Book Review: ‘Orkney: A Special Way of Life.’

By Bernie Bell

We don’t often buy new books – most of our books come from charity shops and are by tried and trusted authors – sometimes taking a chance on an unknown.  As they cost so little, it’s worth chancing it.  But – they are always something that we’ve chosen, personally.

Since March 2020, we haven’t been going to charity shops – I haven’t been going anywhere much – and our supply of ‘new’ reading material has got low.

One good thing about being old is – I can now read things which I read so long ago that they have slipped from my memory! 

When Fiona G asked how did I feel about reviewing a book which has just come out called ‘Orkney: A Special Way of Life’, I was pleased enough to be offered some new – really new – reading material and told Fiona I’d have a go, wondering what it would be about, and resisting the temptation to Google it, so that I would read it fresh.

I then saw this item in TON….

I’m not comfortable with ‘Virtual’ events, so there was no temptation for me to find out about the book before reading it from that source. 

So, after a brief introduction to the author, I’ll just launch into what I made of it – a personal response.

‘Orkney: A Special Way Of life’, published by Luath Press, is by  Richard Clubley – originally from Yorkshire – moved to Orkney from Derbyshire, thereby moving from being a ‘Northerner’ to being from ‘Sooth’.  Being one of the many ‘Yorkadians’ here – I share that shift of placement.

My first impression was that he’s not one of those people who moves to Orkney thinking it’s some kind of Fairyland where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts, then when life here isn’t what they expected/demanded – leave.  The impression I get is that Richard and wife Bev, not forgetting Dog, moved to Orkney for what Orkney is, not for what they can ‘get out of’ Orkney or for what Orkney can ‘do’ for them.

We had a friend here, now passed from this life, who would slip into talking about ‘incomers’, sometimes in a not very complimentary way.  I’d point out to her that Mike and I are incomers, and she’d say she didn’t mean us, because…….we came to Orkney for what’s here, not for what we thought should be here.  She knew the difference, being Orcadian through and through – though there was a tale of an ancestor Dutchman washing up on the shore in a barrel a couple of hundred years ago.  Variety is the spice of life, and of groups of people.

I digress – back to the book, which is written with a light touch, humour and an appreciation of and delight in island ways and island life – both the plus and minus. It’s also very informative, though I noticed one thing which has changed between the book being written and it being published.  Richard writes of enjoying music at The Reel – The Reel has closed – a financial casualty of Covid. 

He writes of how there is always something to do and something going on here, and how the unusual is accepted. 

There’s driving along and seeing bales of hay with faces on – a line of vintage vehicles going along a hillside road parallel to the road you’re on – and things disappearing and re-appearing because of the quality of the light.  Seriously – whacking great stones, whole islands, gone, then back again.  Everyday magic.  These aren’t written of by Richard – they’re some of my own experiences from living here.  We’ll each have our own examples, native Orcadian and incomer alike.  There wouldn’t be a lot of point in my telling of Richard & Bev’s experiences – you’ll need to read the book to discover what they were, and are.

They’ve not been here long, since 2017, so they will, no doubt, encounter many more examples of the ….difference…. of Orkney life.  Each island is different, and has different ways, traditions and social etiquette. I was talking with someone who was last in North Ronaldsay 45 years ago – back now for a visit – who said that, back then, the Hall for Harvest Home was decorated by the men with traditional woven straw festoons and decorations.  The women weren’t allowed to have anything to do with it. I’d never heard of that before, and wondered is it still the practice?  Or was he pulling my leg?

Even West Mainland and East Mainland are very different – as folks from either will tell you!  Not to mention the Parish rivalries….

I realise that I’m heading off into writing of my own Orkney experiences, instead of those described in the book. That’s what happens as you read it though – you start to link up with Richard and his connections with place, people and general goings-on. Lives inter-weaving, as island lives tend to do.

He writes of finding a poppy wreath from a  Royal Oak Memorial Service, tucked under the cliff by Scapa Distillery, and placing it in the Scapa Memorial Garden. Some years ago Mike and I walked across the bridge over the waterfall beneath Scapa Distillery and along the cliff path to a little bay where we found numerous poppies and bits & pieces from a recent ceremony.  We gathered them together and placed them in a niche in the cliff, making a small memorial garden of our own.

Richard ends with how he was calmed and reassured by attending a Nine Lessons & Carols Service in St. Magnus Cathedral, and, once again, experiences weave together.

I’d say that this is a good read for anyone thinking of coming to Orkney, either to stay or as a visitor. Or, equally for anyone interested in Orkney generally. It’s got a lot in it, like the place that it’s describing.

There are some cracking illustrations too –  drawings by Liz Thomson with a few by Tim Wootton – well known Orkney wildlife artist.

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2 replies »

  1. The decoration of the hall in North Ronaldsay with simmans (woven and plaited straw ropes) has almost ceased, mainly due to lack of folk who can do it. It was continued up until these last few years, mainly because of the skill and enthusiasm of Ian Scott of Antabreck. If you look through his Letter from North Ronaldsay series you will find one where he says he is giving up making simmans, although if my memory is correct, some are used year-on-year. Certainly the men always decorated the hall when I lived there, but my impression was that it was the men’s contribution to Harvest Home as the women did all the cooking, not that the women were not allowed to do it – I could be wrong. What nights they were! I remember one in particular when many of us, outside to cool off between dances and for a smoke, lay down in the road to watch the Merry Dancers.

    • My lord Andy – dancing, then watching the Merry Dancers – what a wonderful memory to have.

      I remember coming out of a summer Ceildh in Harray, and not being able to work out if the light in the sky was today, or tomorrow.
      What a place to live!

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