Daily Archives: November 4, 2022

To the East, no West

As always, we arrived at our destination with no plan, no parkup, not even a decision on whether to go East or West off the ferry.

No matter which way we go we’ll be joining the North Coast 500, a scenic loop around the highlands that attracts thousands of tourists every year, many in campers and RVs. We’re not excited about joining a procession of holiday-makers but it’s inevitable that we’ll run into some crowds.

We chose to get the most touristy thing out of the way first and turned East toward John O’Groats, the northernmost point of mainland Scotland. It’s not really — Dunnet Head claims that distinction — and it’s funny that we traveled south to get there, but it’s a significant Point of Interest on the NC 500 map with the usual souvenir and ice cream emporia separating tourists from their money.

Photo op achieved, we turned against the flow and headed westward. I was monitoring a couple of online sources and found NC 500 tourists spend as few as four days to complete the 516 mile loop, with a week or two the average, and clockwise as the preferred direction. We Escapees have of course chosen the opposite direction.

To our surprise and delight we passed very few vehicles those first couple of days. After months in Shetland and Orkney we were used to empty roads but we welcomed the trees and patches of forest.

For some inexplicable reason Google Maps navigated us off the main road and down a steep and narrow lane to the shore of a loch. I could almost be convinced that Google Maps has learned our preference for end-of-the-road destinations because this is not the first time we’ve been guided off a perfectly good route and down a challenging track, often ending in an unexpected and beautiful place.

Luckily the little lane lead us back up to the main road where we took full advantage of every scenic overlook.

A couple of short drive days brought us to this perfect parkup overlooking the beach at Durness. That night it became one of our favorite parkups ever.

A few weeks earlier we’d had a text from a friend asking if we’d seen the northern lights. Apparently there was strong aurora activity on the nights surrounding my birthday in mid-August and the lights were visible all the way south to England. We had no idea the aurora would be visible here, and I kicked myself for not knowing because we were in Orkney at the time, a place with little light pollution and clear horizons.

Since then I downloaded four apps to monitor the skies and set up alerts on my phone. As darkness fell at Durness my phone pinged and I set about searching online for tips on how to photograph the northern lights. While Jack slept I positioned our camera outside the van and attached my phone to the driver’s side window, both set for timelapse according to the online suggestions. It was freezing and I sat inside in my puffy jacket watching the sky. Ping, ping, ping!

And there it was, the Aurora Borealis, a lifelong bucket list item. We were far south, relatively speaking, so the lights only ranged 30-40° above the northern horizon, but the night was clear, there was minimal light pollution and for once Scotland didn’t obscure the sky with clouds.

I woke Jack and he took a quick look, oohed and ahhed for a minute or two then crawled back under the warm duvet. I think his bucket list runs more to the F1 race at Silverstone but I was in heaven.

It took a few tweaks but I got my first Aurora video on the iPhone. I’m hooked!

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Last tango in Orkney

In three days the ferry will take us back to mainland Scotland and we suspect there are many things Orkney has not yet revealed. We start with the Orkney Museum in Kirkwall. We’ve walked past its beautiful arched doorway dozens of times but bad timing or a busy schedule made us say, ”maybe later.” Today will be later.

The museum tells the story of Orkney from the Neolithic period through the present. We’d already learned much of the history from other museums and visitors centers we toured, so most interesting to us here are the Kirkwall-specific exhibits and Orkney art and craft through the ages.

You’ll have to read about this one here. It’s worth it. I mean it.

This practical chair features a drawer on each side of the base, one side for a bible, the other for whiskey, which I think we can agree is the best way to study religion.

There are plenty of examples of the designs and writings of the Picts and the Vikings.

Marce’s favorite exhibit was learning to spell her name like a Viking might, to which she applied her considerable talents and energy.

There’s one Kirkwall parkup we haven’t tried yet, Scapa Beach, adjacent to a section of the St. Magnus trail. We followed the grassy track up to a sweeping overlook toward the Scapa Distillery. There’s that religion-whiskey intersection again. I think we’re finally starting to understand the essence of Scotland.

We agreed that for our last tango in Orkney we’d return to our favorite parkup behind the golf course along Hoy Sound.

It was a beautiful place to celebrate our 32nd anniversary.

On an evening walk we discovered that the old ruin near our parkup used to be a lifeboat station until they realized they could only launch the rescue boat during high tide. Oops. The station was relocated.

Tomorrow we’ll board the ferry to Scrabster and leave the northern isles of Scotland. It’s been a beautiful journey, enlightening, often surprising, the people warm and welcoming. We always found everything we needed or wanted, from camper supplies to gourmet cheeses. And the scenery never failed to take our breath away.

The next morning we said goodbye to Orkney, and as we rounded the tip of Hoy, we waved a final farewell to the Old Man.

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