Saturday 4 December 2021

Merry Christmas 2021!

I am hijacking this blog entry as my annual Christmas message! The reason is that I have only just found the time to upload photographs for this article (a few days before Christmas) so combining the two blog entries makes sense.

2021 has been a monumental one for most people: each of us trying to work out how best to navigate the pandemic that we thought would be over by now. I had taken a year off work to concentrate on the restoration, when the first wave hit, and was just re-entering the job market. The economic uncertainty at that stage resulted in many redundancies, and I wondered if it was the opportunity in life to really push forward with the restoration instead. In fact, this is how it has worked out and we made the best yearly progress during this year (2021) as well as last (2020). 

Funding a restoration without employment is not a sustainable activity, and much to my relief and indeed pleasure I started to work remotely for the Met Office on the 1st Sept. The incredible coincidence is that both my parents worked for the Met Office, and I had no idea when I applied for the scientific programming role who it was with. The job spec mentioned Fortran so I thought the presumed small pool of applicants would increase my chances. :-) With my only previous Fortran role, I thought the job agent was winding me up when he asked "How's your Fortran?". Such is the antiquity of the language, that all I could do was laugh! :-) 

Obviously the new job means my eyes are a bit off the restoration ball at the moment, so thanks to team G (Greg, Glen and Gregor) and my friend Andrew for their continuing good works at the castle!

There were three open days at the castle this year. The plan was to do one annually, but obviously 2020 was a no-no. After a successful open day on the 10th July, my volunteers were keen to help out again. The Doors Open weekend (11th and 12th September) was an ideal opportunity, and Angus Council were delighted to incorporate us into their program. Angus Council then took us off the program with no explanation or consultation, but after some shenanigans, did say we could go ahead with an independent event on the same dates. The shenanigans are worthy of several blog entries. Huge thanks to the volunteers, my neighbours for helping out, and of course to the members of the public who came along.

On the 27th of November this year I attended a dinner party in Orkney. The first part of the associated travelogue takes up the remainder of the blog. No obligation to read it. of course, but I thought it might entertain. :-) The story needs some framing i.e. there is a restoration angle, even though it is not apparent in part one. This is also a Christmas angle too: I had a rather trippy encounter with Christmas angels in Thurso and this may keep you reading to the end. 

Anyhow, Merry Christmas to one and all, and I wish you the best of bounce-backs in 2022.


Orkney Trip: Days 1 and 2

One strategy I have in life, is to accept all invites without question. It is in part fear of missing out (FOMO), but it also come from a spirit of adventure, and who is to say that these two motivators are not one and the same.

When one receives an invite to a dinner party on Westray, an outermost island of the Orkney archipelago, this principle is tested to the limit. The date of the high latitude meal was dove-tailed between appointments in the deep south of England, so it would be easier and cheaper not to make the trip at all.

I was uncharacteristically non-committal: "I would love to come, and will make my best effort to do so but I need to check if the travel arrangements will work out". I was genuinely in two minds.

Then on Facebook, my lovely journalist friend Katherine, who is based in Glasgow posted a message, asking if anyone knew of any cheap accommodation in Orkney as she fancied dropping everything and just taking off there. I responded immediately that if she could hold off a fortnight, then she could join me on a joint expedition.

The deal was done then and there, I would cover the accommodation costs which I would incur in any case and we would split the travel costs. Taking a car on a ferry is much more expensive than being a foot passenger, but touring Orkney without a car is a logistic nightmare, and this had been weighing on my mind. The deal was win-win.

My own car's power steering fluid had been leaking out like billy-o over the previous months. I had been getting-by by topping the tank before each journey, but for a serious drive up north from my house in Oxfordshire, the leak needed this to be fixed. The local garage assured me they could install new hydraulic pipework in time, but 2 days before the departure date they let me know that this would not be possible - eeek!

So there were some last minute changes of plan. I booked return train tickets to Glasgow Central where Katherine and I would meet up, and we would take her car to Orkney. We would overnight at Balintore Castle (Angus) on the way up and on the way down to break up the long drive from Glasgow to John O'Groats, from where the ferry departs.

We scheduled in a couple of sightseeing days on Orkney's mainland either side of the Westray trip as we were aware that this could be a once in a lifetime experience. I arranged accommodation in a spacious AirBnB flat in Stomness - 2 bedrooms for £50 a night - incredible!

With the extra unexpected train journeys at each end, the long weekend trip turned into a long, long weekend trip. However, with ferries booked there was no backing out, and the itinerary looked as follows. It seems busy, but in fact there was plenty of travel contingency - no rushing and no more than one ferry trip a day!



 Thursday 25th Nov 2021

  Oxfordshire Glasgow Balintore

     Friday 26th Nov 2021

  Balintore     Stromness

  Saturday 27h Nov 2021

  Stromness  Westray

   Sunday 28th Nov 2021

  Westray      Stromness

   Monday 29th Nov 2021

  Stromness  Balintore

   Tuesday 30th Nov 2021

  Balintore     Glasgow Oxfordshire

Day 1

Getting up to Balintore on the Thursday was a full day of travel. I had forgotten how relaxing a long train journey is as you get time to catch up with things. Masks were worn in "zones", on the train to London most people were wearing masks; on the train to Glasgow most people weren't.

Katherine picked me up at Glasgow Central. She had parked by the station: in English cities this would simply not be possible.,  I can't remember when I was last picked up. When you have no family, it is a real privilege. Ironically, the last time I used Glasgow Central I was an undergraduate and I would have been excited to be travelling "home" to my parents' house. An intense and unexpected feeling of loss struck me at the station, because it is some kind of time capsule for when my parents were still around.

We arrived late at night at Balintore Castle and went straight to bed. This was my first use of the castle as a stop-over, and it was frustrating not to be able to do anything e.g. there were a large quantity of wine glasses needing washed! :-)

Day 2

Katherine and I got up at 5:30 AM on the Friday morning at Balintore Castle to make sure we did not miss the Orkney ferry. We both have similar levels of paranoia, so there was no animosity. I was going to make porridge for breakfast, but at 5:50 AM we decided just to leave.

Driving in the dark, with wind and driving rain was pretty tiring for Katherine. Storm Arwen was operating at full force. However, Katherine declared herself up for extreme driving and with the coming of daylight she was much happier, then with the arrival of driving snow she was totally in her element. These were the first snows of winter: on the higher hills a considerable quantity of snow had already been deposited.

Katherine often plies the A9 between her home in Glasgow and her parents in Inverness, and mentioned that if there was to be snow it would be at the pass of Drumochter. Her prediction was spot on, there was SO much snow at Drumochter, that I feared for the rest of the journey. About an hour later, I got a call from the ferry company to say all of today's ferries had been cancelled (Friday), and this would likely be the case for tomorrow (Saturday) too.

I was asked what I wanted to do - cancel or reschedule? With no ferries today or tomorrow, there was no way we could make the dinner party, and we would just have to turn back. However, I told the lady from the ferry company that I would have to think about it, as our plans had been totally thrown.

Katherine was much the more resilient traveller, she suggested we could overnight in Thurso - not far from the ferry terminal and reassess the situation tomorrow morning, In the meanwhile she had some suggestions for touring in the area for the rest of the day. Katherine instructed me to rapidly book accommodation at the Pentland Hotel in Thurso, as many others would be stranded and also looking for accommodation. We could even do sections of the North Coast 500 driving route (NC500) round the north coast of Scotland on the way back to Glasgow if push came to shove.

I slowly resigned myself to the non-Orkney NC500 option, making the best of a bad deal. After all, I had always wanted to do the NC500.

We first stopped off at Katherine's friends Bob and Becky in Golspie. It was such a delight to meet lovely people for a normal coffee after all the bad ferry cancellation news. The added benefit is that Bob and Becky live at, and Bob works at, historic Golspie Mill producing artisan flour. One is never totally down in the dumps surrounded by beautiful architecture.

We then did Dornoch Castle and Cathedral; Dunrobin Castle; the Dunbeath Heritage Centre, and the Neolithic Camster Cairns !!!!!

I had always wanted to do Dornoch and Dunrobin Castles. However, the last thing I expected was to be visiting them on this trip. Dornoch Castle is a hotel in the centre of town, and has been on the market for some time and is currently pitched at £2.5m as the owner is of retirement age. Disregarding the £2.5m, I have considered Dornoch as an "already done up" prospect. Unless one was super rich, one would have to regard it as a hotel business rather than a residence and this is not me. Most people, including myself, want their castle home to be in the country and this is not Dornoch.

A member of staff kindly and courteously showed us around. She was however quite plain speaking. When I asked the significance of a carved "S" on a magnificent bedroom fireplace, the reply was "I don't have a f******g clue". :-) The staff member remembers well the occasion of Madonna's wedding to Guy Ritchie in town, with journalists clammering for rooms with views over the main street. Katherine told me of one photographer who lived in the cathedral's organ cabinet for 2 days to get exclusive shots, armed with food and an empty bottle (go figure). He was only routed on the final security sweep before the ceremony. It was said he was ex-army or special forces - hence his ability to withstand such conditions. He was ejected to jeers from the assembled press waiting outside, but he had been commissioned by a major title.

gorgeous bedroom in Dornoch Castle Hotel (note "S" on fireplace)

The hotel is in pretty good "ready to go" condition and while not ultimate top-end, staying here would be a positive experience. A number of the bedrooms are knock-out and the bar area has a huge vaulted medieval fireplace. The look is a mix of the contemporary and bare stone "historic" - the latter channelling the in-vogue "Game of Thrones" vibe. I am much more into historical authenticity -  whatever that means - but would have taken on Dornoch Castle had it been in poor condition and came in at a bargain price. This was the real deal 15th Century fortress, and Dornoch is a delightful, des-res town.

bar area at Dornoch Castle Hotel

I was interested in the heating system (cold is the bane of all castle owners) and newer bedrooms just had electric heating due to the sheer difficulty of bringing in pipework, However, these newer bedrooms were toasty warn, so I guess you just have to bite the bullet when paying the heating bill.

Dunrobin Castle and grounds were closed, so we just took in views of the building from the adjacent car park. Given the extreme cold outside we did this very quickly. It is one of the most amazing looking Scottish castles with a setting right on the coast, It felt very odd giving such a building short change and not going inside - the long planned trip in my head was nothing like this. Dunrobin has always stuck me as rather too French, and dare I say frou-frou?, to be a building that I would really love, However, I always suspend final judgement, especially as I have had good reviews from friends whose taste I respect. The lightning and incomplete nature of the visit, means the jury is still out.

Dunrobin Castle

Dunrobin Castle: porte-cochère 
N.B. ancient Roman stylee tripods & mermaid knockers

mermaid knockers (not mermaids' knockers)

We just happened to be driving past the Dunbeath heritage Centre and decided to stop in - Katherine mentioned a connection to the Scottish writer Neil M. Gunn who had been born in this hamlet at the mouth of a Highland river.

The staff opened the museum section of the centre specially for us, and it was great. The karma was extraordinary. One of Gunn's most rated novels is "Highland River" and this is at the top of my reading list. I am determined to do more Scottish Literature so I bought the book in the gift shop and was reading it on the trip. It is great and seeing the actual location that was the genesis of the story, makes everything come alive much more intently. The novel most people know is "The Silver Darlings", but I did a lot of digging to find out which books are regarded as the best of Scottish Literature, What I love is that the book is written in standard English - works in dialect can suffer from contrived-ness and impenetrability.

We spend a long time looking for Camster Cairns, recommended by Bob and Becky. They proved very elusive on the SAT NAV, and Google Timeline afterwards reveals much inefficient meandering.

Normally long-barrows are earthworks. These were stones piled up almost in organic forms, reminiscent of H. R. Giger. I never knew anything like these existed. Katherine and I were being blasted by sleet, so exploration involved physical suffering. The cairns were across a bog, so there were wooden walkways to access the monuments. However, there had been so much rain, sections of the walkways where themselves underwater. The water penetrated our shoes. 

Camster Cairns: long barrow (background) and round barrow (foreground)

Camster Cairns: one of the long barrow's inner chambers

Camster Cairns: one of the long barrow's crawl-in-only entry passages

There were small openings in the side of the cairns - with 2 feet high passageways. I started crawling into one - the floors were covered in water, the space was pitch black and after a certain distance I knew I wanted to get out - the only way was reversing - it was petrifying. If I had proceeded, would the passage have dwindled to nothing? I could have got stuck or the operation of reversing would have been even more lengthy and difficult.

We did climb into other openings that felt safer and we got our reward, these opened up into a central chamber where we would stand up, turn around and exit by crawling forwards. These were dark, spiritual spaces with huge stone slabs in similar configurations, including a massive "altar" stone whose transportation did not bear thinking about. It was such a relief to be out of the wind.

The wall construction was reminiscent of Skara Brae and this visit was a lesson that Skara Brae was not just an Orkney thing but representative of a wide-spread culture in the area.

We were almost broken by the exploration so it was a relief to check into the Pentland Hotel in Thurso that evening. This is an old-fashioned hotel that has been running as prestige accommodation for a long time and I can recommend (£60/room). I got the better room which I offered to Katherine, but by that time she had settled into her own. Storm Arwen was still ranging, but we decided to explore the flesh pots of Thurso that evening. We had identified an Indian restaurant in town, which we thought we would prefer to the predictability of dining in the hotel. "I wonder if you have a table for two" asked Katherine in the restaurant which was obviously completely empty. Katherine afterwards said she felt such a fool, but the beaming smile on the face of the waiter was most definitely worth it.

There were rumours of a Country and Western evening in the "British Legion Club" and of an "Italian Evening" in one of the cafes - in Thurso you have to take entertainment when it comes! :-) I understand Katherine has past form at this C&W event. 

We gained access to the British Legion Hall and talked to the club organisers - lovely people. A Country and Western band were going to perform at 9PM. We sat down with the intention of waiting, but Katherine realised it was not for another hour and we made our excuses and left. We asked at the café, but the Italian Gourmet evening was fully booked. We had thought we were doing the establishment a favour by dropping in as it was completely empty when we called round.

We went for a walk round the harbour area in the dark instead, and approached a rather intriguing small building with a sign that proclaimed "The Way Things Were". Looking in windows, and peering through the gloom in a manner akin to Howard Carter at Tutankhamen's tomb, revealed period interior set-ups, which were filled with junk/ephemera from the past. We finally sussed this was someone's house, but a number of street-facing rooms were dedicated to this mini-museum. How utterly fabulous!

We staggered reeling from the shock of this odd encounter with the past to a shop front with large angel dolls, perhaps a couple of feet high, with wings than flapped and arms that moved. These wings were lit up in multicoloured lights, and had an iridescent sheen. We reeled again - this time from the kitsch overload - and I defy anyone to distinguish this walk around Thurso after dark from a drug overdose.

We would re-visit "The Way Things Were" in the morning, and hoped it would be just as fabulous in the daylight. The illuminated angels were clearly creatures of the night, and we had already given them their finest hour.


  1. Dr. J., you transform any excursion into a cultural travelogue. I'd offer odds that the Dornoch and Dunrobin Castles websites, and the Camster Cairns', all post substantial upticks in traffic after your post.

    1. Thanks for that! You have caught the blog entry before proof-reading and before I have added the pictures. Fingers crossed, it gets better!