‘The sea gives and takes. The sea
Devoured four houses one winter.’
George Mackay Brown, Skara Brae
Skara Brae, a 5,000 year old Neolithic Settlement on mainland Orkney, is the best preserved prehistoric settlement in Northern Europe and is now located just a few feet from the shore. The site lay covered in sand for millennia until it was first exposed by a huge storm in 1850. In his poem Skara Brae, George Mackay Brown alludes to the burial and exposure of the site with ‘The sea gives and takes’, as well as to the gifts of the sea – such as the fish, whale-bone, amber and seaweed utilised by its Stone Age inhabitants – and the lives and land the sea takes.
Orkney has its fair share of illustrious literary figures, including Eric Linklater, Edwin Muir, Robert Rendall, Mary Brunton, Christina M Costie and, most famously, the poet George Mackay Brown. During my time in Orkney, I attended ‘Scottish PEN at 90’ exhibition and literary event at the wonderful Orkney Library and Archive in Kirkwall, a busy and friendly community space where I spent a couple of days trawling through Orkney Dictionaries, the collected works of George Mackay Brown, and much more. In Stromness Bookshop, I found a copy of ebban an flowan by Alec Finlay, Laura Watts and Alistair Peebles (thanks Sheena!), a primer on renewable energy in Orkney and the Nordic countries, exploring ‘a language of marine energy growing from older words’. Meanwhile, a hunt for Rising Tides Revisited: The Loss of Coastal Heritage in Orkney by Julie Gibson and Frank Bradford in the Orcadian Bookshop in Kirkwall led to the staff calling the locally-based author, who kindly dropped a copy off for me to collect. I was fortunate enough to meet writer Duncan McLean, who runs the Kirkness and Gorie wine merchants (a great place to visit) and recently published a couple of short anthologies, Speak for Yourself and Orkney Stoor (Abersee Press), featuring contemporary Orcadian writers (including Alison Miller and Simon Hall who both appeared at the PEN event) and celebrating modern Orkney voices. Duncan put me in touch with Caroline Wickham-Jones, a specialist in Stone Age Archaeology with an interest in sea-level change and its affect on archaeological sites; I hope to stay in touch with both of them as my research progresses.
The sea shore in Orkney has been the site of departures and arrivals for millennia, which have shaped the landscape and history of the islands, from the Stone Age inhabitants of sites such as Skara Brae through to Bronze Age and Iron Age peoples, Picts, Vikings and Scots. The sheltered waters of Scapa Flow has a long history of shipping and was the main base for the British Naval Fleet in the Second World War. Orkney as a place of contact and defence has much in common with the Suffolk Coast, which I visited earlier this summer; like Suffolk, it is also facing increased threats from more intense storms, coastal flooding and erosion as our climate changes.
Archaeological sites are regularly uncovered by coastal processes such as erosion and storms on Orkney, and many are located in close proximity to the sea. ‘Today, as a result of climate change, Skara Brae is regarded by Historic Environment Scotland, the government agency responsible for its preservation, as among Scotland’s most vulnerable historic sites. A global crisis for cultural heritage is unfolding along our coasts…[.]’ writes Adam Markham, deputy director for Climate & Energy at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in Cambridge, Massachusetts in his article ‘Heritage At Risk: How Rising Seas Threaten Ancient Coastal Ruins’ (July 2017).
As I am undertaking a Literature PhD, the main purpose of my visit to Orkney was to research and write, accessing museum and heritage centre collections. To that end, I visited a number of sites including Sanday Heritage Centre (home to the Meur Burnt Mound), Orkney Museum, Stromness Museum, Pier Arts Centre in Stromness, as well as many of the heritage sites (such as the Ring of Brodgar) known as the Heart of Neolithic Orkney. I was especially struck by the effect of climate change and sea change on people in the past (i.e. the impacts of sea-level rise in the Neolithic and a deteriorating climate on Bronze Age farming) and the inevitable connection with how we relate to climate and coastal change in modern times when we are less flexible in terms of settlement mobility, for example. I am also increasingly interested in flood narratives in oral traditions and in how we evaluate what we save and what we leave, in relation both to heritage sites and personal property, when the sea comes calling. And finally, for a landlubber such as myself, it is good to be reminded that a binary view of sea and land as productive earth vs blue featureless expanse doesn’t hold in a place where the sea provides food, fuel, transport routes, work and leisure activities and where some people might spend more time on water than on land. This notion was affirmed by Mary, whose lovely peedie house I stayed in while in Kirkwall. Mary’s husband didn’t learn to drive a car until he retired, as he worked and travelled on his boat!
I hope to return to Orkney in the near future, but in the meantime I would like to thank all the people who were so kind and generous with their time during my visit. Thanks also to Midlands3Cities, who funded my travel through a Student Development Fund (SDF) grant.
Brief Reading List
Between the Wind and the Water: World Heritage Orkney, Caroline Wickham-Jones, Windgather Press (2015)
ebb an’ flowan, Alec Finlay, Morning Star (2016)
Orkney Folk Tales, Tom Muir, The History Press (2014)
Orkneyinga Saga, trans. Palsson, H, and Edwards, P, Penguin (1981)
Orkney Stoor, ed. Duncan McLean, Abersee Press (2015)
Rising Tides Revisited: The Loss of Coastal Heritage in Orkney, Julie Gibson, Orkney Archaeological Society (2012)
Speak for Yourself, ed. Duncan McLean, Abersee Press (2017)
The Collected Poems of George Mackay Brown, ed. Archie Bevan, John Murray (2006)
The Outrun, Amy Liptrot, Canongate (2016)
Note: All images by Aly Stoneman and James Walker 2017