Storm’s a brewin’ up in sleepy Stromness

IT'S not, perhaps, the most obvious thing for a community to get upset about. But in one British town the people are solidly behind a petition to keep their traffic warden.

Aidan Semmens

IT'S not, perhaps, the most obvious thing for a community to get upset about.

But in one British town the people are solidly behind a petition to keep their traffic warden.

And you don't have to scratch too far beneath the surface to see why.

For a start, Stromness is tiny, about the size of Wickham Market. Its few streets are narrow, without pavements as they pass in irregular lines between the stone-built shops and houses.

Yet it's the second-largest centre in the Orkney islands, and being the main ferry-port has thousands of visitors passing through each year.

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Out of season it's a charming little town, but just one or two cars illegally parked could cause chaos when it's swarming with summer visitors.

So axing the post of a single part-time traffic warden could have consequences beyond the imagining of the suits in far-off Inverness, where the decision was taken.

Trouble is, the suits don't have much imagination. And neither, it would seem, do either of Orkney's two sleepy little local papers.

For though both have carried letters on the subject from irate Stromness folk, neither has picked up what seems to me a cracking local story - and possibly even a national one.

I wonder whether Orkney Today's new editor will sharpen up its act and create more serious competition for the long-established, staid Orcadian?

I'm sure I would have done - if I'd decided to bite the bullet and go for the job when it was advertised a few weeks back. (I thought about it, but I hadn't seen the place then.) And assuming, of course, that the paper's owners actually want it sharpened up.

They may think sleepy and dull is how the good folk of Orkney like it. Perhaps it is.

For far-flung as it is, scattered off the north coast of Scotland, at the meeting-point of the Atlantic and the North Sea, Orkney is already a community under some threat from outsiders and their ways.

In a week there, we found the Orcadians very friendly and chatty. But well over half of those we met had accents that originated well south of the border, most commonly and obviously in Yorkshire.

Wonderful as Orkney is - its landscape, its history, especially its prehistory - it has little that might appeal to most young folk as a place to live and thrive. Which may partly account for the place gradually emptying of local people and filling up with slightly older English ones.

Interestingly, in these times of English paranoia about immigration, the northern Scots are worried about depopulation. They positively welcome immigrants, be they English, Asian or east European.

Individually, they also seem very welcoming of visitors. But overall, as in most places, the effects of tourism are a mixed blessing.

While sheep and cattle farming, and of course fishing, are still very apparent, the tourists are the prime cash crop.

But for all its ancient, timeless beauty, tree-less, wind-blown Orkney is a delicate, fragile place.

The Ring of Brodgar - a 5,000-year-old ring of standing stones as large as the famous circle at Avebury - is just one of Orkney's many breathtaking prehistoric sites.

To walk alone among the stones at sunset, or in the cold wind and snow, is a truly magical experience. To do so in high summer among a crowd of others must be rather different.

At such times the signs requesting that you stick to the path must be crucial. Especially as the surrounding heather is, like much of the islands, important for birdlife and in the care of the RSPB.

Amazingly, the Orkney capital, Kirkwall, is second only to Southampton as a British stopping-point for cruise liners.

On one day last year James Dewar had to move on 11 tourist coaches which were blocking the road at Brodgar.

James is the traffic warden whose job has just been scrapped. In his absence, heaven knows what chaos will ensue.

WE left Suffolk in the grip of the year's first real snow.

We returned to find the hawthorn wearing its brightest new emerald green and the apple on the point of bursting into full blossom.

In between, we saw many familiar friends in an unfamiliar setting.

The curlews, lapwings and oystercatchers we see so often on the Deben and Orwell are equally at home on the marshy moors of Orkney.

With no trees on the islands, there are none of the tits, sparrows and finches we enjoy here. But fulmars soared over the sea on their stubby wings or nestled together in pairs on the cliffs.

We saw shags and razorbills and a positive city of guillemots. But no puffins.

The puffin, the Orkneys' unofficial emblem, spends most of its life out at sea, coming ashore only for the breeding season, and for that we were too early.

Oh well. We'll just have to go back.