are both shy and awkward, don’t easily make small talk so I move on and find myself a seat. The AGM passes uneventfully and the hall then fills for a very popular talk by a PhD student who studied Otters on Eday and asks ‘where are they hiding?’ Elusive creatures here on Orkney, unlike Shetland apparently, I nevertheless will now be on the look out for signs of them.
I need a place to eat and write, have two hours to while away before my boat and go to the Italian pasta and pizza place but discover it closed at 8.30pm. As I am in the vicinity of the Neuk I head there, not wanting to find myself without supper. Ah, I find it closes at nine and with it being eight forty five it is doubtful the chef will prepare food for me. Thankfully he agrees to do so. Afterwards I am dispatched to the Bothy Bar which I have visited before and which turns out to be part of the same establishment. I find Shamus at the bar, the guy who helped me establish my website. I am pleased to buy him a drink but have now lost my writing time at both ends of this trip. Sometimes people are more important.
The late evening is still calm, the Corn Slip is empty of people but I enjoy watching Kirkwall water from a different perspective than that of big ferries. It has somehow become more personable, more attractive. Always concerned about being in the wrong place at the right time, I begin to feel anxious. I do not see ‘Harvey’s Boat’ as has been described to me. A young man now stands on the Slip, earphones in. He removes an ear piece as I ask him if he is also after the Out Of Hours boat and it turns out he is the son of the Nurse Practitioner I met on my first trip to the island. Island life is small. The young man tells me there are eight teenagers who cross on the seven thirty ferry each morning, to go to school. He does not seem unhappy with island life, appears very accepting of its limitations but i hazard his age to be perhaps fourteeen, not quite old enough yet maybe to really need freedom.
The out of hours boat turns out not to be Harvey’s but a small craft that has been sitting, waiting in the basin. We climb aboard along with another young woman and head out. A fine rain has begun but I want to sit out on deck and enjoy the trip. I am allowed to do so and feel both pleased and disappointed by the stillness of the water.
It was an exhilarating ten minutes as we left the lights of Kirkwall and entered the dark middle channel where there was some movement in the water beneath us. There were moments when I wondered if it might get more bouncy and I might feel insecure and get drenched but not so, barely a drop of water touched me.
It was one of those ‘live in the moment’ times that its hard, right now, for me to try to impart. It reminded me of our long, dark haul into Olbia, Sardinia from Porto Vecchio, Corsica a few years ago. Perhaps I might write more about this later but for now it is done.