Lost and Found in St Margaret’s Hope

Laura Bissell

United Kingdom-Scotland

A silver acorn attached to a pocket watch, Pict skeletons under the floorboards, an ornate façade covering a concrete bunker, the tweeting from inner walls where birds are nesting, two journeys over the North Sea, and the feeling of a new hope.

It is a Thursday evening in Thurso, Caithness, the northernmost town on the Scottish Mainland, when I learn that in the morning we will be travelling to St Margaret’s Hope on the Orkney Islands.

[Lost: a day of travel][Found: a new flat north; a stone-wall land; a green land]

Orkney is a place I have always romanticised and imagined as a series of craggy black rocks, a dramatic landscape surrounded and shaped by the sea and its moods. Our arrival in St Margaret’s Hope (or ‘The Hope’ as it is locally known) and our journey from Glasgow, in the central belt of Scotland, to Thurso and on to Orkney, provoked me to think about what Scotland has lost and found in terms of hope in the three years following our referendum on independence.

[Lost: a sense of unity, trust in fellow citizens][Found: resilience, persistence and strength in the face of political trauma]

We are on the road for The National newspaper, the only Scottish paper that supports independence, and I am travelling with my husband of six weeks (also the editor), as well as columnist and speaker for The National, Paul Kavanagh (‘the Wee Ginger Dug’), and Stephen Paton, the online content editor who will live-stream our events via social media. My husband and I met in the lead-up to the referendum; we supported the campaign for independence out of a desire for self-determination and democracy (Scotland is frequently governed by parties it does not vote for – most recently the Conservative Party). We were devastated by the outcome, the result of a fairly narrow decision to stay as part of the UK after vigorous campaigning on both sides and very high participation rates. We have continued to work towards Scottish independence in the years following the vote.

[Lost: ‘hope’, industry, jobs, social security, communities][Found: ‘hope’, ‘Another Scotland is possible’]

The six-hour drive from Glasgow to Thurso was difficult; the rain was persistent, and the surface water on the roads made visibility low and the journey frustrating. My perception that Inverness is in the north of Scotland was challenged, as Inverness only marks the half-way point on the journey up to Caithness, during which the landscape flattens beyond the Cairngorms and the fields in the drizzle are empty of all but sheep.

[Lost: The Great Caledonian Forest, highland crofts and communities][Found: ‘the cheviot, the stag and the black, black oil’]

We have a number of people to speak to in Thurso. Kenny and Iain from the Caithness Broch Project want to build a broch, an Iron Age drystone structure found only in Scotland. Kenny is an archaeologist and Iain is a builder, and they hope to be able to construct a modern-day replica of the broch to discourage people from simply passing through Thurso on their way to Orkney. They hope people will visit Thurso, that their town will grow and there will be increased opportunities for its young people, who now migrate south to study and work. Marion, who works at Caithness Horizons Museum, talks about how the North Coast 500 (NC500) – Scotland’s Route 66, a 500-mile road trip around the north coast of Scotland – has brought benefits to the area. People find the landscape and the sites spectacular, she says. They have discovered new places. A local man even found himself in the first traffic jam of his life.

[Lost: the past][Found: a plan to reconstruct the past, in the present, for the future]

We are here to talk about independence, to speak to readers of the paper and members of the community to discuss what local issues affect them and what the questions around Scotland’s constitutional future are. In 2014 we found a hope and political energy we had never experienced before. Since then, the political events have been seismic: in 2015, the UK General Election returned a Tory government to Westminster while Scotland voted, 56 out of 59, Scottish National Party (SNP) MPs to power. In June 2015, the UK’s Brexit referendum highlighted further divisions, as Scotland (along with Northern Ireland) voted overwhelmingly to remain within the European Union, while England and Wales voted mainly to leave. The democratic deficit in terms of Scotland’s part within the UK’s political system has become more apparent since the historic 2014 vote on independence. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement of a potential second independence referendum early in 2017 was immediately followed by Prime Minister Theresa May’s call for a snap election in June; the debate then became focused on the possibility of ‘indyref 2’, and ultimately resulted in the loss of SNP seats and Tory gains in North East Scotland.  Our trip throughout Scotland continues in the immediate aftermath of this election, and we are unsure of what to expect. Are people still hopeful? Are they feeling lost? Are people fatigued from the political turmoil of the past few years? In these islands, which bear many traces of their Nordic heritage, influence and culture, are these constitutional questions even relevant?

[Lost: ‘Yes’ badges, saltires in windows, town hall meetings][Found: ‘Great British strawberries’ (from Perth), ‘British Haggis’ in airports and British sporting heroes]

In Thurso the turnout is good. The community want to talk about land issues, as the vast expanse of land is rumoured to be owned by a handful of people, such as a Danish businessman and an English landowner who has never set foot on his land. Who owns Scotland? The community is angry at the way they have been treated over the years. Once, the local people relied on the employment of HMS Tern and, before its decommissioning in the late 1990s after a damning safety report, the Dounreay Nuclear Reactor. The local museum archives the distant past and the recent present – Pictish stones and the control panel from the nuclear reactor. Ancient runes alongside modern-day warnings.

[Lost: HMS Tern, Dounreay; decommissioned, defunct][Found: hiding places, the waste buried, future archaeologists better watch out]

On Friday morning we travel over the North Sea to St Margaret’s Hope. I wonder who she was and what she hoped for. Was the small island her hope in stormy seas? Was Margaret the Maid of Norway? Or was she Margaret Queen of Scotland, married to Malcolm III? Was this land the hope of a journey ending? Or the hope of a new beginning? The island no longer holds any clues, and the sea too keeps its secrets well.

The small islands of the south of the archipelago are linked by manmade causeways. Signs read NO STOPPING ON CAUSEWAY and DRIVERS CROSS AT OWN RISK. The danger of the sea seems evident from the shipwrecks that emerge from the water around the causeways. I later find out the boats were sunk deliberately while the causeways were being built to stop other vessels passing through. Nothing here is as it seems.

[Lost: ships][Found: shipwrecks]

We spend our days visiting the southern Orkney islands, speaking to locals and discussing Scotland’s future. We are all struck by the length of the days in Orkney and the pink setting sun, visible over the horizon even after ten o’clock. On the last day we visit Skara Brae, an ancient village that was hidden under a sandy dune for thousands of years until a particularly fierce wind blew the dune away and revealed the preserved remains. A community lived here over five thousand years ago. Older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Giza, this site in the corner of Scotland holds clues as to what life was like back then. Why, though, did this community cease in Skara Brae? Did the people move on or die out?

[Lost: a dune][Found: a Neolithic settlement, stone beds, stone hearths]

On the ferry to Orkney I speak to Paul, who has recently been creating Gaelic maps of Scotland. The Gaelic language was suppressed for hundreds of years in Scotland and Paul’s mapping endeavour has proved highly controversial. His assertion that Gaelic was spoken in the centre and lowlands is evidenced by the proliferation of Gaelic place names all over the country, as in the Gaelic map of Glasgow (considered a lowland) that he gifted me and my husband for our wedding. I tell Paul I am interested in St Margaret’s Hope and what this name means. He tells me that ‘hope’ in this context is ‘hoob’, Gaelic for ‘bay’. I look it up on my return, and the ‘hope’ in St Margaret’s Hope does indeed refer to the landscape itself: ‘a small bay or haven.’

[Lost: ‘hope’][Found: ‘bay’]

The hope is a bay, not a hope. The place is named after the place; the ancient landscape has had its say. My ‘hope’ for what the story of St Margaret’s Hope might be and what it might tell me about Scotland’s past as I look to its future is not there. Instead, the hope is in the landscape, a pretty bay with waves lapping on the weedy beach; St Margaret’s Hope its Gaelic namesake.




Laura Bissell is a Guest Contributor to Panorama.