When Christine De Luca, Diana Hendry (with her partner the poet and publisher Hamish Whyte) and I touched down on a overcast but none too windy Orkney a week past Thursday, we were met very warmly by Pam Beasant, whose brainchild our visit was. While Christine sorted out her hire car, Pam drove Diana, Hamish and me to our hotels in Stromness.
Anyone who has visited Stromness will know what a quirky wee town it is. The narrow, flagged main street is so tricky to negotiate–what with pedestrians, parked cars and vehicles coming the opposite direction–that even some Orcadians refuse to drive along it. Imagine a single-track rural road with sheer banks of masonry and you’ll come quite close. The rest of the town stretches the short way down to the waterfront or up the hill, much of it in narrow closes reminiscent of Edinburgh’s Old Town.
Stromness is also, of course, the hometown of the late George Mackay Brown. Wander along the main street away from the hotels, shops and pubs, past the library and you’ll find this unassuming council house. The only thing to indicate that it was GMB’s home is the blue plaque on the wall:
Mackay Brown’s is still a strong presence in the artistic landscape of Orkney, 15 years on from his death. There are mentions of him and quotations from his poetry and prose all over the place. I didn’t have any of his work on my shelves before I went, so I bought the Collected Poems from the fantastic little bookshop in Stromness. The shop is that rare thing in this day and age: a real bookish bookshop, crammed with volumes of all kinds and with an interesting poetry section. One delight of the place is the slightly surreal and witty comments on the shelves where one might expect something denoting the genre. The only one I can remember was on the poetry shelves:
In celebration of national poetry day on 8 October, we will be closing.
Anyway, much of my first day in Orkney was not spent in Stromness. After lunch, Pam whisked Christine and me through to Kirkwall for an interview at the pokey and couthy wee BBC Radio Orkney studios. The recording was partly for the weekly Tullimentan (think that’s the right spelling) arts programme and partly for Around Orkney. It was a slightly curious experience to come down to breakfast the next morning and hear myself on the radio.
On the Thursday evening, there was a reading at Woodwick House. None of us was involved, but we, of course, went along nonetheless for the fun. When Pam, Diana, Hamish and I arrived at Woodwick, there were flocks of starlings (at least, we think they were starlings) filling the surrounding trees in the half light. Rather eerie. That’s what looks like bats in this unfortunately rather blurred but nonetheless atmospheric photo.
The house is another unusual place (anyone spot a theme developing?). Apparently the rooms don’t have TVs. Guests are encouraged to walk or to read from the sitting room’s wonderfully eclectic little library. The sitting room also contains an upright piano in a beautiful, ornate casing so abysmally out of tune that it can only be described as an unprepared piano. And, along with a varied selection of films on video and DVD, the only TV in the building.
The reading featured Orkney residents Ron Ferguson (former leader of the Iona Community), John McGill and Nigel Wheale plus Shetland writer Laureen Johnson. Quite a varied line-up of prose and poetry. Laureen’s set was notable for being entirely–introductions, chat, poems and all–in Shetlandic. John read a gorgeous exerpt from his novel, The Most Glorified Strip of Bunting, in which the main character, marooned on a ice floe, is watching the aurora borealis. Ron read a mix of poems and football prose. Nigel read from his book and very effective new poems the arose from his job as a care worker on Orkney.
Music was provided by flautist Gemma McGregor and pianist Glenys Hughes, who is also director of the St Magnus Festival. They played pieces by the 18th century Scottish composer James Oswald. His work was new to me: a clear and effective combination of Scottish traditional music and European classicism. All the more surprising given that he was writing in the late Baroque era.
The evening passed convivially and a starry night came. That was the end of the first day for me on Orkney.