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Home  >  Features  >  Looking Back: August 1941

Looking Back

A MINISTER IN ORKNEY

First published in August 1941. By the Rev Gilbert W Moore BD


To have been the minister of an Orkney parish is an experience which brings one into touch with many quaint customs. Orkney is a land of strange contrasts. In summer the sea glitters in the sunshine, and the heather covers the hills with its purple bloom. A sunset in summer is an experience not readily to be forgotten. As the sun slowly sinks behind the hills the sky is filled with an apocalyptic glory, the sea takes on all the colours of the rainbow – red, yellow and pink. Here indeed is the essence of beauty, and for a moment it seems as if the gates of Heaven are opened, and the glory of God is flashed upon the world.

 

An Orkney Wedding

In the winter the scene is very different. Now the gales blow over the cottages huddled together on the hillside and the minister has a hard time to keep the spiritual atmosphere alive. A cold and draughty church does not encourage the devotional spirit, and the Orkney minister is tempted to envy his town brethren their well-heated churches.

The writer remembers one winter when he had to conduct a wedding at a house some distances from the manse. It was so frosty that no cars could be used on the roads , and a gale was blowing. A ferry had to be crossed, and the ferryman was rather unwilling to cross. However, as it was necessary to get over somehow he agreed to launch his motor boat. Soon the boat was plunging about in the sea and the cold spray was dashing over the unhappy passengers. The boat reached the other side safely, and then we had to walk a mile or so to the house where the marriage was to take place. The roads were so slippery that a journey which usually takes twenty minutes took one hour.

An Orkney wedding is an institution by itself. It is usually held in a barn which has been specially decorated for the occasion. A table is set at one end, and the wedding cake is set thereon. There the solemn ceremony of holy matrimony takes place. Here in the old barn it seems just as solemn as if it was a great cathedral. If it is summer the scent of followers steals in through the door and a glimpse can be caught of the moon rising in all her splendour over the sea.

After the wedding ceremony is over the Bride’s Reel is danced and the guest enjoy themselves until the next morning.

 

An Orkney Funeral

So closely are human joys and sorrows interwoven that the minister may be called upon to officiate at a funeral the day after a wedding. One such funeral remains in the memory. A Swedish steamer had been wrecked on the shores of Orkney, and the body of an unknown sailor had been washed ashore. He was buried on the island. His coffin draped in the Union Jack was taken to the cemetery on a motor lorry. It was a lovely day when we buried the unknown sailor. A small company of islanders accompanied him to his last resting place and as the beautiful words of the burial service rose on the air one felt as if one saw the vision of the Eternal City in all its beauty. So we left the unknown sailor lying beside the sea in whose service his life had been spent and which not sang his requiem at last.

 

Orkney in War-time

The war has made great changes in Orkney. From being a quiet and peaceable community taken up with its own concerns it has now become a busy hive of activity and it is impossible to close without paying a tribute to the work done by the Church of Scotland Huts. For several months after the war started there was not place where the soldier or sailor could spend his spare time. The only available hall had been commandeered for other purposes. The local folk did their best to entertain servicemen but they could not cope with the great need. Then the Church of Scotland built several huts where the men might find recreation and peace. No praise could be too great for the work these Hunts are doing and they deserve the support of all the congregations of the Church.

But still there are quiet nights when the sun sets in a blaze of beauty, and the stars come out one by one in the blue vault of the heavens. Nothing is to be heard but the moan of the sea and the bark of a dog in the distance. So we leave Orkney wrapped in the wings of a northern night, and with the Ward Hill crowned with a garland of stars.


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