There is a romanticism and a melancholy to the islands.
An echo of times past. A hint of meaning that lies just beyond the wind. Meaning whose origin is adorned by labels: Norse, Pictish, Neolithic. A procession of markers that will outlive us all.
I wonder if living here day after day, year after year, causes you to be blasé about it all? Do the markers become invisible, blending in with the rest of the storm-shaped landscape?
I remember seeing a documentary a few years back about people living in the Scottish Highlands. Among all that natural beauty and dramatic vistas, the young ones were bored to death. They said that visitors would tell them how lucky they were to be living there. They would reply that there was never anything to do. They would amuse themselves by sending travelling tourists in the opposite direction of the landmarks that they would pull over and ask directions for.
On my first trip to Orkney, an enthusiastic Historic Scotland warden told me that they had a saying there: scrape away a bit of soil and the land bleeds archaeology. I think that this is a generally held view.
On my second visit, in the winter months, I intended one morning to walk part of the coast, dressing accordingly. However, en route to the starting point, I recieved news that the mother of one of my best friends had just died. I felt so far away, so remote. I decided to change my plans and head for Kirkwall Cathedral to light a candle for the woman who I had known for twenty five years. On doing so, I got talking to a guy who worked at the visitor center next door, and he offered to put a documentary film on for me in a side room all about St.Magnus and the founding of the Cathedral. Of course I was still dressed for the coastal walk, and had to begin to shed my layers in that small, heated room.
He looked on with amusement as first my waterproof coat came off, followed by a fleece jacket, then a zip-up top. Then a jumper. A t-shirt. And a thermal vest.
“You’re not as big as ya look are ya?” he exclaimed with a twinkle in his eye.
I gestured to my legs:
“Beneath these waterproof trousers, I’ve got on jeans and longjohns. My legs are really like pipe cleaners.”
With a shake of his head he gave me a look that said ‘you southerners’ which being a native of North West England I have never considered myself before. But in relation to these islands, I suppose I am.
After watching the film I told him of the historic sites that I had visited up to then. In a similar line to that taken by the Historic Scotland warden, he said that the whole mainland, and the surrounding islands, were “infested with archaeology.” He told of farmers that he knew of who had accidentally uncovered some kind of stone remains on their land, and then hurriedly covered them back up before anybody else spotted them, not wanting the inconvenience of conservationists and archaeologists (or tourists such as I) interrupting their work and calander year.
Later, on the bus journey back to Stromness, I looked over in the direction of the Maeshowe tomb, the Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar, and more. I thought of the secrets being revealed at the current dig at the Ness of Brodgar which is blowing all pre-conceived ideas out of the water. Of my visit the day before to Skara Brae, the Neolithic settlement that nobody knew was there until a great storm in 1850 stripped back the layers of sand covering it and exposed it to a sky it had not seen for 4,000 years.
All these tunnels and tombs, standing stones and runes.
How much more is there, hidden out there beneath those flat fields? My eye strayed unbidden to every mound and hint of uneven ground.
A landscape infested. A land that bleeds.
Eventually the earth will give up more of her secrets.
In the end time tells.