Wednesday, January 11, 2006

29 December (Brocks Birthday +1)

We awoke on Orkney, dressed and headed down to the main dining room for breakfast. There was a table set for three and food on a small table with an older woman waiting by a counter. We were talking and joking and saw the table and said, perfect! Three of us three places…

“You’re the only ones in the hotel,” said the woman.

We were confused, and she repeated herself. We were the only ones in the whole hotel yet our room was on the top floor down a random hallway. How strange. This was moderately exciting, all of this breakfast and these people were all here because we were there; it’s an odd feeling. We got cereal and sat down figuring that was the complimentary breakfast and the older woman bustled around, looking fairly busy for someone who had her entire occupancy sitting at one small half-moon table. A few minutes into our cereal she came over and asked us what we wanted for breakfast. I asked what they had and she listed a few things, but we all ordered the traditional Scottish breakfast. It arrived shortly and it included haggis and black pudding! Actually the haggis was quite good! I enjoyed it a great deal (after adding a bit of ketchup of course). We ate slowly and left the hotel and wandered into the rain and took some pictures of Orkney.

We meandered around the city of Kirkwall, going to the bank, a few shops and eventually making it to the tourist information centre. There we bought postcards and got a free map from the Orkney man (who was VERY helpful). We also got a few free posters and some advice on what to see and where to go. We left very excited to see the island. We walked down the street into a red and gold cathedral made of special stones. St Magnus Cathedral dominates the skyline of Kirkwall, and was definitely worth the trip inside (plus it was warm and out of the wind). It is Britain's most northerly cathedral, a fine example of Norman architecture built when the islands were ruled by the Norwegian Vikings. Uniquely in Britain, it is owned not by the church but by the city of Kirkwall as a result of an act of King James III of Scotland when Orkney was annexed by Scotland in 1468. St Magnus is also the only cathedral in Britain to have its own dungeon, and was built in 1137.

The weather was cold, windy and rainy and we started driving around the island. Orkney is shaped like a banana (sort of) and we drove a whole bunch of it. There was a lot to see… most of Orkney is famous for standing stones and ancient settlements, the oldest dating back to 5000BC, it was pretty cool. We started by heading north through the centre of the island and soon reached the Standing Stones of something or other… Stromness maybe… either way there are standing stones everywhere, even in people’s lawns, just chillin’ for over a thousand years. We wandered around the stones, but they wouldn’t be as cool as the next grouping so we moved on.

** I can’t remember exactly when during this day she said it, but today was the creation of Kara’s Quote of the trip, “Fuckin’ Scaahtlaahnd!” I can’t really explain it, but it was today. If you don’t get it, ask Kara. **

The Ring of Brodgar according to Wikipedia is a Neolithic henge and stone circle in The Mainland Orkney, Scotland, somewhat similar to Stonehenge in England. The ring of stones stands on a small isthmus between the Lochs of Stenness and Harray. The centre of the circle has never been excavated by archaeologists and scientifically dated, but it is thought that the stone circle was constructed around 2500 BC, pre-dating Stonehenge and many other ancient sites in the British Isles and Europe.[1]

Just to illustrate that the stones are all over

The circle is 104 m in diameter, and one of the largest to be found in the United Kingdom. The henge was comprised of 60 stones, of which only 27 remained standing at the end of the 20th century. The stones are set within a circular ditch up to 3 meters deep and 9 meters wide that was carved out of the solid bedrock by the ancient residents.
The ring was really cool, and I took a lot of pictures. There was a lot of mud around though, and the wind and the biting cold of the island grasslands made it very uncomfortable so we did not overstay our welcome. One of my favourite stones was the one that was struck by lightning in 1997 or something… it was really cool and had been shore in half. I even got a picture of Kara hugging one of the ancient stones. How
happy! We drove on…

A panoramic I put together of the Ring

From the standing stones we continued north until we found the northern coast… When we’d seen the cliffs on Skye I thought I was looking at some of the most beautiful natural formations of my life. Then we found the north cliffs of Orkney. We stood there marvelling at the ocean, and trying to spot an Orca (a whale that is more commonly known as a killer whale). Orcas are said to be commonly found by the coasts this time of year, but we had no luck when it came to wildlife. These cliffs were topped with soft green grass that went right to the edge for the hundred foot drop to the foam covered rocks. I was later reminded of a piece of cake with green frosting, but at the time was too busy taking the pictures and being awestruck. The rocks on our section of the cliffs were this very strange shade of yellow and the whole cliff-face was a combination of layer after layer of yellow shaded stone. It looked magnificent in the late afternoon sunlight.

We tore ourselves away from the cliffs and headed to Skara Brae. Skara Brae is a large stone-built Neolithic settlement, located in the Bay of Skaill on the west coast of mainland Orkney. The level of preservation is such that it has gained UNESCO World Heritage Site status. The site at Skara Brae is believed to have been occupied from about 3100 BC, for about six hundred years. Around 2500 BC, after the climate changed, turning much colder and wet, the settlement was abandoned by its inhabitants.

There was a cool pathway leading from the visitors centre to a reconstruction of what the lodging would have looked like in 3100BC, it was really interesting. After leaving the dwelling the pathway wound down toward the coastline to the site, going back through history. We had a good laugh about it as we passed plaques that said, “1969: Men walk on the Moon,” all the way to, “0: Birth of Christ,” and eventually, “2000BC: The Great Pyramid constructed.” There were about a dozen plaques, each with a little fact and a date, and then finally, “3100BC Skara Brae.” The site was so well preserved; you could see the little dwellings and the pathways to get to them. There was a naturalist out there in a nice warm coat talking about the site and willing to answer questions. Steph and I had a few, because there was very limited on the placards by the site. It was well organised and the sun definitely helped keep us warm, but after about 30 minutes we were all frozen so we headed back to Maggie for the quick drive up the coast to another settlement (after an obligatory sojourn in the gift shop).

Up the coast was a ruined castle, a small village, and up on the cliff above them, a car park. The car park overlooked a landscape of exposed rocks that jutted off the ocean floor and severed the connection to a small island 200 metres away. This island was only accessible during low tide, and the guy at the tourist info centre in Kirkwall said that was somewhere around 2 or 3… it was just before 1. We started the trek using a path of cement slabs that formed a path. The slabs were coated with bright green algae and as I turned around to take a picture I stepped into a very large puddle completely soaking my right foot. We all laughed. The island on the other side, small as it was, still had a fence to keep visitors from leaving the area immediately surrounding a number of low stone foundations. These were the remnants of a Viking settlement that was there thousands of years before! It was really cool, but we were still cold, and now -thanks to that puddle- my right foot was really wet. Steph was really worried about the tide coming in, so she headed back and Kara and I hopped the fence and ran up the island to see what was on the other side. It was a worthwhile adventure; we found more cliffs, lots of seagulls, and a cute little lighthouse. 20 minutes later we were back down on the cement slabs heading back to Maggie so we could catch our 4:40pm ferry off of Orkney.

We stopped at our last historic site on the way back to Stromness, but the tour would cut it too close to the next ferry so we had to pass it up. It was a large Neolithic tomb that Stephanie was really interested in seeing, but instead we wandered the gift shop and had a short conversation with the nice Scottish woman working the counter.

After another 90 minute ferry adventure with a short nap and some iPod-age and book reading we drove Mags back onto the mainland of Scotland and headed off into the dark away from the port of Scrabster. I was sad to leave Orkney, but we had a date with Lybster. Hours later, worried we’d missed it in the darkness, or that we were completely lost, but we came around a bend and saw it! Lybster! Home of Patrick Sinclair! The founder of Fort Mackinac! The sign even said right on it: Twinned with Fort Mackinac, USA! Aside from the fact that there really is no such city, it was pretty damn cool. We tried to get pictures in front of the sign, but to no avail and then drove around the city in the pitch black moonless night looking for a turn off to see his grave. No such luck. We even asked, but the man I asked said we couldn’t get there at night, so we settled for the war memorial that basically said the same thing on it. It was still cool. We left Lybster with much more energy and headed to Inverness to find a place for the night.

* * * *

A couple of hours later we entered Inverness and were all hungry. It was not too late and we found a hostel after an exhaustive and frustrating search through the winding streets of the small city. The hostel was cheap, clean, and the guy behind the desk liked me because I had Spanish blood (he was from Spain). We went to look for eats while the guy cleaned a room for us, and the hunger and irritation from the long drive ended up making me leave the two of them and go to a pub. I was hungry, but I didn’t eat. Instead a bought a pint of bitter feeling that it would be as good as a couple pieces of bread with all that yeast and stood to enjoy the traditional Scottish music being played by a 30-something Scot with the treble way too high. I was watching the Scots all enjoying the music until I heard the beginnings of 500 Miles by the Proclaimers…

At this point the man I happened to be looking at as the pounding acoustic sounds blared into the room immediately perked up and started stomping his leg on the floor. I glanced around and the mayhem was everywhere, from that guy to the kilt wearing bunch of uni students to the guy twirling a (hopefully unused) condom around his head like a stripper with a pair of pants. I laughed and sang along loudly with everyone, unafraid of anyone hearing my horrible American accent in the depths of this display of Scottish pride. I enjoyed the whole experience a great deal and eventually got another pint and sat down until the place closed. I went home and to sleep explaining in the dark where I’d been to the girls (who’d apparently reckoned that’s where I’d gone). What a day… and there were still more!

Oh any by the way... I saw this sign all over Scotland, sometimes accompanied by another sign below it reading: Elderly People. We busted out laughing every time!

[1] Wikipedia, w00t!

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