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The great outdoors: Orkney casts its magic with moody waters, squadrons of skarf and the disapproval of a snorting seal

© ShutterstockOrkney

The long, languorous spine of Shapinsay in the Orkney Islands draped in late-August sunlight hypnotised the morning and turned it into a magic trick. For a start, a rainbow moved ahead of a faraway northern shower.

I reach for George Mackay Brown in such circumstances as effortlessly as breathing. This is from his poem, Orkney: The Whale Islands, so-called because of their humpback-like shapes when you see them dark against a low sun.

…A rainbow crumbled

Over Orc, ‘whale islands’.

Then the skipper, ‘The whales

Will yield this folk

Corn and fleeces and honey’.

And the poet,

‘Harp of whalebone, shake

Golden words from my mouth’.

The road to the Shapinsay ferry had been guesswork, the haar had battened Orkney down, shut off its horizons, erased its islandness. The waters of Kirkwall Bay and The String were marbled flat, curtained. The motion of the ferry when she sailed was the same as the car on level tarmac, the sea flattened, waveless, unrippled.

But beyond the bay, just beyond the starboard headland, a change had begun. Almost immediately it offered up the essential quality the morning had lacked – distance. And at the end of that distance lay an island, small and alone and miraculously lit from stem to stern, and so low to the sea that its lighthouse made it look top-heavy – Auskerry.

Ah, the sorcery of Orkney. There is no end to it and there is no accustoming to it. Orkney and I are occasional passing strangers, years between greetings, but my thralldom is constant and forever thanks to George Mackay Brown who, for more than half my life now, has simply been my favourite writer.

And then there is the land-and-sea-scape, there is the wildlife, there is the fast and restless light, and these feed the hunger and slake the thirst of the nature writer. And the still centre of all that is Shapinsay.

In an archipelago like Orkney, all islands are relative, and each and every one has a different relationship with the one that everyone calls Mainland. Shapinsay is but four seaward miles from the Mainland’s capital Kirkwall, but the moment you step ashore and head uphill, you feel the drawbridge rise at your back. You draw breath and inhale a more profound island-ness.

If you encounter Shapinsay in this mood, just as Orkney has begun to unwrap itself, you see a wing-flexing butterfly of islands shaking off its chrysalis.

The chances are you will be grateful to Shapinsay forever, because nowhere else in all Orkney is so well-placed for such a revelation.

So I had paused on the spine of the island. Shapinsay’s roof is not much higher than its ground floor. Like much of Orkney, it’s a single-storey island, but 213ft is more than enough to unfurl much of the island beneath you, a sprawl of green turning yellow.

Autumn doesn’t hang about this far north and, while it might say August on the calendar, you get the sense of September elbowing its ribs, a gesture that says none too subtly, “Your time’s up”.

Orkney’s pervasive summer green is tantalised as the sun warms and brightens and yellows by degrees. The haar dances to the sun’s tune and island after island, skerry after skerry, all of Orkney shakes itself free and stands brightened and born-again, and on the roof of Shapinsay the problem is deciding where to look. To turn your gaze a few degrees from west to north is to tap the kaleidoscope and wonder again. Again. Again.

The few remaining heather hills and moors darken from purple to brown, the sea is all the colours a sea can be, from grey-white back towards the Mainland to deep royal-blue off Shapinsay’s north coast to sky-blue out where Auskerry ripples the eastern horizon. All across the firths of Stronsay and Westray there are tricks and pinpricks of green and silver, yellow and gold, blue and grey, in every shade and combination of shades.

Sunlight begins to illuminate what had been an unseen landscape until a few minutes before. Land shades are pastel glows of green and yellow through the weakening mist, and these grow more vivid as it dissipates. That white beach far to the north-east must be Sanday. A Sanday beach. The native who has heard it a thousand times before must roll his eyes at that.

The last islands to clear are Wyre and Egilsay, one the birthplace of the poet Edwin Muir, the other the deathplace of St Magnus the martyr, whose story George Mackay Brown has sent around the world.

Out on Shapinsay’s north-eastern spur with that school of whale-island shapes scattered all across the visible sea, there is a headland called Ness of Ork. A nature writer who wrests a living from landscapes and nature’s way with them alights on such moments with the gratitude of an oystercatcher on a mussel bed, gratitude that he has washed up on such a shore.

A low, dark curve surfaces in the water just beyond the seaward edge of Ness of Ork. But it lies on a submerged rock, which no whale does, and for all its blubber-rich, tremulous bulk it is many times too small for the smallest of orks – it’s a bull Atlantic grey seal, I realise.

At a distance of 30ft there is just a whaleback shape and no response to my cautious approach across the rocks. At 20ft his head suddenly rears above an array of chins, his snort of disapproval is no whale song. His launching splash and turn of speed will stay with me for years.

The small bay echoes him. A squadron of shearwatering skarfs defers to his sudden spectacle and gives him a wide berth. Skarf is the Norseman’s cormorant, and in Orkney I have heard peedie scarf used for a shag. The Gael has the same word but has Gaelicised the spelling – sgarbh.

Brown would have approved. He was a stalwart defender of his native tongue and decried its widespread descent into disuse. He wrote in An Orkney Tapestry, “Decay of language is always the symptom of a more serious sickness.”

The seal surfaces and pauses 150ft offshore, chins rolling down to his chest, “standing” in the navy-blue water, floating like a cork. Some cork. Then he’s gone, swift and fluent, porpoising like a dolphin, north for the Green Holms a few leagues up the Stronsay Firth. His seagoing knowledge of Orkney is enviable, a familiarity with the very seabed roots of the islands where they appear not as whalebacks but soaring towers.

The spine of Shapinsay lays claim to a particular treasure. The Mor Stein is the island’s only standing stone. In the late afternoon light it smoulders, a shade between yellow and copper, eternally poised between sunset and moonrise. Its high and profound solitude compounds its mystery, enriches its impact, the antithesis of Brodgar in the lost language of standing stones.

The Argyll writer Marion Campbell was of Brown’s generation and had the same reverence for those who wrote their story in that lost language. In Argyll – The Enduring Heartland she wrote: “Ever since the art of erecting them was lost, men have been awed by the stones… Now as they stand in rings or in rows, in groups like gossiping giants or in lonely dignity… we are awed anew by the calculations that dictate their settings. I like to think of the designers… who drew their plans on the earth and then sat by some camp fire among the great stones, waiting for moonrise and cracking their little donnish jokes above beakers of honey wine. The stones stand to their memory, but the zest of them is lost.”

That “zest” is a thoughtful word, and “lonely dignity” is a perfect assessment of the Mor Stein.

It’s maybe an hour to moonrise. Now where did I leave my beaker of honey wine…