The rhythms and markers of an Orcadian year

Well, here we are with just a fortnight until December 21st, the shortest day of the year – a strange description really, we mean of course the shortest daylight of the year. All being well, December 21st will be 24-hours in duration like all other days.

Here in Orkney our hours of daylight do get pretty short, especially in gloomy weather such as we have experienced here latterly. I recently read the autobiography of the late Jo Grimond, former Orkney and Shetland MP, and Leader of the then Liberal Party. He accurately described our overcast days being as if the sky is on the roof of the house.

Such days remind me of the title of an atmospheric play I saw many years ago in King’s Lynn – a town I left in 1982. Called Days Here So Dark, the play was about a Scottish island community in the dark days of winter. A quick bit of internet research tells me it was actually set in the Hebrides, and written by Terry Johnson.

Currently in Orkney it is only just getting light enough to take our dog Roscoe for his morning walk after eight o’clock. And his afternoon run in the field needs to be completed by four o’clock.

But come the 21st and we know the Orkney days will start to stretch out again, perhaps slowly at first but soon quickly – because by the summer we will get to a point where it doesn’t get properly dark at night. So our Orkney daylight is like a concertina being smartly squeezed in and out again.

This is one of the rhythms of life which I notice much more living here than I did in London. Yes, of course, I would spot markers such as Christmas Day or New Year’s Day, and, depending on your interest, the beginning of the football season or the start of the BBC Proms.

But there seem to be more rhythms and markers here in Orkney. Perhaps being semi-retired gives me more time to notice, and living in a rural environment also helps.

When we moved to Orkney we arrived, without realising it at the time, on St Magnus Day, April 16th. This is a key point in the local calendar. St Magnus is Orkney’s patron saint and our cathedral in Kirkwall is dedicated to him, as is the much smaller St Magnus Kirk in Birsay, just a short drive from our house. People here still feel an attachment to Magnus, 900 years after he died.

St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall
St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall (image: Graham Brown)

My wife, Kathie Touin, and I are thrilled that we accidentally arrived on St Magnus Day, it feels like a good omen. We like to go to the St Magnus Day service at the kirk, though this year we missed it due to visiting family in Arizona.

Orkney retains strong links with our Scandinavian neighbours. Remember, Orkney was ruled by Norway until the 15th century. Hence, another marker in our local calendar is Norway Constitution Day, celebrated on May 17th with a parade in Kirkwall and a service in the cathedral.

There are many natural rhythms in Orkney. Recently the farmers have been putting the cattle into their winter quarters. Sometimes we can hear them in the nearby barn – our Orcadian neighbour describes it as the kye (cattle) bogling, a wonderful word. Come the spring, the cattle will be outside again – and sometimes staring from the field through our kitchen window. I wonder what they think of us?

Orkney – being a group of about 70 islands off the north coast of Scotland, placed between the Atlantic and the North Sea – is also a good place to see migrant birds, particularly in the more northerly of our islands which can be the first landfall they reach.

And it’s not just birds. Recently one lucky person in a boat, off the Orkney island of Papa Westray, saw two humpback whales on migration…

https://www.facebook.com/video.php?v=763651183671139

But even near our home, in West Mainland, Orkney, we get to see different birds come and go, if not rarities – and certainly not whales.

For example, in the summer we watch great skuas, or bonxies as they are known locally, cruising past, with their white wing-markings looking like insignia on fighter aircraft – very appropriate for such an aggressive bird. Now they are wintering in Africa.

In the spring we see curlew, lapwing and oyster catchers gathering to nest. Down at the nearby coast we can watch Arctic terns, which have the longest migration of all birds – in the winter they can be found in the Antarctic, not the Arctic.

In the autumn many migrant geese come to Orkney and they are joined by groups of men with guns – not my favourite aspect of Orkney, to be honest, nor for Roscoe who dislikes the gun noise. Roscoe also dislikes the fireworks that mark November the 5th – and nowadays the surrounding weekends – here as elsewhere in Britain.

Orkney Nature Festival outing to uninhabited island of Switha (image: Graham Brown)
Orkney Nature Festival outing to uninhabited island of Switha (image: Graham Brown)

But I’ve jumped ahead – winding backwards, Orkney is fortunate to have a series of festivals through the summer months to cater for most, if not all, tastes. These include the Orkney Folk Festival, Orkney Nature Festival, the St Magnus International Festival (arts), Orkney International Science Festival and Orkney Blues Festival. All markers through our year.

In July comes Stromness Shopping Week, with games, music and events in Orkney’s second town Stromness – though residents would argue it is the first town, Kirkwall being a city and somehow not so good anyway. The week finishes with the Shopping Week Parade, which sees large floats, sometimes in tandem, towed through the narrow streets of the town by tractors. The float themes are sometimes in questionable taste but always funny. I wrote about the 2011 parade on Kathie’s blog, before I launched my own…

https://kathietouin.wordpress.com/category/stromness-shopping-week/

Every August on a Saturday is one of the biggest events in the calendar – the Orkney County Show. This is a big social occasion, as well as a chance to view the livestock, the newest agricultural equipment, the trade stands and the fantastic local crafts and produce on sale.

In fact, we have several agricultural shows around Orkney leading up to the County. Here in our patch we have the West Mainland Show in Dounby, always held on the Thursday before the County. I think I prefer this – it is our local event (we can see the showground from our house) and this year we had glorious sunny weather.

Orkney Vintage Rally 2014 (image: Graham Brown)
Orkney Vintage Rally 2014 (image: Graham Brown)

Then on the day after the County Show it is the Orkney Vintage Club’s Rally, held at the Auction Mart site in Kirkwall. You are guaranteed a wonderful line-up of old cars and vehicles – and if that’s not your sort of thing, there’s always the car boot sale, the refreshments and the friendly folk.

Recently, November 8th in fact, Kathie and I went to the old school here in Quoyloo – a kind of village hall – to join in the annual celebration of Harvest Home. I don’t know how far back these events go but they are a great opportunity to meet neighbours and make new friends over a meal, some drinks and some dancing to live music. Full credit to the voluntary committee members who make it happen. Sadly, many villages no longer have a harvest home event due to lack of support.

The author on RSPB Orkney Local Group stand at the Charities Bazaar (image: Pauline Wilson)
The author on RSPB Orkney Local Group stand at the Charities Bazaar (image: Pauline Wilson)

For the last couple of years our village’s harvest home has fallen on the same day as the Christmas Charities Bazaar, held in Kirkwall Town Hall and organised by Voluntary Action Orkney. This is also becoming a marker in our calendar as both Kathie and I are involved with the RSPB stall through being committee members of the charity’s Orkney Local Group.

Soon Christmas itself will have arrived. But wait, before that we – being a part-American family – have to fit in Thanksgiving. It falls on the fourth Thursday of November. We cook a large turkey and, naturally, eat variations on turkey meals for several days. So does the dog.

After Christmas the year is rounded off, and the new year begun, back at the old school in Quoyloo with a Hogmanay party.

The Northern Lights - from our house! (photo: Kathie Touin)
The Northern Lights – from our house! (image: Kathie Touin)

Finally I should say that it is not always overcast here during the winter. When the skies are clear we get beautiful sunny days and at night spectacular displays of stars, just by stepping out of our front door. We look at the planets, the Milky Way, we’ve seen shooting stars, satellites, the International Space Station – it’s fabulous. Sometimes we can see the Northern Lights.

And it’s odd to think that in the long summer days, when it doesn’t get dark here at night, the celestial rhythms and patterns are still all out there – it’s just that we can’t see them.

Graham Brown

To find out more

Discover Orkney – http://www.discover-orkney.co.uk/

St Magnus Cathedral – http://www.stmagnus.org/

Wikipedia on Orkney – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orkney

Wikipedia on St Magnus Cathedral – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Magnus_Cathedral

RSPB bird guide – http://www.rspb.org.uk/discoverandenjoynature/discoverandlearn/birdguide/

RSPB Orkney on Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/RspbOrkney

Orkney Nature Festival on Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/OrkneyNatureFestival

Orkney Nature Festival – http://www.orkneynaturefestival.org/

Orkney Blues Festival – http://www.orkneyblues.co.uk/

Orkney Folk Festival – http://www.orkneyfolkfestival.com/

Orkney International Science Festival – http://oisf.org/

St Magnus International Festival – http://www.stmagnusfestival.com/

Orkney Vintage Club – http://www.orkneycommunities.co.uk/ORKNEYVINTAGECLUB/

Voluntary Action Orkney – http://www.vaorkney.org.uk/

Published by Graham Brown

I am Graham Brown, author of this blog, an Englishman living in Orkney since St Magnus Day 2010. I’m married to musician, singer and songwriter Kathie Touin. I am a member of Harray & Sandwick Community Council and a Manager (committee member) of Quoyloo Old School (community centre). I volunteer with the RSPB. I was on the committee which restored Orkney’s Kitchener Memorial and created the HMS Hampshire wall. I belong to the Radio Caroline Support Group, Orkney Field Club and Orkney Heritage Society. I spent nearly 24 years at the BBC in London. Remember: One planet, don’t trash it.

One thought on “The rhythms and markers of an Orcadian year

  1. Lovely post (thank you David Goddin for sharing on twitter) – I find that paying attention to the rhythms and markers of the year helps me get through the drab short days of winter. I look for the smallest signs – the bright crisp days when there is a hint of warmth in the low winter sun, the first buds and shoots that herald the approach of spring and mutter to myself, “not long now, not long now” like a mantra to ward off the darkness. Particularly important on dull grey mizzly days like today when you feel the leaden sky is resting “on the roof of the house”.

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