Thursday 21st June 2007
The summer solstice, longest day of the year. I’m sailing from Aberdeen to Orkney on the MV Hjaltland, one of two high spec ro-ro ferries that now ply between Aberdeen, Kirkwall and Lerwick. There are restaurants, bars, a cinema and flashing gaming machines, like funky versions of the Old Man of Hoy. But after bussing it, cramped, from Glasgow this morning, it’s luxury enough to stretch my legs out on deck. When we berth in Kirkwall at eleven o’clock, it will still be light, though much good it will do us tonight. Leaving Aberdeen, we are quickly enveloped in haar. Seagulls escorting the boat out of harbour are blurred white presences, their murderous cackles muffled by fog.
I turn to a fish supper and consoling glass of wine and eariwig in on the conversations around me. A woman and her elderly mother are discussing the St Magnus Festival with an old couple, who gamely travel north for it every year. On the other side, two booths along, a Shetlander’s telling jokes: ‘And the wife says, Why don’t you try it doggy-fashion? Three days later the man comes in wi two black eyes and and a brokken nose. What happened? the wife says. Well I tried your suggestion but the dog ran under the hoose.’
Whenever I look out the window we are still travelling through wet grey wool, sea and sky indistinguishable. But towards eleven, the fog does lift – slightly – enough to make it worth going on deck as we approach Kirkwall. I can see land, a long horizontal smudge of charcoal between two grey washes. And I had such high hopes of pellucid skies and staying awake forever in the luminous rosy night of the northern midsummer
Friday 22nd June
So that’s the magic solstice by and today’s as grey as when I came in last night. We’ve passed the high point of the year. In no time folk doon the street will be saying, Aye, the nights are fair drawin in. I’m staying in Kirkwall at 10 Broadsands Road, an address with as much resonance for me as any more famous one. It’s the house I grew up in, the house my mother lived in till she died last year. A wooden semi-detached ex-council house, one of those given to Scotland by Sweden after the war. You can see them dotted about the country. There are a few in Ullapool and some in the east end of Glasgow. And the year I did the Hurtigrute up the coast of Norway into the Arctic circle, I saw a row of them in Bodø, where the air smelt of fish and people walked about eating bunches of carrots. It gives me an odd feeling when I come on them elsewhere, as if there’s only one proper view from their windows and that’s the playing field and swings opposite 10 Broadsands with the Hydro houses beyond on New Scapa Road, and Wideford Hill in the background. The geography of my childhood.
Saturday 23rd June
Still no let up in the grey. But at least there’s no flooding like there is doon sooth. I get a text from my niece. She’s at Britain’s other big mid-summer festival, Glastonbury, up to her oxters in mud. Here, the Mag Fest is in full swing. I plan to see Venus as a Boy, the play of Luke Sutherland’s novel, adapted by Tam Dean Burn. If it’s anything like the book, it will depict at one remove, the racist bullying the author experienced as a child growing up in South Ronaldsay. Among other things. I wonder how he feels about bringing it to Orkney. The theme of outsiderhood is preoccupying me. I remember one time being in the company of GMB. We are in a house in Stromness and there is drinking going on, uproarious talk and laughter, bursts of song. Something makes me look across at George, sitting quiet in his chair, one arm stretched across his chest, propping up the elbow of the other, pipe in hand, his legs crossed at the thigh and again at the ankles. He catches my glance and does that Orkney narrowing of an eye that is almost but not quite a wink, smiles a brief, boyish smile and returns to sucking reflectively on his pipe. I was eighteen and in awe of the company. Contrary to my assumption at the time, George was most probably entirely comfortable in his ‘outsiderhood’. Certainly, I heard him many a time join in the merriment with his own party piece, delivered in a quavery parody of Harry Lauder:
I love a cookie, a co-operative cookie
Ye cannae get near it for the smell.
If ye spread it wi butter,
Ye can hear the butter mutter,
Mary my Scots Bluebell
In all the years I’ve lived away, I’ve never experienced such a sense of exclusion from the islands. So much so that I’m remembering the time a neighbour, many years dead, said of our family, ‘Shite belongs to shite and they belong to Hatston.’ (This because of an unkempt garden, a squad of unruly bairns and the whack of family allowance we netted every week.) Hatston, an industrial estate now, where the likes of the Orcadian printworks rubs shoulders with Birsay Farmers, overlooks the pier built for the new Aberdeen-Kirkwall-Lerwick boat; at that time it was an ex-army barracks, row upon row of wooden huts, used as a holding area for people waiting for council houses, and a place of banishment for those who couldn’t pay their rent. The power of the insult has survived years of making good enough in Glasgow and a thousand kindnesses from other Orkney neighbours. Then again, who among us hasn’t felt like an outcast at times? At least in the arts – sometimes – there can be a certain cachet about being, gay, black or prolier than thou…
Monday 25th June
I sail with a friend to the island of Hoy, population 360, where Venus as a Boy is having its World Premiere at the Gable End Theatre. There’s been a blink o sun the day. I’ve never before considered that phrase, so commonplace here. Now I do, I see it’s entirely apposite. A blink o sun and a cold wind. On the journey across, there is that shifting of light and colour over land and sea that is so beautiful in Orkney.
The Gable End Theatre – some folk call it ‘the Gay Blend’ – a mile or so south of Lyness, is in the old school. Locals have taken it over and plan to extend it. Meantime, it holds about seventy and the seats, ancient worn green plush, come I’m told from the old Phoenix picture house in Kirkwall. Many’s a Saturday matinee I sat in those seats with my brothers and sisters. Now the Phoenix is away, replaced by flats.
The play is powerful and moving, a blend of stunning beauty and savage cruelty in words and music. (A level of cruelty never imagined in GMB’s Orkney, where dark-skinned outsiders are welcome; sellers of silks and gewgaws, their suitcases spilling exotic colours in island crofthouses.)
Life I find has an almost biblical habit of flipping the coin, forcing you to feel the other side of an uncomfortable dynamic: the outsider forms a group that excludes other people; the victim of bullying bullies. Venus as a Boy deals brilliantly, poetically, with this: the main character, when he emerges from his own devastating experience of being bullied to join in with those tormenting the little black boy, new to the village, recognises that ‘something in me just…glitters’.
Tuesday 26th June
My friend and I stay the night in the Rackwick hostel which offers a comfortable enough bed. When we get up this morning, at last there is sunshine! High blue skies and drifting clouds. We walk down to the shore with the big round pink stones like giant pebbles. The water is turquoise and blue shot silk. A couple of bonxies threaten to dive bomb us, so we eventually turn back. There are two guys on the beach, one with what I assume is a camera, its tripod shoogly on the round stones. We watch from the path; two grey seals rubberneck from the water. One of the men turns out to be poet and playwright George Gunn who tells us they’re here to see if Hoy could stand in for St Kilda in a feature film set on the island…
I have a ticket for Venus as a Boy in Kirkwall tonight and decide to go again and see how it’s received on the mainland. If anything, it’s even more powerful a second time and the atmosphere in the audience is electric. After the show, in the Festival Club, I see Peter Maxwell Davis come up and congratulate actor and writer. He asks to have his photo taken with them. A young woman talks about how she was bullied as a child in Orkney for being English. ‘Are you a full-blood Orcadian?’ she asks me. KKK flashes before my eyes. Or is it Harry Potter? As it happens, I’m not: one grandmother came from Yell in Shetland; the other was found abandoned at the age of three in a close in Brigton in Glasgow. But I’ve never felt anything other than Orcadian – whatever that is. In a trawl through Orkney’s many waves of settlers and invaders, GMB described the genetic makeup of islanders as ‘a fine mixter-maxter’. That’ll do me.
Wed 27th June
I catch the boat south again to Aberdeen. This time it’s the other one, the Hrossey. There’s a whole team of Shetlanders dressed in matching blue tracksuits travelling to the Island Games in Rhodes, so I’m told by an archer having a smoke out on deck. Back inside, two right fine Shetland women from Fetlar sit down beside me. One of them is a crofter and keeps sheep. ‘I used to keep kye,’ she says, but when I got rid o the Charolais bull, I got rid o the kye too. It was a tide byre.’ A vision rises of a byre sluiced daily by the incoming tide, an island version of Hercules and the Augeian stables. But the word is really ‘tied’ and I’m none the wiser. Her man is engineer on the boat that carries passengers between Fetlar, Yell and Unst. The other woman trains sheepdogs and her man is skipper of the boat. A more traditional Shetland way of life is hard to imagine. About one in the morning they head for their cabin and I unroll my sleeping bag on the seats. Last time I sailed on the Hrossey, I sat in the bar trying to read my book amid a band of football supporters, Aberdonians mostly I think, who must have embarked in Shetland, judging by how well oiled they were by the time we left Kirkwall. It was the eve of a big Aberdeen Rangers match and there were swelling renditions of Aberdeen songs, countered briefly by a solitary Rangers fan, who punched the air with a burst of, ‘We will follow…’ as he retreated to his cabin. One song borrowed the tune of, You are my sunshine…
You are a Weegie, a dirty Weegie
You’re only happy on giro day;
Your ma’s a dealer, your da’s a stealer,
Oh please don’t take my hubcaps away.
If I could have come up with one, I’d have delivered a witty riposte, but the supporters were only a couple of men short of a full squad. I sipped my wine and kept my nose in my book. Glasgow, the Hatston of Scotland.