Andrea Paterson travels to Orkney and encounters “a wind-swept land that speaks to my very soul. I wonder about places in the world that call to us and reflect our own natures.”
To the north of the Scottish mainland, arising from the thrashing sea, are a series of small islands collectively called Orkney. I grew up listening to Loreena McKennitt singing of the “standing stones of the Orkney Isles” and I have always imagined it a place of deep magic and even deeper history. I finally got a chance to travel there during my honeymoon to Scotland this past October and the islands turned out to be more enchanting than I imagined.
October is not tourist season in Orkney. The winter storms start rolling in during the early fall and most people who don’t live on the islands permanently retreat to more hospitable climates. My husband and I thought we would chance the weather and we were rewarded for our bravery with five glorious sunny days interrupted by only brief patches of rain. But while our stay was dry we did not escape the infamous Orkney winds that rip over the islands like a demon flattening the tall grasses until the land looks like the rippling surface of the sea.
And the sea itself is never far away. Frothy waves bash against the cliffs of Orkney causing devastating erosion and leaving behind monolithic sea stacks that stand at phallic attention along the coast. The locals note that the erosion has been alarming over the course of their lifetimes and they worry that the islands will soon be claimed by the violent North Sea. I almost wept to think of this beautiful place with its hardy sheep and mysterious Neolithic stone circles disappearing under the waves like a modern day Atlantis. And yet erosion is part of this place. The threat of its disappearance adds to its allure, makes it feel at once immediate and ethereal, like a land that stands poised at the brink between this world and the next.
As I walked among the standing stones, alone except for my husband in the howling wind that made my ears hurt, I too was subject to the erosive forces of the islands. The gale tore at my hair, and when we stood on the cliffs overlooking the ocean at the Brough of Birsay the salt spray coated my skin and my glasses until I was seeing through a hazy veil. I felt myself breaking down, becoming elemental, reduced to the very essence of myself. The world shifted and howled — a wild creature with a resounding voice that called my name over and over again. I had a distinct sense that I had come home to a place that resonated with my very soul.
I think we all have such places: tiny sections of the earth that reflect our own natures and captivate our imaginations. Orkney was such a place for me and it called up feelings of exquisite freedom and unrestrained joy. The deadly cliffs didn’t scare me and when I walked amongst the ancient ruins of Maeshowe and Skara Brae the past was suddenly superimposed on the present, a palimpsest of ghosts and stone.
In Orkney I imagined myself a poet. I wanted to reach out and touch everything on the island and turn it into words. I read the work of George MacKay Brown, an Orkney local who spent almost his entire life on the islands with his finger on the pulse of life there. I wanted to feel that pulse too and taste the salt air. Five days did not satisfy my hunger for the place, but it was long enough to have Orkney pounding in my veins. The place is in my blood and I think it will always be there. It was my most secret dreams made real, a place that made me feel more myself than almost any other place I have yet been.
Are there places you have visited that have spoken to you? Have you travelled somewhere that has awakened parts of yourself that you didn’t even know were there?
“Ring of Brodgar” © Andrea Paterson at Amaranth Road Studio. All rights Reserved.
“Cliffs of Hoy” © Andrea Paterson at Amaranth Road Studio. All rights Reserved.