Monday, April 07, 2008

Ask an Orcadian

An Orcadian is someone from the Orkney Islands. From Caithness we can see the closest in islands. In all there are 60 some islands, ranging from the largest, ironically called Mainland, to tichy little things that have never been inhabited. Many islands are struggling to hold on to sufficient population to keep things going like schools and stores and ferry lines. Stroma, now uninhabited, still hosts occasional birding outings and those who still have any connection to Stroma hold an annual reunion somewhere in Caithness.

Caithness and Orkney have a kind of sibling rivalry. They can be very close when someone from the outside threatens, but they very much like their own histories and resent being lumped together in a political hodgepodge known as " the Highlands and Islands." Caithness shares a post code with Kirkwall, the main city on the island of Mainland, so frequently southerners assume that we are not part of mainland Britain. Such distinctions annoy Caithnessians because it causes unnecessary delays in getting the things we need and also reminds us of just how isolated we are from everything.

Caithnessians love to talk about what's going on around them. That can be both the wildlife and the scenery and the personal-social goings on. In that regard, Caithness is an island where everyone else's business is subject to scrutiny or speculation or a mixture of both. Given this background about the norms of this place, I was surprised when a Caithnessian said as if it were unimpeachable truth, "If you ever want to know anything, ask an Orcadian."

Like many nuggets delivered to me, I tucked this one away to test out for myself. That test came in an unexpected turn of events. My husband (an Orcadian by birth though a long time Caithness resident) has been writing a seres of articles about his recollections of early farming. In one of his conversations he talked about mending nets. I asked if he could teach me how to do it and he said yes.

I think he thought it would get lost in the welter of other stringed activities I have--spinning, knitting, crocheting, and felting and braiding and combinations of them all as it strikes my fancy. I have tried traditional rope making at a workshop as well as rug making and have had a loom in the past, so it seemed only reasonable to add netmaking into the mix.

The sticking point for netmaking was to find the right tools. We went to Scrabster, the harbour in Thurso, but the chandler's store was no longer there. We stopped a man in a boiler suit. After a brief exchange, the matter of the tools came to the forefront. This man had lived next door to a "Stroma man" and so had great fondness for him and, by extension, all Orcadians. From this point, within a few sentences, we had our man--a former Stroma man himself.

We found him at the ice making plant, a four story galvanized box. We went in and hallooed up the long winding metal staircase. The sound of footsteps clanked along the stairs until a man dwarfed by the building appeared,"Och, Morris, why did you no just come up yerself?" he said recognizing a familiar face and another Orcadian. We smiled and talked and in time came to the matter of tools for netmaking. He had the needles--several of them--and would be glad to let me have a couple.

He went home to collect a couple needles and we went to the local harbour pub for lunch. By the time we finished lunch, he was back with the needles. He took the smaller of the two in his hand and showed me how to wind the thread on it. Even in the pantomime, I could feel the ease of a well-practiced hand. I laughed, "It looks as if you may have done that a few times." And he smiled back and nodded. His family was the last family off the island of Stroma he tells me with an undoubted trace of homesickness.

We wave goodbye and as he disappears back into the giant refrigerator, I notice three seals in the harbour watching me. I suspect they may also be from Stroma.


At 3:38 PM, Blogger Hayden said...

beautifully written. caused a pang of longing, somehow, for this world I've never known.

At 8:35 AM, Blogger landgirl said...

The people here are quite lovely. It is a good place to live albeit sometimes a very demanding place.


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