Illustration: Kate Hazell

Island lockdown—isolating in an isolated place

Our containment on an island is a source of comfort and claustrophobia
May 7, 2020

A strange thing, to self-isolate in isolated places. Here in Orkney, we felt buffered from the coronavirus outbreak for a while thanks to our separation from the mainland by the sea. Still, nowhere is safe. Shetland, further to the north of us, is a symbol of remoteness to many, yet was home to an early cluster of cases, and has been one of the hardest hit regions, per head of population.

Serious illness poses certain logistical problems for those in the islands, particularly the “outlying” islands-off-islands, where healthcare is always a challenge. (The military were called in to evacuate a critically ill patient from Shetland, and the RAF is poised to do the same here, should the need arise.) But for a time it seemed like perhaps our geographical isolation might be a positive.

For weeks now, travel between the islands has been strictly restricted, and the airport closed to all but medical emergencies. With such a slow rate of osmosis with the outside world, I dared to hope that we might slip through unscathed. It was not to be. An Orkney case of Covid-19 was finally announced. Then two, then four… So here we are, locked down like the rest of the country, waiting for news.

Every morning I take the dog along the coastal path, look out across the sound to the grizzled hills of Hoy—its features picked delicately out, black rock through white snow, like an etching—and the low grassy hummock of Graemsay. Islands we can see, but not visit. And beyond them, rising up as a faint mirage, the mountains of Sutherland: wild and ice-clad, as if seen through a portal. As well they might be.

Our containment on the island is a source of comfort and claustrophobia, both. It depends on my state of mind. We learned quickly that we could not hope to remain anonymous in a community of this size; but in a crisis, having an easily-countable, easily defined population is without doubt beneficial. So many of the problems rearing up in cities or more diffuse rural populations have been easily surmounted here.

The butcher-grocer, bakery, deli, seafood merchant and even the bookshop have been delivering door-to-door. We speak most days with our neighbours about who needs what. Small is beautiful, in many ways, and I am reminded daily by our new friends’ stoicism that the people here are accustomed to battening down hatches, and waiting for storms to pass.

Seeing the same faces day in and day out might, at another time, feel oppressive. But at times like these it is a great source of reassurance. Every night before bed, I step outside with the dog, and count off the bright-lit windows as we pass. Night after night we see the same lamps burning, in the same rooms. This is all I want: for everything to stay the same.

Outside, time inches on without us. We take our daily survey of the spring each morning, count off the new layers of birdsong as they build up around us: the bubbling call of the curlew, the squeeze-toy squall of the lapwing, the catcalling eider. Up on the hill, I lay down in the long grass to watch the skylark’s trilling ascent into a white-hot sky, so high I could barely make him out. Then came the fall: the graceful nose dive, smooth and swift, until his beak skimmed the soft heather.

Small pleasures these, but no less pleasurable for it. I hope I see him tomorrow, and the day after that.