Professor Joe Goldblatt
My stomach was tied up tightly in knots for many days. For over one year my wife and I had been meticulously planning to return to our home states of Texas and Iowa to attend our fiftieth high school reunions. Actually, because of the death and destruction caused by Covid, this year is now our fifty – first celebration because the last year, in many ways and for many people, was begrudgingly postponed until the present day.
We happily anticipated seeing friends and family we had not seen nor embraced in over two long and sad years. We worried about how our school friends would remember us and how we would recognise them five decades later. Would the cute young girl in my maths class remember me and would I remember her? Would the bully who threatened me remember his cruelty and allow us to finally make amends? We spent endless hours preparing and planning for this journey back in time and then the rising number of cases in our states gave us pause and we were forced to reconsider our original plans.
Our first concern was the extraordinary number of flights that we would be required to take to reach our destinations. Even with one flight we would run the risk of contracting a disease, however, due to many reduced flights and the distant location of these reunions, we would be required to board seven different airplanes to reach our destinations. In addition to the concerns of the exorbitant number of flights was the constant worry about the reunion events themselves. In one case, no masks would be required for the events. In another case there was online discussion about looking forward to hugging long lost friends.
All of this gave us concern due to the careful and conservative way we have approached our daily lives for nearly two years. When we soon realised that the number of Covid cases was rising dramatically both in the USA and Scotland, we quickly and regretfully decided to make alternative plans to protect those we love as well as ourselves.
Through the pain and hurt we were experiencing with notifying friends and family that we would not be travelling to the USA, tears flowed over the telephone and internet. To our surprise, no one chastised us for our decision and many said that they were impressed with our good judgement during such a difficult time. All wished us well and told us we would be greatly missed.
Once we had made our decision, in an immediate attempt to lift our spirits and bandage our wounds, we decided to return for a fortnight to a place that I solemnly refer to as my spiritual home. To me, a spiritual home is a place that you select and also selects you because it contains all of the elements that lead to your happiness, pleasure, and wisdom. It is also a place that wraps its strong arms around you and embraces you with unconditional love.
My spiritual home is the Orkney Islands. I discovered Orkney in 2012 when upon turning 60 I was given the golden ticket known as my senior bus pass. When I learned that this pass would allow me to travel anywhere in Scotland via bus I began research to see how far I could go. Orkney soon appeared on my radar map as one of the furthest destinations that would accept my bus pass.
My first journey to the magnetic north involved two long bus rides followed by a ferry trip until I reached my destination. I had booked for three nights in a bed and breakfast in a lovely private home in a strange sounding place called Ophir which is about a ten minute taxi ride from the ferry terminal in Stromness. My native Orcadian host and hostess, warmly welcomed me and my small dog and together, along with their dog, we watched the London 2012 Opening Ceremonies on the telly. They offered me a dram of my favourite whisky and then another and we complained to one another that Okrney was not featured in the ceremonies.
The next day, another local resident and graduate of Queen Margaret University collected me and escorted me to all the oldy worldy sites as well as the inspiring Italian Chapel that was built by the Italian prisoners of World War II and even the newest micro brewery. I was entranced with the charm, historic significance and friendliness of each site we visited. I should not have been surprised as year after year the Orcadian people are voted in various polls as among the friendliest folk on earth.
In many subsequent years we have annually travelled to Orkney to attend their popular folk festival and I have even campaigned for local political candidates and helped raise money for worthwhile Orcadian charities. With each deeper and further engagement in Orkney I have been transformed from being a ferry looper (tourist) to as one local friend described me an “honourary” Orcadian. I cannot imagine a greater honour.
Therefore, when our golden door to the United States swiftly closed our magic Orcadian door began to swing open. Over the eight visits we have made to the Orkney isles we have typically stayed no more than one week each time. However, as we had planned to visit the USA for three weeks, we decided to extend our visit in Orkney for a fortnight so that we had plenty of time to relax whilst healing our wounds from the sadness of missing friends and family and celebrating the significant milestone of our golden anniversary school reunions.
Prior to making the final decision to travel to Orkney we consulted with local Orcadian friends to find out if we would be welcomed upon their isles due to the continuing risk of transmission of disease. They assured us that we would be most welcome and therefore we began to put our plans into place.
In recent days thousands of cruise ship passengers, including some from the USA, have visited Orkney. I believe that when they return home they too will have many stories to tell about this remarkable land and people.
This week we should have been in Iowa and a couple of days later in Texas. Instead, we are in Stromness, Orkney the birthplace of George MacKay Brown, one of the world’s greatest writers and many of the locals as well as those Brown afficianados around the world are celebrating the centenerary of his birth. I suppose you could say that we have traded our personal two milestone school reunion events for another one that is also very meaningful to us. It could only happen in this way because we have returned to a place that over the past nine years has become my true and enduring spiritual home.
Brown observed the difference between Scotland and Orkney when he wrote “In Scotland, when people congregate, they tend to argue and discuss and reason; in Orkney, they tell stories.” The Orcadians have always seen themselves as a diffferent culture and country even though they are Scottish citizens. When departing for the rest of the world that is only a 90 minute ferry crossing away, they often say “We are going to Scotland.” Whenever folk such as the cruise ship passengers visit Orkney they always return home with many unique stories to tell.
Our accomodation in Stromness this time is entitled Camusbeag that means ‘Little Bay’. As I gaze through my front window, the bay does not appear little, rather the view of my spiritual homeland is infinite and stretches far beyond the Hoy Hills. I believe with every new visit to Orkney, my narrow view of the world actually widens signficantly as I am able to more greatly appreciate the natural wonders of this peedie, the Orcadian word for small, place that brings comfort, healing, and sustenance to my soul.
I have also found that the creative genius evidenced by the Orkney achievements in the visual and performing arts, music, science and much more is far greater than the size of their peedie, Isles. Perhaps this is why when I board the ferry for the return journey to Scotland I often play Sir Peter Maxwell Davies “Farewell to Stromness” because its brilliant melancholy melody helps me deal with the sad seperation from my spiritual home.
However, when we return to Scotland this time, I have decided to exchange my sad tune for a brighter melody as a result of having successfully overcome the disappointment and melancholy of missing seeng in USA friends and family. This time, as the Hamnavoe ferry slowly sails out of the safe harbour (the true meaning of the world Hamnavoe) I shall play Maxwell Davies lively and dramacially beautiful “An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise” to remind me that I shall indeed return one day to the USA, the home of my birth and also to my spiritual home of Orkney, with renewed hope and gratitude for during these continuing dark days of the global pandemic, now rediscovering two ports of call that I greatly treasure.
Professor Joe Goldblatt is Emeritus Professor of Planned Events at Queen Margaret University and a regular visitor to Orkney. To read more about his views regarding Scottish tourism, visit www.joegoldblatt.scot