By Bernie Bell

Orkney consists of a group of islands. Some larger, some smaller, some inhabited, some un-inhabited.  For some reason, islands in particular can feel like places where time/space/whatever all go a bit haywire and strange. There are certain places on Orkney, where any feeling  of permanency of place, shifts. Possibly that’s why so much attention was paid to Orkney and so many monuments were built here in the past.

It’s a common idea in ‘fairy’ stories, too, especially those about folk going into  fairy mounds and coming out again to find that, possibly, centuries have passed.  Never kiss a fairy, don’t eat or drink what they offer, and don’t fall asleep in or on a fairy mound.  And there are the tales of  the Fin Folk – half way between human and seal – sometimes get to go home, sometimes don’t.  Which is ‘home’?  That’s the question.

What’s seen as veils being thinner in certain places or at certain times, can depend on how you see LIFE – whether you see it all  being there, and happening, at the same time, or….…not.

Time shifts, places shift – it’s all there.

I’ve wandered away from islands a bit.

There’s a play by J.M. Barrie ( of Peter Pan fame) called ‘Mary Rose’, which is beautiful, simply beautiful, and centres on an island, and someone’s inability to leave that island.  I’ll say no more, read it, if you can find a copy.

There are  floating ‘islands’ of vegetation,  which may have led to those myths about actual islands, which float.  And, oh lord – ‘Life of Pi’ by Yann Martel, with the weird, carnivorous floating island.

Not always carnivorous, but islands do encourage the development of unique species, such as our own Orkney Vole

Orkney vole

photo credit: Paul Jenny Wilson

Here’s something I wrote to someone who was feeling isolated – that she was ‘an island’ cut off from other people and life…………….

“No-one is an island.  It might feel that way sometimes, but it ain’t so.

Even islands, aren’t islands – they have all kinds of links and connections, either through the air, over the water, or, a deeper, stronger attachment to the next piece of land, by the land which is under the oceans.  It’s all one land, when it comes down to it.

‘All are one and one is all’.”

And, what about islands which aren’t quite islands, which are sometimes joined to the land by a narrow causeway or rock outcrop, only becoming islands at certain times of the day? The most well-known of these, is the Brough of Birsay.

Less well-known, there’s the Holm of Grimbister, in the Bay of Firth, which also becomes an island at low tide.  Our friend and her daughter, once walked across the causeway, and right round the island (clockwise, of course), just….for the sake of it.

It’s possible that the Holm of Grimbister, and its neighbour, Damsay,  may not have been islands, way back when sea-levels were lower.  They are in the Bay of Firth, and ancient structures and artefacts have been discovered under the water there.

There are islands which are now completely ‘detached’ islands, but which probably weren’t, way back.  Quite a few of them around Orkney. They are now islands or sometimes, just skerries, but will have been part of the ‘land’, one time.

I live in Gorseness, just up and over the hill, from the Hall of Rendall (of Doocot fame).  Out in the sea, across from the Hall of Rendall, is a skerry called the Holm of Rendall.  On the O.S. map, it says that there’s a  cairn on this skerry.  When I go for walks, I look at this skerry, and have thought that it just doesn’t make sense, to have your cairn, on a skerry, which you have to cross the sea to get to.  Imagine the trouble, building it, and the risk of in-undation. I know, people will do all sorts of extreme things for their beliefs, but this just didn’t make sense.  If, however, the sea wasn’t there, and this was land, it would be a convenient little mound, in the landscape, on which to place your cairn.  It makes sense, now.  This is just ’round the corner’ from the Bay of Firth, and the cairns on and around Wideford Hill, just down from the cairn on Gairsay, and across from the cairns on Rousay.

Gairsay B Bell

From our house, you can almost picture the landscape, with the sea lower down and farther away – we could walk to Kirkwall!

On a more peripheral note……there is a book called ‘Waterlog’ by Roger Deakin.  It’s mostly about wild swimming, of which he was a great advocate.  Near the beginning,  he describes a visit to the Isles of Scilly.  He describes walking in a Bronze-age landscape, on land, and then he “went down for a swim in the Bronze-age fields.”   He snorkels out into a shallow bay, over the continuation of the Bronze-age landscape.  He sees how the water snails, echo the land snails, on the walls.  Long story short – it’s a wonderful evocation of the idea of how some of the land has been covered by the sea, but there is still a connection, more than a connection, one still flows into the other.  He has a great feel for the relationship between water and land.

Then there are the islands which used to be thriving communities, and are no uninhabited, such as Copinsay.

A good few years ago, Mike and I spent a day on Copinsay, with some of Mike’s work colleagues. Sidney Foubister took seven of us over, and dropped us off on the island at 11 in the morning, then picked us up at 5 in the evening.  We had a lovely day, fine and sunny.  It was brilliant – absolutely brilliant.

Sidney Foubisters boat B Bell

There is definitely, but indefinably something different about an island which has people on it, even very few people, such as Auskerry or Gairsay,  and an island which has been left to the birds, the beasts, and seals.

We used to visit an elderly friend, in St. Peter’s, the woman sitting next to our friend, was one of the last people to leave Copinsay.  Unfortunately, she couldn’t  speak. She did roar at us, sometimes, and had very expressive eyes, but she couldn’t speak. Think of the tales she could have told.  She’s passed from this life now – those links are being broken.

There are other uninhabited islands such as Stroma and Swona. The photos of the abandoned houses, where folk simply left, leaving personal possessions behind, are so poignant.  And they are probably  acquiring their own stories. They have such mystery about them. Imagine how it feels, to visit those empty houses, with chairs, beds and kettles, still there?  The appurtenances of domestic life, but without the domestic life to go with them.

Uninhabited/abandoned islands – a different thing, again, and still exciting interest………

I have to include Eynhallow,

Eynhallow B Bell

which is now uninhabited, but which, at one time, supported more people than seems credible, as you can read about, here…………..

Sometimes monks go to the most remote, cut off islands, seeking isolation for contemplation – I don’t know how they lived there though – how anyone managed to survive on Skellig Michael, is beyond, me, but they did. A lump of rock, in the sea – hardly could be called an island, yet they did manage to live on them.

They draw us to them….islands.

I thought this piece was a bit, bitty – one bit here, one bit there, then Mike pointed out that – that‘s how islands are – but still connected.

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