Born 1948 in Kent, Andrew Appleby became an independent wanderer from a very early age. The youngest of three brothers, he constantly lagged behind – and still does, even now, on a walk – finding clay in banks and around ponds, orsearching the ground for ancient artifacts. His natural tendency towards incendiary pursuits helped fire his meagre works from the age of seven, and at eleven he was smitten with the archaeology bug. This led to discovering a Neolithic site with quantities of prehistoric pottery… his yearning to make these pots was born.
He spent most of his secondary school years in the pottery department. His father, James William Appleby, had related his tales of Orkney in the army intelligence service during World War Two, so Andrew and his brother Malcolm hitch-hiked there from Kent. The archaeology, scenery, atmosphere and colours had a permanent effect and a decade later moved to the Isles permanently, setting up his pottery in an old chicken house at Fursbreck Farm in Harray. From his first weeks in residence, folk said, ‘You must go and see the Harray Potter! He’s just magic!’, hence its name.
Past Chair and Vice-Chair of the Orkney Archaeology Society, Andrew has seen Orkney’s archaeology scene blossom. He is currently President of the John Rae Society, honouring the Orcadian Arctic explorer.
Besides pottery, archaeology and exploration, Andrew has a strong interest in gathering food and road kill. This has led to appearances in television programmes such as Scotland’s Larder.
Why I wrote Skara
Since the late 1970s I have yearned to write a Neolithic epic set in Orkney. I began it after a Christmas Eve walk on Birsay Beach with my wife, Sigrid. We watched the redshanks running in the ebb and across the wet sands. I said, ‘At last I have the beginning and end of my book. It starts with a tsunami and ends with one’. I began Skara that evening, introducing Shala, her family and fellow villagers. By then I had decided that the first great wave would be described as a race memory in later storytelling. This is where the powerful character of Wrasse appears. Two days later, the huge tsunami hit Indonesia.
Skara, with Shala and Oiwa, is the first novel in this series. It sets the scene for momentous movements in knowledge and political power in Orkney. But first, the Isles were suffering from inbreeding. These dangers had to be countered, hence the spiritual insights of Shala and Wrasse – I firmly support race memory and the predictive force of dreams, having experienced these in quite abrupt and physical ways. From Skara Brae or Birsay, gazing west across the Atlantic, the next stop is unimaginably distant. This is from where I chose the hero, Oiwa, to travel. He had his reasons, as you will discover, and underwent terrible yet wondrous adventures.
My inspiration for the series has been my lifelong interest in archaeology. I have always earnestly believed that Orkney was a great centre of knowledge and culture, influencing world thinking at a time when early civilisations were about to burgeon, but there is virtually no material evidence to back this up. Only when you think deeply about the sites, the dates in world history and how the islanders were modern people in their time, at the forefront of technical advances and natural wisdom, does the notion become plausible.
The skills of people who use early technologies also fill me with inspiration. Their efficiency of movement, style and concentration bring spectacular results and the simple, yet effective ‘struggle for mere existence’ becomes a rich, rewarding lifestyle. I always tend to look at evidence with an alternative view and my experiments in ancient pottery, cooking and material culture have given me skills and knowledge of the past. I enjoy putting flesh on ancient bones, brains in their skulls, hunger and satisfaction in their bodies and, of course, love and lust in their hearts. I feel that many archaeologists tend to de-personalise the lives of people from the past and misinterpret perfectly ordinary discoveries as ritual. My characters are intensely practical in the way they live. Cult is there, but takes second place to real life.
There is an old Orkney expression, ‘If it’s hard work, you’re doing it wrong’. We look back assuming everything in the distant past was difficult and survival was tortuous. Yet, as the great explorer John Rae discovered, if you take your example from the locals, there is always a right way, and a time and place to work miracles.