When I first arrived in Orkney 11 years ago I hated it. I had high expectations of an interesting and historic place with Viking roots and a romantic poetic and musical culture. What I saw was a flat, ugly windswept industrial farming landscape with no trees or hedges and all the buildings were ugly 1970s-style pebble-dash bungalows. I thought it was vile. I phoned home full of regrets that I’d paid to stay there an extra night after my work for NHS Orkney was finished. “What on Earth am I going to do? It’s awful here.” But then I met the people and realised it was the best place I had ever been. Generous people. Interesting people. Family-loving people. People with great values and people with the good grace to greet you and show interest in a stranger. It was a while until I got into the mood of the landscape and understood its subtleties.
As soon as I visited one of the northern isles, Westray, with no transport, just a pair of walking boots, I knew this was where I wanted to come again. I spent a week walking the Island and falling in love with the fields, the cattle, the shops, the hotel and having a wonderful time with the people I met. I spent all day outdoors, seeing the sun rise and the sun set. It was that understanding of the landscape, that connection with the cycle of the day, that connection with the weather, first glorious sunshine, then high winds and hailstones, that caught me in Westray’s net.
I’ve led a life in overheated offices and cramped town terraces. The ultimate feeling of the liberation of Orkney, of being able to see as far as it’s possible to see, has never left me. To stand in awe as you see the sun rise and the sun set and to realise you are just a tiny speck of biology, freakishly able to see the horizon made by the curve of the Earth, is to understand some part of your existence.
Tonight I’m in a giant tub of metal, the Northlink ferry from Aberdeen to Kirkwall in Orkney. I’m going to spend my week walking the entire coastline of Westray, taking in every glorious beach, every dangerous cliff and every field with a bull. I watch excitedly through the ferry window as the sun sets over the North Sea. Tonight I’ll arrive just before midnight and spend the night sleeping in my car on the docks.
Wish me luck.