By “The Photographer’s Assistant”
The Photographer is preening himself and contemplating which whisky he deserves this evening. He looks very like a kingfisher in the spring, he has on his favourite pink T shirt and a rather fetching blue sweatshirt, bought for him by the Assistant in a moment of weakness. He is leaning over the wall of an Orkney cemetery camera in hand, contemplating the sea and the island of Hoy. His credit with the Assistant has reached an all time high.
The Assistant, at last, stands beside the grave of her great literary hero. It is peaceful and she is pleased. This is exactly what George Mackay Brown would have wanted. He is buried with a simple but gracious dignity beside his mother, who cared so much for him, and his father, the one time tailor and postman from Stromness.
Who is this man? Many years ago, when the Assistant, the ex English teacher, was chained to an iron in the kitchen and about to make the school run, there was one of those literary programmes on Radio 4 that swats simply can’t miss. The Assistant was transfixed. Where was this place, Orkney and who was this poet and clearly highly talented man? When the geographically literate Photographer came home, he had no peace. Where was Orkney? Was it part of those Cornish islands? She bangs on and on. It is explained that this is a place that is three days drive away. What about the children? He would buy her a book. The book was a long time coming. It was called Orkney Pictures and Poems and it was out of print, but he had, at last found a copy. The Photographer was enchanted with the photographs in the book, which were taken by Gunny Moberg. He would like to be that good. The following years were spent collecting rare editions of bits and pieces, until one day in York whiling her hours away in a Waterstones, The Assistant came across a collection of George’s work. This was news. George was getting popular. George had died! There is nothing like death for the fame of any artist. Someone was handling his work with great skill. The Photographer and his Assistant were thrilled. Having now read so much about this enchanted isle, the Assistant and the Photographer started on plans. The first effort to reach Orkney was poor. They camped their way and were distracted by Isla distilleries on a grand scale. The weather closed in on Mull and homesick for the Moor the pair turned around. Then, they were both really ill for two winters. Clearly, the now pensioners, had to make a grand assault and having succeeded they were now enchanted at their own achievement, so the preening was well in order.
On the way back from the cemetery, the two had been invited to call in on Gunny’s husband, who presented The Photographer with a book of her photographs. Gunny died six years ago, but her husband is a great keeper of her work, which is now being sorted through by an expert, ready for us all to see. A large copy of one of her photographs hangs in the Scottish Parliament and the National Trust uses George’s work in large quotes on it’s property walls. Mr. Moberg said you can now get as many copies of their Orkney work as you want, and, as for George, held in great esteem by no less a literary figure than Seamus Heaney, now dead himself, goodness knows.
We have left Orkney and have now arrived at The Peat Cutters Croft, which turns out to be exceptional, not because of being a croft, as we had thought, but because of it’s crofter. The croft is mainly the work of one of those amazing modern couples who work like hell to give their family a great nurturing. She works as a journalist many miles away in Inverness. She can cook up a storm and hold a conversation with the guests in the evening when, surely, she must be exhausted. The Crofter has left the world of architecture to live as complex a life as any man in the city.
On arrival, the Crofter makes us a lovely welcome and shows us to a lovely nest like room, where we have the best sleep of our holiday. The Crofter must fetch his children from school so, we make ourselves a welcome cup of tea and enjoy some homegrown fruit. Fetching the children from school is not a simple process. We are not even talking about a Dartmoor trip, we are talking mammoth and then some. In order for the Crofter to get his children to school the education Authorities have worked out that they just cannot do it in the time given so the Crofter is paid to take his children to and from school!
The Crofter, in addition to the greatest kind of childcare (which seems to include a compulsory period out of doors no matter what the age. His eldest son is currently being taught and using concrete making skills ). The crofter manages a herd of sheep, looks after the guests and their accommodation, cooks, makes bread and keeps fires and the water system flowing.He has just dug his allotted due of peat. There are numerous types of additional animals and fresh bread every day. The children are wonderful and appear to be enormously intelligent. The youngest has a type of wonder about the universe that just touches you.He has proudly shown us a magnificent drawing of a Class combine harvester. When the youngest child falls asleep, his elder brother gently carries him up the stairs. When we get up in the morning a cow has sat on our car, but it doesn’t really seem to matter. We are all bemused and have a laugh, particularly as crofting cows have the right of way on these roads.
Many have asked what the most outstanding aspect of this trip was and now we know. Scotland must be one of the most beautiful places on earth, but the people we have met here are beyond our humble summing up.
In Glen Elg we met more exceptional people. Pictured is Sheena, who turned down a life in nursing in favour of a life in forestry. Now, as an older person, she runs a tea shack which is really at the end of the road, it is so remote. She is worth a conversation any day.
This is an entire community that saved the last turn table ferry from Glen Elg to Skye and who work tirelessly to keep it all going.
We met a wonderful couple, he from the U.S.A., and she from East Germany. She was one of the most intelligent and fascinating women I have ever spoken to. These two relatively young people spoke for hours to these two old pensioners.
The list of human stories and of kind and enduring people is just endless. No wonder George Mackay Brown had such a deep well to draw on.
The Photographer has during the course of this blog let himself down. He has walked the dog, brought in the firewood and made the perfect herb omelette. We will be drawing on this apparent expertise in the future. He has nursed me now for six days in a wonderful way. I am at last feeling a little better and I will not die of this dreadful bug, which was transported directly from Tavistock especially for me!