Pilgrimage to Orkney : by Andrew Severn
Orkney is one of my favourite holiday destinations. From a beach holiday as a 5 year old to our last holiday as a family before our Daniel passed away, to a celebration of my parents’ Diamond Wedding Anniversary, to a time of reflection about my future when I was a young man out of love – Orkney has something for every mood. It’s got lush green meadows, bleak moorlands, gigantic cliffs and sea stacks. Local whatsapp groups allow tourists and locals to converge on cifftops on sightings of whales – there are no seaborne tours to seek them as there are in more developed holiday destinations. The weather and the relative high cost restricts the visitors to those who are determined, or have the resources, although cruise ships have recently started discharging their human cargoes on a regular basis.
Of the three score islands which constitute the archipelago, approximately half are inhabited and can be accessed by local ferry. One of them, Rousay, they call ‘Little Egypt’. As an archaeological feast it lives up to its name. Much probably still lies beneath the vast moorlands and the coastal promontories, but the treasures which have been excavated give a tantalizing glimpse of life 5000 years ago. It is clear from the effort put into the building of enormous burial chambers that there was time to honour the dead – it was a time of a civilised and settled society , at peace with its neighbours whose own architectural monuments were highly visible across the water. The sounds teemed with fish and mammals. The ground, fertile and sandy, in contrast to the densely wooded Scottish mainland, lent itself to agriculture.
Subsequent generations built on the past glories on Rousay and elsewhere on the islands. The Pictish communities of the 6-10th centuries left evidence of Christian worship. They built, in close proximity to the ancient memorials, massive structures called ‘brochs’ of which many remain in part. The purpose of these structures is uncertain – whether they were defensive, or simply expressions of community- but they would in their day have been noticeable and they were strategically placed, and close to a sheltered primitive natural harbour.
The Vikings who followed the Picts, likewise left a permanent legacy. There was some violence – notably the murder of a chieftain called Magnus – whose rival and cousin duped him into a friendly meeting on a remote island but brought along lethal force. He died the death of a martyr and his own people were spared by his death. Miracles were attributed to Magnus at the site of his burial – his body was later interred in the cathedral which bears his name and pilgrims today can walk the route of his final journey. During these years the population of Rousay probably remained stable and self-sufficient. It had enough natural resources to sustain such and it was isolated by treacherous tidal races and a lack of a natural harbour.
There is DNA and archaeological evidence that the visitors integrated with, and built upon, rather than destroyed, the native populations. The Christian faith of Magnus inspired generations. The worshipping community of the Cathedral itself has belonged in its time to the Roman Catholic Church, Norwegian Church, Scottish Episcopal Church and The Church of Scotland. Today its website simply says that it ‘belongs to the people of Orkney’. There are other potent reminders of the power of the reconciling ministry of the Christian faith – in a bleak and lonely spot that once housed Italian prisoners of war stands an old accommodation hut converted into an exquisite Italian chapel, with notes for the visitor explaining the nature of longstanding friendship between former enemies.
The man the locals called the ‘Little General’ married into a family of landowners whose influence reached across the whole archipelago. He inherited most of Rousay on the death of his father-in-law and embarked upon a building project as ambitious as any of those who had shared the land thousands of years before. Whether his actions as an officer in the Indian Mutiny had influenced his view of fellow man is a matter of conjecture – but in 15 years the population reduced from 1000 to 250 as it was driven off the land by rising rents and his hostility. The lack of a harbour was no barrier to his plans – he had a massive one built in order to supply material for his mansion, today a scar on the landscape, as derelict as the antiquities that give the island its name, but lacking any of their beauty or history of community and today closed to tourists.
Even by the standards of the day, the plight of the evicted was enough for a Royal Commission to look into his excesses. The local visitor centre records that those who gave evidence against the General were victimised and intimidated and lost what little they had. The diaspora today are to be found in Australia and New Zealand – their ancestors victims not of genocide or starvation, but of one man’s personal ambition and greed for real estate.
Rousay is a shadow of its former glory. The harbour outsized for its current purpose, the ancient ferry spewing a toxic cloud of particulate exhaust resembles a second world war landing craft. The decrepit mansion broods silently over the sound, the garden laid waste. The only pub has closed. So has the teashop. The archaeology alone is testament to a time of plenty, a garden of Eden.
On the way home, as the September sunshine lit the heather on the Perthshire hills , and Sara recalled the line from a famous hymn :
‘ the purple headed mountain, the river running by
the sunset and the morning that lightens up the sky’
I found myself remembering the words of another, darker verse :
‘ the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate
God made them, high or lowly, and ordered their estate’
I understand that the hymn ‘ All things bright and beautiful’ was edited some 50 years ago. The offending verse which I had recalled has been removed. The hymn itself dates from 1848. The man who became known as the ‘Little General’ would have been 17 at the time.
The grand family grave is all that remains of the family whose wealth passed to the Little General. A note to visitors explains that the family name is all but extinguished on the archipelago.
Orkney is accessible by car ferry from Aberdeen ( 6 hours) – approx £500 return fare including cabin for overnight sailing, or rather more cheaply by driving to the northernmost tip of Scotland. Direct flights go from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Inverness.
You can visit for the day as part of a British Isles cruise- but that won’t be enough!