Monday, 21 September 2015

CROMARTY and FAIR ISLE from the City of Granite to Hjaltland and Hamnavoe

Fair Isle 50 x 50 cm Oil on wooden panel. 

I had been checking the weather day after day, worried that gales and high winds might scupper my plans and the inter-connected web of journeys from the mainland of Scotland to the Isles of Shetland and Orkney that Sarah from Northlink had painstakingly put together for me.
As the day came, all was well and the forecast of grey skies and light rain seemed a gift from heaven.
Boarding the train from Troon on the Ayrshire coast to Glasgow and then on to the port of Aberdeen - the granite city on the East coast of Scotland the first seaward destination was Lerwick the biggest port on Shetland a 14 hour over night journey on the North Sea traversing my first region of this adventure Cromarty.
My transport for this overnight sea journey was the Northlink Freighter the MV Hildasay a 122 metre long vessel built in Spain in 1999.

Northlink's Aberdeen to Lerwick freighter - MV Hildasay.

On my arrival at Northlink's Aberdeen ferry terminal I was welcomed with the VIP treatment which was to set the tone of the weeks series of journeys across the Northern Isles. Greeted by Stuart Garrett Managing Director of Northlink Ferries and his PA Sarah, a wizard of organisation I was then driven onto the ship by security and welcomed by the predominately Estonian crew.   I was shown to my cabin for the trip by Tina the steward whose job function seemed to be a cross between House Manager and surrogate mother to the passengers mostly made up of truck drivers who make the regular overnight journeys across to Shetland.  Unlike the layout of your average ferry negotiating the decks of a freighter are more akin to mountain climbing as the sheer steepness of the vertigo inducing stairs would be make crossing an alpine cravasse a stroll in the park in rough seas. As Tina ushered me into the drivers lounge, surrealy furnished with a large dinner table and glass cabinet like a 1970s suburban living room she ticked my name off her list of passenger and said with some excitement, "Mr Ian, you're the man we have been waiting for"
After a hearty meal I was ushered up further precarious stairs to the Bridge to meet the Estonian Captain Avo Orar, a calm and softly spoken man who was happy to share his domain with this artist and traveller.

The bridge of the Hildasay.
The Hildsay's skipper Avo Orar on the bridge.

A fascinating array of radar screens and buttons on the bridge seem to have more in common with flying than sailing. The ship once out of harbour runs like a plane on Auto-Pilot, but even a ship sailing itself  to designated channels and equipped with the latest navigational aids the crew need to constantly scan the horizon for hazards in the murky skies as the evening drew in.

Heading to down to my cabin I retired to my bunk bed as the deep rumble of the engines reminded you that we were slowly heading to the Northerly part of the UK.

My cabin on the Hildasay.
Heavy rain greeted the new day as we docked at the port of Lerwick I headed down into the terminal where I was greeted with smiles and a welcome cup of tea until I was taxied down to the Mareel the cinema and art centre of the town to meet up with my first appointment of the day with Adam Guest at the Shetland Times. After a quick interview and first photograph of the day in the Lerwick rain I headed up the BBC Radio studios to meet up with John Johnson a presenter who hailing from Armagh in Northern Ireland who made his home on Shetland.
The Lodberries - Lerwick

A rainy morning in Lerwick

The rain never let up but a wander about the shops in the town and visit to the stylish Shetland Museum it was soon time to return to the terminal and board my second ship, the passenger ferry MV Hjaltland to sail from Lerwick on Shetland to the port of Kirkwall on the main island of Orkney.

The MV Hjaltland 

One of the privileges of this trip was to be able to visit the bridge on the various vessels. Particularly on the Hjaltland where I was allowed to sit in one of the "Big chairs" during the all important "Red zone" when the bridge cannot be interrupted as they manoeuvre out of port.

On our way and out of the "red zone" leaving Lerwick

One of three control desks on the Hjaltland

Arriving at 11 at night, I was due to be picked up by taxi to take me to Stromness from Kirkwall another gesture of kindness from Northlink not seeing my name outside the terminal I asked one of the inundated staff on the Information desk who promptly vaulted over the desk to find me my taxi.
The driver was already there, but waving a blank name card. As we headed across the dark interior of the island I asked about the blank card, he said, "I hadn't a felt tip to hand to write your name. In the short and rapid journey across the main island he told how a Yorkshire-man got to be working on the island.
A jovial character from outside Barnsley explained that he had sold up, bought a transit van and planned to move to the West of Ireland and lead a hippy lifestyle. What stopped you I asked? "Bad weather", replied. He told me that he continued to drive north to Stranraer and because of traffic jams he just kept on going until he arrived in Scrabster, liking the look of the ferry and thought lets get on and see what happens.  The rest is history and like many I met that the magnetic pull of the Northern Isles was simply too much and with his wife following him up to the island he's there to stay.

On arriving at the Stromness terminal I was welcomed by the terminal security with a joyous and welcoming attitude I was handed over to Nicky on the MV Hamnavoe to sleep the night the harboured ship, a night seemed like an exaggeration as I only had 4-5 hours before I had to depart before the ferry sailed for Scrabster the following morning.  I soon escaped a lively group of bikers in the ships lounge to get to my bed to get up just after 5 am.  Leaving the ship I spent a few hours with the Stromness team who plied me with welcome cups of tea and more evidence of Orkney powerful pull on people from the mainland, Lauren from Aberdeen and another Ian, an ex policeman from Bristol.

As the sun came up in Stromness we were greeted with a clear dawn and the sun soon appeared for the first time for several days.

I was determined after the interviews of the previous day, dodging the rain I would take advantage of the better weather and try and visit the ancient sites of the island.
Orkney has some of the most important neolithic sites in Europe and was awarded World Heritage status in 1999. The greatest of these is the stone circle of the Ring of Brodgar

An amazing upright stone at Brodgar 
Part of the circle that consists of 27 standing stones

Close to Brodgar, the Standing stones of Stenness are equally impressive in their own way and seem to attract a little less attention. As I walked back to the main Kirkwall to Stromness road I had the stones to myself that would be unheard of at Stonehenge and Avebury in England.

Two of the Standing stones of Stenness. 
Stromness is a well established sea port centred around a huddle of houses and cottages off winding narrow lanes which reminded of the Cornish fishing ports of St Ives and Mousehole.  A stop off for the early Hudson Bay Company of Canada and  whaling industry of the 19th Century.

Stromness has been a major centre of the arts, home to the Pier Arts Centre a wonderful haven of 20th century art. The centre was established in 1979 due the foresight and generosity of philanthropist Margaret Gardiner who donated a collection a body of work from the St Ives School to sit alongside local artists such as Stanley Cursiter. 
Stromness was home of late poet and novelist George Mackay Brown. GMBs work is part of the DNA of Orkney and particularly Stromness which was his home for most of his life. 

The winding lanes of Stromness
The rich stone architecture of Stromess

Almost deserted , adds to the town's other Worldliness

For this project I have asked for literary contributions to sit along side the visual art for all the areas traveled. I have asked a number of leading contemporary writers to contribute to the project, but I felt that the work of George Mackay Brown justly complements the essence of this project and these lines match the Fair Isle wonderfully. This work is thankfully reproduced through the kindness of George Mackay Brown's friend Elizabeth Bevan.

On the salt and tar steps. Herring boats,

Puffing red sails, the tillers

Of cold horizons, leaned

Down the gull-gaunt tide

From the poem Hamnavoe by George Mackay Brown.

'With permission from the estate of George Mackay Brown'.

Soon it was time to leave the beauty and mystery of Orkney to journey to  Scrabster and return back to sleep my final night on the MV Hamnavoe in Stromness harbour before my return to the Scottish mainland.
As we left Stromess you get wonderful views of Orkney's Hoy island and its famous Sea stack "The Old man of Hoy". These images were taken from the bridge of the MV Hamnovoe as we headed out towards the Pentland Firth and the mainland of Scotland.

The spectacular Old man of Hoy from the bridge of MV Hamnavoe

A table cloth of cloud enveloping the cliff tops of the Island of Hoy.

It had not seemed so long since I started this sea journey from the commercial modern port of Aberdeen that I was leaving Stromness for the last time.  

Looking over to the sunrise across Dunnet  Head as we heading back to the mainland.

Arriving at Scrabster port on Friday morning at 8 o'clock I opted to walk into Thurso the most northerly town in UK. An unexpected longer jaunt up hill with bag over my shoulder than I had expected!
I knew that I had a long wait for my nine hour journey back to home to the West coast Ayrshire town of Troon. Sustained by a welcome hot cup of tea I headed for Thurso's seafront so I could take my last look at the Northern Isles across the indigo Pentland Firth.

Looking out to Hoy across the Pentland Firth.
Leaving a packed train we slowly winded our way down first to the Highland city of Inverness and then onto the still bustling Friday of Glasgow and my connection back to my home town of Troon.
Ample time enough to reflect on a journey of the sea, beautiful scenery, neolithic monuments, but above all kindness of strangers.

This journey was made possible by the generosity of Northlink Ferries and its MD Stuart Garrett who "understood" from the outset the possibilities of these journeys in using Art and travel to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support.
I particularly wanted to thank Sarah Young at Northlink's headquarters in Aberdeen for her patience and tireless efforts to make the logistics to come to together. the crews, the staff of all the terminals, security and a special thanks to Nicky who works on the Hamnavoe often on the night shift for taking care of a weary traveler during my stay on board.

REMEMBER If you want to support the fantastic work done by Macmillan Cancer Support you can give directly, or via my JUSTGIVING page at:

Troon - Ayrshire Coast - September 2015