Living Orkney (Essay)

Many thanks to the editors of Living Orkney, who published a small essay on our trip to Orkney last year. Since few people outside of Orkney have access to the magazine, the article is pasted below. Each day there solidified everything I hold sacred about history, religion, poetry, and so much else, and I doubt I’ll ever exhaust the well that Orkney gave me. This essay is at least a start – as are these poems. (And extra thanks to Sarah Norquoy, for sending the photo of the magazine, below.)


Only a few minutes off the small plane from Glasgow to Kirkwall, I stood in the bus stop outside the airport and texted my wife to pack more sweaters.

She was travelling to Orkney the next day. When checking the forecast for our visit we assumed we knew the kind of cold that was waiting for us. None of the guidebooks we had consulted, however, mentioned the endless wind; but even as I shivered and grabbed for my hat, scanning the roads and wondering how reliable the bus service really was, I couldn’t help but think, “This place is flat, cold, and desolate, and I love it.”

Almost immediately, it was impossible not to imagine all the inhabitants who had eked out a difficult existence among such grey, brittle beauty, from prehistory on through to the Picts and the Vikings. In its concentration of so much deep history in such a small place, Orkney became like an unexploded atom to me, packed with the humming and buzzing of millennia but somehow maintaining a cool, calm, mysterious equilibrium.

And when I saw how integrated history was with the everyday life of all those we met and even the animals that shared their pastures with standing stones, I realized that I had never felt more at home anywhere else.

I was born in a part of the American Midwest that is easy to dismiss as flat and featureless, and for a moment on the bus to Kirkwall, Orkney struck me the same way. But slowly, every hill and stream became significant, every cow and every sheep, every stone dyke. Every inch was crowded with meaning, and distinct. And because of how flat the countryside was, everything could be seen a hundred ways.

Walking from Birsay to our cottage near Swannay Farm later that day, I made a point of turning to see the Brought of Birsay and environs as they dipped lower and receded behind me, shifted to the right or left, or disappeared completely (only to reappear again) as the road itself fell and rose, everything interconnected through this perpetual visibility.

Once off the bus in Kirkwall, and with my priorities straight, I headed for The Orcadian bookshop and found a slim volume of Edwin Muir’s poems, discovering the kind of relaxation that browsing in a good bookstore so amply provides. Only then could I grab a small lunch at The Reel, and wander around; and again, the compactness of so much substance hit me: everything you might need could be found on Albert and Bridge Streets and down to the Harbour, and along the way you saw where poets and translators and writers had lived and slept, and all in about five or ten minutes. Keeping the spire of St. Magnus in view, I didn’t even need a map, and always knew where I was.

My wife arrived the next day, and from then on we began catching the early bus into Kirkwall each morning, and, to our surprise, the buses became as integral as any other experience of Orkney. We saw the same school kids in the morning, the same old lady or middle-aged man or early-twenties couple getting off or on at the Tingwall Ferry, and the same people coming back in the evenings.

Guidebooks and reviews online had all spoken of the dire necessity of renting a car on Orkney, so we never saw any other tourists on the buses. But for us it was a gift to relax and be able to observe the rhythms and ways of those lucky enough to live in Orkney.

While we had been attracted to the country by its Neolithic sites, the unexpected highlight for us were our several visits through St. Magnus Cathedral and our guided tour to its heights.

We have seen St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, Westminster Abbey, Bath Abbey, and Exeter and Salisbury Cathedrals, but none of them compared to St. Magnus Cathedral. It took some time to figure out why. It had something to do with the concentration of so much in such a compact space. The red stones of the walls and columns, apparently not as finished as in the more famous cathedrals, felt for all that to be larger, more substantial, more real and lived with, than those elsewhere.

The roundness of the initial Norman arches and the huge columns communicated a great sense of security, stability, and deep time to a building that looked and felt as if it weren’t medieval or European, but simply far north, isolated and somehow self-generated. Yet the heaviness and hugeness of the stones also allowed for great intimacy and privacy. On our last day in Kirkwall we both sat there, near tears, transfixed by the echoes of footsteps and nearby voices, and the late afternoon light that passed through the stained glass and colored the red stone crimson, green and orange.

Another great surprise for us was all the cows that – when seeing us walking down the A966 – suddenly plodded from far across their fields and bunched up at the edge of the fences to watch us with a strange curiosity. Some even came towards us at a trot; and one night, walking in the dark past Swannay Farm and around a bend, I shone my light along the roadside and suddenly, like something out of a comedy horror film, a line not of zombies but a field of cows appeared out of the dark no more than ten feet away, huge, and gazing at us through the mist.

The most stunning of the natural sites was our walk to the Brough of Birsay, and here again was the best of Orkney: all we initially knew of it were the Pictish and Viking settlements there, but we could only get to the island when the tide was out, and the causeway open to our astounded feet. There was very little in our experience to prepare us for walking along a small part of the North Sea’s floor and, glancing left and right, watching the waves crash, just urging and inching in on us, second by second.

The settlement itself was also nothing without the views: just as the stone circles of Brodgar and Stenness have to be seen within the larger rhythm of the surrounding landscape, I stopped and sat in one of the Viking houses and tried to imagine an early morning after sunrise, stepping out the front door to the sea and the wind, and an unavoidable relationship to the elements.

Walking the rest of the island, I was reminded of how I had stumbled in a similar wind along a similar coast years before in Cornwall, at Tintagel, and how the ruins and the buffeting and the gusting seemed to take me back in time to a harder existence, but also a higher one, disoriented in the wind on the edge, it seemed, of the entire world.

My mind still overflows with every other small detail from our week and a half: the Ring of Brodgar, swimming in a sea of heather, and how those great purple flowers broke out of the browns and greens and yellows, everywhere we looked; the Kirbuster Farm Museum and the horse chestnut tree there, that I paused beneath for ten minutes; the deep seriousness and sometimes terror and holiness we both experienced when we had the Hatston Grain Earth House and Cuween Chambered Cairn to ourselves; or placing our hands to history in the more crowded Skara Brae and Maeshowe; or—an impossible event in America—arriving at the Broch of Gurness an hour before it opened and simply walking in then later waving good-humouredly to the curator as we left.

We also spent a Sunday afternoon looking for the chambered cairn on Wideford Hill. We found the right path to it too late, but it had been an afterthought anyway, and instead the two of us enjoyed the thrill of being high above everything with the entire mainland and outer isles spread out beneath us.

My wife took a picture of me stumbling around through the high grass and on the slopes there, and it became representative of our time on Orkney as a whole. We had travelled there with a handful of places we hoped to see, but every expectation was altered in fulfillment. I still think of all of those places as a field, shot through with streams and runs, holding the substance of all we had planned to see together. To us Orkney was a long looked-for and finally found place that was heartbreaking to leave. It still remains a haven to imagine and reimagine and remember again.