Tuesday, 23 July 2013

THE STONE BLOGS #2: Eyin Helga, Eynhallow, Holy Isle, Hildaland

Last night I went to Eynhallow for the first time in my life. I used to look across at it from Evie where my fella stayed. Sometimes in the late evening sun the island stood out so clearly I felt as if I could step across the Burgar Roost and land dry-shod on its shores. Other times it disappeared entirely into the mist and left Rousay lowering darkly out of an otherwise seemingly empty sound. 

Maybe this is why it became associated with Hildaland, the island of the Finn Folk, mostly hidden from mortal eyes, but sometimes glimpsed by Orcadians travelling by. The guide last night told the assembled folk who had sailed out on the annual Orkney Heritage Society trip the story of how Hildaland was tricked away from the Finn Folk and claimed for mortal Orcadians.

There seemed to be plenty trickery afoot last night, enough to put folk off stepping onto the shore. When we disembarked, thousands of shrieking terns rose from the rocks like a storm of needles and made us humans feel very unwelcome indeed. We steered clear of them, though, and headed out sunwise round the island to see the archaeological remains; those who wanted to see the birdlife walked off widdershins. 

One of the main attractions on Eynhallow - named Eyin Helga, Holy Island, by the Vikings - is a chapel and monastery dating back to the 12th Century. It is a Romanesque structure with impressive arches and there are mysteries surrounding it. Check out the excellent Orkneyjar website for more information about Eynhallow, the facts and the fiction, the mysteries and the speculation. 

It struck me once again, that the building methods for dry-stane dykes - see previous blog - have remained the same for centuries.  Millennia even, as we shall see ... 

Here is what Jo Ben said about Eynhallow in 1529 in his Descriptio Insularum Orchadiarum:


Enhallow, as if it were, the Holy Island, and very small.
It is of old times related that here, if the standing corn be cut down, after the setting of the sun, unexpectedly there is a flowing of blood from the stalks of the grain; also it is said that if a horse is fastened, after sun-down it will easily get loose and wander anywhere during the night [without hindrance from any one, if indeed these be not hindrance from evil intent.
Here you may discern the futitious and fabulous traditions of these people."

(This information is quoted from Orkneyjar website, as above.)

Eynhallow, with its holy order of monks lost sight of down the centuries, had an important part to play in the imagination of George Mackay Brown.

In George Mackay Brown:The Wound and the GiftRon Ferguson's exploration of GMB's literary and spiritual journey, he quotes a conversation:

'Irene Dunsmuir told me that at one stage, George got work as a road man on the island of Rousay. “He had to take the work,” she told me, “or his benefit would have been stopped. He told me how he enjoyed the view, looking over to Eynhallow.”
           I love it! I treasure the image of the frail but thrawn poet, dressed in workman’s gear, leaning on his shovel and looking wistfully out to the holy island of Eynhallow, the place of the monks. George Brown’s career as a labourer was a short one.'

In his early poem, The Storm, which clearly shows the influence of Gerard Manley Hopkins, GMB imagines a fisherman wrecked on the shore of Eynhallow:

... Rousay before me, the stout mast
Snapped, billowing down helpless sail.
               What evil joy the storm
               Seized us! plunged and spun!

And flung us, skiff and man (wave-crossed, God-lost)
On a rasp of rock! ... The shore breakers,
               Stained chancel lights,
               Cluster of mellow bells,

Crossed hands, scent of holy water ...
The storm danced over all that night,
               Loud with demons, but I
               Safe in Brother Colm's cell.

Next morning in tranced sunshine
The corn lay squashed on every hill;
               Tang and tern were strewn
               Among the highest pastures.

I tell you this my son: after
That Godsent storm, I find peace here
               These many years with
               The Gray Monks of Eynhallow.

You can read this poem and all of his others in The Collected Poems of George Mackay Brown, edited by Archie Bevan and Brian Murray.

It was possible, last night, to imagine the Gray Monks of Eynhallow, setting candle stubs in narrow windows and looking out on the wild stretch of sea between them and the Evie coast.

After a difficult but fascinating tramp round the island, negotiating the storm of terns again, we made it back to the boat.

I'd love to go again sometime - and stay longer ...


Sunday, 21 July 2013

THE STONE BLOGS #1: Throughs, Covers, Hearting & Rags

Two weeks ago I went on a dry-stane dyke course. Why? you may ask! Well, I have recently moved into a new wooden house with a lot of stone on the site and I would like to use it to build some dykes. The photograph above is of a section of a dyke that I, along with five others, had a hand in repairing.

The craft of dry-stane dyking has a language all its own: foundations, builders, hearting, throughs, covers and rags; all the kinds of stone used in the construction of a dyke. And you have to get the batter right and make sure the stone you use presents a bonny face to the world.

This cross-section diagram has different names from the Orkney ones we were given by Brian of Orkney Training Group. 'Filling stones' just doesn't have the same resonance as 'hearting'; and 'rags' is more interesting than the more common 'coping stones'.

The dyke we repaired was at the Bu in Orphir. It had suffered through various phenomena: kye shouldering it down; the angle not being right, so that one side pushed the other over; and likely frost, rain and wind had played their part too. But it may well have stood for a couple of hundred years: it is said that many of Orkney's dry stone dykes were constructed by sailors from the time of the Napoleonic Wars during the longueurs between battles.

Robert Frost knew all about dry stone dykes too and their significance in the affairs of people living close to one another; though his stones - some are loaves and some so nearly balls/ We have to use a spell to make them balance - are somewhat different from the Orkney stone that falls so obligingly into flat grey slabs.

Mending Wall

Something there is that doesn't love a wall, 
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it, 
And spills the upper boulders in the sun, 
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast. 
The work of hunters is another thing: 
I have come after them and made repair 
Where they have left not one stone on a stone, 
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding, 
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean, 
No one has seen them made or heard them made, 
But at spring mending-time we find them there. 
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill; 
And on a day we meet to walk the line 
And set the wall between us once again. 
We keep the wall between us as we go. 
To each the boulders that have fallen to each. 
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls 
We have to use a spell to make them balance: 
'Stay where you are until our backs are turned!' 
We wear our fingers rough with handling them. 
Oh, just another kind of out-door game, 
One on a side. It comes to little more: 
There where it is we do not need the wall: 
He is all pine and I am apple orchard. 
My apple trees will never get across 
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him. 
He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbors'. 
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder 
If I could put a notion in his head: 
'Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it 
Where there are cows? 
But here there are no cows. 
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know 
What I was walling in or walling out, 
And to whom I was like to give offence. 
Something there is that doesn't love a wall, 
That wants it down.' I could say 'Elves' to him, 
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather 
He said it for himself. I see him there 
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top 
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed. 
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~ 
Not of woods only and the shade of trees. 
He will not go behind his father's saying, 
And he likes having thought of it so well 
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbors."

Robert Frost

Watch this space in blogs to come for news of some dry stane dykes that predate the Napoleonic wars by a couple of Millennia. And we will return to the Bu in Orphir as well, to its Viking history.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

A Chance Encounter with Keith Allardyce

From Found, photo by Keith Allardyce of Douglas Hollick in Stronsay

I was outside my newly built house talking on my mobile phone to the builder, when an unfamiliar character wandered up the path, rucksack slung over one shoulder.

Had the pile of stones at the side of the house once been part of an old dwelling? No, they had been the ruined remains of a mill and byre and had been attached to the kiln which still stands there.

Why did he ask? 

The Kiln and Remains of the Mill and Byre by Maggie Miller
There then followed one of those serendipitous moments that have happened so frequently during this residency. The stranger with the backpack was Keith Allardyce who took the photographs for some lovely books about Orkney. The one above is of Douglas Hollick holding part of a block and tackle in Stronsay and comes from Found: Beachcombing in Orkney.

This time Keith is travelling round Orkney photographing ruined and abandoned houses. Was there one in the neighbourhood with a tree growing out of it? Not that I knew of, but I am new to the area. 

I put down my car keys - I was about to travel in to Kirkwall to the library for work - and invited Keith in for a cup of coffee.

I knew about Keith's earlier book, Seahaven: Stromness in the Orkney Islands, a collection of stunning photos of the people and places of Stromness, with words by Bryce Wilson. I particularly like the elegant photograph of Gunnie Moberg, sitting on her desk in her studio and the unmistakeable figure of Ian MacInnes, at work on a painting in Thistlebank. 

What I didn't know was that he had produced an earlier book about the disappearing way of life of Scotland's lighthouse keepers, At Scotland's Edge and a sequel, Scotland's Edge Revisited. This arose out of his time as a travelling keeper himself. He was 'third man,' he told me, on Suleskerry, the Pentland Skerries and Copinsay, all Stevenson Lighthouses, 'always the third man on the rock stations.' North Ronaldsay was a family station and there he would be fourth or fifth man. I wish I'd asked him what the differing duties were of the first, second, third, fourth and fifth men! Hard to imagine that much employment happening on stations now completely unmanned.

Keith lives on the Northumberland coast near Alnwick and runs holidays there for people with learning disabilities from the Camphill Village Trust.

But he has had a connection with Orkney stretching back to the seventies when he worked for the RSPB and lived in a cottage in Evie. He returns to the islands when he can and photographs aspects of island life he finds interesting. 

Thinking about it, all his projects have something of an elegiac air, trying to capture experience, character, place as they change and disappear. His fine books can be borrowed from Orkney Library & Archive.

I wish him luck with his latest venture, whatever it may turn out to be.