‘It’s brilliant!’ – Aiden’s reply, on the life and death practices of the Neolithic people of Orkney.
A couple of days back, I found out that wind farms were a visual pest on Orkney. Having spent the night sleeping under one, I can say that they’re not so bad, sonically speaking. The night’s howling wind sent the turbine propeller into warp speed ten, but its gentle hypnotic patter and the tent’s protection from the rain combined into a cosy cocoon.
In the morning light, my tent and I find ourselves ridiculously exposed to the string of houses near opposite. I pack up furtively, and cycle back to Kirkwall for a second examination. At night, the harbour town was deserted and intriguing. By day, it is bustling with tourists, locals, and people plying some kind of trade towards each. Along its semi-pedestrianised narrow main lane, I pass puppeteers and horse-drawn carriages by the tourist cafes, mega dealz discount shops and gift stores. The bait? Laid out nearby are the grand St. Magnus Cathedral and the ruins of the nearby Bishop’s and Earl’s Palaces. Around nine tenths of the current population of Orkney seem to be around these two proximate sites, documenting any kind of visual feature with the kinds of cameras that a decade back paparazzi would have sold their mother’s kidney for.
‘Aye, there’s people in the country. But I’ve never been there’. – George, Lerwick.
I’ve gone off the map…
There’s been a gradual imperceptible transition from what felt like normality – retail parks, major supermarkets, traffic lights, dual carriageways, petrol stations, Greggs’ the bakers, mass unemployment and a depressing concentration of abysmal overpriced housing – into a smoother stream of forests, fields of heather, and great gliding spaces of well … nothing I’ve ever been prepared for.
The name of this beautiful wildflower scattered across these fields where red deer cross, untroubled by cars? The origins of these great rising bens, touching the skies like the vertebrae of fallen giants? Or the geological explanation for these eye-boggling gorges and glens that tear through the terrain like a hyperactive seismograph?
To a person familiar only with the largest of cities, all this is disturbing me, seizing me up, shaking my imagination, a violent ventriloquism. At times it’s too bleak to be pleasant, but the mind is twisted and transformed by it. Beauty becomes a kind of normality.
‘The technical word for this is fucked’ – Steve, Orkney.
There’s little evidence for the passage of time in Orkney. It’s a place to come and disappear. Anyone thinking of faking their own deaths for whatever purpose, take note. There’s no need to travel to Panama like John Darwin of Seaton Carew, or disappear in some Mexican river like Arthur Cravan.
Even Elvis Presley could conceivably have arrived here without raising an eyebrow. I can picture The King dawdling across St. Margaret’s Hope harbour and into a taxi run by a farmer whose crops are out of season. It being a solitary occupation, the farmer, let’s call him Gerard, doesn’t even look up to inspect his rear passenger. Later, responding to an ad in a local rag, Elvis sports an oversized waterproof coat and trapper hat, and traded a few gold records for a third-hand fishing boat with some local. He lived out the remainder of his days just off the coast of North Ronaldsay, failing to ever work out how to fish trout.
‘And on the eighth day, God opened his bowels and out came…’ – Russell, Orkney, on home.
A weird young man greets me on the road leaving Auckengill where I slept the previous night. In the midnight confusion, what seemed like the disused remains of a former country lane turned out to be a road drainage ditch. Once nestled inside my tent, I could hear and feel great piles of discarded plastic bottles and car debris crumpling under the thick grass. The cool morning and unfamiliar landscape is already disorientating.
He has a large rock tied to the back of his bike, and dons an old farmer’s tweed blazer and a pair of dirty jeans, several sizes too large. At first I can’t understand him. Accents have changed since Wick, gas a more lilting and Irish twang, a kind of Hollywood attempt at rural Irishness. That’s not to make light of this distinct north eastern Highlands lilt. Kevin asked me where I’d heard the best spoken English. ‘I’m not sure, everywhere I hear good and bad’, I’d told him. I don’t think there is a good model. He disagrees, and says that it’s in the Highlands. ‘Here people speak most clearly. We’re the easiest to understand, it’s our articulation’.