Just a few random thoughts of Orkney…from a native of one of the world’s busiest cities.

 

It’s such a remote and beautiful place…. the wild and windy weather makes this big expanse of land both bleak and majestic, but it is also hauntingly beautiful, especially at some of the more remote headlands and shorelines. When there is no one else in sight, just the sky, sea and you, it is truly awesome. Anything that manages to grow here must be tough enough to withstand the strong winds…including the people! Despite this, we have been greeted by the welcoming sight of thousands of wild daffodils along so many of the roadside verges, reminding us that spring is indeed here even this far north.

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It appears to outsiders like us that life is somehow simple and gentle here. Watching little school-children cycling home by themselves (a small lad even manages to perfect his uni-cycle skills) one can’t help but wonder that it must be wonderful for those kids growing up so close to nature, without the distractions of the materialistic possessions which so many kids elsewhere seem to yearn for.

Everyone we meet is so friendly and trusting. We’re given free crabs, the loan and use of a car and even strangers on buses help with directions, timetables and advice. Maybe because it is so remote here, everyone has a strong community spirit and they look out for each other. In many ways, it must be tough to make a living in these harsh surroundings and yet the people we have met seem so gentle and kind.

This is the furthest north I have come in the UK, and when we left to make our way back south, I felt an odd sense of sadness knowing that it is unlikely that I will come here again. I don’t know why this seems to affect me more than other places I have left. Is it because of the remoteness of the place? The lack of crowds? One getting older and aware of one’s own mortality?

As our ferry docked in Aberdeen and we make our way to the train station, we have to wait nearly 5 minutes before we could cross…the traffic was constant. I had not seen so many cars for a while and this was a stark reminder that we are indeed heading south and in the land of big cities again.

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A holiday in Orkney…and farewell for now…

 

With John and Chris gone the boat is oddly quiet. Having dropped Chris at the airport we make use of Alan’s kind offer to borrow his car for the rest of the day. Just east of the airport is Deerness and we have a bracing (isn’t it always?) walk along the cliffs to The Gloup.

Yee Tak’s mind is on other things and we end up at Jolly’s Fish back in Kirkwall. As luck would have it, the weather has been too rough for most of the local boats and so we have to satisfy ourselves with just squid (which Chris would not miss) and salmon (which she would). We have been ever so slightly ashamed that Heydays has just sat in the marina for the last 2 weeks, with not a sail raised in earnest….good to know that even the locals thought better of going out.

We take the ‘scenic’ route back to Stromness and find ourselves in Tingwall. This is a small fishing harbour and also the ferry jetty for services to Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre.

Oddly enough, Yee Tak wanders over to a fishing boat which is unloading crabs and whelks. A casual enquiry to James, the skipper of ‘Enterprise A’, about a crab results in him promising to ‘sort her out’ with something. I stay close by! We finally stagger away with 3 large brown crabs, two velvet crabs and over a dozen huge whelks. James refuses to take anything for them, telling us to accept them as a present from Orkney. Yet another example of the kindness and generosity of people on these islands.

Even Yee Tak has not come across velvet crabs before…apparently they are not regarded in UK so they all get shipped to Spain.

One the way back to Heydays, we drive past Eynhallow Sound which is another route into and out of the islands from the west. The pictures tell a story of dangerous roosts and local fishermen tutting and sucking their teeth when one talks about sailing through.

Back on the boat we know that Chris would not be enthusiastic, but we miss John who would have loved this feast. We dine simply that evening on a brown crab and the two velvet crabs (very sweet meat), with simnel cake to follow. Lunch the following day on the two remaining brown crabs and then dinner of pilau rice with the boiled and garlic sautéed whelks…and the odd bottle of wine. We toast James from the Enterprise A…cheers James.

The three of us are leaving Heydays for a while and are sad to be leaving both her and Orkney. There is no doubt that these islands are something very special and we are all grateful to the people we met along the way who suggested that we make the voyage north. Special mention to Pam and Dave on their Westerly Seahawk who we met in Arbroath on their way round clockwise, who first put the idea of going right round the top in our minds. A magical experience we are glad not to have missed.

James and John will be back in May (elderly parents permitting) with Yee Tak and Chris coming later after family commitments, to continue our voyage anti-clockwise.

Sad footnote…and best wishes to Roy

We have been checking and re-checking weather forecasts (WindyTV is brilliant – thanks Brian and Anne) in preparation for the exit from Scapa Flow out of Hoy Mouth (‘area to be avoided’ says the chart, somewhat botheringly). However John has had a call to say that his Dad (Roy) in Plymouth is really poorly and that he ought to get back. Alan has left his unlocked car at the ferry terminal complete with the keys (the islands are incredibly safe) and it gets John to the airport within the hour and the start of a rapid journey south.

With Chris also gone, we revise our plans. Heydays will stay in Stromness until John and James hopefully return on 10th May to continue the journey to the Western Isles. We know that friends want to join us along the way and we will keep this blog updated re our whereabouts. Thanks again to all the new friends we have made and their generosity for the help we have had so far and we know the boat will yet again be looked after in our absence.

Touristy stuff part 2…

 

Weather remains too rough for pleasurable sailing round Scapa Flow and so we opt for a ferry ride out to Hoy and back. We pass some famous seaweed eating sheep…but they are not on North Ronaldsay!

As it turns out, driving rain keeps us in the 40’s themed café in the museum at Lyness on Hoy. An old radio with printed stations such as Hilversum and Light Programme on its dial (but with modern innards), is playing war-time tunes. We think about an impromptu tea-dance but would look odd in boots and oilies… The whole area is derelict WW2 oil tanks, gun batteries and other war detritus. The museum however, is strangely compelling, with stories of the activities of both British and German navies in both world wars.

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A constant theme of our trip from the south up the East Coast has been the increasing levels of friendliness and warmth from almost everyone we meet. We sailed over from Wick in the company of Alan and his long-suffering crew Ian on Cordula and were invited for a glorious lunch with Ian and Annette at their house on the beach on South Ronaldsay. They are not the first people we have met either, who have left Cornwall to get away from it all in Orkney.

The boat has had a changing complement over just a few days…Paul, our faithful crew, herring gutter admirer and curry cooker has left for Majorca, John’s wife Chris has arrived and now James’ wife Yee Tak and nephew Byron have joined. A hired car for the day gets us around the main tourist sites and provides refuge from the constant wind (and occasional rain). We have seen Neil Oliver’s TV programmes about the Neolithic settlements here, but the reality is awe-inspiring. The Scara Brae village, the Maes Howe burial mound and the Ring of Brodgar seem to touch us down the generations even more than more recent relics and monuments. In reality of course, they are the relics of ordinary people like us, not just the grandiose buildings of kings, queens or bishops. We spend time just standing next to their 5000 year old village on a windswept rocky beach, gazing out to the same horizon as they did…and wondering what on earth would induce any lunatic to set out to sea!

In a similar sort of vein, the Italian Chapel is also oddly compelling. Built by Italian prisoners of war out of two old Nissan huts, it is a small piece of beautifully decorated Italy next to their old POW camp. Once again it speaks of just ordinary men and now stands testament to an enduring friendship with the islanders.

Driving to South Ronaldsay is now possible because of firstly the sunk block-ships and then the Churchill Barriers, erected to close off the Eastern entrances to Scapa Flow….after a U-Boat sent over 800 men and boys to a watery death on HMS Royal Oak at the start of the war. Churchill apparently convinced the Italian POW builders that it was a community project to link the islands and not a war project…!

Some touristy stuff in Orkney…

Unsurprisingly the weather dictates a fair chunk of life up here and since this blog is not intended to be a (very) rough guide, what follows is just a random collection of thoughts and impressions in no particular order…

So what have we learned?…that modern scotch whisky could not exist without bourbon or maybe sherry and that prior to someone buying a load of old casks to keep their raw whisky in, it was just that…raw and tasteless. Except that the tiny Scapa Distillery let us taste some of their raw spirit from the heart of the distillation and uniquely they had managed to keep the malted barley flavour. It was very different from what we now know as scotch…and very nice…and unobtainable. Scotch whisky can only be called scotch if it has been matured for at least 3 years…and nicked flavours from the Spanish or Americans! The other slightly disappointing fact…the barley for many distilleries (in this part of Scotland at least) is all malted in Berwick on Tweed (in England!) and then brought up in lorries….disappointing fact number 2 is that the raw spirit is then tankered back down south to be put into casks…and then brought back up for ageing here. Not quite as romantic as we thought. However, the tastes are still great and we’ll keep on drinking the stuff.

A windy walk out round the headland opposite Hoy did little to reassure us for the passage out of Scapa Flow when we finally depart for the Western Isles. More strong currents with ‘roosts’ (local word for rough water and overfalls) means careful planning about both tide and wind strengths and directions. Local sailors are, as always, incredibly helpful and reassuring, but also warn about getting it wrong!

The residents of the graveyard have a wild and windy view over to Hoy which, whatever the weather, seems to have a cloud topping giving it an odd volcanic appearance.

Our trip to Inverness noted a surfeit of barbers (Orcadians are much less well coiffed) and queues for the ice-cream parlours…this bit also seems to be an Orcadian predilection. In the middle of nowhere for us (but centre of the world for the many Neolithic Orcadians at Maeshowe) there is a bungalow selling ice-creams. It turns out not only to be open, but in the 35 minutes we sit there waiting for the bus, there is a continual stream of people coming in…some to sit like us, others just to get take away…they are also locals. Perhaps they are closer to their Neolithic roots than we think.

We have been hoping to find local music on our trip. Half expecting fiddlers or pipers to be sat in cosy pubs by the peat fire. This was in part rectified by an outfit called Rack and Ruin at the Royal Hotel in Stromness. They are from Cullivoe on Yell in Shetland…and they play mostly blue-grassy covers mixed with some Scottish, Shetland and Irish folk. The usual chaos of pub bands, involving cables worthy of the Stones and enough duct tape to stretch across the Pentland Firth, eventually comes together around 10 and the place starts jumping. A slick ‘sting’ operation by (Wives? Mothers?) the merchandising crew involves one flirting shamelessly with drunk men (and women) while the other sizes them up and throws a perfectly fitting T Shirt across the room.

A deft move and the mark is left wearing the shirt and fishing for yet another tenner…she helps!

At 1.30 they are either out of T shirts  or songs or both. The whole pub sings a Shetlandish song and then spills out into the street. Drunk, rowdy but never lairy and a great evening even for this folk-sceptic.

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Some photos of us across the Firth…

It is not often we are able to have photos of our own boat on the water, so these are a few taken by Alan and Ian in Cordula…

heydays sailing across the pentalnd firth

…and with the Pentland Skerries in the background…

 

off South Ronaldsay and finally with Mainland (Orkney) getting close.

Monday 3rd April — Stromness, Orkneys

The day dawns clear, bright and looking very changeable. A relaxed start to the day nevertheless sees us shipshape and cleared from breakfast when a tap on the coach roof signals the arrival of our Harbourmaster for the day – Lyndsey. She watched us from home motorsailing in yesterday in perfect conditions, and she congratulates us on seeing Scapa Flow at its best. Stromness Marina is run very efficiently by friendly and knowledgable volunteers, and in no time our arrangements are clarified and we get lots of good advice on matters nautical and touristy.

 

Paul only has a couple of days left with us, so we plan a day to include the Neolithic stones and a look at Kirkwall while the weather lasts, and head for the bus stop at the marina. More friendly advice from bus driver Maureen see us furnished with weekly Megapasses and we head for Stenness, after only a short 10 minute delay at the stop while the intricacies of validating the new bus smart cards are refined between Maureen and the depot…… Other passengers seem mildly amused rather than grumpy at the delay, and we are beginning to like this place and its people a lot.

We’re dropped off at the cross roads we need rather than the village ( all part of the service!), and reach the tall majestic Stones of Stenness after a brisk 15 min walk.

A brief photo call later we head on over the narrow causeway between the salty Loch of Stenness and the freshwater Loch of Harray, and soon reach the Ring of Brodgar. This is impressively large, symmetrical and complete, and we spend some time studying the timeline display setting it at 3500BC within 1000 years of the first known human civilisations.

Just touching the stones takes us back over the millenia and we try to imagine the individuals whose lives these stones commanded…

The weather looks to be closing in, a 35 min very brisk walk back might just connect with the next hourly bus, and Skara Brae is still 4-5 miles away – so we head back and just make the bus for Kirkwall.

Coffee seems overdue by this time, so it’s off to Strynds tea shop round the corner from St Magnus cathedral. Here coffee is forgotten as excellent carrot and parsnip soup with Bere bannocks (a tasty dark flour soda bread) is on offer. After an all too short look at Kirkwall it’s time to head back to explore Stromness., which turns out to be a mixture of intriguing alleys and cottages…

…and a working port…

…with not many trees!

While the weather closes in a couple of hours fly pleasurably by in the museum. This very much focuses on the all aspects of the town’s past, including fishing, whaling, lighthouses, trade and the historic wrecks from the scuttling of the German Fleet after WW1. Perhaps the most riveting were exhibits from the expedition of the eminent explorer John Rae who completed the NorthWest Passage routeing in the mid 1800’s. A rubberised fabric ‘Airboat’ he used to ferry expedition members one at a time across icy cold rivers in Northern Canada (paddling bare handed with a tin plate!) looked uncomfortably similar to our Avon Redcrest – they must have been tough in those days. Recruiting posters for the Hudson Bay Company show just how international the outlook has been on Orkney for centuries.

Back to the centre of town to a good meal and evening in the Ferry Inn, only to receive a text from Alan, Skipper of Cordula who sailed in company with us yesterday, to say he’d made up and dropped off a rubberised-pipe fender plank for us. We weren’t able to contact him to join us in the pub, but the plank fits and works beautifully. We look forward to renewing our acquaintance with him in the near future, and remain very grateful for the friendliness and support of those we meet in this northern tip of the U.K.