Sunday, 6 November 2011

How I got to be here ...

Here are essays and articles about some of the most spiritual places in Orkney ... some of them are well known sites, even famous, but most of them are "off the beaten track".  These are necessarily subjective, personal and autobiographical insights which I share with you, the reader, and you may well gain different feelings when you visit these sites - but I hope you are inspired to visit these sites: come up to Orkney, get out and about, and sense these magickal islands for yourself!

Use this site for interest, as an alternative tourist guide, or even to choose where to get married ... if I've missed something out then please let me know!  If you want to ask questions, then please do - I'll reply as soon as I can.

Blessings xxx


I moved to Orkney for a number of reasons.  The main reason being that I was running away, but I have been running away from something or other for most of my life.

I have lived in a state of high anxiety for almost as long as I can remember.  I was always terrified of my dad, physically and mentally.  Physically, because my dad was bigger than me.  Mentally, because my dad had an absolutely brilliant way of making me feel ashamed, especially over spending money.  Dad didn’t like spending money and he didn’t like anyone else doing it either.  Now that I am an adult myself, I think he equated money with his equivalent hourly rate – he hated his job, like most people do, and if he saw someone waste a £1 for example, he saw it as “that was an hour I didn’t need to work.”  Subsequently, we didn’t have much fun as a family and much of what we did was done on the cheap.

Because I was so terrified, I have spent most of my life being scared of any authority figure including bosses, managers, teachers, doctors, the police, security, and anyone interviewing me.  Because I am always terrified, I am always perceived as weak, so I tend to get bullied – at school, at work, and in relationships.

So, in coming to Orkney, I was running away from all the very many things that threatened me in the big bad south of England.

I was running away from my ex-husband, from my job which was going nowhere and killing me with stress, from the threat of crime, from traffic jams and road-rage, from stupid house prices, insecure work, an eroding greenbelt, floods, rampant consumerism, greed, and other people in general.

I had always dreamt of living on a remote Scottish island.  One of my favourite films is “Local Hero”, one of my favourite TV programmes is “Monarch of the Glen”.  I used to holiday in remote and inaccessible places.  Why?  To get away from people, to have a bit of space and a lot of quiet, to be peaceful, to join a community and work with others, with genuine friends rather than just compete, to be at one with nature, to be more self-sufficient and to get by with less.  I also wanted more time to develop spiritually and I was putting this off until I was in the right place.  In hindsight I realise how very idealistic I was being!

I discovered Orkney for myself in the early 1990s when I flew up by plane, having to transfer twice from Southampton!  Like most other southern English people at that time, I had been contemplating moving to Wales where property and land were cheaper and yet still accessible for getting “home” – but Orkney was so beautiful and watching the sun set at Yesnaby remained my dream “first destination” if I ever won the lottery.   

In my head, Orkney took on mythic status as my special safe place, my sacred grove, my Avalon.
I went back to Orkney in 2007 on a perfect holiday with my new partner, Mark, who shared my love of archaeology and all things Pagan, to “sell” it to him as a relocation destination.   I still remember Mark’s first sight of Orkney as we waited on the north-eastern tip of Caithness for the ferry.  I pointed to the islands which were tantalisingly close and said that was Orkney.  Perhaps I need to point out, for any non-archaeological readers, that Orkney is incredibly important to archaeologists, particularly those with an interest in British prehistory (for reasons to be explained).  Through his studies, I knew Mark had learnt about Orkney and seen its important sites in textbook after textbook; having the chance to see them in person was a real treat for him.  He could not believe that Orkney was so near, so visible from Caithness, that it would not be long before he would be able to see for himself what he had previously only read about.

On that day the Pentland Firth was like a mill-pond and the sun was dazzlingly bright.  There is a certain wonderful excitement about travelling to an island which must be archetypal, there is the anticipation of the ferry and the sense of passing to somewhere different, inaccessible, safe.  Islands turn up in all sorts of myths and getting to them is always an adventure, getting there a specific destination.  Back then, that first sight of Orkney for both of us, from the coast of northern Scotland, looked like an inviting sanctuary, a haven of warmth and peace and light, our heart’s desire after a long and tiring drive.

Mark took a couple of days to share my enthusiasm for Orkney as our new home, but once he had been “infected” we started to plan our escape.  We returned the following year to get married at Brodgar in a legal Pagan ceremony and we started to house-hunt whilst on honeymoon.  

It was idyllic.  Our first holiday and then our honeymoon were perfect and blissful.  The people were friendly.  House and land prices were reasonable.  There was a sizable population of incomers also escaping the south, many of them actively exploring their spirituality or creativity.  Crime was low.  There looked like there would be plenty of work for people in our specialities.  Health care and education were brilliant.  The scenery was magical and the low golden sun was full of every fertile promise as it draped the land in a sheen of plenty.  The sense that this was in some way “the right thing for us to be doing” was mesmerizingly strong.  We had found our Shangri La, our little piece of heaven on earth, our own paradise.

And there was a definite sense too of it being what we were meant to be doing – there were, for example, signs and portents.  When I was younger, much much younger, I had had a dream that had a special meaning for me.  Not very often, but every once in a while, I will experience an extremely vivid dream, one which stays with me and won’t depart.  Sometimes the dreams are so real and haunting that I wake from them, other times the dreams occur at the time just before I awaken and they disturb my day.  In this dream I was in a pub and I was receiving a divinatory reading from a Tarot reader, an old woman, cloaked over so I could not see her face, and she was reading for me, but these were not Tarot cards – or at least not of any deck I recognised.  She turned over a card for me, the card showed a hare: “Follow the hare in the morning mist”, the reader advised me.

The hare, for most Pagans, is a symbol of the Goddess and the Moon, sacred and feminine, rare and beautiful.  I had never seen a hare whilst in the south of England except on television or in books, but I had always looked out for them.  I had interpreted the instruction to be a symbolic one and that I was to follow the Goddess in her guise as a hare and encouraged to be more spiritual, but in Orkney, whilst on honeymoon, I saw lots of hares, everywhere, and they were majestic.  To follow them I would have to move to the one place where I had ever seen them, surely?

We planned our move over the next two years, being careful to make ourselves as employable as possible by taking any training we could get, and prudently saving as hard as we could.  The whole time our goal was Orkney.  Our sentences would start “When we get to Orkney ...” or “That wouldn’t happen in Orkney.”   If there were news of Orkney on television, we would watch avidly, tears coming to our eyes as we pined for where we were not.  It got to the point where it hurt us to not be in Orkney and we were dissatisfied with everything that was not Orkney.  It was as if we had eaten with the gods and in comparison with the heavenly ambrosia we had been fed on, all earthly delights were grey and tasteless.

We have since learnt that this siren call of these islands has not only affected us.  Other incomers have described to us how, once hooked, they simply could not stay away.  One of my closest friends described to me that when she first moved to Orkney, she would lay in bed at night and feel as it something was physically tugging at her heart to stay.  Orkney is the sort of place about which it is possible to become quite obsessive as it beguiles with promises to satisfy your every need.  Like Glastonbury and Lourdes and the Boyne Valley it exerts a gravitational pull on certain souls, leaving them unable to function in the “real” world any longer.  And, just like Glastonbury and Lourdes and the Boyne Valley, sometimes Orkney spits out those it subsequently rejects.

Since being here, on a remote Scottish island, surrounded by blissful scenery, I have learnt several things, most of which I could just have easily and more cheaply learnt in my previous life if I had only taken the time to bother.

In running away to Orkney, I forgot that it is not always possible to totally leave everything behind.   Previously, I had been so busy that I didn’t have time to think over my life and reflect on my problems, now I had all the time in the world and issue after issue raised its malign head.

The main problem was that I hadn’t anticipated how remote, remote Scottish islands actually are.  This may seem naive now but I had envisaged being able to live frugally and cheaply without my southerly extravagance.  The problem is that remote Scottish islands are an expensive place to live – it costs a lot of money to get anything here and that cost is passed straight to the end-consumer.  It is cold and dark for most of the year, it isn’t unusual to need heating on for 8 months (sometimes even 10) of the year.  This is the reason why most public sector jobs carry a Distant Islands Allowance to try to offset some of these costs.  The DIA still exists when the London allowance has long disappeared.  It is also incredibly expensive to leave the island, even for a day-trip, which can lead to a definite sense of being “trapped”.

As I moved into the realisation that I had moved to Orkney because I was scared, I started to examine my less than noble motivations in life.  I had been scared that society was about to implode and that I would lose everything.  So it was me, me, me.  Instead of serving community, I was getting out – out to a place which I perceived of as one of the last lifeboats.  In hindsight, I now realise that being on one of the last lifeboats is not much better than drowning, if all there is, is a lifeboat.

As a Pagan, I had always felt that I had an affinity with nature.  I liked being outside, I loved my garden, I found walking in the country the best way to relax.  I hated being trapped in an office, stuck in a traffic jam, or trolley-rammed in a packed supermarket.  I needed to breath fresh air, to feel a storm stir, and the gentle warm caress of summer showers upon my upturned face.  When you live in a city, nature is benign.  Nature is a manicured park, a diverted stream, a carefully arranged woodland.  Nature is a haven, a place that is quieter than the city, less crowded than the city, more peaceful and generally removed from the city.

But, let me tell you, when you live in the middle of nowhere and it is just you and open swathes of untamed country, then nature is not benign, rather She is capricious, even malicious, and extremely powerful.

There have been times when I have been too scared to leave the sanctuary of my man-made house.  The wind has gusted here up to 125 miles per hour, when you cannot even stand up against it.  The temperature has dropped to minus 14 when everything just freezes (even your own hair!).  I have seen mists roll in from the loch and take the form of armies of spectres, crowding at the limits of our garden.  In winter, the nights are long and the days are so short that you beg the sun to return, reborn.  I have known it rain so hard that the house looked as if a water cannon had been used against it water has got in everywhere, through the tiny cracks in the door, down the chimney, even working its way around the window frame.

Orkney is not a kind place to live in winter.

Nature does not suffer fools gladly.  For a while, a beautiful young hare visited our garden, eating all the longer, richer grass growing around the compost bins where the mower could not reach.  We found her dead and dissected by gulls not so long ago.  It’s a dog-eat-dog out there and it’s not only each other we need to fear.  Where I had envisaged I would feel safe, I felt terribly threatened.

This posting sums up my first winter in Orkney.  The place which I had escaped to, that I assumed would be safe, actually became somewhere that was intimidating and threatening.  Somewhere that had seemed so welcoming and friendly whilst on holiday, now seemed hostile once we had committed to living here.  I felt conned and tricked.

The job which I had expected had not materialised.  The fitting into a friendly community was just not happening as seamlessly as I had planned, and even living closer to nature was an experience of rejection.  Everything that could go wrong was going wrong and I realised I had made a terrible mistake.  This was not a safe haven, rather it was a stark and unwelcoming prison of disappointment.

During my first winter in Orkney, I plunged into a terrible depression that reflected the barren environment I found myself in.  As the evenings gathered in, so did all those demons that I thought I had left behind but which had all hitched a ride northwards with me.  In the dark, which I had always feared, the demons hunkered down and conspired against me, gaining strength.

I was at such a loose end that winter.  I had managed to find some work but only part-time and not using many of my skills, and very poorly paid.  Mark was also working part-time but his shifts were constantly moving and we weren’t always off work at the same time, my plans to study more had also been cruelly scuppered, and I discovered that Orkney wasn’t as friendly as I had been led to believe: either folk were too busy to pop by for a social chat, or they were doing the very Orcadian thing of checking that I was staying before committing to any sort of relationship.

With so much time on my hands and often nothing to do except snuggle down by the fire, I decided to do what I actually really liked doing and I read more and more self-development, spiritual and occult books.    I found to my surprise that I didn’t want to read what I was “meant” to read and what had previously fascinated me – I didn’t want to read about the past, about archaeology.  Everything that was or had been me was being stripped away:  no real job, no friends, no relatives, no status, no money: what I was and had been was no more.  This was ego-stripping on a grand scale and as such, I identified what I was going through – an initiatory crisis: a spiritual transformation.

This Blog and these postings are about how I found my way back.  How I rediscovered my inner core and personal strength.  How I fell back in love with this place.  How I started to become creative once more.  And how I made many beautiful friends.  I hope that in reading this Blog, you too will be encouraged to come to Orkney and discover it’s many treasures and let it work it’s spiritual magick on you, because it really is a place of pilgrimage.


  1. this is a lovely, deeply honest and touching account of your journey. I feel quite privileged to have read it . . . I look forward to your next posting x

  2. A powerful post helen :) an I will second all the above, both the lure after the first orkney visit (an the obsesion with any montion of orkney in books or tv) and the wild harshness of the isles.
    You know you can come round any time, just give me a bell so I can make sure I have washed up lol