There’s a series of scenes in KILLING KITCHENER where the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Hampshire hits a German mine during a mighty storm in the North Atlantic. Hundreds of boys, men and officers, including the British secretary of state for war Lord Kitchener and his official party, go down with the cruiser, while several dozen seamen crowd aboard three Carley rafts and drift towards an unforgiving shore.
I’ve placed two of my characters – one fictional, the other not entirely – aboard one of those floats, as they endure a constant battering from the vicious seas and freezing temperatures of a force-nine gale. I’ve tried to imagine how a little raft might wash up in a tiny inlet on the western side of Orkney island and how those not already dead from hyperthermia might climb the cliffs to safety in the middle of the night.
But have I got it right? Almost exactly a hundred years later, I fly to Edinburgh and then to Kirkwall, capital of the main Orkney island. I hire a car and go in search of the narrow inlet, the one they call Nebbi Geo, a ‘geo’ being a little inlet, a break within sheer cliffs, where one of the rafts had come ashore.
It’s a beautiful sunny summer’s day, as I drive along empty roads, through an almost treeless panorama of green hills, past fields of buttercups and picturesque stone houses, through beautiful little towns, with majestic views of the sea, and I am totally in love with Scotland.
Trusting in my newly-purchased Ordinance Survey map, I head for Upper Garson. At a place called Quoyloo, I turn off the bitumen onto a dirt road and head west, fat sheep in paddocks on either side, towards the cliffs with the mighty North Atlantic visible and my map telling me Nebbi Geo is just ahead.
What do I find? The road is blocked by a four-wheel drive. I’m thinking, buggar that, how can I get past, I’ve only a day on the island, and some heedless farmer has abandonned his SUV and I can’t get past. I’m sitting in my car, fuming, when I see this fellow about my age, John is his name, running towards me, huffing and puffing. So sorry, I’ll move my vehicle, he says, I’ll just be a moment. You see, I’m helping my neighbor put the stallion to the mare, and he got a wee bit excited, broke down the fence and was off. I’ll be just a mo chasing him down.
I say, that’s all right, but can you please point me in the direction of Nebbi Geo? I’m writing a book about where the Hampshire men came ashore. I’ll show you myself, says John. Go on ahead, turn right, left at the farm, tell Morag I sent you, and I’ll be there in a jiff.
Well, that’s my recollection of our conversation. John moves the SUV and I drive up to the farm, perched on the very cliff face I’m wanting to visit. Morag invites me in for a cuppa and a few minutes later John turns up, having settled the randy stallion down.
They turn out to be a couple of retired writers, Morag – a poet – and John, a writer of humorous fiction. They send me off with precise directions across fields and slab stone fences, a mere 100 metres or so to the cliff edge, and there below is Nebbi Geo.
The sea is calm and blue, not a patch on the stormy night a hundred years earlier when the force nine was blowing. I climb down the cliff, take numerous photos, record videos, and most important of all imagine exactly how a few survivors aboard the Carley could pass between the cliffs, crash over rocks, sideswipe jagged edges and tumble onto a tiny stony beach, then claw their way up to the very top of the cliff.
Naturally, it’s quite different to what I’d imagined earlier. The rocks are sharper, flatter, projecting in terrible ways, and the inlet is dog’s leg crooked. A Carley raft surfing through the break in the outer rocks would scour past sharp outcrops, would lift and fall over crags, would spill its occupants, while the retreating waves would drag some back to drown. Clearly, these are observations obliging me to rewrite part of my novel.
Anyway, while traipsing up and down the cliffs, it starts to rain, so I head back to the farm house, where Morag and John share a lunch of beef soup and terrific coffee with me, and I look out their lounge window at a wonderful view of green pasture and the cliff edge past the Bay of Skaill and all the way up to Hoy.
Talk about luck – being in the right place at the right time. What wonderful hospitality.
And it gets better – John and Morag pull out a sheaf of old clippings and articles, showing how their very house a century earlier had been one that Hampshire survivors had approached in the early hours of that stormy morning, knocking on their door, cold and exhausted and desperate for help. And of course, the family of crofters had looked after them, saving their lives.
I drive on to the magnificent Kitchener and HMS Hampshire Memorial at Marwick Head that sits high up on the tallest cliff overlooking the ocean. And for me, almost as memorable for me as that visit to Nebbi Geo and the warmth of the people of Orkney.
Kitchener & HMS Hampshire Memorial, Marwick Head, Orkney, June 29, 2016