Frontiers 2023 Stories from the Islands

Roads and shores of the West

Written by Bessie Skea

Grey clouds are moving fast, and the easterly wind is sighing in under doors and sifting through every chink and cranny. The nights have been frosty of late, and last evening I saw the new moon in a clear sky. The weekend gave us several fine and spring-like days, and on the 1st of April we went out to look at the western sea.

Our roses and flowering currant were in green bud, and a few low polyanthus were in flower. Daffodils remained in the bud stage, with just the folded petal-tips showing through. The earth was drying rapidly. The moorland lay in dingy tones of withered grass and brown heather, with gulls and oystercatchers in residence. The sun turned the greener fields to gold, but the grass was slow in rising. Yellow crocuses lifted silken cups to the sun near the Stoneyhill Road, and at Tormiston the daffodils and narcissi were getting ready to open.

Several fishermen wearing waders were emerging from a car on the Brodgar road. Swans, and fully-grown cygnets, sailed offshore, and oysterctachers waded among the stones and rushes in the water’s edge. Two dead swans lay near the Sentinel Stone.

Silver light on the Brough of Yesnaby

The Stenness Loch shone in the sun; Harray’s rippled water was blue. Coltsfoot and an occasional dandelion gave gleams of gold; farther on, we saw a row of daffodils in flower in the edge of a ploughed field, where the land lies to the sun and catches a double dose of sunshine where the loch throws back the light. A patch of colour near the old mill proved to be nets strung on poles to dry.

Rabbits sat in the fields along the road to Yesnaby, alert, with ears high. In the reedy swamp many birds were nesting and fending, with black-headed gulls and curlews predominant. Linnets, with red fronts, flew from a fence. The sea shone, outlining the Brough and the cliffs ahead in silver.

The Scottish hills and a flat blue sea

There were few cars in the parking-space and walkers here and there on the clifftop in the distance. At one time we could take a car downhill, past the primula scotica area, to within easy reach of the fishing rock that looks out on to the Brough; but now there is a pin afore the neb of any car wanting access: thus a pleasant sheltered geo and an interesting shore is restricted to the able-bodied only. That car-track had been in use for many years, and it was well back from the piece of craig subject to rockfalls. I have walked down the track several times since the barrier went there, but my man says, sadly, that he will never be able to get down there again.

The Scottish hills were mist-pale on the skyline, and Hoy rose lavender-blue, with a dusting of snow on the height of the Kame. The air must have been colder to the west, because the snow had gone from the Ward Hill and Cuilags. The sea was flat and blue to the horizon, with an occasional dark flurry where a vagrant wind ran over it, and a single oil trail like that left by a shoal of mackerel, running offshore.

Sunshine at Skaill

Whaups watched our progress, and oystercatchers prodded the earth as we drove on towards Skaill. A stubble field had been ploughed and was drying rapidly, and here we were assailed by a pungent smell of dung. This odour promised fertility, but it got into the car with us, and remained there for miles.

The Loch of Skaill lipped the road-edge; primroses and daffodils opened on the banks, and goldeneye ducks swam on the loch. Kye and calves occupied a sandy field. We found a neat parking space at the Bay of Skaill, artistically delineated by a foot-high palisade of slant-topped posts. But we went on to a favourite stopping-place on the old road below the kirkyard, where we looked out on the low-tide rocks that ran in ridges far out into the bay, and on a light square on the headland that was the Hole o’ Rowe with reflected sunshine coming through.

People walked on the sands; bairns and dogs ran races. Our last visit to this shore had been in the past summer, when rock pools and ridges were tenanted by dunter ducks with ducklings, who dabbed happily. No ducks were to be seen on Sunday; I assume they were ashore, nesting.

And that, of course, explains the apparent mystery of the large proportion of oiled drakes reported recently. The only time of year when ducks and drakes congregate in equal numbers is in the mating season; as soon as nesting begins they separate, and the drakes flock out to sea again. Eiders with young later frequent the shores. Rafts of drakes may be seen at sea, and that is where these unfortunates have become contaminated with oil. Their wives would have been safely as at the time.

When I was peedie, there were always eider ducks in the bay; but I never even saw a drake until after I left Shapinsay, and then I was amazed at its beauty, wondering how the male and female of the species could be so different in appearance. In the Fifties I not only began to notice them in the String – where no doubt they had been all along although I had not previously had the eyes to see them – but I spotted a king eider, which I was hesitant about claiming as a positive sighting because these were not supposed to be seen so far south ….

A ship beyond the Brough of Birsay

In Sandwick and Birsay we saw daffodils, and coltsfoot in constellations. Primroses peeped through grass here and there. The lagoon of Choin in Marwick had ebbed, but two swans sailed there, and a pair of shelduck, most beautiful of all the ducks, swam out from the shore at the sight of us. The grass was green on Marwick, and there were daisies opening to the light. Good black land had been deeply ploughed. From the Brae of Harpsa we saw a ship beyond the Brough coming south, her superstructure blindingly white. Rocks, dark with weed, were bare far out in the bay. Black cattle grazed on the links, and along the sandy shore.

A rowing boat moved swiftly on Boardhouse Loch. The plantation on Ravie Hill was doing well, its conifers dark against the bright sky. Smoke from burning rags or paper came from Bigbreck quarry. (Now who on earth would dump wooden boxes on a profitless quarry fire? – Someone whose house is all-electric, of course!) White pylons shone up from a hilltop to the east, rising above the dark-topped plateau where the controversial peat-lands are.

Sweet-smelling grass fires scented the air, and blew in clouds across the road. Now the new greenery will get through without choking itself on the old. Swans were fending on a field near the Loch of Banks, and four wagtails flitted across a burn. A flock of small birds rose like a cloud, turning in unison to momentarily disappear, then materialise again, swooping and rising as an entity.

We returned to our abode with its lately land, where the daffodils were weeks behind those we had seen along the way. Larks sang, and snipe drummed; redshank, oystercatcher and curlew called. A lapwing cried ‘tee-veep, tee-veep’, as ever her kind has done since my earlier days.

The 100th anniversary of the birth of Bessie Skea, who described Orkney’s landscape and wildlife so evocatively, was marked in the 2023 Orkney International Science Festival by a 50s-and-60s-style Orkney concert, a One O’Clock Toast, and an outing with members of her family and local guides as a pilot for future Festival walks on routes she wrote about.

About the author

Bessie Skea

‘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.