Aikerness: Seven sisters and a swirling sea

 

Photo courtesy of Lynda Sharp

 

The shortest scheduled commercial flight in the world is between Westray and Papa Westray, two of Orkney’s north isles.  Timetables show it lasting three minutes, but with a following wind it can all be over in 90 seconds. 

The plane is an eight-seater Islander, with a cabin narrower than the average family car, so everyone gets a window seat.  Look down during those moments as you fly low over the swirling waters of Papa Sound, and you’ll see a three-islet straggle of rocks, pebbles and beaches, with a few sheep dotted here and there.  This is the Holm of Aikerness.

‘Holm’ is a common Orcadian word, which means a small island.  It’s pronounced home.’   Stromness harbour has an Inner Holm and an Outer Holm.  The Holm of Grimbister is linked by a tidal causeway to the mainland.  The Holm of Papay has a Neolithic chambered tomb with spectacular carvings.  (And Holm, a southern part of the Orkney Mainland, is pronounced ‘ham’. Our multi-layered history gives much inspiration and some perplexing, contradictory placenames!)    

Aikerness, on the other hand, comes from two Old Norse words, Aiker meaning pastureland, and Ness meaning a point of land.  And sure enough, Skaill farm’s fields do point eastwards into the waves at this point – though part of the pasture is now taken up by Westray’s tiny airstrip, which you’ve just taken off from.

 Photo courtesy of Orkney Islands Council Archaeology Sites and Monuments Record 
 

Look down!  Dark blue water rushes through the narrow sound, and white horses break over the rocks and skerries that lie just below or just above the surface, depending on the state of the tide.  The central part of the Holm of Aikerness is always just above sea level.  At low tide, on calm days, the sheep wander north and south to the lower-lying extremities of the Holm, but with perfect instinct they retreat to the slightly higher ground of the middle islet when tides and gales threaten.  Is there much grass on the holm you ask?  Not a blade!  For these are seaweed-eating sheep, like their more famous cousins on North Ronaldsay, a few miles to the east.

But it’s the sea rather than the sheep that inspired this collection.  The background to all the pieces is a subtle rippling texture, rather like the waters of Papay Sound on a calm day.  And out from the ripples bursts a bold swirling wave-like motif, as if a gust of northerly wind has sent a white-topped breaker crashing over the rocks.

Of course, most Ola Gorie designs are not simple representations of something else: they bring together strands of inspiration from various sources and weave them together into something new and multi-layered and beautiful.  So it is with Aikerness, where there are echoes of classic Celtic interlacing knots.

One of the earliest books about Orkney was A Brief Description of Orkney, written by J. Barry and published in 1701.  It includes the following passage:

On the W side of Papa Westra, between it and Westra there is an Holm wherein once there was a little Chappel, whereof some of the side-walls are only now standing, in which they say, there were seven sisters buried, who were Nuns, and desired to ly in this Holm, about whose graves this Chappel was built.

No one knows whether the seven nuns lived on the Holm, or just wanted to be buried there after they died, inspiring pious folk to build the chapel.  It’s more likely that they lived – if indeed they ever did live, and this isn’t all a myth! – in one of the many Christian communities that were scattered across Orkney from 995AD onwards, and that are marked on the maps by the words Chapel (rems of) and in place names like Ladykirk and Papay.

In his account of the Holm, J. Barry records something that may be a religious miracle, or even a supernatural visitation:

About a year ago, there were seen several times at midday, about 20 men walking on that Holm, among whom there was one greater and higher than the rest, who sometimes stood and looked into the Chappel, this my informer with a hundred people in the isle of Papa saw, who could attest the same; After which appearance there was a Boat cast away in that Holm with 4 Men in her, who were all lost. 

It’s hard to know what to make of that story, other than that Orkney is a place haunted by history, legend and folklore.  Almost every field, every beach, every grassy mound has a tale associated with it.  Some of the tales might send a shiver down your spine, some might raise a laugh.  Others still might inspire a talented designer like Ola Gorie to come up with some uniquely beautiful jewellery!

The Aikerness collection was designed and launched in 2004.  Unusually for Ola, it makes use of coloured stones in some of its pieces, including purply-blue amethysts, and green and white pearls.  The colours of the stones seem to offer glimpses of the deep green and blue of the waters of Papa Sound, and the white waves that break so beautifully over the Holm of Aikerness.

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