Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Away we go to an island fair...

It takes about five hours to get from Dalwhinnie to Thurso by train. During the journey, the Parisian jumper works its magic once again - I purchase a cup of tea from the trolley bloke.

"Do you want sugar?" he asks

"No thanks"

"Ah" (with a roguish look) "You must be sweet enough!"

No, I tell him, I am an evil-tempered bitch from hell - all because I don't take sugar in my tea, of course.

The drunken fool in the seat opposite distracts him with a request for beer - but a couple of minutes later, as I am drinking my tea, a hand appears around the edge of my seat and places two sticks of sugar and a stirrer beside my cup. Score - ScotRail one, evil-tempered travellers nil.

During the trip, the drunken idiot sneaks out into the vestibule to have a smoke. He believes that no-one has noticed. Everyone else is choking, gagging and muttering to themselves. I have the ultimate secret weapon - not enough Lactase with my tea. Another aroma slowly overpowers the smell of cigarette smoke - in fact, it overpowers the idiot, who sleeps for about 50 miles. During the trip, he sneaks out about four times - he is off his tree, but not so far off his tree that he goes out when the trolley guy is likely to come past and spring him. Naturally, because he is an A-grade pain in the ass, he is travelling right through to Wick, the last stop after Thurso. There is no god...

I arrive in Thurso at about 10pm. This time, it looks like my accommodation is on the map, so I set out, luggage in tow.

Some of the glass at the station has been recently smashed, which doesn't give me a very good impression of how civic-minded the locals are likely to be. When I realise that the place I'm staying actually isn't on the map, it is about 40 minutes walk from the station, I get a wee bit nervous. Unfortunately, it is a week night in a small town, taxis are not an option.

I complete the hike safely, the local vandals obviously have a healthy regard for their own safety. The place where I am staying is extremely new and very spiffy. I'm not really in a position to appreciate it however, after five hours on a train all I want to do is sleep.

Unfortunately, I can't quite manage this as the radiator is turned up full blast. I turn it off, but there is another radiator in the bathroom - I end up tossing and turning in a pool of sweat on a night when the outside temperature is less than six degrees. Bloody stupidity!!

The next morning, I am up bright and early to catch the ferry. The MV Hamnavoe is quite cushy, lovely leather couches, comfy seats, three different cafes and a sun deck. The last is a bit of a misnomer as it is about three degrees, misty and wet. The weather clears just enough for me to catch a glimpse of the Old Man of Hoy, a famous rock formation, as we steam past. (It's a very big rock that sticks straight up out of the ocean - think Freud!!).

We arrive in Stromness, the main point of Stromness is that people catch the bus from Stromness to Kirkwall. It looks quite pretty, but it is not the type of pretty you want to wander around on a day when the temperature is only slightly about freezing and the wind speed is somewhere around 60kph.

I should have paid more attention to the Lonely Planet or done more research. Buses on the Orkneys are fairly limited. A bicycle is not an option today (although I later see some hardy locals slogging home on their treadlies). I try to hire a car, but there are none to be had. I catch a taxi from Sternwall to the B&B - the kind B&B manager drives me back into town as she has to go in and run some errands.

There are dozens of Neolithic sites on the Orkneys and lots of bird sanctuaries. In the current weather, the chance of me successfully spotting any native wildlife is about zero, so I make a run for the tourist information centre. Are there any tours of the archeological sites?

I discover that it is possible to get a day trip from Inverness that includes a bus tour of the Mainland (the island where Stromness and Kirkwall are located. Shetland also has a Mainland, which I believe is only slightly larger than the average Aussie farm...). I manage to get on the second half of the bus trip - a bus!! Warmth!! Dry!! Hooray!!

Before I synch up with the bus, I grab lunch - another Lonely Planet recommendation. The only way I can describe Pomona's Restaurant is 'unprepossessing'. Why would any sane person eat at such a dingy greasy-spoon cafe? The short answer is, because it's cheap. I got a burger, chips and coffee for under two pounds, normally you'd pay more like six pounds for that. Points to Lonely Planet!

The bus tour starts at Skara Brae, an extremely ancient and incredibly well preserved Neolithic village, and Skaill House, the stately home next door to the archaelogical site. The short video explaining the site and the small museum are very well done. I brave the elements and head out to the actual dig. The path to the dig is lined with plaques showing significant dates in history, starting with the moon landing in 1969, right beside the exit.

By the time I get to the Birth of Christ, the wind is blowing rain horizontally into my ears - I am wearing my rain poncho the wind actually rips a loose piece of plastic off the hood. This is not good weather to be looking at an archeological site. The foundation of Skara Brae is some 50 metres further on, earlier than the Great Wall of China or the Pyramids at Giza.

The houses are intriguing - a dozen or so little huts, all perfectly preserved except for the roofs, each identical inside. Are we looking at the earliest ever commission homes? To support this theory, some rocket scientist has snuck out here and written graffiti on one of the walls. I say rocket scientist, because the daftie wee sod wrote, amongst other things, his name. Wonders will never cease...

I go into Skaill House to get out of the wet. Skaill House is very cute and has some very interesting exhibits, furniture, clothing, artworks etc etc. To my surprise, they have the dinner service from Captain Cook's Endeavour. The dinner service is decorated with bright pink flowers - I am forced to believe that all the horrible things that are said about sailors are, in fact, true. Pink!! PINK!!!

The next stop on the tour in the Ring of Brodgar. This is a ring of standing stones, again Neolithic, historic, interesting and bloody freezing. A nice American gentleman offers to take a photo of me with the stones. Somewhere on my memory card there is a tragic photo of me pressed up against a great big rock like a chicken huddling against a hen, trying to stop my rain poncho from self-destructing. I may also be picking sand out of my ears. Yes, that's right, sand. The wind at Skara Brae was gently carrying sand up from the beach and sandblasting my face as I went around the ruins. It really isn't very nice weather.

We drive past a lot of other standing stones - some of them we can see, others are invisible in the mist. The watchstone is visible - it is over 17ft tall and it is right beside the causeway. There used to be two of them, but one collapsed at some point in the dim, dark past and no-one could be bothered to replace it.

The driver shares some of the war history of the Orkneys with us. The Orkneys were used as a military base and prisoner-of-war camp during World War II. In 1939, a German submarine came into the harbour and managed to sink a ship, the Royal Oak. The Royal Oak was a navy training ship with about 1100 people on it, most of whom were under 18. About 800 of them died. The ship is still out there and apparently every year the Royal Navy sends two divers down to change the flag - it is an official war tomb, which does none of those kiddies the least damned bit of good. Apparently quite a few of the 300 survivors have arranged to be cremated and scattered over the spot when their time is up. Very sad.

We also visit the Italian Chapel. The Italian prisoners of war were all good Catholic boys and they felt the need for a place of worship. No worries, said the camp commander, you can have those two Nissen Huts over there. (A Nissen Hut looks like a galvanised iron water tank turned on its side - they are not very attractive!). The POWs collected all sorts of scraps and bits of rubbish, and turned the Nissen Huts into a very convincing Italian village church. It is all trompe l'oeil painting but it is so clever! One of the POWs managed to do some amazing decorative ironwork with bits of rubbish and leftovers - he came up with 'wrought iron' lamps, an altar rail, candelabra - it was amazing!

I manage to get back from the tour in time to look at St Magnus Cathedral. This is another one of those amazing things where someone started building a Cathedral in 1100-some and 300 years later, his great-great-great-grandkids finally finished the damned thing off. The main thing I notice about St Magnus is the tombstones. Every single one has a skull drawn on it somewhere. There is a 'skeleton tomb' in a Cathedral in England too, I saw it last year, but it is a tourist attraction because it is so unusual. Up here though, it is just the done thing. I take photos of every possible variation on a skull tombstone that you could possibly imagine.

I also manage to get over to see the two ruined palaces next to the Cathedral. Very romantic and atmospheric, also still bloody icy cold. At the B&B, they have a big hamper full of warm, woolly hats by the fireplace. I was tempted as I headed out, but refrained - now I bitterly regret avoiding temptation. I would have looked utterly naff, but at least I would have been able to feel my ears...

After the palaces, I wander back towards the B&B along the shore. En route, I find a little memorial labelled DUNKIRK. Not Dunkirk the famous WWI battleground, but Dunkirk the ship belonging to one of the VIPs who used to live on the island in 1200-something. The site, now the Ambulance HQ, used to be a whaling processing plant - the memorial talks about whaling history too.

The next day, I basically have to get up and leave. There is only one train from Thurso all day and I need to catch the 11am ferry to be on it. Appropriately enough, the sun is shining and the wind has dropped to a gentle breeze...

Insight into Scotland 5

As I dine on traditional Orcadian beef chilli at the Shore Hotel, a techno track comes on the music video channel playing in the background. The track has a tasteful video clip involving shapely young women in latex nurse uniforms who seem very fond of each other.

The bartender, a virile young Scottish laddie, immediately changes the channel so that he can watch the start of the football match. Nothing, not even scantily clad ladies, comes between a Scot and his 'fitba'...

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