Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Well, it’s nearly 9pm on a Tuesday night. By all rights I should be at the local swing dance, but I’m instead in my room with wine and knitting. Why? Well, yesterday was BenAndHelen’s dance lesson. I went, as I do, to the intermediate lesson. Their first move involved the follow (that would be me) crouching to the floor, ducking under the lead’s arm, and jumping up again. It’s a sexy move, but when your legs aren’t prepared for such heights of physical exertion, as mine weren’t, you might not feel so good when it’s over. Especially when you’re the only woman there (aside, of course, from Helen), as this means you get to do the move again and again and again. The other men paired up with each other when I was occupied with someone, but I was in high demand. Instead of saying “Follows rotate” as they usually do in class they just said “Emily rotate.” Grand!

My right thigh, however, started hurting during the lesson, into the next moves and into the beginner lesson as well, which was in need of a few more women (this, for the curious, is highly unusual – there are almost always more women than men), and into the social dancing as well.

And oh ho ho, trying to walk around today? Hilarious. Steps hurt, hills hurt (anything going down, really), and every fifty feet or so my leg gives out, causing me to wobble in a desperate attempt to keep balance. I went to the bookstore and attempted to sit on the floor in the knitting section so I could see if they had any new books (they didn’t) and oh it hurt! What fun!

I would’ve gone to the dance, actually, if Jacqui was going. That way I could hang out with people and not be stuck at home (right, I can stay home all day and be happy as a pig in mud, but the one time I should to stay home I’m “stuck”). Unfortunately, she’s not going tonight. And it’s too far to walk just to hang out. So here I am. Damn.

Now where’s that wine?

Okay then.

I went on another tour on, oh, Nov 12th or so. Not with the Haggis group, thank you, but another, smaller group catering to people with sense. Up to the Trossachs, Loch Lomond, then finishing up at Stirling Castle.

The Trossachs are a national park, Loch Lomond is a relatively famous lake, and Stirling Castle… is a castle.

We drove through the Trossachs and heard the usual Rob Roy/ William Wallace/ Robert the Bruce stories.

The birches were forming purple buds on the tips, so if you looked over an expanse of trees it had a lovely violet haze to it. I learned that traditional kilts – the kind that involve the section thrown over the shoulder – are also one’s bedding. You just wrap right up in it and nestle down in the heather and you were relatively warm for the night.

Our guide informed us of the man who had once been proclaimed the worst poet ever. He goes by the name of McGonagall (or similar). Here’s the poem that claimed him the title, including linguistic footnotes For Your Convenience:

Upon the hill there was a coo1,
He must’ve moved, he’s not there noo2.

1 Cow. In this case, Scottish highlands cow. The hairy, horned variety.
2 Now.

I thoroughly enjoy it, personally.

Next we drove up to Loch Lomond, where we piled into a boat to tool around the lake. You’ve likely heard of Loch Lomond, though you may not realize it. You know the song, “You take the high road and I’ll take the low road”? The lyrics go like this:

You take the high road and I’ll take the low road,
and I’ll get to Scotland before you.
For something something never see my true love and me,
On the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond.

Here’s the word on the song. Back in the 17th century the Jacobites (supporters of James II) were under the impression that when you die your spirit goes underground to join your family, wherever they may be. So two brothers or possibly friends, went off to do something like fight somewhere outside of Scotland as they did in those days. One of those two, imbued with an admirable calmness, was fated to die along the journey, and wrote the song. Taking the low road meant his spirit traveling underground (as the groundhog burrows, if you will), immediately returning to Scotland and thus beating his friend/brother back. And, being dead, would not, of course, see his true love again. But the important thing is that he got there first.

There was a good amount of wildlife – particularly birds – that I enjoyed watching. Other than that… I wasn’t entirely impressed. Maybe it’s more dramatic in the spring/summer, but it didn’t seem all that different from any other loch that I’d seen. Lots of big houses on the shores. I did my best to stay warm, while occasionally darting out to the deck to survey the view.

(Ow, my leg.)

Then into a little town for lunch, where I ate macaroni and cheese at a little pub, then went over to a wool centre where I expected they would have the exact same variety of sweaters that every other place has, as well as a disappointing lack of yarn.

But oh! They had yarn! Delicious, delicious yarn! I bought three skeins of this incredible cream-colored wool, and a large skein of beautiful variegated red yarn. I was a happy, happy camper.

Finally we hit Stirling castle, which is huge and full of twists and turns and a large number of rooms. My jaw dropped at the demonstration of tapestry weaving, which seems to be some kind of rocket science with string. It’s that complicated. They showed photos of a section of tapestry panels about people hunting down a unicorn and explained how it was an allegory for Christianity (Jesus is the unicorn).

Before you ask, I’ve already written Dan Brown about making it the sequel to The Da Vinci Code. He said he’s already working on something, but that he’d keep it in mind for the future.

There are all sorts of nooks and crannies in which to get lost, and it was a nice time, wandering around. And then back to the bus and home again.

Later that week I did some touristy things around E-burgh. I went back up to Calton hill, and went to the local art museum, where they’re having what they call “Choice,” which means they have a little bit of just about everything – classical paintings all the way to modern art, which I generally do not understand. Most notable was the Three Graces, which is a stunning piece of marble-work. I expected the women in the statue to roll their shoulders and ask if it was time for their break yet.

I tried out two new restaurants as well. The first is a Thai restaurant called Thai Me Up, which is noteworthy at least because of the name. But the food is exquisite and is beautifully presented. I went with a friend and we shared chicken satay (I could happily drink peanut sauce), a lamb and pineapple curry and sweet and sour chicken. It was all fantastic.

I also went to a restaurant called Mama Roma, which I was keen to try because I’d noted one afternoon that at least two people who worked there were authentically Italian. They had a killer bruchetta (which is, in fact, pronounced bru-SKETTA and not bru-SHETTA) and the best linguini carbonara I’ve ever had. This was a serious, serious cream sauce. The staff was incredibly attentive, going so far as to help me put my jacket on.

If I was more comfortable going to nice restaurants alone I wouldn’t eat anywhere but those two places. Alas, not so much. As my time here draws to a close, though, I might start to consider it.

And it is getting close. Yeek.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

I went on another tour, this one departing from Edinburgh. I decided to try out Haggis tours, which caters to the 20-something set. While this isn’t usually my scene (I’m not totally keen on the way most people my age act), I decided to give it a shot. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad!


It wasn’t so much that the group of tourists was annoying – they were fine – but that the guide was obnoxious. He said the word “sexy” in every other sentence. He even made a joke about it, that saying sexy so often was in his contract, ha ha ha. Except that he didn’t stop. And he wouldn’t shut up about drinking. The tour was taking us to a whiskey distillery, and in the tour guide’s eyes that was the only reason to be on that tour, and clearly that was why we were there.

The tour went up to Doune Castle, to Rob Roy’s grave, through the highlands and then finally to the Famous Grouse Distillery, where we’d get to go on a tour. I decided to go because I’d been to Doune Castle when I was in Scotland with my parents, and it wasn’t until I got home that I realized it was where Monty Python had filmed Monty Python and the Holy Grail. So I wanted to go back and knowingly ogle the sets. Oh yes. I would be geeking out.

And this would’ve been fine, except that it was closed. So we could walk around the castle, but not go inside. The grounds are nice, but damn it, I wanted to go inside!

As a consolation prize the guide took us to see Hamish, who is a Highland cow, or a hairy coo, as they call them up here. This wasn’t terribly exciting to me, since I used to work at the Philadelphia Zoo where they had two highland cows. I know what they look like. But they’re a tourist attraction here, so I was fine admiring the cow and then going into the gift shop (I don’t know if the shop was there because of the cow or if the cow was there because of the shop, but neither would surprise me).

On to Rob Roy’s grave, where we got out and listened to the story of Rob Roy. Frankly, I don’t understand why he was famous. Here’s his story in a nutshell: He used to steal cows from farmers and then sell them back. The farmers, not knowing he was the thief, paid him to be security for their cattle. As a result, no more thievery. Then he got into trouble for defending Highland culture (okay, I concede his fame here) and was on the run for 40 years, until Rob Roy was written by Sir Walter Scott, and he was pardoned.

Behind the church where he’s buried is a lovely waterfall, though. That was nice.

And back on the bus and through the highlands, where we got the story of Braveheart and why Mel Gibson is so very, very wrong in the movie of the same name, and we listened to some Scottish music and some non-Scottish music. It’s interesting to hear the story of William Wallace over and over again (as every guide I’ve encountered talks about him), and see where stories differ. On this account I noticed that the guide got something wrong (and since four out of five have it one way and his is different, I feel secure in saying his facts are off).

Robert the Bruce had prayed to become king, saying that if he did, he’d go on a crusade, but, following his kinghood, he never got around to it. So on his deathbed he had his friend take his heart out, mummify it, and then take it on the crusade, thus “fulfilling” his promise. In a very loose way. On their path of religious destruction the party came across some Spanish folks who weren’t totally keen on them, and knowing they were well outnumbered and not going to make it to the holy land, R the B’s friend (whose name I’ve lost) took the heart, which was in a casket on a chain around his neck, and hurled it into what was to become the battlefield, and called, “Lead on, brave heart!”

Thus, Braveheart was not actually William Wallace but rather was Robert the Bruce. Or his heart at least.

Now, where this tour guide got it wrong was that he said that the heart was still hanging out in some field. What everyone else has said is that, in a move of exceptional gallantry, the Spanish brought the heart back to the Scottish, and it was buried in Melrose Abbey at R the B’s pre-death request. And then in 1996 they dug it back up and it’s now in their museum, which is just the way he would’ve wanted it.

We drove through the countryside and finally arrived at the Famous Grouse distillery, and we got to pay an extra £3 to go on the tour. I didn’t know anything about making whiskey before I got there (another draw to the tour), and I still don’t know anything about it. I can’t tell you a damn thing except that it involves grains and sitting around in large barrels. And they have a cat instead of mouse traps, which is neat. The cat who lived there before that is actually featured in the Guinness book of world records.

We got to taste whiskey and got a speech on how you’re supposed to appreciate it (it’s a lot like wine in that regard), then they sat us through a series of advertisements an informational film about the company. Then we went to a high-tech video room for more advertisements another film. There are screens on all four walls, and then another screen is projected on the floor. That one is, theoretically, interactive.

When they tell you that you can enjoy your whiskey with water, it looks like there’s water on the floor, and if you walk across it, there are ripples coming out from where you step. When they mention ice, it looks like ice and cracks when you walk across the floor. There’s also a puzzle, where you have to step on the bouncing pieces to put them together. And this would all be grand and neat except that 1. we were all too shy to jump around the room making splashes or breaking ice (if they’d given us more whiskey it might’ve changed that), and 2. it didn’t always work. You could stomp like crazy on the floor and the ice wouldn’t break, or the puzzle piece wouldn’t respond. So I just stopped bothering with it and let the distillery guide do the work.

Finally the video “flew” over the earth, and that was neat. Similar to an Imax movie, except that you’re looking down.

And out to the gift shop where you could buy any number of varyingly expensive whiskies, which our dear guide encouraged us to start drinking on the bus. I passed on both accounts.

I think if I was with a large group of close friends the experience could’ve been more fun, but as it was, not so much.
There was a time before I left for Orkney and increasing during the week after where I would hear loud cracking sounds outside. It sounded like a gunshot or car backfiring, but with some frequency. I didn’t see anyone running, so I figured it wasn’t the former, and happened to often for me to think it was the latter. I eventually learned while walking home one night that they were fireworks. The tourist information centre filled me in that Guy Fawkes day was coming up; thus the increasing torrent of pyrotechnics.

I called BenAndHelen and invited them out for fireworks. There was a show in a local stadium, so we thought we’d head to that and then set off fireworks of our own while having some wine and/or beer. This is all legal to do in public, by the way, which I think is excellent planning.

It was sold out when we got there, but we joined the throng of folks (some selling plastic toys flashing fast enough to give a blind person a seizure) standing outside of the stadium. It was, inexplicably, Guy Fawkes day fireworks as presented by Disney. That’s the only explanation I can think of for the fact that they played songs from Disney movies through the whole thing, which have nothing to do with blowing up parliament. Songs from Aladdin, The Lion King, and Tarzan.

After the show (it was lovely) we headed to a playground near my place to set off fireworks. Their legal fireworks are pretty impressive, I have to say. Loud, too. All was well until a gang of barely-teenaged children saw us and swarmed. We had things involving noise and danger, you see, and they – well, they’re kids. Who might have been drinking at some point, or were perhaps merely drunk on being outside and unchaperoned after dark.

The fireworks kit came with a lighting stick – basically a bit of incense with no scent. It kept an ember for a while so you didn’t have to keep lighting matches or use a lighter. Crafty. One of the young girls saw the lighting stick and, thinking it was a cigarette, snatched it from Ben and ran off. He went after her, and she ran off again, and he eventually got it back. But what kind of person in their right mind (and that may be the operative wording here) steals a cigarette (even though it was clearly much too long to be one) from a stranger? Honestly.

She came up to us again later, asking for a cigarette. We don’t have any, we told her. Oh please, she begged. We stared at her. We- don’t- have- any, rebuffing her slowly this time, in case she had been drinking and needed things spelled out for her. Come on! She was demanding now. Listen. We don’t smoke, ergo, we don’t have any cigarettes. And still she whined, as if any moment we’ll sigh and say okay, fine, you can have one of the cigarettes that we carry around even though we don’t smoke.

We moved away from the swarm to the other side of the playground, first to get away from the kids, and second so we could set up the standing fireworks on pavement, thus preventing them from falling over. A pack of boys and one girl followed us over, the boys flicking lighters and the girl asking for beer. They surrounded Ben, pleading to let them light some fireworks, or buy some from him. The girl was clearly trying to appear older, talking to Helen and me about the fireworks on the next street, supplying us with more information than we could’ve ever wanted, and assuring us that she’d keep the more obnoxious kids away.

In the end we duct taped most of the remaining fireworks to a wrought iron fence and set them all off at once so we could finally escape the kids that Ben very aptly described as feral. Where on earth were their parents? I mean really.

And I’m still astounded that they allow public drinking and fireworks.

BenAndHelen and I went out to grab some food, then cruised back to my place for excessive movie watching. Best Guy Fawkes day celebration I’ve ever had.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

I was actually sad to leave Orkney the next day. I’d really enjoyed the place: the friendly people, the spectacular landscape, the bathtub. I ran into Douglas in the morning over breakfast, and he told me that there was some fuss about the train I was taking from Thurso, and he called the rail station to make sure everything was up and running. It was, thankfully. Being stuck in Thurso would not be my idea of a good time.

I checked out, hoping that the 11am ferry would get me into Scrabster with enough time to reach my 1:20 train in Thurso. I had to walk last time, and if I had to again I’d never make it. I stood on the deck for the journey, the wind in my hair, and the spray leaving a fine dusting of salt residue on my jacket and bag. I saw, from afar, the Old Man of Hoy, which is a tall stack of stone set apart from the cliff edge of the island of Hoy. I wasn’t tremendously impressed, but joined the other tourists in taking a few pictures anyway.

I saw a seal in the waters, swimming away from the ship’s resulting tides, looking over its shoulder with a clear expression of, “What the hell was that?”

I landed in Scrabster and immediately adopted a look of wide-eyed terror that I might not be able to catch my train. I was quickly assured that the ferry folks, being sensible creatures, had a £3 bus that would bring me into town without a problem, and so it was that I began the near-incessant journey back home.

The thing, you see, about jumping (almost literally) from bus to train to train to train with no time for break in the middle is that you don’t get to eat. There’s no time to stop and grab food. On the train, if you’re lucky, you can choose from the overpriced bags of chips or cookies or beverages. I had some chips and chocolate, but had no time for much else. It was a long ride. A really long ride.

After about 97 hours I came home, bought battered sausage and chips from a shop on the way, and crashed into bed, thus concluding my expedition to the almost-totally-northerly point of Scotland.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

I’m in the bar (a new bar! A friendlier and slightly less conveniently situated bar!) all ready to post at least one update, and the router isn’t working. But no fear, the manager’s on his way to check it out. So I’ll see if I can’t remember what happened my final full day in Orkney without the aid of my guidebook to prompt me along.

I decided to rent a car again because without any tours running (the tour guide was in Canada) there’s really nothing one can do but wander around Stromness, and I’d done that already. So I went back to the car rental place and learned that they only had standard transmission cars left. And this would be well and good if I could drive a standard transmission, and I sure sure can’t.

So I left to look for another car rental place and couldn’t find one, so I went back to the hotel to ask. There were two people at the front desk – a man and a woman. She gave me the names and numbers of two rental places – one in Stromness and one in Kirkwall, which was on the other side of the island. I visited the first and learned that surprise! Not actually a car rental place!

I called the second and eventually deciphered that the gentleman was saying that I could rent a car, but it’d cost me £30 to get the car to Stromness. And this was on top of the regular rental fee. Ha! Ha I say; ha. That’s more than I paid for the rental yesterday.

So back to the hotel where I learned that the gentleman at the desk was the owner, Douglas. Douglas told me that if I was willing to wait a bit they’d see if there was a car free and he’d be happy to drive me to Kirkwall since he was going that way anyway. Front Desk Lady called and told me that it was a £40/day rental, and when I winced she got them down to £35.

An hour later I was on my way to Kirkwall with Douglas, who gave me a nice tour of the island and told me about the place. The most notable thing I remember is that people on the island tend to have a number of jobs. They might have a B&B, keep some sheep and/or cows, run a shop, and work in the post office on weekends. I guess in a place that depends on tourism so much you have to really work to make ends meet. Also they pump oil there, and manage to keep it really concealed. The oil is taken from some pump in the ocean and then taken to one of the islands. Clever!

Douglas made sure I was all set up with the car rental agency and I was on my way. I found a spot on the beach (with sand dunes – who knew they had sand dunes here? I sure didn’t). Looked around, took some photos, and got back in the car. I drove around in this manner for a while, occasionally stopping at some posted spot.

(This is frustrating: it’d be fine if they just reset the router and they’re not doing that for some reason. It’d fix it, I promise! I told them that but I don’t know that they totally get what I’m talking about).

I drove over to Deerness, which is on the far eastern tip of the island. The draw here was something called The Gloup, “a dramatic collapsed sea cave.” I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but the idea of going to something called a Gloup was too good to pass up.

It was exceptionally lovely. It’s on the edge of Skaill bay, where there’s a long walk along the nature reserve. The Gloup is a short stumble from the carpark, and is another deep gash from the sea back through the field. At the front is a trickle of water that falls drastically down 80 or so feet to the ocean which tumbles in and crashes along the surprisingly smooth walls, eventually creating tunnels and deeper caves in the rock.

Down the trail there are the usual cliffs plummeting down to the sea, which thrashed happily against the walls. I walked about a kilometer and found that the trail branches down the cliff via irregular stone steps and wooden bridges. At the bottom you can go left and explore a rough bit of rocky beach, or right and explore more rocky beach and masses of dirty sea foam that would often fly into the air and cling to the walls. There was a tall chunk of rock in the middle of this enclave, and on one of the jutting bits of stone stood a large web-footed bird, casually hanging out in the ocean mist, that I later learned was a shag.

Continuing along the path led me up more stone steps (causing a fearsome grip on the rope rail and nervous giggling) of a section of cliff that’s been mostly separated from the mainland, save the path along which I was walking. At the top is a plateau of long, plush grass out of which a bird would occasionally spring, startling the hell out of me. There was, at one point, a settlement on that section of cliff, and there still remains half walls of a church, and I think more sections of stone walls, but those have long been covered with grass and secreted birds.

It should be noted that my batteries had, again, died, and there wasn’t a store for miles. I need to start carrying a disposable camera with me. But doesn’t that defeat the purpose of having a non-disposable camera?

I walked the perimeter and headed back down the slick, muddy steps and up again into the fields. I wanted to go further, but was tired and had plenty to see yet, so headed back to the car.

I went to the Ring of Brodgar, which is a wide circle of standing stones dating back to ages ago. Now it has a giant patch of heather growing in the middle. Unfortunately, when you really have to go to the bathroom, as I did, it’s not much more than a bunch of tall rocks in a circle. I walked the circumference anyway and took a few pictures and climbed back into the car.

(Ha! They’re turning their router off and back on again! Let’s see if I’m right).

Not far from there is another set of standing stones – just four or five – called the Stones of Stenness. I didn’t even bother to get out of the car for that one, but just moved on after stopping and giving them an admiring glance.

(Oh I was so totally right! What’s up, knowing routers!)

By fluke alone I found Maes Howe (or Maeshowe, depending on where you read it), and paid for a ticket. It’s some kind of burial chamber in the middle of a field dating back to 2750 B.C., according to my guidebook. There were three of us on the tour. The guide led us through a tunnel that requires you to walk maybe twenty feet bent over halfway, which is exciting when there’s no light. Then there’s a square room, and branching off of that three smaller chambers. The openings to the chambers are about two feet off the ground, and are maybe two feet square. I know people were shorter back in the day, but good heavens. Inside is a stone platform upon which, presumably, the dead were laid to rest.

They don’t know much of anything about the building as it was used when it was built, just that it took an estimated 40 years to build, was constructed around the same time as the standing stones, and on the solstice the setting sun shines right through the doorway (this was also true of the cairn that I saw in Inverness). The reason their information is spotty is that in the 12th century Vikings crashed through the top of Maes Howe and, after clearing out any useful artifacts, used it as a party building. Really. Lots of cavorting and carving of graffiti on the walls. Ridiculous graffiti, too. Things akin to, “I am the best writer in the world” and, written about ten feet up, “So-and-so is really tall.” And it’s presumed that the smaller chambers were essentially make-out rooms.

Glad to know we’ve evolved since then.

At the end of my day I dropped the car back in Kirkwall and wandered around the town before catching the bus back to Stromness. I bought ultra-local yarn and admired the shops, then headed home. The houses are so remote here that the bus will occasionally drop people off at their driveway, presumably if your house is on the way. On my return I tried a new restaurant, a pub by the harbor. Despite my wimpy taste buds I ordered spicy fajitas, and spent Halloween eve wondering how their food could be so bland that those fajitas were considered spicy. I had a local red beer and thought it decent.

I also bought some local beer called Skull Splitter before returning to my room, named after a local Viking. It was hands down the most disgusting beer I have ever tasted and couldn’t abide more than two sips before pouring the rest down the sink. I mentioned it to Will, a Guilfordian, and he’d recently tried it and said it was akin to sucking on a sockful of pennies.

I couldn’t agree more. For what they claim in scenery they lose a good portion on food. Except the steak. That was superb.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

I’m sorry for the delay! I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry! But I got these books, books I’d been wanting for a while, and they were all, “Read us now or we’ll kick this puppy,” and I was all, “What puppy? You don’t have a puppy,” and they were all, “We’ll find a puppy and kick it. So read us now.”

So I had to sneak off to update.

Well now. Day two in Orkney.

There’d been some mention the night before about a time change, but I didn’t hear anything else about it, (I imagine it’s not a huge topic of conversation, even in such a small town) and when I asked my waitress about it at breakfast she said she didn’t know. Didn’t know? As a result I spent most of my trip there not knowing what time it was.

But! I went over to the local car rental place, which, despite the permanent stickers spelling out “Open” on the door, was empty. And dark. I stomped around in frustration for a minute before seeing another sign that if no one was there, to call this number – they’re just a few minutes away. I did, and woke up a gentleman who could rent me a car.

And this, I think, caused me to step foot firmly in adulthood. It was kind of squishy and meant I had to put my name on a form that said things like “Hey, if you hurt our car then you have to buy us three new ones. And a house. And if you don’t like it, Guido’s gonna come up there and break your legs, comprende?”

But he also confirmed the time change. Anyway, they don’t keep the cars filled with gas anymore because it’s so expensive these days, so my first order of business was to find a gas – excuse me – petrol station. Which I did. And it was closed. So I found another. Which was closed. It wasn’t quite 10am on a Sunday in a tiny little town, so it’s not totally surprising, just totally inconvenient. The tank was very near being very empty, so I decided to drive for a little and see if anything was open.

I went first to Scara Brae, which is a Neolithic village in remarkable condition. It’d been covered over with sand dunes ages ago and was uncovered in 1850 during a storm. It’s an impressive bit of engineering – subterranean houses with beds and dressers and the like. Directly next to the village is a lovely white sands beach that would be right at home in Hawai’i.

I walked along the beach (which rapidly turns to less romantic large stones), and up a cliff. I love me some cliffs. And it was gorgeous and THEN guys, and THEN…

No. You have to understand. No. See, no. No. It was like being in a National Geographic magazine. There was this deep gash in the cliff, and if you got on your belly and shimmied up to the back edge because you’re afraid of heights, particularly natural ones and wouldn’t dare ever ever ever do something so stupid as to walk up to the edge because AAUGH that would be so scary and look down you can see water crashing in the gap, and a short ledge connecting the two sides together and the water is a glorious blue and white and it makes you actively squeal with excitement.

(Note: I didn’t actually squeal. I am much too cool for such things).
(Note the second: Okay, I totally did squeal. It was phenomenal).

And I pulled out my camera, which I’d been lying on, which is not particularly comfortable, and held my camera over the edge and took a picture, and then my batteries died. The bitter, vengeful bastards.

I had three sets of batteries with me, all of which were drained. In desperation I tried any combination of them that I could, in the hopes that it would get me just one more shot. And when it did I would keep trying, for one more shot. I got about four all together. Not as good as I would like, but the best way to get a photo of it would be to either be on a boat or a helicopter, and wouldn’t you know it, I left mine back at the hotel.

When I shimmied back away from the ledge and went over to the side of the gap, wiggling my way to the edge again, I realized that the back edge of the cliff was actually more like a little bridge. Water had worn away the underside until about two meters – the part on which I’d been laying – remained. A cave, I would guess, though I couldn’t see far enough in to confirm. The sheep grazing the grass behind me were considerably less impressed. I guess when you live right next to something it loses some excitement.

Anyway, in an effort to drain some height-related adrenaline vocally I made un-ladylike noises of excitement for a while more before walking back. Two surfers had made their way out into the sea, and I kept an eye on them as I navigated the path. All they did was sit on their boards. Maybe the waves were going to pick up soon. Or maybe they just like to hang out in wetsuits. I don’t know.

The friendly folks at the desk sent me to a petrol station where I got £12 of petrol and a snack and set to wandering. The thought of trying to pick one place to go and then trying to find it on a map and then by car was too exhausting, so I just went.

I drove on their distressingly narrow roads (I had a heart attack any time another car or, heaven forbid, truck passed, certain we could never both fit) (or when I got too close to the outer edge and some as-yet unconfirmed part of the car would make a loud sound like the tire tyre exploding) (and yikes they go way too fast in some of those areas), admiring the vast (vast) farmlands and coasts. And certainly wondering what it was like to live with so few neighbors, so far from other civilization.

It didn’t take me too long to find myself in Kirkwall, allowing me another opportunity to test my cardiac fortitude by driving in an unfamiliar town on the left side of the road. I’d heard rumor that there was a shop selling locally spun yarn from local sheep. Fed on seaweed, for some reason. But also located in this sneeze of a town was St Magnus’ Cathedral. I have no major interest in places of worship generally, but the draw to this one was that their website, my dad learned, claimed to have a webcam focused on the façade.

So I did the logical thing, which was to call my parents (at around 8am their time) and have them look it up so I could jump up and down and wave or something. After much fuss with the internet and the webcam we learned that they’re big fat liars (the webmasters, not my parents) and the feed is so totally not live. So if you ever go onto the St Magnus’ Cathedral webcam and see a woman in black pacing back and forth, that’s me!

And it started to rain. No problem, thought I, I’ll just go to that bookstore that I can see from here, shake off the rain, and immerse myself in books. On the way there I saw the shop that sold yarn and drooled at the windows because it was, of course, closed.

Back to the bookshop, then, where I learned that it was a “bookshop” in the sense that Target is a bookshop. Four shelves of books, and then cards and various other disappointingly non-book-style things.

It being Sunday there was nothing open, so I walked up the hill back to the car. What do you do when you have a car but everything’s closed and/or would require standing out in the rain and you have a quarter tank of gas to spend before dropping the car back off again? You drive around for the hell of it, that’s what you do.

I saw a few things after that, but nothing particularly noteworthy. The skies cleared up after a bit and my admiration got a break from fields/sheep/farmhouses and turned instead to rainbows. As drives go it was lovely, even when it was raining.

As I promised I dropped the car off at 7 or 8 and went back to the hotel for dinner. I’d planned to find somewhere new to eat since I’d eaten in the hotel for the past two nights, but my parents were buying and there was a steak that demanded my attention. And OH it was so worth it. Completely delicious.

And then I retired upstairs for television and a bath in the tub that’s as long as I am tall, then bed. I’ll go to day three tomorrow, and hopefully it won’t take me two weeks to write like this entry did. Sheesh.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Some Orkney photos:




Driving around the island

Scara Brae

Ring of Brodgar (which sounds like something our of Lord of the Rings).

Visitor Count (hi!)