Two flights take me there: Manchester to Aberdeen and then Aberdeen to Kirkwall. From the Rainy City, to the Granite City, to Kirkjugavr (Norse meaning Church Bay).
This takes me back to the school bus, once more the backseat boy.
A sudden flash of the sun catches me unawares.
Didn’t last long, back to surfing the shadows of the north.
Somewhere below lies the Orkney archipelago, a scattering of around seventy islands.
“Beyond Britannia, where the endless ocean opens, lies Orkney.” Orosius, 5th Century.
I have just started reading a book by Adam Nicholson called Sea Room. Aged just 21, Nicholson inherited three islands, the Shiants, five miles off Harris. He describes his book as a love letter to them. On the front cover it says ‘the story of one man, three islands and half a million puffins.’
I showed it to my wife. I cannot begin to tell you how excited she looked.
Nicholson described his book as an attempt to tell the whole story in as many dimensions as possible:
geologically, spiritually, botanically, historically, culturally, aesthetically, ornithologically, etymologically, emotionally, politically, socially, archaeologically, and personally.
I can relate to all of this when I think of Orkney.
And so we descend, as though through differing strata of time.
In a great expanse of sea, the islands rear up, green, yellow, and moated.
This is my core place-the place where, in my absence, I often return. Picking up a George Mackey Brown novel, I am transported back, walking again the besieged coast, reconnecting with the remnants of unknown lives. When I see the weather forecast, I see the tiny marks off the coast of Northern Scotland, and feel once again the wind on my face, hear the whisper of a long dead tongue.
When I think of Orkney, there is a particular feel that goes with it. It is not a foreign country, with a strange culture or alien way of life. It is not that far away, in travel time.
But somehow, it is different.
For my first visit, I packed my thermals and my waterproofs, expecting to have to brave the elements to get the most out of my time there. I got sunburnt in the first few hours. Locals assured me that this was not the norm.
Returning to Kirkwall airport, after three days, to depart once again for home, an ominous bank of fog followed in our wake.
Blind to omens and portents, I did not know then that I would be returning later that year, in the depths of dark December.