Books and Travel, Part 7: Orkney and George MacKay Brown

This trip has a had a lot of ferries, which makes me very happy indeed! We took the ferry from Kennacraig to Islay and back again, then from Oban to Mull and back again. After we got to the top of Scotland, making the obligatory drive out to Dunnet’s Head, the farthest north point of the UK (it’s not John o’Groats!), we took the ferry from Scrabster by Thurso to Stromness on Orkney. We happily drove to our B and B, the Mill of Eyrland, following the wonderful directions of our host past the red phone box in field! It is a great place, and we had lovely, comfortable rooms in a refurbished mill. Fascinating. We sipped scotch each night in the guest lounge surrounded by the old millstones and equipment! Our host Morag and her partner John were delightful, and Morag kept us well-informed about life on Orkney.

Orkney is wonderful and we so enjoyed our time. Visiting the Neolithic ruins such as Skara Brae, many rings of standing stones, and the mound of Maeshowe helped us place ourselves in the long and ancient length of human history. We learned a lot.

The islands of Orkney are low and flat, surrounded by the sea, and covered in North Ronaldsay sheep, their unique type. Morag works for the office of Economic Development, so she could tell us that there are 21, 160 people on Orkney. She noted that many of the houses have only one occupant. Houses and farms are dotted through the landscape with sometimes great distance between them.

Orkney has a famous distillery, Highland Park, and we stopped in. We did not do the tour, but we bought some whisky to enjoy along the way!

The connection with the Vikings and with Norway are prevalent everywhere. Some say the Orcadians sound more like Scandinavians than Scots, but I think it’s a toss up. Their local saint is Magnus, for whom their cathedral in Kirkwall is named. His bones are buried in one of the pillars, and there is a now a posted St. Magus Way which follows an ancient pilgrimage from Birsay to Kirkwall. Magnus was killed in Birsay, and his mother arranged for his body to be carried to Kirkwall for burial,. The path follows his funeral route. Magnus was a grandson (not the legitimate line) of Olaf II of Norway, St. Olaf.

Although the various relatives of Robert Louis Stevenson pop up all over Northern Scotland, even in Orkney, Orkney’s most famous writer in George MacKay Brown (1921-1996). He lived most of his life in Stromness and wrote poetry, novels, short stories, and essays. I have only read his autobiography For the Islands I Sing. It is a compelling and lovely book. [Note: the Slightly Foxed Podcast for September (comes out on the 15th) will be about Orkney and George MacKay Brown. See Books and Travel, Part 4, for the link.]

We left Orkney by the other ferry, St. Margaret’s Hope to Gills Bay. We were sad to leave it behind, and we had a beautiful morning to watch it as we sailed south.

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