Orkney notes, 5 April 2022

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.

Orkney notes, 4 April 2022

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

George Mackay Brown, A Work for Poets