I grew up in England. It probably doesn’t matter too much exactly where but it was on the borders of East Anglia and the East Midlands, near Peterborough. I grew up English, with an English view of the world.
In 1986 I moved to London and, a few years later, got divorced. These two events definitely widened my world view. My ideas were further challenged when I married Kathie Touin, a United States citizen in 2003.
But in 2010 my whole perspective started to really change when Kathie and I moved to Orkney. For those who do not know, the Orkney islands are a group of about 70 islands off the north coast of Scotland.
When I announced to my work colleagues in London that we were moving to Orkney I got some interesting reactions.
Many people were honest enough to ask where Orkney was, often mistakenly believing it to be part of the Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland. It reminded me of the crisis that led to the 1982 Falklands War when many English people discovered the Falklands were not vaguely somewhere in Scotland but, in fact, in the South Atlantic.
Some work chums clearly imagined – wrongly – that Orkney was made up of small crofts, with a population of regular church-goers speaking Gaelic.
My favourite two reactions were, “Will you have electricity?” and “Wow, New Zealand!” To be fair to the person who said the latter, they probably mis-heard “Auckland” for “Orkney”.
Now Kathie and I have been in Orkney for three-and-a-half years I realise that my perspective has changed significantly.
The south, to me, once meant the south of England, an area along the south coast and coming a little way inland. Now the south can be anywhere in the UK, except Shetland. For those not familiar with Shetland, that is the last group of islands heading north before you leave the UK – the ones that often appear in a box on a map, or not at all.
The North-East used to mean Newcastle, Sunderland, Hartlepool and Middlesbrough (home of Guy Bailey, former US Ambassador of the People’s Republic of Teesside – you can look him up on Twitter). Now when I refer to the North-East I usually mean Aberdeen.
The East Coast was once to me the coastline around East Anglia, or I might have thought of an area further north, perhaps the coast of East Yorkshire. But now if someone says the East Coast I am likely to think of somewhere in Scotland such as St Andrews or Dundee, or possibly just across the border in Berwick.
The words national and nationwide now potentially lead to confusion for me. If I heard either on a radio news bulletin when I was living in England I would think of the UK as a whole. Now I have to stop myself – what station am I listening to? Is it BBC Radio Scotland? In which case national or nationwide will mean Scotland. Is it a UK-wide channel? In which case, we are talking about all of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
And there’s another confusing word, though it sounds straightforward enough – mainland. Here in Orkney there are two distinct uses of the word. We might be referring to the mainland of Scotland, ie the part of Scotland that is joined on to England, from where we fly or take the ferry to reach Orkney.
But that is not the word’s most common use here. Mainland is the name of the largest island in Orkney and if someone in Orkney says Mainland that is probably what they are referring to.
Kathie and I live in Mainland Orkney, to be precise in what is known as West Mainland.
There is potential confusion as well between the collective noun for Shetland and Orkney and that for the more northerly of the Orkney islands. But with care this can be avoided.
Shetland and Orkney are the Northern Isles – they will frequently be referred to as such in UK-wide BBC Weather forecasts, and elsewhere.
And North Isles is the correct term for Orkney’s more northerly islands such as North Ronaldsay and Westray.
There’s a Paul McCartney song called Flaming Pie, the title track of an excellent album, which includes the lyric:
“I took my brains out and stretched ’em on the rack
“Now I’m not so sure I’m gonna get ’em back.”
It’s a bit like that for me. My brains have been stretched, I have a different perspective on the world and the old perspective won’t be coming back.
To find out more