“As we, in dreams, behold the Hebrides.”

(From the Canadian Boat-Song, originally in Gaelic, attributed to David Macbeth Moir, 1892.  The most well-known lines are these: “From the lone sheiling of the misty island, mountains divide us and the waste of seas; still the blood is strong, the heart is Highland, as we, in dreams, behold the Hebrides.” Everyone of Scottish ancestry knows them. )

 

I am safely in Chicago, though stupendously jetlagged and rudely culture-shocked.  My bag, however, is in London.  The airline has promised to deliver it to my door.

At one point on my grand tour of Lewis, Angus pointed to a jet trail high, high, high in the sky and said, “It’s going to America.”  I had to fly down to London from Glasgow, and after a long wait, change to a flight for Chicago.  It went back up over Scotland, and out over the Western Isles.  I was on the wrong side of the plane; I saw what looked like South Uist and Barra, having the same glorious weather Lewis gave to me; but I waved, anyways.

 

 

 

 

Beannachd liebh…sigh.

(Goodbye)

The mist today near the Dochgarrock lock on the Caledonian Canal…there are two larger hills/mountains completely obscured behind the one you see here.

A deep, deep sigh.  It’s essentially over, for now – tonight is my last night in the Highlands. Tomorrow evening, the latest possible train to Glasgow, and a B & B in Paisley near the airport; Friday morning, an early flight to London.  Sigh.

Today, I walked and walked, for nearly eight hours, dreaming grand, wild dreams.  I’ve been uncannily blessed with great weather and beautiful blue skies since I’ve been here.  Today it rained, but that was fine. Scotland’s skies are equally beautiful when they’re moody, at least to me. I started out on the Great Glen Way, with periodic pleasant drizzle, but after a couple of miles, nearly to the top of the first great hill (and finally out of the Inverness suburbs), I turned and went back.  I could see what was headed towards me. Before I got halfway down the mist came and blanketed the hill.  I don’t have boots nor a compass with me, and the mist can be incredibly thick and the path was steep and slick with mud.  So, I have some sense after all.  Instead of the hills, I decided to follow the wide towpath along the Caledonian Canal, to where it meets the River Ness, and view the mist from below; if it came down to where I was, I’d be on a wide, easy-to-follow path.  It never did, but it moved through the hills all day, revealing mountains and making them disappear.  For a long while, it stopped raining.  I passed the Dochgarrock lock just as the Jacobite Queen, a Loch Ness tour boat, was lowered down to river level.  I got to watch that. Then I went as far as the path would allow, not quite to the place where the river meets the canal.  As I turned to loop back to the towpath, this fellow was waiting for me.

I considered picking him up and kissing him; he might have turned into a prince who’d make it possible for me to stay here forever, but I don’t think that’s a Scottish story.  Besides, he looked a bit dour, and gathered himself to jump when I reached for him, so I kissed my finger and put it on his head, and he simply hopped away; and so, I’ll be on that flight.

On the way back, it poured down thick, sheeting rain for two long periods.  I had about four miles to go when it started, so I just kept on.  My jacket and hood kept my upper body dry, but my heavy jeans and shoes got soaked, and then after the rain, the wind kicked in.  My legs got chilled, and my ankles, then knees and finally even my hip joints started to seize up.  Aging bodies are no fun.  I was limping along by the time I reached the B & B. During a long, long, long hot shower (wishing for a bathtub) the sun came back out, and I went and treated myself to a good Indian dinner and watched it slowly set behind some thunderclouds out on the firth.

***

This has been an exceedingly important visit for me.  I did everything I proposed to do; I have my photographs and sketches and research notes, but I have so very much more than that. I had no idea when I wrote the grant that my life would be at a profound crossroads; I just knew I needed to return to Scotland.

I haven’t written about Eilean Leodhais, Lewis, yet.  Or rather I have, for myself.  But I don’t want to publish it.  What happened to me there reached right into my core and that’s for me alone. I’ll write about it and show you photographs soon.

But a large part of my love for Lewis was due to the fact that I made two friends there, or rather, I was befriended in the kindest and warmest of ways, and I need to thank them, from the bottom of my heart.  Barbara, who ran the B & B, made me feel as if I were visiting an old friend, not renting a room.  Her family has been on the island for generations.  She told me tales of my family names, told me, “you will find relatives here”.

And there is Angus, a Gaelic poet (who are still rightly called bards here).  We met on the boat over and he just sort of took me on; he spent a day driving me all around Lewis and down into Harris a bit as well; he showed me where he was born, the house he’s just built on his father’s croft land, lochs and stony mountains and vast blinding white beaches where the sea is a heartbreakingly beautiful clear Carribean blue; we went to my touristy desires, to Callanais and the reconstructed black house village (even though they were almost the same as the house where he was born).  He told me countless and varied tales of the island, answered every question; we talked nonstop, all day. We saw another pair of houses that are turf-roofed, just like the place where he was born had been; these had just won an all-Europe competition for the best new green design, and we ended up at the end of the world, at steep fierce huge rocks near the butt of Lewis, that break the waves of the Atlantic, arriving at full speed from Canada, the U.S.  He drove me to the pier on the day I left, and waited and waved to me as the ferry pulled out of the harbor. I don’t know if I have ever met anyone kinder.  For the company of these two fine people and many other reasons, I did not want to leave.  At all.  And so it was so very good to have Angus there to generously wave me on my way; when someone troubles to see you off, it means you are welcome back.

What Orkney started, Lewis finished.  Somehow, I’ve been healed.  Even coming back to Inverness, finding free wireless in my room, and reading about the latest firing at Columbia is put into its very petty perspective.

I have one of my goals now, and that is to come back, as soon as I can, to spend as long as I can on Orkney and on Lewis, grant or no grant. So: really it’s not beannachd liebh; it is chi mi dh’aithghearr sibh. 

Highland Tourism

Thanks for the comments on my Orkney post!

I’m once again in McDonald’s (sigh), with a bit of time to kill before my bus leaves for Ullapool, to the Stornoway ferry.  I thought I’d go out to the Inverness seawall, about a five mile round trip, and watch for dolphins in the Moray Firth, but I had to turn back after about a mile.  When I take the side trips to the islands, I leave my small rolling suitcase behind and pile what I need into my computer backpack.  That was still too heavy for a stroll; my ankles and the small of my back began to ache.

So here I am.  Inverness has changed a great deal since I was last here, over 15 years ago.  It was a pretty sleepy town then,  with a handful of tartan shops and a lot of pubs. At the time, the woman I was staying with advised me that “a lady should not go into a pub alone.”

Now, it’s bustling, booming, has shopping centers, at least ten Indian restaurants (unheard of 15 years ago), and is packed with tourists. Packed.  Almost every house near the city centre is a B & B. They are from the rest of the UK and all over Europe; all over the world, really.  There are only a handful of Americans right now, but I’m told they descend in droves in the summer, the ‘high season’, from June to August, when all the prices rise.  The Highlands are a hot place to go for, for their beauty, and for all the interesting old things, and some horrific, new, built-for-tourists ones as well, like a Loch Ness waterpark, etc.  I think, all those years ago, most of the people who came here were like me, come to see the auld sod, for heritage, and they came from the states, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, all the places people emigrated to, that left all this beautiful scenery undisturbed.

There is a lot more garbage, everywhere.

People ‘do’ the Highlands.  There are eight million bus tours; for instance, there are packed day trips to the Orkneys. You hop on a bus in Inverness, it takes you to the shorter, less interesting ferry from John O’ Groats, you hop on a bus that stops at all the attractions, the historical sites and newer ones, you pop out, snap a few photos, stop for an overpriced lunch that features none of the local food,  then it’s back to the ferry, the bus, and Inverness, and tomorrow you can ‘do’ the Hebrides, or so many castles in a day, or so many distilleries in a day. (These tours were what my bus driver pal on Mainland Orkney was complaining about.  He said, “They rush! They rush from here to here, bang!  bang! And never do they know the beauty of the island, never do they want to know it, they come only to see things.”)  All this with entertainment while aboard the bus, so that you don’t need to have a single thought of your own.

I feel so lucky to have been here before all this started, and I can’t begrudge it, but I can be wistful for how things were. It’s great for the economy here, which, 15 years ago, was still suffering as part of the British welfare state.  And, as the conventional and very practical wisdom was, “You can’t eat scenery.” But, it’s making me want to see less of the “sights / sites” and to just be in the country itself, instead, away from all this.  I’m almost dreading going to Callanais (OK, just a bit) because I fear it may be just the way the historical sites in the Orkneys were, but I’ll handle it the same way; take a local bus, walk, wait till the tour busses leave, and then have time to ‘feel’ the stones.

But I think my day trips are over, even though I can have more of my train ticket to use (no one’s marked off any of my trips!). I think, when I return to Inverness, I’m going to take a day to hike as much of the Great Glen Way as I can, and climb Craig Phadraig, and simply breathe in this air, which is soft and delicious. The country itself, the people, the land, the creatures and the foliage, are enough.

And even though there’s all this commercialization, there is still Highland hospitality.  This morning, I stopped at the B & B I’m booked into after Lewis, and told them where I was going, and that I had what I needed in my wee backpack, and asked if they might keep my suitcase for a few days.  She said, “Of course! Let me show you where I will keep it, so you have no worries.  We’ll take good care of it.”  I said I would gladly pay the same fee as the train station charges for “left luggage”, and she said, “Psssht!  No need, wouldn’t think of it! You enjoy Lewis now; I hope you have a good crossing. And we’ll be looking forward to seeing you in a few days.”

 

 

 

Orkney Magic

The Old Man of Hoy

 

I am madly in love. Madly. With Stromness, with the Orcadians, with Orkney.  I’m so sorry I’m not staying longer.  But I WILL be back, and soon.

First, there is the landscape.  The ferry was not the open-air, Staten-Islandish utilitarian boat I imagined, but a proper small ship.  In the hold were four full-sized semi-trucks, a horse trailer with horses, and enough cars and vans to make a genuine Chicago rush-hour gridlock on a side street.  We weren’t allowed outside, and I sat in a lounge three stories up, as we passed the spectacular Old Man of Hoy.  I think I was taken right then. 

Stromness is fantastic.  Built way before cars, the major street that I’m staying on is the width of a downtown Chicago sidewalk, perhaps narrower, and twisty.  There’s the harbor, and then Stromness climbs up a steep hill.  The stone is the old Orkney bedrock, that breaks into long thin slabs, so there is a fascinating quality to the building, both biomorphic and linear. 

Today I saw Skara Brae, a Neolithic village over five thousand years old, something I’ve always dreamed of seeing.  I planned on that.  Unplanned, I saw a whale, I saw puffins and learned how and where to spot seals playing, and I saw them, too, and watched them for a long time.  They watched me back. 

I took the local bus to Skara Brae.  I was the only person on it.  There were perhaps six other people at Skara Brae when I got there, all English couples.  I kept hanging back so I could be alone with each of the structures.  The young, spiky-haired attendant watched this for awhile, then he walked up to me and showed me a viewpoint, a small, easy-to-miss window set into one wall that he said was one of the things that caused the place to be discovered, originally. As he spoke, he became very animated, and it was clear that he truly loved this place.  I said, “This must be the perfect job for you”.  His face lit up, and after that, he took me into the middle of the village on stone stairs marked “staff only”, lifted up two hatches so I could see into passageways, and regaled me with tales of the conservation efforts. Then, the tour busses began arriving. I’ll write about the tourist industry later, but it was disturbing. I left to see the entirely silly Skaill House (home of the discoverer of Skara Brae, and part of the ticket) and had an uncomfortable hour waiting for the next local bus to arrive. 

Again, I was the only passenger.  As we waited for anyone else to climb aboard, the driver had a long conversation with one of the tour bus drivers, which I didn’t completely hear, but seemed to be a lament about the tchyoooo-wrissts. I wasn’t sure if this was for my benefit or not, but I didn’t care; I was too happy to have seen Skara Brae. Then, we pulled away, and went barreling through idyllic, beautiful countryside on a one-lane, two-direction road; there were frequent “passing places” – once a car, and later, a motorcycle, saw us coming and pulled into those and let us pass.  Then, suddenly, the bus pulled over, stopped, and the driver had about a five-minute cell-phone conversation. Then as he pulled away, he said something to me, and I moved closer so I could read his lips in the mirror.  He had a marvelous accent, some Scottish-isms but something else, too; his vowels were so round they could have rolled down a hill with enough steam to get them up the next.  It was lyrical.  He was making an apology for his phonecall, and talking about someone who was elderly and ill, and I expressed sympathy and then said, “There sure are a lot of bus tours” and that was that.  He went off, and we talked all the way to Stromness.  At one point, he said, “You aren’t like an American.”  He was so wonderfully opinionated that I wanted to needle him a bit, so I asked, “What are Americans like?” and he looked at me dourly and said, “Ahhhch!You know.” 

I wanted to get away from other tourists as well, to soak up Orkney itself, so that afternoon I bought a map, and found a four-mile shore walk. On the way there, through Stromness, I passed a tiny close; then I saw another, titled ‘Khyber Pass’, and grinned; I made a note to get a shot of the sign on the way back.  Near the Library, I saw another sign: ‘Hellihole Road’.  I laughed out loud, got out the camera, and just as I shot the photo, a man came out of the library, stopped, and stared at me.  I said, apologetically, ‘Well, I just can’t help it.’  He pointed past me and said, ‘And did you get the Khyber Pass?’  I said, ‘No, but I will,’ and he laughed; we stood in the street and talked.  He was retired from the post office, and he said that now, he did a lot of beachcombing.  He recommended the very walk I had decided to take. 

The walk was just the best thing I could have done; it was spectacular, along the southwestern tip of west Mainland, looking out over the Sound of Hoy to the dark, brooding mountains we’d passed on the ferry.  There was stiff, cool, constant, salty sea breeze, but warm sun.  I saw a whale spouting, saw its tailfins as it dove, was enchanted. At the end of the walk (a stonewalled graveyard, graves from the 1700s till now, all facing away from the sea), I took a twisty little footpath about another mile further, and found what must be the ‘Black Craig’ I’ve seen on the maps, a brooding, dark, rounded headland, an echo of Hoy. I found a bench at the very tip of the land, at one end of a dep curved bay, and sat there for a good long time at the end of the world, feeling the sun, the sea wind, and watching the tide race in.

I cried awhile.  There are so many border collies here. I thought about Face.  I thought about the job, how it, and the twelve years I spent believing I was working towards something good, is over for me, cut down in a day like a burnt house. I tried to think of what I might do now, and all I could find is that I want to live here, to have my days calmed to the rhythm of the tides, the endlessness of the sea, to live always in the presence of full and ancient time. I would live here, I would have Face back with me, and we would be young again, with our spry bodies, running over the hills and looking out towards an endless future …yes, I cried. Good crying, unashamed, the kind that waters the things that need to grow, within.

On the way back, almost to Stromness, a little, round old man stood staring out to the sound.  He looked towards me, raised his hand, beckoned.  I looked behind me, no one was there; he meant me. He beckoned again, urgently. I walked up to him and he pointed to the bay, said, ‘Look!  Look! Look there!  There is a seal.  Do you see him? Just there, his head is out. There. Now, do you know what a seal is?’  Immediately I thought of all the legends, the selkies, seal-men, seal-brides, but simply said, ‘Yes. Yes, I think I do.” And he nodded, said “Yes. They come here, you see, this time of day.  Sometimes it is there (pointing).  It depends on the direction of the wind.  Ah, he’s gone under now.  Watch for the wave that moves differently; they’re under there then.  You’ll see them.  Not long ago there were forty here.  Forty.  Just here.  Forty seals.”

I thanked him, he went on, and then, sure enough, I saw a wave move differently, then another, and then the gleaming heads poked up, stared back at me, dove under, resurfaced, staring at me, following me as I walked slowly past. 

There is magic here, there is room for grief, for sadness that is just another part of life, there is wonder, there is calmness, there is eternity and the capacity for and the promise of great, boundless joy.

***

The next morning, I brought a book down to read at breakfast, but while I was pouring some juice, someone said, “Well, hello!”  It was Claire, a New Zealander who’s been living in Australia. I’d met her two days before at the Inverurie train station while I was on a day trip; I’d seen her again in the Inverness station later that day, and she’d said she was headed up to Orkney.  She’d been going to Kirkwall, the bigger town, but after we talked, she’d decided to come to Stromness instead.  She ended up at the same B & B, in the next room! (And a lovely place it is, the best place I’ve stayed in, not the grandest but the most homelike: the Orca Hotel). Claire’s cure for the angst of a divorce was to embark on a five-month tour that began in Africa and will end in Sedona, Arizona, and will also include Ireland, France, Canada, and Alaska.  I admire this immensely. We hit it off immediately; she’s outgoing and very, very funny.  We planned to meet for dinner, then she headed for the Kirkwall bus, and I headed back five thousand years, again.

I spent the day walking near Stenness, the heart of neolithic Orkney (and a World Heritage area), and covered about eleven miles, back and forth.  The local bus dropped me about a half-mile from the Stones of Stenness. I saw that circle of megalithic stones, the Watch Stone, the Barnhouse neolithic village, the standing stones at Ness of Brodgar (which are in someone’s front yard!), the Comet Stone, the utterly spectacular, gigantic Ring of Brodgar stone circle, and the mounds and knowes that surround it, and then, finally made my way past the solitary Barnhouse Stone to Maes Howe, the remarkably preserved chambered tomb.  The only admission to Maes Howe is to pay for a guided tour, and I was really glad I did that.  Just as I walked up the hill, a woman named Jean was leading a group of folks, and she invited me to join them right then, and pay later.  She gave a great talk, and it was very clear that, like the young guide at Skara Brae, she’s immensely proud of and endlessly fascinated by her history, and it is hers; she was born here, her family’s been here for generation after generation. Her enthusiasm and detailed knowledge richly animated an already haunting place.  Her talk also made me very, very glad that I had chosen to see these sites this way, by walking to them.  I’d wanted to approach them on foot, to see them the way ancient people might have (ignoring the road, the fences and the few farmhouses), and the entire day was highly charged because of that. Orkney is treeless, so the sites are all visible from each other, located around a very narrow land bridge between the saltwater Loch of Stenness and the freshwater Loch of Harray, in a sort of huge natural ampitheatre.  The tall, rounded, shadowy mountains of the isle of Hoy, the highest in the Orkneys, across the sound from the shore I’d walked the previous afternoon, loom in the distance. There is a deep valley cleaving these mountains. In opposition to the white nights of summer, the winter days are dark, and the sun is low in the sky.  For a period of three weeks, with the winter solstice of December 21st in its center, the sun shines directly through the gap in the mountains of Hoy, strikes the Barnhouse Stone, and continues on up the long, low tunnel-like entryway to illuminate the back wall of the center chamber of Maes Howe.

All this hits me deep, somewhere essential, in a breathless way.  It moves me profoundly, as did walking Stenness.  Not only that, but walking let me see a curious fox, a huge group of swans, play games with lambs, watch the sky change and the light flit across the smooth green hills, meet a few cats, and it let me see the tour busses coming, and to avoid them and have time alone in each place.  I saw my bus driver from the previous day twice; once while he waited for a group at the Stones of Stenness (Ah!  And you are back again to see more of these old rocks, are you?) and a couple of hours later, he leaned out the window and waved wildly as he zoomed past me on my way to Maes Howe.

In Orkney, except when you’re in Stromness or Kirkwall where there are designated stops, if you want a bus, you simply flag it down.  The man who was taking the money for the Maes Howe tours checked the bus schedule for me, then showed me the best place to do that.  Fifteen minutes later, he came out again, and said, ‘I’m going to Stromness now, would you like a lift to the square?’  We talked about his son, who was going to New York for the second time, and about Edinburgh, where he was from. He said he visited once, and had to move to Orkney, even though he missed trees. I said I knew I had to come back to Orkney, and he said, “Ah.  It takes some people like that. You will be back. The man who has the Stromness bookstore is an American.  For him it was the same.”

Claire and I met up, had tea in her room, then went to the Ferry Inn and splurged.  I had fresh-caught Orkney prawns, about a dozen smaller tails the size of jumbo shrimp, and a big, whole one in the center.  They were utterly delicious, sweet, like lobster rather than shrimp.  We drank lemon, lime and bitters, which is what it’s called in New Zealand; in Orkney, it’s called Angus Juice.  And then we split a clootie dumpling (it’s a warm steamed cake, sort of like a very moist gingerbread, with chunks of soft dried fruit) with hand-whipped, unsweetened cream. It’s been something like 40 years since I’ve had anything like it. Then we bundled up against the sea wind, and went to go see if we could find the seals.  The round old man was there.  “Ah” he said, “you have returned. Just now there are two seals out there. Two. It is a cold wind tonight, but there are two seals.  Just earlier today, there were forty.  Forty.” And then he walked on.  We found one seal, who we named Black Dot, because he stayed just far enough away that even Claire’s great zoom lens would register nothing but that.  He was playing with her, poking his head out of the sea until she aimed the camera at him, then ducking under as soon as she did, and following us as we walked along the shore.  We got goofy, laughing, the light began to fade into dusk, and then suddenly we saw many seals, maybe even the forty, further out, leaping, playing, while Black Dot continued to follow us.  By then, we were chilled through, so after we walked the three-quarters of a mile back, we went to the fancy Stromness Hotel, and asked for hot chocolate in the bar; to the amusement of all there, but the bartender said he could arrange it and did.  We went back to the Orca, and I showed Claire some of my work, and we exchanged addresses, and planned to meet for breakfast.  It was well after midnight, and still there was some light in the sky.

Claire was already down when I went for breakfast; the hotel owner told us, in all seriousness, that we should have sung to the seals.  They’re very curious, she said, and singing fascinates them.  Then, sadly, I had to go pack up; Claire was staying another day, and went on to a tour.  I settled my bill, told the owner I had to come back, and she said, “Ah.  It takes some people like that. If it’s taken you, then you will be back.”  I stopped in a little knitwear shop, envied the beautiful sweaters and hats, and bought a small knotted wool brooch, like a sea creature, for myself, and one for a friend, and talked to the owner about George Bush, not my choice of subject. I reminded her that even if the vote was correct, it was 49% against him, 51% for, that half of us did not want him.  She said, and you were in the 49, I can tell. I told her I needed to come back soon.  She said, “Ah.  It takes some people like that.  You’ll be back, you’ll see.”

On the ferry, we were allowed out on the sun deck, three stories up.  The wind was fierce, and even though the sea looked calm, the salt spray soared up over the deck.  We moved through the Sound of Hoy, past the Black Craig which revealed its craggy face only from out to sea, and rounded the tall majestic cliffs of Hoy, past the Old Man; people surged outside with cameras, then quickly went back in to the bar or the restaurant or the lounge.  I stayed out on deck with two or three others, and thought about more recent history, about all the people who had immigrated from the highlands and islands during the clearances, as I watched Mainland Orkney and then Hoy grow smaller and smaller as they had done, and fade into the mist like a legend, shadowy but still, ever, present. 

Orkney is someplace I always wanted to visit.  Now, in all the uncertainty of my current life, I know one thing: Orkney is someplace I want to come to know, as well as I can.  It’s taken me, and I will be back.

Stromness, Victoria Street

House in Stromness

Skara Brae, House #1

One of the Stones of Stenness, more than three times my height, with the mountains of Hoy.

Beautiful Orkney sky, and Maes Howe, about 1/2 to 3/4 of a mile away. 

The misty isle of Hoy, receding.  

Mainland Orkney is behind it, nine miles from the coast of Caithness.  

I am back in Inverness for the night, and I am at a freakin’ McDonalds, drinking a barely-flavored watery hot chocolate, because they have free wireless.  So I’ve admitted to weeping in public, and I am enduring a place I’d never go to in the states.  The things I do for you, Blahg…

I leave tomorrow for Lewis, and I’m hoping it has island magic of its own.  I’ve always wanted to go there, too.  It’s a bus trip to Ullapool, and then a three-hour ferry crossing.  See you soon…

Me heid in Orkney sea wind.

 

White, Light Highland Night

So it’s my last night with assured wireless access, right here in my room, but I’m too (something) to write.  I’ve been doing, thinking, shooting so much that I can’t encapsulate small chunks of it. Part of this is the phenomenon of the highland nights.  It’s very very far north here, so there are ‘white nights’ in the summers.  From late June to early August, the highlands and northern islands get 19-20 hours of daylight, and it never really gets fully dark.  I’m here for the onset of that.  It gets dark a little after 11pm, very very slowly.  (It’s 10:45 now, and though I just turned on the light to keep typing, the sky is still that just-after-sunset deep blue, with a slight pinkish glow towards the horizon, light enough to clearly see the darker blue clouds there). I’ve been getting up at 7 for the great Scottish breakfasts, and the sun is already high in the sky by then.  This makes for fantastic long evening shadows, gorgeous golden evening light…but it plays tricks on your body clock, and I think mine’s catching up with me today.

In the morning, I go even further north and off the top of Scotland to mainland Orkney.  It’s supposed to be ‘one of the world’s great train journeys’, and then the ferry.  Though I may be a little too late in the spring for it, I am so, so, so hoping to see another atmospheric phenomenon, the aurora borealis, the northern lights…that’s been a lifelong wish.

 

 

 

A Bit Aboot Edinburgh

I’ll backtrack a bit, with a few things about Edinburgh:  It’s a little like going to New York city, if you can imagine Manhattan built on steep little mountains, and begun well before the twelfth century; it’s just constant motion, a lot o’ lot o’ people all on the move.  Its streets are also canyons, of stone rather than concrete.  It was once a walled city and the later building kept to that tradition; the blocks are solid masses.  In Old Town, they’re punctured by narrow closes, passageways to the walled interiors, which are courtyards, sometimes more shops, often gardens, or wynds, narrow twisting alleyways, often with stairs to accommodate the land. Yet almost all of it closes down at 5pm, except for the pubs and some of the restaurants.  It was a big deal to find the internet café, and to have it be open till nine.  It’s bustling. It’s big.  I stayed mostly central; my B & B was on the far edge of New Town, near Cannonmills, and I didn’t get much further south of Old Town than Lauriston.  I didn’t get to Leith and the waterfront at all (think Irvine Welsh), though I’d planned to.

It’s gorgeous, like nowhere else on earth.  It’s crass with wall-to-wall made-in-China tartan tchotchke shops in old town, and tours and tour buses, and it’s peaceful and lovely in its version of Central Park, the Princes Street Gardens, a natural valley dominated by the Castle.  The Scots do gardens very, very well, formal or informal; they take them seriously and they’re made for the eye, whether distant or close, and lovingly tended, though they contain way too much bad, highly sentimental monumental sculpture and downright goofy ornate fountains. Gardens and huge parks are all over the city, and the people are out using them.  And even houses that may have less than three square feet of open space have something growing in that space.

Actually, everything in Old Town is dominated by the castle, high on its central rock.  It’s magnificent, foreboding, stately and a little eerie.  I am still fascinated by how it just grows right up out of the bare rock.  And down past New Town, at the far end of the botanic gardens, miles away, the castle still ruled over the landscape, as I sat and watched about 15 swans gliding in a serene, gigantic, green and lovely park.  Here are a few photos of all of that:

Old Town

 

Faod mi mo choimpiutair chleachdadh an seo?

(Can I use my computer here?)

I am in the Highlands.  This is why I came.  

I’m in Inverness (Inbhir Nis), where I just now got access (for the past two days there’s been something wrong with the wireless where I’m staying).  Yeah, you can get online at the library free, but you’re limited to two separate 15 minute sessions per day, and there are no usb ports there to upload a blahg from.  Otherwise, access is outrageously expensive…the going rate translates to $1 for 5 minutes!  I have wireless for one more night, and then I’m off to Orkney.  Then back to Inverness, but to a different, cheaper guest house, then to Lewis, and then back again.  Inverness is ‘the capital of the Highlands’, and all the railway & bus lines end up here, so it’s my base. Except when I go to the islands, I’m sleeping here & making day trips with my nifty rail, bus and ferry pass.

My response to being here again is so huge and exquisite and multifaceted that I can’t find words for it.  But it’s ongoing, and it began shortly after the train left Edinburgh and the city dissipated and the hills began to appear…and then the first bilingual town sign.  We went up through the Cairngorms, and since my words won’t work, I’ll show you the trip, shot from the train windows. Missing from the sequence of landscapes are patches of forest before the mountains and after.

First, my last walk down…and then back UP…this hill in Edinburgh.  I was staying at the very bottom.  Trust me, this photo doesn’t convey the grade.  But, there was a nice view of the Firth of Forth in the background, to commemorate by last Edinburgh day.

There were fields and field of this bright yellow stuff planted in the farmland…the darker yellow on the hill is (I think) gorse…it’s blooming everywhere.

The hills begin.  My heart beats a little faster, or fuller, or deeper…

…and then the forests start, and while we’re hurtling through dense trees, the hills grow.

Somewhere in the forested part, we passed the Grampian mountains, and then we headed into the strange, moody, deceptively desolate Cairngorms.  The sky did its thing, set the stage:

And on into Inverness.

The River Ness (yep; it flows out of Loch Ness, six miles away).

Chi mi dh’aithghearr sibh!

(See you soon).

 

 

 

 

Fastest Blog (Somewhere) In The World

I’m having great fun in Edinburgh, except for one nagging fact. The universe doesn’t want me to be online unless I pay at least £2 (a little over $4) an hour, which I’m doing at the Easy Internet Cafe on Rose Street.  I chose the guest house I’m staying in because it has wireless; it does.  The wireless hardware recognizes it and says I’m connected, but the two browsers I have on my MacBook keep telling me I’m not online.  I know I can connect in the UK, because I’ve just come from a Starbucks, where I tried three different methods to get T-Mobile to accept some kind of exhorbitant payment.  It wouldn’t let me, but it was a web site and I did get there.  Easy Internet Cafe has no wireless, but about 150 PCs, and that’s what I’m using. Sigh.

I can live without publishing a blog for three weeks, but this situation is a wee bit scary because all of Scotland does its bookings online, and it’s cheaper than doing it by phone or in person.  So I’ve got to do a lot of that tonight, and I’ll have to figure out my entire itinerary tomorrow. I won’t be able to wing it as I love to do and planned to do.  Sigh.

Edinburgh otherwise is a hoot.  It’s beautiful, fascinating, steeped in history but totally contemporary, hilatiously funny, and both dignified and utterly crass. I wouldn’t have crossed the pond just to visit here, but it’s a good starting point.  (It’s a good starting point physically as well – I have some serious daily climbs and oh, do I feel old.  My legs HURT). I’m taking manymanymany photos, but they don’t do the place justice, can’t convey the scale of things.  And, I won’t get to see everything I wanted, because I’ve got to use most of the rest of my time here to plan the rest of the trip.  Sigh.  I hate having to do that, but the fact that connecting is so tough in a major city has convinced me.  I’m going to places where the major cities might have a few hundred people, so if it’s difficult here it could be impossible in the Orkneys.  I hope I’m proved wrong.

Wish me well, and watch for photos – LOTS of photos – around the first part of June.  Or, if I’m proved wrong – and it would be lovely to be proved wrong – a bit before.  I’d better go make practical use of my ££s.  I just wanted you to know I haven’t fallen off the face of the earth, just migrated.