Orkney – where the coastguard run amok in the cathedral and the Stinking Rich are reburied outside

I’d had to remain on the “sun deck” because the dog wasn’t allowed in any of the cabins, and if we leave him alone in the car he hotwires it and attempts to drive away.

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We waited by the corner of the choir and the south transept; our guide needed to fetch something. She returned with a plasticised flip-book that was full of photographs of a smiling and slightly adipose middle-aged woman striking various attitudes: standing on narrow stone spiral stairs, squeezing between ancient walls, and crouching to negotiate low and knobbly ceilings. I didn’t want to look at the photographs – but our guide insisted. “It’s for our insurance,” she explained. “We have to inform people of the potential hazards.”

As regular readers of this column will know, I find such representational overload – whereby each location is both anticipated and apotheosised by images of it – to be the defining characteristic of our contemporary relationship with place. I would have happily spent the next hour discussing this weirdness with the guide; after all, we’d paid our money, and we were the only people signed up for the tour – but she took her job seriously and so, having undertaken her mandatory monitory duties, she led us on and up...

...into the upper levels of St Magnus Cathedral. I’ve been visiting cathedrals since shortly before the First Council of Nicaea (325CE), or at least it feels that way; and I’ve been visiting Orkney since 1992CE, but although I’m a great admirer of St Magnus’s it has never occurred to me to undertake a guided tour of this Romanesque hulk, which, besides being the most northerly cathedral in Britain, is also powerfully atmospheric, its red sandstone façade suggestive not of the Lord’s temple, but of Odin’s Valhalla. But that’s because when I’m in Orkney I like to get outside – what’s the point of visiting these whale-backed green islands, with their spectacular cliffs, if you’re only going to squat between four walls? True, even when August is blazing away down south it can still be rather, um, brisk in Orkney; however, that shouldn’t deter those who bear in mind the full weight of this odious maxim: there’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.

Unfortunately my mind hadn’t been bearing much at all when we left London. So it was that I’d found myself succumbing to hypothermia on the cruelly misnamed “sun deck” of the MV Pentalina, as it made the crossing from Gills Bay near John o’Groats to St Margaret’s Hope in Orkney. True, the air temperature was around 4° – but that air was travelling at about 60mph, with predictably chilling effects. I’d had to remain on the “sun deck” because the dog wasn’t allowed in any of the cabins, and if we leave him alone in the car he hotwires it and attempts to drive away. The ferry operators’ insistence that their insurance could be invalidated by a small terrier was a bitter foretaste of the cathedral guide’s unhealthy preoccupation with safety. Anyway, suffice to say that, after an hour standing in lashing rain as the catamaran slid over the glassy boils and anfractuous whirlpools of the Pentland Firth, I was left in no doubt as to the inappropriateness of my clothing.

My youngest son took against Orkney for the same reason and decided the only appropriate clothing for this boreal realm was four thick walls. However, he didn’t want those walls to be Neolithic ones; which is a shame, because besides the beautiful landscape, the doughtily mystical inhabitants and the superb beef, the reason most people visit these islands is to view their astonishing wealth of megaliths and ancient stone structures. I’m partial to a Neolithic tomb myself – there’s something about crouching in one of the stalls of a 5,000-year-old ossuary, reflecting on the vast span of time it encapsulates and the alien world-view of its builders, that makes it a little easier to bear the vast span of triviality contemporary society encapsulates and the alien world-view of its builders. My son’s view was rather more straightforward: “Those old tombs creep me out.”

So, barred from the truly ancient burial sites and exiled from the great outdoors, we were condemned to the cathedral tour. Standing up in the machicolated gallery, looking down into the disproportionately narrow nave, the guide explained the gravestones we could see lining the lower parts of the walls had been placed there when the tombs of the Orcadian nobs were removed from St Magnus’s to the graveyard without. The factoid logically arising from this was: “That’s the origin of the expression ‘stinking rich’, because when they were buried beneath the nave the congregation could smell them decomposing.” Being a kind and considerate father, I didn’t crow at my son, or observe that in the midst of life we are always in death – rather, I followed dutifully in the guide’s wake as she led us up another corkscrewing staircase.

And continued with her explication: apparently the coastguard often use the cathedral tower for exercises, negotiating its crooked defiles and vertiginous descents being an ideal training for evacuating seamen from stricken vessels. On hearing this, I wondered whether the tyro rescuers had to look at the book of photographs before they made their ascent – but said nothing to our guide, because I knew the answer already. It used to be said that the surest things in life were death and taxes, but insurance needs to be added to these inevitabilities, because you can’t go anywhere now without it.

Next week: Real Meals

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 24 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, What does England want?