Westray – White sands, a storm witch and a very small plane

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With Storm Witch being published on Friday I thought I’d introduce you to some of the places and folklore which inspired the book. As you know, Storm Witch is set in Orkney which is one of my favourite places. I first visited in 2010 having become fascinated by the islands from the books of George Mackay Brown. Since then I’ve been back on three more holidays/research trips and, when we’re allowed to travel again, I’m going to want another visit because there’s nowhere quite like it.

I’m starting this tour of the locations in Storm Witch with the island of Westray because the folktale which sparked the idea for the story comes from there. The tale of Janet Forsyth, the storm witch of Westray, is a story of prejudice and fear of women’s power. Janet lived in the seventeenth century and was persecuted by the islanders because she was believed to have the ability to control the weather. One of the reasons I write about witchcraft is that it’s a metaphor for female strength and Janet had strength in spades. If you’d like to read more about Janet I’ve retold her story in The Storm Witch of Westray.

Westray is one of the northern isles of the Orkney archipelago. It’s famous for its white sand beaches and for being at one end of the shortest scheduled flight in the world between Westray and Papa Westray.

14125523_10210714394401917_5418850060284518004_o_10210714394401917I flew from Kirkwall but you can go by ferry as well. I’d seen the small inter-island planes at the airport on previous visits but I was unprepared for exactly how tiny it would feel when I was in one. It seated eight plus the pilot and co-pilot (who hitched his seat forward to give me more legroom). It was a beautiful clear day and I was lucky to be sat by the window. The views of the islands beneath were stunning and, as we didn’t get all that high, it was like watching an aerial photograph unfold.

Westray airport is tiny, about the same size as a double garage.  Most of the passengers were going onto Papa Westray and only I and one other person got off. The lady who runs the airport came to say hello to me and told me my lift would be there in a minute. Seeing as she didn’t know me from Adam I was pretty surprised by this conversation. It was at this point I realized that this was a much smaller community than I’d ever experienced before.  About 600 people live on Westray which is approximately 18 square miles.  In terms of amenities, it’s got two art galleries, an hotel, a swimming pool, two cafés, a bakery, three shops and a chippy which is open weekday lunchtimes (in summer).

14115416_10210714419082534_3367672696971856565_o_10210714419082534I’d booked to join a minibus tour of the islands and my lift did soon arrive as expected. The tour took us first to ruined Noltland Castle. Built in the sixteenth century by Gilbert Balfour, it was never completed. Balfour was a pretty colourful character being Master of the Royal Household to Mary Queen of Scots, involved in the murder of her husband, Lord Darnley and later executed in Sweden for conspiring against the King.  The castle is pretty well preserved and I enjoyed the tales of Balfour’s misdeeds.  According to our guide, Balfour wished to marry Mary after Darnley’s death and hoped the castle would tempt her to relocate to the Northern Isles but I can’t find any other mention of this so it may be folklore.

 

14102800_10210714409562296_3701850144642563493_o_10210714409562296The rest of the tour took us to the ruined church which became unusable after a terrible storm shifted the island’s sands. The interior of the church is about four foot below the land around it. From there, I saw seals basking on the rocks, about fifteen of them, just enjoying the sunshine.  That pretty much doubled the number of seals I’d seen in my entire lifetime. We then went to an archaeological dig next to one of Westray’s spectacular beaches (my only regret of the trip was that I didn’t get enough time to walk on these beaches) and to the lighthouse at Noup Head.  Next to the lighthouse is a gannetry. I’d been reading Kathleen Jamie before this trip including her description of picnicking on the cliff above a gannetry, I was therefore unprepared for the smell.  All of that guano really does stink!

14068606_10210714418642523_3002708460111339705_o_10210714418642523Our final stop was at the tiny heritage centre. Inside was a Neolithic stone with spirals carved into it. I’ve seen similar stones at Newgrange in Ireland, Gavrinis in Brittany and the museum in Newcastle. I have no idea what these spirals meant to the people who carved them but it fascinates me that the same symbols were made by people living in such diverse locations.  Also in the heritage centre was the Neolithic figurine of the Westray Wife which is the earliest representation of a human face found in the UK. It’s only 4cms tall and I had to peer really hard to see the face.

14107884_10210714409642298_3010374095820438994_o_10210714409642298Back at the airport, I was invited to wait inside. The woman who runs the airport pointed across to Papa Westray and said ‘you can see the plane, it’s just waiting to take off’. She then handed me the binoculars and I watched as the plane completed the shortest scheduled flight in the world. Next time I visit, I want to take that flight and explore Papay (as the locals call it).

Although the action in Storm Witch never goes to Westray (it was just too complicated in terms of ferries and flights), Rachel, one of the key characters’, family comes from the island and it’s the place she escapes to in her head when things get too much.  She dreams of the white sands of Westray and, at this time of isolation and lockdown, I can think of much worse places to go in a dream.

Storm Witch is available for pre-order as an ebook on Amazon and will be published on Friday 17th April.  It’s priced £2.99 until 1st May when the price will go up to £3.99 (it is a very big book!) The paperback will be published in a couple of weeks.

4 thoughts on “Westray – White sands, a storm witch and a very small plane

  1. Hi Alex, I love this post. So beautiful. I would love to visit some time, years ago I stayed in South Uist and it was one of my favourite holidays ever. Thanks so much for sharing and good luck with the new book xxx

    1. Thanks Emma. It just took a while to come through. Really glad you enjoyed the post. I’ve not been to South Uist yet but it’s definitely on my list. Hope you’re doing okay? xx

      1. All good! Currently in lock down till the 28th – am loving this luxury of getting to be more involved in everyone else’s creativity! Xx

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