Orcadian Light

Leander shares daybreak with some cows grazing on a nearby hill.Sunrise at Stromness.

Orkney would be picturesque in any light, but the climate and the nature of the terrain here 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 recently on an overcast and rainy day.  A dull grey sky muted the browns and greens of the surrounding farmland, seemingly in all directions.  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 could see a hole or two in the cloud cover, including one that provided the farm it’s own private light bath.  The contrast was a sight to see, something like luminaries laid out in an otherwise dark yard on an early fall night.

Light 1From 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 seems to provide 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 everything 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 white-orange 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.

Light 2On a bright day at the beach near Longhope Village on South Walls, Alexander searches for goodies at the waterline while Sima finds a 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, and yet the horizon stretches more deeply back, finally disappearing at a great distance away.  Some part of this effect is caused by the nature of the terrain. There are few trees here, and from a slight elevation, you can see for many miles around, 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.

Light 6The sky 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 something on the boat.  Coming back to bed, I stood in the open door with first light streaming in behind me. I whispered to Sima, “Are you awake.”  Alexander, from a sound sleep, shot upright, his eyes still mostly closed.  “Wake up time!?”  “No!,” Sima grumbled, forcing him back down with the back of her arm as I closed the door.  Alexander murmured, rolled over, and went back to sleep.

Light 10Sunset at Longhope, South Walls.

Light 5Compare the light in this photo, foreground lit and background shaded . . .

Light C. . . with the same house and background here, shading reversed.  The subtle shifts in lighting change the mood of our surroundings.  And maybe our moods as well. 

LIght 7On another sunny day, Sima and Alexander stroll around the Ring of Brodgar.

Light 3Here, contrast the featureless view from Leander during a foggy high tide at Longhope . . .

Light 4

. . . with the colors and textures that come at low tide when the fog has burned off. 

Light ARecognize the farmhouse from the earlier photos?  Here, at sunrise. 

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