An Orkney Odyssey

Orkney Odyssey – shapes, wonders, Papa Westray!

On top of Scotland there’s a little archipelago – or at least it looks little, it’s not that small! It’s this not-as-small-as-it-looks association of islands that’s called Orkney! Orkney has many parts: there are lots of islands making up the Orkney whole: on big one in the middle, some medium sized ones around it, and lots of little ones.

It’s all here, on top, if you go past Britain’s ‘north pole’ John O’Groats! Beyond this north pole, there’s a whole world out there! There’s here, there’s Orkney, and there’s there, there’s Shetland – both of which are big once you get there. Even more far away, there’s the Faroe Islands too, the far islands! These are just some of the destinations in this island-dominated world of the north, which belongs both to the North Sea and the massive Atlantic.

And now I am here, in Orkney! Do you remember the Shipping Forecast? Cape Wrath to Rattray Head, including Orkney? Now this includes me!

How did I get there? I took the Orkney Bus from Inverness, and this Orkney Bus takes you to the ferry for pedestrians at John O’Groats. This is an amazing coastline place which in itself is worth stopping at. It has a beautiful coastal path that leads to the Ness of Duncansby, the Lighthouse with its headland.

So from here goes the ferry to Orkney: eight miles away and forty minutes to go! It takes that long because the current is strong, it’s the Pentland Firth, and it’s forceful! So, mainland Scotland goes out with a bang. What’s behind it, behind the waves, is really a mixture of Scottish and Scandinavian roots. Even Orkney’s flag looks very much like Norway, the only difference is that what’s white in the Norwegian flag is yellow in the Orkney flag: the red and the blue and the design are identical.

Kirkwall! St. Magnus the celebrated ancient legendary peacemaker! Engravings on the church wall that might make you think you are connected to the Incas, or the Aztecs, so rousing is the shamanic energy. Then see, sea:  Scapa Flow at peace! What once was forced to take on troubles of the world now looks as splendid as it has been. This is what awaits you!

Then the islands and their shapes! Some are round, like Hoy and Rousay, some are long, and some have many corners, like Shapinsey, Stronsay and Eday. The most imaginative shapes are Westray and Sanday, which appear almost like twins, facing each other. Their quirky shapes also remNinds me of the kind of forms you see in Rorschach tests, where one island is a mirror of the other island. As it is with Westray and Sanday, so it is with the islands next to them: Papa Westray and North Ronaldsay. They are little the little ones, and they are situated at the top side of each of the bigger islands, again mirroring each other, like in a Rorschach test, or also like in a near-symmetrical structure.

Shapes. Ancient times. There’s a lot of archaeology all over Orkney. There are masses of evidence and excavations of ancient civilsations. In fact, Orkney is so rich in archeological stuff that it’s also called the Egypt of the North! There’s a stone circles and ancient settlements en masse!

There’s also a lot of seaweed! A lot! And in its most wonderful constellations! Kelp, marine algae, all looking like pretty decoration. With different colours and different types: there’s one that looks like it’s got chickpeas inside!


Echoes of shapes everywhere! Not just islands mirroring each other but there’s more international echoes too. Papay – that’s the short form for Papa Westray – has the shape of mainland Scandinavia, i.e.  Norway and Sweden combined! Such a small island representing such a big shape!

And then, as an internal echo, Papay’s loch has an outline similar to that of the Holm, Papay’s side-island.

When I arrived in Kirkwall, I met my artist friend IreneLafferty, and we set out to Papay together. You can take a boat to get there, but to my surprise it takes a long time, it takes longer than going from John O’Groats to Orkney – though the distances within Orkney looks smaller than the distance through the Pentland Firth to Scotland. There is no direct boat every day, so we took the plane, a very small plane which looks more like a minibus with wings. On its way to Papay it stops in Westray, and once you’ve stopped there, you will be on your shortest scheduled flight ever, for this flight holds the world record for being short!

When you arrive, you’ll see the flight path is marked onto the pretty dry stone dykes. And there we were, in sub-arctic paradise – with the skies wide and the water and the land magic and spacious, generous! Again, it’s bigger than you think! Measure it not by its size but by its coastline, its seals and sunsets, its puffins and arctic terns, its fulmars and its perennial saw thistles everywhere! And by its ancient settlements and its ancient graves, the settlement being on the island and the graves, the remarkable cemetery, being on the Holm.

And then there is modern Papay: an artist’s and birder’s island and a co-op.  The whole of the island works as a co-op, with a single supermarket. It’s a communitarian model! Its neighbour Westray is another whopper, it’s a fair trade island! The lovely community-run hostel, Beltane House, where we were staying is a centre for the whole island on Saturday nights. And it has got that island shop with it as well. And there’s a lovely arts centre called the Kelp Store, there’s another one called Papey Listskjul and there is a museum. For an island of just 85 inhabitants that is magic! Partly it’s so buzzing with art activity because it has attracted so many writers and artists from elsewhere to come and live here. Papay inspires and its focus on the arts is a good example for everyone!

Now as Irene and I went to Papay together, we were thinking of doing something arty together whilst there. As we have worked as an artist-model due before, we could do the same in Papay. Our friend Esther Bunting was meanwhile organising a life drawing/modelling event at the Edinburgh Fringe. So here was our time-cue! We would do our event at the same time as her!  Audience came from far and wide, not just from the island but also from Kirkwall, including famous Stromness artist Diana Leslie!

So in the Kelp Store (which of course takes its name from the Kelp making process), Irene and me did a life drawing event, organised together with the local team of multi-talented organisers around Julian Branscombe. We also had some lyrical life drawing. That means, I modelled and I also did some poetry at the end whilst modelling (poetry poses).  Posing on Papay! What an honour.

There’s a lot more to tell of the wonderful world of Orkney, but now I’ll end on the art-highlight. But then there’s lots of art everywhere, just look around you and be amazed at the nature and all! I wrote lots of poems and took lots of photos, a few of which are here of course. But there are lots more words and images to share! And for yet more (verifications of this dreamland), go there!


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