Bottle-green breakers surge around the huge sandstone towers that mark the northern edge of mainland Scotland. It's a forbidding stretch of the planet, a neighborhood that the Romans liked to describe as ultima Thule -- the end of the line.
However, out there in the afternoon haze, just 10 miles across the maelstrom of the Pentland Firth (where the Atlantic bursts into the North Sea), lie the Orkney Islands, a fertile and historic archipelago where once again you can feel close to the elemental forces.
I want to take you to the northernmost edge of this group of islands and introduce you to my home, Papa Westray, where you will learn once more the sound of silence and come to understand how the earth can justifiably be described as a living, breathing being.
By any comparison, our little island -- set amid an ocean sometimes azure, sometimes steely gray -- is a small place. Only four miles long and a mile wide, it could, for example, fit 1,000 times into the land mass of Jamaica.
Wandering tribes arrived in Orkney 5,000 years ago, probably from the Mediterranean, and found an open and fertile environment when most of Scotland was choked by the Great Caledonian Forest. Especially green and welcoming to these early adventurers in their fragile boats was our tiny island, now called Papa Westray (literally the island of the monks in the west).
Ever since then, the people here have worked the soil and the seas for a living, beneath one of the most spectacular skyscapes in the world. The gently rounded, almost treeless landscape affords constantly changing panoramas of sea and sky stretching around the horizon. Here we don't need a satellite to confirm that we are living on a globe.
And here, too, time has a strange, elastic quality. It's not that we have more of it. We just use it more economically. It's hardly surprising then that the past is intimately linked with the present ... and the future.
Only a mile from the farmstead of those first settlers, now preserved, stands today the island's community cooperative, a symbol of the struggle to keep the island alive despite the pressures of 20th-century living. (Increased freight costs and the lure for young people of southern towns and cities have set other Orkney islands on the sad road to depopulation and eventual desertion.)
It was in 1978, when the island looked like losing its only shop, that the population of 70 banded together in a fund-raising effort. And so the Co-op was born. Now a management committee of islanders runs a guest house/hostel and a shop. And the future, for the time being, looks more secure.
The island has five pupils at its little school, with the older children traveling daily by boat to our larger neighbor, Westray. The minister and doctor make regular visits to Papay (as Papa Westray is known to the locals) by the same route.
The island lies roughly on the same latitude as Anchorage, Alaska, but is warmed by the Gulf Stream. Even so, for much of the winter Papa Westray is battered by fierce Atlantic gales. Hence the sturdy low houses of gray sandstone, built to withstand the cruelest blast.
Everywhere on the island are memorable images:
The aquamarine transparency of the South Wick, with water so crystal clear that crabs can be counted as they scuttle across the seabed 20 feet below; here, the Vikings in their long ships often sought shelter a thousand years ago.
At the north end, the kittiwakes and razorbills dive and carouse under the formidable overhanging cliffs as weather fronts fast approach -- great battlements of cloud rolling in from the west, bringing winter hurricanes that cake the windows with salt spray.
Off the northern shore, lights twinkle on the trawlers heading for the fishing grounds, a risky calling hereabouts. Six men died a few miles from here just this month.
The high jinks of the butterfly-chasing kittens in our back yard.
The Co-op minibus with its daily cargo of wide-eyed tourists.
The huge seas of winter smashing into the geos (narrow sea-cut cliffs) on the west shore, their journey across the Atlantic complete.
Personalities and perspectives are bound in this world in miniature. Like every other community it has its share of joys and kindnesses, petty jealousies, sometimes bloody-mindedness. But it is vibrant.
Along the east shore, above the slapping surf where the seals play, you meet Tommy O' Maybo -- always with his ear to world affairs and as ready to discuss the situation in the Gulf as the places at the Kirkwall cattle mart. Tommy comes from a family of scholars and storytellers.
Or in the field beside the abandoned farm of Sunnybraes, Bill of the Links, the island's historian and genealogist, will be working his vintage reaper-binder, ready to delight visitors from North America with details of their family sagas. Bill comes from the tribe of Washington Irving, whose forebears hailed from the neighboring island of Shapinsay.
Marion Cooper, the schoolteacher, has recently retired to devote more time to her beloved Co-op Guest House and Hostel, and the children eagerly await the arrival of a new headmistress from the south in February.
Jim Rendall, the island postman, is a jack-of-all-trades, a lay preacher and a justice of the peace as well as a much-valued organizer at the regular island dances, where limited space in the hall means a traffic cop is essential if high-speed collisions are to be avoided.
At the south end, looking down to the pier, live the Cursiters at Charleston. Gen. George Custer of the Little Bighorn is said to have his roots in this family.
At the heart of the island is the big farm of Holland, now run by John Rendall and his son Neil. Until the early part of this century, the farm was the home of the Traill lairds (landlords), who for 300 years called all the shots on the island. Tenants had to seek their permission to leave Papa Westray even for a short time, and it is said that the Traills exercised the droit de seigneur (the right to the bride on her wedding night) up until the late 1800s. Today, they say, flowers never grow on the Traill burial plot at the old churchyard.
Every year, on the first foggy day in the second week of May, the terns return to Papa Westray, marking a watershed in the island year. This is the start of a brief and spectacular summer that ends with the terns' departure in late August.
The bird sanctuary that occupies the northern third of the island is home and breeding ground for 5,000 pairs of Arctic terns that arrive each year within a few hours of each other, having made an incredible journey from the frozen wastes of Antarctica. Sadly, this also was the location where the last great auk -- a three-foot-high penguinlike bird -- was battered to death in 1813. But today, birdlife brings most of our visitors to the island, along with our resident seal colony. These inquisitive creatures swim a few yards offshore, accompanying you without fear as you trudge the beaches.
Although the summers are tantalizingly short, the days are long, the sun always lurking around the horizon in June so that a newspaper can be read outside at midnight. (Assuming, that is, that the steamer has brought the journals from the south.)
Days can be dazzlingly clear -- the quality of the light is always remarked on by visitors -- and nights offer the possibility of a spectacular aurora borealis show.
Legend has it that these northern lights are reflections from the shields of the Valkyrie, Odin's handmaidens, escorting the Viking dead to Valhalla. You can blame sunspots if you wish. I prefer the legend.
Although the Orkney Islands are now most decidedly part of the United Kingdom, it was only in 1471 that Norway ended a six-century connection with Scandinavia by pawning the islands to Scotland. They have never been reclaimed, although the Norse origins of the people are obvious, particularly here in the far-flung north isles where blue eyes and fair hair are commonly found.
On Papa Westray, it is said that for hundreds of years around the time of the Norse occupation there was an active Christian community of monks and nuns here. And although there are some signs of Viking settlement in farm mounds along the shore and in farm names, it is thought that the religious community was left very much alone by the men from the long ships.
Just as the pace of life on the farms is ordered by the changing seasons, community life on the island centers on the arrivals and departures of ferries. Whether it's a new baling machine, a box of cream cakes, sheep to market or even the sad departure of a relative after a summer stay, the pier and grass airstrip are focal points.
In fact, if anyone admits to knowing the whereabouts of Papa Westray, it's usually because of our place in the Guinness Book of Records: a world record held by the local airline, Loganir. At two minutes in length, the airline's hop from Westray to Papa Westray is the shortest scheduled air service anywhere. (And with a following wind, it has been completed in less than a minute.)
Scores of visitors venture out to the island simply to make the brief trip. Little wonder that Orkney has been described as the most air-conscious community in the world.
Papa Westray's few cars take a back seat to walkers on our four miles of paved road. Our social life revolves around the Co-op shop, where we gather over ice cream and lemonade on Saturday nights, and where a notice board is our only central point of communication: "Tell John David there's a box of cakes off the plane for him," or "Nurse McNab is off the island on Thursday. Use the emergency number." And yet, Papa Westray is more than you in the States might imagine. There's the underwater cable that brought mains electricity and replaced the stalwart back yard diesel generators. There's the influx of people from the south seeking a fresh start away from the cities. There are northern Europe's oldest standing house and our archaeological sites. But those are tales for another time.
For today, just remember that time is elastic here. As one perceptive visitor from the United States remarked last year as she waited at the pier for the steamer that would take her back to Kirkwall, the main town in the island group:
"Time goes slower here -- and the weather goes faster."
The island is always full of surprises.
This afternoon as I completed my modern day Orkneyinga Saga for you, the phone rang. The archaeologist in Kirkwall phoned to say that an antler that my 10-year-old daughter Katy picked up on the beach last week is from the Bronze Age -- perhaps as much as 4,000 years old.
Papa Westray is that sort of place. Jim Hewitson is a writer and occasional lobsterman who left Scottish city newspapers (in Glasgow and Edinburgh) to begin a new life with his wife, three children and huge family of unproductive pets on Papa Westray. From time to time, he will contribute articles to the Travel section about the island and give glimpses into his life on the outer edge.