Sixty mile an hour gusts subsided; it was time to reopen the village. First, however, I would be consigned to the till, and stock reshuffling – replenishing puffin fledglings from a partially barren wicker basket and depositing fresh ova in the dinosaur hatchery. A steady trickle precipitated through the entrance until the eleventh hour struck and Stagecoach disgorged its cargo accordingly.
Pre-paid entry picked up and tickets to Scotland signed and transacted, it was time for lunch and after a brief interval troubleshooting the exhibition’s Neolithic materials game with a ten-year-old, bracing the inclemency zipped up to the eyes and on to the site for two.
My watch was broken by intermittent stints in the “display” hut and former visitor centre, blasted by welcome warm air from a heater above the doorway spewing hot breath over red raw hands.
Custom consisted of infrequent couples upon whom I inflicted myself. I bemoaned saturated Brodgar with blonde and beardy Australians who wanted to circumnavigate the stones sans vêtements in the style of Billy Connolly and in imitation of a mutual friend but chickened out. Making sure to maintain Skara Brae’s five-star rating, as I always do, I offered to take photos as appropriate.
Gently ushering the last two down the path, my radio crackled into life with that familiar herald – “Base to Sugar Kilo”. Our phonetic alphabet seems to bypass Sierra; my fiery-haired colleague puts it well when he says, in his Brummie accent, “It’s such a pudding phrase”.
A mobility scooter has gone rogue. I check where I had parked it half an hour since. Nowhere to be found. I set out for Skaill House and was greeted by the cold white beam cast out before the rapid, trundling mass advancing towards me under a darkening 4 pm sky – its rider’s wife in the wake at a comical half-walk-half-run as he powers forward at full throttle regardless.
MistaJam ferries me home with his “classic” dance anthems. I return to find my grandad had been here in my absence, thus the necessitated meeting is struck off and I retreat to my bedroom guiltily to squeeze in half an hour’s worth of Civ 6 as Eleanor of Aquitaine.
This weekend my island abode is abuzz with activity. Harvest homes compete with quasi-German/Viking rituals and arm-wrestling championships. The event I’m dragged along to, however, is part of the Orkney Storytelling Festival and takes place in the mysterious venue of the Quoyloo Old School. Featuring a line up of familiar faces, its not a huge gamble; nevertheless, my expectations were modest.
After a leisurely drive through lashing rain and an obstinate Orcadian refusal to occupy the vacant front row of seats only three deep, the evening began with a poem serving as a loose basis for the programme that followed, with its tribute to the Green Isle of Shapinsay, praise of the virtue of tilling the soil, distrust of fleeting fortunes to be won by “trade” and reverence of the vaster, natural world encompassed by the bounds of the sea and the infinite roof of the sky.
Corwen Broch succeeded the poem with a Biblically themed folksong, which he delivered with a drum and Morris bells. Praising the Orcadian incomplete participation in the Great Vowel Shift and the subsequent ability to rhyme “plough” with “view” in the song, he added that he enjoyed the apparent parallel between Biblical chronology and human prehistory in Adam’s transition from the hunter-gatherer (Mesolithic) lifestyle to Cain’s farming, marking the advent of the Neolithic – an era he considers we still live in. Only when lab-grown food overtakes agriculture as our main source of sustenance will we enter a new phase.
This was followed by perhaps the most tangentially connected, but fascinating, Ballad of King Orfeo. Based on the Ancient Greek myth of Orpheus, this British version of the tale has a happier ending and instead of a descent into the underworld to retrieve Eurydice it sees its hero sally forth into the kingdom of the elves to redeem Isabella. The earliest medieval source for the poem dates from the early 14th century and this was translated by Tolkien and cited as an inspiration for Lord of the Rings. Several versions of the text appear across Britain, but the tune was thought lost until a man from Shetland was recorded singing the ballad in 1947. Remarkably, the refrain appears to preserve the Norn spoken from the middle ages to the early modern period throughout the Northern Isles:
Skoven arle grön
Hvor hjorten han gar arlig
Early greens the wood
Where the hart goes yearly
Other highlights included Kate Fletcher’s harmonium playing – it squeaked atrociously, but somehow that added to the effect and deepened the character of its strange tones – and Sarah Jane Gibbon’s rendering of a tale from the Orkneyinga Saga. The latter switched the traditional male perspective for Sigurd’s mother, who wove the infamous raven banner granting victory through pagan magic, which of course demands a terrible sacrifice.
Folk music usually isn’t my scene, but the combination of weird instruments, excellent drones, medieval sources and compelling stories kept me contemplating long after the last (perhaps over-) enthusiastic rotation of the bird-scaring rattle.