Sunday, June 7, 2009

Scotland - Day 17 - Saturday May 30

The Ferry to the Orkneys
It was a glorious, sunny day when we set sail from John o'Groats for the Orkney Islands. The ferry is small and fairly low in the water. I was horrified to discover that Isabel and Norman intended that we sit outside, up on deck, for the sail. The wind was already blowing, and I really didn't relish the idea of sitting outside with my hair on end in the stiff breeze. However, I was warm enough in my layers of Eddie Bauer travel clothes, so I decided I would give it a try.

I love the sea, and being down close to the water, but I didn't expect to really enjoy the ferry trip. Norman told me afterwards that the pilot had been having difficulty keeping a straight line as the waters were so turbulent, this in spite of us being told that the Firth was comparatively smooth for our crossing. The Pentland Firth is notorious for being dangerous as three tides meet there. To my great surprise, I found I was exhilarated, and the heaving of the ship aroused in me my love of the ocean. I like a "wee heave" on the briny bosom of the sea, and was filled with a great feeling of homecoming. When we went ashore, I was further surprised by the depth of my feelings as I stepped on to Orkadian land. I was moved to tears more than once, during our visit. Isabel told me later that she had been affected the same way during her first visit. We now both firmly believe in genetic memory.

The turbulance of the Pentland Firth reminded me of the fact that the largest wave generator in the world is installed just off the west coast of Orkney. If you visit the company's web site at you will learn more about it. Scotland aims to produce an enormous amount of energy from the winds that scour its high, wild moors, and the waves that beat on its shores. Orkney is already benefitting from collecting the North Sea oil and loading it on to tankers, Its principle industries are farming, a little whisky-making from barley grown on the islands, a little fishing, and tourism. It will remain prosperous thanks to the wind and wave power already being harnessed there.

I was surprised by how beautiful the Orkneys are, especially in the sunshine. The fields are a deep green with crops of long, succulent grass grown as silage for animals. Three harvest are taken off in the season. There are fat cattle and healthy sheep, and the fields are contained within the stone dykes that I love, made from the stones taken off the land. Everywhere there is an air of prosperity, and of loving care being poured into the farms. The climate is temperate, being warmed by the Gulf Stream, and the temperatures rarely get below freezing, in fact they are around 20C in summertime; however, there is always a wind blowing from the Artic. Fortunately, the day we were there, the wind was not too cold.

Our journey took us along the coast road alongside the Skapa Flow, through the Orphir Parish where my grandmother's people had farmed. It is gorgeous countryside, and the present, well-kept farms lay so peacefully beside the sea, in the sunshine. No wonder Granny Isabella Robertson loved her mother's home. Granny visited during the summer when she was a girl, from Edinburgh. She used to tell me of the many captains who commented on her love for the sea, and on her being a good sailor. She had a cousin there, Annabella Flett-Emslie, who used to send her a chicken every year for Christmas. Through the mail - those were the days!

We visited the Italian Chapel which had been built by Italian prisoners of war during the Second World War. It is amazing how the illusion is created by the use of paints, that one is within an Italian church, made of Italian materials. The Italian prisoners helped build the Churchill Barriers, causways built to block the eastern entrances into the Skapa Flow after a German U-Boat sank the HMS Royal Oak during the Second World War. We had driven over these causeways to get from the ferry terminal in the south, to the Mainland Island.

We found the Neolithic village at Skara Brae, fascinating. I had read about it, of course, and seen photos, but to see it in reality was different. It was built over 5000 years ago by people who had moved there with the retreating of the ice age. The complex is older than the pyramids of Egypt and the Great Wall of China. It is now a World Heritage Site. I tried to find out if these early people were my ancestors, but no one seems to know. Scots have long memories, and 2000 years ago seems but yesterday; however, the link to 5000 years ago is not complete - as yet.

The Ring of Brodgar is surmised to have consisted of 60 megaliths over time. Built between 2000-2500 BCE, there are still only guesses as to the function of these stones, if any. Further on, we saw the Dancing Giants of Stenness. These date back to before 3100 BCE. Orkney is full of stone age ruins, and what we saw was only a small part of them.

Back in Kirkwall, we visited St. Magnus Cathedral, begun in 1137, and a fine example of Romanesque architecture. The Church of Scotland still use the Cathedral, and the day we were there, a wedding was taking place so we had to wait until it was over before going inside. Once again, the long finger of historic memory is not really so long in Scotland.

That night, as I climbed into bed, my head was full of magical images and I felt part of the long history of my people in Scotland. My roots go back a long way, and Orkney is really only one part of them. Wonderful!

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