A Stonewall Certainty

Over here in the UK it’s Boxing Day, a day that is right at the forefront of the No-Man’s Land that lies between Christmas and New Year.

My Boxing Day plans have been ruined by the weather, which is another British certainty.

There are many people who go walking on this day (an activity that is also in the lap of the Gods), but I’d planned to go to watch my local non-league football team play but, alas, a waterlogged pitch has scuppered that.

Then I had a close call when my wife suggested shopping-but while she and my daughter brave the hustle and bustle I’ve managed to retreat into Costa with a book about Orkney. I’m surely due another visit. To Orkney, that is, not Costa.

Anyway, I hope you guys all had a good Christmas, and if not maybe we can navigate this treacherous No-Man’s Land together on the way to 2020.

Catch you soon. It’s raining in Orkney too.

Orkney Odyssey 3: Time Tells

Feeling the need to return.

City Jackdaw

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…

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A Review Of Heading North

The musician and writer Laura Bruno Lilly recently posted a great, incisive review of my poetry collection on her blog, in which she quotes some of the included poems.

It’s always good to be mentioned in the same breath as The Beatles!

My thanks to her for her ‘shoutout’ post.

Here is the link:

http://laurabrunolilly.com/poetry-shoutout-heading-north-by-andrew-james-murray/

 

Lullaby

An art exhibition in the place that I love. The sad fate of stillborn children. Irish folk tales.

Stromness dragon

Four years ago, I wrote this piece in response to the artwork Lullaby by Sheena Graham-George. Today I am going to see the follow-up piece Voices of the Cillin. 

lullaby
Art, of course, is a subjective thing. We bring ourselves to it, and depending on our life experiences thus far, we might respond with anger, with joy, with amusement, with melancholy, or maybe with boredom or non-comprehension. I don’t think anybody could have responded with indifference to the art installation I saw today, because every single one of us was, or is, a child.
Lullaby, by Sheena Graham-George is at first glance a simple piece, comprising thousands of paper butterflies pinned to the wall of a first floor room in The Orkney Museum. They sweep around the room in a great swarm, high and low, crowded in some places, breaking away in others. The floor is bare, but the air is…

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Orkney Odyssey 3: Time Tells

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.

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Fourth Of July-We’re Gonna Need A Bigger Blog

“You yell barracuda, and everyone says “Huh? What?” You yell shark we’ve got a panic on our hands on the fourth of July.”

The Fourth of July has always been the ideal day for me to watch my favourite film: Jaws. Although this time around I may have to do a little bit of juggling. It is World Cup quarter-final day after all.

I first saw the film when I was a child-I can’t remember just how young I was. The certificate was only a PG (on original release it was an A), which is surprising what with Quint being munched upon in glorious technicolour and all. Thirty seven years after its originaI  release it was upgraded to a 12A. I went to see it at the cinema-or the pictures, as we called it, this being long before the days of the multi-screen complexes. I went with my mum and my brother, he being eighteen months younger than me.

I think that age gap counted.

During the film, whenever he heard the music, you know the dum-dum, dum-dum, he would put his coat over his head. Writing dum-dum just doesn’t do John William’s score justice. Try watching it without the music. It is totally different. Totally tamer.

So, whenever he heard the music, which signified the shark’s approach and thus impending danger, he would hide beneath the safety of his coat. He would put it over his head until the sound of the screaming and threshing subsided, then he would emerge again much to my cruel amusement. This method served him well, until the scene where the head of Ben Gardner emerges from the hull of his battered boat without any dum-dum warning. From that point on he remained separated from the screen for the remainder of the movie. It was almost a comfort blanket.

Half-way through the film, the lady appeared down at the front, framed against  the screen, her small bulb above her tray signifying that she was selling drinks and ice-cream. Asked if he wanted an ice cream, his hand came up in a slow re-enactment of the buried Carrie, grasping the money. Next what followed was the comical sight of him walking down to the front of the cinema, head tilted at an angle so that he would not have to look at the screen. Then, clutching his cone, his careful manouvering of the steps in the dark gave way to a frantic run as that music suddenly started up again. Once more he slipped beneath the surface, eating his ice-cream in his shark-resistant parka.

It’s funny how Jaws has remained my favourite film. Perhaps there is something about us being impressionable at a young age. Some of my favourite things have come with me over the decades:

Favourite films: Jaws, Star Wars

Favourite actor: Richard Dreyfuss

Favourite group: The Beatles

Favourite book: To Kill A Mockingbird

No doubt there are others too-I will have to give it some thought. I fear I am starting to get a little self-indulgent again.

When talking of favourite films, I have often had the surprised reaction : “Jaws?!” But its not just the rubber fish eating people-its the study of the relationship between the three men who go out to catch it. The humour and the friction, the drunken scar one-upmanship, and who can forget that chilling  USS Indianapolis scene?

I stayed once at a hotel in the Orkney town of Stromness, where I was thrilled to discover that Robert Shaw had once stayed there. Also, George Mackey Brown used to drink in the bar. I could imagine the hard-drinking actor sharing a whisky or three in there with the writer, holed up from the Scottish storms.

Quint and the poet, both shaped by the sea.

So, today is the perfect summer day (in theory, if not weather) to watch Jaws.

To my friends over the pond, I hope you all have a great Fourth of July.

But remember-stay out of the water.

 

Orkney Odyssey #2: From The Air

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.

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A sudden flash of the sun catches me unawares.

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Didn’t last long, back to surfing the shadows of the north.

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Somewhere below lies the Orkney archipelago, a scattering of around seventy islands.

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“Beyond Britannia, where the endless ocean opens, lies Orkney.” Orosius,  5th Century.

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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.

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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.

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And so we descend, as though through differing strata of time.

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In a great expanse of sea, the islands rear up, green, yellow, and moated.

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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.

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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.

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Orkney Odyssey #1: Of Vikings and Saints

I think that I may have mentioned once or twice before that Orkney is my favourite place. It is the remoteness, the history, the wildlife, everything. Even the weather.

In 2011 I visited twice, but I have not posted about it before as I lost all of the photographs that I had saved onto the memory card of my phone. Grrr!!! However, though I went there alone the second time, on the first visit a friend accompanied me, and I have only recently acquired copies of some of his photographs that I can use. It seems that he too has lost some of his photographs. Conspiracy theories, please?

Intending to do an intermittent series of Orkney themed posts, I thought it would be appropriate to start with St.Magnus. I love reading all the old stories connected to the British Isles, be they history or folklore, Christian or Pagan, and today is the feast day of St.Magnus.

Sometimes it’s all about the timing.

St.Magnus

St.Magnus’ story is recorded in Orkneyinga Saga, beginning in 1098.

The Orkney earldom was divided between two brothers, the Earls Paul and Erland.

The King of Norway, also named Magnus but more memorably known as Magnus ‘Barelegs’, arrived unannounced in Orkney and unseated the two joint-ruling earls, making his own illegitimate son Sigurd as overlord of the islands. Paul and Erland were sent to Norway, where both would die before the winter had ended.

Leaving Sigurd to rule, the King then left on a raiding expedition, taking with him 18 year old Magnus, the eldest son of Earl Erland, and also Haakon, the son of Earl Paul, two cousins who often disagreed. Raiding down the west coast of Scotland, as far south as Anglesey, the story goes that Magnus would not join in the fighting with the Welsh. He chose instead to remain on the ship, singing psalms, as arrows passed overhead. The angry King already disliked Magnus, considering him a coward.

Magnus was said to have later left the ship, one night slipping overboard, to stay somewhere in Scotland, remaining there until the death of King Magnus in Ireland in 1102.

Back in Orkney, Sigurd Magnusson had returned to Norway to become joint ruler there, and here in the islands  Magnus’ cousin Haakon was now the Earl. After some representations to the Norwegian throne, Magnus was granted his Earldom, both cousins ruling, as their fathers had done before them, in an apparent period of peace between 1105 and 1114.

But all good things come to an end.

Magnus was said to be the more popular of the two earls, being pious and a man of peace and authority, while Haakon was warlike and no doubt envious of his cousin’s popularity among the people.

Discord grew between them to the extent that, around 1117, followers of the respective leaders arranged a reconciliatory meeting at Easter, bringing them together on the island of Egilsay.

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The agreement was that both men would bring two ships with a limited, and equal, number of men.

Magnus arrived first, awaiting for his cousin in prayer. When he spied his arrival, complete with eight ships, he must have known what this betrayal of their agreement must have meant. Magnus refused to allow his men to defend him, trying to settle the matter peacefully. Wanting to avoid his cousin being saddled with the guilt of killing him, he made him three offers. He would make a pilgrimage to Rome or Jerusalem, pledging never to return to the Orkney Isles; he would be imprisoned for the rest of his life; or he would be blinded, maimed, and caged forever in a dungeon.

It is said that Haakon was willing to accept the final one of the three offers, but his advisors insisted that his cousin had to be put to death.  Rather than carry out the act himself, Haakon ordered his standard bearer, Ofeig, to kill Magnus, but the warrior refused. Haakon angrily then ordered his cook, Lifolf, to do the deed. Lifolf wept, but Magnus comforted him:

Be not afraid for you do this against your will and he who forces you sins more than you do.”

Magnus knelt before him. Not wanting to suffer a beheading like a common criminal, he asked that he be struck hard on the head, and told the cook that he had prayed to God for him to be forgiven for this act.

Magnus’ skull was cleaved in two by the blow.

A man stands before you, Magnus.

He is poor. He’s in tears.

The axe shakes in his hands.

The spring morning is very cold.

Put your coat-of-state about him, Magnus.

 

Quick-let the silver cord be loosed.

 

The dark waters rise up into my soul.

Here’s your ship of death, Magnus.

Those bright ones? They ferry you over to the Feast.

 

-from Tryst on Egilsay,

George Mackay Brown

Initially buried on the spot, in what would be the first of three resting places for him, and denied a Christian burial, his corpse was later taken to be buried at Birsay after pleading from his mother.

Then the usual phenomena associated with saints began to occur-miraculous events and  healings , a light appearing above the grave. A cult soon developed among the islanders, and as he grew in popularity soon Magnus was declared a saint by the Bishop of Orkney.

Earl Haakon, now sole ruler, went on to make pilgrimages to Rome and Jerusalem, becoming a peaceful and popular earl.

In 1129 Haakon’s son Paul, was overthrown by the nephew of St.Magnus, Kali Kolson. This new Orkney earl took the name of Rognvald. No doubt politically savvy, he sought the divine assistance of St.Magnus, and promised the people that if he succeeded in his attempt to regain the earldom he would build a great stone church in Kirkwall, on the mainland, and dedicate it to his uncle-the now revered St.Magnus.

This was how St.Magnus Cathedral was founded.

This is a carving, found within the Cathedral, of Rognvald holding the model of the building in his hands.

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I have visited St.Magnus Cathedral, which now holds the remains, or as they like to put it-  the relics, of both St.Magnus and the (now) St.Rognvald.  I will include surviving (!) photographs in a later post. For now I will leave you with this photograph taken of the red coloured cathedral rooted in the distant heart of Kirkwall.

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Kirkwall photograph by D.Bates

Shamanic September

September already. How soon the seasons pass.

Harvest time, fruits of the earth. Our spirits warm with the russet colours outside. I took the dog for a run over the fields this morning. Wind-frenzied trees could not dislodge raucous crows, shy jays, and their more cocksure magpie cousins. Though these are the early days, there is definitely a sense of being on the cusp of autumn.

Soon we will see the squirrels working overtime among the toadstools and wild flowers, the martins, swallows and other migrants gathering to make the long journey back to African shores.

Much to my wife’s distress, daddy long legs seem to be everywhere. One got in as I went out with the dog (again) last night, as my better half was busy preparing a meal for the next day. I said “Don’t harm it, I will catch it when I get back in”. 

On my return she said, apologetically, “I’m sorry I had to kill it-it was ferocious”.

Lions. Tigers. Sharks. Daddy long legs. Ferocious.

I’ve always been an outdoor person. I’ve always been moved by nature, the landscape, and the elements. Maybe that is what gave me a poetic voice, and an early sense of spirituality. I guess I am just one small step away from being a pagan. The appeal of Celtic and Native American spirituality. Perhaps this is where they can find common ground with Christianity-the idea of the goodness of creation, shot through with spirit. The whole of nature ablaze and alive and sacred.

My favourite place is Orkney. The sky there is vast and all encompassing, the sea wild and hungry and raging on all sides. There is something different there about the light, changing as it does above the ancient ancestors, long entombed in chambered darkness. When I haven’t visited for a while, I begin to get my Orkney Itch.

Some of my earliest memories involve my reaction to the elements and the outdoors. I can recall being very young, in a park in Heywood. My grandfather pushing me in a swing, and around 100 metres away there was a huge tree, swaying from side to creaking side in a gale. I loved it.Today I still love to get outside on windy days. As a postman I once did my round in 100 mph winds. It was fantastic.

Another memory is of my Dad walking me to school as a four year old Reception pupil. Dressed in a fur-lined parka coat and a leather satchel over my shoulder, I was fascinated by the dew that clung to every blade of morning grass as we cut across the fields. The sheen of diamonds and the cut of the fresh air.

Not long into my school life I caught chicken pox, and had to stay off school. As morning phased into afternoon, I remember being knelt on the couch, watching the heavy rain beat against the window, trickles racing each other down to the sill. Soon we moved house, and a new primary school beckoned. Being new, and initially friendless, in the inner mirror of my mind I can still see myself stood on the edge of the playground at playtime, watching a gull glide effortlessly above on a current of air, drifting over our fields of triumph. These are the fields that I now walk with my dog, the school having been demolished, the site now given to wilderness.

Being reclaimed.

I stood recently on that very same spot, thirty years later. Guess what? There was a gull-drifting above me. I watched it for a while. Joining up the dots.

It was as a pupil of this school that I first walked in woodland. The teacher that took us was called Miss Ambler-Ambler the Rambler.  Being in deep woods, far from any concrete path or road, in that complete stillness,had an inner effect on me. I felt it in a juvenile, inarticulated way. From that day I have walked coasts and forests and mountains and river ways. I experience it still in an almost shamanic way, without the trance bit. Pretentious though that sounds.

Of all the seasons-and I love them all, my favourite is winter, in all its transformative beauty. The iron earth and starry nights.

And my favourite half of the year begins with autumn.

And autumn begins with September.

The first inward-turning month. As the nights grow longer, and rain hammers against the doors in an attempt to seek entry, it is the perfect time for reading, writing, and pampering our interior selves.

It is the time to quietly withdraw and conserve our energy by lamplight and fireside.

Oh and did I mention-it is also the time that the kids go back to school 🙂