VACATION v LOCATION

If you’ve read any of my previous blogs, you will be aware of the importance locations play in my writings.  Where possible I visit the places I want to describe and often get fresh ideas from the locations themselves – where to put characters and introduce new ones; where scenes can be played out.  I know a number of my readers enjoy Googling the locations used in the books.  In fact, on any trip to Sweden I spend my time looking at places and seeing how I can utilise them.  Naturally, this can be annoying for my family when we visit them.  My mind drifts off when I should be paying them more attention!

So, I was delighted when we took off for the Orkney Islands (off the north coast of Scotland) for a week’s break.  No thinking about books, or locations – just relaxing and sightseeing.  And Orkney is perfect for that.  Unlike much of the Scottish Highlands and western islands, Orkney is very green.  There are hills but it’s not as mountainous as the mainland only an hour-and-a half’s ferry crossing away.  And it’s full of history.  It has everything stretching from 3,500 BC right through to the Second World War.

The Neolithic remains are staggering.  The village of Skara Brae is 5,000 years old but the houses are well preserved (covered up by sand dunes for millennia until a storm uncovered them in 1850) and give you a good impression of life back then.  There are numerous other dramatic remains from that period like the standing stones at the Ring of Brodgar and the burial mound at Maeshowe.  It’s difficult to believe that a group of islands off the northern reaches of mainland Britain was once the centre of trade for northern Neolithic Europe.

As we move through the centuries we come to the Vikings who settled there.  They founded the cathedral of St. Magnus, which still dominates the town of Kirkwall today.  In fact, Orkney didn’t become part of Scotland until 1472 when it was annexed from the King of Norway in lieu of a dowry that wasn’t paid.

Orkney also played an important part in both World Wars because it was the base for the British Fleet that used the huge, sheltered expanse of water called Scapa Flow.  It was from here that the ships sailed out to the Battle of Jutland in 1916 and where the German Imperial fleet was scuttled in 1919.  During the Second World War, my father passed through a few times on the way to Archangel and Murmansk.  He was serving in a Royal Navy destroyer that accompanied Arctic convoys on the dangerous route to supply the Soviet Union.  Three times he went to Russia and back in freezing weather and facing the added hazards of German U-boats and air attacks from occupied Norway.  So, going to Scapa Flow and the old naval base on the island of Hoy was a special moment for me.  Orkney is littered with reminders of the war, when the population doubled.  There are sites of old airfields, gun emplacements and endless Nissen huts that have been utilised by enterprising farmers.

So, what about these wonderful locations from a writer’s point of view?  I must admit it was difficult not to let myself imagine an Orcadian Anita Sundström doing her thing.  Perhaps one day someone will do for Orkney what Ann Cleeves’ Jimmy Perez has done for neighbouring Shetland.  But I was happy enough to push fiction aside and appreciate the reality of what Orkney had to offer.  And with Britain’s two most northerly distilleries and some very good small breweries, it wasn’t hard.  But you never know, one day, I might return to the distant shores of Scotland with another character and a different type of story in mind.  Until then, it’s off to Sweden again…