I was fortunate enough last week to travel to Orkney as part of a student trip. This was my first trip to Orkney, and spending my teenager years growing up on the Isle of Skye I was looking forward to returning to island living and ‘island time’ for a few days. Last year, I visited Skye for the first time in several years and was shocked to see the impact of increased tourism. In particular, I was concerned to see how the commercialisation of folklore around sites like the Fairy Glen had been leading to the degradation of the natural environment. I was, therefore, interested to see if Orkney was experiencing similar problems.
In the last few years Orkney has become a very popular destination for cruise ships. This has resulted in a seasonal influx of large tourist numbers coming off the cruise ships to explore the island each day in the summer months. From discussions with some of the Orcadians during our trip these visitor numbers had brought positive economic benefits to the community. However, inevitably large tourist numbers entering the island was also causing issues in terms of pressurised infrastructure and degradation to historic sites. The community is, therefore, currently looking to adapt its tourism offerings to ensure a sustainable approach to welcoming tourists and sharing the ‘gems’ that Orkney has to offer, whilst preserving its heritage and natural environment.
As we explored Orkney we had the privilege of meeting a number of individuals who shared their stories and experiences of living on the island. We also had the opportunity to hear some of the fabulous folklore and ghost stories that Orkney has to offer – which are in abundance! Unlike Skye, the stories we discovered where not offered as a commercialised package but came from the personal stories that had been passed down through the years. There was something authentic, exciting and precious about these encounters which made you feel like you were hearing them for the first time. The ghosts stories we heard also provided the opportunity to learn about Orkney and its community in different ways:
- Ghost stories enabled us to discover Orkney’s people. We were very privileged to visit Skaill House out of season and hear some of its ghost stories. We learnt about the wife of one of the laird’s whose ghost is said to reside upstairs. She appears to get frustrated when the staff tidy up too early in the morning, showing her displeasure by banging on the floor. We also learnt about the son of one of the Lairds who was tragically killed in an accident involving his horse. The boys picture can be found in the house, and it is said that he is responsible for the rocking horse moving on its own. A polite ghostly gentlemen has also been seen in one of the exhibition rooms and has been known to answer visitor questions – only for them to later learn that he was not really ‘there’! Through these stories we learnt a lot about the former residents of Skaill House, their personalities, what they liked to do and their relationships with each other.
- Ghost stories also helped us to see Orkney in different ways. As well as learning about some of the personal stories of Skaill House, we also learnt more about its location. The house is built upon a Norse graveyard and is situated just along from Skara Brae, illustrating the significant age of the land and how its use has changed through the years. We also learnt about ghostly footsteps that are heard in the Orkney Museum, often at lunchtime. We had not heard of the museum being haunted until these stories were told, and suddenly the age and former use of the building as a family home was brought to life. These stories added layers to the sites we visited, allowing us to see them in different and more complex ways.
- Ghost stories allowed us to step back in time. By learning about the personal stories of the people of Orkney, and how the places had changed and evolved through the years we were able to experience the temporal dimensions of the island. These stories paint a picture of how things were, the ways they were experienced and the people that played a role in these past events.
The ghosts stories of Orkney provided a unique way of seeing the island and appreciating its heritage. Beyond its ghosts Orkney also has a rich history of folklore, many of which can be read in Tom Muir’s Orkney Folk Tales. These stories have the unique quality of giving life and context to places that are not necessarily ‘tourism hotspots’. As such there may be an opportunity here to use Orkney’s folklore and ghostly tales to develop alternative forms of tourism to help alleviate pressure on popular destinations.
There is, however, a lesson to be learnt from Skye and the ways that folklore have been commercialised. Orkney offered us an authentic glimpse into its heritage through ghost stories, and this felt important not just as a visitor but for the people we spoke to. Stories may be an interesting way to share Orkney’s heritage in different ways, but how these are developed and offered will need careful consideration to ensure the people, place and past associated with them is represented in authentic and sustainable ways.