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Cherish the Light

Cherish the Light

Monday July 9

Throughout the summer, we are revisiting some of our favourite Ron Ferguson columns. In the latest, published in June 2006, Ron looks forward to midsummer in Orkney - a day of endless light, but with the knowledge of darkness to come.


The light, the light. It’s gorgeous in Orkney in June: these long summer days when the sun hardly seems to set. You get these luminous evenings when the wind drops and birds are high in the sky, swooping and singing. Yes, gorgeous.

On the 21st of June, some people will gather at midnight for serious business. They will have hipflasks at the ready, thus ensuring that their night-time labours are convivial as well as competitive. Then the covers will come off the drivers, and play will begin in earnest. This is Orkney on the longest day of the year.

In Kirkwall, assuming that there is not too much low cloud, people will read a copy of one of the local papers on their doorstep at midnight.

One late midsummer evening, my wife and I had a meal with friends. At midnight, we were looking out over Stenness Loch, drinking and extremely potent liqueur made with boolace berries. Not quite Coleridge sipping green absinthe before writing The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, but it fair sets you up for a Life and Work column. Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder; Orcadian midnight’s boolace makes the mind go yonder.

Around midsummer, too, crowds of visitors will pour into Orkney for the St Magnus Festival. This wonderful revel of music and drama draws visitors from all over the world. There is not a bed to be had in Kirkwall.

This June northern light is magical. With its big, open skies, Orkney lets in the light in a way which leaves urban dwellers open-mouthed. You walk the dog at midnight, and witness the glory of the pink.

You enjoy every day, because you know that from now on the slow shift of the earth’s axis will move Orkney inexorably towards darkening winter. Aye, we’ll pay for it.

That’s why these rituals of 21st June are so important. The golf at midnight and the reading of the newspaper are communal markers: a celebration of what is, set against an awareness of what is to come. The dark will arrive soon enough.

Orkney has known dark days in another sense, too. It was a cockpit of war twice last century. Scapa Flow was a major shelter for the British fleet in both world wars, and was the scene of the terrible sinking of HMS Royal Oak, with the loss of 833 men. It was because of the fateful intrusion of that treacherous German submarine that the Churchill Barriers were built, too late.

On 21st June, 1919, two young girls, both of whom I got to know well in their latter years, were part of a school excursion on board the steamer, The Flying Kestrel. The plan was to get a close-up view of the German ships interned at Scapa Flow. Minnie Gorie and Peggy Gibson saw something which they were never to forget.

The Armistice expired on 21st June. Vice-admiral von Reiter had no information from Germany, and the only British newspaper he saw, declaring that Germany had not accepted the peace terms, was four days out of date. He obeyed an old command not to allow German ships to fall into enemy hands; just after noon that day, he gave the order to scuttle the ships. One by one, the 72 ships sank slowly from view.

An artist who was painting the scene at Scapa was amazed to see his subjects disappear in front of him. The excited younger schoolchildren thought the show had been put on for them. But there was some firing, and nine German soldiers were killed. The red stuff in the water was human blood.

On that bright Orcadian midsummer day, these schoolchildren from Stromness saw their innocent view of the world dissolve before their eyes. If sun-drenched Orkney was their garden of Eden, the Fall had entered in.

The Orkney poet Edwin Muir talks about the darkening moral landscape:

One foot in Eden still, I stand
And look across the other land.
The world’s great day is growing late,
Yet strange these fields that we have planted
So long with crops of love and hate.
Time’s handiworks by time are haunted,
And nothing now can separate
The corn and tares compactly grown.
The armorial weed in stillness bound
About the stalk; these are our own.
Evil and good stand thick around
In the fields of charity and sin
Where we shall lead our harvest in.

Light and dark. You don’t know what you’ve lost until it is gone. Cherish the light when it is here. Cherish Christ, the Light of the world, the one who illuminates the dark places.


Last week: A Question of Ethics