part 1: the need for a rocking chair
In Kilnman Cottage, Pierowall a rather complicated metal-hinged rocking chair creaks loudly but rocks only slightly. It needs to be finessed into gear, maybe with a drop of oil.
The chair is fine, sat by the fireside, for reading from a book of Westray tales. And to sit and watch the chickens peck at the flowerbed beneath the window, it’s ideal. But it doesn’t help me write my own story and I have come in with my mind a jangle of stones in need of assembling.
Just a few hours ago I was inside the Knap of Howar, the oldest house in northern Europe, on the nearby island of Papa Westray.
The family of Howar built a home whose walls have offered shelter from the Atlantic winds for over 5000 years. Of course the roof is long gone and the hearth is just an indistinct, at least to my non-expert eyes, patch on the floor. But the solid walls remain an everlasting testimony to their building skills.
The Knap of Howar is near a beach not on top of a hill as I expected from its name. To get to it my two companions and I walked along a muddy farm track and down through a field of cows. In the farmyard is a vat, presumably for silage, with a painted Viking wolf reminiscent of the one inscribed on the wall of Maes Howe, albeit many, many times larger. Window frames, doors and other elements of the farm buildings are painted a striking red, visible for quite a way to anyone walking up from the pier.
It is a timeless place yet modern and stylish – both rural and connected to the world far beyond Papay, Westray or even Mainland. Orkney beef can be found prominently labelled in supermarkets all over. The only incongruity I can see here is the rusty pole, without sign or purpose, at the Howars’ dwelling.
Care and pride shine both from the ancient house and the attentively decorated farm buildings. It is those qualities that I want to capture somehow in a story. Alas I fail to do so in the rocking chair in Kilnman Cottage, Pierowall.
In his chair, George Mackay Brown took great care over writing stories. He often made his hometown, Stromness, the hero – its people, buildings and flagstoned streets, cats and boats all to be celebrated.
A few days after leaving Westray, I am in the Stromness museum gazing at GMB’s beautifully made rocking chair and the photograph of him sat in it, his large hands held open – so generously expressive.
Could I make myself a rocking chair that would subtly and continually shift my perspective, like a small boat bobbing in Pierowall Bay or a torn cloud in Orkney’s ever-moving sky? Would I find the depth of perception necessary to construct stories that truly last?
Where should I look for the wood to build my chair? And the time to learn my craft?
part 2: a fiction of love
I’ve thought about it. And now I’m able to write it down.
The place to gather chair-wood is a beach.
In the olden days, thousands of years ago, great logs were carried across the Atlantic, west to east, by storms and the Gulf Stream. Some of them beached in western Ireland, the Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland – gifts from the Gods to neolithic builders. Strong roofs were built and provided shelter from the very storms that supplied them.
The great forests of North America are fewer and sparser now, but flimsier structures and lost boats are torn by those storms – now fiercer than ever – and scattered. And like their mighty ancestors, pieces of driftwood and other flotsam reach Grobust Beach on Westray, as if guided by the Noup Head Lighthouse.
I should go back to Westray.
There’s fine-grained, salt-seasoned wood waiting to be collected. And nets and rope and iron nails only lightly rusted.
But a rocking chair needs two curved runners. Will any Westray shop sell such esoteric items?
Rendall’s in Pierowall has most things. I could ask at the counter and follow the shopkeeper into one of the abundantly stocked backrooms. Or is it cheating for me to buy ready-crafted wood?
Stories are found, not bought. Words are free as air. A poet couldn’t pay for her or his verses and still claim them to be poetical.
I buy a big net of firewood and drag it back to my ‘shed’. Tools, hanging down from old wall-hooks, clank every time the wind slams the door. Smaller items rattle in the workbench drawer whenever I hammer or saw.
I light a fire.
The ‘shed’ is more than a shed. It’s bigger and made of stone. It has a fireplace and a chimney. It has walls, a door, cracked windows and a leaky roof. Many of the slates are loose. I’m no expert but the rafters don’t look right – not quite straight. The days of strong roof-bearing beams washing ashore at Grobust were long gone when this building went up.
The fire warms my hands and back, tight from lugging the wood, and tickles my eyes like laughter. This is a good place to be.
I feel inspired.
I’ve never made a chair before, let alone a rocking chair. It’s hard but I’m ready.
The driftwood starts to take shape, a recognisable chair-shape, albeit abstract rather than comfortable. I’ll cushion the seat and back, work out how to cut the legs and attach it all together later. For now two irregular but complementary rectangles are ready to join.
The days of work fly by.
In the end, runners need to be ordered and bought. Thus the chair becomes a shared enterprise with a skilled craftsman. It’s a sort of cheating but one that makes for a satisfying ending.
The craftsman is a refugee from south-east England. He’s relieved to have made it to Westray. I feel privileged to fix my crudely honest chair to his perfectly arced runners and rock gently like a boat in wide Pierowall Bay.
The land rolls into a rippling sea up to a stratified sky, casting waves of light and shadow through curtains of rain across the sound and glimpses of a rainbow over Papay.
I’m touched by every subtle change of perspective. In my mind I can see over clouds and beneath the waves. It all makes sense – a feeling of oneness with the world, acceptance and happiness.
I thought it was a myth but from my rocking chair I can see that it’s real. And now my hands are free to write it down and share it all with you.