A Countrywoman’s Diary

A Countrywoman’s Diary II



At the back door as dawn broke there were black birds, crows prevented from flying back to Kirkwall last night. They rose, their caws were short and wheedling, echoing as they messily rose into the sky.

Outside, the bushes are empty save for a last handful of yellow leaves. The crocosmia bend over and collapse onto the lawn, once the reddest thing in the whole garden, now outshone by the plain leaves of the hebe.

Walking to school into a headwind, my legs are utterly chilled, even in my big coat and gloves all warmth is gone. At school though there is still the same lively laughter and rushing about out of doors. I leave it behind and cast my gaze away to the north. A whale-skinned thunderous sea has left a curtain of seaweed flecked with froth on the shore. It has found its winter mood. There’s no solace as on summer days, and holding my gaze on the water requires effort to resist the sinking fear of cold.

The sun came through, pulsing low and orange in the south east, over the headland this side of Dingieshowe. In doors, the sun cuts my profile into the opposite wall.

There are a handful of osteospermum with bleach-pink petals, and a remarkable fuchsia wearing ballet skirts despite the weather, delicate, yet defiant. The straws of green where I planted winter crocus are long and slender, next to the relentlessly cheerful bright red berries on the cotoneaster.

The bulbs are waiting (hopefully not rotting) and I am enjoying the decline of the garden. I have better and more elegant deaths than previous years. But some plants have still not finally let go of the hope of the sun, that will happen un January, even as the light begins to return.

We had an entertaining evening at St Nicholas Kirk, down by the shore. The paintwork is much improved, a wonderful custard pink with a delicate freeze of lilies around the upper reaches. The wooden ceiling is less stained and the whole building feels less abandoned. There are hopes that next year money will be raised to replace the bell where it can be rung rather than on the floor. The lightning damaged tower is an inelegant stump on the western end of the building. I wonder if buildings, like instruments, have a memory of sound? Do they echo most true with the habitual tunes of their youth?

What else –  tonight, a shooting star, a meteor, quite slow across the sky, in the background there are stars and stars and stars.


Another fortnight until Christmas, the days are shortening more slowly now. This morning a wan sum, blurred by clouds only just managed to rise above the height of the empty hedge. Two clumps of privet remain where everything else is empty, they are a hardy South Ronaldsay strain that manages when even the escalonia browns and fails.

There are few birds, a gathering of starlings picking over the lawn, but nothing more and no robin has made a territory in the garden. It is not rich enough for even a tiny bird to survive the winter.

This year I have succeeded – there is more evergreen, the dratted hebe, the dreadful oileria and the flittering liberty – all dull things during the summer, but they are there when needed most of all. A towering lupin or bank of blue geranium do not have the same delight as the three blowsy pink primulas that flower my square pot. The slugs go back to them over and over and ravage the flowers, how annoying that they cannot just eat plain leaves.

The hips of the rosa rogosa have lost their red shine, wrinkled and dull in the mess of spiky stems. There is an overwhelming dinginess of the landscape, in the past this has seemed to me the finish, the end not just of the year but of everything lively and green so that continuing on seems contrary, a deliberate deception. The tension of what is clear to see and what is being determinedly lived out in busy social gatherings feels uneasy, feels fake.

This year the decline in the garden has begun to please me. I knew the daisies would brown and stiffen, the brown knots at their tips are the only decoration where the flowers once were. They will need cutting back, but already there are leaves at the base, thick and plain. waiting for the sun.

The council has been cutting off-lets from the road to the choked ditch, and where the soil is torn daffodil shoots that should be a foot underground have been exposed. They are very white and sickly yellow, but they are already growing.

Around the back in what’s known affectionately as the ‘corner of doom’  there is bright maroon dogwood and the tattered papery leaves of a thuggish variegated grass that I found chucked onto the dirty beach at the back of the house. I rescued some feverfew as well. It flowers in summer by the front window and reminds me of New Zealand where it grew around our wooden house like a weed.

I’ve watched the decline of the yellow rattle, tattered, rust brown above but beneath there are pink snake like roots that will overtake everything if given half the chance. Two months ago I prised some out and healed them into the ground in one of the least hospitable parts of the garden, ‘the wind tunnel’ competes with the ‘corner of doom’ for brutality, but gets a little more sun.

I realise more and more that it is only parts of the plants which are dead, others rest or even thrive beneath the soil in preparation for next year.

In the ‘corner of doom’ I crouched in the rain of late October, pushed and heaved cores of slimy clay from the turf. I hid a treasure of daffodils, a mixed and mongrel batch that came free mail order plants. The old gardening coat seams have failed, water shivers through my fleece. The ground smelled good though, and in the sticky mud there was promise.

Undaunted and foolish, I continued working in ‘the forest’ – it is a handful of sapling trees with one young beech and one stunted chestnut. I tore open plastic bags of fiddly carmasia bulbs – they slipped like silverskin onions from my grip. I hope they will survive better than the bluebells have.

I planted a lot of hope in the rain, saw the flowers in my minds eye as the rain trickled down my nose and the gloves became slippery with muck.

For weeks at a time I forget what I have planted and the vision of the flowers is utterly lost. Then the memory comes back and it leads me to other moments of crouching and planting.

In December, where once everything was dying and dead and living seemed fake, there is an invisible, secret world busily growing, as alive as the parties going on inside, less obvious, it is the tender life that is to come.

Gabrielle Barnby

Dec 2018

Orkney, 2018

Winter pampas, Orkney, Gabrielle Barnby, Countrywoman's Diary, December, Christmas

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.

Gabrielle Barnby