‘The Orkney imagination is haunted by time.’ George Mackay Brown
I gave a talk at the library in Kirkwall, Orkney’s capital, a few weeks ago. 25 people turned up, and about 20 of them said they had come to live on Orkney because they had ‘heard a call’, or had been ‘drawn to’ the islands. Now that’s an extraordinary statistic by any standards, and even more so when you consider the fact that it’s cold, windy and dark up here for a lot of the year. They say there are only two seasons on Orkney: Winter and July. And this year, we were told, July hadn’t happened. They’ve had a tough time: so much rain that cattle had to be sold because they couldn’t be fed. And there are very few trees. Stands of sycamore or pine here and there, but otherwise only fields, peat bogs, barren hillsides, and wild angry skies. And when cabin fever strikes, it’s expensive to leave ‘Orkatraz’, as friends called their home. The return flight to London can be over £300, to Glagow £250. You can escape on the ferry, but that isn’t cheap either.
So why had so many people been drawn here? One family had even sold their house in England and moved up without ever having visited the islands. Perhaps the answer lies in the words of one of Britain’s most gifted poets and novelists, George Mackay Brown, when he wrote ‘The Orkney imagination is haunted by time.’ If you want to get away from the incessant reminders of transience that the busy south provides, come here to this time-laden land, to these islands which were once at the centre of a great culture. The pilgrimage here then becomes one, not to a set of far-flung islands on the periphery of civilization, but to the heart-lands, to the place where the Ancestors traveled on pilgrimage, from Stonehenge and beyond.
There is an extraordinary sense of continuity here. At the ancient settlement at Skara Brae you can see that a drainage system was created to provide en suite (or perhaps beer-making) facilities 5,000 years ago, and there are stone sleeping areas, that are very similar to the bed areas you find in use until 200 years ago, on display at the Kirbuster farm museum a few miles away. In Skara Brae the great slabs of stone that create the sleeping areas are laid horizontally. At Kirbuster they stand vertically. But what a sense of continuity you get!
When Jamie George, of Gothic Image Tours, and Linda Marsden, of Global Spiritual Studies, invited us to travel to Orkney, I thought we were making a pilgrimage to a place far away, but although I didn’t feel ‘called’ and couldn’t imagine living in such a wind-swept land, I did feel deeply moved, as if I was a salmon swimming upstream to the place of the oldest animals (to use an image from the Mabinogion), to the Place of Beginnings.
In addition to being guided around the ancient sites of Brodgar, the Ness, Stennes and Maes Howe by our knowledgeable guides, Helen and Mark, from Spiritual Orkney, they took us to Happy Valley, a haven of trees and rushing water, and we stayed at a magical guest-house/retreat centre – Woodwick House. With its falls of water coloured gold by the peat, and its tall sycamores which ran down to a tranquil seashore looking out to the island of Gairsay, I thought of that beautiful Druid blessing that goes: “By the beauty of the fields, the woods and the sea, by the splendour that is set upon all that is…”
A big thank you to all those who made this journey possible!
The documentary below will fill you in on the details of Orkney’s early history, and you will learn about the latest findings in archaeology which show that our pre-Christian megalith-building culture spread from the north south and not vice versa. If you’re planning on visiting Orkney, have a look at the services offered by Helen and Mark, which include guiding and even arranging a hand-fasting in the Ring of Brodgar.