By Ian Hill
... It was the light, you see, the light and the air. I tried to put it into words, even, but you couldn't write ...
I opened the book, and a slim stub of ticket fluttered to the ground, like a butterfly released from its long winter cocoon. I turned it in my fingers, feeling the roughness of the paper. Five pounds and thirty pence. The 26th of August 1992. It had been pressed into use as a bookmark whilst reading in the damp passenger well of the Jessie Ellen, on the regular service from Hoy into Stromness. The ticket still marked the poem I was reading that rainy afternoon: 'After I came back from Iceland', by Sheenagh Pugh. From such small gifts is memory composed.
I arrived in Orkney the way an alcoholic arrives at temperance: falteringly, hesitant, unmoored. It was beyond my ken, outside the orbit of my known world. I already knew the pull of the north like a compass in my soul; I had spent my youth in the Highlands whenever I was able: trips into remote bothies in the shortened light of winter, nights sleeping in abandoned railway stations, in disused passenger carriages, in byres and bunkhouses. I waited out the rain in cafés and hotels, sniffed the air for snow and hoped for the settling of overnight frost to harden the surface of the whitened land. I learned the names of the northern and western peaks like a litany, an incantation of the places I longed to be: Liatach, Canisp, An Teallach, Foinaven, Arkle. I thought I knew the land.
In the summer of 1990, I walked from the small fishing town of Kinlochbervie northwards, across the burnt-coloured moorlands of the Cape Wrath peninsula, alone with a tent, picking out rivers of peaty brown, following the ones which flowed northwards to the coast, knowing that there was nothing beyond. I descended to the tiny cusp of silver beach at Kearvaig with a sense of reverence, like a penitent in a dark cathedral. I stayed two days in the bothy there; a well-proportioned crofter's cottage with its weathered pine floorboards and its view out through the dark headlands which enclosed the bay like bookends. I picked mussels from the rocks at low tide, up to my thighs in cold water, ceilinged by spools of wheeling gulls, and I knew that what lay beyond, invisible on the ruffled sea, were the islands. I had looked over the rim of my horizon, and knew there was something there which intrigued, which burned in the mind like a native mythology: a dark tale of the north country.
I met my wife on the boat to Orkney. It is a neat tale, a truth and a not-truth, a story which shifts in the telling, one which seemed to fit the ever-moving light of the islands which appeared, at once dark and bright, on the horizon beyond the grey sea. We had first met a few months previously, shared conversation over a dinner and again the following morning, barrelling through our words as though there would never be enough time to say them all. We spoke on the phone a few weeks later and discovered we were both heading north at the same time: she to Shetland, I to Orkney. I begged a lift with her as far as Perth, where I waved her goodbye at the A9 roundabout before hitching the rest of the way to Thurso.
I thought I knew the land: the long climb over Drumochter, the way the hills change from green to brown to grey depending on the light or the mood of the gods of moorland. I thought I understood the long distances over which the mountains slowly unwind themselves, the views into distant glens which shift imperceptibly as the road climbs into the mist. On the far side of the pass, as the road descended to the firth, which shone in the pale afternoon light of late summer, I felt a sense of release, a shedding of expectation, a valediction for the dark hills which lay squat over my shoulder.
At Inverness, I crossed the Kessock Bridge as though into a new country: a hundred miles more to the north and the day declining towards evening. I hitched a ride as far as Helmsdale, with a middle-aged widower who drove as though it were an act of benediction, turning his car through the smooth curves along the gentle descent to the Dornoch Firth with Jacqueline du Pré's aching rendition of Elgar's Cello Concerto on the car stereo. I had never heard such music before; it was a long, clear note of longing which rang in my head long after he had left me by the side of the darkening road, one which seemed fitted to this new place in which I had found myself, in the flat lands beyond the mountains, heading north to the islands.
The road followed the coast for dozens of miles more, the land rising in a gentle swell to my left like the rhythm of the Elgar. I was struck by the curious familiarity of the unfamiliar, the way in which the red sandstone villages leaned towards the sea, gathered around small harbours of roughly dressed stone, and I thought how the old county of Sutherland was named by a people to whom it was the southern land: a people who lived further north still, on islands steeped in names so old they seemed carved from the stone itself: Orcadia, the Orcades.
I caught the first ferry the following morning, after a cold night on the railway station platform at Thurso. The sea, although calm, seemed roughened into a dull steely grey which darkened towards the horizon, its border with the paler grey clouds indistinct and somehow threatening. I stood on deck, scanning the immense cliffs of St. John's Head on the south side of Hoy, tracing with my eye the impossible rock pinnacles of the Old Man, picking out the circling white specks of sea birds as they flew towards the cliffs, diminishing in size until they disappeared into the vastness of the rock. My eyes groped for scale, for proportion; I was lost in the landscape.
The ferry had not long left Scrabster when the woman who would three years later become my wife popped up from the car deck with her friend; they had missed the Shetland ferry, and spontaneously opted for Orkney instead. We carried on the conversation which had been suspended at the A9 roundabout, tumbling stories of places visited, places not yet seen, books read and stories told in bothies and campsites. We parted as the boat docked at Stromness, knowing we would meet again soon, back in our own lives, away from the islands.
Arriving in Stromness seemed like arriving home. I slipped at once into its winding streets, its narrow closes, each of which ended at the sea, so that to walk along the main street was like seeing a flicker-book image of the bay, each view shifted slightly from the last; a different group of boats tugging at their buoys, the road climbing the opposite side of the bay at a new angle. It felt like a constant presence at my shoulder, a reminder of the proximity of the sea. I camped on the ness, at the end of a long track beyond which lay the slick ambivalence of Scapa Flow, with its islands and shipwrecks, its shifting light and ominous tides. Arctic Skuas breasted the breeze like a channel swimmer breaking the waves, all purpose and power.
In retrospect, I realise that Orkney unlocked something, that my time there had a seminal quality, the start of a slow burn of desire. I sat on the quay in Kirkwall, watching the ferries coming from and going to the outer islands, and felt at the centre of things, as though the whole world could continue to revolve around this tiny archipelago in all its vain, pointless futility and these ferries would still pass again at the turning of each tide. I took the first one I could, choosing an island at random simply for the experience of travelling further out, or perhaps further in.
I had brought a notebook and a camera, my only concessions to comfort: my desert island luxuries. On the small northern island of Stronsay, I camped on a small bluff of sand and coarse grass above the beach, looking to the rising sun. Each day, I walked the beach and photographed insignificant details: a single pebble dimpled in the sand; the soft lines of silt left by the receding tide; the sensuous curves of rocks bleached and naked beneath the low sun. I sang to the seals to hold their attention before they slipped into the kelp-slicked water. And, for the first time in a few years, I wrote.
I had always written. Since my childhood I had invented stories, sketched out fragments of fiction. What happened in Orkney was that I learned my subject; phrases formed spontaneously in my mind, fragments which I could piece together to form a whole, like the scattered shards of pottery I found on the beach at low tide. I coaxed these into poems in my notebook, and realised that I had a means to process the beauty of the place, the clarity of the light, the indefinable pain and pleasure which comes from our fumblings to understand the world, the frustrations of a life incompletely lived. I had found a place in which language seemed a natural way to understand its moods and methods, and I had found the importance of telling simply what lay before me - more beautiful, more precious, more perfect than anything in my imagination.
Returning from the outer islands in Orkney, in my memory, has the quality of stepping over a threshold; my time of Stronsay had caused me to still the incessant drive of exploration which had haunted me since my youth. I walked the sunlit streets of Kirkwall with a patience which, it seemed, I would never again find. I felt not far away on the periphery of the country, but deep in the beating heart of the known world.
My days in Orkney spiralled around the dark basin of Scapa Flow, a sheltered sea rimmed by the soft green of islands yet unknown to me. At the changing of the tides, the water shone with the pale iridescence of oil; swirls of currents could be seen below the surface, picked out by the change in light, a shift in texture as though a thick liquid had been stirred before setting. Protected from the south-westerly gales, the Flow is both a haven and an omen; it offers shelter and yet can spin small boats in its shifting currents. The Flow provided the focus for the rest of my time there; the crossing from Stromness to Hoy in my last few days seeming to complete a circle of exploration, its waters reminding me of the fragility of the place, its capriciousness and moods, its promise and premonition.
In Scapa Flow, there are the wrecks of ships from distant wars: rusted hulks surfacing from the water like unpleasant memories. Returning to Stromness from those final days on Hoy, the Jessie Ellen picked an expert route through the ominously smooth, turbid water; unhurried, practised. A soft drizzle was blowing over the low cuddy cabin, dampening the pages of my book. The westerly wind stirred the surface of the water, so that it was impossible to tell if the wetness in the air came from the sky or the sea.
After a few brief hours in Stromness, I would take the ferry back to the mainland and start the long journey south. I had a couple of reels of film on which I could work in the lengthening days of autumn, a handful of notes which could be coaxed into poems - an attempt to pin the shifting light of the islands as futile as my photographs. More precious still, I had formed a friendship with someone who seemed to love the islands in the same way that I did, as a place to which to surrender, to suspend expectations. I read again the poem which seemed to capture the specialness of my time away, the deeply personal nature of travel, the grasping impossibility of describing the places which speak to us. As the faint spray thickened to rain, I slipped the boat ticket between the pages and closed my book.
Ian Hill is a Cumbria-based writer, whose work has been published in Earthlines magazine, and the Dark Mountain anthologies, among other places. More of his work can be found at www.printedland.blogspot.co.uk.