|Marwick Head, Orkney|
June has been the longest month, and as I look back it seems to hold an amazing variety of experiences, surely more than can be fitted into just 30 days - including, of course, the longest day itself. Perhaps the long days are what made it feel like twice the month it was. Or perhaps it was the number of "firsts": our voyage to Orkney (a hair-raising two-day journey on ferry, train, bus, bus, bus, ferry, bus, car...and the same again back the other way, mostly at death-defying speeds thanks to the incredible antics of Stagecoach bus drivers desperate to meet their timetable targets on the slow roads of the Highlands; but we didn't die!); a trip up Askival; watching a shearwater being pulled out of its burrow by its beak ("they don't mind, they just bite you"); holding a shearwater chick; playing our first gig; beautifying the Community Hall; and last but not least seeing my Mum taken off to hospital in a helicopter in front of the castle, after she broke her wrist on our paths (Mum: "But I've never even been in a plane!" Small boys observing: "We filmed it all! It was awesome!").
So, where to begin...let's see, maybe with Orkney, which already seems like years ago. On arrival back from those wondrous isles at the end of the world - or at least the end of Britain - we were instantly plunged back into Rum life, hearing all the gossip ("And then I arrived to open up the tea-shop and there was a strange man in the kitchen wearing shades and cooking bacon!"), preparing for the visit of the new SNH chairman and the Minister on whom the fate of our castle depends, starting our revamp of the poor old hall and baking for Britain prior to the visits of aforesaid SNH people and my family...oh, not to mention cleaning the hostel, writing up the Archive news and finding our carrots all eaten up by rats, one of which I caught in flagrante actually holding a carrot in its paws. I think I'd rather have found a man cooking bacon...So it already feels like years since we were on holiday.
|At Maes Howe|
Orkney felt like a marvellous, simple place. Marvellous because it's full of marvels, five-thousand-year-old tombs and standing stones dotted around the gentle landscape with immense mathematical precision, thousands of sea-birds nesting above the uneasy waters of the Pentland Firth, Iron Age forts beside turquoise lochs...and simple because unlike on Rum, people are as much a part of the landscape as the hills or the stones. The tombs are rarely "guarded" - they are just there, and you can pop by and visit as easily - if not more easily - as dropping into a local supermarket; the ancient stones and forts just "belong", as much as the newer towns and the ferries. Things are on a human scale. We appreciated this, having been for so long on an island where people are barely tolerated by the landscape and weather, and each successive attempt to settle soon meets with seemingly insurmountable difficulties. Orkney people seem to have a civic pride unknown in much of England since the 1970s, and things work, and are neat and clean, and make sense. Their history isn't like mainland Britain's - they are closer in nearly every way to Scandinavia than to London. They are proud of their history, poetry, whaling, ships, exploration and music. We felt happy, and surprisingly at home. Mel was particularly happy crawling into a dark tomb on her hands and knees while we both enjoyed the tea-trolley experience of getting into "Tomb of the Eagles" (so-called because of the sea eagle talons found there)...luckily no other tourists were around at the time..
|Getting to the tomb...spooky...|
|Getting into the tomb - on a trolley|
|Eagle in a tomb!|
|"Rainforest", West Highland Line|
Back on Rum our sense of the Highlands was thrown into sharp relief by our trip. Not having been "off island" for three months, we really noticed for the first time the temperate rainforest climate of the Highlands, a bit like New Zealand with low clouds covering forested mountains. We noticed the way in which places are divided by the huge landscape rifts (to get to Inverness from Fort William is a massive journey in itself), but that these divisions are made more difficult by the lack of coordination between buses, trains, ferries..We noticed how there is that permanent disconnect between "locals" and "visitors", the Highlands putting on a superhuman effort for the tourist season, but with that underlying resentment at Scottish dependency on outside wealth. The old chip on the shoulder, historically understandable but hard to live with. The beauty of the islands and the landscape contrasting with the poverty of the people who live here; sometimes this is overcome by a strong community, as seemingly in parts of Lochaber, sometimes not. Resentment can run deep in communities that feel themselves dependent, the same is true here as much as in Bradford or Accrington. But it can be even harder to accept that you are no longer dependent and have to be self-sufficient. This is where communities, like individuals, have to become self-aware, willing to deal with their own histories and face up to the internal conflicts that beset them, rather than blaming these on others. I don't know if this is easier or harder in a tiny community such as ours.
But I was partly reconciled to these problems - or managed to forget them for a while - by our amazing trip up Askival...we didn't mean to go up Askival...it just happened...
To be continued!
|What belongs in the landscape...Ring of Brodgar, Orkney|