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.


7 thoughts on “Orkney Magic

  1. Wow. I am unspeakably glad that you get to be there and have that kind of time. I feel like you’ve done and been through things in just days that take other people a lifetime.

  2. hi melissa, i wanted to read a little about your adventures in scotland and it sounds amazing… i’m sorry about face…. i really admire your strength.

  3. O my goodness, what a gorgeous, poignant account. Yr thots & life perspective vignettes interspersed with briny or stoney nature scenes.

  4. Oh how you made me miss home. I cried. You discribed it exactly. I can taste the sea, feel the wind and a sense of deep pride and love rises in me as I read this (for the second time) Thank you.

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