The Early Days of a Better Nation

Saturday, September 10, 2011

From the shores of Lake Orcadie

I'm just back from a week in Orkney as a guest of the 21st Orkney International Science Festival. The Festival is an impressive achievement, with a wide-ranging programme and a solid embedding in the locality: events were held in Kirkwall's large, modern and well-used community centre, the town hall, the cathedral, a local church and the hall of another church, and extended to outlying islands: tiny North Ronaldsay got an astronomy weekend to itself, and other events took place on Eday, Westray, Stronsay, Sanday Soulka and Hoy. The Reel, a cafe, bar, restaurant, and music centre hard by the cathedral, turned itself into a festival club in the evenings, to raucous and convivial effect. Selena Kuzman, who designed the festival's flyers and posters, had an exhibition of her pictures in a warehouse of the nearby Highland Park distillery. The topics ranged from astronomy to archaeology by way of quantum physics and psychology, with items on the skills of distilling and fermenting providing a local flavour in more ways than one. All this was covered in detail and in depth by the islands' weekly paper, The Orcadian - it was slightly disconcerting to find my own opening talk reported over almost half a page, and a relief to find the reporter had mercifully omitted my jokes and asides.

That talk was sponsored by Loganair, who covered my (and Carol's) return flights. Never having visted Orkney before, we were grateful for the opportunity to do a bit of exploring around the islands as well as attending events. Orkney is a place where history and prehistory are scattered liberally over the landscape, from the neolithic village of Skara Brae to the rusting guns recovered from Scapa Flow. The land is mostly low, undulating, and green, with the horizon sometimes just yards away, as you were if on the surface of an improbably terraformed asteroid. Underlying it is sedimentary rock, megayears of Devonian deposition exposed on every cliff-face and rocky shore, and the spoil-heaps left by the ice piled in heathery knolls at the foot of glens. Having all this pointed out to us, on a tour of Hoy with geologist Dr John Flett Brown (you can see him in very characteristic action here) was one highlight of a memorable and enjoyable week.

It wasn't until some days after I'd met him that I learned that Festival organiser Howie Firth had not only founded the Orkney Science Festival, he'd also a few years earlier started the Edinburgh Science Festival, and is in general for Orkney and Scotland what in SF circles is called a SMOF. No doubt there's a word in Orcadian dialect for this sort of person, but like Howie they're too modest to mention it themselves.

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Orkney shares the distinction of being one of the two oldest recorded place names in Britain. In the fifth century BC a Greek writer joined a ship from Marseille (which was a Greek colony in those days) that circumnavigated Britain, and he wrote that Britain was a triangular island defined by peninsulas in the southeast (Kantion) and southwest (Belerion), and an archipelago in the North (Orkades). Belerion has changed names a couple of times in the last twenty four centuries, and is now Cornwall, but Kent and Orkney still have recognisably the names they had then.

That's interesting. Also that the Greek writer was unwittingly naming a lake that existed in the Devonian.

I would hazard a guess that "Belerion" influenced Tolkien's "Beleriand" (of which the British Isles were intended to be the remaining fragments).

[...]"Beleriand" (of which the British Isles were intended to be the remaining fragments).

Which would make it Lindon.

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