Orcadian Light


Bovine Breakfast:  Daybreak illuminates Leander’s our closest neighbors.

Orkney would be picturesque in any light, but the climate and the nature of the terrain make it even more so.  The ever-changing weather combines with wide-open vistas to add additional layers of color, contrast, relief, and variation to an already ample canvas.

Though we try to capture this with our camera when we have it with us, it is somewhat difficult to reduce this all to two dimensions.

For example, I was out for a run on an recent overcast and rainy day.  A dull grey sky muted the colors of the surrounding farmland.  But cresting the top of a hill, I saw a group of white farmhouses about a mile away, standing out in bright relief.  A warm white light set them apart from their otherwise lackluster surroundings.  Looking up, I saw the hole in the cloud cover, including one that provided the farm it’s own private light bath.  The contrast was a sight to see, and the houses were like luminaries laid out in an otherwise dark yard on an early fall night.


From South Walls, the island of Hoy to the left, Flotta to the right, and Scapa Flow ahead, under a low ceiling.

Although this might be nothing exceptional in isolation, Orkney provides these light shows on a running basis.

On dull, damp, foggy days, the landscape appears featureless and monochrome — pictures taken in full color look black and white.  The grey slate that Orcadians use to build nearly every structure here adds to the effect. 

On the other hand, when high pressure sets in, the landscape looks like it is being flood-lit from the side by a huge spotlight.  The colors and relief are so idyllic, it can feel like a movie set. But perhaps the best days are the “tweeners,” like the one described above, when the sky shifts between cloud and sun, bringing successive parts of one’s surroundings in and out light.  It’s somewhat like a slow-moving Klieg light show, playing out during the day, rather than at night, with the light sweeping from sky to earth, rather than the other way around.


When it is clear, it is oh-so-clear. Alexander inspects the water-line for goodies at the beach near Longhope Village, South Walls, while Sima removes to dry spot to change a wet Aylin.

On some days, when there is a moderately low and broken cloud ceiling, the sky this far north looks different than what we are used to.  It feels at once lower, closer, and pressed down. But it also has more depth and distance. The horizon stretches back, finally disappearing at a great distance away. 

This effect is enhanced by the nature of the terrain. There are few trees, buildings, or other obstructions. You can see for many miles around from even a slight elevation, to other hills in the distance, across lochs,  into nearby towns and villages, over farm houses and farms, across to other islands, and out to sea.


The sky was often vertically compressed and horizontally stretched.

And this far north, the lights are on until quite late!  The sun, when it finally is ready to set, takes a long time to surrender.  It goes more sideways than down, and even after setting, it still lingers just below the horizon, resulting in a long-lasting twilight.  Even into September, we cover the windows and overhead hatch in the bedroom at night to shut out the sunlight, so that Alexander will let go of the day long before the sun does.  The shutters serve their purpose in the morning too, allowing us all to sleep for hours after daylight arrives.

(These long days throw off and shorten Alexander’s sleep cycle. One night while berthed, I had gotten up at about 4:00 a.m. to adjust a creaking line.  Coming back to bed, I stood in the open door with first light streaming in behind me. Alexander, from a sound sleep, shot upright, his eyes still mostly closed.  “Wake up time!?” he asked excitedly.  “No!,” Sima grumbled, forcing him back down with the back of her arm as I pulled the door closed behind me.  Alexander murmured some more, rolled over, and went back to sleep.)


The sunsets brought out shadows in Halloween-like contrasts.

Light 5

Compare the light in this photo, foreground lit and background shaded . . .


. . . with the same house and background here, shading reversed . . ..


. . . with later in the season, showing off a coat of snow. The subtle shifts in lighting change the mood of our surroundings.  And maybe our moods as well.


A whale-tail cloud walks as snow squall toward our berth.


On sunny day, Sima and Alexander explore the Ring of Brodgar.


Here, contrast the featureless view from Leander during a foggy high tide at Longhope . . .


. . . . in great contrast to the same view, at a lower tide, on a clearer day. The waters are bright blue again, the rocks multi-colored, and the distant hills are returning to a patchwork of greens and browns.


The sun was never high in the sky in Orkney, but often seemed remarkably bright, as one were moving across a brightly lit stage.  Shadows were long.


Here, a sense of the feeling of a lit stage, as Alexander investigates a woman communing with one of the ancient standing stones at the Ring of Brodgar.


The default color in Orkney can be grey, to go with the default climate — cold and windy.

On one of our first days in Stromness, we carried an umbrella in hand. “Ya wain’t be getting much use of that here,” warned a shopkeeper with an easy grin. We quickly learned the truth of that. When it rains, it comes down sideways, and makes quick work of even the strongest brolly.

As the clouds cycle out and the sun returns, this rainbow with its start beyond a distant hill . . . .

. . . . found its end much closer to home. 


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