Thursday, 12 May 2011

Chacun a le droit à deux sandwiches.

    A week ago now there were a few days where we were timing ourselves to the comings and goings of boats, beginning to grow used to seeing seals everywhere we went.  Seven of us set off north to the Orkney Islands, a tiny moving French village with me as the lone foreign resident.  These years of living in different countries have been a lesson in the strange moving borders that every country has; borders which can accommodate living rooms and basements in other countries all over the world.  And so last weekend, with a few of the teachers at the French school here, a tiny piece of France took off with me in tow, descending on hostel kitchens to make crêpes and conversations.

Greenest grass and bluest skies.  We were followed all through Orkney by herds of cows and swarms of sea birds.

We whispered to calm the jumping and charging of startled bulls, but it's true that often we set the birds soaring and whirling about, all cries and open mouths. 

We crawled on hands and knees through the entrances of cairns, little hills with doors perched high up on the hilltops.

Cuween Cairn

Inside, we slid into the most claustrophobic inner chambers, and we wondered at the stone work that was still standing and keeping out the rain after so many thousands of years.  Sometimes there were carvings in the stones, like the famous runic graffiti left by Vikings in Maeshowe, other times it was just us shining our lights in the dark.

We traced the perimeters of stone circles, clockwise.  We were warned on more than one occasion that to walk in the other direction would possibly curse us for life.  After all, it is really better not to be provocative where lifelong curses may be involved.

   The Ring of Brodgar (above) is said to have been formed when a group of giants were dancing their rounds one night.  They lost track of the time and were caught in the light of the rising sun, which turned them to stone.  Another standing stone a little way off, known as the "comet stone" was their fiddler.

  The standing stones on Orkney are unique.  So flat, so angular.  Stones like these can be seen everywhere on the islands.  Inside the cairns, the ceilings are always big, flat capstones of the same sort, and even modern houses can be found with roofs that are just six or more of these stones laid side by side as giant roof tiles.  Some of the fences on the islands are just rows of flat stones stood up end to end for miles. 

And of course, there is always the stone furniture inside the famous Skara Brae, a neolithic settlement which appeared by the sea after a horrible storm in the Bay of Skaill blew away the mound of earth that had been covering it.

And then all the old cemeteries by the sea.

As the sun set on the last day of April we went to a lighthouse and stood looking out on the ocean from the top of the cliffs there.  Beneath our feet were cities, countries of sea birds nesting in the rocks, all the way down to the water.  There was a lot of wind and bird sounds.  A couple of puffins sat and watched us watching them.  Best of all were the many seals in the rough water, coming ever closer, more and more of them arriving to join in the meeting.

In Orkney, and in Shetland, the word for seal is "selkie".  And in these islands there are many stories of selkie people, who can change from seal to human or human to seal.  Stories of selkie women forced to marry men from the islands and stay in their houses until the day they escape, back to the sea and their own husbands there.  Stories of families of selkies, alone and wary of persecution.  Stories of women who fell asleep on the beach and nine months later bore strange children which made them outcasts in their communities.  Sad stories of complicated domesticity and longing for other lives. 

These are stories that are not easily forgotten, and I find that I go over them again and again in my mind.  They are eloquent statements of situations that one would not necessarily be willing or able to describe straightforwardly.

   And then again, they can also be enchanting, mesmerizing, like the sea.  Even as a child, stories like these fascinated me.  I spent a good part of my childhood praying, Praying, with all my might that I would somehow be allowed to live underwater.  My mother couldn't drag me from the lakes in the summer.  Swimming from morning to night, she used to bring lunch to the end of the dock, so I could reach up to her and take handfuls of grapes or crackers to eat without leaving the water.  I still have traces of a silly sort of envy of fish, seals, and otters, similar to how some look at birds and wish they could fly.  So the resonance of these stories is both deep and shallow.  Perhaps I should say it grows with age and with our ability to make sense of our emotions.

This is one of the few trips where we have had a car.  Car trips are all starting and stopping, I think.  One place followed abruptly by another somewhat unrelated one.  Everything was beautiful, every place invited lingering.  It was lovely to eat lunch each day on another and yet another white sandy beach.  And while I really, really appreciate that we were invited to come along in the car... still, how nice it is to feel a place get into your bones, to approach a place from far off on foot.

Church built in a hangar by Italian prisoners of war during WW2.  The inside is all painted with trompe l'œil and angels.

There were so many things.  One day, we were walking down the main street of Kirkwall.  We were just passing in front of the big, red cathedral and watching people posing for photos in their hats and dresses and kilts after a wedding ceremony, when a dim roar coming steadily closer announced a blackening.


I had heard of blackenings before, since they still occur in the North East of Scotland, as well as on the islands, and one of my husband's classmates is writing a thesis on pre-wedding customs... but I had never seen one.

   The faces on the happy wedding-goers went a bit pale as a group of young men covered in black muck and beer hauled their soon-to-be-married friend kicking and fighting out of their truck, stripped him, and bound him on to the cross that stands in front of the church.  They proceeded to pour more beer on him and taunt him before climbing back in their truck and driving away, banging boards on the side of the truck and shouting.

   Then, after a few stunned moments of silence, the wedding-goers slowly started to shyly make their way over to the unrecognizably filthy, drunken man on the cross so they could pose for photos beside him before his friends returned.  This stretched on for a while, with the friends joyriding in circles through town again and again, only stopping at the church to harass their friend, and it ended in the sea.

I suppose there are always some things that you just can't anticipate when you are planning a wedding.   

Ruins of the Earl's Palace

But, as always, there is far too much for a short telling... even a short telling that is a long time coming.  We've been back in Aberdeen for a week and a half and we've been so busy.  I've been working on this post in the spare minutes at the end of each day, and so now I find that it starts and stops, a little like a car trip.  Before you know it the whole thing has passed, and there you are in your living room again, with memories of a whirl of sights.


  1. Wow, I love seeing all the standing stones... and Skara Brae is amazing. I think I remember reading about it, its so easy to imagine living within those walls, things almost in order ready for living. Great post, wonderful sunset photo, great place to spend May eve!

  2. Hi Jodi,Thanks a lot for this wonderful story of your trip to the Orkneys, It must have been quite an experience to visit these megalithic sites like Brodgar and Skara Brae yourself.

  3. Heisann!

    I just seen the Cathedral of Magnus from the sea, but your post reminds me of our tour to Færøyene some years ago. These islands have a special place in my heart, the nature is so rough and strong!
    Have nice days ahead ;:OD)

  4. I know the Selkie stories, they brought me to tears, again and again :-) From all the lovely pictures in this post, I prefer the seals ... so human ... calling ... come, they say, come ... it 's deep there :))

  5. Valierianna,
    I'm glad you liked the photos. I think I took about 300(!)... so it was almost impossible to choose just a few for this post. Skara Brae is lovely, and just as you say, it really is easy to imagine living there, it sort of looks as though its inhabitants just stepped out for a bit. The museum attached to the site has made a reconstruction of a house (including putting a roof on top) and that's really fun to walk around too.

    You're very welcome! It was wonderful indeed, there's nothing quite so spectacular as actually visiting such places in person. We went to Maeshowe as well, and it is necessary to enter with a tour guide. Usually I'm not a big fan of tours, but the guide did a really good job of creating a context for all the sites in the area (like Brodgar and Stenness, and even Skara Brae).

    I'd love to visit Faeroe one day! There used to be boats going there from Orkney and Shetland, but they've stopped running now, which is a shame. Did the boat you took stop in Kirkwall to pick up more passengers, or were you just passing by? It sounds like a lovely trip, either way.

    You have to go to Orkney! They have more seals than any place I've seen. Even just walking down to the shop, we'd see seals sitting about on the rocks. The sea comes so far inland in long fjord-like fingers, so it's always right next to you. It's true what you say, they do look very human sometimes.

  6. How lovely to see your photos of Orkney and some of your thoughts on it all. We visited last summer and like you, I felt that there was so much to photograph and to say that nothing seemed adequate. It is a mythical, magical place. Lucky you to see a blackening!

    The selkie stories have always spoken to me too. George Mackay Brown, the great tale-maker of Orkney, has written some haunting modern versions.

  7. I should have said, if you wanted to compare, you can see a little of our visit at . We stayed in Birsay.

  8. "Beneath our feet were cities, countries of sea birds nesting in the rocks, all the way down to the water." Oh Jodi you do get to visit some wonderfully stunning places and describe them so magically that I wish I could flap my arms into wings and fly there. Those seals look like they might well have recognised the Selkie within you, bet your hubby was holding tight to your hand just in case you fancied a swim.

    That Blackening would have been an eye popper*!*

  9. Dancing,

    What gorgeous photos! It looks like you must have had an amazing time. And I was pretty awestruck by those storm clouds you photographed.
    That's a very timely recommendation... my husband just bought a big tome of George Mackay Brown a couple of days ago. I'm looking forward to going through it... twice as much now that you've just mentioned it!


    From your photos, I'll bet there are enough of your winged friends out in the garden to fly you there, if you asked them nicely enough!

  10. Thank you for sharing these wonderful photos and tidbits. Their magic was even felt far far away, over here in Canada. My maternal ancestors come from The Orkney's, and it is my dream to one day visit the UK. Skara Brae and the cemetery gave me goosebumps. I dream of one day wandering through an old cemetery and stumbling upon a headstone belonging to a long forgotten Garrioch. I would be full of giggles and tears and all at once!