By Fiona Grahame
This article first appeared in the February edition of iScot magazine.
Darkness catches out many a ferry louper experiencing their first winter in Orkney and for some that will be the end of their island adventure. Scunnert by the seemingly incessant wind and rain.
But the darkness also brings with it the night skies filled with stars and if you are lucky to catch it the most amazing light show you will ever see: the Merry Dancers. You can feel it in the air when Nature’s light show will make an appearance but this being the 21st Century you can also get an App that will alert you to it. It can take place in the evening as you are homeward bound or the early hours of the morning when all but the most devoted are abed. Usually it is of a greeny hue but when the aurora is at its most active a palette of colour shimmers and cascades across the sky.
“As if from Heaven itself, great curtains of delicate light hung and trembled. Pale green and rose-pink, and as transparent as the most fragile fabric.” Phillip Pullman
February marks more than any other time in Orkney where we feel the lengthening of the days. Months spent shrouded in woollens and boots gives way to concerns that our bodies are not the skin taught specimens we would like them to be.
Bulbs burst through the ground and by the burns the primroses scatter yellow petals across their banks. A scarcity of trees, despite our best efforts at native planting, force sparrows to seek out any hedge or shrub as a nesting place.
The air is filled with the noise of bird call.
“There’s no a muir in my ain land but’s fu’ o’ sang the day” Lady John Scott
A patchwork of ploughed fields begins to appear and Orkney’s fertile soil is exposed to the air. Gulls and crows flock onto the brown earth to hastily pick up what they can before it disappears back under cover. It is too early in the year for the kye to be out as they are housed all winter. Sheep are of a hardier ilk and lambs are already making an appearance. A sharp change in the weather: a dagger of cold wind and driving rain will be fatal to some and a feast for the crows.
The ferries and tourist centres are still on the winter timetables but a few hardy travellers start to arrive. They have come to enjoy the islands before the onslaught of the cruise liners and day trippers.
We are not out of winter yet and the lambing snow will often make an appearance, but it never bides too long. We may be beings of the internet age but our roots are firmly in the past. In the hills and moors around us.
“It requires great love of it deeply to read/ The configuration of a land”: Hugh MacDiarmid
We have not lost this love and connection with our land but have obscured it with the minutiae of the present, for the short term political schemes we have become caught up in.
“Hear at last the great voice that speaks softly”
Listen. It speaks to us if we take the time to hear it.
“So I have gathered unto myself/ All the loose ends of Scotland”
It matters not where you were born but where you are now and feel you belong. Scots by choice. We are all a mixter maxter: a nation of loose ends.
We have the privilege of living in a beautiful, fertile, resource rich land. A land which will endure way beyond our short term decisions but the kind of nation we build for our descendants will be our choice.
“We have achieved a great duty in these critical times. After the destruction of so many years, we have been the first to revive the spirit of our country and give it a National Existence.” (Thomas Muir)