As the Northlink Ferry rumbled its way through the softly rippling sea, I had my last glimpse of Stromness, and soon the high, red sandstone cliffs of the island of Hoy were rising up before me. I stood out on the deck observing the carved out rock patterns as we passed by, breathing in the surprisingly warm north Atlantic Sea air, and releasing silent, pent up worry in that open, welcoming space.
Appearing against the backdrop of the island with its swooping grassy carpets and complementary burnt sienna walls, stands the Old Man of Hoy, stately and sure.
THE OLD MAN OF HOY
The old man of Hoy Looks out on the sea, Where the tide runs strong, and the wave rides free ; He looks on the broad Atlantic sea, And the old man of Hoy Hath this great joy, To hear the deep roar of the wide blue ocean, And to stand unmoved ‘mid the sleepless motion, And to feel o’er his head The white foam spread From the wild wave proudly swelling, And to care no whit For the storm’s rude fit Where he stands on his old rock-dwelling, This rare old man of Hoy.
(From The Selected Poems of John Stuart Blackie 1896)
One day I would like to spend time on Hoy. For now I pass by the looming and mysterious bulk of this magnificent island with its steep cliffs mirrored in the unusually calm passage of water.
On leaving Orkney, I rushed out to the deck of the boat to catch the final glimpse of the beautiful, ancient and unique harbour town of Stromness. I am always left with a sense of nostalgia, and happiness too, when departing that town with its handsome and longstanding buildings.
Like Hoy, and with a bit of tender loving care, these structures have stood the test of time and all weathers.
I came across a stunning piece of music by Peter Maxwell Davies.
Davies was a British composer who moved to Hoy in 1971 and lived there for a good part of his life, his compositions much inspired by these islands.
This piece, Farewell to Stromness, is so simple, and so moving somehow - perhaps a piece he is best known for, and I noticed that a few people featured on Desert Island Discs have listed it as one of their favourites. It literally strikes a chord for me as I listen after a weekend trip that brought with it some mixed feelings and thoughts on my return to Caithness. I was lucky enough to hear Max (as he was known by so many) play this piece in person at the John Lennon Festival in Durness in 2007, where I was exhibiting some paintings.
Maybe this song brings that collective sense of longing and the ache of 'home' to me.
What does it say to you?