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.

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