An Offshore Account

I don’t like to be late.  And I don’t like to be lost.  I find both states deeply unsettling, breaking, as they do, the temporal and spatial maps we hold fast to in our heads. 

So, if I manage to be late or lost, my brain does little intracranial loops and tends to get a bit cross.  But crossness in the face of your own stupidity is a waste of time and energy – you need to save crossness for things that are important.

I started to feel just a tad uneasy when I could not find my flight in the departure board, so I checked and double-checked, but no, it was not there.  I walked up to the check in desk (which was suspiciously quiet) and asked: 
“Where do I go for this flight?”
“Aberdeen” came the reply.

I let that sink in for a while – looked at my ticket and felt pretty stupid.  There I was, in Glasgow airport, looking at a ticket to Orkney from Aberdeen airport.  A mere 3 hours away by road – and the flight was departing in 90 minutes.


Lost and late.  Well maybe not lost, given that I was where I thought I ought to have been, but where I ought to have been was somewhere else.  

Ah.   Shit.

I produced my credit card, booked on to the next flight – which was at 10 am the next morning – and spent a not insubstantial sum patching up the errors of my ways.  I went back to my hotel, ate some cheese, drank some wine and went to bed.  In the end, it was the only option I had.

The next morning I was neither late nor lost, turning up at the correct airport, the correct time.  Glasgow continued to outshine itself, with a clear sky morning promising fair weather to come.  At just past nine in the morning, I was shocked to see a tall woman in a sky blue ball gown walking down a grey concrete walkway by the rush hour busy road.  The whole scene was strange beyond experience, like a mirage brought on by the heat and repeat viewing of The Matrix.

“Either a very early start or a late finish” I suggested to the driver who agreed, but pointed out that we were passing a University and that there was some form of graduation at this time of year.  “They like to get dressed up, especially the lasses,” he added in a way that suggested he knew what he was talking about.  Never judge a book by its cover.

Much as the night before had been a (self-inflicted) stuff-up of massive proportion, there was an up side.  Taking the later flight would mean I would be on the same plane as my brother, who being older and (so he says) so much wiser than me, had actually arrived at the right airport at the right time. 

For many people a trip with your brother may not be that remarkable.  But we aren’t that sort of family.  As a round figure we had not really lived together, at the same address, for 30 years, and the number of holidays we had taken together at any time, without other family being present, was precisely zero.  Much later, in the long evening twilight of an Orkney over a pint, we would realise that it would be probably the first time we had ever slept in the same room together. This really was a long way from adjacent rooms in a damp and failing cottage in Somerset.

The dozen of islands that form Orkney are scattered across the sea about 30 miles beyond the northern tip of Scotland.  The number of islands depends on the state of the tide and the shape of the wind.  To the west there is nothing but water until you reach Canada, to the east lies Norway.  The islands spread over three sheets of the Landranger map series, that classic of mapping with the bright red cover that weathers down to trademark pale pink with use.  1:50,000 scale, perfect for almost all things, wonderful in its detail and miraculous in completion.  Much can be learned from the close observation of these maps; old names, out of place today, pass on a history that can be read and understood.  Viking names; farming names; field names.  Names from a time when each place had a special role and purpose.  Names that would tell you if there was water underfoot, or peat for winter fires.  Summer places, winter places, places where eagles nested and seals gave birth.  The land made the words and the words we gave shaped our understanding the the land.  These maps may well be one of the finest, but least appreciated, accomplishments of human endeavour. 

With a little practice, and a shot of imagination, you can use maps like these to build a picture of a world you cannot see.  You can see ahead of yourself and over the next hill.  The flow-lines of contours allow you to build the shape of the land in your own head, they allow you to predict things you have not seen.  In the hands of an expert, this skill can become close to miraculous, and even I can manage some crude approximation of this skill.  These maps allow for a kind of spatially creative magic that builds the shape of the land within your own head – the maps do not show the reality of the land, they are a 2D cypher of a 3D planet.  By definition they cannot be accurate, the world is not Cartesian, but the map is.  They are a wondrous tool for the creation of a mental illusion, which often bears a striking resemblance to the real world.

But when you start to look, and maybe think a bit, the maps show more that just the relative locations of objects and the shape of the land.  They also contain an archaeology of the people who made them.  The maps I grew up with contained symbols for Post Offices and public phone boxes, both of which were of far more significance than they are today.  Their inclusion says something about the society that existed within the landscape in which they were found.  And the removal of these from the maps tells us something about how the world around us has changed.  The symbol at a road junction which said ‘here is a device with which you can talk to the world’ has become as redundant as the device itself.  Equally, on the 30 year old maps that sit on my shelves, you can find the location of both pubs and churches (with or without a tower).  These were included as places of both community and connection, where people filled themselves with one form of spirit or another.  I wonder how long these symbols will retain their utility as we abandon community and connection.

For maps to be able to work their wondrous magic they need to be based on meticulous observation and measurements.  Hundreds of distances and angles, forming triangles that march over the landscape in a remarkable trigonometry.  Maps are based in the human observation of the world as it actually is.  I may declare the world flat, and assign it four corners, but the measurements say something else.  The measurements are not biased by politics, cant or religion. Additional lines can be added to the maps after wars and agreements, but the triangles and measurements remain unchanged: political maps are a human invention laid over the top of the shape of the land.

Today, we take maps and their technological surrogates for granted – we have come to rely on them.  Maps plot our journeys forward, both in time and space.  And we think that we clever beyond measure.

But when you stand in the landscape of Orkney, you are challenged to think again about the measure of our achievement.

Possibly more than anywhere else on Earth, Orkney gives us a view into the landscape of the past and the way that early people mapped and predicted their world.  When you stand in the centre of the Stones of Stenness and come to see that the stones line up with specific events – solar and lunar – you cannot help but be amazed.  How was this done?  How did the engineers of the Stone Age create these great maps of the sky and the future?  Stone circles that speak of both direction and time, crafted by hand, pulled from the Earth by a people we have the temerity to call primitive.

The landscape of Orkney is rich in human symbols and measurement.  The bumps and barrows, henges and hill top circles are the result of measurement and observation just as meticulous as those used by our modern mapmakers.  Stones align with each other, with hilltops and with solstice sunrises.  Precisely what these alignments meant to the life of the people who built them we may never know, but the intact Stone Age landscape of the Orkneys suggest a degree of sophistication that was never communicated to me at school. The laughable New Age nonsense of Druids or the conspiracy of Alien Intervention devalues the simple fact that these structures are remarkable. But one thing is entirely clear; the Stones of Orkney are based on the observation of the world as it is – or was 4000 years ago.  Far too many of the stones align with the events of space for their placements to be luck.

The light that shines down the entrance tunnel of Maeshowe on the winter solstice meant to do so, and the Barrow was built by people who wanted that to happen.  We don’t know why, but we do they achieved it.   And yet it seems we are still not fully ready to give the people who build these structure from the cooperative Orkney stone the full credit they deserve.

While we were stood within the circle of Stones of Stenness we were told in no uncertain terms that the shape of the stones themselves had no meaning.  This seems fair enough after you have seen the broken stones at the Ring of Brodga where a recent (ish) lightning strike felled one of the monoliths – but as a general statement it seems to be a rather sweeping one.  The care with which both the location of the stone circles and the stones within them suggests (at least to me) that ‘any old stone’ would not have been chosen.  Would Capability Brown have designed the sweeping aspects of his landscapes and then said ‘just stick a big rock up there’ to finish off?  I don’t think so. And neither, I suspect, would the builders of the circles on Orkney.

At Skara Brae an even more remarkable expression of the care these Stone Age Orkadians took in the use of stone comes, not from a grand monument, but from domestic furniture.  In 1850 a Stone Age village started to reappear from the sand dunes after a winter storm.  This was a village that is still recognisable as such today.  The round houses have beds made from the flat stones and ‘fish tanks’ that were lined with clay where bait or lobsters could be kept fresh and alive.  But most remarkably, some of the houses have storage cupboards – side-boards if you like – with a wide flat top and shelves.  Some people think these may have been used in some form of ritual manner, but others suggest that they were simply storage units.  In fact if you copied the layout of this stone furniture, gave it a strange, vaguely Nordic name you, could sell it in Ikea.  There are grindstones next to at least one of these ‘cupboards’ and many of the houses have ‘box gutter’ plumbing to take away all the foul things a family can produce.  Many, many people live today in houses that have less amenities than these. And in case you missed what I was saying there – these Stone Age houses had a form of plumbing, built of stone stabs that still functions today. 

It takes almost no imagination to see how families could live in these houses, gathered around the central fire and eating meals of grilled sea-bass and shell fish.  And when you bring this to mind, the idea that the same people, sophisticated and recognisable, would just say ‘F**k it, just use any old stone,’ in their circles and monuments, seems even more far-fetched.

And where did all this kind of thinking start – well, it started right here: when I found a benchmark cut into one of the stones of the Ring of Brodga.  A benchmark is a sign that a mapmaker has been here and determined the height above sea level – it’s a fixed point around which the information of the cartographer flows, and from which maps are drawn.  A modern symbol on a Stone-Age monument, thousands of years apart in their creation, but linked by the common purpose of their manufacture – to help people navigate the world.

People have lived and found their way on Orkney for thousands of years, and for a few days I was glad to join them. 


Great comment, Stuart. Our current generations do show a great deal of hubris when we think everything of note or taking skill only takes place now. I rather feel the same way about our planet. It's the height of conceit to think that we are the only place in the universe with intelligent life. Glad you had an outing with your brother. Perhaps its the the forerunner of things to come.
Yamini MacLean said…
Hari Om
Love that last paragraph!!! As always, Stewart, you took us along with you. As a point of interest, it has just been announced Maes Howe is to close after this summer season, due to 'health and safety' concerns about folk having to cross the main road from the car park! the obvious thing would be 'bridge!'... but no such mention. No doubt it will be something elaborate and twice as costly! YAM xx
sami niilola said…
Hello. Your photos are stunning. I like a lot of those kinds of historical places. Greetings.
Muzza said…
Great ponderings Stew - somewhere I would like to see one day, Skara Brae in particular after seeing it presented by Neil Oliver a few years back.
carol l mckenna said…
Lovely photos of nature ~ beautiful place ~

Happy Week to you ~ ^_^
Pauline said…
Thanks for another great piece of writing. During my recent big overseas adventure I visited the Outer Hebrides and, I'm sad to now admit, the Orkney Isles held no attraction. If only I had read this sooner!
Vagabonde said…
What an interesting place to visit, and not one for the common man. I read there are 67 islands there and so much history. Your pictures give a good idea of the beauty of the place, and its wildness too.
Barb said…
What an interesting post, Stewart. I've learned so much about Orkney and the stone homes and barrows that you photographed. It would be awe-inspiring to observe these sites and realize the engineering and insight involved (not to mention the work without modern earth moving machines)! I am often lost but never late. However, my adrenaline would be pumping at a flight mishap like yours. I don't fly often and when I do, I like to be hours early and at the right airport!
Unknown said…
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