Orkney! And Inverness at great length (2005-09-06 - 5:01 p.m.)

Just as fair warning, this is going to be the longest blog post ever. Either that, or three days worth of posts. Because I had SUCH A GREAT WEEKEND and I have a whole lot to say. In large amounts of detail, of course, as always. Feel free to skim.

So this was my summer holiday (all 3 days of it) – I used up all my holiday allocation going home in June, but managed to scrape together one more free day to take a long weekend to go to Orkney with Brad. I took the train to Inverness on Friday night after work and stayed in a hostel there that night – it’s an 8-hour trip to Thurso and would have taken up a whole day with travel had I done the whole thing on Saturday. Had a quick wander around Inverness that night, although it was limited due to having arrived at 8.30 pm. However, I did see the sun set on the River Ness (gorgeous!) and walk past the castle and bridges. And I even caught some live music, by sitting on a fence by the river and looking through an open door to a concert!

Got very little sleep that night, not surprisingly. It was a nice hostel but anytime you’re in a dorm people are going to come in and out at all hours. I hope I’m not getting past the point where I can put up with hostels, because financially I’m still in the same spot as always – the cheaper, the better! Anyway, I got my own back by having to wake up at 6 am to catch my 7 am train.

The train ride up was gorgeous, even in my sleep-deprived state. The rail line hugs the coast most of the way up north and it’s nice country – heather-covered slopes with lochs everywhere, which is one of my favorite landscapes. Especially nice at the moment as the heather and gorse are out, making the hills purple and yellow.

I would just like to add:

“I never saw a moor
I never saw the sea
And yet I know how heather looks
And what a wave must be.

I never talked with God
Nor visited in Heaven
But certain am I of the spot
As if the chart were given.”

That was me up until a little while ago, and I’m very pleased I now know what a moor looks like. (Disclaimer: that’s from memory. Apologies to Emily D if I screwed it up).

Anyway. Arrived at Thurso safe and sound (after being stuck next to a little red-headed kid inevitably named Eilidh) and Brad met me at the station. We caught the noon ferry – barely! For some reason foot passengers were forced to take a bus the ten meters from the entrance to the ferry terminal, and the bus got stuck in traffic (!) and we nearly missed the ferry despite arriving 45 minutes early.

The ferry ride was gorgeous. Sea was flat as a millpond despite being one of the most treacherous bits of ocean in Britain, and the sun was out. We passed the Old Man of Hoy, which is a huge and imposing-looking sea stack. I was duly impressed and someone will be getting an Old Man of Hoy postcard.
The ferry pulls in to Stromness, a little fishing village on the Orkney mainland. We checked into our B&B, which was run by very lovely people. Spent the afternoon wandering around Stromness, which didn’t take long given that it has a grand total of one street. Ended up in the tiny Stromness museum, which was a lot more interesting than I anticipated. Turns out that there are EXTREMELY strong Canadian-Orkadian links. The Hudson’s Bay Company ships used to pull into Stromness and advertised for men there as well. So half the men who colonised Canada seem to have been from Orkney. The museum had a whole swack of Canadian stuff, including some on loan from the Provincial Museum of Alberta and the Glenbow! They had tons of stuff, including Cree beadwork and Inuit snow goggles. There was also a picture of a little Metis boy whose Orcadian dad sent him back to the island when he was about six.

We then caught the bus into Kirkwall, the capital of Orkney and the largest town. We were just in time to see the Earl’s Palace and Bishop’s palace, which happily were Historic Scotland sites and free to us! The Bishop’s palace looked a lot like Dunfermline Palace (ie not so great) but I LOVED the Earl’s Palace. It may have edged Linlithgow out as my favorite so far. It was in pretty good repair except for the roof and was full of turrets and winding staircases and unexpected rooms. I think what I liked most was the decoration, though – it wasn’t as austere as most castles and had gorgeous carvings around the windows and on the turrets.

Kirkwall is also home to St Magnus Cathedral. It is large and pink, and apart from that looks like every other freaking cathedral in the world (I am not a huge fan, if you couldn’t tell. Rem would have loved it though). Brad wanted to see it and I was debating seeing the cathedral versus having a rest on a bench. I guess I left it too late, as the priest ushered Brad through the door and slammed it shut. I took that as an omen that I should go eat Orkney fudge instead, so I did.

After that everything shut, so we just had a wander around Kirkwall and stopped for a lovely dinner at an Indian restaurant (sampling the local cuisine!) As we walked back towards the bus stop we heard pipes. It was the local pipe band out parading down the streets for their annual concert! They were pretty impressive and it was completely serendipity that we happened to be in the right place for an open-air concert that night. Although I was somewhat distracted from the show by the little boy who spent the entire time trying to get a dog to lick his head! There were kids everywhere, running around the cathedral grounds. It reminded me how glad I was to be out of the city.

We waited for the bus with two snogging teenagers and a very friendly guy from Stromness. He told us not to be surprised if every Orkadian we meet wants to know who we are and what we’re doing and where we’re from. He said, “You could call it nosiness, or you could call it friendliness”. He also told me the interesting factoid that TV reception is really crap in Stromness when the ferry is in, since it blocks the signal. You have to wait till the ferry goes out to watch TV. I didn’t get to test this theory, as there wasn’t a TV in the room.

Having reached Stromness once again, we stopped at the one and only local pub (“The Flattie”) for a wee dram of Highland Park, Orkney’s own whisky. The pub had a great atmosphere as there was a hen night of some variety in the corner, a group of old people with pints in the back and the bar was crammed with guys in their 20s. It must be interesting living in a small town on a small island.
And that was only day one…

The next morning got up far too early (7 am) after an excellent sleep and had breakfast with a bearded English chemical engineer who was up in Orkney biking, and a gruff Glasgow fisherman who told me all about the angling possibilities of the Canadian Rockies.

We caught the 9 am bus to Skara Brae The bus driver was given’er over the narrow little roads, so were actually there well before it opened and forced to go down to a gorgeous beach at the Bay of Skail and take pictures and skip rocks.

Skara Brae totally blew me away. It’s a 5000-year-old village, basically. The houses and all the furniture were made of stone, and so have survived almost completely intact. Each house is connected by a passageway covered by a roof, just like the “burrows” we used to make out of blankets as kids. The houses have the same layout as well. They have beds along the side and a stone dresser at the back, plus cubbyholes and shelves for holding things. Most also have little holes in the floor used for holding bait and fish. These would have been waterproofed with clay, and the floor itself was covered with clay which would form a nice hard easy-to-clean covering. There was even a sort of pot cupboard that probably would have had sand in it, to keep the pots dry and upright.

The village slowly filled up with sand over time and eventually everyone moved out. The houses ended up getting covered completely, still intact, and were rediscovered in the 1800s when a huge storm blew the turf off the top. The landscape had changed completely by then.

We spent a long time just pacing around the village. I really have trouble grasping that sort of timescale, but it’s pretty amazing.

Also included in the admission (which we didn’t pay, yay Historic Scotland!) was Skail House. We did a quick ten-minute tour and it looked well worth more time, but I had to collect my wallet (which I managed to drop at Skara Brae) and a million postcards and catch the bus…

Back to Stromness, with the same driver, who then changed the number of the bus and took us to Stenness as well. Stenness is just a wide spot in the road, but it is home to more impressive Neolithic artifacts. We went on a bit of a walk to the Stenness Standing Stones, which are just in a field. There are three of them and they’re very iconic-looking. They’re about 16 feet tall and quite imposing – except for the fact that they had very contented-looking sheep lying in their shade and staring at us. I love how all these immeasurably old monuments set up by Neolithic man can be found every third field, and have to share space with the livestock.

A couple of miles along the road was the even more impressive Ring of Brodgar. It was initially a ring of about 60 stones, all huge. There are about 27 left, which is enough to make quite an impression. You can see them from all over the countryside as they’re on a bit of a hill. The grandeur and majesty was a bit compromised, however, by the weird guy who was walking around taking a picture of every stone from front, back and side (despite the signs saying NOT to wander off the path) and then turning his back to each stone and taking a picture of the view from it! Odd.

Okay, out of time for the moment. Tune in next time for the rest of my exploration of Neolithic Orkney as well as Monday’s jaunt through Thurso and the East Coast of Scotland.

backwards ~ onwards

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moved! - 2008-05-12
Sunday = time to ramble on - 2008-05-11
apparently I'm doing monthly updates these days. Sorry. - 2008-05-04
watershed - 2008-04-06
end of trip - 2008-03-31

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