Quidnunc (kneeshooter) wrote,

Orkney Diary

This could be a long entry - I'm going to try and write it as I go along, then populate with photographs and post when I get back. I'll attempt not to log in, or even discover if I have a signal. This could be a long week.

I guess there are two ways to read this entry. The first is to skim through and look at the pictures and the insomniac's variation is to read the text too. Click on the pictures for a larger version, as ever.

There are really two ways to get to Orkney, by car then ferry, or air. Being slightly guilty about the amount of air travel I do (16 flights before this break this year alone - though all except 2 transatlantic and 2 domestic were only European) I decided that I'd prefer to spend many hours on the train to Scotland and then fly the last leg rather than fly to Scotland too. In itself this isn't a bad idea - the train is a lovely place to sit down, relax, read a book and watch the scenery.

Who am I trying to kid.

At least, some of the scenery was good - especially between Newcastle and Berwick (which has a fantastic viaduct) and from Edinburgh north around the coast. I'm told I slept through the best bits, but there's always the way back.

But things did not go quite according to plan. The plan, for those who are bored enough to want to know, involved a 6:30 train off New Street, change at Darlington and Edinburgh to get to Aberdeen Dyce airport for 14:51 for a 16:50 flight. No problem. At least, no problem until the 6:30 from New Street stopped at Burton on Trent and then, well, didn't start again. Instead it was everyone off and wait for the following train which would mean getting into Dyce at 16:51.

Notice those two times - 16:51 train; 16:50 flight to Kirkwall.

For all their efforts Virgin Trains came out ok - the guard Train Manager tried his best and Customer Services found out there were no more flights that day (thanks guys!) but fortunately I was inspired to find a workaround. The 14:51/16:51 times sounded a bit strange to me, so I decided to investigate what happened the hour between and found that there was a train then, but it only went to Aberdeen central - about 8 miles from the airport. So we had a plan - get a train to Aberdeen, then taxi the last bit. We could get to Aberdeen for 15:35, then had an hour to get to the airport before check-in closed at 16:30. With me so far?

Despite our terrible luck up to that point it actually worked. We even only missed the connection to the 14:51 train by 5 minutes at Edinburgh in the end - and there was even an announcement "Passengers for the Dyce/Orkney connection please speak to the waiting platform staff at Edinburgh". However, all the member of platform staff actually did was to say "You won't make it". Helpful.

One taxi later and a brief pause at Dyce , we had a short hop to Kirkwall which was a lovely if very noisy flight. I managed to get a seat with no window so was forced to read the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph (vote Tory!) rather than enjoy the view. From the airport it was a short hop courtesy of boglin (who had the sense to drive up) to our lovely little home-from-home in Deerness.

I am sitting here, the sun is shining and I'm looking out of the window at the sheep and the sea (well, the sheep are actually out of one window and the see out of the other - rather than swimming sheep) and enjoying the near-silence (except for the EBM coming from quondam in the kitchen). You get the idea anyway.

So far I've read two books - (Stephen Pressfield's "Alexander - Virtues of War" (not bad, but a bit dull and others have done it better) and Laura Antoniou's "The Slave" (cut above the rest of the genre but in places a little too serious), drunk some gorse wine (like weak sherry with a hint of nettle) and spent an evening on the beach with my camera.

Life is good.

Here are some photos of the beach just down from the cottage we were staying in:

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I've just watched Enemy at the Gates which was frankly mediocre. I'm glad I didn't bother seeing it at the cinema but while it's certainly not bad and is relatively uncompromising, I can't help but think that it is not as clever and emotional as it thinks it is.

Despite lapsing and sending a couple of SMS messages I'm now at some 36 hours without proper net access. It's tough, but I'm determined to last out a bit longer without lapsing.

Now to do some Infest homework.

Kirkwall does not begin with a "B". This might be obvious to readers, but the real test is always the local curry house. This evening's dinner was provided by one of Kirkwall's two Indian restuarants. It wasn't bad, but of course it wasn't Birmingham or Bradford (though I'm sure that many readers think it should be ordered Bradford then Birmingham).

We also discovered that a taxi to town is £18.30. Next time - a few more hours notice and we'll walk.

Now I'm sitting here watching Big Brother. Or I should say "I'm in the room while Big Brother is on". There is however a growing sense of solidarity over who should be the subject of the "Beat a housemate to death with a baseball bat" task.

There is real weather up here. The type that leaves you soaked through from a light mizzle and makes you wish you'd worn the waterproof trousers you bought years ago but haven't actually ever used in anger. Today was mostly about crawling around, as we visited Minehowe (a hole in the ground made famous by a Time Team visit some years ago and now is resplendent with some fading photographs of Tony Robinson and what looks like a wooden outhouse on top of a small hillock); Kirkwall's Grain Earth House (a couple of small mounds fenced off in the centre of an anonymous industrial estate); Rennibister Earth House (a grate and a slick iron ladder in someones farmyard); Cuween Hill Chambered Cairn (a very interesting site that would have been better if the Historic Scotland site torch had any batteries in it - but some kind soul had left some nightlights and an incense stick for neo-pagan asphyxiation) and finally Wideford Hill Chambered Cairn (again most interesting, but we were a bit damp after the outward leg of the 1.25 mile hike but at least the torch had batteries so there was no "murder in the dark").

Almost all of these sites present an interesting timeline of abuse and graffiti. In the time honoured tradition of the Viking!s (© samharber) each generation has left its mark - though how much neater the carvings were in the 19th century epitomises the decline of the formal education system.

Then we went to the Co-op. Which was much like any other Co-op except the level of shopping trolley theft is obviously much lower here as they didn't demand £1 security with each. quondam also found some tasteless Viking! tat - she has a gift to seek it out.

(A slight sense of deja-vu will follow now as I'm sure I wrote this bit before. It's just that I've managed to lose it.)

Tuesday was Friday. This was not some rush to leave the islands, but rather due to inclement weather (for that read visibility of under 10m) the "wee man with a boat" decided that our idea to go out for a gentle pootle around the coast would be rather wasted. So, instead of heading out on the high seas for some piracy and seagull baiting we headed south on the mainland. The first sight on the trip was the triumph of man over nature that is the Churchill Barriers. Clear, no-nonsense demonstration that pesky nature will not get in the way of man's desire to build a road, I mean anchor his fleet safely without fear of u-boats sneaking in and sinking parts of it. Of course it all came too late for the Royal Oak but that's another story and one I don't know terribly well. Needless to say there are some barriers built of concrete blocks and some bits of rusted ship poking out of the water. It's quite surreal in some ways and I could spend more time looking at them.

Churchill Barriers:

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However, the itinerary said onwards so we skipped along to the Italian Chapel which shows that man's dedication to religion can drive him to great things. Or at least can inspire him to make art from concrete. It's actually a measure of today's snobbiness that the building material makes it more of a novelty, but there's no denying that the Italian POWs brought to Orkney to build the barriers were both inspired and skilled. Our actual visit was a little busy due to there being other people at the site (the cheek of it!) but there was time to get a sense of what had been achieved.

Further south again we headed through St. Margaret's Hope to the Howe of Hoxa and Hoxa Head (try saying that when you're drunk...). The Howe of Hoxa is a reasonably well preserved roundhouse in an old lady's back garden. She was clearly a bit suspicious at first ("What? You're tourists under 45?") but then gave us a quick tour. This was either because she wanted to show off her garden or because she wanted to get a good look at our faces if she returned to find her house ransacked.

Howe of Hoxa:

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Hoxa Head is home to a number of WW1 and WW2 gun batteries that guarded the entrance to Scapa Flow. I always find something a bit romantic (note the small "r") in such places and rusting reinforced concrete can look so permanent, yet vulnerable and ultimately doomed to decay and collapse. Our short walk did introduce us to the Special Projects Division of Orkney Council (a blue transit with a crack squad of strimmers - "Do you have a problem with overgrown vegetation? If nobody else can help you - maybe you can hire the Special Projects Division!", a seal and a couple of dolphins. There were some birds too but my interest in ornithology hasn't recovered from an accident with a glass plate in 1995 so I can't add much more information in confidence.

Balfour Battery, Hoxa Battery & environs:

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We stopped for a short lunch then headed even further south to Burwick. Burwick allegedly has a fort, but all we found were Lego-like sea defences and a lot of cows. lupercal pointed out that with the interest they showed in coming over to me and being my friend that I clearly am the Moo-siah but I think it was probably more they smelt the fear on quondam and were hoping to intimidate her into feeding them or perhaps falling off a cliff for their amusement. Needless to say we didn't find the fort, or indeed any sign of it. So that was pretty much that.

Burwick Harbour:

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Some cows:


Home via a wonderful panoramic viewpoint - which informed us we were closer to John O'Groats on the mainland than Kirkwall; and to Amsterdam than London; to a lovely pasta tea and a touch of mild social drinking (just because I can). Apparently it was a bit disappointing that I didn't get completely wasted on two glasses of furr-trade white wine, but I did explain that that's only cheap Lambrini...

I also finished "Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell". I'd definitely recommend it as quintissentially English literature. It's not busy, but it is engaging; it's rambling, self-referential and sometimes a little hard work. But it's worth it.

Wednesday had to be Wednesday because we'd booked in to see Maeshowe, but what excited me most was the chance to see the stone circles of Orkney. Like many people I'm a bit of a sucker for these places - there's something wonderfully intriguing about them even if I'm not Julian Cope - and of course there's also the challenge of taking an interesting photograph especially in the grotty weather we're having. First were the remains of the Stones of Steness (which is apparently translated as "Stones of Stones"). These have been rather thinned out by an irritated farmer who didn't like tourists but still have something about them. Close were the Barnhouse neolithic buildings, then off to Maeshowe.

Stones of Steness:

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Maeshowe's claim to fame could be that it has the second best Orkney-tat shop on the island. It also has a larged chambered cairn that they ration tourist access to. Fortunately boglin and lupercal are organised enough so we were booked in for a tour and had as our guide Alex who did a great impression of being a dour Scot and put everyone off asking questions very quickly. It's certainly an interest building and you have to admire its longevity but it had strong competition from the stone circles for my money.

After Maeshowe we headed off to the finest Orkney-tat shop - at Skara Brae (Gaelic - or is that gallic - for Tourist Trap). This reminds me of playing Bards Tale III (which I nearly finished) but is in fact a wonderfully preserved village by the beach. I have mixed feelings about it - on one hand its a remarkable place, but on another it suffers from being the biggest tourist attraction and there is no escaping the hordes of visitors (like us of course!) who do their best to ruin any sense of atmosphere. Although it's only a small site there's no access to the buildings and instead you have to peer in from a perimeter path which builds distance and reduces the experience. Still, there was a lovely cafe and a nice lunch. I have a number of terrible photos of the place too...

Skara Brae:

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The Special Projects Division were there too. Strimming away to keep the tourist paths clear.

Skipping the Ring of Brodgar because we couldn't fit in the car park we carried on to Unston Chambered Cairn which is one of the quieter sites and is virtually in someone's back garden and constantly under siege by sheep. Like many others it's missing its original room but did have light coming in making it a little easier to get some sense of the workmanship and age.

Unstan Chambered Cairn:

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A short drive onwards we ended up in Stromness, got the fear of the closed roads and Stromness Shopping Week so turned straight around and headed back to the Ring of Brodgar via a little jewellery shop. The Ring I experienced on two levels - as a visitor and as a photographer. I was a little bit obsessed by the latter so didn't think much as the former. It has to be said sunrise and sunset are probably the only two times of day it's worth taking photos at sites like this but I had a go. Results are typically mixed, the ones I've looked at so far have a very bright sky lacking completely in detail so it'll be the HDR function of PS-CS2 when I get home. Saying all that it's an impressive site. Very impressive in fact. I could spend a lot longer there than we did, but there were other pressures.

Ring of Brodgar:

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Then it was back to Deerness and into the mists that seem to have been ruining our view for the last few days. At the start of the week I could see the sea. Now I'm lucky if I can see the far side of the driveway or the sheep living next door.

I read Neil Gaiman's "Anansi's Boys". I found it more accessible than American Gods and some of his other written work but that doesn't make it less interesting. Easier perhaps, but nothing wrong with that when on holiday...

Thursday was Thursday and on it I read Philip K. Dick's "Minority Report" and other stories. He wasn't a man without problems our Phil... and no-one else has done such a good job to loosely inspire Hollywood SciFi movies.

However before the reading there was the out-and-abouting. We first headed north to the Brough of Birsay in search of nature as well as the rather obligatory ancient ruined buildings. Oh, plus a lighthouse. Birsay is a small not-island that can be reached on foot across a causeway at low tide that is then submerged when the water comes in to trap the unwary. It's not big, but has tall cliffs that are the home of insert name of seabirds, a pretty lighthouse and some ruined Norse buildings (on an originally Pictish site) that have been conviniently discovered close to a Historic Scotland hut.

Some more photos of seaweed later, lunch in the car (in true tourist style) and we picked our way across the beach to seal some sees, I mean see some seals. It's always a pleasure to see such professionals at work. There were lots of them about, basking on the rocks and soaking up the sun while us tourists come and snap merrily away. Walking on seaweed covered rocks is fortunatley a skill I picked up young and it was just nice to sit out on a rock, the tide rising up around you, being stared down by seals who when they realise you're not their main natural predator (the Canadian) are perfectly happy.

Brough of Birsay:

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"Local flavour":



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All too soon the seals were floating off on the tide (literally) so we thought discretion was the better part of valour and retreated to the car. The penultimate stop was the Broch of Gurness. This is a stunning site, more modern than the various Neolithic sites that get the majority of the interest, comprising a large central house with a maze of smaller buildings around it and within a walled compound. Yet again I failed to capture anything of the majesty of the site on camera but by this point I was used to the disappointment.

Brough of Deerness, normal and macro shots:

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Rather than go directly back to the cottage we stopped off in Kirkwall to restock on chocolate and cakes; and to see St. Magnus' Cathedral. Like it or loathe it this is one impressive cathedral. It towers over Kirkwall and dominates the skyline (which isn't actually very hard admittedly) and is a beautiful reddy sandstone. Inside was less exciting, being a church. St. Magnus was a canny builder though - he built his headquarters right across the road from Judith Glue - the Don of the Orkney tourist trade. You can't be anyone without Judith's say-so, otherwise you'll find yourself waking up next to a seal's head - it's cold dark eyes staring at you; or you'll be found hanging under London Bridge by a length of bestselling Orkney tartan.

Photos of the inside of the cathedral - mainly high-ISO handheld macro shots:

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Since Tuesday (which was, if you remember back that far, actually Friday) the weather has been pretty grotty in Deerness (the south east parish of the mainland "Almost an Island!" and "the only parish without a pub") with a constant low cold fog. This has continually thwarted our attempts to get out on a boat and while the rest of the islands have been bright and sunny (I have a bit of a tan even) our corner has been stuck in the Mists of Ravenloft.

However, Friday morning, when I write this, things are looking better. I can even see the end of the drive. This could bode well for a boat trip later on...

Friday was then Tuesday. Despite me milking this point all week the sad truth was that in the end only two days swapped places - there was no complicated arrangement and onion-skinned complexity.

So, we started late as the first port of call, for once literally, was a small peer on the end of Deerness where a small man with a motorboat waited to take us out on the high seas. We waited just long enough to realise that no-one had packed a Jolly Roger before setting off into the treacherous waters, following an ancient treasure map in search of... Puffins. There were of course seals, but after yesterday's adventures they didn't seem quite as interesting; there were all kinds of other seabirds; then finally - small black and white birds with oversized orange beaks - we'd found them!

Ok, I know this sounds like I'm getting a little bit overexcited, but by focussing on one bird I don't get tempted to get at all interested in any others - for that way lies a fate worse than death itself - ornithology! Anyway, once the excitement of the Puffins had passed we pulled up at the RSPB reserve island of Copinsay. The captain, in his best vaguely comprehensible brogue, got us off the boat and explained he'd be back with the next trip in an hour or so. No problem we thought - and look at the cute chicks. Oh shit - cute chicks means insanely protective parents - and as if on cue the low-altitude fly-bys started. Discretion being the better part of valour we retreated up the hill until our boat returned. A small crisis over possibly having to share with small children passed by with just a small amount of moaning and we were off back to the mainland.

Back on proper-terra-firma (that is "land with an airport") we decided on a short diversion to the Gloup which is an amuisngly named crack in the cliff and then on to the Brough of Deerness. Similar to the Brough of Birsay (scroll up! scroll up!) this is a semi-island that is home to ancient homesteads. It's a lovely view from the top - wonderfully isolated and raw - and far enough off the beaten track to be quiet.

Then the fat lady started singing and that was it for our planned Orkney insights. This evening has been a case of cooking and eating the remaining contents of the fridge... Soon to come is Big Brother (a terrible, terrible thing that I would avoid but it means getting up and finding somewhere else to perch) and packing.

11:00 plane tomorrow, followed by 12 hours of travelling to sunny Brumagen.

No photos from today as I left my camera at home (deliberately) - well, unless there's something on the phone. Today's book was Jon Courtenay Grimwood's "Stamping Butterflies". I enjoyed it but I've liked all of his stuff I've read. Ignoring the post-cyberpunk bollocks that seems to creep into most reviewer's vocabulary at this point, it's very readable even if formulaic. You know there will be a twist, it's just about trying to spot it. You know that it'll build slowly and then conclude quickly. But there's nothing wrong with that. Hmmm, that might be damning with faint praise...

And no Internet! Clean for a week! I feel all purified. Now, what's in my mailbox...

It's 19:58 on Saturday night. We left the cottage at 9:50 this morning and are now somewhere between Penrith and Oxenholme on the last of our three trains for the day. I'm tired, one of my eyes hurts and I'm enjoying a Virgin Trains sandwich. On the plus side the sun through the clouds is delightful and there's enough room here to spread out - unlikely the first train last weekend and the Edinburgh-Carlisle one earlier. My iPod is playing me Fixmer/McCarthy and really I want to sleep.

Soon. 22:40 into Birmingham apparently. I think I might sleep in tomorrow.

On the plus side, the train route next to the M6 reminds me how much I prefer to be here looking at the road rather than vice versa.

Now some other photos:
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Tags: holiday, photo, train

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