Barney Rubble meets Frank Lloyd Wright

We are drawn to parkups on a cliff overlooking a fine sea view. Preferably free. Marce sussed one out near some ruins that wasn’t too far away and had no problem with overnight parking. I slipped Escape Velocity into first gear and we were off even though both parkups in Kirkwall sported good views and are an easy walk into a charming village shopping district.

We were met with the usual single lane stop-and-go madness that we’ve become so accustomed to. Pulling into the gravel parking lot we quickly realized that no serious attempt had been made to level the place so we immediately commenced doing the Marce shuffle. What is the Marce Shuffle you ask? First practiced while dropping EV’s anchor in any harbor only to be assured that 25’ over to the right would be much better. Repeat several times until tempers fray. Usually mine.

Repeatedly leveling a three and a half ton camper van with two little plastic ramps is as crude a way to adjust the attitude of your home as you’ll ever find. Turns out we’re pretty good at it but the real trick is to read the lay of land, or parking lot, aye and there’s the rub. Much discussion ensues. Twentyfive feet over there would’ve been perfect, can’t you see how it levels off over there?

The view is beautiful but the ruins are hidden behind a wall and they want to be payed to be seen.

And while embarrassingly, rule #2 definitely applies, we had seen some magnificent sites recently and from the looks of the ruins beyond the wall it seemed well, just your average orderly pile of stones.

The following morning during breakfast Marce looked up and said, “Hey, aren’t we members in good standing of that Historic Scotland thing?” Step right up the ticket lady said, “No payment required for you.”

Let this be a lesson for all you thrillseekers. Rule #2 is insidious, and it’s so easy to fall prey. Turns out the Iron Age village of Broch of Gurness is very interesting, quite well preserved, and beautifully sited at the end of a grassy peninsula.

This is thought to be the first use of built in furniture and dressers with shelves, kind of like Barney Rubble meets Frank Lloyd Wright.

You’d have to call this a short drop

As it turns out the Gurness Village was a fascinating ruin and was similar to several brochs on either side of the Eynhallow sound. It’s certainly more domestic than defensive.

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A temporary home

After visiting the Ring of Brodgar we realized our No-Plan Plan would not serve us well in a place we knew very little about. We drove the 20 minutes back to Kirkwall — this is a small island — to visit the tourist office and get some guidance. I listened intently to the data dump from the guy at the desk but I could see Jack glaze over around the start of the paragraph two. I gathered up the pile of brochures, maps, ferry schedules and facilities lists and we went back to the van to assess and regroup.

We found a free parkup right in the center of town. Oddly enough it’s equivalent to a Walmart parking lot, but if you play your cards right and get there early you get the spot on the end adjacent to a lake. Even with a couple of motorhomes parked on the other side, it’s absolutely quiet overnight and easy to forget you’re within a 3-minute walk of a Tesco, a Lidl and a Co-op.

Free parkup at Tesco.

We also learned of a campground around the corner where we can either stay overnight or just pay a small fee to use the facilities. Now we have three legal places to stay in town, two of them free, and we embraced this opportunity to get to know a town. We’ve missed that.

First we needed to check out all the various food and specialty shops, then find a cafe to call home. The cafe was easy. How can you pass up The Archive, housed in the former town library? You can’t. And lucky for us, the food is great. I can’t count the number of times we ate there. Jack ordered the same thing every time (Eggs Benedict) but I tried every vegetarian item on the menu.

Next we followed a self guided walking tour that took us to to St. Magnus Cathedral and along some interesting streets and alleyways until we got distracted by local shops offering Fair Isle knitwear (we admired but didn’t buy) and anything you can imagine with a puffin on it.

We found a laundry to wash and dry our bundle in a couple of hours for a reasonable fee. Jack bought a long-searched-for coffee scoop that judging from the price is apparently museum quality. I found a shop with locally grown organic produce whose owner swapped us a better shower head out of his own motorhome.

One Saturday we stepped into a doorway to make way for traffic. A delivery van stopped next to us and our shopkeeper friend rolled down the window.

“The sourdough’s in the back,” he told us. We followed the van to the store and bought enough still-warm baked goods for a family of eight.

We found the zero meridian that 18th century cartographer Murdoch MacKenzie established before there was any national reference point for navigational charts. One hundred and one years later the UK decided the prime meridian should be at the Royal Onservatory in Greenwich and of course the rest of the world accepted that standard. MacKenzie’s original point now lies at about 3°W longitude.

We explored the harbor, the distillery, and just about every street in town during our many visits back to the place. Kirkwall became our Orkney home.

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Those real go-getters

Yours Truly has been known to reconnoiter in order to find one’s bearing’s before heading out on a expedition but there will be no lollygagging this morning, not even a leisurely cup of coffee. We’re hunting Orkney’s UNESCO World Heritage site and it’s not far. It’s called the Ring of Brodgar and it’s what to do when in Orkney.

The Ring is roughly some five thousand years old, older than the great pyramids of Egypt and Stonehenge, and it’s one of the largest stone circles in Great Britain. Before crossing a short causeway to the Ring you’re confronted with a massive standing stone called the Watchstone, just…well, standing there watching, stoically.

Back in Escape Velocity we quickly found the proper car park and started the hike up a gentle slope to the stones. Ok, let’s agree to call it the Ring.

The stones get larger and larger as you walk up and not quite as regular as you might expect.

Staff remarks that it doesn’t line up with anything at the solstice or equinox or any other time of year for that matter. Turns out the Ring and grounds were used as a tank practice course during World War II and that may account for some wonky alinement.

Hard to imagine

It’s thought that some 60 standing stones were originally erected but today there are only 36, and of those 21 are still standing. Thirteen were re-erected in 1906.

The stones are buried surprisingly shallow with little more than 18cm under ground.

Four large mounds at 90 degrees to each other surround the ring.

Apparently not having had enough, we shuffled a mile down the road to the Stones of Stenness, four massively tall standing stones, even older than the Ring of Brodgar. Can we even say it’s a ring or circle with only four standing stones? Let’s call them the Stenness Group.

Once again no one has any idea of why, or how, or what was the purpose of this ring of standing stones, leaving us clouded in befuddled mystery. No human remains or evidence of human activity, have ever been found inside the rings.

So in conclusion I’d like to suggest for the future that we humans always, without fail, LEAVE INSTRUCTIONS.

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Passage planning

We went back to Lerwick to spend a little more time in the charming Shetland capital and to cement our relationship with new friends Judy and Victor. Now that we found a safe and convenient place to park the camper, we were much more relaxed about staying overnight this time.

We did little more than eat, walk, swap life and boating stories, eat more. We were booked on the ferry to Orkney so these few days of getting to know like-minded people were precious to us. Jack and I both acknowledged how much we miss our cruising community. We have all lived a life that’s sometimes difficult for others to relate to or appreciate so spending time with other cruisers is almost like being able to speak your native tongue again after a period of struggling with the nuances of a foreign language.

Of course we sought out the location of BBC’s Shetland main character Jimmy Perez’s house along the waterfront and just generally enjoyed this charming, quirky town. We wished we’d discovered the parkup option earlier in our Shetland visit. We’d have enjoyed more time in Lerwick inbetween our journeys to more remote places.

And then it was time to go. We boarded the Northlink ferry for the five-and-a-half hour journey to Orkney. Per Escape Velocity protocol, we had no plan, no foreknowledge of our destination, no idea where we’d park up when we arrived — and we would arrive at 11:30pm — and believe it or not we hadn’t driven the campervan in the dark yet.

As soon as we got back online when the ferry docked we managed to navigate just a few miles to a harbor-front car park where we figured we could at least get some sleep and make better decisions in the morning. We parked, got the fridge turned back on, then took a long look out the front window. What a beautiful welcome to Orkney!

The morning coffee view was just as good, and even better when the Mrs. Chips food truck showed up offering egg and bacon sandwiches about 50 feet away. This is destined to be one of our favorite parkups in Orkney, one we’ll return to again and again.

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Scalloway

The small town of Scalloway is the former capital of Shetland and we bypassed it a few times for the reason we wrote about before — lack of convenient or adequate parking. Jack was keen to see the castle so we squeezed ourselves into the compact museum car park and toured the museum, walked around the castle (closed, of course) and did a quick wander through the village.

The museum is mostly about Scalloway’s seafaring history with a particular emphasis on the World War II operation called the Shetland Bus which established a link between Shetland and German-occupied Norway to transport agents back and forth and supply the Norwegian resistance with weapons and supplies, using fishing boats at first, then later more purpose built boats.

Ever since the Viking times there’ve been close connections between Shetland and Norway and many of the tourists we encounter in Shetland are Norwegian.

Jack explored the perimeter of the castle, one of only two in Shetland. Both were designed and built in the late 16th century by Andrew Crawford with similar elements in the corner turrets. You might remember we stayed overnight in the shadow of the other one, Muness Castle, on the isle of Unst.

The rest of Scalloway was quiet and mostly devoid of the shops and cafes that keep us interested.

We did find an intriguing plaque that reads, in part:

“GERMAN THEORIES CONTROVERTED. GERMANS Are Not The Favoured of Heaven.”

This, of course, sent me to Google. The plaque is about earth tides which I’d never heard of, and the plaque was created in 1910 by a stone mason and amateur scientist named William Johnson who apparently had a bone to pick.

If you want a quickie explanation try the link above. For a deep dive down the rabbit hole of William Johnson and his theories, this one is the way to go.

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Time runs short

We already pushed back our Orkney ferry reservation once, and in retrospect probably should have again. As time grows short and we look at the map, we see how much we’ve missed in Shetland. It’s a small place, you’re thinking, but our mode of travel isn’t really touring in the traditional sense. We just like to be in a place, listen to the sounds, feel the rhythms of the days. If we don’t do anything special in a particular place it’s ok. It’s enough to observe the play of light on the hills, the behavior of the wildlife, the routines of the locals, and the bustling activity of holiday makers. We’ve slowed down quite a bit in our dotage, but our enjoyment of new places hasn’t waned in the least. Traveling in our home gives us the luxury of stopping to appreciate a place for as long as we like.

After the challenging hike in Muckle Roe we needed to recuperate. We drove south again toward Burra and Minn Beach.

Dedicated viewers of the BBC TV series “Shetland” will recognize Minn Beach as a dramatic location at the end of season 7.

This is an unusual tombolo because one side of it is rocky, the other sandy. I walked to the other end on legs still wobbly from Muckle Roe and thought with the color and clarity of the water it could be anywhere across the tropical Pacific Ocean….

….until you see the ubiquitous thistles and feel the 50°F/10°C air temperature.

We found ourselves near the churchyard where a ninth century Pictish stone was found in 1877. The original is in a museum in Edinburgh but this replica fascinated us. The style of the art is unique and we’re convinced the figures at the bottom were the inspiration for the Spy vs. Spy characters in Mad Magazine.

In a change from the many homebake honesty boxes we found a very well stocked free library on the road.

We spent a few days at a small marina where we could empty the tanks that needed emptying and fill the ones that needed filling. The boats were local workboats and one afternoon I watched a little drama in the harbor. A man was working on his boat while his dog sat on the dock. Every few minutes the boatman called to the dog, but the dog remained stubbornly glued to the dock.

I could see in the dog’s eyes he was never going to get on that boat. Eventually the man gave up with a shrug and walked the dog back along the length of the dock to his truck.

It was about this time I thought I’d take a walk and as I passed the truck the fisherman motored up to the pier and tied up.

The dog was sitting in the passenger seat of the truck, shamefaced. “He’s a wimp and he knows it,” says Jack.

I called out to the fisherman, “You’ve lost your crew!”

“Aw, he hates the boat,” he called back. “He never wants to come aboard.” At least I think that’s what he said. The Shetland accent is challenging.

He told me he was just prepping for the next day when he’d collect his catch and haul it off to market. He’d only be out for a short time and he assured me the dog will be fine waiting in the car. Most of the work will be done in the morning and when I asked what time he said, “Seven-thirty, maybe eight.”

“Oh,” I said, assuming all fishermen went out at dawn. “Not so early.”

He laughed. “I’m retired.” It sure looked like work to me.

The next morning as I drank my coffee I watched him sort, weigh, and pack crate after crate of fish. When he drove the boat around to the pier to load the truck I walked over for a chat. He told me about the fishing grounds and the new regulations from Brexit and how he catches the fish. I got maybe half of what he said, the Shetland accent being what it is.

He showed me his catch, and told me it was a good amount. I was happy to hear that, because so many areas of the world have suffered from overfishing.

While I was pestering the fisherman, Jack was watching the other side of the dock where a half dozen carloads of kayakers had shown up the night before and were now preparing to launch.

Kayaking is very popular here, and we’re amazed at all the specialty clothing and gear involved in outfitting and transporting a modern sea kayak. These are very different from our beloved rotomolded sit-upon kayaks on Escape Velocity that we could just untie from the lifelines and drop over the side deck to launch. It took well over an hour for this crowd to get ready, and even after the kayaks were in the water they were in and out of the boats several times making adjustments.

All that scurrying and tweaking was worth it as we watched them glide out the channel toward the sea leaving barely a ripple behind.

With the fishermen gone, and the kayakers gone, it was just the two of us again, enjoying another beautiful Shetland day. How will we be able to tear ourselves away?

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On the road to Muckle Roe

I believe we’ve already discussed in a previous work my disdain for long hikes without a decent payoff. Marce assures me that at a certain point the path on Muckle Roe bifurcates making one loop shorter than the other and if we begin to flag we’ll take the low road. After all, it’s a tour of Muckle Roe Island, not a hike to anything specific. I think something about cliffs was mentioned. Now I’m nervous. I think, dear Escapees, we can all agree to call this rule #3. The hiking poles don’t come out until the payoff is identified. It’s a distance to payoff ratio thing.

Marce packed sandwiches, a banana, and water for lunch, something we’ve hardly ever done before. I said, “Surely we’ll be back before lunch.” She just smiled.

Scotland has a “trespass if you like” rule. I wonder what number that rule is? They find posting a sign redundant and they damn well aren’t going to tell you where to start. We wandered around a field, really somebody’s back yard but with sheep dung, until we found a likely looking track. It began with a steeply pitched slog up a hill paved with ballast rocks.

Heart dancing a quick tattoo, we climbed with hiking poles skidding off the rocks. Bleak desolation has a peculiar beauty and Muckle Roe has it in spades. We began to feel like we were the only two people alive in the world, an “On the Beach” moment.

Pretty sure the seven dwarves are buried here

A thought crossed my mind that it’s a very good thing there are no predators in Scotland because we’d be easy pickings out here. The quiet is deafening. Summiting the first major, let’s call it a mountain, we saw something awesome but terribly disappointing. The path continued to stretch out before us as far as the eye could see.

So far we couldn’t even see how far “far” was. Up and down we plodded. At every summit we faced the same awesome but spirit-crushing scene.

The path wound beautifully through the hills around little lakes and streams until bottoming out, and we trudged up again until it crested, offering another stab of disappointment.

Finally we found two large but pointy rocks to rest our shattered bodies on. It was about this time we heard something strange. Voices. A dozen or so people cheerfully gabbing while overtaking us at a relentless pace. I’m not ashamed to say we stared at them coming over the hill like they were the Wild Bunch. Turns out they were on a week-long guided tour, a kind of Holiday Walking Group. The guide stopped long enough to tell us some history of the village in this valley and admonished us that we really should have a map. We do. We also have lunch.

Not long after we did in fact miss a turn but it serendipitously led to a magnificent payoff and a sit down lunch.

With no idea which way to go, after lunch we promptly headed off in the wrong direction, due to our previously mentioned questionable turn, which took a while to correct. All we had to do now was repeat our day long slog in reverse.

You know how things look different going in the opposite direction? We knew we were close to the field where we started, but we realized we didn’t know which fork in the path to take to get back to Escape Velocity. Not being in the mood to wander aimlessly we were glad to see two young girls coming up the hill. They thought it was amusing that we could get lost so close to the car park and they got us turned around.

Boots off, feet up. Home never felt so good.

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Towning

Since we bought the campervan we’ve spent precious little time in cities or towns for the simple reason that parking a larger vehicle is challenging in this land of narrow lanes and small car parks. Before we enter a town I scour Google maps to find a likely place to park where there are either designated places for motorhomes or where we can reverse at the back of the lot and overhang to a grass strip or walkway. It’s possible to incur a fine for taking up two spaces, and at 20’ we’re just that little bit longer than a normal car space.

We wanted to explore Lerwick, the capital of Shetland, and couldn’t find any nearby overnight parkups but I did find a large municipal lot on the waterfront where we can spend the day for £4, then drive somewhere else for the night.

Lerwick is a compact town, all stone and tides and flowers, with a selection of cozy cafes, shops, and narrow alleys to explore.

We found the perfect throw pillow to remind us of our time at Sumburgh Head.

On our way to the museum we stopped to chat with the owners of an unusual motorsailor we’d noticed earlier. They are Americans and just arrived from the Faroe Islands. We were excited to indulge in some sailor talk after so long and agreed to meet later for more, depending on our parking situation.

At the museum we watched as a young crew readied a replica boat for its maiden voyage.

The name of this traditional fishing boat reminded us we have unfinished business in Shetland. The island of Muckle Roe awaits.

We’re surprised at the number of cruising sailboats crowding the small harbor, with boats two, three, and even four deep in some places. Most are from Norway, Sweden, and the Netherlands. There are also near daily cruise ships, tour boats, and classic training ships to watch coming and going. Add in the constant ferries from near and far and you’ve got a busy port. We love it.

Toward the end of the day I spied a parking official on the wharf and asked for clarification on the rules. He looked at Escape Velocity and assured me we could absolutely spend the night, and so we had a fun evening on the harbor front, and the next day we met up with our new cruising friends, Judy and Victor, for brunch. It’s always a joy to immediately bond with people you meet by chance in unusual places. We promised to return to Lerwick and meet again before long.

Now it’s off to Muckle Roe for the escapees. Adventure awaits.

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We don’t do re-dos

We decided long ago that Rule #1 is “we don’t go back.” There are so many amazing things in this world to see and so little time or energy to experience them that going back to someplace we’ve already been to doesn’t make sense. For example, we skipped the Bahamas when we first started sailing because we thought it’s too easy, too expensive, too many islands, just too too. We’ll catch it on the way back. Turns out we never had the chance to enjoy the Bahamas on the way back in. The system isn’t perfect.

Lighthouses were the first to break Rule #2. I remember we used to seek them out, drive for miles, hike the inevitable hill up to the site and breathlessly climb the spiral stairs to the top. Yep, look at that view from up here! We’d take the shot then discuss on the drive home whether the one before was better.

Rule #2 has always been some version of “don’t become jaded or blasé.” It goes something like “I don’t know which waterfall was better and why hike up to another if it’s not supposed to be as beautiful as the last one?” We try not to do that.

Now, dear Escapees, we’ll move along to the point of this missive. While we were pondering, mouth agape, at the amazing Jarlshof Neolithic site we couldn’t help but notice, high above us, at the end of an endless peninsula, a lighthouse perched at cliff’s edge.

Very picturesque. But there’s a long and winding single lane road up to a parking lot in the sky and without passing areas on the way up, what does one do if one meets someone coming down while you’re trying to go up? Besides, we were tired and we still had to negotiate crossing the airport runway again, if you remember, and after all it’s just a lighthouse. A nice one maybe, but still just a lighthouse. At this point Dear Reader, and I’m not proud of it, you may want to refer back to Rule #2.

Weeks later Marce discovered that you’re allowed to park overnight in that car park in the sky, which changed the equation for us. While technically not an infraction of Rule #1, it’s close. On the other hand, there were rumors of puffins up there. After successfully crossing the airport runway again and winding our way up the one lane access road without once tumbling over the steep cliff (Marce’s greatest fear) we found ourselves trying to get EV level in the not-so-level paved parkup. Not a puffin in sight but there were new rumors of a nice cafe beside the lighthouse. While I wouldn’t even consider hiking up that mountain to climb those inevitable spiral stairs for a lighthouse, I would for a nice toasty cafe.

The hike up the mountain was quite relentless and I thought to distract Marce while grabbing a little breather by pointing out thousands of guillemots nesting on the cliffs below.

We were too far away to see the little tumblers though, and of course no puffins. When we finally got to the cafe it looked like a wildlife photographer convention with lots of camo and massive telephoto lenses. Those guys know a good feed when they see it. The wind was tossing gulls about as they tried to see what we were eating, many just hanging on the updrafts.

When we left the cafe I saw a raised wooden platform and imagined there must be a great view. We scrambled up the stairs and found puffins. Lots of puffins, just a few feet from us.

They seemed completely at ease with us in their midst, which may explain their dwindling numbers.

What a lucky find!

The trip down the hill strained the knees but as we approached EV we noticed our neighbor and fellow Adria owner Colin crouched up at the edge of the cliff with some serious gear. It turns out he’s a wildlife photographer and he was waiting for a baby puffin to come out of its burrow. Apparently he’d been waiting for quite some time. There are lots of ways to do this and we sat with him for an hour or so, just watching and talking, the puffins undisturbed by our presence. His wife Maureen joined us and we sat for awhile longer, enjoying the place and the company and the puffins until it was time for dinner.

At 3:52am Marce was awakened by the sunrise, got dressed and ran outside to capture the scene. At the same time the full moon was setting in the west.

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Gravity

Many of the other campervan and motorhome people we speak to have been to Shetland before, some many times. The place has a magnetic pull, and while we think we should be moving on, we just can’t seem to tear ourselves away. We love driving the one lane roads, rounding a bend or cresting a hill and finding a breathtaking vista laid out before us. We love poking along two-track dirt roads to find a parkup overlooking a beach where we can spend a day or two watching the tide come and go. We love discovering out-of-the-way honesty boxes and we’re reminded every time that there are still places in the world where the first instinct isn’t to steal or cheat. It’s been months since we’ve seen any graffiti, unless you count the rare 11th century runes carved by Vikings here and there.

Don’t get me wrong. Neither of us is thinking of relocating to Shetland. The weather is challenging for those of us used to living in T-shirts and shorts. The near-constant wind can be wearing even for us sailors. Nevertheless we often find ourselves silenced by the raw beauty of the landscape, delighted by unexpected sightings of seals or otters, humbled by ruins and standing stones erected thousands of years ago by people we think of as primitive, and warmed by the kindness and easy humor of today’s Shetlanders.

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