Caught by the River

Free Range: Island Shores

Amy Liptrot | 3rd September 2023

Amy Liptrot and her children swap West Yorkshire’s gritstone and green for Orkney’s sky and sea.

On our last night in Orkney, after his little brother was asleep, I took my son to the cliffs for the first time. On previous visits back to the farm where I grew up, I’d been too scared to take him but he’s no longer a bolting toddler so we go down across the field, over a stile and carefully across the slabs of grey flagstone that slope towards the sea. We peek into Rivna Geo, a sheer and inaccessible inlet. At my favourite place, we sit together high above the Atlantic. He is wearing wellies and a wooly jumper over his pyjamas. There is a stripe of light low in the western sky and the ocean stretches out to America. Around us, fulmars ride the breeze and further out gannets pass brightly. 

I told him I used to come here when I was younger. Since then he’s been asking us questions about life before him, before his Dad and I met, his awareness expanding. 

Growing up in the West Yorkshire Pennines, my kids have a much different home geography — a different kith or local acre — than I did. Where we live is about as landlocked as you can be in the UK. Theirs is a world of woods and rivers, of terraced houses among trees: a world of gritstone and green rather than sky and sea. My toddler calls the sea “the river” for the first few days we are in Orkney. 

We spend afternoons on the same rocky shore where my brother and I played as kids. They get among seaweeds which have distinct textures I remember well: sensory experiences in the rockpools. The five-year-old calls the bright green gutweed, which is puffy and light in the water, “calm seaweed” — then it falls flat and slimy when he lifts it out. The bladders of knotted wrack are “poppers”, and the large fronds of sugar kelp make stylish hats and scarves. He curates a “museum” on the rocks of bird remains, shells and a rusty mechanical part.

It feels right to see them enjoying my places, following the common instinct to recreate the best parts of our own unbringing for our children. I’ve been missing the sea and the isles. These feelings have led to a decision to move up to the small Orkney island of Papay for a while. Nine years after I left for Berlin, I’m returning with my three boys, for six months. I want us to be closer to the elements: the tides, the night sky, the weather. I want us to be part of a small island community: the children will join the school of nine pupils.

I was unwell while we were away. I went down to the shore but didn’t have the energy to do much. It was interesting to see that the kids were more able than I thought to look after themselves: to remove clothes and shoes when needed, to create games. It was a lesson in standing back, not to over-mother. In January, we’re going to change the place we live and then stand back and see what changes it brings to us.