By Jack Cooke
The Church Island, the Fish Island and the Island of Sand. The land of Hrolf, of Thorfinn and George Mackay Brown…
I cross the Firth to the Orkney isles on a NorthLink ferry. The giant Viking logo, emblazoned on its flank, tries to reach for me, extending its cartoon palm up to the deck rail. I stretch out a foot to touch Norse fingertips.
On every side, the sea runs in different directions. The white water between the sound and the coast is pulled into ribs: rip currents that bind the land. Orkney’s history seems hemmed in, the past thickening on the shoreline. In the hills across the water, human stories lie side by side, thousands of years apart. Neolithic stone and modern concrete stake an equal claim to this landscape.
Uncovering the passage of time on Orkney is not the sole preserve of romantics, saga poets and burrowing archaeologists. Stepping onto the main island I find a coastline that has been fished for five thousand years and fields that generations of farmers have criss-crossed with plough and livestock. The history of human habitation here has left a lasting residue; the effect is a sense of territory long marked.
The islanders bury their dead on the seashore. There is a reassuring impermanence in this; no stone can last long against the sea. The grave markers are licked by high tides and garlanded with hoary lichen; none remain upstanding, all lean hard into the wind. Some commemorate death in the fields or the sick bed; others, the silent majority, mark lives lost at sea on fishing boats, mail boats or men-of-war. Waters that bore Vikings, Christian missionaries and British admirals, drowned them all indiscriminately, returning some to shore and keeping others for the seabed.
The rumour of one who was washed ashore draws me to Hoy, the High Island, whose red sea cliffs stand sentinel over the harbour of Scapa Flow. I sail out from the safe haven of Stromness on a fishing boat, past the Paw of Garberry, the Pinnacles, the Sheep Skerry, down the lowland side of Hoy to dock at the long-abandoned naval base of Lyness. The boat pauses, reluctant, by the dock, and I disembark. The fisherman replaces me with a lobster creel and turns back on his own wake.
A strong wind is rattling the wartime jetties and gun emplacements. Stepping through the doorless frame of a bungalow on the harbour front, I come across a scene from Hoy’s frozen history: a room in which the rotten floor still bears the weight of an unmade bed and a tuneless piano. Opening a chest drawer beneath the window, I find buttons, candlewicks and old cutlery. The hut begins to yaw in the wind; clapboard slats drift apart and moths blow in through the walls.
Outside, the shadow-sweeping sun leads me up the road to the Naval Cemetery. This small plot is the final resting place of countless drowned sailors, the victims of accident or malice. Here you will find bodies pulled from the wrecks of the Hampshire, Narborough, Opal and Royal Oak, and dozens of other ships lost in the surrounding seas.
In the northern corner stands a row of stones all bearing the same epitaph: To An Unknown Sailor. These are all ghosts of the same ship: eight hundred men who sank with HMS Vanguard in sight of shore, a few seaweed lengths into the channel. On the night of 9 July 1917, a sudden light shone in Scapa Flow. The Vanguard was momentarily incandescent, three magazines detonating in rapid succession, overheated by the ship’s boilers. The explosions tore open the ship’s hull and flooded her decks. Men were caught between searing fire and the ocean, hundreds of sailors locked in steel cabins. Within four minutes the Vanguard had turned on her side and was sinking. In four more she had disappeared.
Among the dead was a lone Japanese Sailor, Kyōsuke Eto, a military attaché who journeyed across Siberia and Europe to train with the Royal Navy. Eto’s place here is incongruous: he travelled six thousand miles to share in the careless death of eight hundred British seamen. In this way a sake brewer’s son came to be buried on Orkney.
The loss of life remains the greatest from any accidental explosion in British history. On the seaward horizon of the cemetery lies Flotta, the island of oil, where North Sea flames burn day and night. A chimney on the skyline exhales orange flame; it feels like a candle for the Vanguard dead, a votive for the bones that still lie underwater.
In the town library of Gonohe, in north-east Japan, there sits a small display case behind a row of stacked books. Inside is a photograph, a sepia-toned silver print. A young man looks up through the mould on the glass, trapped forever in a foreign ship.
Jack Cooke is a sometime bookseller, copywriter and Japanophile. His first book, The Tree Climber's Guide to London, will be published by Harper Collins in 2016 and you can access his website here: www.jjcooke.com.