The Arches of Orkney County
Long ago in the county of Orkney there were two towns that faced each other. The one on the left was Kirkwall and the one on the right was Stromness. They were near each other as the crow flies and worlds apart in every other way.
Kirkwall rose gently from the plains behind it, carrying a winding path the oxen found steep enough to moo about but not steep enough to get whipped. Its roofs were thatched, when they did have roofs, for in its early days its inhabitants did not fear rain. The splash of seawater, yes, for that poisoned their plants, but Kirkwall was too high above the bay to be in any danger.
Immediately across a deep ravine was Stromness. The ground was rocky and hard and there were no oxen to complain of the steep slopes. No, no. Donkeys were used or, better yet, mules. They carried the wealth of the mountain beyond to a place that was good for a town only because there was nothing better.
Those of Kirkwall wondered at Stromness. Why was it even there? And who should be so unlucky as to have to live there? For their part, folk of Stromness wondered how Kirkwall survived: with no natural defenses, no security, at risk of any passing ship.
There was one defense. The bay looked placid enough on the surface but those mariners who lived in Kirkwall—rather, those marooned to become architects and rope makers—had felt what could not be seen. Due to the peculiar shape of the shore, there was a strong rip tide that was the death of so many passing ships. Stories of the foul breath of the gods kept most newcomers away.
This current, at times pressing inland, at times reversing and casting a broken boat out to drown, extended up into the ravine that separated Kirkwall and Stromness. Many bucket pulls were wasted in the pulling up of salt water, yet near access to the freshwater stream kept folk on both sides at the gamble.
Seasons came and went. An unlucky or unwise captain would lose his ship and Kirkwall would prosper from the flotsam and jetsam. A lucky or wise miner would find the next twist of a silver seam and Stromness rejoiced.
Besides these events, each day was as like to the one before as it was to the one after, and the old grew despondent at what wisdom to give the young, for everything that was to be known was known, and it remained for them only to complain of youth’s faults. The youth ignored them, as had the old when they were young, and so the strife was gotten over and no harm befell them.
And so the towns might have lived for time immemorial. And perhaps they did. But after all this, because of a child’s bauble and a boy’s wits and a girl’s face it was not so.
The child in question was playing with his shiny toy—I forget what it was—a little too close to the ravine. His mother should have told him to be careful, and perhaps she had. But the boy had not listened as little boys are wont to do. He had an older sister, a girl not thirteen, who was watching him. Or was supposed to. It is a good thing for all concerned that his bauble, and not him, did the falling.
This was in Kirkwall. On Stromness a boy not fourteen was coming for water. It was not water time, for though the currents were not understood well, there were a few hours where they shifted back and forth so that the saltwater was not so salty and the freshwater not so fresh. He had been playing that morning instead of getting the water, as boys-becoming-men are wont to do, so now he came when play had soured and work looked to be no better.
But the boy was a good lad, in his head and in his heart, if you didn’t take his clumsiness and untimeliness into account. He often did not take things around him into account, so it’s only fair that the same be done for him. He did not, for example, hear the child’s cry.
The girl, however, did. She looked around, suddenly aware that her toddling brother was not in sight. Glimpsing him at the edge of the ravine she screamed and ran at him. She grabbed him and clasped him to herself, shaking in fright.
One may ignore a child’s cry. But a lungful of a scream from a girl not thirteen is hard to ignore. The boy was not used to doing hard things and so being well practiced, promptly paid attention. Perhaps for the first time in his life the world outside was more interesting than the world in his head and he dashed forward, bucket in one hand and rope in the other.
And so on this day, this already luckiest of days, it happened the way it should have. No bauble of Stromness could float, for rocks with bits of metals made most all of their toys. No wit of Kirkwall could have retrieved a sunken orb from the churning darkness of the ravine’s depths. But the toys of Kirkwall were sprigs of trees or pretty leaves or braided vines. Whatever it was the child dropped—again, I have no recollection of what it was—it floated. And in the worst time to gather water, the worst boy to gather it had half a chance to rescue the bauble.
A better boy would not have shirked from his chores, especially after a morning of sloth. A more practical boy would not have wasted effort on something so fleeting as the child’s bauble, a toy easier made than found were it lost. And so the boy not fourteen was the right sort of wrong person on this luckiest of days to take the half a chance given him and retrieve the bauble.
A toss of the bucket, a hush of the child, a look of the girl, and the rope sang through the boy’s hands. Still, one mustn’t expect too much, even on the luckiest of days, and it took three tries until the boy’s bucket swallowed the bauble.
The child cheered, the girl smiled, and the boy pulled up the rope. He plucked the bauble from its shadowy depths and held the crumpled toy up. And right before he let himself enjoy his victory, he realized he had no way to give the bauble back.
No one crossed the ravine. No one spoke across the ravine.
A rock might be thrown across, but not the weak bauble in his hand.
He stared across the ravine. The squirming child stiffened. The girl’s smile pursed into a line. And so the least practical of the sons of Stromness was cursed—or blessed—with a desire to challenge the inviolate border dividing Orkney county.
Seasons came and went. The child forgot the bauble; the boy did not. He grew older, as all do, and became the boy not eighteen. He also grew up, as some do not. But we get ahead of ourselves, and I must make some note of the intervening years.
He did not treasure the bauble as some would: kept within reach, like a pet or a pillow. He need not touch it or look at it to remind himself. He had returned it long ago, once his arm was strong enough to throw the roped bucket to the other side.
By then it was too late. The bauble was the lodestone of his mind’s compass, the north star of his sailing thought. No longer was his imagination freewheeling, soaring to the stars and dissipating into nothingness. It was firmly chained. The weight of that burden gave him focus, gave him strength, like the pull on a great paper kite that, oddly enough, keeps it aloft. If a bauble could go from Stromness to Kirkwall, why not something else?
He had long thought on the nature of things: why things were, and why things weren’t. But castles in the air have a way of dissipating at the slightest breath when no more weighty material than thought has been seeded. Buildings need thought, that is true, but also sweat, tears, and often blood. He began to question why things move and how they stay and, most of all, how they stand.
He rambled here and there, as he had before. To the cliffs where the sea waves roiled, to the mountain heights overlooking small glades of wind-tossed trees, to the mines where the men of Stromness toiled. Before he had seen through things, seen past things: now he saw things themselves.
He still walked to the ravine. Sometimes he saw the girl there, sometimes not. He would look at her and she would look back. Once he threw her the bucket with a piece of quartz he had found in the mines. Another time she signaled to him for the bucket and when he retrieved it he found a shell like a snail’s, only vastly bigger. Following her pantomime he held it to his ear and heard the sea.
He smiled at her and she smiled back. Then a strange look came over her face and she turned and fled. She looked back at him once more before disappearing into the trees. Though he walked to the ravine often he saw her no more, unless she was in the company of other women at the proper water gathering times. She did not seek out his look anymore.
At sixteen he was sent to the mines. The work that ended in making men weak first made them strong, and his body grew to match his tasks. His indolent habits lost their hold on him: he had too much to do, and too little time with which to do it. He asked himself how things might be done faster, better, and with less effort.
The path the donkeys used to carry their cargo out of the mines was longer and less steep than the shortcuts the men used. One of these required a long step over a crevice, something no donkey could be persuaded to do, and so the rough shortcut was not considered for cargo despite cutting off a long loop of the main path.
No one had thought to bridge it, given the roughness of the approach to and from it, but the boy not eighteen was interested enough in how rocks break to keep at the work longer than a reasonable person would. Chipping at one and smashing another, he got a feel for stone that mining in the dark in cramped quarters could not teach.
He also learned what rocks did not break. He knew he could take a paving stone from further down the path, but that did not interest him. A paving stone was big enough for the crevice but he had none big enough for the ravine. Wood was longer but weaker and more rare.
As was his wont when his arms screamed for rest, he played with the crushed rock, stacking it one piece on another until it fell. The bigger the base, the higher he could go, but he did not want to go upwards. He toppled his latest pile over. What was the point?
He stared at what was left of his pile. Why couldn’t rocks be like trees, and be made to grow? Then he saw something he’d seen a hundred times before: two rocks slightly apart with a third rock resting on them. He grabbed a fourth rock and moved the third to make room. He tried a fifth and it all fell down. Putting the four back together, he took careful note. Neither suspended stone rested on the far base, only the near one.
It grew dark and he still could not make the fifth stone work. In the days that followed he kept trying, and four stones became six then nine. He turned back to the crevice. Many mistakes were made. The base stones bulging outward. A stone with not enough pinch, as he liked to call it, slipping. And rocks tumbling out of reach into the crevice, causing him to have to find new stones to replace them. But stones only have so many tricks and eventually he found them out.
The other miners laughed at his work. Laughed, yes, but now took their donkeys over the paving stones he set up around his bridge. He kept on building until he finished his bridge. A man could walk over it, yes, and the miners dared each other to do so. But it was too steep for any real use. He piled rocks before and after—he had plenty of castoffs nearby—until it was no longer steep. Too rough, yes, but he knew how to solve that problem. Adding crushed rock smoothed it out.
It was done. Completely now, and he saw no problem with it. But no one would lead his donkey over it. No one, that is, until a paving stone broke under a donkey and it fell, braying in terror. Most said the place was cursed, and avoided the shortcut, blaming the boy. Some tried his bridge. Eventually the foreman wouldn’t allow anyone to take the longer route.
And so the full tale of sweat, tears, and blood was paid. He had created a bridge that worked. A strong bridge. And it was five times longer than any single piece of stone used.
At eighteen he was reassigned. A main artery in the network of tunnels had collapsed one too many times. Wood was not strong enough to support the roof, and the foreman told him to make a roof of stone. The job thrilled him and terrified him. He set to work with a small crew. He could make no headway: the amount of pinch required, for the length of the tunnel, was more than he could maintain.
Walking home after a fruitless day he saw masons building the Master of Stromness a new room. They set block upon block of stone for the new outer wall. He wished he could do their work. Very simple it was, block upon block. They were working on the Master’s house, so they had the best stone the quarry could offer.
He was working at the Master’s business, too. Stonework that would save lives. And keep the rich south fork open. When he built the bridge, no one believed him. No one wanted him to do it, so he had to do it alone. Now was different. He spoke to the foreman and told him what materials were needed. He knew just the type of block: not quite a square, but slanted on both ends, for the pinch.
The foreman could not issue a writ for the quarry, especially for custom work. He took it to the steward. The steward spoke with the boy not eighteen and gave him the writ. The masons hemmed and hawed but he pointed at the writ. They didn’t give up their hemming and hawing but began dressing and sawing. He had his stones, and soon he had his tunnel.
Seasons came and went. The boy not eighteen became the man not thirty. Engineer, craftsman, architect—his work was unparalleled. Project after project came his way: some successes, some failures. But enough success that he was trusted with another, and enough failure that he kept on learning. For no tree can grow tall that does not grow deep.
At long last, his great dream came to him. The Master, a good friend by now, and a mentor, asked him if he could build a bridge. The man not thirty made no answer save a wry smile: they had spoken on this many times before.
The announcement sparked a flurry of talk on both sides on the ravine. Envoys were sent the long way round to engage in private talks. Townsfolk eschewed such privacy and gossiped loudly at ravine’s edge. The old voiced their opinions and the young theirs. Those of the hale and hearty middle took no notice of either and fought it out in their own way. The spirit of man won against nature, as is the way of all cultures until their demise, and so the bridge became more than a dream.
The bridge joined together years of lessons. He dug deep, first on Stromness then on Kirkwall, and spliced his foundation stones into the roots of the hills. A veritable forest of wood made the supports, forms, walkways, and rails that supported his work. Under his skilled hand the stone grew together from its twin bases into an arch spanning the divide of Orkney County.
He often saw her as he walked from town to bridge. She stood with an enlarged belly and a little one by her side. She had married; he had not. His only children were of stone.
He completed the bridge, but not without loss. A young workman from Stromness slipped and fell, the day after the keystone was laid in place. Incidentally, the same boy whose bauble fell into the ravine so many years ago.
The man not thirty walked across the Bridge of Orkney County once, never to return.
Seasons came and went. The bridge stood through many storms. The fertility of Kirkwall flowed across the bridge. No longer did children go to sleep hungry: food there was, and that aplenty. The wealth and strength of Stromness flowed back. No longer did the old sleep under the sky: they had houses of stone.
But few things stand forever, and fewer still without aid or care. At long last the bridge went the way of this world and crashed. The townsfolk were distraught: no longer was it Kirkwall and Stromness, save in memory and lore. They were one, but one no more.
Many attempts were made to rebuild the bridge. Many attempts and valiant. But the man not thirty of before had left long before his bridge, and none of his workmen had the gift. At length the Master (a new one, for the old one had died in his sleep) commanded that his people no longer try, such was the waste. Some raised piles of rocks in his honor; others cursed his selfish desertion.
The spirit of man turned away to other ends. Bridging the ravine was no longer a possibility: it was a thing unfit, improper, as the folk of old should have known. A woman not eighty whose eyes were bright and many-wrinkled remembered as she sat in her stone house; but few others did.
– - –
“Father, I want to build a church.” A young boy sat perched on a wall beside a man at work. His heels bounced against the stone beneath him.
“A church you say? What sort of church?” the man asked. He was not overly tall but broad shouldered. His hands moved quickly, one holding a trowel, the other a bucket.
“A big one. A big, beautiful church. The biggest ever!” The boy smiled.
“That’s a good thing to want, John. But maybe that’s not what’s needed. Not yet.”
John grew up watching his father build walls. They had the same name, John, and people often called him Little John. But as he grew, it just became John. By that time they were calling his father John Wall, so no one was confused.
When people thought of his father, they thought of walls. He had had a hand in almost all of them: from the walls around the royal cities of Whitehall and Everbay, to the great boundary wall of Skelwick built over many years. Even a wall to hold back the sea in Tankerness.
John always knew he would be a stone mason. There were no two ways about it. When he reached sixteen his father called him aside. “John, it’s time to start your apprenticeship.”
John smiled. He had been as good as his father’s apprentice for five, nay six, years now, except the Mason Guild did not recognize apprentices under sixteen. The rule was supposed to protect boys against masonry accidents, but unofficially had served to keep boys working for the powerful agricultural guilds that had apprentices as young as nine. Anything that needs to be learned can be learned on a farm, they said. Now he would officially be his father’s—
“I spoke with a man today. You know him: the one who sits off to one side at the Guild meetings, in northern dress. He has agreed to take you on.”
“But Father—him? He’s not a Master! I thought I would be apprenticed to you!”
“He is a Master, John. Our Guild is not above its rivalries and petty follies, and so it may be years before he is avowed as such. But I have seen his handiwork. You must learn of him.”
“His handiwork? I’ve seen his handiwork. Putting the quarries in a huff with all his orders. The man doesn’t know how to work with what he’s given.”
“Yes, he is an amateur with wet work. Does it matter? His apprentice will not need instruction there.” John pursed his lips. John Wall continued. “But he knows dry stone better than any other I’ve seen. And his creations, John, you should see them! My work is simple: all I’ve done is lived long at one trade and by fate or chance been in the right town at the right time for projects led by greater men.”
John looked at the ground. “It is decided, then?”
“What if he does not become master?”
“You will serve him for five years. For the last two, he has agreed you may pick another Master if you will, and not stand in your way as a journeyman.”
Seasons came and went. Though the first year was hard, as John and the northern mason figured each other out, John began to see his father’s wisdom in selecting this master. He did not think like the others, nor work like them. Once John accepted this, work became a joy once more.
John found pleasure in friendship as they passed stone from hand to hand or stepped back to look at a section of stonework. Not much was said, nor needed to. During one of these times, though, the northern mason said something of a bridge long ago: about its lines and its curves, its foundation and its trim, its beauties and its strength.
When he had first come south, rumors concerning his skill led to a lord commissioning him for the minor east gate. He finished it according to the terms. But his design did not fit, his being a dry stone arch as compared to the wet riprap of the other city gates, and the work was denounced as unfit, though not quite so unfit as to justify rebuilding it. He received no more commissions and repaired private residences for his daily bread.
John moved to another master for his sixth and seventh year. The northern mason had still not presented a masterpiece deemed worthy, and the other mason had lost his apprentice to the winter chill, so the unusual change was met with less resistance than was expected. The man was no master like his father and John began to hate the work. Any perceived fault was considered birthed from John’s pride and judged harshly.
But John survived the two years and, part due to his father’s stories, part due to the northern mason’s hints, and part due to exasperation with the Guild he left the City to seek his work abroad. He wanted to build a church, at any rate, and his city already had one.
He walked from town to town, doing work he had been doing for years. Replacing broken stone with new, strengthening the walls of homes. He kept his ear open for church work but there was none. In one town, a consortium of merchants hired him to build a bridge. The spring floods had broken their wooden one twice out of the last three years and they had a mind to try something stronger.
He built in the fashion of the northern mason and moved on. More towns, more repairs. He avoided cities after finding that all work went through the Guilds: he was not ready to stand in line for his dole. The next year he built another bridge, smaller than the one before. But the year after that he built three.
His bridges lasted longer than wood bridges, took less stone than those made by others, and were sturdy enough for a troop of heavy horse. Folk took to calling him John Bridger and more often than not, before he was done one project, a messenger had come requesting him for the next.
One year he left off bridge making. No lord could find him. Maybe it was the Mason Guilds calling for their due; maybe it was the death of his young wife in childbirth, I know not why. Many weeks after his latest project John Bridger, arrayed in a green cloak with golden thread, came to the town of Kirkwall.
He walked through the town, eyes catching every gap in the crumbling stone houses. The main street had been paved once, but the cobblestone left jutted this way and that with acute danger for one’s ankles. He did not stop.
John Bridger came to the ravine. He saw the pilings sticking out like an old crone’s teeth, and cracked paving stone pointing the way to where the bridge of Orkney County once stood.
He spoke with the Master of Kirkwall. There was no money to rebuild, as the town was destitute. Besides, the bridge was a curse, and brought death. John Bridger spoke of the quarry, and of workmen, and of merchants he knew in towns not far south who would help. Still the Master said no.
John Bridger walked back to the ravine. An old woman stood there, leaning on a stick. She took in what little warmth the afternoon sun offered after the morning chill. He walked to her and nodded. She nodded in return.
He left the town and, with a shepherd boy’s help, found a path for the long way around the ravine. He spoke with the Master of Stromness and heard much the same. No money. No bridge. No writ allowing any outsider to make one.
“It’s no use. Nothing that is changed stays. Only what is, will ever be.”
John Bridger left Orkney and never returned.
John Bridger went back to building bridges. He gazed wistfully at churches he saw in the cities he lived in (for yes, Guild or no Guild, lords and mayors wished for his bridges) but he never built a church. He taught everything he knew to a young cousin of his, also named John, and spent his last years, when he could no more than hobble about, sitting at the fire in young John’s absence.
Young John grew up and became Master. The land had no more need of bridges, for John Bridger’s work still stood and sewed the land together like the thread of a miserly tailor. But Master John knew that what didn’t fall under man would not fall upon man, and he crafted rooms of strength for many a lord.
An earthquake shook that part of the land. Buildings fell and several gates broke. The east gate the northern mason had made so long ago did not, and so the apprentice of his apprentice, Master John was given the commission to oversee Burwick’s rebuilding, and rebuild it he did.
Before John Bridger died, he was brought to see what would become his Apprentice’s greatest creation. The old church, or kirk, as they call it in that part of the world, had fallen and a new one was to be built. People wondered to see the old man’s tears when gazing at nothing but an empty work site and a stack of stones. John Bridger knew what it would be, for he had dreamed it, spoken of it, and kindled the same dream in Master John.
Thirty years later, when the name of John Bridger was forgotten, the Kirk of Burwick stood complete.
– - –
Now I remember the bauble: a branch roughly carved in the shape of a man’s hand. And well it was but a bauble, for anything carved by the hand of man is a breath of air, and soon passes.
Yet I am Recorder, and nothing that is done escapes my notice. Throughout the land and for centuries, the arches of Orkney county have spread, bringing men together to work and pray and lay their heads down in restful sleep, and I say—well, I am only Recorder.
Long ago in the county of Orkney there were two towns that faced each other. They were near each other as the crow flies and worlds apart in every other way. Seasons came and went, and each day was as like to the one before as it was to the one after, until because of a child's bauble and a boy's wits and a girl's face it was not so. In this 25 minute read, meet a boy born on the wrong side of the ravine, forced to do something about it, and how Orkney County will never be the same.