‘And on the eighth day, God opened his bowels and out came…’ – Russell, Orkney, on home.
A weird young man greets me on the road leaving Auckengill where I slept the previous night. In the midnight confusion, what seemed like the disused remains of a former country lane turned out to be a road drainage ditch. Once nestled inside my tent, I could hear and feel great piles of discarded plastic bottles and car debris crumpling under the thick grass. The cool morning and unfamiliar landscape is already disorientating.
He has a large rock tied to the back of his bike, and dons an old farmer’s tweed blazer and a pair of dirty jeans, several sizes too large. At first I can’t understand him. Accents have changed since Wick, gas a more lilting and Irish twang, a kind of Hollywood attempt at rural Irishness. That’s not to make light of this distinct north eastern Highlands lilt. Kevin asked me where I’d heard the best spoken English. ‘I’m not sure, everywhere I hear good and bad’, I’d told him. I don’t think there is a good model. He disagrees, and says that it’s in the Highlands. ‘Here people speak most clearly. We’re the easiest to understand, it’s our articulation’.
Anyway, this guy with the rock, odd clothes and rudely-shaven head, shorn after a long day with the sheep, addresses me in this lilty country tongue.
‘Ah ya seen it, the Bambi?’
‘Aye, must a come offa road.’
‘No mate. Is it hurt?’
‘Aye, but I think she’s still alive.’
He keeps talking to himself. I get what the rock is for after a long series of about ten whoomps, and this would-be bicycling vet takes on a more sinister aspect.
‘Put it out of its misery?’, I ask, still struggling to fix my bags to my bike, the reason for my detention on this empty lane.’
‘Och no. S’already dead. I want the antlers… might come back for them later.’
He gestures the motion of a saw with his hand, and then mentions something I miss about the police. ‘Why mate?’
It’s brutal but I can’t help but share his laugh, if a little awkwardly.
He asks about me with gentle sincerity. I tell him about my trip, and my desire to sail to Orkney, and he tips me on a local ferry service I’d never heard of. Finally, sensing that I might be useful to him, he asks
‘A ya got any tools?’
‘Just a screwdriver and things, shit to fix little things on the bike. Most of the time I don’t know what I’m doing!’
He looks down as I talk, as if I’m describing Euclid.
‘Me, I don’t bother. When it breaks, I drop it and get a new one.’
‘From where though? This place is empty!’
He gives me an odd but friendly look, the way an adult does when a child has misunderstand some furtive implication, and says ‘I just do’. He shakes my hand, wishes me well and says ‘see you around’. It is one of the most enchanting and odd encounters of the trip so far.
In these remote and abandoned plains, these games of mutual incomprehension feel normal and even appropriate. Surrounded by shepherdless sheep and abandoned crofters’ farmhouses, the landscape combines an ambient misery with the potential for a grittily sardonic belly-laugh at the absurdity of it all. One can acclimatise to such desolation. The previous night, the sheer sprawl of teeny Wick made my nerves sticky with apprehension. Struggle has become ordinary. Day after the day the wind blows against me, stuffing nostrils with pollen and eyes with tears. Now, facing whatever else remains between Auckengill and the ocean, I feel like I’m cycling to the edge of the world.
I follow what remains of this road from Inverness. The previous night I’d done surprisingly well, camping no more than a couple of miles south of John o’ Groats. Some feat for a inebriated and exhausted sixteen mile trudge in the dark blue gloaming.
On the path I meet my second living human being. His name is Dave, and he’s a big feller with an even larger backpack, stuffed with enough necessities to survive fifty-five days hiking to Land’s End.
‘Travelling far?’ I ask.
He’ll soon get used to the lame, shitty jokes.
He’s a warm and friendly man, pushing himself to the limit to raise funds for Macmillan cancer nurses. I can’t begin to fathom the loneliness and the necessary psychological discipline that must come with long-distance walking. With a bike, even in parts like this, one is never more than two hours from some kind of settlement. But walking? And with blisters, burns and other potential mishaps? So, here is another excellent organisation and way of raising money that I hope you will be generous enough to donate to, and tell your contacts about. It’s Big Dave’s Little Stroll, and you should donate here: http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/fundraiser-web/fundraiser/showFundraiserProfilePage.action?userUrl=bigdaveslittlestroll. Keep updated with his epic travels here: http://bigdaveslittlestroll.blogspot.co.uk/
Leaving Dave at the cusp of the hill, I relax back and whizz down into the small, spread out set of dwellings that make up John O’Groats. Yes, the place is a little too good to be true. I detour right to Duncansby Head, which is actually the most north-easterly point of Great Britain, and site of a rather spell-binding view of the North Sea and nearby Orkney Islands. Nearby, I meet Vivienne from Skegness. What brought her here? As she walks two wee dogs, she smiles and says simply, ‘look around you.’
I understand her, and at experience again that elated, momentary repose of a being experiencing its own mortality, faced with the infinite expanses of sky becoming sea, and finding peace in that finitude.
At the top of the winding detour is a small lighthouse and a footpath going further afield. There are a couple of people strolling by the cliffs. I gaze out at Orkney, astonished at myself and my bike for making it this far. The pains in my legs have gone, and I’ve weathered the trials and tribulations of the road and discovered a powerful core of inner fortitude. No-one else can get you to your destination. It’s all down to you. I’ve met so many kind, wise and curious characters each day, and in these past forty days I’ve learnt more from the book of the world than any tome picked up in the last few years.
The two walkers draw close, and I ask them to take my photo, a testament to my folly. David and Jeffrey are two brothers who have travelled all the way from Devon. As I talk to them, they gesture to the extraordinary panorama from the cliffs and we inhale it together. We’re on the edge of Great Britain, and there’s no further to walk or cycle. It reminds me of the line from Calgacus from Day 37, that
‘there are no more nations beyond us; nothing is there but waves and rocks, and the Romans.’
I pedal back to John O’Groats with a morbid hunger to see what tourist trap awaits. It’s nowhere near as bad as feared. An attractive visitor centre sits between a food kiosk, souvenir shop and harbour, as well as a small caravan park and other local businesses. A Victorian hotel stands over the seas with the grateful if desperate airs of an elderly butler recalled to service after being unfairly dismissed over a scandalously misjudged comment. The only thing that jars with the scenery, and in the process restores what I’d expected of such a monument, are the aggressively placed signs and set-up of The Official John o’ Groats sign, where in exchange for at least £8 one can get a photo taken by a signpost.
I talk to Peter, the man who has taken over running this business for some thirteen years now. What’s it like, umm, doing what you do?
‘It’s getting busier, people from all over the world are coming.’
He warmly talks up business, and I feel no real malice on his part, just a misguided struggle to maintain a photographic business by a tourist hotspot. However there is an Unofficial sign which looks more or less identical a hundred metres away. I spot a couple disagreeing over the best pose, and sense an opportunity for a second vanity shot.
I meet Richard and his patient wife Thirza. This is Richard’s third Land’s End to John O’Groats journey. What keeps him coming back? It’s the adventure, he says. He loves the sense of purpose each day’s destination brings, filling one with a determination rarely felt beyond moments of quick-response catastrophe. He’s also luckily enough to have a partner willing to spend each day travelling behind him in a supply van. I don’t have much respect for long-distance lycra cyclists with million dollar bikes, nor people travelling with a supply entourage behind them. But where two people are acting together to travel and fulfil a shared life goal, then there’s something quite nice happening. Dedication, eh?
I wander around the little harbour, then pore over a map of Orkney in a postcard outlet with the shopkeeper. My ferry to Orkney should get me to St. Margaret’s Hope, but she’s unsure where that is. And the Shetlands, my next stop? ‘I’ve never been!’ Few people in the north of Scotland (or the Orkneys, as it’ll turn out), have ventured up to this rocky Norse outcrop.
Thirza spots me milling about and buys me a cappuccino. Inside, I ask about her life, and what adventures she recalls. She tells me about studying and working in London. Over time she felt increasingly constrained and dissatisfied with the aggression and rush of London life, and needed to find another place that could allow her to experience some degree of freedom, particularly in summer. She moved away to Norwich, finding a compromise between small town and proximity to beautiful coastline and natural spaces. It’s a gamble that seems increasingly possible to me.
I leave John O’Groats, a place that certainly isn’t as bad as one would fear, but with little to it in all. Onwards, to Gill’s Bay, a tiny harbour and the cheapest ferry crossing to Orkney.
Necessity means skipping the Castle of Mey, once residence of the Queen Mum. I remember being in Arbroath’s tourist information centre, where every attraction seemed to be an old castle, disused stately home or steam engine relic. They’re sites that evidence the continued survival of old and outmoded things enjoying a second life of graces and gentility. Perhaps that’s their appeal…?
There’s an air of expectant apprehension and relaxation at the port. People examine each other with an unusual degree of curiosity. ‘The breadth of the sky, the moving architecture of the clouds, the changing colorations of the sea, the twinkling of the lighthouses are a prism marvelously well suited for amusing the eyes without ever tiring them.’ Charles Baudelaire at the port, waiting for somewhere, anywhere.
What awaits on Orkney? I have no idea. My plan was to reach Shetlands, but I discover that no ferry is running and my plans are scuppered. I send out an SOS to my host on Orkney, Victoria, and decide to hope for the best.
It’s a comfortable enough passing on this sunny summer’s day, and the ferry drops us off at the village of St. Margaret’s Hope. The small brown dwellings of Orkney, sparsely distributed along its waves of grassy slopes and rolling hills, greet the eyes with a lazy pleasance. I follow the traffic in a dreamy haze when a man by a car, on the other side of the road, shouts to me:
‘You got a flat tyre?’
‘You want to check that wheel!’
The back wheel has picked up a severe buckle and looks like it may fall off, or worse. How long has it been like this? Again, I pedal on and hope for the best.
By the small harbour of St. Margaret’s Hope I meet Jim, a native Orcadian who enjoys laughing and fixing things. ‘It’s a very quiet, safe place’, he tells me, pointing to his garage by the bay crammed with random tools and bits of wood. ‘I never lock it: no crime!’
He worked in oil on ‘good pay’ for most of his life but is now retired, and seems immensely content. He points along the harbour street and tells me about all the English people that have moved here, Barnsley, Manchester, Colchester and elsewhere. He seems to have no problem with them, and his attitude to politics is as laid-back as his personality.
‘I’ve never voted, not once in 67 years! It makes no difference.’ He smiles and laughs as he says this. From his car he hands me a leaflet with something to do for the day, and wishes me well.
I follow his lead, venturing a little further around the village before spotting a Smiddy, and a friendly lady called Betty outside who welcomes me in. I’d seen ‘smiddy’ on signs across Scotland but hadn’t guessed the origin. What’s your guess?
Turns out it’s a smithy, a blacksmith, and as Betty tells me about how safe and lovely Orkney is, she informally gives me a guided tour of the museum and its life-like exhibits. The boys’ ploughing, hoeing, and other kids’ farming contents are intriguing, and there’s something oddly sinister about the elaborate ceremonial costumes for girls, featuring an ornate horse yoke to be worn around the neck. What would Pauline Réage make of it? The bizarre ‘Brothel’ sign I see semi-erased on an old building compounds the latent polymorphous perversity of the place.
Farming remains huge on Orkney, and these odd customs supply a cultural continuity in these communities that I’ve not seen anywhere else. There were no clearances on Orkney, and its insular and separate nature has preserved a degree of distinction about the place. Yet it’s clear that a lot of English people have settled here, and I wonder if there are any conflicts under the surface between the Orcadians and everyone else.
Jim’s tip is the Tomb of the Eagles: a Neolithic burial site and a bronze-age settlement found near the southern tip of Orkney on South Ronaldsay. His father-in-law, Ronny, discovered the tombs whilst searching for some stones to build a fence. Reaching the museum is a long ride but through some very wonderful rolling fields. But note this: there are no trees. The isolated nature of the isles and their geographic position means some fierce winds that prevent anything growing except grass for the cattle and sheep. This more than anything makes Orkney feel quite unlike anywhere else.
The journey south feels longer than it should, but I arrive at the small museum, and in its way, it’s worth the ride. There’s a very maamish approach to learning: visitors pay the price of two pints and are led into a series of small rooms where a retired volunteer explains the exhibits and their significance. Neolithic stones, pebbles and eagle talons are passed around in hushed tones. Skulls some five thousand years old are lifted and their gorier aspects explained: in this burial pit were found many assorted bones, often evidencing seasonal scurvy, teeth worn away by the sand and grit in their bread, deformed skulls, and a depressing frequency of arthritis. Left with the skulls and bones are eagle’s talons, rare pieces of ornamental rock, perhaps relics, and countless other ephemera from lives so distant, austere, yet rich in attempts to understand mortality and the afterlife. Thirty five was old age.
One volunteer lets slip that she didn’t have electricity in her home until she was fifteen, perhaps some fifty years ago. ‘You could just press a switch. It felt like the world had changed.’
I venture out and wander around what remains of this old tomb, and another 3000 year old bronze age settlement nearby. Both are underwhelming in person, but the pleasure of history is in the imagination I suppose. The stories are rich enough, and Orkney has more, plenty in fact. Little has been disturbed. As I cycle back up to St. Margaret’s Hope, I imagine a tornado arriving and sweeping away the few sparse farmsteads and fields of cattle. The character of Orkney would remain, one that is so incredibly slow and still. Return say twenty, or a hundred years later. A wind or building work might uncover the remains of St. Margaret’s Hope. Archaeologists peer over the foundations of a pub or post office and speculate on a race that used bottle caps as currency and worshipping the outline of a female nature god, commemorated in tongue-sticky postage stamps.
This island would be a wonderful place to disappear. To arrive and spend six months under the surface: phone switched off, email account deactivated. For whatever goal you choose: a retreat from a near-breakdown in a miserable middle-career job, or to take time out to explore an adolescent ambition abandoned after university, like writing a book, learning an instrument, or discovering, more simply, what one’s strengths and limitations are. Orkney won’t judge. One can live like the cattle in quiet seclusion, on friendly terms with your neighbours who won’t pry into your life. It’s no place to hatch a plan. Come here to burrow, into the sour harvest of one’s own life experiences, or to start a new life altogether.
Russell meets me on the road. My SOS has been received, and Victoria has sent out her son-in-law to pick me up in his car. As the sun basks in its own reflected glow in the bay by St. Margaret’s Hope, Russell calls out to me in a southern Scots brogue, and helps me fit the bike in the back. As we whizz up and down Orkney’s mild but not to be underestimated hills, he tells me about his love of running and cycling, and upcoming plans to do the Land’s End to John o’Groats. He trains often and takes it seriously.
I don’t often meet other cyclists on the road, but when I do, I often feel like an amateur and a bit of an impostor. They laugh or look shocked when I tell them about my trip, or the distance covered that day, and scrutinise my bike and casual costume. ‘Cor, that’s heavy!’, they say, like Russell, lifting the old frame. I hear their internal comments, and struggle to articulate a sensible response: why the fuck would you go out on a journey like that on a piece of shit like this? And he says he lives off biscuits and camps in the wild? There’s no way I’d…
Russell’s from Motherwell, near Glasgow, and has little good to say about it. The narrative is familiar though, to a degree: the place became a ghost-town after the industry it depended on for most employment, steel-works, closed down, without any attempt to establish anything new. He makes a perceptive comment about Glasgow which reminds me of other cities.
‘Everyone in Glasgow’s always looking down, into themselves, and into their own problems. They see the Cash Convertors, the cheap clothes shops, but not much else. With somewhere like Glasgow, you’ve got to look up’.
Glasgow has a magic that sounds to me like London: canny architects, skilled builders and a commitment not to scrimp on the details. He came here to teach, but didn’t plan to stay, until he met someone and decided to start a life together. He now has two kids who he is very proud of. It’s different from Glasgow eh? Yes. Compared to the multiculturalism he or I grew up with in our schools, here he’s never taught a non-white child in a decade.
We drive over the Churchill barriers, built by a camp of Italian prisoners-of-war during the 1940s. They link many of the separate isles of Orkney, but many are filled with scuttled old boats to prevent German attacks, giving a strange impression of progress and violence on this peaceful landscape.
Nearby is the Italian Chapel, a small nissen hut painted and adorned with Christian imagery by two dedicated POWs and now, still, a nice enough small chapel. The Romans never made it as far as Orkney, put off by the cold and the suspicion that Sutherland was the very end of the world. It must’ve been quite a punishment to lock-up the warm-blooded men of Palermo and Naples in this chilly north sea outcrop.
The chapel is also a bit of a tourist trap. ‘We never go here, only if people are coming up!’ It’s true of most visitor attractions, usually set aside by cynical local councils to ensure tourists don’t bother local people with their strange and usually broken conversation.
We drive on, by the main settlement of Kirkwall, which by English standards would just about qualify for tiny town status, then head on into the rolling country of Orkney, with its dozy cattle and dearth of arborescent stuff. Russell points out the wind turbines as we pass. ‘It’s an eyesore!’
But what’s the problem? People on Orkney were encouraged a few years ago to let turbines be built on their land in exchange for a piece of the profits. They’ve since been built in a piecemeal and uncoordinated fashion everywhere. Russell tells me about recently meeting a guy working for an energy company, charged with actually utilising some of this energy. Only 19% of the energy generated is actually being used. It cannot be exported, nor can it be used on the island. It’s basically a great waste.
The sun still glows in the early evening, and Russell drives me to Victoria’s house in Evie, north-west of Kirkwall. The house overlooks the bay and the scenery is heart-achingly stunning. As we get out, I tell Russell about my ferry encounter and he takes a look. A moment later, he laughs. The wheel is quite fucked. He shows me two broken spokes, and warns me not to ever ride the bike like this again. His experience working in a bike shop is authoritative. My plans for the Shetlands are looking in jeopardy. Where on Orkney can you fix a bike that shouldn’t even move?
That’s for another day. Over a delicious risotto, Victoria and I trade life experiences and travel stories, and she tells me how she found herself here with her husband over twenty years ago. They’re originally from Sussex, and both worked in countless different occupations, determined to enjoy life and themselves. Money’s not been the most important thing, she says, and the original price (and condition) of where I’m staying confirms it. A bad recession in the early 90s wrecked John’s building business and they took a risk, moving from Sussex to here. They don’t regret a thing.
Everything is unlocked on Orkney. It’s quite a wonderful place. Victoria leaves me in a cottage at the back of her property, a beautiful little dwelling with a shower, kitchenette and bunk-beds, as well as a stockpile of spirits. I have a couple of nips of Jura, a delicious favourite, and reflect on…. Nothing. Thought and foot are slower here.
I ponder about my experiences in all. I wonder how people in these remote pubs and places would react to me if I were a solo female, or if my skin colour was not white. I’m fairly certain my experiences would be different, possibly less welcoming, though not less friendly. I’m a stranger and it’s obvious, wherever I am, and the only fire exit is to talk one’s way through it, make jokes, and ask sincere questions interspersed with more jokes, laughter, and naïve inquisitiveness. Orkney is quite a special place. Alas, if I cannot figure out a Plan B tomorrow morning, it may become my brand new home…