In one of these lonely Orkney Isles

Logo Birsay Books
Wpis Birsay Books na Facebooku
Ewa’s book in Birsay Books bookshop (Orkney), photo by J. Goodyer
Birsay Books, Google Maps
Birsay Books on a map (Google Maps, ed. Birsay Books)

Far, far away, beyond the seven mountains, beyond the seven seas, and beyond… 67 islands – because it is how many islands Orkney consists of – there is a place not of this world, yet built of other little worlds – like an insect’s eye composed of thousands of lenses. To describe this place, one would have to reach into a book by Ewa – a specialist on myth and legend:

Wishing to get there, one must set out for the northernmost parts of Scotland. This is the first test – it will be passed only by seasoned adventurers, those “exceptional individuals”  who fear neither the kelpie nor the Loch Ness Monster, will pass it. Just when you might think you’ve reached the very edge of Scotland, it turns out that much there is between the lips parted in amazement and the edge of a cup full of ocean, and that Caledonia writes more lines on the horizon. For as much as the whole of Scotland seen from a bird’s eye view resembles a long stretch of prose, Orkney itself is closer to frayed stanzaic poetry:

„Islands never been to before
And we climb so high
To where the wild birds soar”
M. Oldfield, Islands

Loch Ness
Loch Ness, photo by
M. Spławska-Murmyło
The Fairy Glen, Isle of Skye
The Fairy Glen, Skye, photo by M. Spławska-Murmyło
Kilt Rock, Skye
Kilt Rock, Skye, photo by M. Spławska-Murmyło
Widok na Hebrydy
View of the Hebrides, photo by M. Spławska-Murmyło

A way through the islands of the Orkney archipelago leads to Birsay – a place almost completely devoid of trees (not counting the family trees, whose roots date back to Neolithic times), but pulsating with an abundance of meadows, moors, peat bogs, rocks and birds, including marine endemics. Although etymologically Birsay has nothing to do with birds – despite a slight hint of homonymy in the name – it can boldly claim to be their Orcadian-Arcadian capital. Even the landmark viewpoint, Whalebone, which is a fragment of a whale’s skeleton, resembles a bird spreading its wings in flight. And it is with the birds that another trial awaits the “questers for inspiration, seekers of higher knowledge, dreamers versed in ancient lore, born out of their time, escaping from their world into the fairyland”. This test consists in recognizing amidst the flutter of skuas, snow buntings, oystercatchers, razorbills, puffins, cormorants and tysties the rustling of books being leafed through. Whoever manages to hear this sound will be given to step onto the right road. And the road leads to the Birsay Books antique store – one of the few buildings on the western edge of Birsay, part of the Mòr-thìr (Mainland), Orkney’s largest island. The term “at the edge of the world” would not be an exaggeration, as farther away is only the ocean adorned with a ruff of cliffs.

„But, John, have you seen the world, said he,
Trains and tramcars and sixty-seaters,
Cities in lands across the sea –
Giotto’s tower and the dome of St Peter’s?
No, but I have seen the arc of the earth,
From the Birsay shore, like the edge of a planet,
And the lifeboat plunge through the Pentland Firth
To a cosmic tide with the men that man it”.
R. Rendall, Angle of Vision

And it was at this end of the world, by the ocean, amidst meadows, Neolithic relics, wild rabbits, seals, all sorts of fowl and blooming wind roses, that a nest of worlds was born – an antiquarian bookstore, to which two copies of Ewa’s book had been sent.

While the idea of creating this place in such an unusual entourage was rooted in the prose of life rather than poetry – as it was essentially a rebellious, escapist form of disapproval of Brexit – the story of my discovery of Birsay Books began with poetry. For while listening to Loreena McKennitt’s song Standing Stones, whose opening verse describes “lonely Orkney Isles” I began to wonder if there were any bookstores there…

„In one of these lonely Orkney Isles
There dwelled a maiden fair.
Her cheeks were red, her eyes were blue
She had yellow, curling hair.

Which caught the eye and then the heart
Of one who could never be
A lover of so true a maid
Or fair a form as she”.

The idea seemed a bit absurd, even crazy, but it soon became apparent that there was method in this madness. When I spotted a point on the map, at the tip of the island, marked with the words “Birsay Books,” and then discovered its logo with a drawing of a bird, I must have looked like Gollum grinning at the sight of the ring. In my mind I turned to Ewa: “I’ll take you to Orkney.” I know she would be delighted with this place: the rawness of the mythicized landscape, the space capable of accommodating any inner landscape, the literature filling the shelves with the thematic triad dearest to the heart: poetry–mythology–birds… Now she is part of it herself.

After sending a message to the store’s owner, Jon, I began browsing through Birsay Books’ posts published on their social media site, where photos of the book collection were intertwined with shots of birds, cliffs and wild rabbits – often signed as “first-time customers.” My attention was drawn to a post from July 2022 – the last year of Ewa’s life, the month of her 40th birthday. The entry was accompanied by a photograph of a baby wren, which accidentally flew into the antique shop and probably must have hit against something. In the warmth of kind hands, it recovered, and perhaps even soaked up the antiquarian scent of the books that those hands had previously leafed through. The wren is my beloved bird, which – in form of a figurine – guards Ewa’s grave.

Grób Ewy Młynarczyk
Wren figurine on Ewa’s grave

This “stowaway reader” now takes on angelical qualities in my imagination, and the moment when Ewa’s book arrived in Orkney has been painted in my mind with the words of Orcadian poet Edwin Muir:

„The angel and the girl are met
Earth was the only meeting place.
For the embodied never yet
Travelled beyond the shore of space.
The eternal spirits in freedom go”.
E. Muir, The Angel and the Girl

Having come across the aforementioned entry, I momentarily became confident that a reply to my message would come. All it took was a little wren. And it did.

Two copies of Ewa’s book are now waiting in Birsay for their reading Odysseuses, who – having recognized the rustling of paper amidst the rustling of birds’ wings – will still manage to hear Ewa’s voice too:

A portion of the proceeds from book sales will be donated to the Orkney Charitable Trust:

Maybe the wanderlust will one day bring Patti Smith there and be reflected in the next memoir she publishes. Maybe someone, reciprocating Ewa’s warm gaze immortalized in the portrait adorning the cover of her book, will feel:

“Yes, yours, my love, is the right human face.
I in my mind had waited for this long,
Seeing the false and searching for the true,
Then found you as a traveller finds a place
Of welcome suddenly amid the wrong
Valleys and rocks and twisting roads […]”.
E. Muir, The Confirmation

Who will spot the book, pick it out and take it onward? “Speir thoo the wast wind, bit speir no me”. And I am left to plan a trip to Orkney to fulfill the promise I made to Jon. And quietly believe that the ocean humming outside the window of the antique shop is the Solarian ocean.

“Standing stones of the Orkney Isles
Gazing out to sea
Standing stones of the Orkney Isles
Bring my love to me”.
L. McKennitt

translated by Jakub Niedziela

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