A shimmering view of the sea from a clifftop
There’s a very particular quality to the light here in Orkney, as anyone who has been here will know. Maybe it’s to do with the Northerly latitude, or the open landscape and big skies, or the presence of the sea and bright lochs all around us. Orcadian writer George Mackay Brown wrote, in ‘An Orkney Tapestry’:

“Thermometer and barometer measure our seasons capriciously; the Orkney year should be seen rather as a stark drama of light and darkness.”

Spend a year here and you’ll see how right he was. In midwinter it’s dark by 4pm. Now, as we approach midsummer, there’s always a gleam of light in the sky. But I really was wearing all my winter layers up until a week ago!

That was when I took the picture above, from the top of the cliffs at Marwick Head, late one evening. There was a very slight haar, or sea fog, that made the horizon blurry, and the sea looked like beaten metal. The seabird breeding colony there is already in full swing, with thousands of birds cramming the cliff ledges. If you look carefully at the bottom right you can see a tiny, white kittiwake in flight.

It’s the light as it moves on the water that’s the most hypnotic, always changing with the wind and weather. In the late spring and early summer it has an incandescent quality, and it’s a poem by another Orcadian writer and film-maker, Margaret Tait, that I think best captures this:


Did you say it’s made of waves?​
Yes, that’s it.
​I wonder what the waves are made of.​
Oh, waves are made of waves.
Waves are what they are,
Rhythmical movement which is the inherent essence of all things.
Ultimately, there’s only movement,
Nothing else.
The movement that light is
Comes out of the sun
And it’s so gorgeous a thing
That nothing else is ever anything unless lit by it.

Margaret Tait,
from Sarah Neely (ed.), Margaret Tait: Poems, Stories and Writings (Carcanet, 2012), by permission of the publisher
I’ve been fascinated by this constant play of light over the water since we moved here to Orkney five years ago to live in a house right on the shore of a freshwater loch. In my recent paintings I’ve been working over a ground of silver leaf with a fine mesh of lines in grey and white and silver. I think I’m beginning to find something appraching that glitter of light that glances off water’s surface, yet gives way to darkness and depth when you look into it straight. Still a work in progress, but I’m looking forward to sharing the finished work with you later in July. Here’s a wee preview video:
Some of the other drawings I’ve been working on are more about looking up, at the water moving through the sky in mists and clouds and fine vaporous atmospheres. The process of making these drawings is very meditative. I hope some of that feeling of calm absorption and fascination with surface and depth comes across in the finished works.
May you too enjoy some shimmeringness and light this month!