Day 43: Orkney to Shetland

‘The technical word for this is fucked’ – Steve, Orkney.

There’s little evidence for the passage of time in Orkney. It’s a place to come and disappear. Anyone thinking of faking their own deaths for whatever purpose, take note. There’s no need to travel to Panama like John Darwin of Seaton Carew, or disappear in some Mexican river like Arthur Cravan.

Even Elvis Presley could conceivably have arrived here without raising an eyebrow. I can picture The King dawdling across St. Margaret’s Hope harbour and into a taxi run by a farmer whose crops are out of season. It being a solitary occupation, the farmer, let’s call him Gerard, doesn’t even look up to inspect his rear passenger. Later, responding to an ad in a local rag, Elvis sports an oversized waterproof coat and trapper hat, and traded a few gold records for a third-hand fishing boat with some local. He lived out the remainder of his days just off the coast of North Ronaldsay, failing to ever work out how to fish trout.

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I awake in Evie and gaze out of the windows of this little cottage where I’ve slept over. There’s a delicious and at times illicit thrill in arriving in some strange little place, knocking back a few jars, then later searching in the dark for some woody slippet to sleep in. But come on, warm food, a shower, a flat dry bed?

The bike isn’t going anywhere, and I’m grounded. Victoria tells me of a local man who travels out to fix broken bikes, and manages to find his number. Sadly I have no phone coverage here (or most of the northern Highlands, as it transpires), and send him a desperate email asking for help. As I wait for a reply, I wash up the glasses that were filled with last night’s beer and Jura whisky, and get down to some writing.

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Next to me is a bus timetable. Every four hours, a bus travels to Kirkwall and back. Should I take the wheel off and bus it into town? Luckily the landline rings, and Steve tells me he can pop by in the afternoon to have a look at the wheel. ‘No guarantees!’ It’s something.

Victoria’s house is a little old and full of quirks: feral cats dangling dormice, chickens following your ankles, and cows who gaze at you with the intelligent curiosity of research scientists. Inside, the TV switches on when I enter the room, as do other electric appliances, and I can’t help but laugh at whatever spirit it is that insists on reliving the most dull and quotidian activities of a life. The toaster pops and the kettle boils. It’s a pleasure not having to huff up one’s guts on some rocky mountain pass this day.

Steve pops over and takes a look. He picks at the spokes, and as well as spotting the two snapped spokes, he points out another spoke which has bizarrely wrapped itself all round the wheel. He gives his verdict, being a little amazed the bike has lasted this long. He then stows the bike in his van and promises to call me in an hour to announce if there’s any hope of cycling the thing anytime soon. As we talk outside, he tells me about his own trajectory. He’s another non-Orcadian, a Hampshire man, who spent years pursuing an unhappy career in the brewing trade.

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‘One day there was project meeting, and they were discussing my project. And for an hour and a half I couldn’t understand a word they were saying, it was all management jargon bollocks.’

This was the tipping moment. He took a risk, worked it out with his wife, and moved up here. ‘I don’t regret it!’ Their kids are happy at the local school, and Steve now splits time between driving about Orkney delivering things, and fixing bikes. He’s never been happier.

‘Just look around you…’

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At about four I get a call. Yep, the back wheel is definitely fucked. It’ll require a brand new wheel. The original cast of components of this bicycle is dying out with the speed of a Battle Royale movie.

But… it can be fixed, and the bike returns at five with a natty new wheel much sturdier than the tragic and enduring thing which survived this far.

‘No offense mate, but the way I can make money is by doing up high-spec bikes or fixing old bangers like this.’

How I love this enduring old banger! But Steve has saved it. If you have a bike that needs saving, then be sure to contact this guy at

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Victoria’s now back home too, and we talk again about risking it all for a better life, one where one’s happiness is the first priority and income, or surroundings, come second. For all the talk, I’ve found a more general condition of contentedness out in less populated, rural parts. Others have too. Orkney, and the Highlands, are awash with refugees from grim and grimy cities realising that what they called freedom was a miserable mirage.

I grew up thinking I was free. Until very recently, I imagined that I had a totally free hand in steering the course of my own life. I felt I was even freer than others, by not having any religious views, by taking an Anarchist position, considering events from the aloof position of an informed outsider.

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But on the road, I’ve met people of all ages with lives so different to mine, making not so much different choices but existing on parallel yet separate paths. In recognising how a son becomes a farmer, or plumber, and a daughter becomes a shop assistant, or nurse, and seeing the predetermined paths at work, I’ve started to see how I’ve been produced by an environment.

Having met so many characters, what would I make of myself on the road, sat morose in some south London pub

Circumstances beat us into shape, but in these characters, these unknown rebels and welcoming, open, loving heroes, I meet no-one who is a slave of the fates. With a degree of daring, dreaminess or desperation, people have uprooted their lives and attempted something new. Children of immigrants can find similar strength in their parents and grandparents. Let circumstances, the fates and other self-inflicted prophecies trample you down, but nothing is ever conclusively written for you. Take that other path in the distance; others have, and will. Only you and your happiness will lose out otherwise.

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Victoria drives out to a leaving do, and I cycle out on my newly-improved bike to Kirkwall harbour. Penned up all day, sixteen miles terrain passes in an hour, and I arrive at the port well early. In an empty waiting room, BBC News reports that the Commonwealth Games baton has arrived in Lerwick, Shetlands, my destination for the night. An old man in Viking costume is interviewed attempting to link up the proud Norse heritage of Shetlands with yet another sporting event in a place as distant, culturally and geographically, as Greenland.

We board an empty ferry, and I spy an Italian young feller I’d briefly met in Inverness. Francisco is another long-distance cyclist, and we share tips and stories as we board.

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I find the bar, and sit near Karen, an Orcadian lady visiting the Shetlands to see a friend. Ferries are superb places for all-or-nothing conversations between strangers, where a revealing fact can be uttered without any fear of repercussion. People are more at ease on the waters. She tells me about living in Hillingdon, a suburb of London, and of her ex-partner, their children, and living in Beirut. ‘It’s what you do for love’.

Over halves of Simmer Dim, a delicious Orcadian brew, and snifters of Macallans whisky, I gaze out into the night sea. Two Glaswegians behind me pan one Hollywood film after another (‘I like Hugh Jackman, but that plot was too tenuous’), with the critical meticulousness and jagged sense of humour of a superb TV film digest.

‘Dye reckon you can still persuade your girlfriend to watch black and white movies?’

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They are too hilarious and critically astute to leave untampered, pissing over Barry Norman and Mark Kermode by some distance. We begin conversing about The Wire (‘it’s constant concentration. Something might happen in the first episode, but then the pay-off comes in the third season’. Yes!), Lost (‘aww fuck Lost!’), The Corner and other US dramas.

In homage to their fine talk, I say goodnight and find the ship’s cinema, where one ship worker tipped me was the best place to sleep without paying a small fortune for a private cabin. Over a screen of nothing, I recline back and, with difficulty, gradually fall asleep. By the next morning I’ll be on the very edge of the UK, and in a place with a truly unique feel and set of stories.

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