Wednesday, 17 August 2016

On first, off last

The winds gods giveth, and the wind gods taketh away. The westerlies of my first day in the Orkneys were replaced by winds out of the South East or the South-South East. This was more or less exactly the least useful direction for me. My plan for Monday was to go to the Broch of Gurness followed by the Brough of Birsay, then loop back via the Stones of Stenness. This meant a return against the wind which is the least desirable situation.

I did it anyway. The Broch of Gurness while not as high as the one on Lewis, was interesting because of the collection of surrounding buildings and its location guarding a strait which would have been a dandy place to keep an eye on incoming ships and extract a tax or two. The Brough of Birsay is a tidal island which housed first a Pictish settlement followed by a Viking one and then a monastery which may or may not have been connected to St Magnus. Nearby was the ruins of a late 16th Century palace built by Lord Patrick Stewart, a right royal bastard. More on him later.

As I began to head for Kirkwall, I stopped at a brewery and then a water powered grain mill. Both of these added to my load. The mill had two or three old millstones in the yard outside, so I asked the person showing me around how quickly the stones wore out. The answer was very slowly. One of the millstones in use dated back to the 19th century!

While the wind was contrary, the weather wasn't. The Sun came out from behind the clouds and stayed visible. I actually had to apply sunscreen. I even wore a biking jersey that wasn't Merino!

Going back to Kirkwall was the expected chore, however it was broken by a few incidents. Nearing the Ness of Brodgar, I noticed a car behind me and as I was near a good place to pull over, I did so and turned to wave the driver on. (Incidentally, the drivers are very polite and have never honked at me, except once and that was a double toot as the car was passing saying "Thank you, mate!" I have tried to return the courtesy.) In this instance, the woman driver didn't advance as she was waiting for a blockage further on to resolve itself. More on that later.

I stopped to give the Ness of Brogar another look. This time, the archaeologists were hard at work with trowels, notebooks and survey equipment that used lasers. I was tempted to ask if they could use a volunteer the next morning.

I then stopped at the Stones of Stenness and tried to put myself in the mindset of the builders. This was tricky as a pair of teenage brothers were wrestling nearby.

I was so tired as I got back to Kirkwell, I went straight to a pub for supper. As it was, I had been holding up traffic as I rode. I was, however, doing a better job of letting cars by than one or two of the other cyclists I saw going the way. I was not the only cyclist or cycle-tourist around.

Coming into the hostel, I stopped by reception to ask about leaving bags after I checked out the next morning for a few hours. The young woman behind the desk assured me that there would be no problem. She then said she had seen me on the road! It turned out she had been the driver I had tried to wave her past near the Ness of Brodgar!

At breakfast the next morning, I noticed a woman of about my own age sitting at a table industriously poking holes in a pile of Ziplock baggies marked with a felt tipped pen. I asked if they were samples which wasn't quite the right word  but that is the consequence of having a geologist for a dad. They were in fact artifact bags for an archaeological dig. Which dig? Ness of Brodgar. I expressed my envy of her!

I spent the morning in Kirkwall visiting the St Magnus Cathedral, the ruins of the Earl's and Bishop's palace.

The Earl in question was the previously mentioned Patrick Stewart, son of Robert Stewart bastard son of James V. Patrick Stewart ruled the Orkneys and the Shetlands harshly and badly generating numerous complaints from his use of kidnapping, extortion, torture and the like. It was not until he rebelled that his cousin, James VI had him and his son arrested, tried and put to death. As I said  a right royal bastard. He did have enough taste to put up a nice house, now ruined.

After doing the Kirkwall museum, I returned to the Hostel, retrieved my bags and set off for Burwick and my ferry for John O'Groats. I stopped for an audio-visual tour of the Highland Park distillery (which came with a wee dram). From then on it was a long, slightly grim plod against the wind and more hills than seemed strictly necessary. Neither the hills nor the wind was bad on their own, but together, they were a nasty combination.

I went over four causeways between islands that Churchill had ordered built to help keep submarines out of Scapa Flow. These Churchill Barriers were completed too late to be of much use in their designed function.

Part of the workforce consisted of Italian prisoners of war, whom it seems were given considerably leeway, doubtlessly because one of worst things the British could do to them was to leave them in the Orkneys! ;-)  Anyway, the British allowed them to convert two Nissen huts into a chapel, now called the Italian Chapel and like the Churchill Barriers, completed too late!

I arrived at the ferry terminal at about 4:30 for my 5:15 ferry. There was nobody around. After maybe ten minutes, a man showed up and sat on the pier waiting. The ferry arrived and two passengers got off with their bikes. I presented my e-ticket and oversaw Leonardo being hauled on board and lashed securely. I made my way to the boat deck and asked a crew member rather facetiously: "Is ferry always this popular?" It turned out that far from me being the only passenger, they were expecting about two hundred passengers in four coach loads! The reason there were only two passengers on the previous run was that it had been an informal run intended to re-position the ferry. The coaches arrived on schedule and disgorged their contents. The ferry was quite full and when we got to John O'Groats, I had to wait until they got off before manhandling Leonardo up the gangplank. First on, last off.

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