Thursday, July 23, 2009

What happened next

This is a long one. You might want to make a cup of coffee/tea/hot chocolate before starting...

So instead of camping just south of Kylesku, we spent Wednesday night in a hotel in Inverness. If you've never carried a pack in weather that hot you may not fully comprehend the sheer blissfulness of our first showers; I was also slightly horrified by the salt encrustations on my underwear. Drinking water on tap was also a delightful novelty! Ticks were removed (I use a knife) and we fell into bed. Thursday morning we woke late and set out to explore Inverness and find something to soothe at least some of the insect bites on my legs and my face, which was reacting badly to the mix of cleg and midge bites.
Note the seagull, of which more anon.
I thought I'd taken more photos of Inverness, but the images are in my brain rather than on the computer. It's a delightful place, a pleasant combination of what seems to me to be a peculiarly Scottish 'niceness' (in the sense of neat, tidy and, above all, respectable) and a more modern outlook. The City centre has clearly been renovated recently, with pedestrianised areas and new slate pavement engraved with lines of poetry. Sadly many shops are vacant: the 'credit crunch' is biting here, and I feel so sorry for the Council that must balance the finances. The River Ness flows through the centre, with many bridges including two Victorian cast-iron suspension bridges for pedestrians. Each appears to have been cast in a different foundry. This is the view downriver from one of them.
I booked a bus tour to Orkney(!!!) for Friday at the Tourist Information Centre and, then armed with a streetmap, we set out for Leakey's Secondhand Bookshop on Church Street.
Hidden within this mild-mannered ex-Church is an absolute gem of a bookshop.
And a café, although we didn't sample it. Of course I bought books, but I did at least remember I'd have to carry everything I wanted to keep in my pack all the way home. He then confessed he felt ill, so we returned to the hotel where he fell asleep on the bed, and I spent the afternoon and evening spinning and admiring what seemed to be a constant thunderstorm.
It's raining, though you can't see it. Lightning strikes took out the shopping centre a couple of hundred yards away as well as the East Coast mainline signals. And through all this the seagulls waited. Click that picture for bigger and you'll see some of them. Central Inverness is *full* of seagulls. There's a gull for every chimney pot, every possible vantage point. It's... ominous. What are they waiting for? Who or what will give The Word, and what will happen?

We both skipped dinner Thursday night, settling for soup and crackers from the packs and yet more water, still trying to replace what we'd lost on Wednesday afternoon. And on Friday morning at 0730, we caught a bus to Orkney!

It's not like a car. Can't stop to take pictures.
Which is a shame, as I wanted to record the way the landscape changed as we travelled up the A9 to John o' Groats. Inverness and the area immediately to the north ('the Black Isle') are open, arable landscapes. Fields of barley, wheat and oats glowing green in the sun. Continue north and the green becomes pasture dotted with cows and sheep, and the hills (covered with forestry plantations) to the west crowd closer to the road. Welcome to Sutherland. As the fields shrink, the scrub encroaches. And then falls away from higher ground. The land opens out, gently rolling hills of rough pasture, and the scrub and trees retreat into valleys sheltered from the wind. We're in Caithness. There's something about these landscapes that reminds me of home, of Alberta. I think it's the sense of great space, of sky and light. I love it.
Better photos of this landscape and others are coming, I promise. We hired a car for the next expedition.

John o' Groats was both a disappointment and very exciting. I should have expected the small group of white buildings (a café, some houses, a shop or two and the ferry buildings) huddling on the coast. I somehow had forgotten what the sea would look like. The Pentland Firth was on very best behaviour, doing its level (ha!) best to imitate a millpond.
That's John o' Groats from the ferry. MV Pentland Venture. On an average day she seems to do a trip to Orkney, returns to run a wildlife-watching cruise, then back to being a ferry. Assuming the Pentland Firth is amenable.
Looking across the surface we could see areas where the waves met untidily in areas of short chop, while in others the water boiled and swirled as conflicting currents argued about right-of-way. I love the smell of the sea, the movement, and gazed happily at Orkney (actually South Ronaldsay) materialising out of the haze. And then the wind changed and brought the scent of the land. Orkney in July smells GREEN, of grasses and sweet clover and wildflowers. It's amazing. I suddenly understood how mariners could smell the land, follow that scent upwind to the meadows basking in sunlight.
Another bus, which restricted the photo opportunities. But this view across Scapa Flow shows what it looked like, even if you can't see all the wildflowers. Orkney is famous for wildlife – and now I understand why. Acres of unimproved grassland, full of wildflowers. Wildflowers in all the ditches, ragged robin and meadowsweet and more that I couldn't identify as the bus drove past. It's an utterly amazing place even if you discount its history. (Which we didn't.) For those who don't know, it's a group of islands just north of Scotland (and a lot south of the Shetlands). Google Earth has most of the islands obscured by cloud, but here's the link in case they put a better shot up. The ferry lands at the southern tip of South Ronaldsay, and the bus did a whirlwind tour of the highlights of the mainland. All of it glorious green and sweet-smelling, even if trees were lacking (they can't cope with the wind :-)

View Larger Map

The islands curve protectively around Scapa Flow, an extremely historically significant bit of water. The road is built across the Churchill Barriers, constructed to block channels that might have allowed submarines access to Scapa Flow.
There's a view of one of the Churchill Barriers. Standing clear of the water beside it are the remains of the blockships sunk in 1914 to bar the way in, refloated and moved after the war ended, then re-sunk at the beginning of WWII. When the barriers were built the blockships were simply moved to one side. They're proving popular with fish and marine organisms, and hence with divers. We saw several groups preparing for an afternoon exploring the wrecks.
It's a peaceful green landscape.
And this is what a village street looks like.

We had an hour for lunch in Kirkwall: we bought Orkney smoked salmon in one shop, baps in another and fruit in a third, and ate a picnic on the grass in front of St. Magnus Cathedral.
Just as I said the only thing lacking was some spinning fibre, I saw a sign advertising the Orkney Craftsmen's Guild Show. Where we found quite a lot of knitting and this display of products from North Ronaldsay wool.
The bags contain roving. It's interesting stuff, soft wool mixed with longer guard hairs and a scattering of true kemp. I think a fleece could be fun.

Clutching two bags of roving we returned to the bus, which took on a trainee bus tour driver (sitting up front we had a fascinating overview of guiding bus tours around Orkney, which bus companies are good for what, which are good for nothing... any locals care to guess which one 'makes Rapsons look good"?) and took us to see a fine view of Hoy, which has the only hills, the only peat, and thus the only midges in all of Orkney. I'm very glad they were over there and we were here.
And I had a chance to photograph some of the flowers I'd been admiring as a blur of colour in the grasses.
And then we went to Skara Brae. Now, I've seen more TV programmes about it than I can count, and wanted to see it for real since I saw the first programme. What can I say? It's smaller than I imagined, and yet it's bigger. It stretches beyond measure if you think of what it means, of the people who lived here 4,000–5,000 years ago.
That's the central passageway. Archaeologists think that the stone houses and this passageway were originally roofed with timber and whalebone and completely covered with midden refuse, soil and anything else that insulated and sheltered the homes. You can see the doorways into the houses from the passageway.

The low opening in the far wall is the door. Those upright slabs to the right of the door (photo left) were a bed. The space enclosed by the slabs was probably filled with dry grass or something to make a mattress. There are shelves built into the wall above and beside the door that might have held lamps and other useful or beautiful things.
On the far wall of this house is one of the 'dressers' that might have held food (those slabs are cold) or... anything, really. The small square enclosures edged by upright slabs might have been places to store crabs or other seafood, in seawater if they were watertight, or kept damp in seaweed.

I looked at the houses and I looked at myself and the rest of the tourists and I thought about how very, very far we've travelled in 5,000 years.

And then we saw the Ring of Brodgar. And walked to it across a bog filled with cottongrass and meadowsweet and orchids, with curlews swearing at us :-)

The northernmost and third-largest Neolithic stone henge in Britain, about 4,000 years old. Why and by whom? Scarcely anything is known, as there have been few archaeological investigations here. I did a non-archaeological investigation: I touched one of the stones, held my palm to the rough surface and thought about 4,000 winters, storm-filled darkness, and 4,000 summers full of sunlight and flowerscent.
In the carpark I talked with an SNH representative. He asked what I thought of Orkney and I struggled for the words to describe the way the scent hit like a hammerblow, out on the Pentland Firth, and the green and the history and the flowers and the birds, and he grinned in complete understanding. A kindred spirit. I asked about the wind and the long, long winter nights, and he said it's part of life here. And I understood completely.

We drove past Maeshowe, which appears to be an unassuming lump unless you know what it is. I want to be there on the winter solstice, to fully understand what it means to know the light is coming back to the land.
And then, and then... On the way back to the ferry we stopped at the Italian Chapel. The Churchill barriers were built by Italian prisoners-of-war who displayed the same spirit that created the great cathedrals built in any age. With found materials – barbed wire, tin cans – and paint they created an elegant place of worship from two Nissen huts. The images on the first link are as good or better than mine, but I prefer my picture of Domenico Chiocchetti's statue. Executed in concrete and barbed wire, St George killing the dragon stands here for people killing the impulse to war.

Tune in next time for some spinning, I think, as well as a trip to the Cairngorms. As a member of Team Suck Less on the Ravelry Tour de Fleece, I've spun every day since July 4. And on 12 July, I spun and plied a mile of yarn. Not my best spinning ever (I think that came later in the Tour), but I'm proud nonetheless.


Zardra said...

Horribly, horribly jealous; that's all I can say.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for a really, really lovely blog post. I'm unutterably jealous of your visit to Orkney; Skara Brae, Brodgar, Maeshowe - all of these I desperately want to visit, and have done for some time. But I'd never heard of the Italian Chapel - I guess it's too 'recent' for my usual historical tastes. I followed the links, and I nearly cried. I don't consider myself a Christian, at all, but the passion speaks to me, nonetheless.

Mardi said...

Sigh. I love your blog. I'm just so...impressed by your powers of observation, the things that you notice, and the way that you can put into words the way things move you - even putting into words your lack of words. I plan to go there someday (after the Italy trip, which I told him has to come first because we both want to go to the UK SO much that I know we'll get there, but I have to see Italy before I leave this world) and you always just affirm the longing as your posts take me along on your travels - thanks for that. I have a good friend, an 80-something year old woman, who was stationed at Scapa Flow during the war, she was in the Navy. Many a tale she told me of here time there.

Magpiedyestudio said...

Oh my! I truly enjoyed reading this post. I felt as if I was almost there - you have a wonderful combination of great observational skills and can bring that forward in the written word. Sigh...something I obviously lack!! I hope to hear more about your Scottish travels this year at SOAR - it would seem we have similar interests (but my bug tolerance is WAAAY less than yours!!!)

~ Phyllis ~ said...

What a lovely trip. That bookstore looks delightful.

AllyBally said...

midges only live on Hoy in Orkney? - if only that were true!

speaking (or should that be spaekan?) as an Orcadian, living in Kirkwall, I know that they venture further afield!

glad you enjoyed Orkney, anyway! :-D