1st July 2023 - 28th July 2023

Neil Davies - Connections: Travels in Orkney & West Penwith

"This collection of work was inspired by a holiday in Orkney, where I was struck by the wild beauty and rawness of the surrounding landscape.  This island with its sparse population, well-preserved ancient settlements and long-held traditional customs, reminded me of the far west of Penwith, and I felt a strong connection between the two which I wanted to explore.

Arriving at Kirkwall Airport, driving along the near-deserted roads to our destination, Stromness, I felt immediately at home.  The wild landscape of ancient hedgerows and stone monuments, the scarcity of trees other than the occasional wind-bent, stunted specimens, and a feeling of being ‘on the edge’ was acutely reminiscent of home.

As the week progressed these links became increasingly evident:  an awareness of coastal living, of being surrounded by sea, of the untamed forces of the Atlantic and of far horizons.  All around were the bare bones of a wild and ancient landscape, pared back to the earth and rock in places, leaving echoes of its past still visible and very much part of the present.  

As with the Cornish, there is a strong sense of identity and belonging amongst the Orcadians, many of whom can trace their island ancestors back multiple generations.  They are intensely proud of their community, but at the same time incredibly welcoming to visitors, keen to share their knowledge and love of the island.  

Life on Orkney is simple, unhurried and relaxed. People have time to talk, to pass the time of day with each other or to sit in the sun outside their doors.  In summer, being so far north, the days are long – it was still not quite dark at midnight, and I saw someone mowing the lawn at 10 p.m.

Like Penwith, Orkney has plenty of pretty coves, working harbours, fishing boats, and the ferries which regularly come and go, reminding me of Penzance’s Scillonian.  

There is much similarity, too, in the wildlife.  Seals are plentiful, along with a plethora of seabirds:  Orkney has an abundance of Oyster Catchers, which seems to adorn tourist souvenirs - the Orkney equivalent of the Cornish gull.  There is also the added joy of a thriving population of Puffins if you know where to look.

Based in Stromness, I spent some time exploring the streets and harbour of this beautiful town – to my mind the ‘St. Ives’ of Orkney.  A pretty, cobbled street (remarkably similar to Fore Street in St. Ives but much quieter) accommodates a scattering of independent shops, and the town’s strong artistic community is evident.  Shops selling local arts and crafts are dotted around, and at the Pier Arts Centre (every bit as good as Tate St. Ives in my mind) can be found a large collection of work by the St. Ives School, including Alfred Wallace, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson. 

On Orkney, as in West Penwith, I have been struck by a sense of people and place enduring through the ages.  In Cornwall we have our carns, stone circles, fogous and quoits, but on Orkney this is amplified tenfold – the landscape is littered with giant stone circles, Neolithic roundhouses, chambered cairns and ancient settlements; in both, this enforces the sense of man’s endurance in these wild environments – a feeling that these communities have been here since the beginning of time, and an assurance that their existence will continue."

Neil Davies 2023