George William MacKay

It was early morning, 12th April 1912.  The house was slowly coming to life and George was wide awake, in his excitement he had hardly slept. Some last tearful farewells to the early morning maids, a final check that his tickets were secure in his pocket and quietly he slipped the safe moorings of 11 Queens Gate, Kensington and his life as a footman.  Emerging from the collonaded porch, he touched the iron railings one last time, turned left and then right onto Prince Consort Road, heading for Waterloo and the 07:45 train to Southampton.  He was dressed in his Sunday best suit and wearing a Sunday smile, he did not look back.  The city was already bustling with the clatter of hooves and the too familiar smell of horse manure, soon to be replaced by the salt sea air he had known as a boy.

The young George had only just turned twenty but already he had travelled far from his humble beginnings on a croft near Tongue, in Sutherland.  One of twelve children to William and Christina MacKay, he was determined to better himself.  Too often he had heard tales of regret, of lives half lived in the bitter north. George, the Heilam Ferryman, spoke of nothing else, his plans as a young man to travel to Canada and how he was persuaded to stay by the Duke of Sutherland – this George would not make the same mistake.

The third class boat train from Waterloo pulled into Southampton Docks at 09:30, stopping at 43/44 berth. Clutching a small brown suitcase and ticket 42795, George alighted into the Dockside sheds, crossed the road, controlled by a man with a red flag and momentarily stood awe-struck by the sheer overwhelming size of the ship – it was beyond anything he could have imagined.  Nothing like this was ever seen in the Kyle.

As a third class passenger George had a simple berth, shared with six other passengers.  Keen to escape the claustrophobia of steerage and the company of strangers, many of whom could not speak English, he quickly found his way to the open decks.  He was there when the ship cast off and was towed into the River Test by tugboats, there for the near collision with USMS New York, there when Cherbourg appeared on the French coast and there when the ship set sail for Cobh in the dim light of an April evening.

All the while he grasped ticket 42795.  It had cost £7 11s, all his savings, but he was bound for Rochester and a new life in Detroit.  Of one thing he was certain, he was never going back.

… the memorial at Torrisdale Cemetery, Skerray, Tongue


George’s body was never found.

This imagined story is based on information kindly supplied by my friend and researcher Gillean Ford.  The details are gleaned from various sources including, (National Museums Northern Ireland), and – Third Class Life on the Titanic.

Orkney Light

“The essence of Orkney’s magic is silence, loneliness and the deep marvelous rhythms of sea and land, darkness and light” – George Mackay Brown – 1921-1996

The Ring of Brodgar with incoming snow

Standing Stones of Stenness

.Across the Loch of Stenness

Across the Loch of Stenness

The Ring of Brodgar, one day later

Oil rigs on Scapa Flow

Skara Brae

The Orkney imagination is haunted by time – George Mackay Brown

Postcards from the edge

We have seen much weather this last 48 hours.  The cold Arctic front has duly arrived, bringing snow to Netherbutton, Orkney.  We are marooned, at least for the next few hours – there is much to be said for the Internet under such conditions.  It makes you wonder how the Scandinavians manage to put up with it but, perhaps they don’t.  The Finns have a word for it – Kaamos – drifting around with the browser, as you do on such days, I found this:

Thousands and thousands of Finns suffer from kaamos depression, or depressio hiemalis as the fancy Latin of doctors terms it. Depression, anxiety, exhaustion, restlessness — it’s all mostly because of the lack of light. How are you supposed to wake up and keep moving when it’s dark outside when you go to work, and dark again when you get out? It’s as if the cold colorless world outside settled into your bones — unfeeling, unmotivated, a dull ache, a hunger that can’t be satisfied, a sleepiness that can’t be shaken — all in all, not a nice thing at all.

This is just a small extract from an entertaining post at Masks of Eris.

… snow at Netherbutton, Orkney

… blockship at Churchill Barrier No. 3 – between Burray and Glimps Holm

… Netherbutton at the top of the hill – from the track down to the shore

… South Ronaldsay

… Longhouse at Dam of Hoxa, South Ronaldsay

… St Margaret’s Hope, South Ronaldsay, Orkney

… Roeberry, South Ronaldsay, Orkney

The cottages at Netherbutton overlook Scapa Flow, a body of water with a remarkable history. It might be expected that in peaceful times there would be little activity in this remote place but, far from it – there are currently two oil rigs in for maintenance, a supply ship and three tankers.  At night they light up like Christmas trees on dark waters.

Despite the harsh winters and the classic ingredients for kaamos, we have found everyone delightfully friendly and approachable – Orcadians are in the top ten of happiest people in the UK and enjoy the best quality of life of any rural area.  It was not always so, at least if you believe the serviceman who penned this while stationed here in the war:

Bloody Orkney
This bloody town’s a bloody cuss
No bloody trains, no bloody bus,
And no one cares for bloody us
In bloody Orkney.

The bloody roads are bloody bad,
The bloody folks are bloody mad,
They’d make the brightest bloody sad,
In bloody Orkney.

All bloody clouds, and bloody rains,
No bloody kerbs, no bloody drains,
The Council’s got no bloody brains,
In bloody Orkney.

Everything’s so bloody dear,
A bloody bob, for bloody beer,
And is it good? – no bloody fear,
In bloody Orkney.

The bloody ‘flicks’ are bloody old,
The bloody seats are bloody cold,
You can’t get in for bloody gold
In bloody Orkney.

The bloody dances make you smile,
The bloody band is bloody vile,
It only cramps your bloody style,
In bloody Orkney.

No bloody sport, no bloody games,
No bloody fun, the bloody dames
Won’t even give their bloody names
In bloody Orkney.

Best bloody place is bloody bed,
With bloody ice on bloody head,
You might as well be bloody dead,
In bloody Orkney.

Don’t believe a word of it, it’s a great place which can only get better once it stops snowing 🙂

And as fer me,’ Sam said, ‘don’t fret.
The sky’s took a turn since this morning;
I think it’ll brighten up yet.

Three Ha’pence a Foot – Marriott Edgar

The Ferry House …

… a return to Ard Neakie.  There are no ‘Keep Out’ signs nor are there indications of rights of way.  We are in the homeland of ‘right to roam’.  No signs would have stopped us, I have been hankering to get back here since I wrote the previous Ard Neakie post in mid-March.

It is much as I remember except there is now no trace of the quarry workers’ lodgings. The final approach sits between the shingle, north and south; the Ferry House a design in symmetry; the pier still solid where no boats call; the lime kilns with their cavernous openings sensibly fenced; the convenient limestone quarry, just a wheelbarrow’s walk from the kiln tops; the climb, higher still, such that Portnancon can be seen across the loch – the departure point for the Heilam Ferry.

The skies are clear, the sun intermittently shines but there is a strong Arctic wind blowing in from the north. As we make to leave between the shingle shores, a gust of wind opens the front door to the Ferry House. It seems like an invitation, an invitation that we are too polite to refuse.  Alec Mackay has summoned us into his family home:

It is not the sound of the wind we hear blowing through the rafters and ill-fitting windows, it is the sound of distant voices.

Return to Wallerscote …

… and elsewhere.  The fuses had been lit and could not be extinguished. All that remained was to observe the speed of the spark, and the size of the explosions – Michael Lewis – The Big Short (2010).  A quote out of context and some wishful thinking – it would good to imagine big bangs but I suspect none were involved. I assume Wallerscote Island soda ash plant was dismantled in a methodical, tidy whimper. Nevertheless, bearing in mind that these images were taken in June 2016, October 2016 and April 2017 respectively, the speed of destruction is remarkable.  Faced with such a monstrosity, the first question that springs to mind is “where the hell do we start?”:

The transformation is so complete that, from some angles, this stretch of the Weaver is beginning to resemble the Canal du Midi 😉

And yet, carry on south along the Trent & Mersey Canal and another TATA site is a reminder that not all heavy industry has disappeared from the Northwich landscape:

A Passing Cloud

It was the difference between my mother’s public persona and the private reality that grated so much. We all present a variety of different faces to the world but this was night and day. We didn’t get on. She considered herself a woman of impeccable taste and this was demonstrated to the world by means of interior decor. The colour of your soft furnishings maketh the woman.

Looking back at 1950s and 1960s interiors, the dividing line between good and bad taste must have been marginal.  Her stamp of difference was derived from antiques – “Victorian cranberry glass my dear, so much nicer than the ruby”.  This superior attitude was passed down such that I assumed a parallel air of good taste but it’s all just fashion, it comes and goes.  As modern interiors tend towards the Arctic, relics from an earlier age jar.  Our home still retains an element of the museum but at least we have made the effort to rid ourselves of the ‘never used/can’t stand that/what was she thinking’.  The change in fashion is reflected in the prices generated at auction.

I keep this though – A Passing Cloud by Marcus Stone, 1891.  For years I never knew what it was, I just liked it – it’s monotones possessed an air of menace, an air of longing which resonated.  In the early 2000s we made a trip to Manchester and spent a nostalgic day wandering familiar streets much changed by fashion.  Ambling around Manchester Art Gallery she was suddenly there in front of me – in colour – the same woman but entirely different – night and day.

This is the public persona, but this is what I see:

… Marcus Stone’s A Passing Cloud re-imagined. The original hangs in the Manchester Art Gallery

You don’t need a weatherman …

climate (n.)
late 14c., “horizontal zone of the earth,” Scottish, from Old French climat “region, part of the earth,” from Latin clima (genitive climatis) “region; slope of the Earth,” from Greek klima “region, zone,” literally “an inclination, slope,” thus “slope of the Earth from equator to pole,” from root of klinein “to slope, to lean,” from PIE root *klei- “to lean” (see lean (v.)).

Whatever the climate might or might not be doing, in these parts, it has certainly been changeable.  From bright, cold March sun through heavy snow, to biblical rain and out the other side to hints of summer, we have had it all these last seven days:

… bitter March landscape

… high water

… lonesome highway

… winter returns

… beneath Hexham Bridge

… bring me sunshine