Orkney For photographs scroll down to bottom
with Paul and Hazel Heppleston
'Nine whole days, not one in seven' - to misquote a hymn.
We extended the time from our one week in previous years to 10 nights this time - and still it wasn't enough. There really is so much to see and do in Orkney. And that poses a problem - there is a risk of 'doing too much' and leaving less time for standing and staring. Whether the balance was struck right this time remains to be seen as people mull over their time together in the months that follow. Certainly we were fortunate that the group of ten of us who assembled that Wednesdsay evening was one where there was an open-ness and a sharing of all facets of life, from washing-up to praying, to ministering to each other in conversation and silence and a willingness to talk - at least now and then - about the crunchy matters of faith and community.
The specific risk in Orkney, with a World Heritage site covering much of its West Mainland, is that one can spend all the time looking at Stone Age buildings; there is a greater density here than anywhere else in Europe, all of them way older than the Pyramids.
So ---- Skara Brae, Ring of Bridgar, Maeshowe, Midhowe Broch, Broch of Gurness, Broch of Birsay....(have a rest and come back later).
Maybe one worth a mention on its own is the Ness of Brodgar where we had a guided tour by Elaine, showing us why this [active] dig is revealing what is likely to be even bigger and more significant than Skara Brae and perhaps Stonehenge; the mind boggles. One other site stands on its own - literally - for at the most southern tip of Orkney is the Tomb of the Eagles, discovered and still maintained by the Simison family; you have to crawl through a short tunnel or go on a trolley to get in - not for the those who wish to retain their dignity.
Walks - around cliff paths, to sandy bays, past gloups and brochs, up steep, chain-hand-rope paths, past seabird colonies preparing to leave for southern climes, past Puffins (they leave in early August), along shell-strewn beaches and into the Italian Chapel, where we sang on our own until other visitors came in ("Sorry - I thought that was Jesus here" said the tourist). Other cliff-top walks along the West-side were exhilarating and on one such (at Yesnaby) we were fortunate to find tiny Primula scotica, that rarest of the primrose family, before the last flower faded.
People live close together in towns which have their own distinctive features : Stromness with its wynds and sea-frontage - Warebeth cemetery has one of the most evocative positions in the world and it's where George Mackay Brown, Orkney's poet, rests. Kirkwall is busier; but strong and still at its centre stands the wonderful red sandstone St Magnus Cathedral which drew many of us back again and again - for worship, for music, for wonder. Some of us spent an hour watching the Kirkwall City Pipe Band on a chill, but bright evening and were inspired by the skirl of pipes along the main street and amongst the people; it helped a bit, one realised, that Orkney was the holiday leaders' home for 20 years.
Islands are everywhere : Rousay (here the Stone Age sites are open to all, no staff, no fees, no throngs) with wonderful views towards Westray seen from a walk we made past the erstwhile caravan home of an Anglican hermit who, in his short time there, left his mark on the community in a very deep way. Hoy coincided with our sunniest day - and half of us were greatly blessed by a walk from the North end through to remote Rackwick, where the crofts are now holiday homes; no wonder people make them so, the bay there is (to quote one of our number) "the best beach I have ever seen". Eynhallow was our uninhabited, small island where we worshipped in the remains of the Cistercian monastery and explored the habitats of Bonxies, Arctic Skuas, Cowrie shells - and seal haul-outs.
It helped of course that we had no days of dreadful rain; that can put a real dampener on things in all senses. So that gave us the chance to cover much ground, from islands to moorland, from sandy beaches to brochs, from 5000 year old remains (the word 'ruin' has no life in it). From headlands and windy views, to quiet cliff-top sitting, from the present to the past....we were surrounded by history and our own stories.
But perhaps the key to all of these meanderings, walkings, swmmings, climbings, leaning-against-the-wind things - is that it was done by the grace of God and we were aware, so aware of creating our small, ephemeral open, community - living in our farmhouse surrounded by ducks and chickens and cornfields...for it is the worship side (whatever that means to each of us) that was so evident in all that we did....and of course is what makes Journeying so different.
Whilst we stood in the monastery on Eynhallow, with a Fulmar chick contentedly watching
us and the sounds of the tide-race-rush to the south, we sang, offering our own Psalm to
our Creator, echoing the song of the monks who in the 11th century sang Lauds, Matins and
the Mass together on their lonely isle. Isolated they may have been but - paradoxically -
they were totally in touch with the world for which they constantly prayed.
Our Eynhallow Psalm can be found here; the melody line is one that you create as your own.