Trip to the Islands
Updated: May 10
Making one's way across the Pentland Firth feels a bit like going on holiday, despite the destination being only an hour away! And even though I've done this trip many times, I was eager for the adventure of sailing outside of my comfort zone of the past months.
Crossing this particular northern stretch of tides is precarious at the best of times, but with the reliable and experienced ferry systems here, I know I’m in good hands. Our voyage over the waterway was smooth, the rip tide occasionally appearing in the middle of the firth, indicating the swirling seas below.
The sun came out and cumulus clouds floated across slowly, breaking up the blue skies. Birds were busy on the surface of the water, feeding on fish that had found their way to the top. Regrettably I forgot my small pair of binoculars so I’m not entirely sure what birds they were! However, judging by their colour and shape, as well as time of year, I am guessing they were razorbills or guillemots.
Orkney is similar to Caithness with its feeling of wide open spaces, but the landscapes are actually quite different. The rolling hills and green cultivated land of mainland Orkney is striking against the wilder, moorland of Caithness. I imagine the island of Hoy would be more like Caithness in some ways.
After alighting from the vessel, it was special to meet with a couple of friends that I hadn’t seen for almost a year. We had an hour or so together at the Sheila Fleet cafe near the airport. We could have done with another hour, having only skimmed the surface, but the simple pleasure came through being with one another and enjoying each other’s presence and company over a cup of tea.
I got to Stromness, settled into my room, and had dinner in a tent set up outside near the harbour. I didn’t mind the cooler temperature. It was just so nice to hear the laughter of other people in neighbouring tents, obviously celebrating the chance to be out with each other, rain or shine.
The main purpose of the island trip was to hang some of my paintings in the windows of the Northlight Gallery. I have exhibited here once before, a couple of years ago at around the same time of year. It was a lovely experience to show in this special space, and provided a rare opportunity to meet wonderful people and drink in the unique and historic feel of that northern seaside harbour town.
During the pandemic, the owner of the gallery made a decision to continue with small scale exhibitions in the windows. The choice has drawn response from many local residents who expressed their gratitude for the life and creativity these displays have brought to the small seaside town. They are a symbol of hope and colour in these times when most things have been shut. As an artist, I’m certainly glad to have the chance to share my work here and to contribute to the life of this place after having been away for almost a year.
It was lovely to be back and I look forward to returning in a couple of weeks when there is a chance to connect with more friends and explore what these special islands have to offer. I can see why the Orkney poet, George Mackay Brown, chose this title for one of his books: 'For the Islands I Sing'. For the artist this inspiration runs both ways, through giving and receiving from this unique environment.