At Longniddry Bents, the teeth of the sea gnawing the horizon’s blues. Seven days on from dad’s death, I walk this unfamiliar shoreline unsure how I should feel, and frayed at the meniscus of making-do.
i.m. James Lavelle, 1934-2022 Longniddry, East Lothian, 19 September 2022
The stone book Turns heavy pages still, whereon The story of Hamnavoe is written. The hills consider Sagas unwritten yet, austere and beautiful.
George Mackay Brown, Waterfront, Hamnavoe
The weather threw rain and hail and blinding sun at us this afternoon as we braved Ness Battery.
It’s a fascinating and sobering site. Maybe war will always be a constant in this lifetime, our reminders these concrete and steel remnants.
Later, I walk out on my own, up Brinkie’s Brae and then through the town of Stromness itself. It rains and sleets and hails, but I am happy.
At the top, I say a few silent words to Bessie Millie, the weather witch, for tomorrow’s crossing of the Pentland Firth. I take a small stone from the hill as a keepsake.
This is the last of these self-indulgent diary entries. Thanks to everyone who has read them—and even liked them.
Home tomorrow, from Stromness/Hamnavoe, to colours somehow far less vibrant than these islands’ dicefalls of precious stones.
I really hope to return to Orkney soon. It’s not like anywhere else I’ve been before.
And the chance to spend time in the town where George Mackay Brown lived most of his life has been a joy.
For now, part of me remains here: under the blue skies, under the grey, on the stones of the past or of the near future, under rain and sleet, under sun, but mostly beneath the colours and contours of Brinkie’s Brae.
Daffodils at the door in April, Three shawled Marys. A lark splurges in galilees of sky.
George Mackay Brown, A Child’s Calendar
Two views of the Brough of Birsay, taken about 90 minutes apart.
The weather, fickle all this week, is a shawled Mary and she bawls and pulls her mantle around the islands. There are daffodils on every roadside on the way here, wind-whipped but resolutely golden. The gales have put paid to any larks but the seabirds are everywhere, carried on currents of soaring air.
We miss the tides and the causeway remains underwater, but it doesn’t matter. I know I can’t set foot in all of these places. Even at this remove, the colours are magical, unattainable.
And it’s the colours of this landscape which have overwhelmed me with their constant shimmer, whether a reflection of sea or of sky. Perhaps the shifting palette of hues is in reality a mirror of Orcadians and their welcoming nature.
I’ll try to memorise the greens and greys and browns and blues of the Orkney tapestry for when we’ve left, but I know I’ll fail.
Later in the day: George Mackay Brown’s rocking chair in Stromness Museum…
…and a photograph of a photograph (again from the museum) of him ensconced in it in his home at 3 Mayburn Court.
I’m not one for the cult of personality but it feels good to stand quietly for a few moments and imagine him seated there right in front of me; almost, for an infinitesimal instant, to catch the spark and sparkle and sadness of those bluest of blue eyes.
But I know that he would wince at the attention, at the spectacle, so I move away after a minute or so and leave him at peace.
Ten thousand raindrops Take their gray courses down the window pane, With gentle pulsings, With small music on the stones outside.
George Mackay Brown, Rain
Kirkwall: the torrent of waters slides at us horizontally and the winds with it. It’s not exactly April showers and so we look for shelter and for safer (drier) havens.
The crimson sandstone of St. Magnus Cathedral pierces the leaden skies and we make for the vaulted doorway beneath its mass of red.
The sheer size of the building is startling, even if Kirkwall is Orkney’s largest community (although I think it has fewer than 10,000 inhabitants).
Hanging from a pillar in the left aisle of the Nave is a 17th century Mort Brod, a wooden death notice commemorating Robert Nicholson, a Kirkwall glazier. This is noted to be one of the oldest of its kind in Scotland and shows the shrouded figure of Death holding an hourglass and spade.
A casket of bones, thought to be those of St. Magnus, murdered on the isle of Egilsay, were discovered here in 1911 during restoration works on the walls of the Choir.
In the Chapel at the eastern end of the cathedral are many commemorations of more recently departed Orkney souls.
George Mackay Brown’s requiem mass, on 16 April 1996, the feast day of St. Magnus, was the first Catholic service in the cathedral since the Reformation.
I felt humbled again today, three times, in three different places. The first was at Skara Brae.
The site at Skara Brae is 5,000 years old. A village, a community, their houses, their possessions, their ways of life. It is older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids at Giza.
It’s hard to take it all in, to take in this sense of shared space and shared love, their lives and deaths, hard not to get excited at the tantalising notion that there are probably other houses hidden under the peat and the earth here and in the surrounding area.
There’s a very good visitor centre and knowledgable, enthusiastic guides, but perhaps all you need is a few moments of silence to stand and look down into these closely gathered houses and contemplate everything that has gone before and everything that is yet to be.
In the last of the snow A great one died. He lies In that stone hollow in the east. A winter sunset Will touch his mouth. He carries A cairngorm on his cold finger To the country of the dead.
George Mackay Brown, Skara Brae
The second place of interest today is the Italian Chapel built by prisoners of war at Lamb Holm during the 1940s. They were brought here to build the Churchill Barriers as a defence against German submarines at Scapa Flow. While there, they were allowed to build a Roman Catholic Church, forged from two Nissen huts and just about anything they could find.
It’s a work of extraordinary beauty and a triumph of the human spirit.
Once again, it’s almost impossible to describe the feeling of standing here in the quiet glow of the fragile painted walls and ceilings. The words don’t come, but they don’t need to: I just look at this small but perfect refuge from life, a hymn to life itself.
The last and most personal journey today is a search, in a blistering cold wind, for the grave of George Mackay Brown in Warbeth Cemetery just outside Stromness.
The cemetery occupies a stunning and, today anyway, quite forbidding place in the landscape. Hoy Sound is a battleship grey mirror of cold in the late afternoon and the island of Hoy itself looms large in the background.
I find the poet’s resting place, eventually: a shy and unassuming block of sandstone among more ostentatious marble markers. It seems an altogether fitting stone for this quiet, gentle man.
Around the edge of the weathered headstone rest the final words from one of his last poems, A Work for Poets:
Carve the runes Then be content with silence.
I stand here in the cold, the wind circling like wolves, and I say nothing.
The captain of the Hamnavoe, Captain Anderson, announces our crossing will have “moderate to rough seas”. I certainly feel it, and the 90 minute voyage from Scrabster to Stromness drags like a wet week.
I’m a poor traveller, and it seems I always will be.
But, on disembarking, I find that my mal de mer vanishes and I fall in love with this town. It was pre-ordained that I would, of course: George Mackay Brown spent most of his life in Stromness and he is one of the principal reasons I find myself here, a bit green around the gills, but contented to be here and to rest, even for a few precious days, in the town where he lived and wrote.
Within half an hour of walking the streets of the town, we have a fortuitous encounter.
It was meant to be. And this was the fourth cat we’d met as we strolled through the cobbled streets of the town. Good omens all of them. Fankle would approve.
Under the last, dead lamp When all the dancers and masks had gone inside His cold stare Returned to its true task, interrogation of silence.
George Mackay Brown, The Poet
Our home for the week is unusual, to say the least.
And there are more than a handful of GMB’s books on the shelves, so if I need any extra reading material, I’m sorted.
The afternoon brought a change of pace with a windswept walk around the Stones of Stenness…
…and the Ring of Brodgar
These extraordinary places humble us with their power and position in what is already an unreal and magical landscape. But they also rest in their innate uncertainty, content in their silence. There are atoms of the last five millennia in every crack and lichen-filled crevice on their unspeaking faces.
To have carved on the days of our vanity A sun A ship A star A cornstalk
Also a few marks From an ancient forgotten time A child may read
That not far from the stone A well Might open for wayfarers
Time is not a conflagration; it is a slow grave sequence of grassblade, fish, apple, star, snowflake.
George Mackay Brown, Greenvoe (1972)
Recently, for one reason or another, I’ve been thinking a lot about time. Or perhaps not about time as an idea, but its passage, the inexorable ebb and flow, sands trickling through the glass, itself a pure form of sand. Time as a flat circle, the clockface without hands. Life as the Great Repetition.
The photograph that opens this post was taken probably around the summer of 1976. Decades and lifetimes ago, anyway. This is the snaking, single-track road that leads from the town of Duirinish to the small crofting village of Drumbuie in the Scottish Highlands. You can barely make us out, but my mum holds me by the hand walking us down the road. I am three years old, nearly four: we are on holiday in the village. My sister Clare is yet to be born. My dad hangs back, taking the photograph as we amble on towards that simple settlement of whitewashed crofters’ cottages and into this future that we’ve fashioned for ourselves. At that very moment, I imagine I am my parents’ world and they are certainly mine alone. The smallest universe encased in an hourglass, where the upper measure of sand seems infinitely plentiful.
This scene on that road has stayed with me for such a long time. It carries the weight of so much personal meaning, and causes a lump in my throat whenever I see it now, whenever I think about its myriad implications. My parents were considerably younger then I am currently, my mum by some margin. And yet, as I edge unnervingly close to being 50, I don’t feel I will ever possess their grace or their wisdom or their settled outlook on life. That world, that black and white film world of the road to Drumbuie, might as well exist in imagination alone. What is there now to compare with how simple life must have been? What have I actually achieved in this endlessly burning building that is the third decade of the twenty first century? I can’t answer either question.
I’m not with my mum and dad today, of course. I will see them soon and we will talk, but not—probably—about what really matters: about what an inspiration they are, these wonderful, kind, gentle people who have made me who I am, and who I don’t tell often enough this one simple and unbreakable truth: I love you.