As We’ve Always Done

The shores of the Orkney islands are awash with myth, relic and uncounted time. These things are best taken with a dram.

‘Everywhere in Orkney there is a sense of age, the dark backward and abysm. The islands have been inhabited a very long time, from before the day of the plough.’

In the half-century since George Mackay Brown wrote of an imagination haunted by time, far more of Orkney’s past has been unearthed. The several-thousand years of human inhabitance is legible in the seventy islands that make up the archipelago; the ruins of Iron and Bronze Age dwellings smatter the hillsides, alongside standing and rubbled monuments of the Neolithic era. For nearly six hundred years, from the ninth century to the fifteenth, Orkney was the seat of Norse earldoms, governance often divided between brothers and violently renegotiated by sword, fire or by poisoned shirt, as the sagas tell it. The most extensive documentation of the Viking age, the Orkneyinga Saga, is a confluence of likelihood and mythology, with no strict allegiance to either. The porosity between legend and stoney fact perseveres in modern Orkney.

When the first Norsemen arrived to wrest Orkney from the Picts, the ground was already full of bones and temples, the dust of gods and lost industry. No written record survived the ancient people whose megaliths still stood upright in the fields, solitary or in conference. Of what the standing stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar may have meant, no language existed even then to tell. Such grand gestures served as they ought; to withstand, to outlast. Though later civilisations found room for them in their own ceremonies, or made tributes of them to newer gods.

Women are bit-players in the sagas and Skaldic verses, but they appear now and again to ensure that scythes are sharp and barns are swept, to stock the ships with bread and salted meat, and more crucially, with ale. It’s theorised that women were the islands’ first brewers and maltsters. Barnhouse, a 5000-year-old settlement neighbouring that of Skara Brae, houses what is likely a malting floor, and the presence of barley husks and lipids suggest a Neolithic antecedent to one of modern Orkney’s most alchemically distinctive exports, whisky.

‘The old Orkneymen had a range of words for every kind and intensity of rain—a driv, a rug, a murr, a hagger, a dagg, a rav, a hellyiefer’ lamented Mackay Brown. What kind of rain is it that meets my ferry? The MV Hamnavoe pitches through ninety minutes of rough passage across Pentland Firth, where the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean bellow over each other in eons-old disagreement over territory. Fathoms down, a massive quern-stone is said to turn continuously, grinding huge quantities of the salt for the sea. Such mythologies do little to settle the stomach. An elderly woman, noting my forehead pressed to the cool window glass, works at distracting me from my nausea. She points out the Old Man of Hoy, the famous Old Red Sandstone seastack looming off the coast of “The High Island”. I squint out through the Stygian dusk. “See his top hat, dear?”


Friday night and the Stromness Hotel is spilling its patrons out into the driv, or hagger, or hallyeifer as the ferry docks. Barely September and the wind strafes right through layers of warmest clothes. The Stromness flagstones are black with rain, the stone houses standing shoulder to shoulder, looking eye to eye across the narrow, serpentine main street.

This street unravels to Stenigar, a lone, long stone place built as a boathouse in the 1820s.

In the 1940s it was converted from boathouse to home and studio of and studio of Stanley Cursiter, an artist famous for his sea- and cliffscapes of the Orcadian coast, who lived and worked there until his death in 1976. Stenigar's current incarnation is as a particularly congenial guesthouse. (Scotland loves a stray, I’m learning, propped up at the kitchen counter with a sandwich and wine, though it’s close to midnight.) Cursiter is said to maintain a mostly discrete presence; occasional footfalls overhead, an isolated appearance on the stairs, smock-clad, headed up to what was once his studio. Though some years ago, the resident family woke to find a huge mirror taken down from above the sitting-room fireplace, laid face-down on the floor, unbroken, the delicate ornaments along the mantle undisturbed. It would have taken two men to shift silently, without disaster.

When in its usual position on the wall, the mirror reflects the view from the window; the Hoy Sound, the MV Hamnavoe coming in or going out, returning to mainland Scrabster.

What could you make of that? asks my host. We entertain the metaphoric possibilities—what the artist may have intended—by a haunting that seems less threat than mischievous act of showmanship, perhaps nothing more sinister than declaration: I was here.

I was here. As much is engraved in runic graffiti, carved by bored Vikings into the tomb walls of Maeshowe while they looted or sheltered there, or both (accounts differ):

“Many a proud lady, low-stooping, has entered here”

“Ingibiorg is the most beautiful of all women”

“Hermund carved these runes with a hard axe”

As much is scratched into the standing stones that form the Ring of Brodgar, a neolithic circle whose megaliths are cross-hatched with nearly a millennia of self-affirming vandalism, dating from 12th century twig runes of various translation (most suggest the name Bjorn) to more recent, alphabetic inscriptions; Wilson, ZM, J Isbister 1881.

The inclemency of the weather—particularly the ferocity and incessancy of the wind—dictates the islands’ flora, which by turn dictates the peat. Orkney has an infamous scarcity of trees; little grows above shin height, and ground cover is dominated by the hardy, ubiquitous heather.

Whisky drinkers, both seasoned and green, tend to use Islay as a yardstick for regional influence of character, with peat-smoke being the Hebridean island’s prominent attribute. Historically, peat was used as a readily-available alternative to coal, scarce on the islands and in the northern Highlands. Regional variation in peatiness depended on how much coal was swapped out for peat—in Islay’s case, one hundred per cent. Islay peat is especially high in phenols and creosols, responsible for the medicinal notes that are either rhapsodised or loathed amongst Scotch drinkers, and either alienate or convert the newcomer. Heavily-peated Islay malts are now more a matter of upholding identity and meeting market expectation than one of limited resource.

The peat source for Orkney’s Highland Park lies within shouting distance of the distillery. Hobbister Moor occupies 2,000 acres, and recent studies show no evidence of tree roots, going back 4,000 years. Peat is cut in the spring and left to dry over the summer months.


The language of whisky production is delicious, as alluring as the lost Orcadian words for rain: feints, fores, angel’s share, spirit thief. The peat cut from Hobbister Moor possesses its own terminology—fogg, yarphie, and moss distinguish the age of the strata, the consequent depth and composition. The top layer, fogg, is rich with the sweet-burning heather roots. The denser, darker yarphie generates greater heat and less smoke, and the oldest, deepest layer, moss dates to around the time of Skara Brae, and is akin to coal.

Scapa, Orkney’s “other” distillery, discontinued its own maltings in the 1950s. It now ships its malt in from mainland Scotland, unpeated, but the water used in production is taken from three springs two miles west of the distillery, and is said to be relatively hard, carrying particular traces of the lime- and sandstone it travels through.

While Orkney is a place inescapably conscious of time—and economically invested in its visibility—both its distilleries have recently embraced the burgeoning, if still contentious trend for non-age statement whiskies.

Single malt whisky is typically devised from a number of casks, often of varying ages (“single” denotes single distillery). By law, a whisky’s age statement must reflect the youngest spirit in the bottle. The older the better is a longstanding conviction, though it’s something of a schism between collectors and distillers.

All the bottlings in Highland Park’s ongoing Warrior Series are non age-statement, with some editions available exclusively on the duty-free market. The series is named for the more infamous of Orkney’s Norse earls, the wry-mouthed, the blood-thirsty, the skull-splitting—Einar, Svein, Harald Sigurd, Ragnvald, Thorfin, Ingvar and King Christian I.

On the question of whether the pairing of thousand-year-old warrior kings and non-age statement spirit isn’t somewhat incongruous, Brand Heritage Manager Pat Retson is resolute.

“No self-respecting company is going to put out a non age-statement whisky that isn’t any good.”

Scapa is in the process of retiring its 16–year-old for the non age-statement Skiren. Norse for ‘bright glittering skies’, Skiren is certainly a brighter, somewhat more shimmery successor to their rich, spicy 16–year-old that has been carrying the fire these past few years.

Scotland’s second-most-northerly distillery, Scapa is situated half a mile south of Highland Park, and is conspicuously absent from the visitor guide I was issued on the ferry.

“We don’t tend to shout about it,” says Richard Clark, distillery manager at Scapa and a number of other Chivas Brothers distilleries. “We’ll go about our business. After we opened the visitors’ centre, we had people coming in saying, Oh, we never knew you were here.” Scapa has been in operation—albeit with some lengthy hiatuses—since its foundation in 1885.

The distillery was mothballed in the mid-nineties, and in 2004, after a decade of dormancy, Pernod Ricard trained a crew of three renaissance men in the operation of the distillery—mashing, distilling, warehousing, management.

“They were multi-skilled, hands-on, doing everything,” says Clark. “It really was fun, because there were things we maybe had looked at from a distance, but this involved us actually starting with blank pages and writing out detailed procedures on how to make Scapa.”

During the First World War, the Royal Navy was stationed on the island, and the distillery was used to house some of the men. A bath house set up in what is now the wash house. Behind the rare Lomond still, a window looks out onto Scapa Flow and the sea grave of the HMS Royal Oak, sunk at the beginning of the Second World War by a German U-boat.

Iian Littlejohn, Scapa’s Deputy Visitor Centre Supervisor, is the nephew of one of the 854 men who went down with the ship.

“Just out here there’s a red buoy—can ye see it?—and behind that there’s a green one, and it’s the green one that’s the sea grave and memorial to the Royal Oak. That buoy is there as a grave but also as a marker to prevent divers diving that shipwreck, because the bodies are still in that ship. Once a year on the anniversary of the ship sinking, the Navy come up here and they change the flag that’s on the boat.”

The markers lie deceptively close to land. “There are loads and loads of ships out here,” Littlejohn tells me.

For the last months of the First World War, the German High Seas Fleet were interned in Scapa Flow under the terms of the Armistice. On the morning of June 21 1919, Konteradmiral Ludwig von Reuter ordered the scuttling of the 74-ship fleet, the signal relayed by semaphore and searchlight.

Action was immediate, the fleet’s skeleton crew having prepared for as much; holes had already been bored into bulkheads, portholes loosened, watertight doors left open. Hammers were waiting beside water pipes. Seacocks and flood valves were opened, and over the next five hours, over fifty ships were submerged.

A group of schoolchildren, out from Stromness on a boatride, cheered for the suicide.

The British intervened in time to tow the remaining vessels to shallower waters. In the resultant skirmish, nine Germans were shot and killed—the last German war deaths of World War I.

In 1924, shipbreaker Ernest Cox of Cox & Danks Shipbreaking bought 28 of the still-sunken fleet, including battlecruisers Hindenburg and Seydlitz—Hindenburg still upright and with her upperworks above water; the capsized hull of Seydlitz sometimes mistaken for a small island.

In recovery efforts, Cox pioneered numerous methods of marine salvage, and at the height of operations, the company raised a vessel every four to six weeks.

When a coal strike threatened to stall progress, Cox recovered coal from the coalbunkers of the capsized Seydlitz in order to refloat the Hindenburg. The Seydlitz itself was successfully refloated twice. Cox had intended for his reaction to be filmed by press, but was holidaying in Switzerland at the time of the first successful raising. He demanded that the battlecruiser be immediately resunk. His workers obliged, and Cox returned to Britain to witness the second refloating, along with the scheduled news cameras.

Iian Littlejohn explains that later salvage efforts were interrupted by the outbreak of World War Two, and several of the larger vessels—including the battleships SMS König, SMS Kronprinz Wilhelm, and SMS Markgraf—remain at the bottom of Scapa Flow. Fortuitously, given the nature of that war’s conclusion.

“After the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the ships that were still out there became one of the very few sources of uncontaminated metal. Allegedly, some of the metal from the ships has been used for sensitive medical equipment, and they’ve also put some of it into satellites that are now orbiting the earth.”

“Don’t fact-check that,” warns my editor, “it’s too good”.

But the shipwrecks hunkered down in Scapa Flow are indeed a major source of uncontaminated metal, better known as low-background steel. All steel produced after the Trinity text is susceptible to contamination by airborne radionuclides, as modern steel production uses atmospheric gas. Low background steel is integral to high-sensitivity equipment used in the detection of radioactivity—geiger counters, whole-body counting machines and lung counters, and aeronautical and space sensors.

A region’s elemental blueprint might be read backwards from the spirit; the peat and ambient brininess, the wood of the cask ghosting the empty glass. But more often, it is personal experience that rises to meet the drinker.


In a tasting with Richard Clark, findings invariably return to home, and its olfactory imprint.

“Smells can be really difficult, and often so nostalgic. You’ve got to describe it in terms you understand, because you’ve got to be able to reference it. One of the scents I’ve been trying to hone in on is linseed oil. I couldn’t get it for a long while, and eventually it clicked. There are so many intangibles in there, and that’s part of the difficulty, that you’re often trying to put a name to a memory. That’s what’s you’re looking for, what you go home to.”

We linger a while on what home might be defined as; how it is often more geographically anchored for those who have left it behind, and more still for those who have been forcibly removed from it. Clark speaks of old friends, Scots, who take on a previously unseen fervour for all things that honour their homeland—the tartan! the haggis! the shortbread!—when flung far enough.

According to Richard Clark, Vikings and tartan don’t quite go together.

“People have got a perception of malt whisky in this country—you sit by the fire, you’ve got your tweeds on, you’ve got the shotgun crooked over your arm, you’ve got two labradors…Bagpipes-haggis-tartan sells whisky, we know that.”

“But, Vikings—”

“It’s because it’s true!” Clark defends, echoing the Orcadian reverence for the axe-wielding farers of the salt roads. “This is part of Scotland, but it’s grudgingly part of Scotland. Sort of, Yeah, well there’s no-one closer. There are something like 700 islands that make up Scotland, and they all have their little idiosyncrasies. Compare the island culture here with that of Islay; chalk and cheese.

“We are precious about the identity of Scapa. There are opportunities within the market to make things that are different, but it’s not for us to fill that gap. We make Scapa, we make Scapa, we make Scapa.

What’s under that? I ask of a conspicuous mound of earth. Another tomb?

I’m told that no-one knows yet, that there is more under the islands’ turf than archeologists could realistically upheave all at once.

But it’s something? I persist.

Something, yes, probably. The assent is offered wearily, as though I might have seen enough by now to exercise more patience.

“Here between the land and sky it is like a shore. And as the seashore smells of seaweed, so this shore smells of uncounted time. The uncounted time is heavy with a sense of loss.”

John Berger was writing of the Highlands, the loss in reference to of the Clearances, but the shore of uncounted time lying between land and sky seems distinctly Orcadian.

Nine months before visiting Orkney, I dreamed of the Yesnaby cliffs. There wasn’t much to the dream, mostly aftertaste; the narcotising sense of smallness in the face of natural magnitude. But it seemed imperative to get to those sawtooth, sandstone cliffs, to walk the land’s edge until the cliffscape matches my dream of it.

I don’t see the images until months afterward, processing the film in my Oakland kitchen. Around the same time I look up Cursiter’s paintings and find the same dramatic points of perspective echoed in my negatives. This should come as little surprise, for the sea says, This! and the land’s edge offers only so many foot-friendly vantage points. (Is this so very different to my brother and I coming back from separate trips to San Francisco with identical pictures of Lomond Street?)

And the dream itself, that brief flash of it, must have been informed by an image I saw at some point, though I cannot recall where.

The film runs over itself.

When the images of the Ring of Brodgar emerge, I narrow in on the names etched into the stones. I run a search out the name J Isbister, and find the first British civilian casualty of World War Two, an Orkneyman killed by a Luftwaffe bomb in his doorway in 1940.

Whisky engenders a long view. Wine might be decent in a year or so; whisky is rarely worth looking at until it waits out at least a decade in the cask. Both Scapa and Highland Park stress a kind of custodianship to the distilleries and their immediate surrounds, to the methodology of production, and to the identity of the signature expression of their malts.

“How old’s the peat?” asks Pat Retson. “It’s nearly as old as Skara Brae. By comparison, 200 years isn’t long.”

Richard Clark is adamant that however the light might get in, whisky has to be a scientific process. “If you always do as you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”

No items found.
No items found.
No items found.
No items found.
No items found.