In Thurso we stayed at a hostel above a snack bar that appeared scary at
first, but turned out very very nice. The people here were friendly and
it was interesting to see their attitudes about Scotland. 'The Cities
[Glasgow & Edinburgh] -- that's not Scotland!! Way down South there they
just think they are English. I went there once, I see no need to go again!'
When we were first walking into town in the dark, with the somewhat scary
teenagers hanging out on the main street at 10pm (small towns are all the
same, eh?) in this rather depressed fishing town we looked at each other
and said, I think we are in Aberdeen, because it looked so much like
Aberdeen Washington. Then we realized that we were only a short distance
from the REAL Aberdeen.
In the morning we walked the beach in Thurso only a few kilometers from the
Queen Mother's castle at Mey. It was very pretty -- Thurso is trying to
make itself into a surfing mecca, it certainly has the waves, coming off of
Pentland Firth (Which supposedly has SIX currents crossing it!). We crossed
that Firth on the ferry to Stromness that afternoon. It was a very rough
crossing and we sat on deck slightly green hoping the rain didn't get any
harder -- however I did see a dolphin breach in the far distance. It was a
gorgeous ferry ride from the northernmost point on the Island of Britain past
the rugged cliffs and sea stacks on the Isle of Hoy into Scapa Flow in the
center of Orkney.
Stromness is one of the most beautiful villages I have ever seen. We were
enthralled when the ferry turned the corner and it came into view, a few
stone buildings and streets all tightly nestled on a hillside along a small
bay. Maybe it was just that the crossing was difficult, and land looked
so good, but it WAS a wonderful town. Stromness is all stone houses and tiny
tight stone streets and alleys and stairways! Very comfortable. We spent a
day wandering the very narrow alleyways that make up most of the streets --
in some places there are corners cut off the houses so one can pass in the
Orkney is a gorgeous chain of islands just off the northern tip of Britain.
Rolling hills, lakes and ocean beaches. And most days there was a terrific
wind! Only one island has any mountains, but there are huge cliffs into the
sea! People telecommute to London. People come and don't leave, but they say
to be a native you have to have at least 6 generations on the islands!
The largest island in Orkney is called: Mainland. That tells you how they
view the world. I asked what people thought about the new Parliament in
Edinburgh and they said: Edinburgh, London, what difference does it make?
One is 8 hours away, the other 12. Bergen [Norway] is closer. Parliament
at Kirkwell [on Mainland Orkney], now THAT would be interesting! There was a
time in the 10th century, when the Earldom of Orkney, with only marginal
allegiance to the Norwegian crown, consisted of all of Orkney, Shetland, much
of the Outer Hebrides, even large parts of Ireland and Scotland. We were
corrected: you do NOT call it The Orkney Islands, or The Orkneys. It is
Orkney's history goes back much farther than 1000 years. They have
uncovered villages and tombs from 5000 years ago and more!! Since there are
almost no trees, and the only building material is stone -- things last a
LONG time! We only covered the western half of the one island (Mainland) and
we saw so much archeology! (People move there to study archeology!)
We rented bicycles one day and rode all day. We saw huge astronomical stone
circles older than Stonehenge, an almost intact village (Scara Brae) that is
over 5000 years old, and a 4000 year old tomb/temple with 1000 year old
Viking graffiti! (Sven is the best Rune writer in the world. Ingrid is the
most beautiful woman. Ranald was here.) We biked to cliffs at Yasnaby where
the Atlantic was pounding on the rocks. We spent several hours just watching
it eating Orkney cheese!!
We hitchhiked to the Brough of Birsay a small tidal island which has a
4000 year old village, a 2000 year old village next to that, a 1200 year
old village and a 900 year old church. We ran back to the mainland right
as the tide covered the walkway, then we hitchhiked to Kirkwall to see the
medieval cathedral (everyone was SCANDALIZED that we had not seen it, so we
peeked in for 10 seconds... it was pretty, for a church). Everyone who
picked us up was extremely nice (One offered to drive us to our next
destination, about 8 hours, but we were going on the wrong day!) but we
often had great difficulty understanding them.... sometimes we could not
understand them at all!
While we were in Orkney I bought a historical novel written by one of
Stromness' two most famous residents, George Mackay Brown. (The other is
John Gow, the pirate upon whom all of our stereotypical images of pirates
are based!) It is all about Orkney. It was a very pleasant book and quite
fun to read while I was there.
Everyone asked if we were in Orkney looking for our family trees. They
all thought we were Canadian (we were flattered!). It seems that the
Hudson's Bay Company used Stromness as it's last port before Canada and
at one point 80% of the employees of the Company were Orkadians -- most
stayed in Canada so there are strong connections.
Oh yeah, the first thing that happened when we got to the hostel in Orkney
was that a guy in the next room was arrested! 75% of the police force
(3 officers) came to pick up this guy who had been travelling on stolen
credit card numbers for some time. The guy was so dumb that he booked the
ferry trip and the hostel with the stolen cards. They knew exactly where to
I really liked Orkney. It is absolutely a place to return to -- we didn't
even make it off of the one island. There is an island called Papay that
sounded wonderful with a thatched roof croft hostel and the oldest standing
houses in Europe (5700 years old!!!!) on it. This would be a great place to
bring the bicycle! We couldn't see it all, so we didn't try. But it was nice
to stay in one place for 5 days and really see a place.