IT’S all starting to go in one ear and out the other. Not the whisky, which is going down the right place rather well, but the stuff Russell Anderson, distillery manager at Highland Park in Orkney, is telling us about it. The ears aren’t all that important in the tasting of good whisky. Alas, the nose most certainly is, and my nostrils are about as functioning and sensitive as a sniffer dog’s; one that’s just come through a bad accident with a fire-work.
We’re in the tasting room at Highland Park’s five-star visitor centre and Russell has put seven different malts in front of me and told me not to get pissed. He’s very good at explaining what are essentially industrial processes in ways that make you go “aah”, but I’m still not picking up Turkish Delight off the 25-year-old. What I can say is that Highland Park has a finer balance between sweet and smoky flavours than any other whisky I’ve tasted.
That, see, is the happy result of a combination of natural and human factors, not least the trace of heathery sweetness left by Orkney’s distinctive, aromatic peat, the judicious use of Spanish oak casks that have previously held sherry, and the gentle maturation process afforded by Orkney’s relatively constant temperatures. According to F Paul Pacult, an American expert past whose nose, presumably, nothing escapes, the 18-year-old is simply “the best spirit in the world.” When tasting, he says, the tongue should tingle and the mouth sweeten; it’ll then go dry, but water again three or four seconds later. Amazingly, it’s all true. The 18 is a marvellous whisky, but the alchemies of the barrels are equally to be savoured in the 25, 30 and 40 year-old malts.
Forty years, even the 211 during which whisky has been made at Highland Park, is as the life of a dram sipped in a peaceful moment to the long sleep of Orkney’s living yet unknowable past, the 5,000 years of civilisation that have so richly left their mark on the place; and yet the distillery has about it a sort of time-honoured purity of spirit and purpose that to this outsider at least is the very stamp of these islands.
A greater sense of being out of time, of the past resonating in the present, is made mainfest by the Neolithic remains that dot the landscape: houses, tombs and – great monuments to who knows what? – standing stones. Skara Brae is Europe’s best-preserved Neolithic settlement; viewed by visitors from above its neat warren-like, dollhouse layout seems tactile, familiar. All of a sudden, prehistory is no longer recondite: it is near. And near at hand, too, with their brochs, are the Picts, who farmed and fished for centuries before the Vikings arrived in 875 and annexed the joint.
Norse Earls ruled Orkney until 1472. One of them, Magnus, was made a saint, primarily because he hadn’t the stomach for a fight, preferring to stay on board his ship singing psalms during a Viking raid on Wales. His pacifism didn’t do him much good when his cousin Haakon, who disputed Magnus’s claim to the earldom, made his cook Lifolf split Magnus’s head with an axe in 1114, but the cathedral built in his honour, in Kirkwall, at least provided somewhere for his bones to lie undisturbed until 1917, around about the same time as Orkney was again playing its part in Albion’s “island story”.
Scapa Flow, a sheltered body of water just south of the Orcadian mainland, was used as a Royal Navy base in both world wars. The German High Seas Fleet was transferred there during peace talks in 1918, but the defeated Boche decided to open their sea-cocks and scuttle their ships. Another wreck, that of HMS Royal Oak, dates from 1939, just weeks into the World War II, when a German U-Boat passed into Scapa Flow and 833 men were killed. As a result, Churchill tasked Italian prisoners of war with constructing the Churchill Barriers, causeways that closed off most of the access channels and had the added benefit of joining up some of the islands; and the Italians were also responsible for another Orkney attraction, the ornate baroque chapel they built out of leftover concrete, wrought iron and no little ingenuity.
To varying degrees, people on Orkney feel Scottish or British. First and foremost, however, they feel Orcadian. Orkney and Shetland were pledged to Scotland by Christian I of Norway as security against the payment of a dowry on the marriage of his daughter Margaret to James III. A clause in the contract gave Norway the right to redeem the islands for a fixed sum , but later attempts to do so were rebuffed. Norn, a kind of Norse dialect, died out some 200 years ago; but still islanders guard their distinctiveness jealously. Their culture is emphatically not the same as Highland culture, with its clans and tartan and sad songs.
In 1987, the Orkney Movement, a political party that supported devolution for Orkney, contested the constituency in the general election, its candidate polling 14.5% of the vote. Given the extent to which the islands are said to rely on subsidy, it may be legitimate to wonder how much thought was given to the idea. It did recently come to light that the Labour government of the 1970s, desperate to counter economic arguments for Scottish independence, calculated that should Orkney and Shetland be regarded as separate from Scotland, they would own 53 per cent of oil reserves in the North Sea; but regardless of whose oil it is, or was, it is probably worth remembering what it is we subsidise – an older way of life, a community not blighted by crime and social breakdown, custodianship of World Heritage and conservation sites.
This being my first visit to Orkney, I wondered whether a place I had read about in the works of George Mackay Brown and others would match up to the unreasonably fanciful ideas I had formed of it: an archipelago whose islands – Westray, Shapinsay, Stronsay, Ronaldsay – sounded like they existed in a song, and where strong-limbed men and women went about rearing cattle, knitting jumpers, leaving their doors open and telling their children stories about sea monsters. Conversely, I wondered whether if I lived in Orkney I would eventually find it boring. Remote places where not much happens can depress the life out of some people. Having been, I am now convinced Orkney would not make that remoteness felt negatively; that to belong there would be to feel blessed.
That is not to say that its way of life is invulnerable: islanders think long and hard about the impact on landscape and ecosystems of developments like windfarms; public services are stretched; farmers resent being told by the RSPB that they’re not allowed to thin out the flocks of geese that wrack their grass. In Kirkwall, the demise of Woolworths has been felt sharply, and local shops and businesses fear the impact of a planned new Tesco superstore.
But other shops and new entertainments have grown up in Orkney in recent times – a cinema, theatre and leisure centre, a thriving arts and crafts industry, a programme of music festivals, not the least of which, the St Magnus Festival in midsummer, attracts musicians and premieres of genuine global standing.
What’s more, that much-vaunted sense of community is palpable, and there is next to no crime. At the airport shop there is an ‘honesty basket’ in which you are asked to leave the right money when there’s no-one about to serve you. The court reports in The Orcadian tell of one young man being ordered to “grow up” after giving his girlfriend a hard time, and another who simply “entered a house and stared at a woman.” Reading between the lines, he would have been down as the local idiot a generation ago. Still, doors go proudly unlocked, apart from during Christmas week, when, in Kirkwall, they are barricaded against intrusion from the ba’ game. An obscure tradition that frequently results in mass brawling, it is contested between two groups of men who live either side of an arbitrary dividing line. One team, the Doonies, must strive to put the ba’ into the harbour and stop the Uppies from touching it against a wall at the other end of town. What greater purity of purpose can you ask of a place?
This article appeared in the Sunday Herald