IT IS 16 April, exactly 897 years since the martyrdom of Magnus, Orkney’s patron saint, and the puffins, as if in acknowledgement of the anniversary, have chosen this day to return to their sea stack off Westray after months in the north Atlantic. Meanwhile, Captain Stuart Linklater, a senior pilot with Loganair, lifts the nose of the small plane known as the Islander from the runway at Kirkwall and plunges once more into his own natural environment – the cool blue air above these green islands.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” he says. And it is.
Linklater is one of three pilots who, between them, fly several times daily from Kirkwall Airport, its name written in sharp steel runes above the main entrance, to the North Isles, the remote and sometimes sparsely populated islands beyond the Orkney mainland. The archipelago is spread wide in every direction, as if God – or better, perhaps, to say Odin – had dropped a landmass in the sea and, being pleased with the pattern of its shattering, allowed the shards to remain and grow fertile.
Yet while the islands of the south are linked to the mainland by causeway and regular crossing, the North Isles are isolated. There may be just one ferry each week, sailings to Kirkwall can take almost three hours, and in winter – when the swell of the sea is more than any pier can handle – the furthest islands can go three weeks without a boat being able to land. In such circumstances, the plane, as Neil Rendall, a farmer on Papa Westray, puts it, means “the difference between daylight and darkness”. These flights are lifeline services without which it would be difficult for the North Isles to sustain their populations. The plane carries teachers to schools, commuters to and from Kirkwall, and, on freight flights, food and bevvy to whomever has had the foresight – and the drouth – to place an order.
Loganair, known as Scotland’s airline, is this year celebrating its 50th anniversary. The Orkney inter-island service began a little later, in 1967. There had been flights between the islands from 1932, pioneered by Captain Ernest Fresson, whose Highland Airways was funded in part through a deal that saw The Scotsman being delivered to Orkney a day ahead of rival titles. Those flights ended with the outbreak of war, but some North Isles elders still remember Fresson and his little biplane – a visiting angel with beret and pipe.
Flying between the islands is a remarkable experience. These are short journeys. The longest, Kirkwall to Stronsay, takes 25 minutes, and the briefest, between Westray and Papa Westray, just two. This last is the world’s shortest scheduled flight; passengers making the hop for the first time are given a certificate and a whisky miniature, the latter being a welcome restorative following exposure to gales howling across the tiny island known to locals as Papay, a blotted punctuation mark between ocean and sea.
The Islander is a versatile eight-seater with two propellers. If cross-winds rule out the runway, it can land in fields, where the wee black and white plane looks quite at home taxiing among oystercatchers. Those seated at the front are closer to the pilot than they would be to the driver in a black cab. “It can feel like driving a bus,” says Linklater. “You get to know the passengers and their foibles; the ones who are going to have difficulty fastening their seatbelts. You have a chat and get the news.”
Linklater, 58, is known as the Orcadian George Clooney on account of both a slight physical resemblance (it’s the hair; maybe the eyes) and a certain wry affability. He has been flying the Islander for 23 years and has made around 60,000 take-offs and landings – “so I’m just about getting used to it”. He has never had any interest in flying the big jets internationally; he is happiest in the skies above Orkney, serving the community to which he belongs.
As the great majority of his passengers are regulars, the pilot’s safety demonstration appears to consist of little more than advising against opening a window in flight as “it’ll get very draughty”. One of the great joys of these flights is in avoiding unbending security measures that assume everyone is a potential terrorist and therefore deserving of interrogation. Captain Linklater, however, is not afraid to pose tough questions when need be. “So,” he asks one passenger while walking out to the plane, “how’s the lambing going?”
It is a bright afternoon when we take off for Sanday. As the plane climbs, its cruciform shadow races across green fields then out over the water. The sea is pale blue by the coast, darkening as it deepens. Islander pilots fly by sight rather than relying on electronic navigational equipment, keeping below the level of the clouds, sometimes as low as 350 feet. So the landscape never becomes abstract. It is, rather, miniaturised: turbines are toy windmills; fish farms are hoopla.
This, then, is the ideal air service for voyeurs and gossips – types in which, one is told, Orkney abounds. “You can see the washing on people’s lines,” says Linklater. “You can see the silage being cut, the different crops growing and when they’re starting to harvest. You get a feel for the season and the change in the light. It doesn’t feel like you are flying above the country, it feels like you are flying through it. You’re still part of it. There’s a sense, too, that you’re flying through history.”
The pilot notes, as he flies, points of interest below. Balfour Castle on Egilsay, where Robert Louis Stevenson stayed and which is said to have inspired parts of Kidnapped. Carrick House on Eday, where you can still see the stains of blood spilled during the capture of a notorious pirate. The small island of Gairsay, once home, says Linklater, to “the last real Viking”, Svein Asleifarson, whose plunderings with axe and fire are chronicled in the Orkneyinga Saga.
Orkney, with its many ancient homes and bones and stones, is a place where temporal barriers seem porous, in which past and present coexist, and from an aerial perspective the sense of collapsed history is even more acute. It is easy to imagine that pirate, Viking and writer are still down there somewhere; that life goes on at Skara Brae and POWs observe an eternal mass in the Italian Chapel.
From the cockpit, Sanday appears first as a dark hump on the horizon, a surfacing whale. One of the larger Northern Isles, with a population of around 600, it is known for its beaches, great white arcs, a coastline strung with crescent moons. The descent feels fast. The gritty track of the landing strip runs out amid daisies and dandelions. The plane halts, a door opens and a wooden box is shoved down as a makeshift step. Jim Lennie, the airfield manager, offers a hand. He is a retired farmer, big and strong at 71, with a handshake that could choke a heifer. “Bonny day,” he declares, brooking no argument.
Jim has looked after the Sanday airfield since 1967. His wife Mary is one of the firefighters. His duties include making sure the runway is fit for purpose, meaning free of geese. How, precisely, does he do this? “Shoot to kill,” he replies. “Have them for tea. That maks them stay away mibbe.”
Lennie is the ideal man to have in charge of an airfield. Heathrow could do worse. He is calm in a crisis and has a similar approach to life as he does to his whisky: “Tak it as it comes.” He has a reputation as a wind-up merchant and an accomplished spinner of yarns. Kirsty Walter, a member of Loganair’s cabin crew, sums him up fondly as “a yap o’ shite” – a description in which he glories, enjoying perhaps the way the phrase identifies him with other stalwart features of the Orkney landscape: the Point o’ the Scurroes; the Knap of Howar; the Yap o’ Shite.
Jim and Mary have been married since 1969 and have six children. They met while working the harvest together. It must be love, he says, because she came originally from an island – Shapinsay – that had electricity and mains water but nevertheless settled in Sanday, which had neither.
In her time as airfield firefighter, Mary has never had to fight a fire. There was once a crash, however – over 20 years ago now. “It was like it happened in slow motion,” Jim recalls. “The plane came doon in the field and went right through two fences. The tail rudder was knocked off. Mary was in the bedroom with our twins – just peedie bairns. I just saw this plane coming straight at oor hoose. I could hardly move. Then it hit a bump and it turned and there were nobody hurt.”
He pauses, relishing his punchline. “The folk in the plane were interviewed and said they saw very little difference fae a normal landing.”
The passengers on these inter-island flights are various. Itinerant teachers, farmers, hairdressers, health visitors, tourists, vets, hard-hatted workies out to fix the power cut on Papay. Passengers are allowed to take their dogs on the plane, so it’s not unusual to see a wet nose peeping out from beneath the seat. One woman, alighting on gale-scoured North Ronaldsay, buttons her poodle tight inside her duffle coat lest it be gusted off to doggie Valhalla.
There are times when life at Loganair seems rather like The High Life, as scripted by George Mackay Brown. Jackie Delaney, station manager at Kirkwall Airport, moved to Orkney from England four years ago and is still getting to grips with the local dialect. Once, when she was quite new to the job, the phone rang and an elderly woman asked whether the “toe wife” was on the flight to Eday. “Who on earth is the toe wife?” Jackie whispered to her colleague in the office. “That’ll be the chiropodist,” Inga explained.
Anne Rendall, a banker with RBS, is the most frequent flyer. Based in Kirkwall, she is 52 and has been travelling to the North Isles, visiting a different island each day, offering cash withdrawals, deposits and other services, for almost half her life. “I’ve been keeping a tally and that’s over 9,000 flights now,” she says. Despite the unorthodox manner of her commute, there is something pleasantly old-fashioned about Rendall’s way of doing business, harking back to the days when people actually had a relationship with their bank manager. The banker before her, the late Maisie Muir, did the job for 22 years, right from the start of the inter-island flights. Before Muir was Willie Groat, who went by boat. For Rendall, the plane is part of her routine. Rain and wind do not worry her. It takes a lightning storm to interfere with her calculations of interest.
The weather in Orkney rarely takes its ease. The Islander can fly in up to 50 knots of wind, which is getting on for 60 miles an hour. During a flight from Kirkwall to North Ronaldsay, the wind is blowing at 42 knots, and the sea below billows and heaves. Spume froths into the geos of the jagged coast. Rain cascades along the cockpit window. It feels, in some ways, more like being on the waves than in the air. Indeed, Linklater’s navigation methods are similar to those used by a seasoned skipper – he looks for landmarks and shifts course appropriately. Flying directly above the rusting wreck of the tanker Juniata, scuttled in Inganess Bay in 1939, reassures him when haar shrouds Kirkwall that the airport is dead ahead.
We begin our descent into North Ronaldsay, skimming in low over flat, dark rocks that seem to ascend like steps from the sea. This is the northernmost of the Orkney islands. Impressive from the air is the 13∫-mile encircling dyke that keeps the sheep on the shore, where they subsist entirely on seaweed. There are roughly 3,000 sheep and only around 70 people.
The Victorian lighthouse, a gigantic barber’s pole, has 176 steps, the same number of verses in the 119th psalm. Religion, one can imagine, might be a comfort here. We are right out on the edge. Norway is due east. In 1916, when Bergen burned, the islanders saw the horizon glow red.
The plane is met, as it is three times each day, by Helen Swanney, the airfield manager, a 76-year-old shopkeeper in deep pink headscarf and Bible-black anorak. “You won’t meet anyone more North Ronaldsay than Helen,” says Billy Muir, the lighthouse keeper. “She has lived here all her life.”
Swanney has been manager for 16 years, taking over following the death of her husband Ronnie, a crofter who had held the office since 1968. For her it is not just a job, it’s a duty of care for the place that has always been home. She remembers the days of the horse-drawn plough. She has seen the coming of the car to her island, the coming of television and electricity. Her father-in-law, Ken, ran the airport during the Highland Airways years of the 1930s. The Swanneys are a landing-strip dynasty. Swanney describes herself as a “gatekeeper” – and indeed she does seem a sort of presiding spirit of North Ron, a headscarfed idol to whom each traveller, alighting from the plane, ought to pay proper homage. Still, it can be a cold, wet job. Does she ever think of retirement? “Well, not yet,” she replies, softly. “I enjoy this very much, and I’ll do it as long as I can.”
We take off, before long, into ashen skies. The North Isles are spread beneath us. Sunshine, breaking through cloud here and there, slants down on to the water, creating islands of light, a radiant new archipelago scattered among the existing headlands and holms. This is Orkney much as it might have looked when observed in another age by a raven released from its cage on board a longship. That was the great Viking trick: to carry half-starved birds. Freed, they would fly in the direction of land – and food – and the Norsemen, hungry for fresh conquest, would turn the rudder to follow.
The Islander, therefore, gives a raven’s-eye view of the North Isles, and they look as seductively verdant now as they must have done then. Captain Linklater, for his part, counts it a privilege to be able to survey daily this landscape he loves. Soon, he will be unable to do so. Aviation rules mean that when he turns 60 next year he will no longer be allowed to fly the Islander, a plane in which he is the only member of crew. “I’m not looking forward to it one little bit,” he admits.
He will be grounded, a caged raven. He could work out of Glasgow airport and fly larger aircraft with a co-pilot, but that would mean leaving behind the great sights to which he has grown accustomed: the Westray waterfalls blown upwards by the wind; pods of orcas in the North Ronaldsay Firth; the whole glorious, dolorous presence of the islands and the sea.
“This is my home,” he says. “This is where I belong.”