Monday, 12 November 2012

Ness Battery

A meditation on gilding the past.

Being a prehistorian, I am not a tremendous fan of World War I & II archaeology, but I do love a good story well told with enthusiasm and for that reason, I recommend a visit to Ness Battery (HY 248 079).  The tours are offered by Stromness Tours Ltd (refer
Ness Battery, just outside the town of Stromness, was built to protect the western entrance into Scapa Flow through Hoy Sound.  During World War II, Ness Battery became the head-quarters of Orkney’s Fixed Defences, from where several gun batteries around the harbour entrance were controlled.  There are observation towers, gun houses, magazines and stores, but the most interesting part of the tour are the preserved painted murals inside one of the huts.

Whoever painted those murals (and they are still doing detective work on that) was really pining for the Home Counties!  And that homesickness must have been a shared feeling because those murals stayed.

There are depictions of black and white mediaeval cottages with roses climbing the walls and cats snuggling in front of cosy fires, afternoon tea and cakes, apple orchards, English pubs and pints of ale, strolls in the woodland, fluffy white sheep, picturesque windmills, jolly gypsies around a camp fire, bridges and meandering streams ... England, oh England.  And all of it faked theme-park memories of a place that never was and which has been idealistically distorted by distance.

But as I looked and smirked, my laughter turned right around and inwards at myself, for I recognised that I empathised totally with that yearning for a home far away and a perfect life I had left behind.

Our guide informed us that in World War II the depression that set in amongst military personnel stationed in Orkney was well known – it was provoked by my own all too familiar complaints: cold, damp, dark days, miles from loved ones and a real sense of being trapped on an island buffeted by all that raw nature can chuck at you and not being able to get away or being able to obtain home comforts easily.  There was a name for the condition: “Orkneyitis”, which was even used on official medical reports.

Certainly much has changed in Orkney since then, particularly with the growth of the internet making the world a much smaller place, but there is still a sense of being cut off from the rest of the world, of being exiled here in this forsaken place.  But unlike those military personnel, I had chosen to come here and as I looked at those pictures I realised how false they were and how golden I had painted my own past previous to moving here.

As winter gears up again, I have found myself descending into my annual “depression” – a withdrawal which I am convinced now is born from spiritual needs not mental imbalance (not that this is a justification, I suspect that many modern maladies both physical and mental are spiritual in origin).  The self-obsession which characterises depression, forces me to reflect on my life and to germinate what is to be. 

I moved to Orkney because I sought a monastic experience of retreat and I thought I would be more likely to achieve that on a remote Scottish island than elsewhere.  However, since moving here I have focused more on what I have lost than on what I have gained, to my detriment, and I have been striving to find a way to rekindle my “career”, “status” and “earning ability” through increasingly desperate means.  In other words, the spiritual dedication I swore to myself I would make “once I have the time” has been repeatedly postponed now that I do have the time.

I reflected recently how I continue to read “spiritual” books but I still do not practice the exercises in them.  I do not have a daily disciplined meditation, ritual or prayer routine.  There is a yearning in me for something I do not yet have and which is just out of reach but which I cannot seem to identify or name.  This unmet need feels like an internal emptiness and in my younger days I could divert my attention from it by consumption: thrills, purchases and alcohol, but even that temporary relief is less easy to achieve these days.

The last time I was ecstatically happy and focused on the present moment was when I first fell in love with my husband.  Reviewing my life, the times when I have been in love have been times of peak experience for me.  I wonder now, if I my seeking love via romantic attachment in the past was an attempt to fill this inner void.  What then was I really seeking?

This deep sense of lack would appear to be a part of the “human condition” and most belief systems attempt to explain what is being sought and how to find it.  It is expressed differently in all religions but agreement within the mystical traditions is that it is for the true self, the inner divine, the direct link to God / spirit.  Moreover, these traditions teach that this connection has not been severed permanently but simply needs to be rekindled, the seeker just needs to awaken, to change their consciousness in some way.

So, I am gradually coming to realise that what is missing from my spiritual practice is love, but not as love has previously manifested in my life (i.e. romantic attachments to a series of men unto whom I project my subconscious desires).  Instead I need to love being alive and to love this world.  I need to love all, as all is already perfect and a manifestation of the divine, including all of nature and all of humanity.  All is one, all is loved and lovable.  And what I have been learning is that there is a promise from most mystical traditions that my seeking and yearning for union will be answered equally fervently; perhaps it already has been?

On hindsight, what perhaps I should have done was to have taken a “career break” and rented a place in Orkney for a year, to set myself a specific period of retreat, rather than creating a life trapped here in perpetuity.  That way I would not have "burnt so many bridges".  The hero’s journey is not only an adventure but also a return and I have a feeling that I will be required to bring what I learn in this experience back and that will no doubt mean that I will have to re-enter the fray that is urban England.  But I am jumping ahead, I have hardly set out on the journey yet, I may not survive to return.

But for now, in looking at those murals at the Ness Battery, I realised that it is time for me to stop mourning the past and gilding it with gold.  When I left the south of England it was fast becoming frantically unliveable for me, the pace of life here is slower and, for me, preferable.  Yes, both myself and my husband had jobs back in the south that we would bite your hand off for now but those jobs are now gone or under threat (inevitable change for changes sake and the recession).  And yes, we miss our friends and family in the south but we have many friends here in Orkney now.  And not being able to purchase things immediately has made us much less materialistic.

So, I am currently reflecting on what I have now in Orkney with a new and fresh gratitude – it is really rather lovely here and my greatest asset in Orkney is the friends I have.  Even now, just embarking on another winter, I am neither positive nor negative about it, but just accepting.  And whilst my husband will go “home” this year to visit his family, I will not, I will be staying.  And I don’t mind.  Perhaps I have found a cure for Orkneyitis?  And that cure is love.


  1. Hi Magpie - just came across your blog via the MOOC - I'm also a great lover of Orkney and have holiday'd there many times over the last 10 years or so. I was interested in how your 'monastic' experience isn't working out too well, and just wanted to share that in my own experience I can reach that in community with others (ie on retreats) but also struggle with it on my own. And monastics aren't hermits - they have that huge support of everyone around them being on the same path!

  2. Hi Linds, thank you, those are interesting thoughts and I think that it is up to us all to build community wherever we are, perhaps? There are so many massively spiritual and beautiful people in Orkney, they seem to wash up here as if it is a Scottish Glastonbury? I call them "shiny" people because they glow a little when I look / don't look at them. Every Blessing to you and I am so glad you enjoy my blog. Helen / Magpie xxx

    1. I agree that we need to build community wherever we are. Small is beautiful but I believe we can make small inside big cities if we try.

  3. Hi

    Iloved your blog. It tells us a lot about community. We jsut have to hope we can buidl it everwhere.

  4. Thank you for your thoughts, Magpie. How lovely to visit from the other side of the world. I myself went into the desert at a time, and struggled with some of the same things you speak so eloquently of. But I think your community extends beyond just the fabled isle of Orkney.

    I found your site while searching for thoughts about a paper I'm going to present on Pagan Pilgrimage at a Conference at the Claremont School of Theology in California. May I quote from you perhaps?

    Bright blessings just after the Solstice from Arizona,