Stromness, Orkney: George Mackay Brown

Orkney is a very special place and on a sunny day there is nowhere I would rather be.  Stromness is Orkney’s second largest town huddled around a sheltered harbour.  It is a charming place with stone cottages clinging to the shoreline and a winding paved main street behind these houses.  Walk along this shopping street and you get occasional glimpses of the sea and the busy harbour between the houses.  Behind this seafront the houses climb steeply up the hill and if you arrive by boat they appear to sit on top of each other.

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Stromness looking across to the harbour

On a gorgeous sunny morning we were exploring the many corners of Stromness and I came upon this memorial bench to George Mackay Brown in a garden south of the town.  I have been a fan of George Mackay Brown’s writing for many years and have read a number of his novels and I was pleased that his birthplace had erected a bench to remember this remarkable writer that had story telling in his blood.  He stayed in Orkney and this group of islands continued to be central to his writing.  He wove stories around the local myths, island characters and wildlife in his novels and poems.  He died on 13 April 1996 in the town that he was born in, Stromness.  In his lifetime he received many accolades; he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1977 and his final novel, Beside the Ocean of Time in 1994 was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and received the Saltire Society‘s Scottish Book of the Year Award.

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“The imagination is not an escape, but a return to the richness of our true selves; a return to reality.” George Mackay Brown

Lochnagar: Gordon Haxton 1944 – 2004

Lochnagar (1156 metres) in Aberdeenshire in the north-east of Scotland is a magnificent giant of a mountain that is a popular but demanding walk.  Like so many before us we set off from the car park at the end of the Glen Muick road to climb the mountain on a fine August day.  The view across Lochnagar’s northern corrie to the curve of the ridge was awe-inspiring and our return through bright flowering heather by the Glas Allt waterfall was spectacular; I will never forget this marvellous day of walking.

George Gordon Byron or Lord Byron wrote the poem, Lachin y Gair, often known as Dark Lochnagar, framing the mountain in the romance of childhood memories and it is a line from this poem that is quoted on the memorial bench I found here.

Away, ye gay landscapes, ye gardens of roses!
 In you let the minions of luxury rove;
Restore me the rocks, where the snow-flake reposes,
 Though still they are sacred to freedom and love:
Yet, Caledonia, belov’d are thy mountains,
 Round their white summits though elements war;
Though cataracts foam ‘stead of smooth-flowing fountains,
 I sigh for the valley of dark Loch na Garr.

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I spotted this simple bench by the car parks and though eager to start our walk stopped to take a look, as I always do, and think about the person the memorial bench commemorates.  Gordon Haxton died at just 60-years old in nearby Aberdeen.  A man loved by his family and a special friend to many people, the memorial plaque suggests he had a deep love for this magnificent mountain.  As I hiked up the paths to the summit I wondered about how many times he had walked on these same routes.

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“I sigh for the valley of dark Lochnager” In loving memory of GORDON HAXTON 1944 – 2004

Helmsdale: Skipper Ian Innes 26 Nov 82

Helmsdale is an attractive fishing village on the north-east coast of Scotland in Sutherland.  We were here on our way to Orkney and the village is certainly well worth stopping at on your way north or visiting for its own sake.  You can either take a stroll around the village and harbour, stop at one of the pubs or cafes or a visit the excellent Timespan Museum.  Here you can immerse yourself in the history of the village that was mostly created in the 19th century for crofters who were removed from their land in the clearances, to make way for sheep.  Looking over Helmsdale is a moving piece of public art called The Emigrants.   The inscription on the monument, reads:

The Emigrants commemorates the people of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland who, in the face of great adversity, sought freedom, hope and justice beyond these shores. They and their descendants went forth and explored continents, built great countries and cities and gave their enterprise and culture to the world. This is their legacy. Their voices will echo forever thro the empty straths and glens of their homeland.

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The attractive harbour at Helmsdale

Walking around the harbour that was built in 1818 initially for herring fishing I found this memorial bench to Skipper Ian Innes.  Skipper Ian Innes was sadly lost at sea on 26 November 1982 and the bench was erected on the ten-year anniversary of his loss.  Skipper Ian Innes went missing out at sea on the fishing boat, Girl Kathleen.  In heavy seas and squalls the lifeboat searched for the Girl Kathleen around Badbea where the boat was thought to have come ashore but the lifeboat had to abandon the search in the dark at 22.30.  The search was resumed the next morning at 06.00 and the Girl Kathleen was found but despite a thorough search no sign of Skipper Ian Innes was ever found.  This memorial bench is a sobering reminder of the dangers faced by fishing crews on a daily basis.  In 2016 The Marine Accident Investigation Branch’s (MAIB’s) reported that nine fishermen died in that year in six separate incidents.


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Isaiah 43 verses 1 & 2 says:

But now, this is what the Lord says—
    he who created you, Jacob,
    he who formed you, Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
    I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
    I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
    they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
    you will not be burned;
    the flames will not set you ablaze.