Friday, 26 December 2008

Episode 2 – Settling In

Orkney is served by ferry direct from Scrabster and Gill’s Bay on the northernmost coast of mainland Scotland, or a six-hour boat trip from Aberdeen. We drove from Yorkshire to rendezvous with the MV Hrossey berthed in the East Coast port. Following a six-hour crossing (which revealed that half of our family of four were never going to be sailors) we disembarked in the campervan to await the ferry to Shapinsay at 10:30am; eleven hours away. The perishing cold night was punctuated by the farting dogs and restless kids. Never was a dawn so eagerly anticipated or gratefully welcomed.

All the guidebooks are unanimous - Orkney, influenced by the Gulf Stream, enjoys a mild wintertime climate. We arrived in the county in the middle of January, followed three days later by the worst blizzards on record. I feared a Jonah-like persecution for bringing this dramatic and destructive 'Yorkshire' weather to their shores. And with the weather came another phenomenon, something I hadn't experienced since back home in Yorkshire during the 1970s – power cuts! Fortunately our predecessors at Parkhall were born and bred Orcadians and were prepared for such eventualities. Power cuts on Shapinsay are usually caused by either swans flying into the overhead cables, or high winds bringing them down (the cables, not the swans). They had the forethought to install a generator – one flick of the switch and we were 'self-sufficient' for electrical power. Well, we were as long as the fuel for the generator lasted.
One of the unique aspects of moving to an island with a population of 300 souls is the psychic ability of the locals. Somehow everyone knows who you are, where you're from and what you're having for supper before you've even been to the shop. They also know when you're in trouble.
We had sold our Landrover before moving to Orkney. We had a campervan which was much more practical for the move and we reasoned that we wouldn't need two expensive vehicles on a tiny island in the middle of the North Sea. The sale was also necessary to finance the relocation effort. Of course we had only been to Orkney for a couple of summer holidays and via the guide books; you know – the warm winters and frost-free environment. We were now stuck two miles from the village (a collection of eighteenth century fishermen's cottages) and the shop, with a campervan for transport which 'didn't do snow'. I found out the hard way that it didn't, because I was adamant that it did. So off I went for provisions to the local shop. The first thirty yards were downhill and were a bit of a doddle. The road then takes a slight uphill gradient and the van slid sideways, then stopped. Fuck! I muttered quietly and decided to bring the van back home. At the end of our track I tried to straighten up before attempting the hill. Ummm, that plan lasted about five seconds as the wheels of the campervan whizzed round faster while standing still than they ever did on the motorway. I had, through my complete ineptitude, managed to position the van sideways on and across the road. Shit! And here comes a tractor. And I'm blocking his way. The huge green John Deere grunted to a halt three inches from my striken carriage.

'Yha stuck?' enquired the driver, after abseiling down from the cockpit.
'Er, looks like it, but I'm sure I can get it shifted before April' I reasoned.
' Yaas, Ah s’ppose ya could,' he observed, clearly unimpressed by what he had seen.
This was my first meeting with John, our next-door neighbour – next-door even though his house was over half-a-mile away, but this is Orkney. I can't imagine what he thought of us, but I was glad of the tow back up to the house. We had quickly assumed the mantle of lame-ducks of Shapinsay. Shortly after, along came Dave -a sheep farmer who had spent twenty years in the Falklands - with a jerry can of fuel for the now depleated generator.
'Couldn't 'ear the genny, any more' explained this heaven sent diesel-distributor. Pizzas and home-baked bread came via Laurie and Wendy (originally from Leeds), simply because they were passing 'And the kiddies ought to have SOME food inside 'em'.
So we spent our first week in Orkney snowed-in and huddled up, reading stories by the fireside, warmed partly by the huge Stanley range, but more by the thoughtfulness and generosity of our new neighbours on this tiny island in the middle of the sea.

What was surprising, once we started to venture out was the number of English people here. On this tiny outcrop of rock in the middle of the sea, total inhabitants 300, approximately 30 were from 'Sooth' or Englandshire, as it's known – but even more peculiarly, no fewer than 15 of those were from Yorkshire! In fact on the Orkney North Isle of Sanday the population is 60% English. I don't know the exact number of Yorkshire ex-pats which make up the population there, but if you've got a long-lost uncle Ashley or auntie Ethel; if they're not living a recluse's life knotting lobster-pots in Robin Hood's Bay, chances are they'll be on Sanday!
Orkney is now home to hundreds of English folk and it's understandable that the locals have mixed feelings about this anglo-invasion. The few English people we had met had suggested that we keep a low profile and wait for the locals to get to know us although there's no doubt that bringing two children to the island helped our integration enormously – joining a school with only 18 pupils helps with staff numbers as well as enriching this little society. And school-life, as anywhere else, extends way beyond the classroom. One evening a few of the local lads came round to try out the new pool table I'd recently installed in a byre and, spotting a Barnsley FC carrier bag displayed on the wall, Willy asked about the connection. The little group huddled closer as I told of my footballing exploits of yesteryear.
“Well I don't play anymore as I had a cruxiate ligament injury (and I'm old, slow, fat and knackered I could have added, but failed to do so) but I played at Oakwell, once or twice”
The congregation stood in reverence (this, I was to find, is a football island) - . . “and I once played alongside Ronnie Glavin!” For the blissfully unaware, Ronnie was one of the finest Scottish midfielders ever to have graced the turf.
Well, in the eyes of those assembled, this elevated me from mere football legend to superstar status. They really didn't give me time to explain that my Oakwell appearances were for Hoyland Kirk Balk school (and then only as last-minute substitute) and the 'Ronnie era' lasted one game and was several years after the 'greatest midfielder in the world' had officially retired. But the fact that, following an ankle twist, I had helped carry the great man off the field of play and drive him home in his own car only served to fascinate them more.

Subsequently I was happy to be persuaded to assist with the enthusiastic football team, quickly followed by my finest managerial hour; coming when I helped get Shapinsay further in the Parish Cup than they had managed for over twenty years – we got past the first round! We were drawn against Stronsay, another Isles team and, following a tense 1-2 defeat at home, the away leg saw virtually every able-bodied islander climb aboard the series of ferries required to get us to the neighbouring island. I got talking to John Leslie, born and bred on Shapinsay. Stronsay is only four miles away and I felt a bit guilty that I'd not been there yet so I asked his opinion of the island.
'I dunno,' he replied, 'ne-er bin there mysel, either!'
The game was tremendous and culminated in a 3-2 victory to Shapinsay (4-4 on aggregate, we win on away goals). Emotional and overawed by all the goodwill flowing around (most of it 70% proof), I managed to trip and twist my 'good' knee on the return ferry crossing, again tearing my cruxiate ligaments. I was the only casualty of the whole game, and was laid up for three days. At least one good thing came out of the injury – I'm now better balanced; I limp on both sides!

Besides the school and football, there is also a strong equestrian community here. Sally's been horse-mad since being a kid, whereas I see them more as an extremely exciting way to lose money. Perhaps the most frequently asked question for the first six weeks we were on the island was 'When's that there 'oss coming home?' The fact she was a Clydesdale only increased the interest. Many of the older folk remember vividly the working horse. The day we finally fetched her from Aberdeen our property was the most visited attraction on the island. The first ones came within ten minutes of us letting her into the paddock, followed by a steady stream all afternoon. They came, parked by the fence for two minutes and then drove back the way they came. Not one person came to the house, they just looked at Tessa and went away, they didn't want to intrude, they just wanted a look.

So to recap, if I were to offer any advice to anyone considering relocating to the remote, far-flung North Isles of Scotland and wanting to integrate easily, I would say, a) be an ex-professional footballer (preferably Leeds, Manchester United or Liverpool – where all the great Scots played), b) have a part-share in a stud farm or at least have some other horsey pursuit and, most importantly, c) come as a family, as bringing children to the Isles is a good thing all round.

If there are any folk without kids, I have two they can borrow, at least until they reach earning age.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

The Call Of The Wild

You must know the feeling – you've been doing the same job for what seems like forever, living in the same house, same district and sitting on your desk in front of you is the gateway to the universe – the Internet. So, like me, you've probably wondered if there's something different, something better, out there. A different way of life, a place to bring up your kids more safely, a place with clean air and a less hectic pace to life – basically a place that isn't where you are now! If you've ever felt this way, then I bet you've even considered living on an island – I did.
It started off as a bit of a whim. At home in Tankersley (a small rural village between Barnsley and Sheffield) and the weather was starting to turn. The last of the summer had long since departed, a swiftly fading memory, and the long, cold winter was stretching before me like a dark alley I didn't much care to walk down.
“Shall we just bugger off?” I say to Sally, who's concentrating on yet another pile of bills.
“Fine, where to?” she fairly understandably enquires.
“Ireland, Wales, the Outer-fucking-Hebrides, I don't know – anywhere”
Sometimes it’s only when that suppressed inner voice finally outs itself that you realise how utterly stupid it sounds. And so it was the case here, except Sally didn't shoot me down in a ball of flames. Oh no, much worse - she agreed.
With nothing now to stop my ramblings, I set off blethering about quality of life, open spaces, back to basics, (I was starting to sound like a voice over for a cider advertisement). For crying out loud, we could even buy a place outright in one of the more remote areas and still have change from the sale of our ex-council semi.
The computer winked at me and hummed, enticingly.

Scotland's a big country but with a population not much more than that of Yorkshire. There's a lot of space. But we were looking for more than just space; we had decided an island life was for us. With the last of my bags firmly squashed into the Landrover I headed north. I had never been to the Hebrides (except for Skye, which, according to some, doesn't really count as an island because you can drive to it) and I was looking forward to this reconnaissance mission. The sheer distance of the Western Isles from just about everywhere else made this an adventure, the fact that I was also looking for somewhere for my family to live also gave me something of a pioneering thrill.

When you finally arrive on Skye the place has a very distinctly different feeling (I blame Des O'Connor and his Skye Boat Song, the fact is you just can't stop singing it). I'll wager that virtually every lone motorist journeying through this particular part of the world, at some point breaks out into “Speed, bonny boat, like a bird on the wing . . .”, of course you would have to be of a certain age, unless you just know it from your parents' record collection (erm, like I do). You also have to do it in a rubbish Scottish accent, and that's where the 'lone' part comes in – never get caught singing it out loud. Especially not when in Skye!
Eventually, after mile upon mile of scenery straight from 'The Gawker's Guide to Sublime Scottish Landscapes', I arrive in Uig, at the top bit of Skye. Loitering at the north end of the village is an industrial-sized slab of concrete – the ferry terminal. These structures, throughout the whole of Scotland, seem to have been designed with no reference whatsoever to the environment in which they have been plopped. And after driving through a landscape of immeasurable beauty, it comes as quite a shock.

After a ferry trip of almost three hours in good flat conditions (thankfully), watching the dark ghosts of porpoises and the first seabirds returning from the winter at sea, I land in North Uist. Different? - It's about as different as I could have imagined without the use of space travel. For instance, the first 'cottage' I have on my viewing list is inaccessible. This isn't a piece of dramatic licence - it actually has no road to it! But, I am informed by the fish-farm worker who has very kindly ferried me across the sound in a bright orange R.I.B., I could easily build one, och, aye, as it's only five miles from the tarmac road to the cottage. The front 'garden' is a mussel-bed and the rear garden appears to be, well - sheep. The interior has been used as a starling squat and their domesticity leaves a little to be desired. Also, according to the Estate Agent’s details, this des-res comes complete with its own 14 foot rowing boat – and having finally set foot here, I realise its inclusion is an absolute necessity. However, the boat must have been the only ‘des’ aspect to this particular ‘res’, because someone has nicked off with it. I think I’ll put this one on the ‘erm, maybe pile’.
The next place is slightly more up-market and could be, given a couple of weeks scrubbing and repairing, quite liveable. The lovely old lass who opened up for me (the house hadn’t been lived in for many years) could barely stand but she dutifully plodded around after me as I made my video-reportage for Sally’s perusal. To be honest the tour didn’t take very long at all and I was soon shaking the bony old hand and climbing into the car. I was just taking one last look at the cottage when I noticed a slight movement out of the corner of my eye. The old girl was stooping down to the ground and I stopped thinking she was perhaps hurt. As I approached, she lifted a long, brown object and gave me a toothless grin. In her hand was a stinking, hairy, ferocious and very dead mink. She’d seen it and killed it in one swift movement of a stiff old sweeping brush. This must have taken immense speed and not inconsiderable strength to accomplish such an action. She quite clearly didn’t care much for mink!

Eventually and unfortunately, after spending three days and several property viewings, I found that, for all its romance and remoteness, the Hebrides were just a little bit too far, in every sense of the word. I couldn't find enough common ground between there and Yorkshire to make the decision on behalf of the entire family to move there. It's not that the people are all that different, either – I mean, I never actually saw anyone with three eyes, but there's just something. There are, of course, stunningly beautiful landscapes and picturesque villages, but I still couldn't imagine us making a life out there.
I certainly wasn't going to uproot the whole tribe to drop them in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Oh no sir, I had a better plan.
I was going to drop them into the North Sea!

The drive back to Yorkshire and the subsequent few weeks were dismal. Our dreams of a life 'away from it all' were reverting to that – just dreams. Sally and I decided on one last venture and, if that was fruitless, we would stay put and make the best of what we already had. It was becoming quite an expensive itch to scratch, this relocating to a remote island.

Orkney had always been a place we imagined we might like, but it was that little bit more expensive and our budget was entirely dependent on what we could get for our house. Firstly though, I had to go and see if there was anything there for us. We decided I should fly to Orkney – the wear and tear on my body following the five day and 1500 mile round trip to the Western Isles was something I wasn't keen to re-enact. In a toss-up between deep-veined thrombosis and 'driver's-bum', the plane wins hands down. Manchester was shrouded in cold drizzle. Actually everywhere was shrouded in cold drizzle, but Manchester seems to do this weather better than other places. So I flew all way to Orkney with a big, wet, grey cloud for company. Then something most peculiar happened. God decided to chuck his twopennyworth into the mix. As the plane descended from the grey brown atmosphere above Caithness, the rain stopped and the ground-level clouds lifted and parted. There, spread out in front of me – Orkney. God had picked up a large handful of emerald green pebbles and scattered it across an azure blue tablecloth, the result is a land of spectacular vistas. We flew in from the west, underneath the giant red sandstone cliffs of Hoy, and its Old Man. The fulmars were wheeling and gliding in front of the massive sandstone walls, huge foaming sea swell collided in slow-motion with the rock-ramparts; it was spellbinding. Where the Western Isles had just seemed a long way away, Orkney felt almost otherworldly. Going through checkout, the artworks on display in the airport were of gallery quality, the whole atmosphere was gentile and cultured. I hoped the rest of Orkney was going to live up to its airport.

I had a few properties to see on my flying visit and the first entailed just that! From the airport I taxied to Kirkwall, Orkney's capital city (population 18,000) dropped off my bags at the Queens Hotel, unpacked the cam-corder which was Sally's only visual link with the rest of her life and headed straight back to the airport. Transport around this watery county consists of the usual taxis, buses, cars and bikes plus, understandably, boats. But there's another trick up its sleeve – the Inter-Island Air Service. Almost every outlying island has an aerodrome and is served, more or less regularly, by ‘the Service’. The first property on the list was a cottage in Westray. The boat takes 2 ½ hours, the plane takes 25 minutes and costs about the same. It was a blustery day (that's blustery in Orkney speak, not conventional speak) and as I advanced towards the tiny 'Islander' plane I thought it was taking off without me. I needn't have worried (!) it was just the wind blowing it round. Boarding the plane and I was ushered to the back seat. 'Just squeeze up a bit further' encouraged the pilot. I couldn't see any other passengers left to board, but I was soon joined by a half-ton lump. I'm not being rude - this was the Westray mailbag and it wasn't used to sharing the back seat. The pilot climbed into his seat, a fellow passenger climbed up beside him and actually donned helmet and earphones. Seems it's the luck of the draw – if you get ticket number 1 you are also automatically co-pilot – unbelievable! I know, in retrospect, I was naive to expect 'the intercom to crackle into life' as they're supposed to in stories, but I really didn't expect the pilot to turn round, one arm on the back of his chair and administer the flight schedule by shouting over the noise of the engines. Safety procedure included the information that the person sitting on the port side (should such an emergency arise) would need to give the door 'a good kick' as it was a little stiff lately. I don't know to this day whether it was an in-joke amongst the locals in the knowledge that an outsider was on the plane.

The flight to Westray was thrilling. Barely 500 feet high over turquoise bays fringed by white sandy beaches, precipitous sandstone cliffs cascading seawards terminating in a boiling froth of white foam and above, a landscape so verdant and fertile.
The visit to the cottage however, brought back all my fears about moving to the edge of the world. As in the Hebrides I was stunned by the harsh beauty of the place and the spartan lifestyle I could expect to find, but with two young girls I really couldn't square the circle. I left Westray disheartened, knowing this was the last throw of the dice. The flight from Westray was, er, interesting. Waiting for the Islander to return from Papa Westray – a tiny neighbouring island and also the destination for the World's shortest scheduled passenger flight (1minute, 50 seconds) and I could see the trip back to Kirkwall would be entertaining. After several attempts to land, the plane finally lurched to the ground in a swirling cloud of dust and grit. The wind was absolutely howling now, laying even the shortest of grasses flat to the ground. In Orcadian it was officially 'Windy'. I and the returning passengers (most of whom were teachers out to work on the island for the day) battled through the hurricane to the wobbling plane. The pilot seemed calm enough, although I could see his lips moving an could just hear him chanting some sort of mantra. Then we went for it. The engines made a strange exasperated noise and we went slowly upwards. The funny thing is – I've never actually flown sideways before! but that's what we did, for what seemed like minutes. The plane wanting to go one way, the force of the wind suggesting otherwise. Then with a deft change in the controls we flipped sideways, whooshed round and, assisted by the wind, raced back to Kirkwall.

My telephone report back to Sally in Yorkshire was as upbeat as I could make it, only after I closed off the connection did I actually cry. It had all seemed so easy from down in Yorkshire – you know; buy a little remote place and have a happy little life, but now reality steps in. I cheered up immensely that evening by sampling some of Orkney's world famous home grown beef (simply superb) and a couple of Highland Park single malts – also a product of the county. This was more like it. I was in fine spirits by the morning on the ferry to Shapinsay. Here I was greeted by Mr Peace, owner of Parkhall, the small farm I had come to view. It was beautiful; drystone walls and traditional flagstone roofs, a recently modernised cottage and nearly 2 acres of pasture, all set on a hillside overlooking the north end of the island. The only snag was, it was over our budget. The Scottish system differs from the English in that properties as presented for sale at an 'offers over' price, not 'offers around'. Vendors fully expect to realise 20 -30% over the 'asking' price (although tings are changing now). I didn't know this. I broke the news to Sally via mobile phone from the hotel – our dream property was here but just out of reach. Then in stepped our fairy godmother – actually Sal's mother, Mary. She offered Sally her 'inheritance’ (and the kids theirs) as she would rather see them enjoying the benefit of the money while she was still here. So the offer was made and we bought the farm.

Almost a year and a couple of holidays in Orkney later and we were ready to move; house, home, dogs, horses, kids – the lot. We got quotations for the removal and for the transportation of the horses – a Clydesdale mare and a Shetland pony. It totalled nearly £8,000 – eeek! Everyone knows it's a myth that Yorkshiremen are tight, but eight grand and nothing to show for it?! So we hatched a plan and a week later bought a 7 ½ tonne horse box, which would double as a removals truck. I made three trips over the next fortnight, accompanied by my brothers Steve and Jez and, later by friends Stuart and Jim. I then drove the horses to a livery yard in Aberdeen, where they would have to wait until we were settled in our new house. On January 16th we said goodbye to Yorkshire for the last time.

To be continued . . .