Off the mainland of Scotland is an island called Orkney, itself a mainland for the cluster of islands that migrate north into the Atlantic. A friend had told me about a solstice celebration taking place in Egilsay, one of these islands. Seven of us left the concrete mass of London and did our own migration north towards the sun. After a nine hour coach ride, two hour hitchhike, ferry and then fishing boat ride we made it to this island of 5 farms and a Viking church.
A local fisherman with steel blue eyes and leather skin ran the fishing boat across when the weather was too bad for the public ferry. We passed green slithers of land just visible between the sea and sky, the backdrop for Arctic terns as they sliced and swooped for fish. Our bags were mounded high in the middle of the small boat to keep them from the invading grasps of sea water. Wearing only sandals my feet lost all feeling. Thankfully someone handed round a flask of single malt and this warmed the core. It was late now yet the sun still sent its peach light over the horizon, glowing warm somewhere else.
We climbed out of the fishing boat and up a dirt track, our feet negotiating the stones and mud underfoot. Dark clouds pulled in over the island obscuring the lighter night sky beyond and rain began to horizontally peck at our cheeks and ears. We trudged head first into the blue cold night of a nowhere island. No lights and no sound- except the rain. It felt like we could walk to the North Pole.
A white strip hovered in front of us and as we drew nearer we could make out figures huddled around a bonfire. We had crossed the breadth of the island and reached the beach. Between the sloping banks of sand, the dune grass and the bone-like driftwood more and more figures emerged. The chatting groups of people transformed what had been a journey towards isolation into a pilgrimage of celebration.
We entered a small marquee and a young girl handed us a bowl of steaming soup. Behind her was a rota of shifts for helping out: cooking; washing; gardening.
“Does anyone live here all year round?” I asked the girl. “I stayed here by myself for most of the winter. People would come and go, it got quite hard, no heating, just fires you build yourself, as little as four hours of daylight and the wind, but now it’s worth it, everybody here and eating the veg from the garden…think hard before you commit to somewhere like this.” She replied through the whirls of steam.
It was past midnight and the last flickers of sun had extinguished. “Try and stay up and see the sunrise,” said the girl, “it will only be in a few hours.” We lay down in the sand forming perfect bum shaped seats and listened to the sigh of the sea up and down the bay. As the cold morning sun re-emerged so the ashen sea stained through into turquoise and the sky brought forth a crystalline blue. Hearing the chat and music from onshore, seals nudged their heads out of the water and watched, dipping back under momentarily. With the prickling icy breeze I took off my clothes and picked my way into the numbing sea. As I swam and looked across to the opposite island and back to Egilsay they became two dimensional slits of land dissipated by the air and sea light; hardly there in the vast northern blueness of it all.
Back on land groups of people hauled fagots across the beach towards the skeleton of a 60 foot wicker man. Unlike the swimming perspective, the island was oozing out of itself with laughter and singing as lines of people heaved and tugged at hunks of driftwood. That evening the music got louder and swirling confluences of people circled the wicker man. In a moment of silence the girl we had spoken to walked out of the darkness and set the wicker man ablaze with a torch of dancing flames. Fisherman saw the roaring beacon of light and rowed over with mounds of fresh scallops.
Out of this dark elemental island had grown a celebration of sun, sea, sky and community spirit. I can only take the little flames that kept it going through the desolate winter as reason to work and cultivate through the darkness in order to get to light.
About the Author: Samantha Weaver likes to explore paths, way-faring and pilgrimage, and their significance in what it is to be human. Coming from the Welsh-English borders she tends towards landscapes that are on the edge and in between.
Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter our next Travel Writing competition and tell your story.