‘It’s brilliant!’ – Aiden’s reply, on the life and death practices of the Neolithic people of Orkney.
A couple of days back, I found out that wind farms were a visual pest on Orkney. Having spent the night sleeping under one, I can say that they’re not so bad, sonically speaking. The night’s howling wind sent the turbine propeller into warp speed ten, but its gentle hypnotic patter and the tent’s protection from the rain combined into a cosy cocoon.
In the morning light, my tent and I find ourselves ridiculously exposed to the string of houses near opposite. I pack up furtively, and cycle back to Kirkwall for a second examination. At night, the harbour town was deserted and intriguing. By day, it is bustling with tourists, locals, and people plying some kind of trade towards each. Along its semi-pedestrianised narrow main lane, I pass puppeteers and horse-drawn carriages by the tourist cafes, mega dealz discount shops and gift stores. The bait? Laid out nearby are the grand St. Magnus Cathedral and the ruins of the nearby Bishop’s and Earl’s Palaces. Around nine tenths of the current population of Orkney seem to be around these two proximate sites, documenting any kind of visual feature with the kinds of cameras that a decade back paparazzi would have sold their mother’s kidney for.
‘Aye, there’s people in the country. But I’ve never been there’. – George, Lerwick.
I’ve gone off the map…
There’s been a gradual imperceptible transition from what felt like normality – retail parks, major supermarkets, traffic lights, dual carriageways, petrol stations, Greggs’ the bakers, mass unemployment and a depressing concentration of abysmal overpriced housing – into a smoother stream of forests, fields of heather, and great gliding spaces of well … nothing I’ve ever been prepared for.
The name of this beautiful wildflower scattered across these fields where red deer cross, untroubled by cars? The origins of these great rising bens, touching the skies like the vertebrae of fallen giants? Or the geological explanation for these eye-boggling gorges and glens that tear through the terrain like a hyperactive seismograph?
To a person familiar only with the largest of cities, all this is disturbing me, seizing me up, shaking my imagination, a violent ventriloquism. At times it’s too bleak to be pleasant, but the mind is twisted and transformed by it. Beauty becomes a kind of normality.
‘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.
‘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’.
‘It was the allure of big money, but it didn’t last. Now things have got worse, for all of us.’ – Jim, Brora.
Journeying across this far north-eastern Scottish coastal countryside has been tough, desolate and trying. Yet the people I’ve encountered and the conversations shared have been like a rubber ring, keeping my mind focused on the pleasure of this adventure. It’s not in reaching the end, but the pleasure in the means. These conversations and journeys are starting to feel like a kind of method for travel that I hope to use after I return to London. It’s about seeking out people and their stories as much as seeking out locations and their landmarks.
One recent pleasure has been the discovery of Scottish hospitality. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve met some bloody fascinating and generous people across the border. Human nature doesn’t cease to delight me. Those that despise other human beings should try instead spending time among them. You’ll be surprised.
But there’s something that feels practised and culturally routine about the kind of warm reception I’ve had from the Scots, be it in Lowland or Highland. Outside Edinburgh and Dundee, it has been a standard experience in small towns and villages to smile at passers-by. It feels rude not to! In smaller villages, people will even shout ‘hello!’ to you as you pass.
‘Excuse me, are you from Tain?’
‘What’s it like round here?’
‘There’s bugger all. You’re better off going back to Inverness.’
– Conversation with a man outside Asda, Tain.
Ah, Inverness. You once seemed like the very definition of distance, a remote town that I associated in my mind with a 5pm curfew and snowfall in June. As ever, travel rubs away the ignorant patina that comes with a parochialism I never suspected I had, but no doubt harboured. Visit Inverness? Yes, because it’s not too bad a place.
I awake in the best hostel by far of this trip. The Inverness student hotel is cheap, cosy, and very friendly, and for a mere two quid I get a giant’s breakfast of juice, home made scones, piles of toast and bowls of cereal. There’s free coffee, tea and wi-fi! Sat in the main area, conversation casually flickers between whoever you happen to be sat next to. Young and old people sit about from across the world. I feel like I’m fifteen again, on the threshold of discovering so many different parallel lives, each alive with energy and adventure. It’s dizzying and exciting.
‘It’s a crazy place, but in a good way…’ – Jackie, Forres.
The rain awakes me, pattering against the thin sheets of this tent perched on some nameless Highland hill. Little droplets form on the tent’s exterior, each one unique in outline, existing for a few moments, then rolling away.
It’s colder today, overcast and damp like an early winter morning. I listen for some time to the chirruping, whooping and cawing of the birds. The forest around me is densely packed with spindly tall trees, some rotten, some sporting a floral blue moss. This is wilder living, and now involves some wild toileting. As I take my trowel and bog roll to a more remote part of the woods, I spot the flight of a buzzard rising up through the trees.
‘People ask me, “what do you do for a living?”
And I say, “As little as possible if I can help it”.’ – Gerard, Corgarff,
Life and I are getting wilder and weirder by the day.
I am to all intents and purposes in the middle of nowhere, immersed in a landscape I have never experienced before, one of rich, verdant forests, the steepest of mountain crags, and little living except birds and vegetation. In other words, everything. I am tumbling through towns with no preparation, guided by the road and the conversation of people in streets, pubs, chippies and other passing places. Camping now feels less like a desperate second best and instead the proper way of experiencing the terrain, sleeping among it, smelling it, being disturbed and thrilled by it.
And the dawns…! I’ve known nothing like it. Everything feels so far removed from those codes of common life I left behind in London. Work, work, and… work. There’s no value in those codes here. A few times now I’ve heard older people speak derogatively about ‘having a piece of paper’. The paper qualifications like those I’ve got might help procure a stressful and insecure job in the lower rungs of the professions where burnout and breakdown are as common workplace injuries as lower back pain or carpal tunnel syndrome are for labourers.
‘I think things are changing, where it won’t be normal for people to lock themselves in their little homes, with their TVs, all alone. People need each other.’ – Joe, Banchory.
For the first time in my life, this morning, I watched the dawn break out and filter through the trees. Its gentle golden light streaked across the fern leaves surrounding me, and permeated the tent with a rich and uncanny glow.
It’s also the first time I can remember going to sleep without setting an alarm. Since the age of 11 I’ve adhered to the harsh disciplinary regime of the all-too-early wake-up tocsin. Before that my mum would wake me up for school. The terror of 07:00 on the alarm, the anxiety of worrying you won’t drop off, and over-thinking the moment where consciousness becomes sleep. Or the misery of waking from a great dream half an hour before you must get up, sorely interrupted. How I hate the tyranny of these clocks!
At first I’m worried – will I sleep all day and get disturbed by a local farmer? No no. Instead I discover that I sleep in occasional bursts, as many of us do. It’s the dawn that wakes me at around 4am. I have another snooze and then rise as the sun gets warmer around 8, I think.