3: Hidden valley of light

Narrator: John Budge

Contributors: James Stockan / Elizabeth Bevan / Dan Lee / Jack Rendall / Pearl Sinclair / Olivia Thomson / Frankie Sinclair / John Eccles / Gordon Hill / Margaret Moar / Jimmy Moar / Dorothy Rendall / Anne Bevan / Andrew Parkinson / Peter Maxwell Davies / Jeff Clark / Avril Clark

Music: James Watson, Wooden Sole Music

Credits: The Orcadian / Orkney Library & Archive / BBC Radio Orkney / George Mackay Brown Estate

3 Hidden valley of light Tales o Hoy

Follow the journey in our interactive map showing you the places along the way.

Our journey starts with the words of George Mackay Brown’s poem Rackwick with its lines:

Between those strong red cliffs, Under that great mild sky Lies Orkney’s last enchantment, The hidden valley of light. 

This portrait, taken in Rackwick, is one of many by the poet’s friend photographer Gunnie Moberg.

First published in 1969, An Orkney Tapestry, George Mackay Brown’s seminal work, is a unique look at Orkney through the eye of a poet and illustrated by Sylvia Wishart’s drawings. Originally commissioned by his publisher as an introduction to the Orkney Islands, Brown approached the writing from a unique perspective and went on to produce a rich fusion of ballad, folk tale, short story, drama and environmental writing. (Birlinn)

This is the book that Peter Maxwell Davies sat up reading all night before taking the ferry to Hoy.

A new edition of George Mackay Brown’s An Orkney Tapestry has been published in this his centenary year. See here.

Rackwick backflip. You can trace the changes in Rackwick in more Then & Now slider images here.

In this audio Pearl Sinclair speaks the names of some of the Rackwick crofts. Pearl made a remarkable book, a Photographic Census of Hoy 2011-2013. In it Pearl photographs all the residents of Hoy outside or inside their homes with handwritten texts from each. She also photographed ‘the regulars’, the many Orkney families who keep a home in Rackwick. Pearl’s book can be downloaded or ordered here.

Dan draws our attention to the nousts on the shore. Nousts are scooped out resting places where boats can be hauled up on the shore. For many of the Rackwick regulars, the valley itself is a noust, a resting place where they can haul up.

Stones dripped with tar can be seen on the shore. A relic from when boats were maintained here. Read the Rackwick Survey here.

The huge fish on this fisherman’s back is a halibut.

Along the journey we hear about John Eccles’ Rackwick Hatchery where he grew Arctic Char. A fuller account of John’s fish farm can be found here.

Rackwick beach has a wide sweep of pink sands and huge sea smoothed boulders that arrange themselves in size along the shore.

Visit the beach here.

Could this be the canoe that washed up in the bay in 1955? The Orcadian reported: Commenting on Rackwick’s latest acquisition, one very worthy gentleman said to us ‘If there had been a dozen hula-hula girls on that canoe – you would have heard nothing more about the drift from the Isles!

Here are the balloons salvaged by Jimmy Moar from the Rackwick shore and used by Margaret and Jimmy as Christmas decorations.

Burnmouth is the last croft before the shore. It is now a bothy and wild campsite. In the audio you hear the tale of why the name Tenters field related to unwelcome guests in 1846. Don’t worry, here is a warm welcome for you.

Craa’s Nest up on the hill on the way to the Old Man of Hoy is one of the oldest buildings in Rackwick. The house and byre are now a Folk Museum set up by the Rendall family.

At the foot of the Old Man path you will find the Old School House (below, it is now a Folk Museum which focusses on farming culture.

Ivy Mowatt under the tutelage of Mrs Rendall at Rackwick School. Jack talks about his mother being the only teacher he ever had.

The House That Was Built In A Day

Reputedly built around 1850 in a single day by the community for a newly-wed couple to avoid paying tax.

See the Rackwick Survey here.

Jack Rendall shares his stories in the audio. Here he is working with animals.

This is Jack’s sister Cathy, who in later years became Postmistress and kept the last Post Office in Hoy.

Jack tells of earlier farming practices when the crofters worked with ox in the field.

Are you wondering what an ox actually is? Oxen are draft animals, trained to work. Biddable bullocks would be trained and start work when they matured or sometimes castrated males were used. Kye were much more used to being in close contact with people then, they were tethered and handled making them easier to work with.

The horse replaced the ox, although horses were more expensive to obtain and few had them. Sometimes a horse and ox worked together. Later the horse that replace the ox was itself replaced by the tractor.

In Tales o Hoy you hear the story of Jack and Dorothy and the birth of Lucy. To mark her arrival George Mackay Brown wrote a poem and Peter Maxwell Davies put it to music. It was performed at St Magnus Cathedral as part of the St Magnus Festival. Lucy even made the performance as you can see here.

Hear Max’s Lullaby for Lucy performed at Hoy Kirk by the  Royal Conservatoire of Scotland during the St Magnus Festival 2017.
Lucy Rendall was at that performance too! Thank you to the RCS.


‘Hoy has been a draw for artists over many centuries and Rackwick, Orkney’s sublime valley, held centre-stage in the mid 20th century as artists converged around the nourishing spirit of the place.’

Read more by Andrew Parkinson, Curator at the Pier Arts Centre, reflecting on the artistic pull of Rackwick. See here.

Charles Senior, who started the bookshop in Stromness; writer George Mackay Brown; artist Sylvia Wishart and Susie Gilbertson outside North House, Rackwick. The house is called The Mount on a late 19thC map.

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies made Hoy home over several decades, living in a small croft on the way to the Old Man of Hoy. He was known as Max.

This slide form the Bevan family shows Max surveying Bunnertoon as a possible home from where he could compose.

In our journey Elizabeth Bevan tells the story of many hands helping with the renovation. Elizabeth’s daughter, the artist, Anne Bevan is seen here in the photograph.

Renovations completed. Bunnertoon, which had lain empty for many years, had smoke rising from the lum once again.

Although Max enjoyed the solitude of living at Bunnertoon, the St Magnus Festival party was an annual event for several years.

Here Gunnie Moberg photographs her friends, Archie Bevan, Max, Jack Rendall and Elizabeth many years later outside Bunnertoon. Archie and Max were among the instigators of the St Magnus Festival started in 1977.

You can read more of Max’s life in Hoy here.

Jeff and Avril Clark were drawn to Rackwick after responding to a press article by Laura Grimmond invited young people to move there and help repopulate the valley. The settled in the late 1970s.

The last stop on this audio journey is the Rackwick Weather Station, worked by Jeff for the Met Office for many years before automation closed the operation down. You can still see the weather station though and Jeff still logs temperatures and rain fall to keep a record of Rackwick’s weather. You can read the full story here.

And you can enjoy Jeff’s cloud watching here.

images: Hoy Heritage, Gunnie Moberg Archive, Orkney Library & Archive, Pearl Sinclair, Bunty

Wishart, Dorothy Rendall, Bevan family, Dan Lee and Fionn McArthur

Our next episode takes us on the track to visit The Old Man of Hoy.

Available 22 May