Spending time in the silence and light of Orkney is good for a city-dweller’s soul, writes Ewan Aitken.
I am writing this in Orkney where I am on a family holiday visiting my in-laws. There is something qualitatively different about the light here. It’s not just the lack of streetlights, which make the night skies so much clearer. Dusk seems so much softer and richer, with several layers of varied colours weaving a rich farewell to the day’s events. And at this time of year, the day is just so much longer; not quite the midnight sun but not far short of it, bringing its own sense of slower time to the experience of the day.
Then there’s the quiet. So deep you can almost hear it, broken occasionally by the sound of bovine chatter or the cry of birds in flight but rarely by anything of human origin.
For a city dweller like me, it’s so quiet at night it can be unnerving until I once again get back into the rhythm of an absence of sound.
It allows me the time instead to listen to my soul; what’s bugging me and what’s bringing me contentment, what I have heard not paid attention to and what I have avoided and now need to hear. Orkney is a deep, still place which might seem a long way from my usual day but it does bring me close to the truth of my living.
Orkney is also full of the past: the oldest ring of standing stones in Britain, villages older than the pyramids, places of gathering and ritual about which we know very little, save from the middens and the bones from the feasts. We can only speculate about what life was like all those years ago, with only tiny hints from a few paintings and broken pottery, carvings and tombs to guide us. So we have to listen hard to those sounds of the past, listen without imposing our present upon them. But when we listen, we can hear things which are still true today. Like the incredible building at Maeshowe, 5,000 years old, designed to be in darkness all year round except at the winter solstice when the perfect alignment of the opening to the rising of the sun means the dawn shines in and lights up the chamber. It’s thought it was to let the people know the dark winter was over a spring was on its way. Built to listen to nature and be guided through hard times into the light, it’s a metaphor for seeking to see beyond what’s happening now by learning from the past so we can look well to the future.
Listening, really listening, not just waiting to reply – not just to nature but to each other – is in many ways a lost art. Especially listening, not through the filter of past hurts, but in the possibility of the present to see the potential of the future. Cyrenians’ conflict resolution services put helping people learn to really listen at the heart of its work; removing the sound of previous arguments and misunderstood words and instead just listen to what actually being said and why; not what we think we are hearing. Cyrenians Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution helps folk not only to listen to what others are saying, but to what our brains are telling us. For example; how the so-called “red mist” of anger really is a normal chemical response which occurs for many reasons; the art form is to listen when it triggers in us and ask then why is this happening, breaking old behaviours by realigning our listening to seek the unexpected light in a dark place. I have no doubt once I hit my desk again on Monday, the stillness and silence of Orkney and its deep colours and quiet, long-lit days will soon be again a memory. But if I can hold to the memory of listening deeply, its impact could be huge in the future.