When I was last in Scotland, more than 18 years ago now, I went, as I always did, back to Orkney. That strange collection of islands off the north coast, windswept, rugged, as much Scandinavian as Scottish, with a Pictish past to boot. Not for me the obvious delights of Skye or the other Hebrides. I went to Orkney the first time because everyone in the Edinburgh hostel was going to Skye. I fell in love instantly.
That time, in March 1995, I was accompanied by my partner, Rachel. She obliged me by sitting on a train north for two days, and then braving a two-hour boat crossing, sea legs not really running in her family. We ended up in Stromness on the Mainland, trying to track down a friend from Sydney, Cathy. We sat in the pub and looked across the water to Hoy, the sun blinding but the wind freezing, the weather so cold in Kirkwall that even the locals wore gloves. They could not believe we had come there in near-winter, when they were all itching for their regular break in Turkey. We had to settle a bet about which way Cook arrived in Australia. We got pissed, swore a lot, ate McCoy’s cheese flavoured chips.
We were going to give up the hunt for Cathy when we saw a note in the general store, saying “Ahoy, come to Hoy”, or words to that effect. So we caught the small boat the next morning, and were met by Cathy who, at 160cms or so, was working on a creel boat (the creel is a basket used for catching shellfish). They guy who owned the boat, Rick, happily offered to put us up. He took me out on the boat, which was an incredible experience, working the cold waters around the deep cliffs, plucking the crabs and lobsters from the deep and packaging them up to be air freighted to the Costa Brava. I did a bit, but not much, the boat was small and there was danger everywhere, from tangling ropes to flailing hooks. It was one of the best days of my life. That night, we all peeled a sample of the catch and had the best seafood buffet you could imagine. Beers at the pub, after watching Everton beat Spurs 4-1 to make the Cup Final. Reading Viz. Silly stuff.
We nicked off early the next day, going boat-boat-bus-train-train-train via a Force 10 gale, Inverness and Glasgow to hit London 24 hours later, en route to Paris.
The trip had to end, as all good things do. We came home, moved to Melbourne, came back. One night, the phone rang, it was Cathy, who had moved back about a year after we came home. Terrible news, Rick’s boat had gone down, all on board had drowned. Sadly, a common occurrence in the treacherous waters around Orkney. My heart sank. We had only known him for 48 hours, but he felt like he would always be part of the family. I imagined we would visit him for years, he would come and visit us in Australia, he was our special connection with a special place.
There wasn’t any sense that it could have been me. That would have been mathematical stupidity. It could have been Cathy, I guess. It was more that maybe it should have been me. He was such a warm, giving soul. Fun-loving, decent, hard working, family oriented, generous.
For some reason, I took it upon myself to write a tribute. I didn’t really have a choice, it just flowed out of me one night, I found a voice that I could never find in the years before when I had tried to be a poet or write songs. Then it hit me – this was “feeling”. This was “loss”. Not some abstraction, but a hole in the heart. I guess I’d been sheltered from true grief, or had just rationalised away the bad things that happened in my life, or to people around me. But I couldn’t rationalise this, it was personal, he had become Orkney, which was always meant to be my get out of gaol card.
Anyway, I asked Cathy and she said to send it off to Rick’s family. I did. That was pretty much it. We’ve never been back to Scotland, let alone Orkney, but not really because of this. More circumstance, and a love affair with Italy and Spain. Like most, we have headed towards the sun as we have aged.
I don’t think I wrote any poetry for 10 years, either, not until we had kids, and I started telling stories. Silly stuff.
I found the poem tonight, when looking for the Ring of Brodgar shot posted earlier. I’m going to have a scotch. And I’m going back to Orkney, if not before, then for my 50th. And you’re all coming!