Posted by: travellerontheroad | August 17, 2008


11th July 2008

Unfortunately I can pretty much sum Kirkwall up in four words: not really worth it. Really, for the capital of the Orkneys, the arrival point for the Aberdeen ferry and flights from across Scotland, and the jumping-off point for many of the surrounding islands as well as the Shetlands, I think we were expecting something a little nicer than what we, in fact, got. It isn’t horrible, but it definitely pales in comparison to Stromness (literally and figuratively – much more grey slate than golden stone); it’s probably not helped by the fact that, while Stromness has the mainland to the north and the bulk of Hoy sheltering it from the south, Kirkwall only has a few scattered islands between it and the Arctic, so when the wind comes from the north – as it did solidly while we were there – it’s blowing straight off the North Pole. On the second day, despite only moderate exercise, we were utterly exhausted, and couldn’t figure out why – until we realised that we were spending all our energy generating body heat against the relentless cold wind.

OK, so it isn’t all terrible – the museum, while not a patch on Inverness’, is pretty enough (although as usual I lost interest when communal gave way to hierarchical history; predictable, I suppose, but my first thought on entering a cathedral/castle/stately home/etc. is still ‘wow…I wonder how many people they had to oppress to get this place built’), and has foldersful of archaeological reports and articles that kept me happily occupied for quite some time. The library is large and well-stocked (when I cried off more touristing during that enervating second day, it was there that I retired to read Prospect in the warmth) and will even let heathen outsiders use their internet for an hour a day. And the centrepoint of the town – and deservedly so – is the great red sandstone bulk of St Magnus’ Cathedral, Britain’s most northerly cathedral, Norman-era and modelled on Durham’s own. Alas, its age means that the windows are rather smaller than the norm; coupled with the paltry throw of my flash, the resulting photos are a bit dark, but I hope they give some idea of the place anyway.

Inside and out; despite being distinctly smaller than Durham, clever architecture makes St Magnus seem every bit as tall – though noticeably narrower. I quite liked it =) Had a sense of distance rather than of brute space.

(Those last two also mark a palpable departure from Durham – where Durham has its saints and scholars, Orkney has longships and warriors. No pious St Cuthbert for them – that second photo is a monument to John Rae (remember him?) and his rifle, and that’s certainly the first time I’ve seen an altar with longships and men-at-arms in prominent position. It was a different world up here…)

Other than that (and the Bishop’s and Earl’s Palaces, but I cried off those while Z went round them, so I can’t speak for them; she says they were quite impressive ruins), there didn’t seem to be that much else to do in Kirkwall – except bemoan the complete lack of a decent restaurant. No, really. There was, it seemed, absolutely nothing between the chippies at one end and a string of nastily overpriced hotels and ‘bistro’ restaurants at the other, their menus predictably overpopulated with medallions of this, juses of that and sautéed rondels of the other. You’d think in a place like Kirkwall there’d be pubs serving hearty meals and restaurants making the most of the fish trade, but no. Not for ages could we find anywhere that did a main for less than £15, and the sweets were just as bad. Eventually we holed up in the bar of one of these restaurants, where we actually had a passably good (and not extortionate) meal – mine an ‘Orkney platter’ of seafood, quiche and eventual cheesecake, and Z’s a reasonably-priced steak. It didn’t quite make up for the hour we spent wandering the cold streets trying to find somewhere, though.

Anyway. Luckily we didn’t confine ourselves to Kirkwall, but instead hopped on a bus and went over the hill to the east, then south along the coast and out along one of the Churchill Barriers to the tiny island of Lamb Holm, whereon there is a curious and beautiful building known as the Italian Chapel.

This lovely little place was built and decorated by Italian prisoners of war, who were brought to Orkney to build the barriers defending Scapa Flow – and quite a job they made of it. From the humblest beginnings (two wartime-issue Nissan huts sandwiched together) they created a quite stunningly beautiful place of worship, intricately decorated with floor-to-ceiling murals (oh yes, those bricks and stone-carvings aren’t bricks or carvings at all) to glorious effect – if it weren’t for the grassy vista outside, you could almost imagine yourself in Florence.

So. Two days not entirely wasted, but if you’re coming up this far I’d say, stay in Stromness and do Kirkwall as a day trip. The buses are speedy and regular (and can be hailed at any point along the route, as we found out during the silly manoeuvre we pulled – leaving our heavier rucksacks in Stromness, then going back for them after the Skara Brae swing before heading on to Kirkwall) and you won’t have to suffer the Arctic wind or the pretentiously overpriced restaurants!

Posted by: travellerontheroad | August 17, 2008

skara brae

10th July, 2008

There is absolutely no way I can put Skara Brae into words. The feeling of standing atop the walls of a five-thousand-year-old village, looking down into the spaces and passageways where people once lived and worked, where animals nosed and children ran and laughed; of treading paths laid out before Stonehenge was raised or the Pyramids laid stone on stone; of seeing the bait-pools and bed-boxes, and the shelved dressers where they kept their hunting trophies and their prized artworks – it’s simply indescribable. Even pictures are a poor imitation of the place itself, of the continuity and change it represents, sitting in its calm serenity beneath the grey skies and endless winds of Orkney. (At least, since they conspired to uncover it – these ancient buildings slept beneath millennia of sand and earth until a nineteenth-century storm ripped this protection away and bared them to the elements and archaeologists.)
You must, must, must, if ever you get the chance, go and see it for yourself; unfortunately, short of buying every one of you a ticket straight to Orkney (something I alas cannot afford), pictures are all I have – and here they are. (As always, larger versions are just a click away.)

The canonical Skara Brae shot, the drystone dresser still standing after five thousand years, flanked by bed-boxes and firepit.

The buildings are surprisingly intricate, tesselating quite neatly with each other, passages snaking between them.

– those passages, of course, would have been roofed over, as would the entire village – this iteration of it (there were several) sunk into the leavings of the last, dug in and covered over. Given the wind that day, I can’t say I blame them.

Baitpits, bedboxes and a fireplace; you can almost see them, sat around the fire, telling stories, singing songs, playing dice. I wonder how familiar the songs and stories and games would be today.

Some idea of perspective and surroundings. And German tourists.

Skaill House in the background – the stately home of the laird on whose land Skara Brae was discovered. Our tickets gave us entry there too, so we wandered round; it was pretty enough, but suffice to say I much preferred the neolithic village and its treasures to the landed gentry and their tapestries and crockery.

That’s the Atlantic Ocean in the bay. There’s nothing west of Skara Brae but the open sea, all the way to Greenland.

A quick journey (the buses are helpfully timed to give you just long enough at each place) later and we were at Brodgar, wandering around the great stone circle there (twenty-seven of sixty stones remain), and then on down to Stenness, where only four of an original twelve still stand – thanks to the efforts of one Captain W. Mackay, who in 1814 decided he was fed up with tourists traipsing across his fields to see the Stones and proceeded to topple several and blow up the Odin Stone, a holed monolith used as a trothing-place for couples and a witness for contracts. (Idiot.) Neither circle quite matches the serene splendour of Callanish (the breathtakingly beautiful – I’m on alliteration patrol today – stone circle which adorns the western coast of Lewis, and this blog’s header), but they are nevertheless impressive – the Stenness Stones tower over the surrounding landscape, bleak and almost forbidding, while the Brodgar ring feels almost mournful, lonely on its isthmus; if Stenness has outlasted both its creators and would-be destroyers, Brodgar definitely feels abandoned, as though waiting for the fires to be lit again and the old dances to be danced again.

Two of Brodgar (me for scale) and one of Stenness.

Brodgar on the left, Stenness on the right. Those four stones in the Brodgar ring had a sense of companionship about them; so would you, I suppose, if you’d stood together for four thousand years!

Getting back to that isthmus – Brodgar and Stenness stand at opposite ends of a narrow strip of land running between the lochs of Harray and Stenness. What this place meant to the people who built these monuments, what it represented and why they venerated it, is a matter of complete conjecture – obviously little enough anthropogenic material (beside the monuments themselves) has survived these four-thousand-odd years, and any half-baked anthropologist (like this one) will tell you that inferring from material artefacts to cultural symbolism and so forth is a hugely subjective business; however, existing finds and more recent ones (do read this; it’s a fascinating piece on the recent discoveries at the Ness of Brodgar) suggest the whole isthmus may have been seen as a liminal place, a place where the worlds of the living and the dead came close together, guarded by watchstones and marked by stone circles, peopled with temples and, not far away, the mound that marks the burial cairn of Maes Howe – our next stop.

Unfortunately, as with several of the cathedrals I’ve been to along the way, photography is strictly enjoined within Maes Howe’s walls. (I can’t say I understand that – it’s not as if flashes cause erosion, after all, and the cynic in me can’t help seeing it as an attempt to get you to buy the innumerable guidebooks and illustrated histories these places carry. All right, so it’s often not their fault – rather an attempt to make up chronic funding shortages, and no doubt I’ve been spoilt too long by London’s free museums and open churches – but while I’m happy to pay entrance, I always think photography should be free.) All griping aside, though, the place is undeniably spectacular – crawling through the cramped entrance tunnel, it quite takes your breath away when it opens out into that unexpected space. In the absence of any photos of mine (aside from this one of the exterior), have some of theirs:
The interior, with the entrance tunnel leading off into the light.
Sunlight shining down the passage. On midwinter’s day, the sun, setting behind the hills of Hoy across the bay, strikes over the Barnhous Stone 700m away, down the tunnel and off one of the stones built into its wall, illuminating the interior of the howe.

Anyway. I took three things away from Maes Howe – three major things, that is, besides amusement at the necessity of closing the gate behind us (to prevent inquisitive sheep from following you in) and amazement at the tour guide’s delivery (unnervingly sardonic, as though we were all retarded five-year-olds):

One: those neolithic people could build. Dry stone walls are well and good (I’ve built a few myself), but these were twelve feet high and more, composed of gigantic flagstone slabs staggered to form four great arching walls around a space big enough to hold the thirty of us comfortably. (This on islands with no trees to provide rollers; they reckon they used seaweed as a lubricant, to help them slide the slabs along.) Each wall contains a chamber for the dead or, in the case of one, the entrance tunnel – long enough to give even my mild claustrophobia a twinge. The door-stone, recessed in the tunnel wall, weighs half a tonne; despite this, it’s so finely balanced that a five-year-old can shift it into place. If you beat a drum at about 2Hz (enjoined on conservation grounds, alas), the resonance means a pool of silence forms in the chamber and the drumming seems to come from deep inside the chambers – the music of the dead, perhaps. And there’s the aforementioned midwinter spectacle, as well. All this with no surveying, no JCBs, no computer-aided modelling: nothing but brain and muscle power – and the whole thing, they reckon, was two generations’ work at least. It boggles the mind.

Two: humanity doesn’t change a lot. Two sets of Vikings – one ninth-century, one eleventh – broke into this amazing place (through the roof), stole everything they could – and wrote all over the walls. “Ofram the son of Sigurd carved these runes.” “These runes were carved by the man most skilled in runes on the Western Ocean.” “We stole great treasure from this mound” (subtext: aren’t we great?). High up on one wall: “Tholfir Kolbeinsson carved these runes high up; wasn’t he clever?”. “Ingigerth is the most beautiful of all women”. And, believe it or not, “Thorni f***ed. Helgi carved.” I half-expected to find ‘Vikings rule OK’ amongst the long-legged runes.
(It seems they got their comeuppance, though – two of them went screaming mad, babbling about ghosts, and the place was hurriedly abandoned amidst rumours of a curse. Stone Age vengeance, perhaps?)
Maeshowe’s trials weren’t over then, either – the Victorians who rediscovered the place also broke in through the roof, destroying it in the process, and threw away pretty much everything they dug out, since none of it was of any monetary value. D’oh.

Three: I have very little sense of history. I hate to generalise, because I have no idea if other people do, but it seems to me the human brain just can’t envision history in all its four-dimensioned span. Conceptualise, yes; I can walk through a cathedral or around a stone circle and know, intellectually, that people have trodden the same path for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. I can walk along a museum’s timeline and recognise the span of history, from neolithic through to present-day, and think about how many people must have lived and died throughout those years. But to picture that, to visualise those people, not just for a moment or one day but for all their lives; to see those years not just as numbers, but as spans of time…I just can’t grasp it. The difference between a museum’s snapshot reconstruction and that visualisation is to me like the difference between knowing the scale of the universe and trying to picture it, or knowing there are six billion people on the Earth and trying to imagine them all. Numbers are not reality; a few facts about the Stone Age or the Tudors or the Mayans or the Mongol Khans are not history. But how can we ever hope to know the whole?

…and I can’t put it properly into words. The world was not meant to fit inside a human head, but I go crazy trying. There. That will have to do. But this whole day, wandering around and inside monuments older than any I’ve ever seen, has given me a glimpse, not only of my own insignificance (as all the best days out do!), but of the greater whole, the continuity of human experience, the needs we all face and the questions we all ask. Only a glimpse (because that’s all you can ever have), but still…
…ah, and as ever, Pratchett says things better than I ever could. Tiffany and the hiver, from A Hat Full of Sky:

You look at a tree and see…just a tree, a stiff weed. You [can’t] see its history, feel the pumping of its sap, hear every insect in its bark, sense the chemistry of the leaves, notice the hundred shades of green, the tiny movements to follow the sun, the subtle growth of the wood…do you know what it feels to be aware of every star, every blade of grass? Yes, you do; you call it ‘opening your eyes again’, but you only do it for a moment…

Well, today was one of my moments.

Posted by: travellerontheroad | July 30, 2008


(My father has kindly pointed out to me that this blog is, and I quote, very good, but a bit long in places. With that in mind, be advised that the following post is mostly one big splurge about the Pier Arts Centre. Feel free to skip it at will.
…also, did I mention that clicking on any of the direct-linked pictures will get you a higher-res version? No? Well, it does. Just in case =]

9th July, 2008

…and here we are in Orkney! Stromness Library, to be precise, and my, but Stromness is a pretty little place. If you ever come here (and you should; anyone who loves the Western Isles will love the Orkneys, and who doesn’t love the Western Isles?)*, do visit the Pier Arts Centre. Now, I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like, and this is it – a beautifully curated selection of sculpture, paintings and less traditional art, arranged in a building like the Tate Modern compressed to fit inside an Orkney cottage. Literally – this is the view from one of the windows. It’s lovely – all white walls and pale, untreated pine juxtaposed with low, sloping ceilings and doors you bang your head on if you’re not careful. Indeed, the gallery is almost as much art as the exhibits themselves – I was saying to Z, it really made you realise just how integral setting and lighting are to art, and how they can alter your experience of it. If the Tate Modern is art on a grand scale (remember the spider?), this is art up close – small, intimate rooms with small, intimate artworks.

That said, the ground floor mostly passed me by, I confess – all abstract screenprints and painted concrete blocks – until I came across this piece, by Camilla Løw, a clever piece whose angles change as you walk around it, shifting and disappearing and forming a new artwork with every step you take. (The photos don’t do it justice, alas.) Upstairs the sculptural beauty continued – some lovely pieces by Barbara Hepworth, including this, which puts me in mind of some sort of fairy lute; this glorious juxtaposition (the little cylinders are found driftwood, the markings burned into them with a magnifying glass); and this, which must have been exhausting work (threads of monofilament nylon stretched over a perspex frame). Outside, there was this (part two) – four sentences of repetitive poetic-prose stenciled onto a blank white wall; this, composed of pellets of Icelandic volcanic rock (very disorienting as you walked past it – confused the eye no end!); and this, which made me laugh, and then laugh even more when I read the piece about the artist, who apparently used his last exhibition to declare the Free State of Hamnavoe within the gallery.
(I did feel a bit wrong, taking photos of the art (it felt like copyright infringement, somehow – and probably is), but no-one seemed to mind; indeed, everyone else was doing it as well, leading me to ponder how each photo, like each viewpoint on a sculpture, might show – or indeed be – a different piece of art.)

Also hugely clever were the comments they had by some of the pieces – comments made by schoolchildren, obviously on a trip. These were fascinating – as any parent or Pratchett reader knows, children come largely free of preconceptions, and thus can see what’s really there. In a few cases this just resulted in mundanity (‘it’s a boat’), but when it came to the more abstract pieces I found they often expressed exactly what my first impression of the piece was, before the cascade of inferences and associations and what-was-the-artist-trying-to-make-me-see began. Out of the mouths of babes, indeed.

(*They aren’t identical, though. We were discussing this last night, and then again this morning; I was saying how, aside from the sea, the Orkneys remind me of the Yorkshire Dales, with their dry stone walling, green-grassed lanes, and plethora of cows and sheep. Z says it’s to do with the soil – apart from Hoy, the Orkneys are the most fertile islands in Scotland, whilst the Western Isles are much more acid, and have got into the whole heather-peat-more heather cycle that makes them so wild and barren. There’s heather here, but it is very much a minority plant; grasses are the order of the day. Grasses and fauna – you can go for miles on Lewis and Harris without seeing much more than a sheep, whilst here there are cows and sheep and horses as far as the eye can see.)

Anyway! Physical geography aside, Stromness itself is rather pretty – the streets are paved with flagstones rather than tarmacced, making you feel as though the whole place is pedestrianised (and prompting us to jump out of the way of more than one mildly irate driver); the shops are small and charming without being too twee (and the bookshop sports possibly the furthest-north copy of Tricia Sullivan in the world); and the buildings are all a glorious bronze, shading to gold as the sun lights them up. (Apparently this is to do with the building-stone – all quarried from Eday across the water.) There are also cats galore, from stately Burmese and nervous seal-points to patriarchal gingers and wheezy old sock-and-bib tomcats, their fur shot through with silver – as well as bold sparrows in the square who’d steal your lunch from under your nose if you let them.

Speaking of lunch, the bakery and general shop does a fine – and cheap – trade in hot sundries; it’s amazing how good a chicken curry pie tastes when you’ve worked up a hunger on the sea air. (Get the peppermint-and-chocolate shortbread for afters. Trust me.) For dinner, you could do a lot worse than the Stromness Hotel: we turned up just as they were having their restaurant refurbished, leading us to be shoehorned into the private bar alongside a funeral party – awkward, but the food (I had braised beef, Z some form of duck) was good nonetheless, and the whole-lemon’s-worth of sorbet I had for afters was to die for.

Further down the road, the Stromness museum’s a more haphazard affair than the one in Inverness, more a collection of memorobilia and wreck-dived miscellanea than any real narrative – although there is a nice exhibit on the travels of one John Rae, an Orcadian explorer who travelled the north of Canada extensively, discovering the final link in the Northwest Passage – as well as the fate of the expedition which preceded him.* Indeed, it’s surprising how many worthies these small islands have sent forth into the world – there are blue plaques to local heroes and heroines on several of the houses, from relative mundanities like tax disputes and makeshift hospitals for scurvy-riddled seamen to the exploits of luminaries like Rae and Edwin Muir.

(*Somewhat too late, perhaps: Franklin’s ill-fated expedition had already changed the course of history. Trapped in the ice, he and his men no doubt dwelt on what would happen when the end came, but I doubt they foresaw what would happen after. When the ice melted and the ship washed to shore, it proved a bounty for the local Inuit group – a treasure trove of wood and metal, commodities for which they’d previously had to trade furs and meat and the like. Armed with this new wealth, they quickly became the dominant group in the region, displacing others and eventually driving them to extinction. It’s a little easier to believe in chaos theory when you see how an act so comparatively small can change so much…)

Upstairs there is a large (and slightly spooky) collection of stuffed fauna, especially birds – from the Victorian era, of course, since such a thing would be distinctly illegal these days 🙂 It’s an impressive sight: case upon case of ravens, owls, finches, petrels – and in pride of place, a huge case of birds of prey, from merlins and kestrels (surprisingly small – almost everything else surprised me by how much bigger they looked close up) to ospreys and buzzards, and at the peak a great golden eagle like the one at Inverness. My word, those things are huge; great majestic birds with backs wider than my forearm’s long and beaks as long as my thumb. There are also, in the far corner, two Great Northern divers – caught, the caption claims, in Stromness itself, despite their great rarity in Scotland. (Maybe they were more common before the Victorians caught and stuffed them all ¬¬)

So, yes. All in all a very pleasurable two days, in a lovely little town. If you should ever come, and don’t mind being twenty minutes’ walk or so out of town, the Thira bed and breakfast is a lovely one, with stunning views out over Hoy and top-class scrambled egg. (Just don’t Google-map it – the grassy lanes are beautiful but not Google-approved highways, so we wound up going all round the houses and ended up hailing a local lady, who pointed us over three barbed wire fences until we got back on track. D’oh.) Be sure to watch for sunsets if it’s clear – by glorious accident, on our way home last night we detoured to climb a local viewpoint, and were greeted by this vista:

Tomorrow: five-thousand-year-old villages, brooding stone circles and neolithic burial mounds. Yay! For now, there are a couple more sunset shots and the odd other piccy of Stromness to be found here. Enjoy!

Posted by: travellerontheroad | July 29, 2008

thurso and dunnet head

7th July, 2008

Not actually that much to say about Thurso; we wound up in the Waterside B&B, up two flights of stairs and in under the eaves, in a little room where I had to keep ducking to avoid cracking my head on the ceiling. Being a bit of a claustrophile, this had me going on about how cosy it was rather than cursing with every new bruise. The town itself – what we saw of it – was actually a lot nicer than I expected – neat and clean, with a decent array of shops and hotel-restaurants, a good-sized Co-op1 (chocolate digestives, mmm), two secondhand bookshops (I picked up Virtual Light to reread-and-toss2 and a piece of absolute trash to keep me entertained on the ferry) and even a launderette, where the plummy-voiced attendant (what is it with there being no Scots in Scotland?) dithered over our clothes until I gently taught her how to use a tumble-drier. As a jumping-off point for Orkney, you could do worse, and the train journey up beats flying any day.

1 I’m not sure why there are so many Co-ops across Scotland; they seem to be the supermarket of choice, particularly across the remoter parts. Huzzah for common ownership!
2 Not actually toss, I hasten to point out; I left it at our Kirkwall B&B, in the end. I even left the piece of trash in the Kyleakin hostel, on the off-chance that someone might have two hours of their life to kill.

Not much to say about our trip to Dunnet Head, either; as you might expect from the northernmost point of the British mainland, it’s fairly remote! The landscape was impressive, though – miles of rolling moorland, broken by peat-brown lochs and falling away in sheer cliffs to the roaring sea far below. We saw a pair of red-throated divers and their baby on one of the lochs (thanks to Z and her 10x optical zoom for the photos below), and were greeted at the lighthouse itself by a rather skinny and distinctly haughty cat, which treated my overtures with disdain before wandering off to stalk some more mice. Alas, the day was cloudy, so we couldn’t see across to Orkney, but we got some spectacular views nonetheless; here are the day’s best shots…

Thurso church
rosebay willowherb and a misty cliff
helpful signposts to let you know you’ve never walked as far as you think
and the man from St Kilda went over the cliff on a winter’s day, at the edge of the world…
a kittiwake, with Orkney a misty shape in the distance
the mousing moggy
signpost to Orkney across the waves
and the rest

Posted by: travellerontheroad | July 20, 2008

steam of consciousness II

Inverness to Thurso, July 6th

It’s green again, north of the Ness, but different here – a deeper, darker green, swathes of primal pine and fir and conifer carpeting the glens. We skirt the sea, even crossing it in places, riding on rails laid over wooden pilings. Past Culrain, our youth hostel stands against the sky – Carbisdale Castle, used as a refuge by the Norwegian royal family during WWII. A weird night it was we spent there, four years ago – no-one quite seemed to know what to do with the place, though it’s been theirs since 1945; perhaps they need a castelaine 🙂 Further north, a great hill looms – Ben Bhraggie, so our guidebook says, and aptly named, crowned as it is by something that had me whispering to Z, “that’s not a statue, is it?” It is – to the Duke of Sutherland, supposedly erected by his grateful tenants, but my arse says the guidebook, pointing out his legacy as villain of the Clearances – and an ongoing campaign to tear the whole thing down.

Farther north we’re into barren fields and louring hills, dark with heather; rabbits’ tails flash in the bracken as the train chunters past. The towns – what few there are – are all grey stone and black slate; the inevitable-but-still-unexpected golf courses have holes par four until you hit a cow, and deer stare unconcernedly at us from dunes that give way to beaches an improbable shade of orange.

And north, and north, and north – as I said to Z, from remote to remoter to remotest. This is true wilderness – humanity has had almost no impact on this landscape since it rose out of the waves. Even the railway line seems tiny, an empty gesture – a mere goat track across this vast expanse. Herds of deer jostle and leap, racing alongside the train like dolphins riding the bow wave.

where foot of man has never trod
no hoof was ever iron-shod
no shrine, no coin, no plough, no war
only that which goes before

(Bizarrity of the day: getting tennis scores delivered to your phone in the middle of the Scottish Highlands with deer dancing alongside your train. Good lord, that sounds like the best men’s final in years.)

Posted by: travellerontheroad | July 20, 2008


6th July, 2008

Good grief. If you ever want a relaxing, luxurious, stimulating holiday, come to Inverness. To steal a Brysonism: take my railcard if you like. Do it now. This place is special: last homely house before the wildness of the Highlands 🙂

Best place to stay? Without a doubt, the Cavell Guest House, where the lovely landlady will offer you a meal any time of the day or night. (Seriously. The first time we stayed here we turned up at half four, travelstained and weary after twelve hours’ journeying from London, whereupon she promptly served us afternoon tea – scones, cream, Scotch pancakes and all – completely free of charge. This time it was half nine by the time we made it to her, and if my truthful tongue hadn’t automatically said we’d eaten, I’d swear she’d have cooked us dinner then and there.) The rooms are beautiful – I’m reclining as we speak in a glorious double bed (with an embroidered pillow reading ‘Welcome’), surrounded by warm light from the stained-glass butterfly wings of my bedside lamp; everything in the bathroom is adorably floral; there are biscuits and tea and a crystal water jug (and a blessedly unsecured wireless network!); and the breakfasts are to die for. Scots porridge with cream and honey, smoked salmon and scrambled egg, bacon and sausage and fried mushrooms all…really, what more could you ask for?
Well, an evening meal – and the Castle Tavern is just down the road. It’s much prettier than the website makes it look, and thirty pounds will get you drinks and dinner for two in a cosy-airy little first floor room; best bet is the lamb shank in rosemary and red wine gravy, cooked so tender it’s falling off the bone and surrounded by soft new spuds and baby carrots. If the waitress forgets your wine you’ll get a free glass on the house – just in time to herald the arrival of your pudding: a sumptuous chocolate-brownie fudge cake with sinfully thick chocolate sauce and cream. Chase it with a tumbler of Springbank whisky (our family malt!) to round off this superb experience – peaty, smoky whisky that will burn deliciously all down your throat and warm you through, ready for when you brave the Highland winds again.

Got an afternoon to spare? You must go and see the Inverness Museum. Everything here is signposted bilingually, in that liquidly beautiful, maddeningly impenetrable language that is Scottish Gaelic, beside which English looks ungainly and woefully mundane. The museum, though, is much less impenetrable – two floors of simply-arranged, well-commentated geology, archaeology and social history – as they say, hedgehogs, heroes, owls and axes, or from fossils, flints and fieldfares to Flora, fifes and flintlocks. (Sorry.) It’s interesting to see how the curators have subtly challenged the paradigms of classical history – the idea of Scotland as a wilderness, a backward country only slowly and haltingly advancing as it absorbs religion-knowledge-culture from the south, is turned quite on its head by the displays of Pictish art and Gaelic history. English history – at least, the version I was taught – has a tendency to treat Scotland as peripheral, a storage-shed for spare kings or a prison for unwanted queens; in truth, the displays – from neolithic axes traded from as far away as the Alps to the Picts’ rich symbolic culture* to Celtic Christianity and the Jacobite rebellion – make it clear that as far back as we can see Scotland has had cultures and kingdoms that have done more than simply hide in the mountains and skirmish with the Romans.

* There was a wonderful moment in the museum when a small child, unimpressed by the Pictish Wolf, tugged at its mother’s jacket and declared, “but it doesn’t look like a wolf!”; the mother turned round and, in almost Weatherwax-ish tones, declaimed, “It isn’t what a wolf looks like, dear, it’s what a wolf is.”

As to the rest of Inverness, well, the Lonely Planet guide describes it as half lovely and half ‘a bit grim’, and it isn’t entirely wrong; downriver from the station the housing estates and industrial shipyards do begin to take over somewhat. The centre’s still quite nice, though, and even has a Lush – though the 50%-off sales everywhere (except, alas, at said Lush!) unnerved me a bit; product of the current economic climate, perhaps. Anyway; we did do two lovely walks, one upriver to the Ness Islands and the other down to the mouth of the Ness and then back up the Caledonian Canal, that remarkable feat of engineering which runs all the length of the Great Glen, from Fort William to Inverness. Then it was back to the bed and breakfast to pick up our luggage and say a fond farewell, and then off for another evening train journey, this time to the ends of the earth, known to its inhabitants as ‘Thurso’…

the sky the evening we arrived (we really have been so lucky with the weather)
Inverness Castle
& Flora MacDonald looking across to Skye (with the requisite seagull on her head)
the cathedral and waterfront from the castle mound
the castle again, from across the river; alas, since it now operates as the local sheriff’s court, the only way to get inside is to get arrested for something. we did briefly wonder if there was a crime we could commit that would result in an hour-and-a-half’s prison sentence (loitering without intent?), but decided against it
the water was so brown with peat
and the rest

Posted by: travellerontheroad | July 16, 2008

steam of consciousness

Edinburgh to Inverness, 4th July 2008

Blue Firth beneath a bluer sky, each little railway-village with its ruined castle and washing drying on the lines. The great span of the Forth Rail Bridge is beauty itself – a great leap of steel across that blue expanse, sun glinting on the water where the seabirds dance. Then onward, leaving Edinburgh behind and starting up into the Highlands; we climb and climb and climb, up and up and up til the world is a carpet beneath us and I can’t believe the train isn’t skimming through clouds; past hillsides of heather and wild forest, through dark tunnels and great forested glens. It’s just so green up here – oaks and ferns and moss and silver birches, all carpeting the glens; it’s a wonder the Creator’s printer didn’t run out, leaving the rest of the world to be finished in a disquieting shade of puce.

I have thought to live here, or somewhere near, in the midst of all this beauty. But what of beauty, when you see the same sight every day, morning, noon and night? What happens when beauty becomes mundane? When you no longer lose your breath at the sight of vivid green and blue? When my eyes are blank at the sight of all this glory, like those of the businessman across from me? I think I would lose something far too precious, then. Perhaps beauty is something to be visited, and treasured. Even here, in the wildest parts of Britain, perhaps familiarity can breed contempt.

The trouble is that wilderness is quantum, like silence. Name silence, and you break it; visit wilderness, and tame it. No; a train ride through this vista, spread out in golden evening sunlight, will do for me.

At last the climb is over; Aviemore falls behind, and we begin the long ride down, leaving behind those wild, indifferent hillsides as the light begins to fade, riding down to Inverness.

Posted by: travellerontheroad | July 16, 2008


3rd July, 2008

They’ve cleaned much of London, now, and what is left is half-expected, dirt and grime a part of the city’s life, its outbreath. But Edinburgh still wears its coat of soot and smoke, legacy of its vanished industry – and a harsh contrast, both against that golden stone and with the newer buildings, 60s office blocks and 90s shopping malls, that face the old quarter across the gulf that splits the city in two. It changes, too, with the weather: London wet is still London, perhaps a little cleansed, perhaps not; but Edinburgh is golden in the sun and grey and louring in the rain, its moods changing as rapidly as the weather famously does in Scotland. A tall, narrow city, especially on the Royal Mile – nothing under four stories high, and often six, and never more than two or three rooms wide; no skyscrapers, but I got more vertigo on the Royal Mile than I ever did within the Square.

That, alas, was about all the sense of the city I got – despite walking it for hours (and having saved £8 on left luggage by eschewing the station’s £6-a-piece-and-search-your-bags-sir for the bus station’s roomy lockers), it never really penetrated all that much. The one thing I did come away with was the city’s deep ambivalence to its new role as a tourist trap. Forgive me for referencing London again, but it is much more Ankh-Morporkish than Edinburgh when it comes to tourists: gawp all you like; London is at worst indifferent and at best positively eager to take your money, whereas Edinburgh seems to feel embarrassed, almost – or at least quite cynical about the whole thing. Rickshaw riders wear saltire caps and ginger wigs, bagpipers play Scotland the Brave over and over outside the station, there are shops offering more tat than you can shake a personalised tartan sporran at – but somehow the city’s heart’s not in it; it hasn’t got the hang of selling crap ironically*, and is instead reduced to sniggering up its sleeve at those who buy it.

(*Like Whitby, which revels unapologetically in its tat – though Z points out that, as the confluence of goths and tourists, it doesn’t really have a choice, all told.)

This is not to say I didn’t like the city; it just wouldn’t let me in. See, anthropologists have a theory that the human brain evolved to let us recognise each other, because we are stronger as a group; recognition allows us to build networks of trust and mutual assistance, helping us co-operate on hunts, on childcare, allsorts, and helping us keep track of who’s helped us and who hasn’t. They reckon the maximum group size is somewhere in the low hundreds before it goes off the rails and social cohesion breaks down because there are simply too many people to remember – why help someone if you can’t be sure they’ll help you in return?
I reckon this applies to cities, too. Small communities are always stronger: everyone knows everybody else, and informal networks start springing up – you’ll help your neighbour take their kids to school, drop in to see the old lady over the road, etc. Even if you don’t know everyone, small towns are often friendlier – when strangers are few, you can keep track of them and judge them by their actions. Beyond a certain point, this all breaks down: you’re just another face in the crowd – why should I trust you? Why should I care?

This, to me, is what makes most cities very similar (and is part of why I’m visiting so few on this tour) – where there’s no true community, you can have all the art and architecture you want, but you’ll never have true character. (London – sorry – escapes this, somehow, by coming out the other side, into a sort of macro-solidarity where there are so many people and so much movement/distance that you can’t just retreat into your little friendship group, and instead have to settle for treating everyone the same – not nicely, necessarily, but neutrally, at least.1 And in so doing, you recognise that at a certain level everyone is the same – beneath all the superficial differences of race-age-gender-income, there’s a common peopleness that binds you all together. I can’t explain it well, and it doesn’t always work, but I swear it’s there. And it does somehow produce a community of strangers, which I’ve never felt elsewhere. YCTACMV.2)

1 (This is why nobody talks on Tube trains: they’re not just ignoring you, they’re actively leaving you alone, in the hope that you’ll do the same for them. Or something. It’s like negative liberty on bad crack, or perhaps just being Londoners.)
2 Your Crazy Theories About Communities May Vary.

So. I got no proper sense of Edinburgh, which is a shame – it’s quite a pretty place. (If somewhat odd. The Parliament especially – who thought to put that there? I mean, I’m all for humility, but to put the people’s representatives at the arse-end of the Royal Mile, lorded over by the grandeur of the castle and comparing badly in its architectural eagerness with the reserve of Holyrood Palace opposite, seems a mite bizarre.) Oh well. I retreated into my little friendship group of two, and we had sushi and sandwiches in Princes Street Gardens in the sunshine. That was nice. (As was the sushi – another thing to add to the long list of things I never thought I’d like until I tried them. Pickled ginger? Yum.)

The second day we went up Arthur’s Seat, which a) gave us a nice panoramic view of the city and b) reminded me just how unfit I am. Time was I’d trot up Causey Pike with nary a backward glance; now I was out of breath by the final scramble to the summit of the Seat – less than half the height. Ah, well; it’ll come back when I’m doing nine miles a day down in Pembrokeshire, I’m sure 🙂 We were stalked by crows over lunch, and encountered a bizarre diorama of grey plasticine figures on a little cliff by the trig point (some of their number had fallen – or were pushed – to the floor below), signposted by this (goodness knows why – Espergaerde is apparently a town in Denmark); the weather held beautifully, though, and I got even pinker than before clambering back over the precipitous Salisbury Crags, while Z took a more sedate route far below. Then back to collect our luggage from the B&B, and northwards again to Inverness…

More photos:
I lol’ed at this; ironic juxtaposition, anyone?
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings…”
and they say the Scots are pessimistic
had we but world enough, and thyme… (Z hit me for that one)
and the rest

Posted by: travellerontheroad | July 11, 2008


2nd July, 2008

They burnt the homes of the shaven men, that had been quaint and kind,
Till there was no bed in a monk’s house, nor food that man could find…
~ G K Chesterton, The Secret People

I have no idea why I am disappointed that there are no wireless networks here, but I am.

Where is here, you ask? Snuggled into a scoop in the side of a rocky outcrop behind Lindisfarne Priory, looking back over the straits towards the mainland. There are swallows flitting around my head, bees buzzing in the grass, and I just saw a grebe diving for its dinner. But there is no wireless. Boo.

It has been a rather lovely day, all told. Not so much the carrying of stuff; we have both been Encumbered:Slowed most of the day due to exceeding our weight limits. Note to self: pack lighter. Two rucksacks each is two too many…
Otherwise, it’s been lovely – alas, I missed most of the scenery from the train (searching for a wireless point, ironically enough – it’d died everywhere north of first class, so I hovered in the buffet car trying to look inconspicuous), but have more than made up for it since. We saw little enough of Berwick itself, alas, going as we did straight from train to bus, but what we saw was nice enough – a pretty railway station, a soaring viaduct, and some great sea views. And Lindisfarne itself is glorious – the town is a trifle twee, true, but the lonely castle, its sentinel face turned ever seaward, and the forlornly defiant arches of the ruined priory have a grandeur to them – even if curtains now hang where once archers stood ready, and pigeons nest where once the feet of those called holy trod. It’s a reasonable walk to the castle, but entirely worth it for the views of the place.

After so long in Durham, the same place day after day, the same sights and smells, it’s like my senses have come alive here. The smells of sea and clover, one heady, the other refreshing; the hissing of the grasses and the endless song of the waves; the shimmer of sunlight on the water and the lively colours of the wild flowers, pink sea-thyme and yellow prickly-stuff. (My mother’d know its proper name.) Unbidden, the rock pools on the shore remind me of Durham, and of leaving it – as though the tide’s come in and broken through, to sweep me away from my little haven into the wider ocean.

The lady at the priory museum laughed at us, seeing us so weighed down – had we packed the kitchen sink?, she wanted to know. I played her off – middle-aged women like me, oddly enough; at least it’s useful sometimes! – and we went to wander round the exhibition, which reminded
me even more of Durham, what with St Cuthbert and all. (Do you know the story of his otters? According to the Venomous Bede, he spent a whole night up to his waist in the sea, praying. Understandably a little chilly by the time dawn broke, he prayed to God for aid on reaching the beach – and God sent two sea otters to wipe his feet dry with their fur, and breathe on them to warm them. I tell you, Bede was on some good shit when he wrote his Histories.) The priory is an impressive pile, red sandstone weathered and sculpted into beautiful shapes never anticipated by its long-dead architects – some small irony in the hand of nature outdoing the hands which worked for God, perhaps. The church next door gives some idea of what its arches and walls might once have looked like.

I also discovered I’ve lost none of my childhood fascination with beaches. You’d think after fourteen years of Scottish islands and their beaches I’d have got over it, but no. I wandered, I poked in rockpools, I built sandcastles, I graffiti’d (that one was just too tempting), I marvelled at the clarity of the water. There’s something immensely soothing about just picking up a handful of sand and letting it run between your fingers, and something very clean about a scramble over rocks – focused on nothing but where to find the next handhold, where to put the next foot.

Back in Berwick, we wandered the town a little, then bought pie and chips from a little family-run place (I wound up with steak and kidney rather than pure steak; the waitress was busy flirting with a customer) and took it up onto the city walls, which had the most fantastic view out over the town and sea and viaduct. Neither of us captured it too well, alas – just too much distance – but we did get this snap of the seagull which persistently tried to convince us that property was theft and that common ownership of our dinner was the best way forward. Then back to our bed and breakfast – unexpectedly opulent, all varnished pine and lush white bedspreads, thick curtains and Ferrero Rocher on the nightstands – to pack and sleep before morning took us north to Edinburgh.

More photos:
the glorious blue sky that day (we were both a fetching shade of salmon pink by day’s end)
a bench up by the lighthouse – the inscription reads ‘Mo Jowett, 1951-1999; one who left the city’s crowds to find a place.’
a cache of cockleshells, left by a seabird
if only this car were x-registered!
unfortunate instructions on a toilet door – I was horribly tempted to write underneath ‘if this is sex it sounds extremely boring’
and the rest

Posted by: travellerontheroad | July 11, 2008

fear a bhata

Thurso to Stromness, 8th July 2008
Hello from the lounge of the MV Hamnavoe!

Goodness, I’d forgotten how much I love ferries. The slow rise and fall of the swell, making your body alternately leadenly heavy and deliciously light as the great ship rolls with the waves; the unceasing roar of the sea and the fresh sting of spray in your face; the cries of the seagulls that follow you, hoping for a scrap or two of bread. We saw a pair of puffins keeping pace with us, wings beating almost hummingbird-fast, and some kittiwakes skimming impossibly gracefully over the waves. Can’t see much of anything else, alas – the mist came down on Thurso as we left it, and closed around us til we could have been the only ship for miles.
(Although I tell a lie – we’re approaching Orkney now, and the mist’s half-lifted; we’re just steaming past the Old Man of Hoy. If only the light were better, I’d try for a shot of my own; alas, the Wiki one will have to do…)

And I have been terrible about updating this thing. Not that I intended to do so every day, but it’s been a week! Trouble is, that’s travelling for you – especially the breakneck pace that we’ve been going, no more than one full day in a place before packing up and running off to another, and that day spent exploring and wandering til we fall into bed at night, exhausted. No lie-ins, either (lies-in?) – latest we’ve had breakfast was half nine in Inverness – and what time I’ve had (blessing whoever keeps leaving unsecured wireless networks lying around all the while – we’ve had excellent luck) has mostly been taken up fighting with Firefox and Linux. (Boring techie stuff: my camera names its pictures all in uppercase, and Linux is case-sensitive, which, combined with my photo-host’s demands for specific file extensions, forced me to trawl around for a batch-rename command before I could upload them.) As a result, I have fragments of posts half-written and a good near-century of photographs (eventually resized – another Linux battle) sitting around waiting to be uploaded.

Ah, well. As soon as I’m back online (could be a while, given the remotitude of Orkney), I shall upload what I have, and we’ll take it from there. For now, we’re just pulling into Stromness, so I should go and struggle into my rucksack in preparation for disembarking.

9h July, 2008
…and now it is later! A day later, to be precise; we had originally planned to do the various neolithic sites today, but we were hitting the point of diminishing returns and decided to have a day in and recharge our batteries (literally and figuratively) instead 🙂 The neolithic sites will wait another day; they’ve been waiting over five thousand years, after all…

For a quick precis: it is indeed a week since we left Durham, slightly overladen (despite our insistence, to ourselves and each other, that we really were going to pack light this time, honest)and set off for Berwick. Since then, we’ve lunched on Lindisfarne, explored Edinburgh, investigated Inverness and…done something suitably alliterative in Thurso, before boarding the ferry to take us to the Orkneys. Aside from a few showers in Edinburgh, we’ve been gloriously lucky with the weather – often running just ahead of the rain (or, in one case, serendipitously being in an art gallery at the time), and have both taken far too many photos, which have been viciously culled (from several hundred down to less than one), resized and uploaded here. (Those with filenames commencing IMG… are from my little Canon Ixus 70, whose praises I cannot sing enough; those starting DSCF… are Z’s, kindly lent to supplement where my skill, composition, presence of mind or occasionally battery have failed, and taken with her Fujifilm S5700 FinePix – a sturdier beast than mine, and with a better optical zoom.) I’ll be linking to the best/most apt, but there’ll be more there should you want them.

From hereon in: we have three more days on Orkney before we part ways, Z flying home to London and me going onward to Skye, where I unfortunately only have one day 😦 Then it’s down the West Coast Line through Glasgow to Carlisle and Settle, a brief stop at home in Lancashire, and then onward to Pembrokeshire via Shrewsbury. There I’m walking the Pembrokeshire coast path between St David’s and Fishguard, then going on to Bristol and Bath before heading down to Cornwall for more coastal walkage. Two nights by Chesil Beach in Weymouth, a few in the New Forest and one or two in Brighton, and that’ll be me done – back home to London after a month and a bit’s travelling, hopefully fitter, browner and with a good selection of photographs and anecdotes to share.

I’m hoping to get about one post up per location, with a few journey-posts thrown in for good measure; photos may lag behind, stolen/hired bandwidth being what it is, so do check back if there aren’t any linked at the time. (Journey-posts will be necessarily photo-light – my Ixus does have excellent camera-shake compensation, but even it can’t compensate for train speeds.) And if you’re reading, comments are always welcome, as are links 🙂

For now, though, my stomach’s rumbling, so I should probably go and get ready to go out for dinner!

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