(But peat fires are delightful. I can attest to this, as I’m sitting in front of one in my hostel in Stornoway, on the Isle of Lewis. It’s minus-something outside, but toasty warm inside at last.)
You might’ve caught the news recently about the weather over here in the UK. Yes, winter has arrived with a vengeance; I wasn’t expecting sunshine and hot temperatures by coming over here this time of year, but I wasn’t banking on blizzards either! A little bit of rain, some grey skies ... now that I was prepared for, and that’s what I got for the first few days.
But overnight, it seems, things went from cool-ish fall weather to the depths of winter; I woke up one morning in Inverness, thinking how pretty it was with a few flakes falling from the sky. A day or two later, there were metres of snow blanketing the hills, ice coating the bare tree branches and the mercury plummeting well below zero. It’s a national state of emergency, practically, and BBC news has warned me repeatedly not to go outside or travel anywhere unless strictly necessary; yes, it’s that bad, apparently.
Well, it’s not, really. Oh, it’s cold, yes (minus 11 Celsius this afternoon), and there is snow everywhere, but that’s just normal winter. Trouble is, it came here much earlier than it usually does, and appears to have caught the country quite unprepared. Gatwick airport, at least, was closed today (not sure about the rest).
Scottish buses and ferries, however, still seem to be running just fine, so I’m still managing to get around. I left Inverness after visiting Culloden and spending another day touring around Loch Ness (alas, no sign of Nessie — perhaps she goes south for the winter), and made my way by train up to Thurso, the jumping-off point on the north coast for the Orkney Islands.
Thurso is a tiny little town and was quite dead even on a Saturday, so I hopped on a ferry the next day for Stromness, over on Orkney. Stromness is, if it`s possible, even smaller than Thurso, but very charming with its stone buildings and winding streets. Only trouble was, I arrived on a Sunday, when the whole of Orkneys essentially hibernates. Not to worry, I thought, and I spent a quiet night tucked up in my hostel in anticipation of lots of historical sight-seeing the next day; there are remnants of Neolithic communities on Orkney with some sites dating back 5,000 years. These little islands have been a hive of activity for millennia, and evidence of their past is all around; place names remind you that this was Viking land, as they mostly sound Scandinavian.
Well, the weather had other ideas; I woke up on Monday morning and headed out to catch the bus to Skara Brae, the largest Neolithic site on the islands, only to discover that it never showed up. Called for a taxi next (there`s no way I was driving, when I haven`t driven in snow for years and never on the wrong side of the road), only to be told by the guy at the taxi firm that the site was probably closed on account of the weather. Kind soul that he was, he rang them for me and called me back to tell me the bad news: nothing open on Orkney that day, I`d have to try again the next day. Or whenever the winds and the snow decided to stop.
|Ring of Brodgar, Orkney Islands|
Not to be deterred, I decided to go visit the open-air sites; there are the “Standing Stones of Stenness”, with 4 stones out of original 12 remaining, and the much larger Ring of Brodgar, a henge like its more famous English cousin at Stonehenge (but older). The Orkney Museum in Kirkwall (the islands’ capital) puts things in perspective with a timeline showing Orkney events in parallel with world events; the sites on Orkney pre-date the pyramids in Egypt by about one thousand years.
The open-air sites are fascinating, and worth the hike; on a fine day, it would have been a lovely walk. As it was ... well, add snow, and freezing wind that changes direction every minute, and it became significantly less fun. But it’s beautiful landscape, very stark and rocky and dramatic — rendered even more so when windswept and icy.
Going indoors in Kirkwall to check out the 12th century cathedral of St. Magnus was better suited to the weather, and I got a kick especially out of reading the melodramatic inscriptions on the 16th century gravestones lining the walls. (Here’s a sample: “Corps rest in peace in this wormie clay, / til Christ sal raise thee to a glorious day.”) There’s a tapestry hanging on one of the Cathedral walls that reminds you just how much history is here; it was presented by the Queen Mother on the occasion of the Cathedral’s 850th anniversary. (Yes, eight-five-zero ... there is a long, long history here.)
I warmed up later that night with some of the local wine; like Newfoundland, they make wine out of every conceivable thing EXCEPT for grapes. In this case, it was made from gorse flowers; not really wine-like, particularly, but oddly good. I`d have gone for a local ale, but the fact that one of them was called “Skull-Splitter” worried me just a little. (They’re descended from Vikings here, after all, so their ale may be a bit too much for the modern girl.)
I tried again the next day, but the other sites were still closed. I debated briefly whether to stick around a bit longer, and hope for something to open soon; in the end, though, I opted to jump back on a ferry to the mainland and catch a bus straightaway back to Inverness. (Winter bus schedules across the north coast didn’t fit into my original plan of working my way over to Durness and down to Ullapool on the west coast.) I abandoned any idea of going further north to the Shetlands when I realized just how early it would get dark; I’ll save that for a later, summer visit.
One night in Inverness, then an early morning bus over to Ullapool, where I caught the ferry to Lewis; by then, it seemed, Scotland had got to grips with the weather as the only hitch was a short delay leaving Inverness. We still made the ferry connection, though, so no harm done, and it’s been gorgeous and sunny here on the Isle of Lewis since I arrived. Cold, but with my three layers of fleece and a couple of pairs of socks, I can cope quite well.
I spent today travelling by bus around the island and visiting the site of Callanais (pronounced and sometimes spelled “Callanish”), another ancient stone henge which, by rights, should get the kind of traffic that Stonehenge does. But as it’s tucked away in a remote corner of Scotland, you can have the site pretty much to yourself (particularly if you arrive in winter, like a crazy person) — I’ll tell you all about it in a future post.
For now, I’ve got to go find some dinner (I just realized how late it is!) and plan my travel for tomorrow. I’m heading onward to Tarbert on the Isle of Harris (really part of the same island as Lewis, but for some reason has a different name), to catch the ferry to Skye. It won’t be quite the same journey as Bonnie Prince Charlie’s all those years ago, but I’ll sing a chorus or two of the Skye Boat Song anyway.