Sailing with Clipperton

Make it Egilsay, said Howard Buxton from New Zealand. Sail with the Selkie to the island where St Magnus was executed and explore.

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The Selkie had come in to Kirkwall harbour two days before, with a team from the Clipperton Project, director Jon Bonfiglio among them. Giving the opening lecture in the 2014 Orkney International Science Festival, he made an offer to the audience: give us your ideas for an island expedition tomorrow, and we’ll choose one of them and take the contributor along.

And it was Egilsay selected, the green island with the ruined church whose tall round tower stands out in views from the Orkney mainland and from the neighbouring islands of Rousay and Wyre. Sailing out to a new horizon is what the Clipperton project is about. Taking its name from a remote Pacific atoll, it promotes the spirit of exploration, in travel and in art and science and life – pushing out into new territory.

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That’s particularly appropriate in the anniversary year of Galileo, born 450 years before, and dedicated in his life and work to looking out to the stars, turning his telescope on the night sky and probing other worlds, and insisting again and again that the only way to truth was by personal experience.

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The Clipperton Project organises expeditions to distant places and brings together people from many backgrounds to carry out activities. The group sailing to Egilsay included marine biologist Suly Sanchez, and artists Struan Kennedy and Selena Kuzman, along with Los Angeles artist j. frede whose own account of the journey records his impressions of the day.

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Captain Celia Bull, accompanied by her son Dylan, took the Selkie north, past Shapinsay with a view of Balfour Castle and on to anchor at Egilsay and land by zodiac boat.

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Bumblebees and corncrakes

Egilsay in summer has wild flowers by the roadside, appreciated by the rare great yellow bumblebee, and some can still to be seen in September. Two small lochs on the RSPB reserve at the farm of Onziebust are home to waders in spring and wildfowl in winter. A management scheme has been developed to provide good breeding habitat for corncrakes. Patches of nettle and iris are left as early cover for their return from winter in Africa. There is tall grass, left to stand until after the breeding season. Fields are cut from the inside outwards, to let any birds escape under cover; and late cover is provided to enable the adults to moult and the young to escape predators.

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The church was built in the 1130s, about twenty years after the death of Earl Magnus at the hands of his cousin Hakon. Magnus was later sanctified and the cathedral in Kirkwall built to commemorate him. The Egilsay church’s tall round tower may be a bell-tower. The main body of the building is its nave, rectangular with a door in each side; at the eastern end there is a barrel-vaulted chancel with a chamber above, which may have been a bishop’s treasury.

Many churches with this design can be seen today in East Anglia, and church design there seems to have influences from north Germany and southern Denmark. It’s been suggested that the design may have spread to Egilsay at a time when Orkney came under the archbishopric of Hamburg-Bremen.

Before this there was an older church, where Magnus prayed the night before he died, and it may have been quite an important one, because one interpretation of the island’s name is that it comes from a Celtic word for ‘church’. The word is eglwys in Welsh and eaglais in Gaelic, and it appears in French today as église.

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The Orkney writer Bessie Skea described a visit to Egilsay on a grey day, and then the homeward journey.

”Our wake had a bloom like velvet, a jumbled crystal velvet with a violet glow of jade and turquoise. All around lay Elysian isles on a milk-white sea, and a whiter boat, returning, greeted us again in passing. Upon such stormless seas comes a detached, mental tranquillity, a slowing-down of tempo in which the world runs smoothly, a buoyancy of spirit seldom experienced on land.”