After missing my 50th high school reunion in Texas, a trip to my spiritual home in Orkney means a lot – Professor Joe Goldblatt

My stomach was tied up tightly in knots for many days. For more than a year, my wife and I had been meticulously planning to return to our home states of Texas and Iowa to attend our 50th high school reunions.

The Italian Chapel, on Lamb Holm, Orkney (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA)

Actually, because of the death and destruction caused by Covid, this year is now our 51st celebration because the last year, in many ways and for many people, was begrudgingly postponed until the present day.

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.

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In addition to the concerns about the exorbitant number of flights was the constant worry about the reunion events themselves. In one case, no masks would be required for the event. In another, there was online discussion about looking forward to hugging long-lost friends.

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. 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.

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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.

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 ticket would allow me to travel anywhere in Scotland via bus, I began research to see how far I could go using this magic pass. Orkney soon appeared on my radar as one of the furthest destinations that would accept it.

The bluebell covered grounds of Woodwick House in Orkney (Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA)

My first journey towards 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 Orphir which is about a ten-minute taxi ride from the ferry terminal at Stromness.

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, which was built by the Italian prisoners during the Second World War, 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 being among the friendliest folk on Earth.

Orkney is also 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 milestone school reunions 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.

Marwick Head in Orkney (Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA)

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 different 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”.

I have also found that the creative genius evidenced by Orkney’s achievements in the visual and performing arts, music, science and much more is far greater than the size of their small or, in Orcadian, 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 separation from my spiritual home.

However, when we return to Scotland this time, I have decided to exchange my sad tune as a result of having successfully overcome the disappointment and melancholy of not seeing friends and family in the United States.

This time, as the Hamnavoe ferry slowly sails out of the safe harbour – the meaning of the world Hamnavoe – I shall play Maxwell Davies’ lively and dramatically 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 having two ports of call that I greatly treasure.

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

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