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.

IMG_20200416_094355110_HDR
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.

IMG_20191008_155442345
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?

man_dog
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/

Spring into summer via Edinburgh

Spring into summer? Well, it’s been more of a stumble.

One of the aspects of life which surprises me about Orkney is the amount of nasty viruses going around the place. You might imagine that with all this fresh air we would be immune to them. Perhaps it is because this is a sociable, friendly place that we share germs more easily.

Either way, in the last two months I have had two nasty viruses, both of which laid me low for a week or so. As a London friend said to me, knowing Orkney’s windy reputation, “You would imagine the germs would all blow away.”

Moreover, the weather has not been all one might have hoped for recently – some days in June have felt more like stormy April days and now we are officially “in the summer” it would be nice to have completely dispensed with hats, coats and using electric lights in the evening.

But there is sunshine as well as rain and so everything in our garden is growing fast, including the weeds. Mrs Brown (Kathie Touin) and I need to spend more time gardening but it is encouraging to see the flowers that Kathie planted blooming colourfully and the trees we have planted since arriving in 2010 becoming tall.

At the beginning of May I spent a three-night weekend in Edinburgh. It is strange how, with time, one’s centre of gravity can change. When I lived in London I was only vaguely aware of Edinburgh. Now, through repeated visits from Orkney, parts of Edinburgh seem as familiar as areas of London I used to frequent such as Ealing and Shepherd’s Bush.

img_20190503_172014.jpg
“In memory of our precious babies, gone but never forgotten.” Sculpture by Andy Scott in Princes Street Gardens (image: Graham Brown)

On this latest visit to Auld Reekie, solo as Kathie stayed at home working, I visited the Scottish National Gallery, Princes Street Gardens, Waverley railway station, St Giles Cathedral, the Royal Mile, as well as some charity – and other – shops.

The gallery has a superb collection and gave me the chance to see again some of my favourite paintings, such as John Singer Sargent’s Lady Agnew of Lochnaw (see previous blog – Carry On In The Central Belt). This time I also bought the fridge magnet!

In Princes Street Gardens, in the hail and sleet, I was taken with a new sculpture of a baby elephant. Next to it a sign says: “In memory of our precious babies, gone but never forgotten.” The sculptor is Andy Scott and it was unveiled in the gardens in February this year.

img_20190503_164236.jpg
Plaque to commemorate Sir Nigel Gresley at Edinburgh Waverley station (image: Graham Brown)

Still on the theme of remembering, I took a walk through Waverley station to soak up the atmosphere and chanced upon a commemorative plaque to Sir Nigel Gresley, one of my late father’s heroes. I had not realised Sir Nigel was born in Edinburgh. He designed some of Britain’s most-famous steam locomotives, including The Flying Scotsman (which Kathie and I saw at Waverley, also in my Carry On In The Central Belt blog) and Mallard, holder of the world speed record for a steam locomotive at 126mph.

In St Giles’ Cathedral I listened to a wonderful organ recital performed by Michael Harris. The music sounds superb in the cathedral’s acoustic and I particularly liked Boellmann’s Suite Gothique. There are regular concerts and recitals at the cathedral, or High Kirk, so do seek them out if you visit Edinburgh.

And, of course, it seems impossible for me to go anywhere these days without visiting charity shops. I came home with 11 CDs – everything from the latest album by Clean Bandit to the soundtrack from Sound Of Music (for more on my CD habit see my blog The Newest (And Most Addictive) Joy Of Charity Shops).

The main reason for my visit was to see Gretchen Peters in concert, again. I am a great fan of her music and it is always beautifully performed with accompanying musicians including her partner, pianist Barry Walsh. The venue was the intimate Queen’s Hall.

This time the other band members were the excellent guitarist Colm McClean and bass (upright and electric) player Conor McCreanor, both from Northern Ireland.

The second half of the show featured a string quartet which added a superb dimension to already-super songs of Gretchen’s such as The Secret Of Life, Blackbirds, On A Bus To St Cloud and Ghosts.

Two individual members of the quartet also made appearances towards the end of the first half, one of the violinists on the song Matador, and the cellist adding to the two closing songs of the half, Five Minutes and Idlewild, which left me in an emotional heap.

There is a link to all of Gretchen’s videos at the bottom of this blog but, for now, here is Five Minutes (in a live performance by Gretchen and Barry) and Idlewild (as originally recorded)…

I should also add that Gretchen and her partner Barry are friendly and decent people who take time at the end of their concerts to sign and chat. This time the merchandise on offer included something I have never seen at a concert before… tea towels! There is method to this madness, the closing song on the latest album Dancing With The Beast being Love That Makes A Cup Of Tea. Yes, of course, I bought a tea towel (and one for my mother-in-law).

My blogs have, unlike my CD-buying habit, become irregular.

Among the many events between my February Arizona trip (see previous blog, Arizona: Take Three) and my May Edinburgh trip – along with RSPB and Quoyloo Old School volunteering – were attending the unveiling of Orkney’s witchcraft memorial and a wonderful concert by the band Fara in Orkney Theatre. Do go see Fara if they come your way.

img_20190317_142127.jpg
Members of the current RNLI Longhope lifeboat crew prepare to lay wreaths to the men lost with the TGB in 1969 (image: Graham Brown)

I spent a moving day on the island of Hoy on 17 March joining the commemorations for the 50th anniversary of the loss of the Longhope lifeboat, TGB, with all eight men aboard. The islanders made everyone welcome and the events were a testament to the human spirit and man’s love for his fellow man. When individual wreaths were laid to each of those lost by members of the current crew, some of whom are descendants of the eight, it brought tears to the eyes.

And, on 16 April, Kathie and I marked nine years since our move to Orkney by attending the annual St Magnus Day service in St Magnus Kirk, Birsay, not far from where we live. St Magnus is the patron saint of Orkney and, by accident, we moved to Orkney on his saint’s day.

Since Edinburgh events have included what I think might be my first tribute band concert – What The Floyd at Orkney Theatre, the annual Orkney Nature Festival nature cruise organised by the RSPB and Northlink Ferries (always great fun and a great social event, this year we were treated to a pod of passing Risso’s dolphins), an informal gathering at Marwick Head to mark the 103rd anniversary of the loss of HMS Hampshire, and a visit by friends Tania Opland & Mike Freeman, who performed a gig of their unique take on acoustic world music at Stromness Town Hall. Unfortunately, my second lurgy coincided with latter part of their visit.

Memo to self: must blog more often – and avoid catching germs.

Graham Brown

To find out more

Scottish National Gallery website – https://www.nationalgalleries.org/visit/scottish-national-gallery

Wikipedia: Sir Nigel Gresley – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nigel_Gresley

St Giles’ Cathedral website – https://stgilescathedral.org.uk/

Gretchen Peters website – https://www.gretchenpeters.com/

Gretchen Peters’ videos on YouTube – https://www.youtube.com/user/gretchenpeters/

Fara website – http://faramusic.co.uk/

Longhope Lifeboat on Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/LonghopeLifeboat/

St Magnus Kirk webpage – http://www.birsay.org.uk/heritage.htm#stmagnus

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

Northlink Ferries – https://www.northlinkferries.co.uk/

Wikipedia: Risso’s dolphin – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Risso%27s_dolphin

HMS Hampshire website – http://hmshampshire.org/

Tania Opland & Mike Freeman – http://www.opland-freeman.com/

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/