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.

Disappear into the vanishing point

It was a day to venture into the grey, away from the news and away from my sadness and incomprehension at what’s happening in the world. Although I’m outside, alone, I’m also in my head, and also alone there. These landscapes—these thin places—exist perhaps only in my inner life and imaginings. I walk to escape, and I write about the walks to extend the escape into something else, a feeling of comfort reified beyond the mere memory of the escape.

All of these places exist, and none of them.

I am here, at Edinburgh Park, with time to kill, or at least sufficient to render it unconscious for a brief spell.

And so I walked for an hour or so, walking to nowhere, skirting the outskirts. I’d never explored here before; there was no need. This place leads nowhere and comes from nothing. It’s a business park and I have no business with it.

But in fact, as I soon discovered, I’d entered into a landscape of subtle, if awkward, poetry in the company of the poets themselves.


It seems a simple mechanism, although perhaps not everyone is so fortunate: one foot in front of the other foot. No destination, no expectation. Intuition as a guide. I’m more and more thankful for this kind of walking, for the desire and the need to walk, for the places and the spaces, both real and unreal, in which I can walk.

The skies slid a little as I wandered, from a colour the taste of ashes to a fuller, duller slate. Brooding skies. Did they move because I walked? As in many transformative tales, I reached a crossroads, of sorts. I crossed over, looked right, looked left. Only a vivid emptiness toward the tramlines’ vanishing point.

Blocks of buildings, empty offices, a tram with no passengers. It’s a supremely functional landscape, although it’s not functioning today.

But then I’m surprised to find a man-made loch in the middle of this deserted business park, a mirror in and of the silence at large here. More of an ornamental lochan, Loch Ross is quiet, its waters still and dark on this gloomy Saturday. If the Monday to Friday working week is the daytime of this place, perhaps the weekend is its nightscape. This all does feel a little dreamlike, but it’s probably just because I didn’t expect it, didn’t anticipate the strange juxtaposition of what is to come next.

At least there are safety measures in case the silence gets too much.

Please do not feed the waterfowl.

I do not feed the waterfowl.

The waterfowl are, it seems, in hiding.

The poets are not in hiding.

I didn’t feed them either.

Dotted around this lochan are a number of bronze busts of Scottish poets. I first stumble on the herm of W. S. Graham as I move down the path; he looks young, serious and oxidised to a verdant shimmer. Graham is a favourite, and it makes me grin to find him here so unexpectedly. It feels like a good omen. Then I spy the other disembodied heads punctuating this body of water’s whispered imperative: walk, here, Brian, in this most constructed of spaces.

Or maybe, surely, of course we never know
What we have said, what lonely meanings are read
Into the space we make. And yet I say
This silence here for in it I might hear you.

I say this silence or, better, construct this space
So that somehow something may move across
The caught habits of language to you and me.

W. S. Graham, from The Constructed Space

I wander away from the loch and further out into this zone of dream. Here it feels like some kind of a launchpad or threshold. I feel watched and yet completely alone. The subtle gaze of the poets is gone, but something else remains, hanging in the air and undispelled by winds. A sense of incompletion, a never-reaching, older than any of the structures here.

The beech hedges are brittle and a signal that Spring is still some way off. Under that sky it’s hard to believe it will ever arrive.

An underground car park entrance stands out amid so many cuboid structures, dropped like stray bricks on the greenbelt. It feels almost like part of a ship, listing in the concrete swell.

The light does not shift. The skies don’t change from their roiling greys.

Even now, new forms are emerging in this place. Plazas, buildings, sculpture—unfinished, they don’t exist on the map yet, but they are nonetheless rising from the soil and the rubble. Not so much growth as an awkward emanation, the weeds of late capitalism and a “vision” for liminal living. Green space devoured, with these tokens of public art as the reward. The sculpture on the right in the picture above is Dancer after Degas II by William Tucker. Later I realise I’ve missed seeing The Vulcan by Eduardo Paolozzi, and undertake to go back at some point to make his acquaintance.

All the pathways go on towards that vanishing point again. I look back at the poets and their herms around the diminutive Loch Ross: of the twelve women and men represented there, only Edwin Morgan wrote a poem specifically for his sculpture; it seems fitting to end with it:

A human head would never do
under the mists and rains or tugged
by ruthless winds or whipped with leaves
from raving trees. But who is he
in bronze, who is the moveless one?
The poet laughed, it isn’t me.
It’s nearly me, but I am free
to dodge the showers or revel in them,
to walk the alleys under the stars
or waken where the blackbirds are.
Some day my veins will turn to bronze
and I can’t hear, or make, a song.
Then indeed I shall be my head
staring ahead, or so it seems,
but you may find me watching you,
dear traveller, or wheeling round
into your dreams.

Edwin Morgan, A human head…