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.
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.
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.