Tag Archives: Outer Hebrides

Places of Healing – returning to the Orkney Isles

The Orkney Isles

The Orkney Isles

(http://mappery.com/Orkney-Islands-Map)

As some of you will have gathered from Facebook posts and pictures in June this year, Ian and I returned again recently to what has become one of our favourite places. I’ve been asked by a number of people to re-publish this post, to remind them of Orkney’s beguiling qualities. I’d also like new Followers of the blog to know about Orkney. So – here it is. Enjoy, and let me know what you think. Better still, go there! (No, I don’t have a retainer from the tourist board…)

History

“ Scratch Orkney, and it bleeds archaeology!”

This vivid phrase – from an energetic, silver-haired Orcadian tourist guide on an enchanting early evening visit to the tiny island of Eynhallow off the Orkney mainland many years ago – has always remained in my mind as summing up a defining feature of the Orkney Isles.

This scattering of 67 lush, fertile green islands lying off the north coast of Caithness in Scotland has a remarkable history whose early traces continue to surface. The world-famous Neolithic Ring of Brodgar, an impressive stone circle, dominates a narrow stretch of land between Stenness and Harray lochs, attracting many thousands of tourists every year.

We found on our recent visit that yet another archaeological dig was in progress – very close to the Ring. This time, it is so extensive that it may yield the most significant evidence of ancient occupation since the stone settlement of Scara Brae was uncovered by a severe storm many years ago.

About fifteen years ago, Ian and I took an evening drive down to the Ring. It was a clear night, the full moon reflecting burnished silver off Harray Loch. We were alone. We have often walked around the Ring: it is one of my personal pilgrimages on the many visits Ian and I have made to Orkney over the years. This time it felt different, a little eerie.

Suddenly we became aware of what I can only describe as an electrical charge, running clockwise round the ancient stones. We heard intermittent crackling, saw little flashes of sporadic light. The atmosphere raised the hairs on the back of our necks. Knowing we had had a definite experience, but not one which could be explained logically, we said nothing to anyone. But the sense of ancient power invoked in that experience remains with us.

Ring of Brodgar

Ring of Brodgar

(http://www.orkneyjar.com/history/brodgar/)

Sea

I love the sea, as does Ian. Growing up in the Outer Hebrides meant that water, either pouring from the heavens, lapping gently against the ever-visible shorelines, or battering the landscape in fierce winter storms, dominated my early years. Being by the sea never fails to soothe my spirit, remind me that we are always held in the Eternal, whether aware of it or not. The sea around Orkney entrances me, literally.

On this visit I walked out from Kirkwall harbour on another of my pilgrimages: the morning walk I used to take of about a mile round the line of coast as far as Craigiefield House, wonderful sea views all the way. The low land in Orkney means high, wide skyscapes whose textures, colours and shapes shift and change like a magician’s palette, reflecting always the moods and shifts of the sea. Today it is misty. I sit on a bench and gaze out.

Then, I would reflect on what my day’s writing might bring, as Ian’s busy working day unfolded through many contacts with Orcadians who had grown to trust his professional expertise over many years. Today, we are on holiday here, visiting old friends, familiar places. I just sit, with no plan, letting the sea’s magic enfold me.

Church

In Kirkwall, Orkney’s main town, St Magnus Cathedral – known as the ‘Light in the North’ – was founded in 1137 by the Viking, Earl Rognvald. It is a wonderful building, nowadays owned by the people of Orkney themselves, lovingly and proudly cared for – still very much an active Church. On early visits I used to marvel to myself that such an impressive building was going up here, at the same time as the great cathedral builders of Europe were embarking on a massive series of projects which would take centuries to complete.

Only later did I find out to my surprise and amazement that the European cathedral builders had actually visited these remote, small islands – to advise the Orcadian stonemasons.

On this visit there was a highlight – a new experience. We joined a tour which took us to the upper reaches of the cathedral, via some vertiginously narrow and twisty stairways opening out onto two levels as we gained height, finally gaining access to the very top of the cathedral and fantastic views over town, sea, and much of the Orcadian landscape. I was glad successfully to have challenged my vertigo!

Of many impressive details which the well-informed and enthusiastic guide offered, my personal highlight probably reveals more about me than I should be prepared to admit….on the first level, lying along the floorboards within the stout cathedral walls, was an unusual ladder. This was used at public executions which were very much a feature of  life in mediaeval times and later. It is a double ladder, with thirteen rungs. Two people, the executioner and the condemned person ascended it. Only one came down. Chilling.

St Magnus Cathedral window

St Magnus Cathedral window

(photo: Anne Whitaker)

There is wonderful stained glass from different eras throughout the cathedral. I was fortunate enough to be allowed to take a photograph from on high of my    personal favourite: a glorious jewel-coloured modern window depicting key scenes from the spiritual and temporal life of Orcadians down the ages.

I could have stood on bare boards, high up in St Magnus Cathedral, gazing over the stone parapet at this magnificent window for the rest of the afternoon, had that been possible. However, I have created an acceptable substitute. That glorious window you see here as a photograph is now my computer screen saver: I can admire my version of it, every day!

People

I had two motivations in going to Orkney for one week in February and July each year for nearly two decades. One was to act as a brake on Ian’s tendency to work all day and evening, as he attempted to cram a huge workload into a short visit. In this I was only partially successful….The other was to get away from my own busy people-focused career, giving my reclusive side time to retreat, be by the sea, and allow the writer in me five days of glorious indulgence.

Because of the latter, I was disinclined to be sociable when in Orkney. My ideal lunch was sitting in Trenabie’s cafe (now Bistro!) in Kirkwall, munching one of their excellent toasties with my nose in a book.

However, despite this I still made a few friends, all through Ian. It was heartwarming to receive the welcome we were given on this visit, with Ian being left in no doubt by his former clients and colleagues of the quality of his contribution and how much that had been missed when he left.

One friend we could not have left without seeing is the irrepressible, redoubtable Gifford Leslie, known to all as “Giffie”. Dear Giffie has never quite recovered from having me as one of his guests when we stayed in the characterful Kirkwall Hotel during his tenure as manager there.

Spurning the coffee on offer at breakfast, I would turn up with a tiny jar of my favourite quality instant, and ask for a pot of hot water, much to Giffie’s exasperation and my husband’s embarrassment. Then there was the incident when I managed somehow to splash ink from my fountain pen rather visibly onto the “very expensive!” wallpaper in the Kirkwall Hotel’s Writing Room. Giffie was not pleased, and did not hesitate to tell me so.

On this visit, we found him co-managing the newly refurbished, attractive  West End Hotel with his usual style and panache. Needless to say, I was reminded over a pot of tea (on the house) of my former misdemeanors. Giffie and I concluded as we bade one another a fond farewell, that time had not improved either of us. Ian agreed!

We returned home to our city life, feeling rested and warmed in spirit by our trip, the first for several years. I do hope that this pictorial and verbal tribute conveys at least some of the flavour of the special nature of the Orkney Isles, one of my – and our –  personal healing places. We will be back.

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1450 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2014

Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

People you never forget….

 

Grandpa Donald

It was a very stormy day, as is frequently the case in the Outer Hebrides in winter. The ferry was tossing alarmingly, the passengers were very scared. Some were lying being sick in the toilets. Others, white faced, were on the cafeteria floor, clinging to the table legs for comfort and support.

Grandpa Donald’s nerves were steady. Despite being over seventy, he was  dapper, and had never lost the sea legs he developed sailing between South America and his native island before the First World War. He made his way with a calculated stagger into the cafeteria full of screaming children and whimpering adults, serenely advancing to the serving area.

“I don’t suppose there’s any chance of a cup of tea?”

He was on his way to South Uist to do a spot of lay preaching, and saw no reason why a force nine gale should come between him and his afternoon cuppa.

Donald died when I was eleven and he was eighty three. Typical of the man, chasing hens up the street was the last thing he did before taking his leave of this world, serene in his faith that he would be re-united with his departed loved ones in the Life to Come.

He used to babysit for me. I have no memory of those occasions, but according to my mother he used to say, every time my parents returned home, 

“My goodness, that child. What questions she asks, what questions!”.

About the stars, and God, and where we all came from, and what life was for, apparently.

I do remember his serenity and good humour, and his kindness. I adored him and was devastated when he died. Donald had always made me feel safe, secure and valued. No one else in my childhood years had done this for me in quite the same way, as I struggled to grow up and get away from my parents. They loved me, but were too damaged in themselves and their unhappy relationship to support me in the ways that I needed.
After Donald died, until I left home, I asked questions only of myself and my books.

Most of us have someone inspiring/challenging we’ll never forget. Who comes to mind for you? It would be interesting to hear.

             400 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2013
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

 

Hallowe’en Chiller: Overtaking a phantom

Ghosts seem harder to please than we are; it is as though they haunted for haunting’s sake – much as we relive, brood, and smoulder over our pasts….on the whole, it would seem they adapt themselves well, perhaps better than we do, to changing world conditions – they enlarge their domain, shift their hold on our nerves, and, dispossessed of one habitat, set up house in another. The universal battiness of our century looks like providing them with a propitious climate….”

Elizabeth Bowen

Definition of a ghost : “the soul of a dead person which supposedly manifests itself to the living visibly (as a shadowy apparition), audibly etc.”

(p 356, The Oxford English Reference Dictionary, Oxford University Press 1996)

An imaginative child, I found going upstairs to bed scary most nights, having probably heard too many ghost stories as I grew up in the storm-tossed Outer Hebrides – home to many a Celtic tale of the otherworld of the supernatural.

There was the woman wrapped in plaid who jostled my maternal grandfather in the winter dark as he traversed the remote, eerie Uig Glen. There was my maternal great-grandmother’s hearing the wheels of lorries rumbling through her remote village toward a deserted headland – many years before they actually came, bearing the materials to build an RAF station there.

There were the shades of the dead appearing to those few in possession of the Sight – sure harbingers of imminent family death. There were ghostly lights luring sailors to their deaths in stormy seas. There was at least one ghost car. More has been forgotten than I could ever now recall.

Fortunately for me, vivid imagination has always sat in tandem with a strongly empirical streak. So I was a true sceptic –inclined to disbelieve in the absence of proof – until the day I  saw a ghost for myself….

Perthshire, Scotland, Autumn 1977

My twenties had been turbulent. Restless wandering – from one career to another, one city to another, one set of friendships to another, and one dwelling place to another – characterised the whole decade.

Now, I was in a mood to settle. Time to face my dissatisfactions, rather than running away when novelty wore off and disillusion set in. Resolution thus colouring my mood, I left Dundee in September 1977 to do my social work training at Glasgow University. Having been such a hippie in my twenties, all I owned could be fitted into several boxes and stowed in the back of my old blue Morris Traveller.

Laughing to myself, I recalled the occasion when, in my role as unqualified social worker, I had called by my flat in a poor area of Dundee to collect something I had forgotten. Accompanying me was the hard bitten female client I was accompanying on a visit to Dundee’s Family Planning Centre.“For f—s sake!” she remarked, quickly scanning my accommodation whilst I hunted for the forgotten item. “Your standard of living’s even worse than mine!”

Thus in transition, I set off to spend a night or two, en route to my new abode in Glasgow, with my boyfriend at the time who lived in the scenic market town of Perth, half way between Dundee and Glasgow. The Dundee to Perth road was mostly dual carriageway, and a distance of about twenty five miles. I drove happily through the area known as the Carse of Gowrie, which grew the best raspberries in Britain. “Pity I’m in a hurry”, I thought. “A few raspberries for supper would be nice.”

It was a clear evening, around seven pm, growing dusk. There was very little traffic on the road. A few miles outside Perth, my headlights picked out a male cyclist on a racing bike, a little way ahead of me. I pulled into the overtaking lane to pass him – and he vanished.

I arrived at Peter’s flat somewhat shaken by this experience. “I can’t believe I imagined it. What I saw was definitely a cyclist. He was as substantial on that road as you are, standing right now in your kitchen !” Peter was quiet for a few moments. He looked thoughtful, as if trying to decide whether to say something or not.

At last he told me that a young male cyclist had been killed on that stretch of road a year or so previously.

This was something of which I had no knowledge. Why should his ghost appear to me? “Firstly, because you’re so sensitive anyway. Cast your mind back to some other odd happenings which have occurred  since we’ve been together. Secondly, your life is in transition. I think at those times, normal consciousness is more porous, as it were. Impressions from other layers of ‘reality’ find it easier to seep through….”

I remember feeling quite relieved that I wouldn’t be travelling on that stretch of road for the foreseeable future….

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800 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2012
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

Desperately Seeking Annie: Swimming in a secret sea (iii)

Where does the longing come from?

Early memories may carry clues – tucked up in bed, cosy and warm, safe and sound, listening to the winter North wind tearing the world apart. Night after night after night. Other nights, clear cold, wintry, still. Standing on the concrete of the garden path, gazing at the clear night sky above the roofs of the houses at the top of Ellison Road hill, awestruck with delight at the blaze of radiance dancing in the heavens. The Northern Lights, heavenly dancers.

(I have never seen them since childhood. It is my keen wish to see them again before I die.)

I used to ask myself : what vast Power generates the destructive energies of the wind, the visual delight of the Northern Lights? What are they for? Who performed the long, hard labour of setting upright on a Hebridean moor that great Neolithic astronomical calendar, the Callanish Stones? Why did they do it? What rites were performed there? What gods were honoured ?

Where does the longing come from?

For as long as I can recall, I have longed to know  why we are here, why the world with its staggering diversity of  teeming, turbulent life is here. I have tried to find out what our presence here may mean, whether it is random or not.

During my lifetime, the vast scale of  the Universe has been visually confirmed by the explorations of science far beyond the boundaries imagined by Darwin or Einstein. I have the Hubble images on my wall, and gaze at them every day. Their beauty, and the vastness they invoke, goes beyond the power of words to express.

We now know that our Universe is one of  many, that there may be a vast Multiverse: matrix from which arise countless Universes. We are so minute, here on planet Earth, the Solar System, The Milky Way Galaxy, home to millions of other stars. Why am I standing here, wondering why we are here and what it all means?

New Hubble Image: Carina Nebula

New Hubble Image: Carina Nebula

(http://blogs.sacbee.com/photos/2009/09/hubble-telescopes-latest-image.html)

It’s a long way from the Metaverse to the eccentric Rev. Dr. de Sousa in his green plus fours and his rusty bicycle, teetering precariously from his gloomy rectory to his sombre church during the late nineteen fifties.The small island town in which I grew up, a place of some five thousand souls, was remarkably well served for churches in those days. There was no shortage of  Christian establishments in which I could place myself in an attempt to find some answers to my big WHY.

The Episcopal church was regarded with suspicion because of its uncomfortable perceived closeness to Rome.

There was the United Free Church, where Popery would have shrivelled to a cinder had it ever crossed the threshold. Serious Christianity was practised here. No flowers, no music (apart from precenting), definitely no graven images. An old testament God hung out here. Fun and laughter were not encouraged.

Then there were the Seceeders, whose precise denominational and doctrinal position remained a mystery to me throughout my youth. I knew they had split off from some other lot, and therefore regarded themselves as “a cut above” – but above what, I never quite established.

Then there was the plain old Church of Scotland. The minister, a mild, thin, bookish looking soul who had been at school with my father, bore the distinctly uninspiring nickname of “Optic” which had stuck with him since his very short-sighted schooldays. His spectacles, I was convinced, really were made out of the bottoms of milk bottles.

I used to attend his sermons with hair rollers under my Sunday hat as a mute and invisible but satisfying form of protest. He had had a charisma bypass, and took boredom to punishing levels. However, I always liked the Benediction at the end …...In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost…” it always seemed to come from somewhere other  than him, although he was saying the words. This sense never failed to confuse me…..

We went there on our intermittent forays to Church, depending on whether inertia or guilt dominated my mother’s frame of mind on a Sunday evening. Trips to Church were usually minus my father, apart from hatches, matches and despatches.

A spiritualist medium, describing my father’s wayward character to me with remarkable and eerie accuracy not long after his death, said he was a man “who knew his God.” Wherever Dad’s God hung out, it was not in any of the establishments on offer in our mid-20th century small Scottish town.

Personally, long before my encounter with the medium, I always thought my father’s God was out there in the distant hills where he went to poach deer, or in the eye of a storm at sea.  Not that we ever talked about such matters. The only time we ever discussed my spiritual life was when, aged twelve, I realised that I could not face replacing the utter tedium of seven years of Sunday School with the probable continuing tedium of Bible Class, which is where you went on entering secondary education.

An epiphany prompted my nervous and tentative approach to my father. We had recently aquired a Readers’ Digest World Atlas, a huge book which I could barely lift. I was riveted by a double page spread of the whole world, with countries coloured in according to religion. I realised that day how many world religions there were.

Although Christianity appeared to hold its own across the world, it was visually clear  that the great majority of the world’s population – which was a mere two and a half billion in total when I was doing my big religious sums – believed in something else altogether.

I then looked for the tiny isles of the Outer Hebrides, coloured Christian pink. Next, the top island where I lived, barely discernible in the context of the whole world. A wave of inescapable logic washed me away that day. It simply did not make sense that a few thousand members of eg the Free Church of Scotland considered themselves to be right and saved, leaving almost the total remaining population of the world wrong and damned regardless of the integrity and sincerity of their differing beliefs.

My mind buzzing with this powerful realisation, I told my father that I didn’t want to go to Bible Class. I now wanted to do some of my own reading and work out religion for myself.  “Fine” he said. “Don’t go, then.”

At the age of twelve, that was it for me and Christianity, for a very long time, although I continued under pressure to attend church intermittently and always enjoyed singing the hymns at hatches, matches and despatches.

The longing, however, continued, like a barely audible ghost of a sound, echoing my heartbeat….

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To read the first two parts of “Swimming in a secret sea” click HERE

The next episode will be

(iv)

Not Finding

Fortunately, it was a peat bank we hit. That cushioned the impact, saving the car from much damage. Uncle Patrick had stopped singing “Abide with me”: for once, he was completely silent. Perhaps he was wondering how to get the car out of the ditch. Aunt Maria, white faced, was leaning over into the back of the car where I had been jolted onto the floor behind the driver’s seat. No one had heard of seatbelts  in the 1950s. “Are you all right, dear?” she said anxiously. “I think so,” I said. “Maybe I’ve bruised my knee, that’s all.” ….

to be continued

(note: inspiration for the title of this series of posts was taken from a book which I read a very long time ago but whose haunting title I have never forgotten: “Swimmer in the Secret Sea by William Kotzwinkle)

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1300 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2010
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

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