Will Self: PsychoGeography

The ghosts of the Orkneys
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The Independent Online

I suppose if we were honest, by the time we reached Papa Westray both Antony and I were already just a little bit weirded out. It had been a beautiful day, and we'd cycled up the length of the larger Orcadian island of Westray, stopping only to boil up cockles on a perfect white sand beach and visit an archaeological site at the Knowe of Skea. Here affable archaeologists (mind you, have you ever met one who wasn't affable?) gave of their time to tell us about the dig. It was iron-age sacred site of some kind: the corpses of 127 people, bound and interred in the walls of a series of buildings used for metalworking. "Basically," our guide told us, "these people were metal-bashing while granny rotted in the wainscoting."

There was no one besides us on the ferry across to Papay, as it's locally known. Antony chatted with our genial Charon, while I observed the bank of sea mist, which, having remained offshore throughout the day, was now oozing in. At Moclett Pier a lady was waiting in her car. She wore a blue tunic, and took receipt of a prescription from the ferryman. "Do you want a lift up to Beltane House?" she asked, but we declined. Fiona was, it transpired, our hostess, as well as the district nurse. "And will chicken be all right for supper, because he's got it on?" Chicken, we conceded, would be fine.

We traversed a dwarfish golf course with only one hole and crossed by the shore of the Loch of St Tredwell. This was the uttermost end of Orkney, with nothing due north of it save for Fair Isle, where men are men and jumpers are nervous. Papay is a diminutive island, four miles long and barely a mile wide in places, but it supports a big history. St Tredwell, the remains of whose chapel stand beside the loch, was one of the "holy virgins" who accompanied St Boniface on his mission to convert the Picts. Apparently, when some venal fellow saw fit to complement the nascent saint on her fine eyes, she responded by tearing them out and sending them to him stuck on a bodkin. How's that for anti-vanity!

There's Tredwell and there's the Traills, who for centuries were the lairds of Papay. Their big pile, which pinions down the middle of the island with its austere vernacular chunkiness, is dubbed "Holland", because of some Traill's dubious notion that this green lozenge resembled the fertile polders of the Netherlands. The Traills were your typical vile, Highland landowners, racking the rents of their tenants and putting them to work on the noisome and foul business of kelp-making. The Traills are long-since gone, but their legacy remains all over the island in the form of abandoned crofts, many of them falling to pieces. Of course, Antony can't see an abandoned croft without wanting to re-tenant it.

So, Antony rummaged around in a tumbledown cabin, while I sat and smoked. He emerged with some lurid recipe books from the 195os, featuring Day-Glo illustrations of vegetarian cutlets. Oh, and there was also a needlework guide. Finally we reached Beltane House, a B&B-cum-hostel run by the island Co-op, to find that "he", our culinary nemesis, was waiting with the chicken. Lots of chicken and lots of gravy - boat after boat of it sailed to our table and slathered itself over croft-sized mounds of potatoes and chapels of roast fowl. After a wedge of gateaux leaking refined sugar, we called for mercy and set out to burn some of the calories off.

The sea mist had rolled right in by now, and the windsock at the dinky little airport (the shortest scheduled flight in the world is from Westray to Papa Westray: 2 minutes), hung limp in the gloaming. Apart from "him" and "her" at Beltane House we'd met no one on the island. We wandered through the farms, past old threshing barns. Even the cattle in the fields looked like isolated figures: all of them cut off from the herd. At this latitude it never really gets dark at night at this time of year, only eerie. We came upon St Boniface's, an austere little kirk on the seashore, foursquare, its churchyard planted thick with carious headstones.

"I've got to admit," Antony's normally resolute basso dropped to a whisper, "that this place is starting to get to me." I peered in through the grimy window and stared at the kirk's interior, then turned to my companion: "Would it get to you more," I said levelly "if I told you that my dead parents were sitting in one of the pews in there talking to St Tredwell?"

"Yeah, OK," he conceded. "That is a seriously disturbing image."

"Not for St Tredwell," I laughed maniacally, "or me for that matter. It's you she wants. I told you not to take that needlework guide from the croft."