Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Tide Time: Ocean Rhythms on Orkney Shores

I left Shetland at the beginning of August with a sense that – thanks to the weather, coastal landscapes and people I’d met – no later leg of this Atlantic journey could possibly live up to it. But there were several things that feeling failed to take into account. One was the scale of the difference between each leg of the journey, throwing up ideas and experiences that I couldn’t possibly have imagined and making comparison meaningless. Another was that, as the journey becomes a little more established, there'll be new possibilities to meet people, think through what the journey is about, and gain new perspectives on the landscapes. Indeed, here's a very literal new perspective - I put a short amateurish film together when I was filmed from above by two amazing drone pilots:

With a little more confidence that this project was real, I was much quicker in Orkney to contact people I hoped would be willing to share their expertise - archaeologists, naturalists, artists, musicians and experts in dialect and history. People were far more generous with their time than I'd expected, and speaking to them was one of the best things about the time in Orkney. Thanks to these chats the project soon ended up in The Orcadian newspaper, on BBC Orkney and the Visit Orkney website: Most unexpectedly of all, just before leaving for Orkney I had a call asking whether I’d take a detour into the Irish Sea and talk about the journey on Anglesey for BBC Breakfast. The result was a very entertaining couple of days, including a porpoise-y night on the north coast of Anglesey:

With things beginning to feel all serious, I decided now was the time to make a website for the book project. On that site I'll be putting up all my pictures in north to south order, creating a bigger visual record of the journey than will be in the text itself, and making sure that future readers (hopefully not an imaginary species forever) will be able to follow the text in pictures. This is the site:

The logo used on the site was made by the designer Eilidh Price, based in Lairg, and is now also on the boat:
That might even help people who find my kayak abandoned on beaches (as it often is while I use public transport or hitch lifts back to the car every three or four days) to know there’s not anything amiss.
This month was less about sea life - given the slide from July to August, and the annual exodus of summer seabirds, that was always going to be the case - and more about the sea itself. Never have I found myself focused so intensely on the ocean as in the midst of Orkney’s tides & swell. And it was also about the remains of the industries of the coastline, whether from the 1930s or the sixth millennium BC. These are, after all, Britain's most richly historic shores.

I set out from the north of Papa Westray, where the sea gave the smallest taste of what to come:
Here's a map, showing where the islands are and, in the straggly thin blue line, where the journey down the west of Orkney took me: 
Then, paddling alongside the cliffs of Westray meant negotiating some quite disruptive swell:
A couple of days later, the sea round Rousay was ferocious (although I wasn’t brave enough to photograph it). One of my priorities as I got further through this month’s journey was to persuade myself to be less cautious with the camera. It had been frustrating in Shetland waters not to get photos of the most exciting sea, my camera being stowed as soon as large waves loomed. The unbelievable overfalls on Orkney’s tidal crossings gave me the opportunity to build some confidence. The first such episode was halfway down the islands. Eynhallow sound gave me the chance to get in close to the writhing waters. Here's one pic from each side of the crossing:
…then the swell gradually intensified, becoming more and more beautiful as the sun lowered:
The exit from Eynhallow Sound, through broken water, gave me a terrifying landing in surf onto the rocky north shore of Birsay – this was possibly the most convinced I’ve ever been that I was in for an injury. It was also the last tricky section that I didn’t dare photograph, but here are a couple of pics as I wobbled on the waves before riding the breakers in:
The most dramatic sea of all, however, came around the island of Hoy. I’d set out from Stromness at about 7.30 in the evening (remarkably, Stromness was the first town on my Atlantic-coast journey and this was the second-to-last day of July & August’s travel) and paddled across a powerful but flat flood tide…
so that I could spend the night on the island of Graemsay. This abandoned jetty was a welcome haven from the relentless eastwards flow
and the night-time views across to Stromness were wonderful (it was a mark of how isolated many previous nights had been that spending a night in sight of street lights felt so utterly weird):
Next day, after waking surrounded by curlews, I paddled round Graemsay to Hoy. This took two attempts through another powerful ebb (my first effort watched by a bemused fishing boat). With as much as 7 knots working against me... 
...I think there was a point at which I travelled 100 yards in about half an hour. This was all to make sure I’d rounded the north-west end of Hoy before the flood tide began.

I did, however, make the stupid mistake of having a brief rest in the belief there'd be a little while before the flood tide began. In still, sunny weather – perfect kayaking conditions – I found myself plunging towards the most ridiculous standing waves I’ve ever seen. I managed to get some photos before, prevented from continuing down Hoy, I bounced into another rocky landing a long way from roads, buildings or people. This was the first time in two months I’d been forced to postpone part of the journey. The fact that no-one onshore would see the difficulty (with the sun out & winds around 12 mph, this was surely easy) made me feel distinctly sheepish; the conditions when I did make it down – windless but through rain and fog – made me wish even more that I’d just planned the first effort a little more carefully. But I was very pleased to have got some photos of the kind of seas I’d been missing so far (there is an upside to incompetence).
When I did finally make it further down Hoy, I had to spend ages sat ashore, watching the patterns of incoming waves to choose a safe(ish) moment to launch from the rocky shore:
All this made me feel that I was learning the habits & patterns of the Atlantic like never before.
Because of the diverse roles that astonishing tidal movements & wave forms have played in this month’s journey, the rhythms of the sea will be crucial to this chapter of the book. When I write about the experience of being among these rhythms, it’ll be mediated through the work of the one artist who spent most time studying the wave patterns around Hoy: the composer Peter Maxwell Davies lived in a tiny croft a few hundred yards from where my kayak is in the photo above. He'd moved there precisely in order to attune himself to natural rhythms & the sounds of the Orkney environment. Twenty years ago, my first engagement with Orkney was with Maxwell Davies’ Orkney symphonies & with the St Magnus festival he founded in the islands. When I was 18 I had some lessons from him in playing his Orkney-inspired music. That makes this theme feel somehow like a return to roots. And the opportunity to talk to several people who'd walked the Orkney cliffs with Max was fantastic. 

Those sea rhythms are shaped by a wonderful array of obstacles & entrances along these fractured coastlines: 
In terms of wildlife, the Orkney journey was notable for two things: eccentric gannets & unusually friendly seals. The gannets of Westray followed the kayak whenever it was near the flagstone cliffs they nest on:
One particularly odd individual even powered towards the the kayak at some speed, clamped its beak around my bow, and then (deciding it was neither food nor threat) hung around for a while:
Later I slept above their colony at Noup Head, watching them protect their little corners of cliff-face as the last of the gugas, now black feathers rather than silver fluff, prepared to leave:
This year's fulmar chicks, which had looked like this in july...
 ...were now wearing only the last remnants of their down, quite a transformation in less than a month:
When I kayaked to Eynhallow I landed by the fulmar field station there, and was intrigued by the 'archive' visible through the window. 
So I got in touch withe the naturalist who runs the Eynhallow seal & fulmar surveys, Paul Thompson, and, with a small group including the exhibition curator Susan Christie & the artist Neville Gabie we visited the island a few days later:
The seals were the other big feature of the Orkney wildlife. During a fast ebb tide, this seal swam alongside for several minutes (not some distance behind like seals usually do):
The way it seemed to seek company & to be anxious about something elsewhere had me looking out for orca fins – but if they were there, I didn’t see them. At other times, sleeping faces just bobbed by through the waves & I tried my best not to wake them:
On another occasion, I found myself with time to kill while waiting for tides to turn in the Eynhallow sound. In the shelter of the bay, three tiny harbour seals came along to play. For half an hour, they swam round & under the boat before heading off & repeatedly reappearing:
Although the razorbills & guillemots were long gone, there were still hosts of waders:
And plenty of other life along the coast:
Besides the sea itself, the thing I was most intensively focused on in Orkney was the built heritage. I explored dozens of farmsteads & dykes from crofts abandoned between the eighteenth & twentieth centuries, many now providing roosts & nesting sites for birds, and thickly overgrown with foliage:
There were two things I wanted to do in relation to these buildings. One was to seek out remnants of industries of the shoreline. Orcadians are often referred to as ‘fishermen with ploughs’ or ‘crofters with boats’, but such descriptions leave out the seaweed, seabirds, eggs, shellfish & salvage that were crucial to subsistence & were at some times the islands’ major industries. I therefore explored every centre of kelp production I found. This is a building where four or five men once spent whole weeks, only returning to their home islands at the weekend:
I also investigated (disused!!) seal shooting stations:
...with their views onto skerries where seals still bask at low tide...
I investigated what I later discovered was the unobtrusive ruin of a medieval fish farm…
…and explored shell middens, dating back to as early as the sixth century, where whale vertebrae are sometimes found:
I also found my way to a monument to the last great auk to nest in Britain, killed in 1813 at the request of the London impressario, William Bullock:
Papa Westray children helped put this monument up, concealing within it a message to the future:

We wish there was still a great auk to see. We hope that people won’t have to build more cairns like this to remember things we see alive now. We humans gave a name to this bird, now only the name is left. If you who are reading this message are not human, remember us with kindness as we remember the great auk.

These were mostly sites that were unmarked, their nature only becoming clear through scrutiny of the ground, but I also explored some of the major sites, such as Midhowe Broch & the Knap of Howar, all of which were easier to reach by sea than they would be by land:
I didn't see anyone at any of these archaeological sites except, as I was passing a newly-discovered bronze-age sauna at the Links of Noltland on Westray, Neil Oliver & a BBC crew. I decided to abandon the landing I'd planned & kayak quickly past:
Some of these islands, Papa Westray in particular, were breathtaking places where millennia of histories seemed to jut out from every patch of earth or sea (the Knap of Howar, for instance, is an extraordinary farmstead from 5,700BC, today missing only its whale-rib rafters, soft furnishings & its farmland that has been eaten by the sea). I was very glad indeed to have a guide to the island in the form of Jim Hewitson, author of the island's biography - here he is showing me the geo that was once Papay's rubbish dump:
If that site was an example of contemporary archaeology, I couldn't help taking photos of current uses of Orcadian inshore waters either:
Once on Orkney mainland, I used the oral histories collected in the Orkney Sound Archive to try to contextualise the remnants of modern industries on Westray and Papa Westray shores. A 2004 project conducted by Kate Towsey & Helga Tulloch, called Orkney and the Sea, was particularly useful in making sense of the uses of these shorelines.

One particularly intriguing aspect of Orkney’s coastal ruins was the way the remains of century after century were superimposed at so many sites. Eynhallow, for instance, has beautiful ruins of a tiny twelfth century church. As usual, I couldn't resist a clamber around:
This church had been converted into a set of crofter’s houses until 1851 (what strange story led deeply religious crofters to make their homes in consecrated ground?); similarly, many crofts on neighbouring Rousay were built in very close proximity to remnants of prehistory including the large burnt mounds. As the only area of Orkney to have suffered extensive clearances in the mid-nineteenth century, this is a profoundly contested landscape, where lairds were often more interested in the ancient than the modern inhabitants of the land. I’d begun to think about the relationships between ancient, medieval and nineteenth-century histories here when I discovered the wonderful work of Antonia Thomas and Dan Lee, two archaeologists whose experimental approach to landscape has revealed lots about precisely those themes I’d been slowly fumbling towards. They also introduced me to lots of archaeological resources I was embarrassed not to know about.

By the time I finished the kayak down Orkney, I'd picked up some wonderful mementos - a 6,000yr old gift from Jim Hewitson, a drawing of an arctic skua, made on the spot by the artist Tim Wooton, and a copy of Afloat, Neville Gabie's film about coastal skiffs. I’d also defined my three themes for the chapter, The first will be historical uses of the Papay & Westray shoreline; the second will be modern relationships to the archaeology of Rousay & Eynhallow; the third is rhythms of the Hoy sea and the artistic representation of Orkney. Given the wealth of themes that a place such as Orkney could throw up, being limited to 8,000 words to evoke the relationship of these islands with the Atlantic is tough. Almost straight away, I'm heading to Lewis, where I need to a few new themes as I paddle the Western Isles. There's an added complication: I need to move house by mid October. My plan is to follow the same routine as these first two months, reading lots before I set out (at the moment, books such as Roger Hutcinson's A Waxing Moon about the Gaelic language), then using the first few days of travel to choose my themes, and the rest of the journey to write. At 25,000 words for the intro, Orkney & Shetland, I'm going to have to learn a little discipline...  

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