A Countrywoman’s Diary

The Heart and Soul of Orkney – Autumn Foy

Countrywoman’s Diary

A deep respect for words dwells in the heart and soul of Orkney. In words precious moments and observations live again and layer memories. The world at a particular moment is brought alive, resurrected afresh, sending ripples into the pond of imagination.

Writing based on a fresh experience has an energy and dynamism that cannot be distilled in any other way. To write about a walk in the snow even a week afterwards is to miss the uniqueness of that particular walk. The way the geese rose and the light fell will always be differently beautiful. The mood and musings of the walker changes even the feel of the cold sting on the cheeks.

Feeling this, I resolved again this summer to keep a better diary, one that caught fleeting moments of rainbow and garden blooms.

This turned my mind to someone well known for her writing about Orkney life: Bessie Skea. She is one of the twelve Orkney writers brought together by Alison Miller in That Bright and Lifting Tide. She lived in Harray much of her life, had three children and published five books about Orkney.

George Mackay Brown to better describes her work in his introduction to Countrywoman’s Calendar as ‘a honeycomb crammed with bright plunder.’

The book was published in 1962. An excerpt from ‘August’ describes the ‘changing’ fields and the beginning of the harvest (p43). This an entry from my August diary. I have changed as little as possible to preserve the freshness of the writing.


August 7th

Diary entry:

‘The sun was setting as we left, dissolving into a bright orange blur on the northeastern horizon somewhere over Shapinsay it seemed.

Earlier the hills of Hoy had swung blue and purple across the sky, trailing clouds streamed with mauve which broke open to reveal bright blue sky. Cycling, the difference between shade and sun was marked distinctly by a change in temperature, and the road radiated soft grey warmth like an old wooden scarf.

Vetch blooms, hypnotic purple along the roadside intersperse with hogweed, tumb thick stems holding aloft parasols of white dainty florets that are irresistible to bluebottles.

On the beach, wedged between boulders, seaweed ferments releasing the salty amines of a any carcass chewed up and spat out by the sea.

As the family plunged and rode, glubbed and delighted in wave, water and warm wetsuits, two seals came. They came and stayed guardian over our silly games, ingots of silver, heads on a sea that mellowed into a pooled reflection of the peach-blushed skies. Above the slow cumulous the high sweep of cirrus cut a boomerang through the sky.

Outside an oystercatcher tonight, and already there have been geese.’


Gabrielle Barnby

Orkney, 2018

Dingieshowe.Gabrielle Barnby, Orkney.