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:

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

Ard Neakie

I am travelling the north coast of Scotland from Durness and have reached Reay.  This, I should emphasise, is purely in a virtual sense.  In the real world I remain tied to my keyboard and screen in deepest Northumberland, still waiting for signs of Spring.

Having turned left off the A836 into the car park at Reay Golf Club, I have become distracted by Ard Neakie, a place not far from my starting point.

Ard Neakie is a would-be island on Loch Eriboll’s eastern shore, attached to the mainland by a narrow strip of sand and shingle.   Viewed from above, on the main road, it appears a bleak and abandoned place, the main evidence of earlier human endeavour being the lime kilns.  It was not always like this.

The kilns processed limestone quarried from the high ground of Ard Neakie and from Eilean Choraidh, an island in the middle of Loch Eriboll.  The quarry workers’ lodgings are on the northern side of the approach to the 19th century Ferry House.  This is how it looked when I last walked down to the strand in the late 1980s:

The quarry workers’ lodgings, taken in the late 1980s.

By the end of 2009, it looked flimsier still and there is a suggestion it may have since collapsed entirely. The nearby Ferry House is a different proposition.  I may have neglected to take pictures back in the 1980s but Canmore, the online catalogue to Scotland’s archaeology, buildings, industrial and maritime heritage, provides the opportunity for a virtual tour, inside and out.

The Ferry House was not only home to the ferryman and his family but also a shop providing supplies to North Sea trawlers seeking shelter from the storm.  Trawlermen, quarry workers, the shop, the ferryman and his passengers, the boats transferring limestone from Eilean Choraidh and the ships dispatching lime to east coast farmers, on some days Ard Neakie bustled.

The history of this place, and Sutherland in general, is encapsulated in the lives of one family – without these stories, Ard Neakie is just a collection of old stones and rotting timbers.

When Anne and her husband Alexander Mackay were cleared from their croft at Totaig, they were resettled at Achnahuaigh, Melness, just south of Port Vasgo at the head of the Kyle of Tongue.  It was here that they raised their daughter Dolina who would in 1887, marry local cabinet maker, George Mackay. George had been planning to better himself by emigrating to Canada but was persuaded by the Duke of Sutherland to use his woodworking skills as a boatbuilder and to run the Heilam Ferry from Ard Neakie across Loch Eriboll to Portnacon. They raised seven sons at the Ferry House, the eldest being Hugh who would eventually qualify as a teacher, having studied at Aberdeen.  Hugh’s highway to Aberdeen was by sea, regularly catching a lift from trawlers as they stopped by at Ard Neakie.  This connection with the sea is significant and points to a time when these coastal communities were better served by water than by land.

Hugh served with the 1st battalion Seaforth Highlanders during the Great War and survived despite being declared ‘missing, presumed dead’. He returned to teaching, married his first love, Catherine Sutherland and eventually retired to Connel Ferry, near Oban.  Once he left home, he never lived again at the big house on Ard Neakie, unlike younger brother Alec.

Alexander Mackay was born in 1889 and attended Eriboll School before joining his father George, to run the ferry and to learn the trade of boatbuilding.  Like my grandfather Fred, Alec was in the Territorial Reserve and both would see active service at Gallipoli.  Both Fred and Alec were transferred to Alexandria but whereas Alec fought in Macedonia and France, Fred transferred into the Royal Flying Corps and served the rest of the war at the RFC Training School, Aboukir.

Fred is in the middle, back row,

Alec survived the war but suffered disfiguring facial injuries in France and was not finally discharged until March 1920.  The expectation was that Eriboll Farm would be divided to provide land for returning local servicemen and Alec was fully expecting to receive a share.  In another example of shoddy behaviour by the estates and landowners, this never happened so Alec returned to boat building and operating the Heilam Ferry with his father.

There is a photograph of the young Alec standing in front of the workers’ lodgings holding a large salmon by the gills.  A prize catch for an innocent young man dressed in heavy tweed.  The man who returned to Ard Neakie was not the same boy who went to war in 1914.  Like Hugh, the young Alec never returned and we will never know the demons that accompanied him as he walked back down the strand to the front door of the Ferry House in 1920.  He would live out the rest of his days on Ard Neakie where he died a bachelor in 1957.  The last of the family did not leave the Ferry House until 1990 since when the lease has not been renewed and the building remains empty, except for the echoes from the past.

This story is told because I have a soft spot for the small ferries of Scotland – I have written elsewhere on this subject – my first such crossing being at Ballachulish in the late 1950s.   It is an oft repeated ‘fact’ that the Heilam Ferry closed in 1890 when the road around the loch was completed but this makes no sense. Firstly, when Alec returned from the Great War in 1920, he returned to operate the ferry and T Ratcliffe Barnett writing in 1930 (Autumns in Skye, Ross and Sutherland) refers to the operational ferry at Portnacon. Secondly, bearing in mind this was a passenger service (you might be allowed to to take a bike), why would the opening of an eleven mile road around the edge of the loch negate the need for a one mile crossing by water.  I am on a mission to find out when it really closed and what the ferry looked like in operation – we will be there again in late April.

Having driven the road around Eriboll many times, I am always surprised that there was never a car ferry between Portnacon and Ard Neakie – I would pay a premium, even in the 21st Century for the novelty of the loch crossing, for the convenience and to avoid the tedious eleven mile round trip, destination, almost where you started from. While digging around looking for small ferry images, I came across this wonderful photograph of the ferry at Dornie (The Face of Scotland – Batsford and Fry, published 1935) – it seems precisely the sort of device that should have been used at Loch Eriboll:

Loch Duich – Eilean Donan Castle and Dornie Motor Ferry

The stories of the Mackays is taken from A Full Circle – The journey through time of the Mackay Family of Heilam Ferry, Loch Eriboll from 1841 – 2014 – The Clearances to the Present Day, produced by Fiona Mackay while working as a voluntary archivist at Strathnaver Museum.  The story of Alexander Mackay’s war service is taken from Pibrochs and Poppies – A commemoration of WW1 Pipers from North West Sutherland.

The Lakes

A few days in the Lakes has become an almost annual ritual.  Spectacular though it is, in the summer months I find it intolerably busy, the hotels over-priced and the car parks full – hence my preference for late February. The problem with this time of the year is that the only thing predictable about the weather is its unpredictability but that is probably true of the Lakes at any time.

Consistent with tradition, one night was spent at the cinema followed by dinner at Fellini’s. This year it was Lion, a remarkable true story designed to exercise the tear ducts – casting the human equivalent of Bambi as the the five year old Saroo only serves to enhance this effect.  It certainly put things in perspective – compared to some people’s lot, moaning about the weather doesn’t seem appropriate. Anyway, who wants blue-skies in every scene – except for the first two sunsets at Waterhead, the remainder were taken on a walk between Ambleside and Skelwith Bridge:

The sun going down ...

The sun going down ...

Lily Tarn ...

Ranbows over ...

Loughrigg Tarn ...

Snow on the tops ...

Windermere ...