Monthly Archives: September 2022

The Black Arts of Birsay

We heard about a magnificent renaissance palace called the Earl’s Palace in Birsay. Being out this way we thought it might be worth a nosey and, located in a small village, it ought to be easy to find. I found a parking spot near by, we started to wander around the village and before long, down a tiny alley, there it was dwarfing the rest of the village.

Turns out our old friend Black Lord Robert Stewart built this palace in four years starting in 1569. Short reminder: this Earl Robert was the illegitimate son of King James V, much unloved and in fact reviled. He built this monument to his royal pretensions and the tyrannical oppression of his people.

The blackness of Lord Robert’s reputation faded into a paler shade of grey beside his son Patrick Stewart who soon officially took over as Earl around 1600. Patrick, if you remember, built that splendid castle in Scalloway and dear Escapees a magnificent palace in Kirkwall, on our agenda soon.

When you enjoy a reputation as bad as the Stewarts, whether you’re building a castle or a palace, you’d build in as many arrow ports and defensive devices as they did.

Spiral staircase leading up to the Earls bedroom

These were unsettled times, it seems, and bad karma eventually caught up with Patrick and his son Robert after an unpopular revolt against King James VI went pear-shaped. By 1614 the Palace was seized and so were their heads.

Ironic that Marce found an honesty box just across the alley from Black Lord Robert’s Palace. This one featured pickles and condiments in addition to the usual sweets and Marce bought several jars for the pantry.

Gun ports pointed right at her.

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Trail of the Gods

Feet up on the co-pilots seat, the campervan equivalent of a La-Z-Boy, sans TV but with a stunning azure ocean view under the ancient gaze of the Broch of Gurness, we sat slowly sipping a handmade cup of our new favorite LavAzza coffee, rated a 5 on the UK intensity scale. They rate nearly everything on a strength scale, even cheese. Well, around here it’s going to be cheddar. Nearly all cheese around here is going to be cheddar, and the best would be a mature cheddar, crumbly and as my dear wife calls it, rat cheese.

As it turns out, I would suggest a good idea might be to rate the payoff at the end of some of these brutally long slogs we’ve done. You’ll remember we agreed to call it Rule #3. No long hikes without a great payoff. Even better, a short hike with a great payoff. An example of a #2 on the intensity scale might be a nice, let’s say, waterfall, 15 minutes from a nice park-up. Not an Aussie 15 minutes which would be a more realistic half hour but close enough that you can hear the water splashing, and not some rock strewn Muckle Roe endless torture of a hike with a nice charming payoff. If I’m being honest, how does one apologize for leading people over that terrain just for “nice?”

So where was I? Oh yes, feet up with a mug of hot LavAzza contemplating an overall strategy for touring Orkney. After careful consideration we go for the tried and true, coddiwompling, and the west coast looks promising. First we find a righteous parkup because a great parkup is well over half the pleasure of this game.

After the usual stop and go single lane shuffle we pulled into a paved hilltop lot crowded with lots of families in all kinds of vehicles. It was far from ideal. Now is when we apply Escape Velocity’s most winning strategy. We wait until they all go away, which usually works rather well. This is far from our usual choice of parkup which is normally remote with no lines painted on asphalt. But this is still a unique site.

At first glance you notice a nasty rip tide current boiling between where we are, high above the channel, and several hundred meters across is Birsay, a nondescript grass covered lump of a currently uninhabited island with some old stone ruins, circa 1,000AD with a lighthouse on top, circa 1925. It is high tide and the current is racing through. On closer inspection, shimmering below the surface you can barely make out a slightly paler zig zag pattern two meters wide stretching all the way to Birsay.

Obviously this would go better at low tide. Now we wait in ernest.

As the tide drops lower, a few thrill seekers tentatively test the waters and wisely give up. This is Scotland, there are no railings, you are expected to assess the situation for yourself.

By late afternoon the seas had parted, exposing the walkway and people had begun to go forth, including Marce who decided to tour the whole island while I reviewed Rule #3.

I eventually succumbed to peer pressure and crossed over the walkway and found it kind of creepy but fun. Greeted by many orderly piles of stones delineating the approximate size and shape of the extensive buildings that were once here, we wandered around until it was obvious that the incoming tide would soon put an end to our self-guided tour.

There were plaques with the phone number of the coastguard in case you’ve lost track of the time and didn’t make it across before the rising tide made it impossible to cross. Not that they were planning to do anything about it.

By evening the lot was nearly empty and we had a quiet, peaceful and very dark night.

The next day dawned sunny but windy so that makes two sunny days in a row, most unusual. Planned was a hike through the geo riddled coast,

past a small fishing village where they hauled their boats up the cliffs, nesting them in depressions.

We hiked all the way out to the famous whale bone.

And that dear Escapees is a full lid.

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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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