The Orkney Islands… just a few degrees short of the Arctic circle. In June the the sun only sets for a couple hours. And even then it doesn’t get completely dark. This kills the hip and trendy farmland nightlife, but we made up for it by downing a whole bottle of wine between the two of us every evening.
Actually, we started our visit with a tour of Highland Park, the world’s most northerly whisky distillery, where we saw and touched fermenting grains on the basement floor. Yes, in 18 to 40 years someone will crack open a bottle of scotch and notice the fine flavor that can only be achieved by passing the grain through my fingertips.
We rented a car while we were there, which was fun. Driving on the left side of the road and all that. Though I must say that much of the the road didn’t even have sides, being barely wide enough for one car. So I spent much of the time driving in the middle, and pulling off-road to the left when someone came the other way. They have little “passing place” signs alongside the road where you can best do this. There’s so little traffic it works out fine.
The islands themselves are mostly covered in rich farmland. Cows and sheep wander alongside nearly every road. Oftentimes while we were looking at some attraction or other, they’d come right over and stare at us. The sea along the west coast was as blue as I’ve ever seen, and it played against some lovely cliffs and shattered stone. Orkney was basically the exact opposite of Vegas, which I guess was the point.
Continuing my fascination with the dead, we visited Maes Howe, a chambered tomb from around 4500 years ago. No remains; it was broken into by the Vikings thousands of years later and covered with runic graffiti. The finest collection of runic inscriptions in the world, in fact — we spent much time on the tour appreciating them. So here’s to those of you who annoyingly scratch your initials and whatnot into public property at every chance: your day of appreciation will come.
The castle we stayed at was lovely, and our jolly chef Fiona kept us very well fed. To the long list of things I’ve eaten I can now proudly add pigeon and pheasant. Dinner was served around a family table where all the guests ate together. A very nice newlywed couple from London was there for a couple nights; he was Scottish, she was French.
One night the Canadian Secret Service stopped by. We couldn’t tell right away of course, but we were curious… they seemed to be getting a bit of special attention. And we learned they had just flown 18 hours for one night in the castle and planned to go back home bright and early the next day. It seemed odd that three middle aged men would do this. We asked about their work and at first they just said “the government”.
Over dinner we chatted, and after a little wine we asked exactly what it was they did for “the government”. After joking they’d have to kill us if they told us, they said they ran security for the prime minister. He was set to arrive in a couple weeks and they were scoping the place out in advance.
They were very friendly. I guess there aren’t enough attempts on the CPM to grind them into the hard humorless bodyguards that we have around our own head of state.
Each night after dinner we’d relax with tea in the library. And each time the tea appeared magically without us ever bumping into any of the staff coming or going. The night the secret service was there we finally spotted the secret passage — one of the bookcases was actually a door, and the staff had left it open a crack by mistake.
I pointed the secret passage out to the secret service guys and asked if it would effect their security assessment. They said no, but they thought it was neat and that one of them might hide in there to jump out and scare the prime minister for fun.
There were several other ancient sites and prehistoric ruins we visited — there are so many on the islands that some of the lesser ones are hardly marked. My favorite was the 5000 year old village of Skara Brae; a collection of several furnished houses that were abandoned and then covered for millennia by a sandstorm. The people left no writings, so we know little about them, but one can get a sense of a fairly advanced and comfortable life by walking around their little homes.
Of course all of this was documented on film by Sophie.
We saw so much but the time raced by and then we flew off to Edinburgh. Hold your breath; more to come.