When the writer Joan Aiken heard a powerfully melancholy piece of music that was written to save an island, this story, and the story told by the music itself, inspired her to write her own book about a lost island.
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies wrote Farewell to Stromness when the future of the Orkney Islands where he lived, was threatened by a proposal to mine there for uranium, known locally as Yellow Cake. His music formed part of a protest performance on Orkney called The Yellow Cake Revue, which helped put paid to the horrific project. His hypnotic piano piece, only five minutes long has become a poignant part of many people’s lives, played at weddings and funerals, bringing peace, comfort and hope.
But it is not an entirely friendly piece; it begins with a gentle walking rhythm, that suggests tradition, familiarity, the pace of daily life, with difficulties maybe, moments of deeper feeling, but nothing too unexpected. Then the music begins to change at the early midpoint of its five minute length, when a strange new, more threatening tune appears; it begins to climb steeply, not strolling any more, there are difficulties, turns, threats and challenges and the way has to be followed round crags, up mountains, over high bridges, through mists and fog – we are in danger – until at last the light appears through the mist, first dimly then welcoming and then blazing, and home is seen again. The earlier rhythm returns, this time more like the rocking of a boat, and quietens, takes us in its arms into the rocking of a lullabye. Finally it softens, and fades, gently into history. The danger has been surmounted, but the experience remains.
Inspired by this powerful musical expression of resistance, Joan Aiken wrote a story called The Scream, which also references the famous Munch painting of that name. Here the original inhabitants are forced from their homes on a Scottish island which is due to be poisoned for a scientific experiment. Brought up on their own myths, they had believed local dangers to be wrought by Kelpies – water demons, very hostile to humans – “Before the time of electricity, radio, motors, long-range missiles, aircraft, people thought seriously about such things.” Now the islanders have to adapt their way of life to towns and tower blocks, but underneath they have brought with them a powerful magic which is stirring and seeking to return, and finally it breaks out in a great Scream, with the force of a tidal wave, and with this power the island is reclaimed.
As the daughter of the writer Joan Aiken, I was brought up on stories that saw me through dangers and rocked me to sleep. We shared music too, and this piece which recalled the Scottish folk tunes her mother sang, spoke to us both of our roots, and a love of islands, many of which we had visited together. The last one we visited before she died was the Channel Island of Herm, and we joked about it being our Herm from Herm. Sitting on a shore of sea shells, she told me how she had always longed to be on Desert Island Discs, and had often thought about her music choices when waiting to fall asleep at night. One of her choices would have been Farewell to Stromness, and so we had it played at her funeral, to see her safely home.
I would love to hear it played for her on Desert Island Discs, and for all of us in this new time of danger, to remind us that stories, and music help us to find a way back to safety.
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Hear Farewell to Stromness played by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies
More about The Scream here:
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The illustration at the top is by Arvis Stuart from the cover of a children’s play by Joan Aiken called Winterthing – another mythical island which disappears each winter