Where Everybody Knows Your Name

The author and his pal CoCo cycling in Stromness, Orkney

Professor Joe Goldblatt

I readily admit that I am an shameless extrovert. According to the psychologist Michael P Wilmot and fellow researchers extroversion is linked with a greater motivation to achieve positive goals – as a desired reward through work. It’s also closely associated with experiencing positive emotions more regularly. I do like hard work and a sense of accomplishment and I am naturally a social being.

Perhaps a pschoanalyst might describe this as my reaction from childhood as a result of being one of the few non – athletic males in school who had a need to stand out and be accepted by my peers. It also could stem from my father’s influence. When he soon realised that I was never going to compete in the Olympic Games, he found another and more successful road for me to travel upon.

When I was nine years old Papa created a magic act for my younger sister and myself to perform for local groups and even on our local CBS television station. Papa once told me that the secret to instilling self confidence in children is to find something they are good at and then nurture that talent. In my case it was performing magic. Could my extroversion be one of the reasons I have discovered a special kind of magic in the Orkney Islands of Scotland or is it something else?

I have now visited the magical islands of Orkney over a dozen times. It all began when I received my free bus pass at 60 years of age. I immediately opened a map of Scotland and asked myself a simple question “How far could I travel by bus for free?” The map soon revealed that the northern border of mainland Scotland was also the home of the ferry terminal entitled Scrabster.

I set off for my first bus trip to Orkney in 2012 just as London was planning to launch their Olympic Games opening ceremonies. My bus journey travelled up somewhat precarious single carriage roads through the majestic Scottish highlands where the Cairngorm mountains feel so close that you feel warmly embraced actually by their snowcapped majesty.

Further along the long road the height of the bus allows you to gaze down steep cliffs as you see the turbulent waters below that are continually churning and stirring in all directions. The Orcadian poet George MacKay Brown described this swelling ot multiple water sources as a “swelkie”.

Upon arriving at the ferry terminal I almost immediately noticed the small town warmth and trust that is often missing in larger destinations. As I presented myself to the ticket desk I was simply asked for my name and a ferry pass is immediately presented to me. There was no demand for identification or further evidence that the person standing before them was who he was purported to be. I was accepted then, and now, as I am.

Twelve years later I have recognised this sense of trust over and over again. However, this year, my sixteenth visit to Hamnavoe (the Norwegian word for safe harbour), something even more magical has happened to me. Although I grew up performing magic I now find myself being surrounded by it.

Early during this visit, I visited the Co – op grocery shop in Stromness, Orkney (population 2500). I soon realised that I had left my debit card within my accomodation and only had a tenner in my posession. I then began to silently estimate what I could afford to purchase. When I reached the till I explained my dilemma to the member of staff and this kindly soul named Leona said “You are 60 pence over your budget.” I asked her to remove one item to reduce my payment and she smiled warmly and said “I will cover it.” I was gobsmacked. I then returned the next day with a thank you note, a bouquet of flowers, and a one pound coin to express my gratitude and repay my debt.

The next day I visited the Pier Art Centre, one of the loveliest art museums in Scotland, and asked what time a film was being shown. The film documented the work of twentieth century Orcadian cinematographer Margaret Tait who used her camera lens as a poet uses their pen to write poetry. A member of staff said that although the film started on the hour the museum actually opened on the half hour. She then winked and said, “Sometimes we open early.”

The next morning I arrived at the museum on the hour and waited patiently in front for the doors to open. The director of the museum opened the door and said “Good morning Joe, come on in.”

The woman who loaned me sixty pence and the gentleman who opened a wee bit early so I could view a film reminded me of why I often find magic upon every corner in Stromness and throughout the Orkney Islands. This is a land whose very existence depends upon their trust, respect, and collaboration with one another. As I continued to stroll down the high street of Stromness and was greeted with smiles and musical voices announcing “Hello Joe, good morning Joe, nice to see you Joe!” It was as though after fifteen previous visits I was finally and officially accepted as a member of the local tribe.

I am reminded of the television show Cheers whose theme song included these lyrics.

You want to go where everybody knows your name

And they’re always glad you came

You wanna go where people know

People are all the same

You wanna go where everybody knows your name.

Songwriters: Gary Portnoy / Judy Hart

I began to wonder if my extroverted dress or behaviour was causing this magic to happen and then I realised that the magic was no longer solely within me. Rather, the magic was all around me within the the culture of Orkney. One example of local culture in most towns may be found in the local library.

My favourite place to visit in Orkney is the local Stromness Library that overlooks the charming harbour. I can sit there for hours reading and learning new things whilst observing the boats glide in and out of the safe harbour before me. This week I realised that after all these years I had never applied for a library card. I presented myself at the front desk and was asked to complete three lines upon a small card. When I then asked if the staff member wished to see further identification (a utility bill etc) she also smiled and said with a chuckle “That is not necessary. We know who you are.” Indeed, it is a place where everyone knows you.

Despite being one of the fastest growing places in the United Kingdom, Orkney has managed to preserve and cultivate the old fashioned values of trust, respect, and collaboration in order to build a strong community. Perhaps that is one of many reasons that between 2001 and 2020 as the Orkney population grew at a faster rate than any of the other individual islands, island areas or island groupings in Scotland its local values have appeared to strengthen even more.

This also may answer the question as to whether my extroverted personality ignites this magic each summer or if it is in fact an organic, age old, and timeless phenomena that is deeply ingrained in the culture of this special place. I suppose the answer is that similar to a petri dish that experiences a chemical reaction when the right elements are combined, Orkney and I manage to create a peedie (Orcadian for small) bit of magic together each summer. Long may it last!

Professor Joe Goldblatt is Emeritus Professor of Planned Events at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh. His opinions are his own. To learn more about his views visit www.joegoldblatt.scot/blog

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