Ten years in Orkney – now what?

Ten years ago Kathie and I moved to Orkney. By coincidence we arrived on 16 April which is St Magnus Day – he is the patron saint of Orkney.

And so each year we go to St Magnus Kirk in Birsay, not far from where we live, for the annual St Magnus service which also serves for us as a marker in our personal journey. But not this year.

Nothing much changed in our first ten years in Orkney and then, last month – everything changed for everyone in Orkney and beyond. Well, yes and no.

If I spend a little time reflecting I realise we have experienced more change since April 2010 than I imagined at first. Most of the change has been gradual, making it harder to notice, with an occasional sudden, often bad, impact.

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View from our house on St Magnus Day 2020 (image: Graham Brown)

We enjoy a wonderful view from the front of our house across the landscape of Orkney’s West Mainland – and now there are a few extra buildings in the view; our “field” (it’s an enclosure, really) next to the house now has a stone wall all the way around it; inside our home we have decorated and improved some rooms; and we have Roscoe, our rescue Border Collie, who joined us in 2012.

Some change has been less welcome – Kathie’s musical inspiration and friend Keith Emerson died suddenly in 2016, and before his funeral was held my father also passed away unexpectedly. Last year we lost my Uncle David and here in Orkney we have mourned people we knew in our community.

On the positive side, Kathie had a major operation in 2018 which massively improved her mobility and fitness, then in late 2019 released her first album of music in ten years, Facing The Falling Sky.

We both became RSPB volunteers soon after moving to Orkney, and I have ended up as a (very) part-time member of staff. I was privileged to help mark the centenary of the loss of HMS Hampshire, which sank in 1916 off Orkney. I am a member of Harray & Sandwick Community Council. And Kathie and I are both managers, ie committee members, at Quoyloo Old School which is our village hall.

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Kathie and me during the Sound Of Music coach tour in Austria (image: Graham Brown)

In between we have enjoyed several visits to Scotland’s Central Belt, getting to know Edinburgh and Glasgow, as well as visits to Orkney’s beautiful islands, to the in-laws in California and then, after they moved, to Northern Arizona. And Kathie and I spent marvellous holidays in Italy (Bologna) and Austria (Vienna and Salzburg).

All this now seems like another world, before coronavirus, or BC. Already I find myself at home saying something like “do you remember before coronavirus when …?”

Kathie has underlying health issues which mean we mostly avoid the shops. We are lucky that we can get deliveries from our excellent village shop, Isbister Brothers.

We are fortunate in a wider sense because we have my regular pension income. Kathie has managed to carry on teaching her piano students using Skype.

In some ways, for Kathie and me, and I am not making light of this crisis, life does not seem very different. We typically spend time at the house, Kathie working upstairs in her studio and me in my downstairs office. We live in the countryside so we can take Roscoe for his morning walk without meeting anyone.

But then the awfulness of this pandemic – the deaths, the sick, the brave and tired NHS and frontline workers, the closed businesses – will suddenly dawn on me, or Kathie. The radio, TV and online news, rightly, is full of Covid-19. It is important to be well-informed but we avoid watching the TV news just before bedtime to aid a better night’s sleep.

Her Majesty The Queen made a skilfully worded address to the people of the UK on Sunday 5 April, it was moving and reassuring. Later that evening we heard that the Prime Minister had been admitted to hospital with Covid-19 symptoms, then the next day he was moved to intensive care. It was shocking news whether you voted for him or not.

The virus is in Orkney, of course, and at the time of writing it has led to two deaths. We think of the families and friends who are grieving, and unable to hold the funeral they would wish, whatever the cause of their loved one’s passing.

There is a request show on BBC Radio Orkney each Friday evening, something of a local institution, each week for 50 minutes at 6.10pm. Since the lockdown the programme has expanded to fit in the greater number of requests being submitted, starting at 6.00pm and going on beyond 7.00pm.

And now, sadly, folk have started sending dedications to remember their relatives who have passed away – something I do not remember hearing on the programme before. In the absence of a public funeral it is a way to mark their loved one’s passing.

In comparison to the above it hardly seems to matter but like everyone our travel plans are on hold, particularly disappointing for Kathie who wants to visit her elderly parents.

Big events which many of us were looking forward to watching on TV, such as the Eurovision Song Contest, the Olympics and football’s Euro 2020, will not be there.

On a local scale, our monthly village quiz finished early before its summer break. We are not alone, of course, here in Orkney, like the rest of Scotland, the UK and much of the world, everything is off.

In fact, all the markers of a typical Orkney year are gradually being cancelled, such as Orkney Folk Festival, Orkney Nature Festival (along with all RSPB events), the St Magnus International Festival and Stromness Shopping Week. Who knows whether the Orkney County Show and our other agricultural shows, such as the West Mainland Show near us, will go ahead?

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One of my favourite pictures: Roscoe and me on the Brough of Birsay (image: Kathie Touin)

When we finally come out of this, whenever that will be, what will be different?

How many Orkney businesses, reliant on tourism, will survive this? There were more than 150 cruise ship visits to Orkney in 2019 – will we ever see so many visiting again? Do we want to?

The environment will have enjoyed some relief from humans, will we build on that to create a greener future? Or will we turbocharge oil, aircraft and cars as we rush to rebuild economies?

What about the NHS? Will it receive greater funding? Or will people – and I’m afraid this is particularly true of some English people – go back to their old ways of wanting great public services along with low taxes. Spoiler alert: you can’t have both.

Will we look again at our UK immigration policies? Seeing the tragic losses of NHS staff it is noticeable how many have backgrounds outside the UK.

Where will Scotland and the UK be politically after this? Will Brexit still seem like a good idea, assuming anyone gets time to organise it? What about Scottish independence? What other unexpected political movements might flow from this?

It is as if the ground is shifting under us, like some giant slow-motion earthquake. The aftershocks will go on for years to come and none of us know what they will throw up and where we will all be at the end of this.

Ten years in Orkney – much has changed. For all of us.

Thank you to everyone working for us at this time, whether in the NHS, the care sector, shops, the postal service, local councils, emergency services, wherever – thank you.

Stay safe if you can.

And let’s keep an eye on the future: let’s see if we can make it better than it might have been.

Graham Brown

To find out more

Covid-19 advice from the Scottish government – https://www.gov.scot/coronavirus-covid-19/

More information from Orkney Islands Council – https://www.orkney.gov.uk/

Please don’t come now but you would be very welcome if you wish to visit Orkney in the future – https://www.orkney.com/

Update (17 April 2020)

A few hours after I published this blog entry it was announced that all six of Orkney’s agricultural shows have been cancelled for 2020. Here is a report from The Orcadian – https://www.orcadian.co.uk/orkneys-six-agricultural-shows-cancelled-for-2020/

A Californian and an Englishman taking part in momentous Scottish events

Flag of Scotland: Saint Andrew's Cross, or the Saltire
Flag of Scotland: Saint Andrew’s Cross, or the Saltire

So, after weeks and months of campaigning – years and decades for some – we are coming towards the end of the Scottish independence referendum campaign. The vote on 18 September is three weeks away and the pace of debate and argument is more frantic. Many of us watched this week a heated, that is code for shouty and ill-tempered, debate between First Minister Alex Salmond, speaking for Yes Scotland, and Better Together’s Alistair Darling.

When my Californian wife Kathie Touin and I, an Englishman, moved to Orkney four years ago we never imagined we would be participating in the biggest vote in Scotland, and in the United Kingdom, for more than 300 years. It could lead to the biggest change in the United Kingdom since Ireland became independent, perhaps ever.

It is a privilege to live here at this time, and it is wonderful that – some social media abuse from a minority aside – the campaign has been conducted peacefully, politely and democratically. And, if friends in England are not sure, yes, as British citizens resident in Scotland Kathie and I do get to vote in the referendum.

There have been many public meetings to debate the issues – we went to one such event in our small village of Quoyloo. And Kathie went to a women’s conference in Kirkwall. How many years since political campaigns have inspired public meetings? I can vaguely remember as a child going to one such meeting, in Huntingdon, I think, to see Huntingdonshire MP David Renton speak at an election meeting – that must have been about 50 years ago.

Of course, the vote on 18 September will not settle everything, whether Scotland decides to go independent or to stay in the United Kingdom. Either way the future for Scotland, and the UK, is uncertain, but exciting as well. I get the feeling that folk in England are only just starting to realise and consider the possibilities. Those living in Wales and Northern Ireland, I suspect, may have given it more thought.

On the day I will be voting for… against… come now, you would not expect an old-fashioned ex-BBC employee brought up on impartiality to give that away would you?

But I will tell you this. I am concerned about the Scottish Government’s proposals for broadcasting in an independent Scotland.

Broadcasting was not mentioned as a topic in either Salmond v Darling TV debate and has only briefly, for a day or two, been in the media coverage of the debate. But, for me, it is important.

In summary, the Scottish Government, ie the Scottish National Party, proposes a Scottish Broadcasting Service (SBS), funded by the existing TV Licence fee, at the existing rate of £145.50-a-year. The SBS will provide TV, radio and online services, working in a joint venture with the BBC – not something the BBC and Licence payers in England will necessarily want.

We are told that we can expect to retain BBC Alba (Gaelic TV channel) but also to receive a new TV channel (details unspecified).

On radio, we will continue to receive the existing BBC stations Radio Scotland and Radio nan Gaidhael (Gaelic), and a new radio station (details, again, unspecified).

The SBS will also provide online services, to include a news website and a catch-up player.

In addition, SBS will have the right to opt-out of BBC One and BBC Two, as BBC Scotland does now. This proposal also has issues, will the BBC want to cede editorial control for chunks of its BBC-branded channels?

We are assured, under these proposals, that popular programmes like EastEnders, Doctor Who and Strictly Come Dancing will still be available. Leaving aside the question of why EastEnders is popular – every trail I see for it seems to be unmitigated gloom – I think this is correct. Even if BBC channels were not available in Scotland, programmes like these can easily be bought in by a Scottish broadcaster.

But how do these proposals add up when we think of the full range of BBC services? Somehow, without increasing the Licence Fee, and without taking advertising (as RTE does in Ireland), viewers and listeners in Scotland will get everything they do now plus a new TV channel and a new radio channel.

To me, it doesn’t add up. Something would have to give. For example, a BBC that no longer has to cater for Scottish licence payers could decide to turn off, or stop maintaining, transmitters north of the border. Can we guarantee getting the full range of BBC programmes? BBC Radio 4? Or BBC Radio 3? What about BBC Four? Or the BBC News channel?

We are told that people in many other countries receive BBC channels quite happily. But, in truth, they do not get the full range of services, and they are likely to be paying extra to get BBC channels. My friend in Belgium, for example, gets BBC One and BBC Two as part of his cable subscription. If he wanted to get more channels, he would have to pay more. And only some BBC Radio services are available.

I also have a concern about our local service here, BBC Radio Orkney. We get a properly staffed, professional news service, giving us a 30-minute news programme each morning, and a lunchtime bulletin, as well as a weekly request show and, during the winter months, nightly documentary, music and community programmes.

Given that the Scottish Government proposals seem to be trying to get a quart out of a pint pot – or whatever the metric equivalent might be – some cuts in existing output might be needed. Someone (in Glasgow or Edinburgh) might decide to reduce Radio Orkney to a morning-only service, or perhaps a joint service with BBC Radio Shetland, with a dedicated reporter or two in each place? Hopefully not.

Now, you might think my concern about broadcasting is mis-placed and that the Scottish Government proposals make sense. Or, you might think that voting for independence will give Scotland a chance to get its own TV and radio services and losing some BBC channels would be a price worth paying. One person on Twitter – @AAAForScotland – contacted me after I raised this issue to say: “BBC! lived without it for years out of choice I would never miss it, personal boycott in protest anti Scots.”

At the beginning of the referendum campaign I predicted that the result would be close. I stand by my prediction. Here in Orkney I would be amazed if there is a majority for independence. But across Scotland? It might just happen.

The night of Thursday 18 September could be very interesting. And not just for those of us living in Scotland.

To find out more

Scotland’s Future: Your Guide To An Independent Scotland –http://scotreferendum.com/reports/scotlands-future-your-guide-to-an-independent-scotland/

Better Together –
http://bettertogether.net/

BBC Annual Report 2013/14 –
http://www.bbc.co.uk/annualreport/2014/home/

Lord Birt says Scotland would lose many BBC services after yes vote –http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/aug/19/lord-birt-scotland-bbc-independent

Scottish independence: ‘Yes’ vote would ‘devastate’ broadcasting –http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-28863806

Post-independence break up of BBC would be ‘devastating’ says Curran –http://news.stv.tv/scotland-decides/news/288964-post-independence-break-up-of-bbc-would-be-devastating-says-curran/

Scottish independence: BBC services might not be free, says ex-Trust member –http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-27116556

My previous blog on this subject, Across the Border: Broadcasting In An independent Scotland (2013 article) –
https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2013/06/27/broadcasting-in-scotland/

How would the BBC be divided if Scotland became independent? (2012 article) – http://www.theguardian.com/politics/reality-check-with-polly-curtis/2012/feb/29/how-would-the-bbc-be-divided-if-scotland-became-independent