Patron Saint of Electricians


No one of my generation can walk round the glorious port of Gdansk without thinking of Lech Walesa. The heroic, moustached electrician and activist was the darling of the British media in the eighties. We rooted for him, and for the wider Solidarity movement.

Walesa was that rare thing, a true socialist, demanding the return of workers’ rights from the bloated communist elite, and lighting the spark that eventually resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Under the dockyard cranes he spoke, incomprehensible and urgent in the Baltic sunlight, demanding justice. An inspirational Pole.

Behind the docks is the magesterial new Museum of World War Two, and to view it is a harrowing experience, like visiting a concentration camp. I spent four hours there, and was reduced to tears. The Polish perspective on WW2 is vital. For Poland was destroyed twice: once by the bastard Nazis, and then again by the rapists of the Red Army. Being a refugee, a migrant, a traveller and survivor by necessity, is at the core of the Polish experience.

The Gdansk old town was completely obliterated. So the medieval crane and bright gables of today’s dock front – indeed all the central streets and buildings – are modern replicas, rebuilt to the original specifications. St Mary’s church, the largest brick built cathedral on earth, was pieced together again brick by brick; such is the devotion of the Gdansk faithful. Every European should see this magnificent town now.


But the realities of Lech Walesa’s later political career are more difficult to chart. Some allege that he colluded with the Communist secret service. The older Walesa has proved to be small c conservative in the nasty way, and seems pretty narrowly nationalistic in his outlook. Other aspects of Poland emerge. Gay visitors, a guide book points out, should remember they are not in Soho any more. And the backward Right are on the march in Poland’s city squares, perverters of their own history. It seems to me that the Poles – of all people – should know exactly what it means to be persecuted, to be refugees.



Skipper Gunn’s Gifts


In the four o clock darkness o the late December afternoon, Skipper Gunn turns his back on the Christmas lights that are strung fae the rigging o the whitefish boats. He crosses Harbour Street, twists his skinny frame under the Ba barricades, and slips through the front door o the North Star Bar.

Skipper likes a double O.V.D. at the coal fire through the back, his peedie thin legs hanging fae the bar stool. His phone pings relentlessly wae notifications fae Leona – mind on Skyler’s prescription, don’t forget aboot Dale’s consent form, mind on the boat leaves early the night.  Steel-toed rigger boots, a toorie and a peedie beard. That’s Skipper. He nivver actually sailed as skipper, and he drinks in binges that come like northerly gales; one every twelve weeks or so, more often in the winter months.

Ally Ratter is sat there already, like a Heavy Metal Santa. Long white beard, and the big gut. His t-shirt says Baby Please Don’t Go. Ally is the engineer on the Jarl Thorfinn. On his fortnight ashore, Ally parks his reid Hilux on the pier at aboot 12.00. He sets his heavy wallet and his phone on the Formica o the bar. The screensaver is a picture o his dowter, Carrie. Four pints o Guinness for the afternoon, and four for the evening. Ally’s phone doesna ping; his ex doesna spik tae him.

But Skipper and Ally hiv a lot tae spik aboot. Their days in the school hostel taegethir. Westray folk that merried Sanday folk; Sanday folk that merried Westray folk. Ally’s fither’s trips tae Montevideo and Nagasaki. Skipper’s grandfither on the Northern Convoys. Climate Change. The weet westerly waathir, and hoo ye nivver get a right northerly gale any more. The reward for the ROV that the renewables company lost in the Westray Firth. Orcas in Eynhallow Soond. The price o lambs. Faroese quota. Unreal tonnages o salmon feed.

And dae you ken whit Brandon Harcus paid for that seventy acre at Ness? says Skipper, getting louder. Quarter o a million!

I heard that. I heard he paid cash in twa Lidl kerrier bags, says Ally, quietly. Still, he’s no a bad lad.

Sky News plays dumb overhead. Refugees: Skip wonders whitwey they can afford I-Phones; Ally says I-Phones are all they hiv. Ally luks at his screensaver.

Wae a dour nod tae the barmaid, Ally orders Skipper anither O.V.D. Ally’s gettan tae the stage whar he’s just aboot managing a peedie, shy smile. Skipper’s gettan tae the stage whar he can feel the rum coursing through his forearms. Ally does smile – peedie weys – aal big, heavy teeth. Skipper’s bad teeth luk broon in the mirror ahint the bar, especially when he’s been drinkan rum.

Mind on the bairns’ presents, Skipper.

Ah’ll no forget aboot them – I pat them in the waiting room.

And mind on the boat goes early.

Ah’ll no forget aboot that. Leona telt me no tae bother coman home if I miss it.

The north wind is gettan up. The boys on the boat will be gled tae get home across the Soond tae Blindarsay the night. Skipper scoops his last dram and claps the gless doon on the Formica.

Time for the boat. Hiv a Merry Christmas, Ally.

Ah’ll dae me best. Enjoy yersels the morn, Skip.

Cheers, beuy. And try no tae think aboot Carrie too much, says Skipper.

But I want tae think aboot her, says Ally. Anyway, get doon the pier – it’s three meenits tae six.

Oot intae the rising northerly wind he goes. Back across Harbour Street, and doon the pier tae the boat. Straight past the waiting room. He taks a peedie lurch as he’s crossan the linkspan, but whether it’s the wind or the rum he doesna ken. He’s no sooner aboard when CLUNK. CLUNK CLUNK the bow doors are secured and ready for sea. Skipper heads tae the lounge, kicks off his riggers, and is flat oot snoran like a bandsaw afore the boat sterts tae bury her heid in the lumps in the tide off the Ness.

He’s oot for the whole crossing until the voice blares oot o the speaker Ladies and gentlemen we have now arrived at Blindarsay please remember tae tak your belongings wae you as you disembark. And oot he goes again intae the wind.

Merry Christmas, Skip, say the boys on the deck. Merry, Christmas, beuys! Skip crosses the cobbles at the head o the Blindarsay pier. The lights hing doon fae the village Christmas tree as it springs upright and doon, upright and doon, atween the gusts. Cloods scud across the cowld sky and reveal a glimpse o the North Star. He’s home, on Christmas Eve! Skip gies a peedie skip and teks across the peedie square, past the War Memorial, and up tae his peedie Cooncil hoose whar Leona surely won’t realise he’s that drunk.

The wind claps the door shut ahint him. The nerrow lobby is fill o bruck. He sees three manilla envelopes wae cellophane windows addressed tae Mr S and Mrs L Gunn on the floor. Skyler is greetan; Dale is on the Xbox. Leona stands in the kitchen doorway. Her hair luks like it could dae wae a wash. She has rubber gloves on and a dishcloot in her hand, and she speaks quietly so the bairns canna hear: Did ye mind on the presents, Skipper? The wind roars owre the roof tiles. Jesus Christ the presents.

*          *          *

By seven AM the wind is doon again. Leona steps ootside the back door wae the bin bags, sets them doon, and lights an Embassy Regal. She can hear the eider ducks on the still bay a quarter mile away as the eastern sky reddens. They mate for life, her mither tellt her. Skip is indoors, sleepan on the sofa. The bairns are sleepan, too. As she exhales, Leona’s phone pings. It says ‘new message from Ally Ratter’:




Doon the concrete path tae the coal hoose she goes, and there, inside the door, are the three damp, bright parcels. The paper is soggy wae salt watter, and it’s a peedie bit ripped, but there they are. Leona draas deep on her cigarette, haads the breath, and stoops in under the low lintel o the coal hoose tae retrieve the gifts. Thank God fur that, sheu mutters tae hersel as the light sterts tae come up.



Bonny Isle o Sanday


Cata Sand



A billion grains o sand. A hunder thoosand migrant birds. A scant scattering o folk. The isle o Sanday in October presents a glorious unfolding flatness o sand/soil and pure sky, stretching northwards and eastwards into the shallow North Sea – into distances that belie the island’s deceptive baby dragon profile on the admiralty chart.

This isle is a vast table o riches spread beneath the northern sky. It’s possible for a vistor tae get lost in Sanday. Distant hooses on the horizon seem like they canna be on the same island, but they are. Every road ends in the sea. Every aspect pleases.

We traverse the vast ouse o Cata Sand and climb the dunes. A gull owerhead in the blue is an emblem o absolute purity. Godwits and redshank wade in 20mm o brine. A heron awaits the flood. The tide returns swiftly, and wur walk back is twice as long as the walk oot.

Sanday is a modern, forward lukkan piece. A generous proportion o the profits o the 10 MW wind farm at Spurness are ploughed back in tae community projects, such as the employment o a ranger on the island – whose job is tae mak the abundant wildlife accessible tae the public. We join ranger Emma on a scheduled walk roond Spurness, whar sheu shows us a peedie baby selkie in a geo. The mither selkie waits anxiously nearby on the margin o Eday Soond, like a granite boulder. Migrant goldcrests flit roond the geo in the morning sun – fire creaturs in a watter place.

Sanday haes a magnificent literary heritage, teu. The Victorian gentleman-farmer Walter Traill Dennison single-handedly saved Orkney folklore with the publication in 1880 o his The Orcadian Sketch Book, a little-read gem o lore and language. As a result, we ken more folk tales fae Sanday than fae any ither pairt o Orkney.

For instance … the Broonie o Helliehowe tormented a family in a nearby ferm tae the point whar they haed tae leave. On the day o the flit, they were carting their possessions tae the ither end o the isle when the Broonie popped his heid oot o a milk churn and said: my, but wur gotten a fine day for the flitteen. The tale is a cautionary one: many problems are within us, and canna simply be left ahint.

*                    *                     *

But on Sunday morning at low-watter we leave wur problems ahint and cross the causeway tae Start Point, the easternmost and flattest pairt o aal the brokken isles o Orkney. Here, the selkies sing, and the abundant shell sand haes a purple hue in the morning sun. Here, in the shadow o the only vertical-striped lighthoose in the northern hemisphere, we gaither groattie buckies till wur hearts are content.



(Sanday Sealcam:

Japan Diary: part two


Photography: Linda Mackay Sabiston

Onigawara is the household god who squats on the ridge tiles of Kyoto, warding evil from gold-plated temples and humble homes alike. He has a fearsome, aggressive face, but this is just to frighten off malevolent spirits. Onigawara is a friendly gargoyle.

We glimpse Onigawara time and again on the rooftops as we travel on the bus round this most magnificent city of Japan’s interior. Kyoto, the ‘thousand year capital’, is ringed round with mountains where dense city gives way immediately to dense forest. There are hundreds of magnificent temples and shrines in the clearings.

You can still see the ancient, narrow streets, and the low, dark timber houses with their elegant eaves. There are rock gardens, tea houses, imperial sites. In the evening, Geishas – pallid ghosts – pass on their way to work. Restaurants light their lanterns. After saki, blonde tourists sing Summer of 69, too loud for Zen. But to allow yourself to become irritated would be contrary to the teaching of Zen. Nothing should disturb the peace of this place.

The shadow of the Angel of Death flitted over Kyoto in 1945, but passed on when strategists decided not to drop a nuclear bomb on it. It was too beautiful, and had too much ‘cultural significance’ to be obliterated. U.S. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson loved Kyoto. He had his honeymoon here, and argued successfully for the preservation of the city. So it seems that Onigawara did his duty for Kyoto, at least.

Historians will argue forever about the rights and wrongs of the weapons of mass destruction that were dropped on Japan seventy years ago. Some call these bombings ‘successful’. And no Japanese soldier has set foot anywhere else in the world since. British forces, by comparison, have been in continuous deployment in one part of the world or another ever since. It makes me wonder why nations need ‘interests’ and ‘spheres of influence’.

*          *          *

We’re already thinking about the long flight home. We will travel close to the tragic flashpoints of the Middle East. Basra, Mosul, Aleppo. There are thousands of families there, too, thousands of mothers, fathers, and bairns who would welcome the protection of brave Onigawara, right now.




Japan Diary: part one



I’m in Japan tae lecture on Scottish Language and Literature tae students in universities in Shizuoka an Kyoto, an tae members o the Tokyo Caledonian an Scottish societies. Me book, The History of Orkney Literature , was translated intae Japanese last year.

The kindness an courtesy we’ve been shown by the Japanese folk is notheen short o incredible. Between exhiliratan inter-city trips on the Shinkanzen, we hiv been royally entertained: taen roond the most sacred shrines o these magnificent cities, an introduced tae ivry conceivable aspect o Japanese cuisine.

We’ve eaten jellyfish, tofu, an miso soup, sea urchin, scallops an pickles. Soft-shell shrimps, cooked whole in impossibly light tempura batter, an eaten wae the heids on. The Japanese basil leaf, when picked up wae chopsticks and placed in the mooth, bursts wi fragrance an flavour. Udon noodles that keep ye fill up for days. A fish like a peedie stickleback, deep fried, crisp, an crunchy, is eaten whole. Onion soused in ginger. Sesame rice. Vegetables, the like o which we’ve nivver experienced afore, and that I canna compare tae anything European. Baby flatfish, fried squid, whitebait salad. We sample saki, hot an cowld, in modest quantities. The Japanese lager is cool an crisp. An, of course, diverse sushimi – the king o Japanese foods – unkan, fresh, an luxurious.

Sittan doon tae a cup o green tea in Yuko’s tidy office in Shizuoka afore me lecture, I’m struck by the extensive range o Scottish books I’ve seen on the shelves in these universities. Japanese translations o A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, the complete works o James Hogg, the Scottish National Dictionary, Japanese books o Scottish folk tales, Irvine Welsh in Japanese, a Japanese Lanark. The academics here ken more aboot Scotland an Scottish culture than most o us at home. Yuko’s PhD is aboot the history o the Scottish National Dictionary, for instance, an we meet ither freends who specialise in Scottish Romanticism, George Mackay Broon, an Shetland folklore.

The students themsels are interested, too. I tell them aboot Burns, Scott, MacDiarmid, Edwin Muir, aboot Scots an Gaelic, aboot Scottish political systems. They mak a really good job o repeatan peedie broon moose, an spier some penetratan questions at the end o the lectures: Can you tell me more about the links between Orkney language and Norwegian? Why do people in Orkney vote Liberal Democrat when the rest of Scotland votes S.N.P.? Why did Scots language supplant Gaelic as the language of the Scottish state during the Middle Ages? We can learn fae these inquiring young Japanese, too: cultures across the world should be interested in wan anither.


Lamborghini: Cult o the Bull


The dry, flat an fertile reid plain o Emilia Romagna lies atween the frosty peaks o the Apennines tae the west, an the tullimentan Adriatic tae the east. This plain is the breid basket o northern Italy. It’s whar the fermers grow wheat fur pasta, it’s whar a hunder families distil the richly dark balsamic vinegar, an it’s whar the Italian cheese makkars craft their inimitable parmesan. In whit might seem an unlikely diversification, Emilia Romagna is also the beatan hert o the Italian performance ker industry: the home o Ferrari, Maserati, an Lamborghini.

The faither o this industry, Ferruccio Lamborghini, grew up in this area. As a young fillo, he haed a natural gift an a passion fur engineering, and meed tractors afore he sterted makkan sports kers. When he sterted tae build sports kers in the sixties, he established his factory in a field he bowt fae a ferm in his home toon o Sant’ Agata Bolognese, an it stands there the day. Adjacent tae the factory is a museum, an it’s possible for tourists tae visit both, takkan in a tour o the factory.

Truth be tellt, this museum is more o an art gallery. The sixties classics are doonstairs. Upstairs, stuneen, ostentatious, modren Lamborghinis hing on the waals. A magnificent, sculptural engine dominates the mezzanine, like a granite erratic dropped fae a glacier. The wan-off Egoista taks pride o place, its profile suggestan the stylised silhouette o a ragan bull. The interpretive text is unapologetic: it is a car without compromises, in a word: egoist.

Photographs o Ferruccio Lamborghini adorn the waals, accompanied wae biographical information that comes close tae hagiography: highly-skilled mechanic, an entrepreneur, a versatile character with a great deal of business know-how, willpower and humility. The text points oot that he wes a Taurus. This strikes me as a gey Italian inclusion, but Ah’m willan tae hear why it’s relevant tae this story.

A weel-dressed, flamboyant guide in her middle age leads us through the security doors for the tour. Any whiff o bull that might o lingered in the museum disperses on the air-conditioned factory floor. Instantly, Ah’m struck by the impeccable sense o cleanliness an order in this place. Hid’s quiet, relaxed even, an the pace o wark doesna seem tae be onerous in any wey. Mechanics in clean, comfy claes mak these glorious vehicles in a line that rotates every 45 minutes. As we enter, they are assemblan engines by hand – glitteran objects o exquisite beauty an precision.

Wur guide isna afraid to play up tae Italian sterotypes. When a visitor fae Michigan asks a very specific question aboot the construction, she jokes Mamma Mia! Are you working for the opposition?  She’s referring tae a neighbouring factory a few miles awey that maks the famous reid sports kers, the wans that Ah’m stertan tae think luk a peedie bit boran.

She shows us the upholstery section. It taks sivven baests tae provide enough leather tae fit oot wan Lamborghini. Ivry scratch or mosquito bite haes tae be cut oot. Profligate? Weel, the off-cuts are recycled, but no as Lamborghini products. Colour combinations include reids, yellows, pooder-blues, black. She detects a mild incredulity in me expression as she tells us she’s seen a Lamborghini fitted oot in blue an yellow: No, really, very beautiful. But Ah’m already converted. I believe it aal, and if I haed the money, I’d buy ane.

Workan practices hiv changed since Lamborghini wis taen owre by Volkswagen in 1998. Now, we work two four hour shifts with two eleven minute coffee breaks and one hour for lunch. The German approach seems tae be productive, but sometheen haes been lost, too. We make more cars, but we miss our espresso; it makes us happy, and gives us energy.

It strikes me that the wan place whar there’s likely tae be tension on this factory floor is in the quality control space. This is whar manufacture meets market. And anither pressure point might be the emissions lab, whar hoses connect tae exhausts an pollutants are measured. The day eftir this tour, we were shocked tae read that Lamborghini’s offices haed been raided by Italian police while we were in Emilia Romagna. The cool, impeccable owners at Volkswagen hivna really been as precise, clean or efficient as we wid expect them tae be. Nor, it seems, dae they possess the integrity that these workers, these craftspeople deserve.

Ootside eftir, an we’re back tae the reality o wur compact hire ker. The doors clap closed in the October sunshine o a Sant’ Agata backstreet. As we leave the toon an mak wur wey along a stoory country road, we’re thrilled tae see a bullish Lamborghini on the road ahead o us, oot fur a test drive. We wind doon the windows as it accelerates, expectan a rippan growl. But the Lamborghini is quiet, although it is movan fast. Raisan the reid stoor o Emilia Romagna, a heraldic, noble baest released intae its natural environment.