"Occasional Pieces"

Orkney Surprises

An Orkney holiday in August 2003 produced several surprises.

Having motored all of 500 miles towards Ultima Thule followed by a 90-minute sea-crossing, we discovered we were still not, after all, "abroad." Terry Wogan wafted across the local airwaves. The dominance of "mainland" TV became clear from our very first conversation with a local (the St Magnus Centre guide): "And if you’d crossed on the Hamnavoe last night you’d have had Cameron for company!" [Cameron Who?] "You know, Cameron of Big Brother. He came home yesterday for the first time since winning." I still failed to react. "Goodness! You must be the only man in the country doesn’t know that Cameron comes from Orkney!" Hmm … And my attempt to save face, mumbling "there was a Yorkshire lass went out in the second round, wasn’t there?" was a bit hollow. But the possibility that somewhere as distant as Orkney could be at the hub of Big Brother just hadn’t crossed my mind.

St Magnus himself, for someone of Viking stock, turned out to be another surprise. He was a man of peace. When coerced in his youth to take part in a Hebridean raiding expedition he insisted that, since he had no quarrel with their intended victims, he would not fight. A sword was thrust into his hands and he was told he must defend himself. Instead he stood throughout the conflict singing psalms. Nobody attacked him. (Sadly, his saintliness did not preserve him from a bloody end eventually at the hands of relatives.)

The magnificent 12th century cathedral built in his honour was another surprise. Constructed by stonemasons from Durham, it towers above all other buildings in Kirkwall. And during our visit it was host to a spectacular flower festival.

Did we enjoy Orkney’s 5,000 year-old World Heritage Sites – Skara Brae village and Maes Howe chambered tomb? We certainly did! No surprises there, more a source of amazement. And much the same goes for the islands’ wonderful all-round skies, and for the many flocks of Lapwing and Curlew – as common as Starlings or Gulls back home.

September 2003