When Orkney GP Dr Olaf Cuthbert died, it fell to his daughter to organise a memorial bench in his memory. But a trip back to the island brought back more than just memories.
For the novelist came face-to-face with her high school sweetheart, and her dad’s bench dedication sparked new love and a new chapter of Orcadian life.
Man of medicine
Dr Olaf David Cuthbert was born on February 10 1923 in the east end of London.
Son of Church of England vicar Milroy Cuthbert and his wife Margaret, Olaf always had ambition to go into medicine. After his medical training at Barts, London, he was sent to Austria to help with the post-war effort.
On his return he married Melody Morgan, a nurse from London. The couple had five children together, moving to Cornwall where Olaf served as a GP, then back to Harlow in Essex.
When Melody passed away, Olaf found love again with Mildred Forsyth, who had a daughter of her own already. He had been diagnosed with angina and after a holiday in the Northern Isles, applied for a job in Orkney and got it.
A new life in Orkney
In 1973 Olaf, Mildred, and his youngest daughter Sara moved to Evie, west Orkney.
For 40 years Olaf worked as GP to the Orkney people, relishing the quieter life and rugged landscape of the lands he had made his home.
An avid reader “of almost anything” from Stephen Hawking to PG Woodhouse, he especially loved to consume – and to write – poetry. Dabbling in art but becoming proficient in carriage driving, Olaf was known as someone who loved to sit and talk, and to fully immerse himself in Orkney culture.
After the move, his youngest daughter Sara attended secondary school on the island before returning south to do her A Levels and go on to university.
A typical teenager, she had a taste of young love before leaving to begin her degree on the mainland.
“My dad passed away in April 2013. By that point he had retired, but for many years was was still offering his services – sometimes at the level of a junior doctor.
“In latter years he was diagnosed with lewy body dementia. It was a terribly difficult diagnosis to receive,” said Dr Sara Bailey.
It was Dr Olaf’s wish to be cremated in a private family ceremony in Inverness. The service echoed all the things he loved.
“Soul Limbo, the theme tune from Test Match Special was played, poetry was read. At his funeral back in Orkney there was a queue out the door,” said Sara.
A place to remember Dr Olaf
In the wake of her father’s death, though his ashes were scattered locally, Sara kept hearing stories about how much he had liked to sit and talk to friends and neighbours. It was also noted how much his presence doing so was missed.
The only one of her siblings with any ties to the island, it fell to Sara to organise a fitting memorial in the form of a bench.
So in August 2014 she returned for one final trip to Orkney, to oversee its installation.
Complete with an inscription of his own poetry, the bench overlooks the bay of Evie. It both serves as a way to remember the island doctor, but also provides a place for those who knew him to “sit and talk with him”.
One final trip to Orkney
Sara, then living in Winchester, an “academic doctor” teaching creative and film writing for Solent University, was divorced with two grown up daughters.
“With no grave this [the bench] felt like the perfect way, and an ideal place, to remember dad.
“The words on the bench read: ‘I leave few footprints on the sand for stormy seas to wash away. I take with me the breadth of sky and seas of unimaginable blue,’ which he wrote himself.”
Knowing she was making the trip north, Sara planned to gather two of her dad’s oldest friends, along with her mum, a member of the community council and of her own school friends to “raise a glass” at the site of the bench.
“It was a lovely day. It was quite emotional looking out on the view I knew he loved so much. I took every moment in as I honestly believed it would be my last proper visit to Orkney.”
Fate had other ideas. That evening Sara went out for dinner with school friends. Though she had heard he couldn’t make it, Sara bumped into her former high school boyfriend at the pub.
A year younger than Sara, she and Leslie Miller had dated as teens but by her own admission she left the island for university without a proper goodbye.
“It was so hit and miss back then. We were both pretty fiery characters. I wasn’t even convinced he’d remember me,” she said.
Both previously married, Leslie decided to ditch his plans to attend a fishing do that evening, opting to catch up with Sara instead.
“As soon as he walked in and sat down it was just so easy. We slipped right back in to how it had been back then. The same banter… he still made me laugh.”
Long distance love
Not taking the situation “entirely seriously” when Leslie came to see her off the island Sara wondered for a moment if there was something more to their fleeting encounter.
“He asked if we could stay in touch and so for the first few months we spoke on the phone. The calls got longer and longer and so it gradually became a bit of a long distance thing. I came back up at Christmas and that’s when we got together properly.
“The following month he came to visit me in Winchester.”
To coincide with Sara’s birthday, Leslie made the trip to England just weeks after they had “officially” become a couple. She took him to all her favourite places, including Winchester Cathedral where Jane Austen is buried.
“I said ‘yes'”
“The choir were rehearsing, candles were lit. Just as I was telling him how much I loved that specific spot because of Jane Austen, he interrupted me.
“And I should add right here – Orcadian men aren’t known for being romantic. So what came next was unexpected, to say the least.”
On confirming that she was indeed in her favourite place “because he wanted it to be special”, he took out a box containing a ring.
After her initial shock, and Leslie’s proposal of “if you want to,” Sara joked that he should be down on one knee.
“The verger was laughing, I was in shock, he was nervous but the long and short of it is that I said YES.”
‘Like a romantic comedy’
By March Sara, who had just completed her PhD in creative writing, handed in her notice with no job to go to, just a sense that it was the right thing to do.
“It’s like a Richard Curtis film,” she jokes, “because it’s all worked out better than we could have imagined.”
In August 2015, one year after the memorial bench trip brought them together Leslie and Sara tied the knot in the little Italian chapel in Orkney.
She realised her dream of becoming an author after Leslie encouraged her to send out her novel. A psychological thriller called Dark Water set in Orkney, now so successful it’s just been reprinted.
And when she got in touch with the University of the Highlands and Islands they were in a need of a writer to create modules for the new film degree.
“This led to me writing and running the degree in creative writing for them. I was still doing that until recently,” she added.
Dad’s bench brought us together
Reflecting on the sad events that brought her love, and ultimately back to Orkney, Sara believes her dad was “somehow” part of it all.
“It does sound like a film plot, I know, but it truly is our story.
“Every so often I will go to dad’s bench and tidy it up. I like to walk my dogs around there, and just sit and have a chat to him.
“I just have this sense that he did this. Somehow, in ways I don’t understand, he sort if said ‘right Sara, enough is enough. Stop messing about down there and come home’.
“However it happened, I’m glad it did.”