Light and clouds over Graemsay
Written by Alastair MacLeod

One of the exciting things about Orkney is that it is truly oceanic. We are seventy islands in the sea – none so big as to create a land climate: the sea climate dominates. Atlantic depressions catch us afloat, the rain curtains traversing the ocean sweep over land and sea alike, bringing showers and storms; water everywhere – in the lochs, the burns, the firths, geos and bays. This mysterious interplay of water, salt and fresh, shapes our lives.

Orkney rain is frequently driven, driven by the ever present wind. The rain seems to attack, wetting you through in seconds. Between wettings, the wind dries you and the land. This wetting and drying, wetting then drying, is a live process, like a watercolour painting in progress.

When the storms batter the cliffs, the sea spray drifts inland, a dangerous chemical smoke, burning unprotected trees and garden plants.

Gravity-defying horizontal rain means umbrellas are rare and buildings need to protect their sides as well as their roofs. Harl, that grey porridgy stuff of cement and little chips thrown at the sides of houses, when dry seals the wall and the small stones break up the force of the raindrops, like a phalanx of tiny spearmen.

Heavy downpours, often heralding a big wind to follow, rarely last, but the droplets smooch the windscreen, occasionally so heavily the wipers won’t cope and you can’t see – you need to stop till the smooching is over and the rain releases you from its embrace.

Formed of particles so light it forms a dew on your clothes, ‘smoorin rain’ is deceptive and only after a while do you realise you are wet through.

Fog droplets are smaller still. On a visit to Kew gardens, I found it curious that they had a machine to create fine rain and fog in the ‘cloud forest’ room when we experience this so naturally here.

Indeed some of our rain is low cloud. With no mountains to give lift to the clouds from the sea, they often skim over the islands like huge white dusters.

Creeping to silently cover the earth, our sea haars are a tax the ocean god imposes after two to three sunny days. The cool fog rolls in from the North Sea, disrupting air travel and casting a grey fuzz around everything. Even seabirds sit it out in fields grounded by an unseen air traffic control.

The haar can be fickle. One part of Orkney in cotton wool, the other in bright sunshine. The determined walker can get wise to this and choose to roam where the sky is clear.

Many people hate the rain, hide from it, but plants love it – some even more than others.

The native water mint has its feet right in the loch while the wild thyme seeks a spot by the gravelly roadside where drainage is good. The maritime heaths on the cliff edge revel in the salty spray. Lichens cling to the standing stones, depending on airborne moisture.

If the temperature is right, rain freezes on the way down, and hailstones stot off the tin roofs of byres, to lie like frozen melon balls on the ground.

The physical impact of rain is immediate and fleeting, but the skin of our ancestors also felt these things.

In my front room I have a fragment of rock; the dimpled raised pattern records a moment in time, a rainstorm, on an ancient Orkney mud shore millions of years ago.

About the author

Alastair MacLeod

Alastair MacLeod committed his life to helping people and communities achieve their fullest potential, and particularly through his work with Orkney’s careers service and in leading successful community campaigns against environmental threats to the islands he loved. He started writing short stories in 2004, and reflective essays as well. His stories are available as ebooks on Amazon, and several have been translated into Italian, and also Spanish.