Rousay & Billia Croo


WORD MNTN (Costa Head, from Rousay); poem, Alec Finlay; photograph, Alistair Peebles 2011

'But the sea
               which no one tends
                                  is also a garden
when the sun strikes it
               and the waves
                                 are wakened.
I have seen it
               and so have you
                                 when it puts all flowers
to shame.'

– William Carlos Williams, 'Asphodel, That Greeny Flower'

Two Gardens: Sea-Garden & Wind-Garden

Before we make for Rousay we head through Stromness, Innertown to Outertown, for a visit with Tam of the bookshop at Don. Alistair wants to show me Gunnie’s garden.

Tam & Gunnie were old friends of my mother's and back in the early 1970s they lived for a while on a steading near Ellery, which belonged to the Argyll branch of the Lockhart family. My childhood memory (mis)places the house in the very middle of a beach, surrounded by sand, and I recall going endlessly to and fro through the shell bead curtains that Gunnie had made. I'd never seen such an exotic design before and the only thing I could see that the beads were made for was walking through over and over again, cool shells trickling and tickling your cheeks, giggling.

That was before they moved to Orkney and become part of the fabric of the islands; Tam at Brown's bookshop, Gunnie with her photography and her garden.

Tam & Alec; photograph, Alistair Peebles 2011

To Alistair and my delight as the van noses out to Warebeth, this is the very morning the tugs are passing through the sound of Hoy, pulling the enormous platform and foundations for the new Oyster 2, a pioneering wave energy generator which will soon be installed at Billia Croo. You can see it here, between our smiles. The great prongs of the rig are more lobster than oyster; soon they will be lowered and fixed to the sea-bed, ready to grip fast the turbine workings.

This is the future; this is some of your Orcadian blue-sea thinking.

Mesostic, Billia Croo; poem, Alec Finlay; photograph, Alistair Peebles 2011



I asked Alistair if he knows where the name for this bay came from and he directed me to these notes from his talk in Kalmar.

'Billia Croo is a beautiful name, but no one knows what Billia means. The Croo bit is probably the same as in planticreu, and also -kro, -kreu, -krue (and planticrub in Shetland). It derives rom ON krókr, a corner, as in an odd piece of land, or a yard, but planticreu means an enclosure for a vegetable plot (to keep out animals), as does kalykro, which is the same as kailyard, of course. Formerly it was more often an enclosure to keep animals in, like a sty. But since it's a shore it's hard to say why it might have been called by that name, though it's a shore at which – due no doubt to the shape of the bottom and the currents, a lot of driftwood and other flotsam tends to fetch up.'

A sea patch then, with the whole sea garden glinting beyond.

circle poem (sea flowers salt waves sea flowers stone)
poem, Alec Finlay; photograph, Alistair Peebles 2011

Gunnie’s sea-garden is a series of colourful waves, thickets, low spinneys and soft stems, among the remnants of sheds and stables; salt-bleached blooms secreted within protective flag kists; an enfilade of dwarfie willow, a draggled blue and yellow Swedish flag which sings of remembrance for her Nordic presence.

poem, Alec Finlay; photograph, Alistair Peebles 2011

Salix salix

dwarfie willow

allowing for the
sea view

proposal for Billia Croo

proposal for Billia Croo, Alec Finlay, 2011; photograph, Alistair Peebles 2011


a black sheep on Rousay; photograph, Alistair Peebles 2011

Later that day, a ferry ride on, we rounded the east of Rousay, spinning around the top of Kearfea Hilll. Alistair pulled in opposite Blossom Quarry where my father dug and barrowed stone in the late 1950s. A tough job that he recorded in this poem, written in Edinburgh in the early 1060s, missing Rousay.


"Blossom" they call this quarry of grey stone,
Of stone on stone on stone, where never white
Blossom was sweetly blown; wet dynamite
Would blossom more than seeds in this place grown.

And yet as Blossom quarry it is known.
And who knows but the namer named it right?
Its flowers are on the hand with which I write:
Bent backs, sore bloody blisters it has grown.

Here, 50 years after his days on the road gang, with the help of Neil & Andrew and the Pier Arts Centre, my father placed this inscribed stone.

IHF, the promontory; photograph by Alistair Peebles, 2011



The Rousay my father knew – his ‘dear black sheep’ – was a seeming perfect circle, facing south, east, north and west. The wholeness of the island was itself a poem to him, being, as he wrote to Stephen Bann, "very particular ... very realised"

after IHF


tea on

up my


over to

St Magnus
on Egilsay
In his day, rather than the whirling of two-bladed windmills that now measure one's journey around Rousay, the wheel that turned or sat still was that of the watermill at Sourin.

Sourin Mill; photograph, Around Rousay


How beautiful, how beautiful, the mill
-Wheel is not turning though the waters spill
Their single tress. The whole old mill
Leans to the West, the breast.

Sourin, Rousay; poem-label, Alec Finlay; photograph, Alistair Peebles 2011

from Fa Doun
the mill at Sourin
is a child's toy

word-mntn (FITTY HILL); poem, Alec Finlay; photograph, Alistair Peebles 2011

Now Alistair has brought me to the promontory overlooking Saviskaill Bay and Westray; and here I add these views following and realiging of IHF's sight-lines: a word-mntn looking towards Fitty Hill, a conspectus, two poem labels and a new inscription.

Saviskaill Bay Conspectus

a net of stone lines
cast over waves
meshing islands

Eday, Westray, Sanday
as rocky Agean atolls
afloat in aquamarine brine.

poem-label, Alec Finlay; photograph, Alistair Peebles 2011

an evening curlew
calls from

the Anston burn
to the stone at Blossom

I can't help recalling the birds calling over the moor, and the boggy turf reminds me of the wilder parts of Stonypath, where flowers are flints of colour.

at Blossom 

not roses
but louse-

wort, tormentil
and yellow vetch

And the inscription, only names, reflected in a mirror


          billia croo



Without intending Alistair has guided us through this mirror: the morning view west toward Hoy, finding symetry with this afternoon view, bathed in the same full sun, east over Westray. Gunnie’s enclosed garden, her memorial, mirrored by this peaty headland, dominated by a single immense slab of Portland stone, memorial to Finlay’s Rousay. But we aren't here to look back.

Proposal for Rousay

proposal for Rousay, Alec Finlay, 2011; photograph, Alistair Peebles 2011

The inscription acknowledge today’s journey between two gardens, two compass points, two islands, and the Gods of two forms of energy.


Fa Doun, Rousay; photograph, Alec Finlay 2011


Before the full circuit of Rousay was done, travelling deisil, back to the cottage at Fa Doun, Alistair turned us up the wee road that heads inland to Curquoy, just above the Suso Burn. From there we could see the diggings for the new community turbine that will soon be raised on the slope of Knitchen Hill, a wind-tower which will finally catch Rousay up with Eday and Westray, neighbour islands which each have one or more turbines producing a shared communal income from wind.

Ervadale, Rousay; photograph, Alistair Peebles 2011

Curlews, geese and oyster-catchers called across the fields and heather moorland; an Arctic Tern plied swift overhead. At the third to last house, Evadale, we glimpsed a wee cluster of small turbines of all kinds, like a thicket of sharp-petalled exotic flowers.

Ervadale, Rousay; poem, Alec Finlay; photograph, Alistair Peebles 2011


Alistair parked the van and I asked if we might look around their pastoral-technological installation, and take some photos.

The Ervadale folk had come up from midgie Mull three years ago; they were kind enough to give us a tour of the various renewables that made their back garden workshop into a wind-garden.

proposal for Ervadale, Alec Finlay, 2011; photograph, Alistair Peebles 2011

There were sunflowers, in the form of photo-voltaic units mounted on angled stands, fastened to old van wheel axles and linked by motorbike chains, trained to move with the sun. The wind-gardener explained how this imitation of nature can increase daily output by as much as 30%.

Poking up from the shrubbery were three guyed pole towers, each one at a different height.

Ervadale, Rousay; photograph, Alistair Peebles 2011

as every wind-gardener knows
you should always grow

your wind flower towers
to different heights

and never put your turbines
too close together

or one will interfere
with the wind of another

HWAT turbine, Ervadale, Rousay; photograph, Alec Finlay 2011

Unusually, there was also a horizontal axis with paddle blades waiting for the strong winds it needs to rev into gear.

This wind-garden of renewable blooms was one ingenious island way of making a living. The wind-gardener was also a kind of self-proclaimed energy ‘Minister’ for Rousay, preaching conversion and taking responsibility for most of the new wind installations on the island. Soon this back-garden test centre will expand into an eco-business based in Kirkwall, back on The Mainland, as they call greater Orkney here.

flower in the Ervadale grass; photograph, Alec Finlay 2011

We discuss the issues around small turbines and innovation. The feed in tariffs the Government makes such play on are only available for approved designs of turbine, and as a result many of newer designs have no such accreditation.

Bi-bladed Rousay 

photograph, Alistair Peebles 2011

The first landmark anyone sees as the ferry approaches Rousay is the tall handsome two-bladed turbine installed out on the shore, near the ferry pier, by the local farmer at Trumland. It’s a beauty, with a blue nacelle as beautiful as sea-holly.

photograph, Alistair Peebles 2011

But by far the most common type of turbine design on the island is a simpler and smaller two-blade device, which has the appearance of a propeller on a stick and looks to furl and turn easily.

proposal for a symbol for bi-bladed Rousay; photograph, Alec Finlay 2011

These were all imported from a French manufacturer, via a concession in Kirkwall. Our local expert was of the opinion they are not really robust enough to last long enough in the veery gusts and squalls of Rousay. Over time, with wear and tear, they may not prove economical. They can also, he said, be noisy, whiny, and they vary greatly in the amount of electricity they can produce.

poem-label, Alec Finlay; photograph, Alistair Peebles 2011

lend us
your arms

The quantity of small turbines on Rousay is testimony to the willingness of islanders who are on-grid to also become producers and earn additional income.

Rousay Philosophy

the Rousayian is a wind-
gardener by day

and a wave-
gardener by night

Alistair shared with me a lovely story he was recently told, about when cars and tarmac roads first came to Rousay. People would go a drive around the island; so he asked, naturally, if they didn’t get bored with the same view driving the one road around and around. The reply came, in the Orcadian manner, why would they get bored, for if they did then they’d only to drive around in the other direction. A form of island zen: one need only look at a thing from the other side. Life, for example.

Tam & Eck, Don & Hoy; photograph, Alistair Peebles 2011

Wedder Forecast

for alan

Orkney bright
Shetland wet

Orkney wet
Shetland bright

A Shetlandic Coda

wind-garden, Burra; photograph, Alistair Peebles 2011

Alistair's blog records a delightful contemporary wind-garden he happened upon at Burra, Shetland. This assemblage of 28 models or wind-toys was created by Ewan Hynd, at The Riddle.

wind-garden, Burra; photographs, Alistair Peebles 2011


Visitors to the Shetland wind-garden are welcome by appointment: contact

Alistair Peebles:   Brae projects    |    blog

Amy Todman: bring me the head of William Stukeley

Photograph at Sourin Mill by Around Rousay

Linnéuniversitetet: Stories in Wave and Stone

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