From The Bottom To The Top (of the UK)
by Áine King
Highland Park House
In November 2013 we moved from Brighton to Orkney, from the bottom of the UK to (almost) the top. We bought a foolishly large and largely neglected Victorian Gothic mansion planning to run arts courses, accommodation and events. We will be renovating and restoring it for the rest of our lives.
Our families and friends thought we were nuts. Some came right out and said it. Some rolled their eyes and shook their heads behind our backs. Generally, people want to move TO Brighton, not away from it. Some didn’t even know where Orkney is…One ex colleague thinks I’ve moved to the Falklands!
We were teachers, artists, part of an Open Houses group, turning our house into a gallery every May during Brighton Festival. I was a theatre director working for a company producing shows in Brighton and London. I’d just finished my Master’s degree at RADA and had been offered an exciting job at the Old Vic.
But we wanted a different life; more time and less traffic, more space and less stress, more sky and fewer skyscrapers, more community and fewer crowds. We were looking for a building with enough space for an art studio, accommodation, studio theatre and gallery. Highland Park House was 600 miles north, and the estate agent only uploaded five slightly blurred photos and a floor plan, but that was enough.
We fell in love with Orkney before we even got here. George Mackay Brown’s poetry and Gunnie Moberg’s photographs seduced us. I’ve been painting Neolithic sites for years. The chance to have Skara Brae, Brodgar and Stenness on our doorstep was too good to miss.
Suddenly it was September and we were on the deck of the Pentalina, leaving Gill’s Bay for a ‘reconnaissance’ trip. Someone shouted ‘Dolphins!’ - and there they were, leaping alongside the ferry. There were seals, too. Later, at Skara Brae we got chatting to one of the guides about living in Orkney. Suddenly his radio crackled and we heard “Please investigate - Naked Norwegians on the beach!” Dolphins…seals…and naked Norwegians!! How could anyone NOT want to live here?
On a more serious note, we had our 3 sons to consider, all at various stages of growing up. Uprooting them felt reckless. Son 1 had just finished Uni and was off on his own. Son 3 was six and we knew he’d miss his friends. Papdale Primary School won him over; It had a proper library, not just a box of books in the corner of the classroom. It won us over, too. The class size was 20. (33 back in Brighton!) There were dedicated classrooms and specialist teachers for music and art, and a busy, happy atmosphere.
Son 2 was more complicated. He had just got a place at the BRIT School of performing Arts, which is a bit like winning the lottery if you’re seventeen and want to be a lighting designer. It was a very BIG deal and denying him the opportunity felt brutal. There were no rows, just a stunned, quiet, sad resignation which anyone who’s raised teenagers will know is much, much worse. Our wonderful very best friends – parents of Son’s best friend – gave him a home for nearly two years so he could stay and study.
It wasn’t easy. Our first Christmas, just a month after we arrived, we spent on opposite shores of the Pentland Firth as a big storm cancelled flights and ferries. Son 2 and his dad were stuck in a hostel in Thurso while Smallest Son and I joked our way through a Christmas power cut in a freezing house rocked by 100mph winds and leaking like a sieve. We had never been apart at Christmas. After Smallest Son hung up his sock and went to sleep I went from room to room with a torch counting the leaks, and then sat in the gallery with a large glass of wine, listening to the roar of the wind and the drip, drip, drip of rain into buckets, bowls and saucepans….and wondered what on earth we had done.
We were all back together by Boxing Day. The storm had blown out and Orkney welcomed Son 2 with blue skies, sparkling seas and sunny hillsides smothered in geese. Teenagers are seldom impressed by fields and geese, but The Chair, Orkney’s awesome folk-stomp band, was another matter. We went to their New Year’s gig that week and he danced his socks off. As the last fiddle-note faded away he was beaming, and I knew he was hooked.*
Moving here mid-winter was really tough. There were days when I seemed to be wearing ALL my clothes trying to keep warm – indoors. After three months decorating in the cold I had blisters on top of chilblains. But the Aurora Borealis AND the Milky Way both spread across the night sky above the house, unfurling like a banner over the tower.
In Spring the garden surprised us with snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils. Friends and neighbours from down south made the long journey up to help build and plumb, sew and cook and encourage and reassure us and tell us how the traffic was doing on the M23. Suddenly the fields were full of lambs and hares and oyster catchers and curlews. The skies were busy with birds coming and going, changing shifts with the changing season. The days began to stretch until they met themselves in a dusk-dawn dim.
It’s five years since we moved. The house still leaks a bit in the winter. I suspect it always will. But in the summer it is filled with a rich golden light day and night, and with guests from every corner of the world; some come to paint, draw or write, some for whisky, some for archaeology or wildlife. There’s a hum of many languages up and down the house as travellers swap stories. We love seeing other folks discover this beautiful place.
I don’t miss much from our old life; the night-barking of foxes and London’s theatres. Friendship was what I was most concerned to leave behind, but our friends from down south have come, some of them several times, bringing practical help, good company and music and marvelling because we haven’t seen the door key for months, don’t worry where our child is every minute and never lock the car. There is NEW friendship, too, from native Orcadians and incomers like ourselves; invitations to share company and cake, music and stories and plays. And raffles.
It’s not just history and geography that make Orkney a great place to live; the COMMUNITY is pretty special, too.
(* THIS year he wasn’t dancing; he was busy operating the lighting. He’ll finish his degree in technical theatre at the Royal Conservatoire Of Scotland this spring.)