It was a spontaneous decision begun from a remnant of Bob.
‘Go on a road trip with Louise’ he’d said ‘You’re both unusual and glorious people. You’d get on’ .
I hear his words, now that he is gone.
We’d collided together, Louise and I, after Toby died a few days after Bob, and begun a facebook/email conversation, comparing ‘grief’ notes, finding mirrors, bearing our souls, in anger and sadness and memory. We didn’t physically talk until Louise came up for Bob’s funeral. She held my hand, was strong and loving. When, after the burial of each, I felt her floundering in the bubble of Langer, and she said she wanted to go to Findhorn, I said I’d drive her up there. As it turned out Findhorn was not the right time, but we went all the same to investigate.
I downloaded my log of 1998, my last UK safari, undertaken, ironically for many reasons, to question my relationship with Bob which ended 2 years later. I laid the Safari out like a scientific experiment:
‘Apparatus: car (Peugeot 205) sleeping bag, tent. Bag of clothes, (spring/winter yellow and black) swiss army knife, meditation cushion, garden secateurs and gloves
Reading matter: Guide to who’s buried where, Rough Guide to Britain, Introduction to Buddhism, Barbara Vine thriller; Bill Bryson, Notes from a Small Island
Objective: a. Visit friends and family not seen these many years (India and procrastination); b. get feet and spirit back into Britain, c. have a break from Bob, consider words like selfish or self development.
Here I was 17 years later, Bob freshly dead, realising his deep influence on my life for the last 25 years, and that he knew me more than anyone, that we were naked and unashamed together. Missing the corner stone of his unconditional love.
Sitting under the willow arch made by Louise, fresh sap green growth on winter brown twists and at the top new strands like afro hair reaching for the sun. First warmth. Distant buzz of traffic on arteries north and south of people going places. Sitting still.
On the journey here I felt such uncomplicated love for Louise and yearning for our journey, with one who understands. This feeling juxtaposed with the more complicated rumblings from the Brothers, who I understand that day are clearing and selling Bob’s house, with what seems like a deliberate silence towards me. Why have I not been back, why not call them? Why does it matter? Like sticks they trip me up.
Tea on the lawn with talk. The physical presence or lack of it of Toby is all around here. His white van, the quiet in the kitchen, the house, the lives of Imo and Louise.
Dan, in his pointed shoes, drinks whisky after going to the funeral of a young friend of his who has just died too young.
‘I was strong until now’, he repeats.
A call. Another stick to trip. I could not be in a better place. Spring lambs, setting sun, people in the bar with cocktails, laughing, well healed lives passing through.
Louise told us the story of rescuing a lamb and feeding it, but it died. ‘No more lamb in the box’ said Toby.
Imo swings by in between guests arriving and departing. Dan takes her unlit cigarette from her mouth, lights it, and puts it back, at a time when the mouth was taking a rest from talking.
Imo is clearing out the Barn. ‘All Toby’s stuff’ she exclaimed, ‘What am i to do with it?’
There is so much going on here, I feel overwhelmed with it all, unused to such stimulation and talking. I am glad the next morning to set off, away, with Louise.
Angel of the north
Newcastle. Which way?
Angel of the North, I say, I’ve always wanted to see it.
Let’s go, said Louise – that’s what this trip is all about.
So we round the busy roundabout, following signs, and sure enough off the A1 there is is.
Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North. Gormley described it’s three fold significance: to signify that beneath the site of its construction, coal miners worked for two centuries; to grasp the transition from an industrial to an information age, and finally to serve as a focus for our evolving hopes and fears.’
The Angel of the North is our hopes and fears that we take with us, and it remains, seasoning our journey. Those outstretched arms.
Hardrians wall. Earth works. Grass over earth works. Empty roads. Recycling the stones into field boundaries.
Kate Wattcarrick, Eskdalemuir.
Here and there
Intention and freedom
Feed the free
The one you love has fallen away. Still there, but not so intensely.
Angela, a friend of Kate’s, eats with us. She is fresh from India, from the Root Institute in Budhgaya, a place I know. Us India girls drink a toast with Langer rich wine, to absent friends, and present journey’s.
They are here and there, repeats Kate. The white rabbit speaks in riddles, the obtuse pointing perfectly for opening up the meaning, because there is never an exact point.
We slept the first night in the van, warm enough but helped by hot water bottles. Louise declared the next morning that said she had slept better than at Langer, despite the restless dog moving from one bed to the next.
A morning walk into the landscape, moss and litchen on walls and trees, an old graveyard, reminding me of my grave yard interest on my last safari. Where has that gone now? Oh one who picks up and leaves!
Kate took us to the Kagyu Samye Ling, 2 miles down the road. She was our guide. Into the temple, decorated in the Tibetan fashion, so odd to find in this Scottish landscape, and beautiful too, it’s ornate painted walls, icons, stories, nobies (round balls). Akong Tulku Rinpoche is featured as the founder, not Chugum THrumpa, the one I knew, who’s book, Cutting Thorugh Spiritual Materialism, turned my head first towards Buddhism. As it had Louise, I learned then, and we keep finding these links in our lives when we did not know each other.
Over breakfast Kate responds to my story: What do you want Rachel? Respect and acknowledgement. Out there is is so simple. She grasps the metal.
As we leave, L and I describe the the richness of like minded people around us. Bob was too absorbed in his own survival at the end game of his life. Bob and Toby, so similar in many ways, giant people, who we had to watch destroy themselves.
It’s a long drive. Finally on the A9. Snow on mountains. At Grantown, we turned off to Ballentruan a beautiful road, into the hidden valley.
Malcolm and Jennifer – a new and delightful addition – welcomed us – with warming curry, home baked bread with caraway seed. Outside enjoying our roll ups, we watch the snow and sleet arriving. Would we be snowed in?
We walk down to the river Avon, finding colour in the stones, L wanting to take all back, but settling on one huge pinkish stone, which I will carry back for her.
In the evening I read out my 1998 account of being with Malcolm. He was alone then and and going through financial austerity, awaiting late Greenpeace payments. I’d recorded the story of his father, which I was grateful to remember. As M said, that was not so long after his death and his feelings were sharper then. Odd I thought afterwards I did not mention anything of his fine old house (1600), with its thick walls and cosy kitchen.
From bare snow sprinkled mountains down to pasture and sea, finally a ploughed field, bungalow development, and Tesco’s. It was the Tesco’s car park, that L had her moment of revelation. She’d felt wanting and inadequate. Grief is transformation, she declared.
I am on a lonely road and I am traveling
Traveling, traveling, traveling
Looking for something, what can it be
Oh I hate you some, I hate you some, I love you some
Oh I love you when I forget about me
I want to be strong I want to laugh along
I want to belong to the living
Alive, alive, I want to get up and jive
I want to wreck my stockings in some juke box dive
Do you want – do you want – do you want to dance with me baby
Do you want to take a chance
On maybe finding some sweet romance with me baby
Well, come on
All I really really want our love to do
Is to bring out the best in me and in you too
All I really really want our love to do
Is to bring out the best in me and in you
I want to talk to you, I want to shampoo you
I want to renew you again and again
Applause, applause – Life is our cause
When I think of your kisses my mind see-saws
Do you see – do you see – do you see how you hurt me baby
So I hurt you too
Then we both get so blue
I am on a lonely road and I am traveling
Looking for the key to set me free
Oh the jealousy, the greed is the unraveling
It’s the unraveling
And it undoes all the joy that could be
I want to have fun, I want to shine like the sun
I want to be the one that you want to see
I want to knit you a sweater
Want to write you a love letter
I want to make you feel better
I want to make you feel free
I want to make you feel free
Close to the earth, low lying, single story habitations, mobile homes to the right, modest homes to the left, gathered in communities, organically grown. We walked up the main avenue to the central hall, and found coffee and tea, while we eavesdropped on conversations of happy folk making room for each other, with diversity of age, nationality, stage in life. At the north end of Findhorn is a building development of homes brightly painted, wood clad, solar panels on roof, with more building work underway. Veg gardens in the front facing south, recycling facilities at the north side. Unlike CAT I had the feeling of an expansive and developing community here. We watched a man in purple potter around his purple painted house. ‘Are there conflicts here?’ wondered L, as there surely must be.
We walked the wild and open beach watching the rain arrive. I dance the dance of putting on waterproof trousers, L throws the stick for Kali. We are each in our spaces in this expanse. Then together again for hot soup in warm sun outside. The weather is so dramatic and changeable.
The walk up Ballentruan
Malcolm lives next door to the Tomintoul distillery, a relatively modern distillery only 50 years old.
‘Whisky is just beer distilled’, typical M’ism, making the process simple breaking it down to it’s denominator. The Silver Birches here have black trunks and stems, which M informs us are the litchen that grows on them feeding happily off the nutrients in the fumes from the distillery. Bearded litchen, that I called Spanish Moss
Up Ballentruan hill. Buzzard nest. Belted Gallaway cattle, soyo sheep, which Kali found and gave chase to, but stopped when commanded. Phew. Up to where the stones for Balletruan house were most probably quarried, and shortly afterwards the ridge and the summit. An easy walk, Malcolm & Jennifer easily the healthiest and strongest walkers. Merlot and aubergine the colour of the heather and bare stems of silver birches on mass.
‘You have a 1 in 4 chance of seeing a red squirrel here’ says M the scientist. And we did. Where local people feed them, they came. The grey has not come this far north. It’s pointed ears, and tail curled up its back as it happily ate while we watched and took our photographs. Down to the River Avan, Alder with red litchen.
In the next field to Malcolm is a railway carriage, once converted into a holiday home, now a home for sheep taking shelter or birds. It’s various painted layers of bright green and red pealing.
‘It belonged, before my time, to a bank manager’ explained Malcolm. My how they have changed we mussed. No longer the simple railway carriage, but a luxury yacht or a pad in Juan Le Pain.
Jenifer explains with a map the unusual hidden quality of this valley, how the mountains enclosed the land, not inviting passing traffic so the life was relatively undisturbed. She has just moved into the area, but her ancestors come from here, her father was a school teacher locally and was and still known by it’s inhabitants. 90 acres in total, is is the estate of … Cromdales… Casta Gorms.
In an old map of 1590, Malcolm’s house is clear, ‘This valley is evil and wrong’ is written on it.
I was allowed to listen to the Archers, under Malcolm’s gentle protest:
‘I have a fear of becoming like Linda Snell!’ he admitted, which was a red rag to us naming him such from then on.
The bathroom is wonderfully warm, being in the centre of the house, backing onto the wood burning fire. How sensible.
When I asked Malcolm’s his views on ISIS, he said he had gone back to the original Koran to gain an understanding.
A smur of rain, was Jenifer’s parting gift to my vocabulary. Jenifer is also a lover of stationary.
All change – Louise to Langer, Barry to Inverness
Joni Mitchell playing, we drove to Inverness to meet the 8.30 train on which Barry had travelled up first class from London. We drink a coffee in the Inverness Railway hotel, which was given freely as they could not find the price to charge us. I lifted a hotel mug.
Background: 1604 James 1 and IV, a Stuart and Catholic. 1688 James Stuart fled to France. William and Mary. Scottish Presbyterians. 1704 the Act of Union
As it happened, we arrived on the cusp of the 270th anniversary of the battle and a group of burley Canadians/Americans, of Scottish origin, were over dressed in traditional costume, completed with red beards, giving us demonstrations on the vertical market of muskets and pea shots used in the battle.
‘You needed 2 opposing teeth’ he explained. There was no skill in aiming as there was no aiming, just firing.
The ginger bearded one had been coming for 16 years.
The battle failed due to so many combining events, a strong one being the inability to unit the Scottish clans for a clear decision, most an ineffective compromise – confirming Barry’s view of a need to be a dictator. And the French let them down.
A name familiar through the shipping forecast, here we found it on the eastern peninsular of Black Island. Coffee in the Royal Hotel. White painted homes, facing the west setting sun on the shore of an expansive beach.
We camped at Portahomack in what was one a church yard, the camping organised by the vicar, who lived in the Manse. He was most informative, and an easy talker, joining a few of the dots
‘First I will rob you of £10, then I will give you a key.’
‘You may not realise, but I’m not often here. I’m just back from China, not at the invitation of the State, far from it..… I was burgled once. In a smart street in Edinburgh. The thief was Eton educated and I’ve been sceptical of Etonians every since, including the present government.’
I asked him where we could eat this Monday evening.
‘Yes, we’ve lost both our pubs, with both landlords. One is serving time in Glasgow High Security Prison and the other in Edinburgh’s equivalent. I got on fine with both’, he added. ‘The only other place is closed. I know, as I interred the chefs mother today.’
So this hamlet of a thousand souls has no secular meeting place for drinking, except the golf club, that was closed when I walked up to it.
The church had been converted into a museum, as we found many had been on our journey, a museum illustrating the history of the area, the Enclosures, struggles and battles. It was closed however during the time we were there. An interesting graveyard.
Morning walk along the coast was glorious. Hedged with warnings from a local man – cows and sheep are with their young, take care with the dog, better to walk on the road. The dog, however, was fine. I crossed the fields first then called him. The cows took little notice. We came across what Malcolm thinks was a Minke Whale, huge, with a giant fin bone twice the size of the dog. We walked to the light house where we disturbed a flock of geese. Barry, with morning ablutions complete, picked us up along the road back. This was a successful accommodation to our different morning habits: mine to start the day as soon as it broke, and B to meander into the day, with rituals of food and liquid to attend to, starting the day around noon.
Tartness is where the Great Glen, the geological fault line that divides the Highlands into two, finally meets the sea. It has the 3rd largest lighthouse built by Robert Stevenson after the 1800 storm wrecked 10 vessels.
Glenmorangie whisky – a natural stop for Barry. American oak wood from Mussorie. Founded in 1943 by William Matheson, and marketed effectively by MacDonalds for luxury liners. The marketing bit remains.
Here at Croick I re-enclountered the history of the Clearances, having first read John Peebles excellent history back in 1998, the remnants remaining in my memory. At Croick Church the Clearance time is poignant. Around 1850, in a drive for productivity, the landlord, the Duke of Sutherland, cleared their land, brutally ousting the local people who had lived their without proper title for generations. At Croick they took shelter in the church, carving their names, and words of their story on the glass window. An article by the Times 1845 was adversarial. ‘Not a pauper amongst them… all were self sufficient. They owed no rent, on this land occupied by their forefathers.’
We missed the grotesque statue to the Duke of Sunderland, along with some misgivings at leaving this peaceful valley.
We’d gone up there to investigate Alladale Lodge, described as a hunting lodge in the Rough Guide. It was miles up a single track. We gathered from a walker that estate was run by Paul Lister, an entrepreneur and founder of B&Q turned conservationist who aimed to return to the land to its original including the re-introduction of predators such as wolves and bears. Arriving at the house, we were turned away as interlopers, although Barry made a good show of innocence, complementing the landscape and waterfalls finishing with:
‘Rachel’s got a little wood’ said B. ‘How big is this?’
’23,000 acres’, he said.
We didn’t make John O Groats for the night, but settled at the same camp site as I had in 1998, in Dunnet Head, the true furtherest point. A photographer pointed out ‘The old Man of Hoy’ to us. We had no idea what or where it was.
Sea fish soup in the pub to hear the story of Dunray man. Dunray is now closed to the public, unlike in 1998 when I went around it’s visitors centre, however it continues with its long process of decommissioning. When will it be complete, I asked
‘2330’ he said. ‘Well that’s the long term. Short term, 2030. It gives me a job for life anyhow.’
Perfect sandy beach, exactly as I remembered it. Odd returning, touching that person I was then, reading Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island, and giggling in my tent. All those hopes then, going out into the world, finding an exit from a relationship. Now trying to find reconciliation with that same man, and fighting Barry! Fed up with his east end knocking, I exploded,
‘I’m fed up being told i’m wrong and a piece of shit because I’m not!’
He gave a thoughtful response. ‘You’ve got everything, and I’ve got just this little bit. I’m good at packing and I’m right.’
Well I’ll say this for Barry, he’s a good open book for travelling. I’d argued against Orkeny, because we didn’t have time to visit all the islands properly. But we did it. I’d gathered from a fellow camper that the ferry was close by, and without hesitation we caught the 1.00 ferry. (After a short dip into John O’Groats which far less dismal than I remembered it). We sailed on the Pento, an Orchadian enterprise (rather than a government one), landing late in the day.
No trees. Like the Hebredies. Were it not for the turning windmills, we would not see the evidence of wind. Huge skies, lighthouses miles away, long views across gentle rolling hills full of sheep.
Landing at St Margarets Hope, we drove passed the Tomb of the Eagles, up to the Churchill barriers and the Italian chapel, so we entered the story of Scapa FLow and the involvement of the Orkeny’s in the 2nd world war. During WW1 (a bit) and 2 (a lot) Scapa Flow was Britain’s main fleet anchorage. I learn more about it when visiting the museum later, but suffice to say now, Churchill commissioned a barricade to be built between islets of land and the Mainland (the name of the largest island), and it is these we motor across that first evening, stopping at one to give the dog his first taste of the land and sea. We encounter what will become our prevailing dilemma – no trees therefore no sticks to throw for the dog. He is bewildered and grasps the sea fingers of the prevailing sea weed, and is mystified when it sinks. The Italian chapel, created from a Nissen hut by Italian workers, is closed, but later we will find it open.
Contrary to some advice we’d gathered, we motored beyond Kirkwall, the capital, deeming the camp site to be uninteresting, so we find the most sublime campsite I think i’ve stayed on in these British Isles.
Arriving at Stromness, we motored through the town, the old town, with pavemented roads, narrow, beautiful, and very long. Luckily we did not meet any on coming traffic for it was no larger than the cart track it was no doubt originally made for, and we gather later not permitted for through traffic.
The campsite is on the tip of the promontory, a lighthouse of course near by, and beside a golf course. There is only one other campervan.
Our first evening we walked into town, to try out the local pubs, of which there are half a dozen. Landing at the Stromness Royal Hotel, (Barry had a snifter at the Ferry Inn on the way) we ate a delicious fish dinner washed down with Scapa Special. Over a glass of wine and roll up, I watched the late setting sun over the near by island of Hoy, to which we look out.
Two aspects stand out about Orkney. The first is the people do not consider them Scottish, rather Orchadian, having Danish roots in ownership and inclination. During the Scottish referendum recently they were unequivocally anti separation. The EU referendum is more complicated. I learn this from Stuart Winston, a blow in, who came here as a wreck diver, fell in love and has not left. He is the manager of our camp site, with a very light hand. The second is the toughness of life here breeds a special type of person, one resilient to the hard weather, resourceful, and independent. One such as Rae, the discoverer of the North West Passage (although sometimes not acknowledged as such). There is a Rae Street, and a well at which the men drank from on their way up to the Arctic in 1845, Sir John Franklin. Indeed there is also a Rae stationary shop – currently closed.
The islands are rich from oil, and now with foresight invest in wave technology, in fact we hear some discussing this at the Stromness Royal Hotel that first evening, among an incongruous group from Ache, Indonesia.
The first morning, I set off with the dog to walk to the standing stones. Not a good walk – the roads so busy with cars whizzing by, but finally, 6 miles later, we turned off and found the giant monoliths. Life pre-christianity. Older than Stonehenge, and far more approachable, as we, the dog and I, sat down beneath one to enjoy a biscuit. Some are fallen, perhaps struck by lightening. Sky larks above. They are huge, protective of the wind. Ring of Brodbar, a circle of stones. The alignment is for the winter solstice. Some 4-5,000 years ago, 2,000 BC. Nothing is between us and the US, except the great Atlantic sea.
Barry collects and we motor on to Skara Brae, one of the major sites on Orkney, and the best preserved prehistoric village in Northern Europe. It’s very well laid out, with a path containing a timeline which helps with the perspective. It is indeed very old. It’s the living quarters of people, living here before the pyramids of Egypt. By the time Stonehenge was made, Skara Brae had already been abandoned, after 400 years of continuous habitation. Right on the sea front, so it could take advantage of food and utensils (rock to build, sea shells to fill).
It’s a compact commune still with furniture inside, such as beds (stone of course), centered by the fireplace. Linked by passages, with a water system for incoming and outgoing refuse. Nothing was wasted, much used as ballast.
Skail house, owned by the Bishop since 1620, then by 12 lairds all related, and currently Malcolm McCrae who lives elsewhere – among some trees I gather. A Lowestoft dining service behind glass used for the return of Captain Cooks Discovery celebrations. A tiger carpet.
At the Museum Stromness, where I had 30 minutes (for a donation price she gifted) I concentrated on John Rae. 1813-93. He generally preferred the company of Indian Inuits and half breeds to the disagreeable people in Western Life. He collected, observed and imitated. Employed by the Hudson Bay Company, granted a royal charter 1702.
Listening to Radio 4, the Archers about to begin, oyster catchers chattering and gulls swooping. The news breaks that Prince has died at the age of 57 pipping the headline of the Queens 90th birthday. Meanwhile here in Orkney the wind continues to the north, the sun shines on Hoy, and I feel blessed being on this perfect camp site.
HOY Ranwick Bay to the Old man
I catch the early ferry, waving to Barry as we sail out of harbour. We are best at this distance, most loving. As we walk the weather lifts from the mist to clear sunshine, revealing the valley I walk through and the hills above, still with a smattering of snow on the top. It’s a clear path, despite what Stuart warned. ‘There will be many divergent paths, and you will take the wrong one.’. We made it to Ranwick but not without a problem. Finding a rare stick (left by workmen) I threw it for the dog into the near by stream. With it went my fur hat. Instinctively I ran to retrieve it, stepping into one of the bogs, sinking nearly to my waist. Sodden through, with water retentive trousers, we waddled into Ranwick.
‘Excuse me’, I said to a builder, ‘this is an odd request but do you have a spare pair of trousers?’ He didn’t and looked around him, taking his time.
‘An old man lives there, a farmer lives up there, apart from that no one is here’, he added. But there was a VW campervan, and a woman outside. She kindly gave me a pair of her leggins. Perfect with water proof trousers on top. Sodden trousers on the slate roof to dry, I lay in the grass to await the arrival of Barry on a later ferry who arrived thanks to a lift from Scottish REPB people, coming to monitor the Sea Eagles nesting not far away.
To the Old Man of Hoy. Ah the tenacity of Barry – he was determined. Dog and I went ahead, a gentle climb of 4.2 miles, but on a precipitous footpath, slopping down to the sea crashing on the rocks a thousand feet below. I was glad to turn the corner, onto flatter land before reaching the Old Man. 137 meters of sandstone sea stack on a basalt base. Chris Bonnington was the first to climb it in 1966. The joy was watching the fulmers – comically balancing in the wind, using their feet as rudders, their bellies balancing. One lone puffin on the rock face. On the way I lost my fur hat again – oh joy at seeing Barry arrive, to whom I send the dog, and the dog returned with my hat in his mouth.
Dog and I walked back at our pace, going down to Ranwick bay, to investigate the sea, and the bothy, well maintained, and welcome for anyone to use. The builder gave us all a lift back to the ferry. He described how ravens take the eyes and tongues of young lambs before they are finished being born. His voice was unusual. We could not place it’s accent, but concluded it was most like Norwegian.
Unusually Barry did not want to join me for a swift whisky in the Ferry Inn when we docked back in Stromness. Something about ‘I can’t do that. I know about gout and dehydration. I cannot drink tea in a pub!’ But he found himself a bottle of water, and returned. Then he couldn’t leave. ‘I can’t leave now, I’ve got to have at least 2 pints and 2 drams. etc.
Oh the restrictions!
Lyness on Hoy Island to the Cemetery
We got to the early ferry in time. That wasn’t the problem. No the problem was there was no ferry back until 4. With such information gleaned on landing, Barry took the same boat back. (‘I’m not hanging around here when I could be in a warm pub’). The dog and I had 6 hours on this barren peninsular, to immerse ourselves in the land, seascape and history of Scapa Flow. It wasn’t raining, so we walked first to the cemetery. Two dots on the landscape. Stuart had commended it, and he was right, it was a moving place. The final resting place for men a long way from their homeland. First (400) and Second World War (200), not only English, but some German, known names and unknown (Ein Deutscher Soldat), and those from our colonies, written in the Urdu script. Boats called Frightful names like Cyclops, Argonaught, Colossus, Vivid, and one incongruously called Sunflower!
I know I will find this story later. It’s a stone for
Zu Sing Hang, who died at Scapa Flow 2nd May 1916
‘Erected as a memorial of a kind act done by a chinaman in nursing a blinded working man afterwards senator Mr Gregor of the Australian Commonwealth’
Gregor McGregor, born in Scotland and emigrated to Australia as an assisted migrant, worked as a stonemason, and builder’s labourer. He campaigned doggedly for mens and womens working rights as a trade unionist and became the first Labor leader of the Senate. An accident left him with impaired vision, but it was thought that his disability, which he mocked with his keen Scots wit, served to improve an already good memory to the point at which it was described as ‘phenomenal’.
In March 1901, he was elected to the Commonwealth Parliament as South Australia’s first Labor senator. Here, as in the Legislative Council, he became renowned for his cheeky and ready wit. His argument against ‘coloured’ labour centred on his conviction that Chinese people worked harder than did Australians. Commenting that the more progressive the legislation, the better he liked it, he argued for the extension of the suffrage to all the women of the newly federated Australia. He wryly commented that while he was given a mandate to represent both genders from his home state ‘some are only representing the manhood of the people, and some even a kind of double‑breasted manhood’. In the elections of 1903 and 1910, he topped the South Australian Senate poll, leading his colleagues by some thousands of votes. Gregor McGregor died 1914. As a man who had always ridiculed pomposity, it was ironic that he was honoured with a state funeral. So this stone must have been errected by his representatives (he left a window and step son)
In the 8th century Orkney was colonised by the Vikings – many Norse words remain in the Orkney lexicon, like Scapa from Skalpr a poetic term for a long boat and Skalpei a ship ismus, a place where a ship could be hauled over a short stretch of land.
During the two great conflicts of the 20th century the natural harbour of Scapa Flow served as Britain’s main naval base, providing a secure base that helped the Royal Navy maintain control of the seas.
There was only one battle in the First WW, that of Jutland, being celebrated as it’s centenary in a few days time. It was a battle in which neither side could claim victory. With the Armistice 1918, the German High Seas Fleet surrendered and 74 ships were escorted into Scarpa flow. Here they remained in limbo as the Versailles treaty negotiations drew out. It was a tough time. Mutinous crews kicked their heals, unable to venture onto land. In May 1919, Reuter, the German Admiral in charge, learned the harsh terms of the peace treaty, due to be signed in June, and on 21st June, following a pre-arranged signal from the Emden, the German crews began scuttling their ships. The German flags were all hoisted before in an act of defiance. By late afternoon 52 German warships had sunk including 14 battle ships. Eight German sailers were killed during the scuttling, Reuter and the remaining German navy were shipped south to prison camps.
Many of the 25 ships were salvaged for their scrap metal. Being pre nuclear, the material was valuable as it could be used in rocket technology.
From Hoy a large infrastructure was built up to support the British fleets, typically oil tanks to fuel the ships. The dog and I ventured into the one remaining giant oil tanks, now converted into a museum, showing two films on continuous loop, one with extraordinary music which was playing as we entered, giving an eery atmosphere to this hollow tank.
‘Orchneyitus,’ was the name given by the local people, denoting boredom. Individual stories like that of Able Seaman William: A destroyer sailed into the cliffs, all drowned except one survivor, Able Seaman William Simmons, who survived for 36 hours by clinging onto the freezing cliffs, living on some ships biscuits.
Dog outside, away from the wind, I settled down in the coffee shop to read the story and warm up. Decked out in 1950’s the woman serving was dressed in that same style, her hair in particular. An older woman goes into the kitchen and the girl embraces her with physical warmth. She’s the girls grandmother. The whole family is here, I pick up, at a table away. Her mother and father came out here from East London nine years ago looking for a different life, one near the sea, to run a guest house. She’s also practicing councillor. Her mother, the girls grandmother, has recently joined them, after a spate of cancer.
‘This will be fine for me’ she says with East End honesty to me, a stranger passing though ‘I’m 82. I’ve lived in 14 different countries. I moved here in January. After the cancer. My left lung was removed. I’m tough though, and back already. This will be the last place. It will do fine.’
Everyone does the washing up, the father included. I hear the mother describe their life on Hoy to some visitors.
‘There are no policeman on Hoy. We’ve got a couple of scallywags but we all know who they are. No one locks their doors, no need. The Orkneyits are not demonstrative – unlike the people from Shetland – but they will do anything for you.’
So Stuart, I went to Lynnes cemetery with your questions but found no answers. The youngest there is 16. The one alone is a German WW2 soldier and alone as more were expected.
That evening our van rocked in gusty wind. A sieve of snow on Hoys Hills.
Conversation with Barry in Hamnavo (shelter) restaurant, which was finally open for our last night: ‘You’ve got so much, but I’ve got a small corner of stuff that I can do, like practical stuff, such as packing, organising shelves and space, I’m good at that.’
‘Salmon is boring, you eat it every day,’ so I ate a fish with a name I do not know, and am pleased not to remember as it was, as they said, tasteless. Their dressing of it, however was unusual, but not to my taste.
St Magnus Cathedral
We are both amazed at the magnitude and beauty of the vaulted nave of the Kirk of Kirkwall, St Magnus Cathedral. It is huge, like a French Romanesque church. The tombstones, placed around the aisle walls, are graphic and fascinating. ‘She lived regarded. She died regretted.’ Rae’s tomb finally ties it all together. His body wrapped in an animal skin, his soft leather footwear and gaiters sown up each side. An open book and a rifle lie beside him, his survival tools.
Eric Linklater, Edwin Muir – two poets and writers I’m familiar with in poets corner.
The poppies from the Tower of London decorate the entrance.
Italian Chapel and last walks
Our last walk is along our familiar promontory, a walk Barry had done each night, but not seen in daylight, to the cemetery. Muir, Frett, Sinclair, Linklater, familiar names. Died in infancy, and also 3 infant children. A boatman.
At our camp site a notice says, ‘Dogs forbidden’
‘The warden is relaxed’ says Stuart the Warden, throwing the stick for the dog onto the camping pitch.
The Italian Chapel – tromp l’oile.
Our departing ferry takes us around the Old Man of Hoy, so I get the sea view a Barry takes a nap.
The words of the Orkney poet, George Mackay Brown, etched into glass on the boat, sumarise the small two islands of Orkney we’ve seen:
“The essence of Orkney’s magic is silence, loneliness and the deep marvellous rhythms of sea and land, darkness and light.”
HAMNAVOE, his most famous poem:
And because, under equality’s sun
All things wear now to a common soiling,
IN the fire of images
Gladly I put my hand
To save that day for him.’
Wild moorland, soft aubergine, then yellow gorse and the hills begin to roll more.
Tongues of sea water entering land, giving out to small bays of sand. A kinder land. Wind farm land. Deer protected fences. Larger hills, beautiful in evening light.
Where to camp?
At Tongue we crossed the causeway and turn north up to Melness, outside Talmine and find a scuddy camp site, empty, although it says it is open on the gate. To investigate further, I walk the dog along a track beside the sea, to a barrage, a perfect place, but by the time I’ve returned Barry had met the women owner of the camp site and booked us in.
‘She is a remote woman’ B describes, and the accuracy of his description shocks me as it does sometimes. She does not say a word to me. I watch her in her coat, wellington boots and hat come in and out of the toilets, cleaning them. We are the first of the season, she has told Barry.
‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ I ask but she shakes her head.
The site held together with bailer twine and spent electric cable.
And did you wash your hands? asks Barry
I used moss, I say, for toilet paper and a mountain stream to clean my hands.
Here I feel and learn the geology of Scotland, once joined to North America (fossils similar) and 540 million years ago south of the equator (Quartzite)
First visited in 1998, I connect it randomly with Robert del Maestro, who knew and loved it. My log described the best fish and chips, and I followed the experience and was not disappointed. I queued with waterproof clad off shore men and ate along the shore, thinking about a conversation I’d had with the man in the information office, with whom I’d shared my 1998 experiences.
‘Yes in 1998 the last of the Russians were here. All gone now along with the fish. Herring is long gone. Only the Spanish remain who cannot get enough of hake and they fish off Lewis. They use herring as the bait.’
‘Take a cross section of my friends here’, the outdoor shop man tells me, ‘one’s a doctor but all the rest work off-shore. That’s the only source of income here today.’
My walk takes me passed galleries, some co-operatives selling multiple craft and art work.
Meanwhile B has not moved. He’s in the van and cooked himself steak and gravy. He could be in Windsor Road. I feel exasperated with his lack of curiosity.
‘You aint got an ounce of love in your body’, he digs in response. ‘I aint going to do this any more’.
We hear some music at the Argile. An older man singing of Lock Marie and Strawberry Fair. After a disturbed night, I walk in the morning to the golf course.
To Sky via Inverewe
Snow blizzard on moorland. At Inverewe, we buy ‘Bride’ for Caroline and Hugo’s 25th wedding anniversary.
In 1998 I saw my first Gunnera here. We are early in their growing season, and they are modest in their giant spread, but while admiring their unfolding we met two others inspired by Gunnera to return.
‘Good soil’, I say to one of the gardeners
‘It should be. There’s naught here – this is imported from the Black Isle’
‘I thought Osgood used seaweed?’
‘Yes, to begin with but not now’ he replies
On a barren rocky promontory in Loch Ewe, this garden was created in 1862 by Osgood Machenzie on the 850 hectares of land bought for him by his mother. He created the garden out of bare rock and a few scrub willows. It’s far north, about the same latitude as Hudson’s Bay in Canada, but because of warm Atlantic currents from the Caribbean it is far warmer in winter and is rarely very hot in summer. But the west Coast of Scotland is susceptible to strong winds and salt spray, so one of the first things Osgood did was establish shelter belts of Native and Scandinavian pines. He first concentrated on the walled garden, then created woodland walks amongst which he planted a variety of species that he collected from around the world.
The garden was given to the National Trust by Osgoods daughter Mairi Sawyer in 1952, and is one of the most visited and celebrated for its rhododendron collection. We are in perfect time, many are coming out, and a tall man clad in vibrant red rainwear head to toe takes photographs with earnest concentration.
‘What is this plant?’ I ask him
‘No idea’, he replies returning to look into his lens.
We drive across the bridge at Kyle of Lochalsh and heading west come to rest at the western foot of the Culins, at Torrin, to stay with Hugo and Caroline Russell. Caroline Grant was a year above me at New Hall. Facebook had re-connected us and we’d met for the first time since school when she bought Nicola Sutherland to the OFT launch. I’d been enviously looking at her photographs of Sky for some years. Now here we were. Her daughter, Catherine, 20 something, is enormously affectionate. Barry becomes known as Barry from Oddballs.
‘Sense of humour essential’ says Hugo summarising his outlook on life. ‘Papa’, Catherine calls him. He’d worked at the BBC as an accountant, married and gave it up to become a breeder of goats and pigs. which he says was not entirely successful as he never wanted to have them culled. His family name Russell, is related to the Duke and Dutchess of Bedford, (Woborn Abbey) whose carpets Barry is doing.
GHOTIP – Fish
Yes, now I see why they are here, at the foot of the Cullins beside the loch. It was Catherine’s carer who summed it up (she’s another blow in from Yorkshire). She fell in love with the land and people.
‘Up here we all know each other, talk to each other. I was shopping in Wakefield among strangers.’
Here in Scotland Caroline’s two sons are eligible for free Scottish education and Catherine get’s far more care than she would in Guildford. The land is magical, their home at the foot of the great mountains.
We walk into the north wind, Kali and the Caroline’s girls Jemba, Breagh Gerti, to Torrange
to where otters sometimes come, and shelter in an old boat house of stone. In front evidence of old potato plantations. Scratchy sandpaper limestone, same as on the Cullins.
This second home is becoming their first home. Why not go for a thing of beauty rather than a scuddy bungalow? Bob was with me today.
Over a cooked breakfast, Catherine and Hugo open their wedding anniversary gifts from Catherine all wrapped in gift paper illustrated with dogs. With our camper battery flat, Caroline and Hugh left us to go to church on this the day of their 20th wedding anniversary, as we waited for the AA.
Talisker – too late for a tour, B bought some stocks up. In the MacAskills, a Viking family. Hugh McAskill operated clearances, clearing crofters from his land for more profitable sheep. In 1830 he opened this distillery.
In my youth, while at King Alfreds college, I’d spent an Easter up in the Cullins, at Camp Brittle, with a man called Jon, and a friend of his, Patrick, to look after the bothy. I didn’t know anything about climbing or camping then, but I remember well the clear air, the colour of the stone, fresh peaty streams, Camp Coffee, sweaty feet, and glorious clear nights. We found the bothy, now vamped up, and parked up. While Barry had a rest, I climbed up into the Cullins, a little way, annoyed that I could not go further as we were out of time, annoyed that we would not camp at the most idyllic spot, as Barry wanted a pub. We camped in a road side camping spot opposite a pub – Barry’s dream. The dog enjoyed following a game of pool, to the merriment of the players, while Barry tasted some of the many malt whisky’s on offer.
An MOT search took us south, to find a place that could deal with our long wheel base.
Back into the land of MacDonalds and Costa coffee.
What is memory. Twenty years ago I was here at Shap with Bob, on our Coast to Coast, giving up smoking, beginning our journey together. Here I fell in love with him, struggling through slanting rain, reading Wainright all the way.
Here’s the entry:
Slight discrepancy as to how many miles to Shap after the end of the reservoir. I, in a stoned state said 3. It was the longest 3 in history. Bob marvelling at the red berries on the rowan trees, taking photographs, I with full munchies gobbling fudge. Never been so glad to see an Abbey. On the famous A6 the main artery to the north before the M’s
We stayed the night at the Queen of B&Bs, Mrs Kirkby at Ing Farm, a 3 story house converted to B&B 15 years ago – and we heard later, the one used by Nigel’s mother when she was a coastie all those years ago. Towels twisted into a fan, soap in lace doilies, assortment of bubble baths and hair shampoo – everything a walker could want but not carry. She is a professional b and b’er. 8 rooms, once full this year with 14 people – its a good business.
Excellent fish and chips next to Mrs and Mrs Nurd, discussing Alan’s capacity at loosing his way. It curls me in laughter. He cursed the Lakes for not obliging with the C to C sign posts on the way.
Where is he now? What is it you want Rachel? Acknowledgement and respect.
Shap pink granite (kerb stones and building frontages), formed some 400 million years ago in the Devonian period when the landscape was barren and volcanic. Shap Blue granite. Shap limestone – now owned by Tata steel, but going to close. No longer needed, letting go of 90 people. Then there’s lorry drivers, and all the associated livelihoods.
It looked like a drovers stop on the roman road north south, the rambling Greyhound Inn. £90 for the night, a stamering woman told us. The food looked terrible, chips with everything. The bar empty. But we had little option (needing an en suite for Barry). She kindly reduced 90 to 80, and then gave us rare beef for the dog. A cyclist on his way from Lands End to John o Groats, was an easy ear for Barry’s boasting travel. I gave him my water proof trousers. As we leave the next morning I imagine him blessing my trousers in this rain.
Swaledale. We stop at Reeth market, buy cheese and black pudding, and have coffee in the Black Bull.
‘Gotta return here’ says Barry. ‘My type of place’. It’s beamed and olde worlde. I long for the outside.