The much-loved Orkney writer Bessie Skea (‘Countrywoman’) who was born 100 years ago this year, wrote in The Orcadian of 31 August 1978 an account of a walk to the Loch of Wasdale. Forty-five years later, just a few days after 31 August, a group went on the same walk, led by some of her family including Bessie’s son Donnie, his wife Barbara, and their daughter Sarah Jane Gibbon, along with tour guide Lynn Campbell and wildlife guide Martin Gray. With them went a group from Orkney International Science Festival, helping to test out the walk in preparation for it being made more widely available in the 2024 programme. There was some low cloud and some drizzle from time to time – but all went wonderfully well, and at various points along the way Sarah Jane read extracts from Bessie’s account of the walk forty-five years before, in not too dissimilar weather.
This is a thick, grey morning. The sound of passing cars is muffled by the mist. For most of yesterday, I believe, the North Isles were blanketed by fog, while we had a warm, soft day until, during the evening, the haze closed in. Pursued by flies, I walked, or rather stumbled, through the rank vegetation below the house to see how our hedge was progressing in the moss; almost all the elders had taken root, and the Japanese roses were flourishing among the tussocks and the heather. Our segs are still unfurling yellow flowers; the originals, planted there years ago, have formed a decorative circle surrounding a flourishing patch of meadowsweet. Jim is waging war on the massed meadowsweet inhabiting our cultivated patch, which persists in rising every year; it grows thickly near the road, and there it may have its habitation in peace, but not in the part where vegetables are attempting to compete with all manner of weeds!
I proceeded along the hedge to the lupin brae, where, in a patch of brown earth enriched by these plants, which had died as is their habit when they have drawn nourishment from the air and stored it in the soil, a crimson-flowered rose bush, much larger than the others, spread its scent around. The remaining lupins were in seed, and, here and there among the sparse heather, seedlings from last season were rising.
Once there was a road through this patch of land, the end of a rough track which ran through Grimeston to connect with the right-of-way between Binscarth’s fields, through the plantation, and leading to Finstown. On the part of this road which crosses our territory I searched for the moonwort fern that ought to have been there; but perhaps I looked in the wrong place, because I saw no sign of it. A cat, or hare, track came out of the moss to disappear somewhere in our potato patch; I followed that towards the south, and, rather to my surprise, found quite a large white heather plant. A good many years ago we had, within sight of the west window where I now sit, an even bigger clump of white heather and a little piece; these have long since vanished, and nobody picked them; they simply faded away.
My man has fallen victim to some virulent virus, which simulated a heart attack. Fearing that immediate attention was required, I roused our doctor in the middle of the night; arriving promptly, he administered an injection to ease the pain and keep the patient quiet. For most of the following day I had a sleeping partner, who uttered scarcely a word that made sense. I tiptoed frequently to the bedroom door, listening and watching carefully, to make certain that he was still breathing! Now he is up and about again, but weak on his pins as yet. A blood test confirmed that his heart was not involved. Several years ago, in the ‘sixties I believe, I had a somewhat similar affliction, which led me to believe that I had strained my heart or chest muscles while digging in the garden. I eventually learned that this was caused by a virus which had attacked the muscles! Later, I heard of other cases where these mysterious pains had put the fear of death into folk. Just where do virus infections come from? We are always hearing of new ones; do they hail from outer space, sailing vast distances on stardust or in comets’ tails? Humanity is constantly inventing enemies; but viruses are the worst and most insidious enemies of all. They are no respecters of persons, nor of boundaries of land or race.
Slowly, very slowly, on a sunny but east-windy afternoon, we walked towards the Loch of Wasdale. Barley was warmly golden in the large field near our house, and the next one had been shorn of its grass for silage, leaving a pale green stubble. The iron gate above the parks was open, and we went down a grassy road beside a small field rich with green oats, and deeper green potatoes. The way was scented with meadowsweet that grew in the deep ditch. Underfoot were tiny things – daisies, speedwells, and massed patches of eyebright.
‘I think I’ll take some home,’ I said, ‘and wash my eye with an infusion of it!’
‘Fine lot o’ good that wid do,’ said my man with scorn. ‘It’s only called ‘eyebright’ because it’s bright to see and catches the eye!’
‘Daisies are much brighter. Daisy means ‘day’s eye’,’ I said. ‘If you see a lot o’ eyebright shining in a field, it’s no’ nearly so white as a field o’ daisies. They almost take the sight out of your eyes!’
Red campion grew in the heather’s edge, and ragged robin, almost as vivid in colour. I picked a few small puffballs from the bare path, and noted a yellow high-domed toadstool and several clusters of brown ones with an iridescent sheen, and a dent in the top of each as though someone had touched them with a finger. Day-flying moths, small and slender, fluttered above the grasses which were thick with pollen.
A mossy square of meadowsweet spread below the loch, and there was little water in the burn. The willows that grew on the edge of the former winter level of the water, but were now high and dry, had increased considerably in size over the years since our first wanderings along the loch shore. Quite a large area, where water had once been, now grew green with grass and sedgy things. Tiny forget-me-nots, and dainty marsh willowherb rose from the stony bottom; mint, and spearwort, shared their territory. Yellow rattle, and both varieties of red rattle, made spots of rose-pink.
In the waterway draining towards the old sluice swam shoals of sticklebacks; Jim carefully lifted a stone, expecting to see eels, but no wrigglers appeared. Strands of soft green waterweeds, anchored to slippery stones, waved their fronds silkenly, down the running stream.
We came to a wetter part, after fording the little burn. Here the vegetation was taller, and our paths diverged; Jim said ‘Come this way,’ but I thought I knew of an easier route. Despite stepping into a hole or two, I found my way out of the lush growth and on to the heathery bank, while he came to the dyke near the sluice, and had to walk along it, where it was hidden in a maze of segs and meadowsweet. ‘What’s this?’ he asked, pointing to a tallish plant with pale pink flower-clusters. ‘That’s – oh, I ken it weel, but its name escapes me!’ That’s no’ a flower I’m familiar wi’,’ he insisted. ‘Oh, yes it is,’ I said. ‘It grows in the Syradale valley, and along the Lyde.’ It was, of course, valerian, but for some reason which I cannot fathom I find that simple names and words escape me at times. This is not a sign of advancing years; it is just an erratic memory; I recall having the same trouble in my teens.
On our way home we had at least four halts for rest; I found a large mushroom, which my man ate along with a bit of bacon for tea, and pronounced to be excellent. On Sunday, after watching the Scramblers, Jim saw, through the binoculars, more mushrooms on the side of the hill. We took another leisurely stroll, down through pasture land where cows and calves were grazing, and out into the hill fields, where the land lies in delightful dips, braes and hollows. We kept losing each other among them, but with a plastic sandwich bag apiece we collected quite a lot of beautiful fungi. Some were button mushrooms, but as large as soup bowls; others were little flat things with brown or pink gills. Many had been nibbled into holes, or chewed to pieces; some had been uprooted, we knew not by what, or whom. Two black rabbits ran in a small valley, among many of their kin; and still firm to walk on. How many feet have trod that way, in the days long gone? Up on the skyline rose Buckle’s Tower, and, also above us, stood that other landmark, the gate composed of the jawbone of a whale. I can remember my first visit to Binscarth, on a Sunday School outing when I was very small; what impressed me that day was not the plantation, but that whale’s jawbone; and our visit to the then postmaster, Alfie Wood, behind the counter in his Post Office.
This week we have eaten bacon and mushrooms, an omelette made with tomatoes, mushrooms, a little onion, eggs and cheese, and there yet remains a bowl of these fruits of the filed to be cooked along with tomorrow’s dinner.
‘She knows the flowers and birds and shells of Orkney as well as anybody,’ wrote George Mackay Brown, but she looks at them through the eye of a poet.’ He and Bessie were among the group of Orkney writers encouraged by The Orkney Herald, where her work was published under the byline ‘Countrywoman’. After the paper closed she wrote for The Orcadian until her death in 1996. She was born in 1923 at Ostoft in Shapinsay, where her father John Skea was a poet as well as a crofter, and in 1942 she married James Grieve. They lived in Rousay and Birsay before settling in Harray, and had a family of three children. Published works include anthologies of her columns, as well as short stories and poetry.