Sunday, 26 December 2021

Orkney Trip Day 3

After the stresses and strains of failing to reach Orkney due to the cancelled ferries, waking up the next morning in the emergency Thurso hotel accommodation felt altogether more chilled and like a new beginning,

Katherine and I had resigned ourselves to the fact that Orkney was off the cards and we were going to make the best of a bad situation by doing parts of the North Coast 500 instead, However, before we left Thurso we were going to call in at the ferry company, based outside of town, just to get a definitive lowdown.

In fact, the website for the ferry company was the best resource: it indicated
that although no ferry services were scheduled that day, passengers should check up again before their sailing time in case conditions changed. I had emailed the evening before to book a sailing at the same time as the cancelled booking but a day later.

In the meanwhile, there was plenty of time for Katherine and I to explore Thurso in the daylight. However, as we stepped out of the hotel after the re-energizing cooked breakfast, Katherine announced "There's a problem" pointing to a totally flat tyre on her car. It doesn't rain but it pours! She had had this wheel fixed before leaving Glasgow, but obviously the problem had not been solved.

Katherine set off to change the wheel for the narrow replacement one in her boot. In fact, Katherine was far more capable of changing the wheel than me, and I suggested in game-theory terms that the best thing I could do would be to walk round the block i.e. disappearing to leave a "helpless" female on her own changing a tyre. Of course, Katherine is anything but helpless. :-)

When I reappeared 15 minutes later, no mechanical knight in armour had emerged. However, a local had advised Katherine on the nearest garage in town that could perhaps fix the proper wheel. I took over the wheel change and Katherine was going to walk to the garage. However, Katherine suggested I walk to the garage instead and she would resume the wheel change, on the same game theory principle.

As I walked across the bridge over the river Thurso en route to the garage, I spotted a stone tower on the horizon and somehow I recognised it, despite never having been to Thurso before in my life. It looked like the main tower of Thurso Castle, which is one of my favourite Scottish castles.  It slowly dawned on me that as I was actually in Thurso, it might actually indeed be the tower of the eponymous castle which I had always wanted to visit. :-) The building is now in ruins, but in its day was one of the most audacious of Victorian castellated extravaganzas.

The mechanics were very friendly, but apparently neither the registration number nor the make & model of the car would be enough to identify the type of wheel required. However, it could be determined by measurement if we could somehow get the car to the garage, 

I returned to where I had abandoned Katherine, but she was nowhere to be seen. The car had gone. The fact that it must have moved was a good one, but the absence of Katherine and the fact I did not spot her on the walk back from the garage was not encouraging. Was I, in fact, stranded in Thurso without a paddle?

There were a couple of young ladies gossiping in front of the hotel, so I asked them if they had seen what had happened. Apparently,  a man had turned up, the wheel had been changed (result!) and Katherine had driven off! 

I returned to the garage. Much to my relief Katherine was there. There was a  dent in the wheel's rim which should have been hammered back to the round by the Glasgow garage, and the resulting bad seal was behind the flat tyre. The mechanics were happy to do the repair for free, as they were sitting around with nothing to do but I slipped them a 20 note for their quick and effortless fix.

It was time to explore Thurso.

Katherine took little persuasion to head to Thurso Castle which, even in ruin, is an awesome  structure with an impossibly romantic location directly on the beach. Attached to one end is an inhabited and considerably more modest Baronial structure of later date. The term "semi-detached ruin" was never more appropriate.

Thurso Castle

Thurso Castle 360 Panorama - click this image several times to get VR panorama

Thurso Castle Before Dereliction: Seaward Elevation

Thurso Castle Before Dereliction: Landward Elevation

I knew the layout of the area around the castle already from previous studying of satellite photos on Google Maps, and wanted to explore the original courtyard at the back of the building and could see a stone archway that probably led there.  However, Katherine was suffering badly from exposure by this stage and we retreated back to her car.

 "The Way Things Were" was just as fabulous as it had been the night before, even though we were now viewing it in a hail storm. I popped a fiver into their donation box. Storm Arwen was still rampaging.

The Way Things Were: Interior Set-Up 1

The Way Things Were - Interior Set-Up 2

We also visited St. Peter's Kirk, ruined but dating from 1220. I was immediately drawn to the tower which was clearly the oldest part of the structure and fully merited the 1220 date, by virtue of its aura of deep antiquity.

St. Peter's Kirk Thurso

The Tower, St Peter's Kirk, Thurso

One last check up with the ferry company website, showed that the storm had calmed down enough for the 12:30 sailing to take place! We were overjoyed and set-off to the ferry terminal. We were not expecting this - what happened from then on would be pure bonus.

As we drove out of Thurso, I spotted a stunning historic structure down a narrow lane. "Wow" I exclaimed, and Katherine, always up for an adventure, drove down the lane. What we had found by accident was the gate lodge for Thurso Castle. This was quite magnificent and still inhabited. It is often the case that the main house has gone but that the gate lodge (with a more practical size) has survived. The owners of this building are privileged indeed to live within this magnificence.

Thurso Castle Gate Lodge

We also called in at the Castle of Mey. This was closed up for the winter, but we walked around the edge of the grounds. This visit was not like the tour I had planned in my head. Sections of the Castle of Mey were built by William Burn, the architect of Balintore, so obviously my script had written in an internal viewing. The building was somewhat dinkier than I had expected, but as the viewing occurred at a distance in the middle of a storm, any judgment could have been faulty, and just seeing the building at all felt like a privilege. My theory is that restoring the Castle of Mey was the Queen Mum's bereavement project after her husband had died.

The Castle of Mey

We arrived an hour early at Gills Bay for the ferry. The passenger lounge on board was surprisingly large and modern, but also surprisingly empty. Despite the cancellations the day before, winter is clearly low season.

Passenger Lounge: Ferry from Gills Bay, Caithness to St. Marys Hope, Orkney

Katherine regaled me of her tales of being badly seasick in the past. She certainly got me worried, and I think she had also scared herself. I can't remember the last time I had been on board a boat, but it most certainly had not been in a storm, and my sea legs had never been tested. In fact, we drove off the ferry at St. Margaret's Hope in Orkney, with stomachs unvoided. We had no time to waste as we had to make our ferry connection to Westray in short order.

The landscape of Orkney is quite assaulting. Straightaway we had to drive across causeways with ocean on either side and wrecked ships from long ago jaggedly tearing the vista and telling us not to underestimate the power of nature here.

I described Orkney as lobular, as fingers of land extend everywhere into the sea. These fingers often curl round enclosing bays, so one is often seeing the landscape across water,  Katherine hated the term as it made her think of unpleasant medical phenomena, but I insisted on its valid applicability and naturally it had now to be used at every possible opportunity.

Inland, parts of Orkney had the Scottish small town vibe, so one could have been almost anywhere in Scotland. So the islands possessed a beguiling mix of the familiar and the alien.

We stopped off at the Italian Chapel very briefly, as this was just off the road from the ferry terminal, and we had a feeling we might not be able to fit this in at any other time. This proved correct. The building was locked-up, but I walked round the outside. I can't say I was bowled over by the spirituality of the space (the inaccessible interior notwithstanding) but I love what it says about the human condition triumphing even when being held captive as a prisoner of war.

The Italian Chapel: built during WWII by Italian POWs

We were about 30 minutes early for the Westray ferry, but essentially we had just made it in time. The relief was huge. I loved that we had to queue in outer island-order, for the correct loading and unloading of vehicles! I knew about alphabetic and numeric ordering before, but island-ordering is a new one for me.

Kirkwall to Westray Ferry

Katherine and I stayed in the car thinking that such a dinky ferry could not possibly have a passenger lounge. However, we were directed out of our vehicle by a crew member, to a compact below-decks lounge. This was every bit as rough and ready as I could have dreamed of. Locals doing their knitting and reading books. Out-of-season, I don't think Westray gets tourists.

Passenger Lounge: Kirkwall to Westray Ferry

The serving hatch in the background of the photograph, was according to Katherine, largely for the benefit of the crew - mariners have traditionally been fed well. However, having said that, passengers were not holding back on the bacon rolls. Katherine gamely changed into her party frock in the ferry toilet, and dabbed on the macquillage in the lounge.

Passenger Lounge: Kirkwall to Westray Ferry

Disembarking on Westray

Once on Westray, our destination was "Brough House": the location for the dinner party. We panicked about our ability to find the building now that darkness had fallen. Our host Mark had provided written directions and there was just one main (north-south) road on the island. However, getting lost in low visibility caused by the driving rain still felt eminently achievable. Earlier research revealed that the whole island seems to have the one postcode, so even my SATNAV would not save us.

The main landmark in the instructions was a large white-washed church.  We did pass a large church but in the dark it looked anything but white-washed to me. A later daylight viewing showed the building to be slightly and confusingly grubby!

A large house eventually showed-up ahead of us with lights streaming welcomingly out the windows. "This must be it." said Katherine. My first thought was "Surely this is too impressive and too large", but I was wrong.
We were so happy to have finally reached our destination.

Mark showed us to our respective bedrooms for the evening so we could "freshen up". This Laird's house has been wonderfully restored from a state of semi-ruination. It was my first visit to see it in the flesh and I was enormously impressed.  And in fact Mark has been wonderfully supportive via email of my restoration of Balintore. Being an architect, Mark has provided some key advice over the years.

Mark promised us 18 guests and 8 courses. The disappointment of only 17 guests turning up mattered not a jot. :-) The food and company were glorious. Due to Mark's connections, we had expected a bohemian set congregating on Westray from all over the UK. "You are the only off-islanders" declared Mark to Katherine and myself. It was half-flattering somehow - I had never felt so exotic before -  and half like the opening of "An American Werewolf in London".

Anyhow, if you wanted to get a feel for island life you couldn't have chosen a better set of guests. Connections go back generations through families, and there is a closeness and shared sense of fun that I had not experienced before. Many islanders had spent some of their life elsewhere, but returning to Westray seems much more of a thing. The salmon fishery is the island's major employer, and this provides more than enough work for the island to be viable. Mark's connections to the island go way back: his grandfather pioneered air-transport between the Orkney islands. You could tell everyone was pleased Mark had brought the Brough back to life.

Just to illustrate the well-known multiple roles of  island inhabitants: Louis, Mark's gardener, is also the grave digger, the ambulance driver, a barman and a chef. He is currently studying catering part-time too.

Another interesting angle is that outer-island kids are all weekly borders in Kirkwall, only coming back to their home island at weekends. The bonds between the boarders are apparently incredibly strong and can be lifelong. In this culture, weekly boarding is the norm, not that of a privileged few.

My feeling is that island life preserves the way human societies would have been before urbanisation with more natural and stronger bonds between individuals. The islanders seemed much more in touch with good and well-sourced food, and were enormously proud and knowledgeable about Orkney produce.

Anyhow, thanks to Mark for the delightful evening, delightful food and the delightful encounters with the locals. Katherine and I retired around 11PM, but the party continued at the island hotel and then at Louis's place. What lightweights we were, but then we were exhausted by the travelling and knew we wanted to fit in some sightseeing on Westray the next day.

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