The last days of September in Orkney: weather fine and sunlit mirrors in Scapa Flow and Hoy Sound. The sky in flux after a day of high wind, creating fantastic cloud shapes. White horses prance on the waves and the ocean at Yesnaby is a frothing mass. I come away from such experience with a head full of light and air.
More prosaically, I also brought home a mind filled with ideas from the rich presentations given at the conference organised by the Centre for Nordic Studies and Orkney Islands Council. Over two days, some 20 papers were given on art, music, literature, archaeology and much more. I learned about the enduring legacy of artists like Gunnie Moberg for some of the UHI art students whose work was exhibited in the hall. There were fascinating accounts of how artists have responded to Hoy over the centuries, and the presence in Orkney of Iain Hamilton Finlay at the start and again at the end of his career. A presentation by Chris Wainwright, with gorgeous images of his light works in response to climate change, connected with the rescue archaeology on Westray where Neolithic sites are being lost to costal erosion.
There were continual and unexpected points of contact between the perspectives of artists and academics, Orcadians and outsiders, and of course far too much to report here: I hope the papers will be published in due course. I was there also to give a public lecture on Orkney’s culture, based on what I learned three years ago when I did some research going back to the 1970s. What struck me, and it shouldn’t be a surprise, was how much I’ve discovered and learned since then. Orkney may only be 380 square miles (allowing for coastal erosion) and home to 21,500 people but its history and culture has been traced back to 6820 bce and the oldest sculpture of a human figure yet found in Britain surfaced five years ago in Westray.
In my talk, I focused on the openness of Orcadians to the world, both through the people who have come to the islands over the centuries and in venturing out to explore and make contact with others. With a confidence in the local and the particular it is possible to welcome everything else. To download the lecture, click on this link: Another Angle of Vision: Some particularities of Orkney Culture.
PS Tomorrow is an important day for Orkney, when justice will finally be done to one of its remarkable sons, the explorer John Rae, who mapped hundreds of miles of Arctic Canada and brought home news of the fate of the Franklin Expedition. The unwelcome truth made him a marginalised figure in his lifetime, but on 30 September 2014, the 201st anniversary of his birth, a commemorative plaque will be installed in Westminster Abbey. At the same time, there will be a service at St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall to honour a brave and honourable man.