Up late packing the night before, we were about as prepared for this trip as our previous adventures. The tickets for the coach and the ferries were all booked, and that was about the extent of it. We had a destination in mind of course – the Orkney Isles. Neither of us had ever been as far north (without leaving the country, that is) and nothing could have felt more like an escape from living in the capital city than a camping trip around a scattering of wild islands, floating off the north tip of Scotland.
I’d had the job of booking the first coach which would take us as far as Inverness; I had the departure time in mind, and made sure we got to Edinburgh bus station with time to spare. It wasn’t until I asked the attendant at the station which gate we should be at – and the realisation had sunk in before he even replied – that it dawned on me that I’d fucked up. For whatever reason the departure time I had in mind was an hour late.
A brief panic was overwritten quickly by a grounded voice in my mind which told me ‘Sure, that was daft, but move on’. I let myself wallow a little longer, Vivienne consoling me, but then was straight on my phone to book the next available trip. By chance it was one of the more luxurious coaches, which while it meant paying a little more (on top of money already wasted) it would be a pleasant ride.
It also meant we had time for coffee at the station, and a bite to eat. Before too long, constantly checking the time to avoid another disaster, we were on our way. The trip was long, so the added comfort of the fancy coach was appreciated. I like long journeys now that I’m older; in my youth they would have only made me feel nauseous. When I was much younger, around 8 I think, my little brother and I were taken on a trip around Scotland by my Dad. All I really remember of the trip is seeing a lot of hills, and feeling pretty ill.
At that age if you’d seen one hill, one loch, you’d seen them all. The castles were different, and a little more fun to run around and climb. I didn’t have the appreciation at that age for the beauty I was surrounded by, so I’m glad that now I get to retake parts of that journey as well as seeing completely new sights.
Inverness was our first stop. Vivienne had forgotten to bring a waterproof jacket (I did mention our poor planning skills). We found a Sports Direct where she picked up a yellow waterproof – which really added to the nautical vibe when we were on the ferries, making her look a bit like a deep-sea fisherman.
Jon-o-groats was just another bus ride away, and we had a little bit more of a stop-off there. On getting off the coach most of the other passengers headed straight for the iconic signpost for their cliché holiday snap, or idled around waiting on the ferry. Vivienne and I wandered a little, heading past the row of multi-coloured houses and down on to the sand and the rocks. Hopping across rock pools – already feeling that freedom, that taste of adventure – I turned to look across at Viv. Her yellow jacket now set against the yellow house I thought ‘Instagram time’ – yes, I’m all about living in the moment but I hate to pass up a perfect photo opportunity.
She picked up the habit on the trip of pointing out yellow things, then pointing to herself, silently demanding me to acknowledge ‘yes Viv you’re much yellower than the dandelions’ or whatever it might be. Her playfulness always makes me laugh, her light-hearted attitude while we’re off exploring is a constant source of pleasure.
After a brief look around the gift shop by the harbour (because, well, you can’t just not look in the gift shop) the ferry was pulling up and one by one we boarded, waving goodbye to the mainland. A short smooth ride and Orkney came in to sight, a strange array of dismantled sea-barricades strewn across the land like jumbo building-blocks. The coach (the final one, thankfully) was waiting, and one last time we transferred our bags and took our seats. There was already a very different atmosphere as everyone began to unwind feeling like now we’re getting somewhere, the air itself transforming.
Vivienne had told me about the Churchill barricades, built as part of the war effort to prevent invading forces from entering the bay created by the nest of islands and also connecting the dots of land for the first time. We traced them out on the map, getting our bearings as the coach passed along these narrow strips of road with the massive concrete blocks at jagged angles either side. Another artifice of the time, a half sunken ship, lay in a few pieces beside one of the barriers.
Another iconic sight we had anticipated, a church building constructed by Italian prisoners of war, drifted by us as we made our way for the mainland of Orkney, Kirkwall. Not quite what we expected, having the option of a Tesco, Lidl, and multiple Co-ops to do our last minute grocery shopping, it was much like any other Scottish town. A high-street of pubs, shops and little cafes left little to the imagination so it wasn’t long until we set off again.
We met an interesting character in the first shop we went in to – his shirt unbuttoned half-way and loosely grasping a bottle of red Malbec in each hand – who informed us that this was ‘the shit co-op’, giving us directions to the other one, as well as offering a place to stay should we find ourselves at a loss. He didn’t seem very representative of the locals, and seemed to have a bit of a distaste for them, being from Seattle himself.
We needed somewhere to set up camp for the night so figured we’d start walking towards our next off-the-cuff destination, Stromness. With the sun lowering, we knew we’d have to find somewhere soon and that we couldn’t make it all the way in one night. A hill nearby with what looked like some kind of radio antenna on top took our fancy, and so we began the trek along a side-road and up the heather-clad hillside. Stopping every so often to look back, breathe and take in the view, the sun now glimmering on the horizon in the opposite direction, I remember as I sit here that mix of exhaustion and bliss.
A little further on we came across a wooden structure which at the time made no sense at all: a narrow boardwalk, barely wide enough to walk on, but which provided a stunning platform to view the setting sun (which oddly enough seemed to be setting for an eternity). Up a little more, and the purpose of the strange artefact became apparent as we noticed tyre tracks from mountain bikes, and other smaller wooden bridges. This would have been a terrifying hill to go down on a bike at any speed, and the boardwalk – rising a couple of feet off the ground by its end – a jump that only a somewhat seasoned mountain biker would dare.
We wondered whether we would ever find a spot not overcome with heather to pitch the tent, but perseverance brought us to a perfect little spot just along from the now looming radio tower and a short distance from an old brick building of some kind. The tent is a breeze to put up and after our previous trip where we had to pitch on both solid rock and later sand, we’ve gotten good at it. Plain grass and mud is a luxury rather than an expectation now.
The sun never really did seem to set that night, as we sat out and had our mac’n’cheese over the fold out hob (one of those metal fold-up frames you pop a fire-lighter in). A cupful each of hot Jägermeister-infused herbal tea sent us off in to a well-earned sleep, setting us up for the day to come which would take us east to where we would end up spending the rest of our time in Orkney – the isle of Hoy.