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.