My first day in Orkney has drawn to a close and I am already forging a strong connection to the Island. I ventured into Kirkwall on the bus in the hope of finding something interesting to kick start my project, I was not disappointed. I stuck my head in at the Town Hall and found an exhibition about food and sustainability as part of the Orkney Science Festival and a craft fair, each of these events bore fruitful conversations between individuals involved in them and myself. I left with a smile and the promise of a tapestry lesson.
As I headed back on the bus I was struck by the sight of a flock of curlews in a field. I have never seen so many curlews in one place. As incidental as it sounds the sight of them all prodding around in the soil was remarkable to me having only ever encountered this bird in ones or twos at the marshy edges of lakes. This was only the start of my wildlife encounters of the day.
The window where I am staying in Finstown looks out directly over the Wide Firth between the Mainland and Shapinsay . The water was calm and the tide slowly rising as I sat down to read through the mountain of leaflets and brochures I had picked up. As I gazed out of the window a herring gull landed on the water and began picking at the seaweed that was softly swaying with the movement of the waves. A little bit later a fish burst from the calm water, the silver scales of its arched body glittering briefly in the early evening light before it disappeared back under the surface with a splash, leaving only a blossom of ripples. My attention was caught several more times by the leaping fish before a brief rainstorm heralded the arrival of both a rainbow and the elegant silhouette of a shag which I watched dive beneath the surface and emerge several times before it finally drifted out of sight. Needless to say the mountain of leaflets remains unread.
The leaping fish reminded me of another encounter I recently had. My mum had come to visit and we had decided to go for a walk at the Hermitage waterfall in Dunkeld. We stood on the viewing balcony gazing at the powerful surge of water crashing over the rocks when suddenly a large salmon leapt from the pool and into the waterfall. We watched as several salmon of various sizes tried to leap up through the torrent, never seeming to make it even halfway to top. It was incredible to see. The task seems impossible yet every year the salmon make this leap, they fight their way up river to spawn driven by instinct and a bodily connection to the magnetic fields of the earth. This experience moved me deeply. I felt I was leaping with the salmon. I urged them on; searching for an easier route up the waterfall as though somehow I could communicate this to them but still none seemed to make it even close to scaling the fall. Eventually we continued our walk up river where smaller falls and rapids altered the rhythm of the water. I watched hopefully for a glint of silver skin, a sign that at least one of the salmon had made it but I saw only the frantic bubbling of the hurrying river. At first it was a purely bodily connection to this phenomenon that I felt but later, as tends to happen with humans; it gained a personal and metaphorical significance. The effort of the salmon against the deluge became a lesson in endurance and determination, a heroic struggle against the odds and the feeling that no matter what event threatened to ‘drown’ me, if the salmon could keep swimming against the current then I could at least keep afloat. I had created my own moral tale, my own fable from the encounter which made me relate to the salmon and the waterfall in a way that I never had before. Of course I knew of the phenomenon before but in a’ factual’ way, as a piece of abstract information. It wasn’t until I encountered it for myself that it took on such significance to me and I found myself recounting the story.