Part 4: This conversation is in ten parts.
EH: It does sound like 1978 was the turning point in your life. Don’t laugh, but it’s how I felt about meeting you. Meeting you changed my life and really made me want to travel and be a writer—just like you.
OD: Eric, those are potent words. I never thought of myself affecting someone so intensely. But, it happened to me and I can see how it must have happened to you. Funny, isn’t it, how when you least expect it you meet someone and your entire life can be changed. Hopefully, for the better!
EH: So, did you head to the Orkney Islands after meeting those two French archaeologists?
OD: Not right away. Remember, I had promised Fairley that I would visit her elderly relatives in Scourie. So, once I reached Thurso, instead of heading to John O’Groats to take the ferry to the southern Orkney Islands, I headed west to Scourie. I have to tell you that this stretch of the northern coast of Scotland is breathtakingly beautiful. At least it was to me.
EH: Did you find the relatives in Scourie?
OD: I did. I took the mail bus from Thurso to Scourie. I had bought them a couple small gifts in Thurso so that I wouldn’t arrive empty handed. The mail bus dropped me off in the village and I asked how to find the people I was looking for. I counted on everyone knowing everyone else in the village. Fairley had told me that the village was very small. And, of course, everyone knew who I wanted to find and I had no difficulty finding their small cottage perched not too far from the North Sea.
EH: How in the world did you go about introducing yourself?
OD: Easy! I walked up to the front door, knocked, and when an elderly woman, Fairley’s aunt, opened the door I simply introduced myself and said that I was a friend of their niece and they welcomed me with open arms! The world was a lot less suspicious in 1978 than it is today, believe me. Fairley’s aunt and uncle were in their early nineties. I ended up spending about five days with them and helped out with the heavy chores around the croft in exchange for room and board. I loved listening to their stories of the ‘old days’. They were happy to have a young person be so interested in their lives and their stories. Remember, they had been born in the late 19th century and I wanted to hear all about life in Scotland before it became modern. And, of course, they wanted to hear all about Fairley and her life in Philadelphia. They had a large wedding portrait of Fairley hanging on the wall and she was one of the most beautiful brides I’ve ever seen. The entire arrangement worked out perfectly for all of us.
Again, meeting these two generous and hardworking elderly people was one of the highlights of my first trip to Scotland. I can’t even begin to tell you the things I learned from them. It was their stories about the superstitions associated with ancient burial mounts and standing stones that I was most interested in. This was probably the beginning of putting my interest in archaeology and prehistory together with folk beliefs associated with ancient sites.
Bit by bit, my interests were starting to take tangible shape. After spending a wonderful time with them, and listening to their stories, they told me that I didn’t have to go all the way back to Thurso and John O’Groats to reach the Orkney Islands. There was a smaller, more interesting ferry that left from Portskerra, not too far from Scourie, that would take me right to the town of Stromness on the Mainland. Stromness is one of the most picturesque fishing villages in the islands. And this ferry goes right past the Old Man of Hoy, a four hundred foot high rock stac rising out of the North Sea right off the coast of Hoy.
And that’s what I did. My first trip to the Orkney Islands was by way of Portskerra.
EH: And was it everything you had hoped it would be? How long did you stay there?
OD: I was everything and more! I had no expectations except that I wanted to see as many prehistoric sites as I could. It was in Stromness and Kirkwall that I bought the first of my extensive collection of books on prehistoric Scotland. I still have a very small model of a traditional straw-back Orkney chair in my studio that I bought that year. Luckily, there is no shortage of sites to see on the Mainland as well as Hoy and Rousay—these are the two next larger islands that lie close to the Mainland and are easy to get to.
EH: Mainland Scotland?
OD: No, the main island in the archipelago is called the Mainland. Kirkwall is the largest town and that’s where the magnificent St. Magnus cathedral stands. I only spent a week in the Orkney Islands that first visit. I had only just began my long twenty years of research at this time. It was in 1978 that I first visited Skara Brae, Maes Howe, the Ring of Brodgar, the Standing Stones of Stenness, Rennibister Earthhouse, Gurness Broch, Taversoe Tuick, Midhowe Broch, and other well known prehistoric sites.
I was beside myself with everything that I saw and experienced. It was another world, vastly different from anything I had ever seen or heard or smelt before.
EH: How did you get around the islands? Or the Mainland? Did you rent a car?
OD: No, I didn’t rent a car. I wasn’t that brave. I rented a bicycle and cycled all over the Mainland. There are ferries that go to the other islands and on Rousay and Hoy I hiked everywhere. It’s difficult and would take too much time to try to explain the eerie emptiness of these islands, the absolute otherworldliness of them, and the sense of magic that permeates everything you see and do.
Sitting alone in a dark earthhouse underground or inside an ancient burial mound is beyond description. It’s the feeling that you experience in these ancient silent places.
Skara Brae was nothing short of stunning! As I walked around the site by myself I tried to imagine what life must have really been like living in those snug little stone houses. It was all the ancient stonework that I saw that fired my imagination the most.
I have to tell you that it was when I was on Rousay and discovered the round cairn called Taversoe Tuick that really started my mind working.
EH: Howso? What was it about this particular cairn that made it so special and different from the others?
OD: Cairns and barrows were built in different styles. There are long barrows, round barrows, stalled cairns, chambered cairns, horned barrows, for example. What made Taversoe Tuick so special was the fact that it is one of the rare ‘two story’ cairns. This cairn looks like a rough, tussocky hillock and you enter it from the top through a metal hatch. You climb down an iron ladder into the top level and then can climb down a smaller, narrower ladder to the lower level. The cairn is small, cramped, and dark. Enough light came in from the open hatch that allowed me to actually get some pretty good photos of the interior and I even managed a self-portrait of me sitting in the cairn.
I spent a long time sitting quietly in Taversoe Tuick. I wanted to memorize the stonework from the inside so that I would have a better understanding as to how it was built. And it was at this moment in time that I began to imagine who would live in a cairn like this. You have to keep in mind that I knew it was a burial mound but my research had revealed that in the 18th and 19th centuries cairns were believed to be ‘fairy houses’. It was this bit of folklore that I latched onto and was most interested in thinking about.
Eric, you have to remember that as I was seeking out ancient sites at the same time I was collecting, and reading, books that described the sites in great detail and had detailed drawings and diagrams showing how they looked in plan and section.
EH: Wow! So, this was the beginning of LOME? It all started with your exploring ancient burial mounds and standing stone circles.
OD: Almost. This was my first venture to Scotland and my first time actually seeing and exploring ancient sites. That visit to Taversoe Tuick actually inspired my first picture book that is titled Ravena. I wrote the story shortly after returning home. But, it wasn’t until the next year that I actually showed it in New York City in hopes that an editor or art director would want to publish it.