I took my project to the Kirkwall library today and spent some time looking through the archive. It was clear in the stories I found that Orcadians have historically had a close relationship with the landscape having made their living from farming the land and fishing the sea. Even now it seems to me that the high numbers of artists and crafts people in Orkney are driven to develop their talents either through inspiration from the dynamic landscape or by the need to find something to fill their time when the weather gets rough.
Looking through collections of stories and memories previously collected in Orkney I found some great stories about the farming and fishing industries as well as some traditional songs about selkies. It was interesting to read through the different versions of the same stories, how the wording changed or the place where it happened differed from one account to another. There were also some surprisingly recent stories such as the story (from the north of Mainland Scotland not Orkney) of the fiddler who played cards with a stranger and happened to catch a glimpse of his legs under the table. They were not mans legs but horses hooves and so the fiddler realised it was the devil and took his fiddle and smashed it on an anvil and never played cards or the fiddle again but became a minister. This tale was said to take place in the 1920s.
The fishermen especially seemed to be very superstitious (as is true of a lot of seafaring heritages) and it was extremely interesting to read through some of the superstitions connected with the boats. Fishermen would not sail if they met a black cat on their way to the boat or even if they met a minister as ministers were considered very bad luck to sailors. They wouldn’t even mention the words pig, salmon or rabbit instead using “grunter”, “pink-fish” or “moppie” (it is suggested in an article I found that this was because these animals were very important Celtic symbols and were reminiscent of the pre-Christian era). The sea also affected activity on the land, it being said that you couldn’t make good butter on the ebb flow.
As well as old tales and superstitions I found some contemporary writing from Orkney which took inspiration from the landscape and especially the birds of the island and of course lots about George Mackay Brown, Orkneys most famous writer. I left with my mind saturated; full to the brim with stories and memories and information.
I was on a fishing boat in a huge swell, the waves crashed over the side of the hull as we tried to haul in the net. A salmon leapt from the tumultuous water and as it flopped gasping on the deck I felt a desperate fear grip me. There was a shout “get that pink-fish out of here!” I grabbed the struggling salmon and threw it back into the ocean just as a huge wave crashed over the side of the boat and swept my feet from under me. I was plunged into the deep water, carried away by the swell. Choking on salty brine, I somehow managed to keep my head above the water until miraculously I was washed ashore onto calm white sands. As I looked out to sea the storm continued to rage and the fishing boat was thrown onto the rocks of a skerry… I awoke abruptly. My dream still vivid in my mind’s eye, for a moment I was disorientated. The sun was setting in the bay and the herons were flying over the low tide. I could not have dosed off for long.