The Northlink Ferry ride from Lerwick to Kirkwall was much shorter (5 hrs) than the overnighter (12 1/2 hours) from Aberdeen to Lerwick, however since the boat ploughs through a considerable portion of the confluence of the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, it is quite rough. Even though no alcohol is consumed by our party, we staggered like drunken sailors down the aisles to the restaurant, holding on to handrails and posts – as did most everyone else. Well, those who weren’t already well into their drinks or sick. The boys were quite queasy and unable to eat supper – thankfully, they did not throw up! But like many of the passengers, sat quietly in their seats and hoped it didn’t get worse. Which it didn’t. The rough ride only lasted about two hours, then it was smooth sailing again. Then they were hungry – but the diner was closed by now. We had snacks. With such late arrival and our accommodation some distance from the docks, I was concerned about how we were going to get there, so I had e-mailed a local taxi company, Craigies and they assured me that taxis are there, which was confirmed by the helpful lady at the Northlink Ferry desk when we picked up our boarding passes in Lerwick. But above that, Craigies had a sign with my name on it – the driver was waiting for us at the docks! What a delightful young man was our driver and though he’d never been to Woodwick Mill in Evie before, he found it straightaway. Though our host did not meet us, he had already given us clear instructions and had the light on for easy access at what we discovered inside is a superior, well-fitted 2 bedroom apartment and next morning we stepped outside to jaw dropping views! Orkney Island here we come!
This morning, our car hire fellow came and collected us to take us to Kirkwall, do the paperwork and off we go. This is a klunky, expensive way for me to have planned this, however, I think in the long run, it will actually be less expensive since the hotels in Kirkwall are twice the cost as where we are staying. Coming in at night and after car rental hours throws a wrench in the works. So, why are we ferrying instead of flying? For comparison: Ferry from Lerwick to Kirwall: £20.20 ($32.95) vs Air: £96,62 ($157.59). Of course, the flight is much shorter in duration, but multiply that by three and the savings add up quickly! Also, that is the cheap airfare and they don’t offer very many seats at that rate – you’d have to be very flexible in travel dates to get those, or just get lucky that they were available on the day you wanted to travel.
Despite a cloudy start to the morning, by 9am, the clouds had rolled away and the most stunning, sunshine broke out – honestly, it was as everything was glistening brilliant green and blue. Orkney is clearly a more agriculturally based economy than Shetland. The grasses here seem beautifully designed to finish cattle and indeed, we have seen far more cattle here than on Shetland. And huge cattle they are! Although these animals are, and I’m guessing here, are in the 1400-2000 lb range and the soil is moist and soggy, they are not wading in mud! The grasses form a fabulous sod, but yet are succulent and rich. I’m going to try and find out what they are using, but i fear they won’t be as useful in our area since we get so much hotter in the summer and colder in the winter. But it is worth exploring.
Before the afternoon is far gone, we drove to Liddle, South Ronaldsay to tour the Tomb of the Eagles. This very informative neolithic tomb (see Dallas pulling himself out of the tomb) and Bronze age stone building were well worth the effort. About a mile in pasture walk to and from the tomb with stunning views along the cliff overlooking the North Sea.
We started Friday morning with comfy temperatures and brilliant sunshine, however, the wind was practically gale force at 37 mph with gusts over 60 mph! If this was happening in north Missouri, we’d expect a storm in short order. However, here it was sunshine, punctuated with short bursts of rain showers. Except for our tour at Broch of Gurness, which the attendant closed right after we entered, all other outdoor venues were closed because of the dangerous wind. We cut through to Dounby to a famous butcher shop, The Dounby Butcher, which we found has been recognised as one of the butchers in all of Great Britain, and, yes, she is a woman! We visited with her dad at the shoppe; he was rightly proud of her! She did explain that the Aberdeen-Angus cattle they butcher are all grassfinished and the one she just did today weighed 320 kilos (704 lbs), in the meat. She also revealed that most of the cattle are kept in the barn during the winter and fed silage since, although there isn’t any snow, it does rain a lot and the fields are too muddy for these heavy cattle. Of course, then the manure must be cleaned out of the barns in the spring, then spread on the fields when ground conditions will allow. Thanking her for her time in answering our questions, we then picked up some meat items and brought a scenic route back to our apartment and spent the day here.
Restless, I bundled up and went outside for short walks all afternoon and chanced a quick chat with the neighbor boy who had come out to collect hen eggs and feed them. Here’s a quick shot out our door as the evening wore on – that’s our ride in the car park.
Sun is shining and wind has laid quite a lot, so off we go to tick off all the activities we had planned for yesterday. First up was Skara Brae, an excellent venue for getting inside one of the stone homes from the Bronze age. It had been rebuilt, but was designed on an actual footprint of the real thing. Toured other ruins of life in the old days – and, no, i don’t believe they were the ‘good ole’ days.’ Life was exceptionally hard. Then the tour of the local laird’s and archaeologist’s home. Much more plush .
After learning from the clerk at Skara Brae that at 3pm the tide would be low enough to allow access to Brough of Birnsay, we planned the rest of our day around that. So it was off to the Ring of Brodgar, Standing Stones of Stenness, then the Maeshowe , and by 2:50 pm, we were hurrying back to Brough of Birsay. Interestingly, there are so few tourists this time of year, it seems we are just following each other around!
The journey to and around Brough of Birsay was a wonderful way to finish a great day. Walking across the ocean bottom at low tide was just the coolest thing to me, but I’m easily amused. The ruins were of different ages and we walked around them some, but the best part was taking the seaside cliff walk around this small tidal island.
Cooling off next day, with quite a lot of mist. We headed east through Kirkwall to Mull Nature Reserve for a walkabout. Muddy and wet, but nothing to be done for it. After viewing the Gloup, we then hiked around Mull Head and carefully traversed the slippery, steep steps down to the sea, then up again to the Brough of Deerness. Unfortunately, this is the only way in and out, so i had to control my fear of heights once again to get back to the main island.
It was time to find our way to Stromness for our ferry trip to Scrabster on the northern edge of mainland Scotland, with only a quick stop to top off the fuel tank in Kirkwall. Despite the unfortunate loss of nearly an entire day of touring, we visited all the places we had planned for Orkney. A beautiful island and friendly people – a jewel for Scotland.
We leave the car in the long term car park in Stromness – take photos of it, so the company will know that we didn’t leave any dings in it, lock it, toss the keys into the boot, shut it, stashed our luggage in the ferry office and went for a short walkabout of Stromness and enjoyed a nice late lunch/early supper at The Ferry Inn. On the ship by 4 pm, departure scheduled for 4:30 pm and in only 1 1/2 hours we’ll be in Scrabster, then taxi to our hotel in Thurso only a mile away.
The Shetland Islands are a subarctic archipelago comprised of some 100 islands, of which only 16 are inhabited. Sumburgh, at the very south tip has the main airport, and Lerwick, with the safe harbour and is the seat of Shetland Constituency of the Scottish Parliament, are both located on what is known as the Mainland. The Mainland is 373 square miles, whilst the entire Shetland Islands is 567 square miles. Animals associated with the Shetland Islands are the Shetland pony, Shetland sheep (for which I have a fondness since Jessica raised Shetland sheep for about six years before going off to uni), Shetland Sheep Dog, as well as pigs, geese, ducks, and chickens all having been naturally or purposefully selected for thousands of years to thrive in this rugged environment. Norse and Scottish heritage blend seamlessly here and evidences of both are found in music, prose, and signage. Fiddle playing is most associated with traditional Shetland music. The average high in winter will be 45 and lows around 34F, whilst summers may top out about 62F and lows around 50. Summer days are almost perpetual day, while the winter days are short indeed. The wind blows about 12 miles per hour everyday with usually a bit of showers. Average annual precipitation is 39 inches.
St, Ninian’s Isle is connected to the main Shetland Island by a tombolo, which is a narrow sand or gravel bar connecting two islands. St. Ninian’s is named after a small chapel which was discovered on the island, but more famously, the location at which a 16-year-old schoolboy discovered treasure which professional archaelogists had overlooked for years! A local farmer grazes his Shetland sheep on the island. Sadly, the peace is disturbed by a couple of four wheelers racing up and down the tombolo.
Driving a stick shift on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, on the ‘wrong’ side of the car on these lovely 2 lane paved roads (think oil money) wasn’t quite as daunting as expected, although driving in the city would be another thing altogether. Although most of the roads are single paved tracks, there are several passing points alongside to allow approaching traffic to press by. Keep to the left!
Our first full day (Sunday) started with a quick trip to one of the finest, albeit small, beaches in the Shetland Islands and it’s right here in Levenwick! Too cold for a dip and of course we were the only ones walking the sandy beach, but no doubt in warmer weather, this would be a popular spot to play in the quiet water.
As we made our way up from the beach, I spotted a family gathered about some sheep in a holding yard. I pulled over quickly and went to meet them. They kindly answered my questions about sheep production in Shetland Islands. We really had a good chat for about an hour! They were expecting the truck soon to load the lambs to ship to Aberdeen for finishing. Farming is fraught with the same obstacles as American farmers. I tried asking a few sheep farmers what grazing land sold for but they didn’t know! It simply is not for sale. A small lot for building a home is about £17,000 or $27,780. Not really out of line for a lot with stunning views of the North Sea!
Later. in the early afternoon, we made our way to Sandsayre Pier at Sandwick to meet our Mousa Boat ride to Mousa Island at which we hiked around enjoying the scenery and wildlife, as well as the highlight, the Broch of Mousa. This is the best preserved broch in all the world. Brochs are unique to Scotland and it is still unclear as to the purpose. It’s only about a mile across from the main island, but today it was cloudy, hazy, windy, and quite cool. However, we all had layered up well, so we were not uncomfortable. We enjoyed a chat with a few people in a group of Aussies from Sydney who were our boat mates.
Later tonight, I watched Downton Abbey, months before my American friends are able. Unfortunately, I’ll only see 3 or 4 episodes before we head back to the States which means waiting until late January – early February before watching the last of the season!
Next day, after a good rest, we headed south towards Sumburgh Head. The drive down the main road was stunning as usual and, as we kept hearing, the weather is unusually nice for this time of year. Shortly before arriving at Jarlshof, part of our drive included passing across the end of the Sumburgh Airport runway. Definitely a first for me!
‘Jarlshof; is a made up word for an area near the southern coast of the main Shetland Island which has been excavated to reveal several thousands of years of generations. Very interesting for us history buffs.
After a good climb up to Sumburgh Head and back down, we discovered Spiggie’s Bar restaurant located inside the Spiggie Hotel and Lodges at which, we not only had a scrumptious late lunch, but discovered that the young lady who rang up our bill had spent three months in RIchmond, Missouri as an exchange student way back in 1988! What a small world we live in! We had a fun visit and I think she enjoyed reminiscing about her time spent in the US. The Spiggie restaurant uses fresh caught fish and hand cut fries along with local sourced veggies for the salads. Beef and lamb are also from locally raised sources.
A great place to walk off some of that huge meal was at the Shetland Crofthouse Museum in Dunrossness. This venue is another must do if you are ever in the Shetland Islands. Free admission, though donations are accepted, this well maintained croft house, byre, shed, and water mill complete with stack of peat blocks stacked outside will make you truly appreciate our level of creature comforts.
Except for stopping in at a local supermarket for evening snacks on the drive back to Melstadr in Levenwick, the croft house was our final venue for the day.
Tuesday is our last full day and a special stop for me was to find something lovely for Jessica which i would find at Shetland Jewellery in Weisdale. However, first we drove up and over to Scalloway to tour the Scalloway castle and Scalloway Museum located next to one another with easy access and carpark. Incredibly! these venues didn’t open until 11am, so we walked down the main street and found the ‘places of interest,’ then with another half hour before opening, we opted to go sightseeing. We headed up and around to the islands of East and West Burra which are accessed via Trondra and all connected by single lane bridges which we could drive over and wound our way to nearly the end of the islands. Along the way, we pulled over for this picturesque landscape begging to be photographed. Still photos sure don’t capture the breeze with bite, the warm sunshine, or the sound of crashing waves.
As we came back towards Scalloway, we pulled in at a sign which advertised a working farm – Burland Croft Trail. However, once we arrived, the lady landowner came over and said they really weren’t taking visitors anymore, the season was over. Once i told her we were sheep and cattle farmers from Missouri and completely understood when she explained that they were busy with farm chores, she wouldn’t have it any other way than for us to take their tour on our own. So we did, they have a lovely farm touching the Burland Sea Shore and across from the foundation of an ancient broch. Afterwards, even her husband came over and we had a great chat about farming and all the challenges. She apologised again for not being very good hosts as they were in the midst of sorting through and selecting replacement ewe lambs. I assured her there was no reason for apology except from us for interrupting their work, but that we were mighty appreciative of the visit. I think they enjoyed the exchange of ideas and the encouragement we received from one another. Farming is often a thankless job and one with continual challenges. We all agreed that if we wanted to be financially rich, we wouldn’t be farming. But as she pointed out, there are many other ways to be rich – and so right she is! We were meant to stop in here and meet Tommy and Mary Isbister. This is a pasture walk – so wear appropriate footwear and enjoy Burland Croft Trail – but it would be better for all to stop in during their regular tourist season!
Wednesday is our final day in Shetland. Dallas and I walked to the local convenience store in Levenwick and I had only enough pounds to buy a couple Mars bars. We ate a bit of one and saved some for Nathan who was cleaning up the room a bit. Now with dishes done, towels piled up in the bathroom, luggage loaded, we headed out, only to get to the end of the drive and find road work being done. However, the workmen finished in about 10 minutes. We arrived plenty early in Lerwick to drop off the rental car, pick up our Northlink Ferry boarding passes, store our luggage, then off to town to find somewhere to get some cash which I would need to pay the taxi driver who would take us to our hotel in Orkney at 10:30 pm! We did exchange some at the Lerwick Post Office on Commercial Street, then we spent an hour in the Shetland Museum. It was time to head back to the docks and board. Our ferry left spot on time at 5:30 pm with an early arrival time expected into Kirkwall, Orkney Islands of 10:30 rather than the 11:00 pm stated time. By the time our ship was moving past Sumbrough Head, it was dark enough that the lighthouse was already announcing the danger of its location. Soon the Shetland Islands slipped out of sight and into our memories.
A slow but sure travel to Lerwick, Shetland Islands results in our being exhausted upon arrival. The adventure begins with our departure from Edinburgh Waverly Station with a 2 1/2 hour train ride along the lovely east coast of Scotland from Edinburgh to Aberdeen on East West Rail followed by a 3 hour layover before our ship launched. Except for the Aberdeen Maritime Museum a short walk from the docks, there is NOTHING to do in Aberdeen on such short layover.
Back to the docks to board our Northlink Ferry and if I ever travel by overnight ferry again, purchasing a sleeping pod or bunk will surely be a good investment. Trying to save money, I opted for the reclining chair (think of the older width airline seats). Thankfully, the 12 1/2 hour voyage on the North Sea didn’t include being confined to the seat nor was it crowded, but it was terribly cold. Experienced ferry travelers were bundled in their sleeping bags! Those of us who weren’t prepared covered ourselves with whatever clothes we could muster. I had included a wool scarf in my satchel which served as a blanket and Nathan loaned me his shirt. Once he got cold, he nicked Dallas’ long sleeve shirt so that he was left with his short sleeved shirt, but he’s always been able to tolerate the cold quite well. He ended up on a lounge bench with a seat cushion over his head to drown out the snoring. I stayed in my seat and was entertained by stereo snoring by a bloke in front and the one to the side. Other people laid on the floor covered up with seat cushions for warmth. Not a good experience, however, it was FAR less expensive than flying. We arrived at 7:30am in Lerwick.
We picked up our rental car from Bolts Car Hire and headed to a grocery store for supplies before making the 20 minute drive to our guest house, Melstadr in Levenwick. Just a step around the wraparound porch yields this stunning view!
After the boys took long naps, we headed over to St. Ninian’s Isle and thus begins our Shetland Island Experience!
The air in Old Town Edinburgh is electric this afternoon and evening. Holyrood Park is decorated with HUGE banners – one a big white ‘YES’ and just around the bend, a massive Union Jack flag. The park next to the Parliament Building is packed with vans topped with satellite dishes and all sorts of press packing cameras and microphones, interviewing person after person! As Dallas and I walked down the hill towards Holyrood, we met fit young men sporting Scottish kilts and tight-fitting shirts with “YES’ emblazoned on the front, all wrapped in the Scottish Saltire Flag.
Today was spent touring the National Museum of Scotland. While we only perused the Scottish end of the museum, it still took about 2 1/2 hours! To view it all would definitely take all day. This is a great venue and it’s FREE admission. Most spectacular were the views from the rooftop level. Incredibly, we just happened to be on the roof, just as the sun TRIED to burn through the clouds. Before we descended, the sun had given up – however, the views and skies in Edinburgh somehow always seem to photograph well.
We crossed the road to tour Greyfriar’s Kirk , passing the statue of Greyfriar’s Bobby, and while the church itself has had many changes, including several very recently, the history of the location is fascinating. I asked one of the attendants about finding a specific gravestone and while she could show me in a book that the fellow I was searching was buried there, there is little to no chance that the stone still exists, so Nathan took a photo of the page in the book. And there it is, the listing of interment of my 8th great-grandfather, Sir John Falconer, Master of the Scottish Mint under Charles I. However, it seems that he may have signed a contract with the Covenanters and was minting coins for them for 22 months as they sought to overthrow the king. Apparently, auditors were assigned and audits made, but apart from 1632-33, no audits for the 17th century have been published.
On this small plot of real estate, there are at least 75000 people buried. Through the years, stones have been broken or thrown away, some are buried, some graves experience total upheaval when an old tree falls over. In those cases, the curator discretely reburies the bones and finds someplace to stash the stones which is why some of the headstones are placed in a wall or other locations.
After supper cooked in, we were relaxing and planning the next day’s activities, when about 8:30 a loud ruckus chanted its way down the Royal Mile. Nathan joked, ‘they must be having a riot.’ ‘Oh my goodness! you are right!’ and with that, i threw on my shoes, grabbed my camera and room keys and dashed out the door. The boys could not keep up. As the parade waved the Scottish Saltire and the Lion Rampant – Royal Flag, horns honking, and people chanting “Scotland Says Yes! Scotland Says Yes!” exchanged for “Power to the People! Power to the People!” After having followed them to Holyrood and watched as another parade of demonstrators joined them at the front of the Parliament Building, I decided to rejoin the boys back in the apartment, though now I was nearly a mile away and uphill this time! No worries, what an exciting evening!
Streets were packed with onlookers and supporters ignited by the anticipation of a possible change in sovereignty, choosing whether or not to throw off the 307 years of British rule. The polls still show a 50/50 divide between the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ votes.
Once we dragged our lazy hineys out of bed about 11 am, Dallas and Nathan prepared a delicious breakfast of eggs from free range Scottish hens, sliced baguette, oat biscuit, toasted haggis, and tea.
We started the day with a jaunt to Waverly Railway station to enquire about a rail and sail ticket from Edinburgh to Lerwick, Shetland. Although, she was unable to book that route (apparently it’s new, the agent didn’t know about it), her advice helped us come back to our rooms and map out more of our trip. Since learning from Allen’s cousin that some of my husband’s family (6th great grandfather) lived in or around Thurso, we are trying to incorporate that into our plans. SInce a lot of the travel will require the use of the Northlink Ferries – it will depend a lot on the weather.
Quickly, I booked cheaper online tickets to Edinburgh Dungeon to catch the last tour of the day and we quickly descended the steep steps through Warriston’s Close– a short cut from the Royal Mile to the show. Unfortunately, the dungeon tour was disappointing and a waste of funds.
When we stepped out of the dungeon the sun was shining and the sky a patchy blue! Hooray. Perfect weather. We had more daylight, so we found the National Museum of Scotland and Greyfriar’s Kirkyard. Not surprisingly, both were closed, although the Kirkyard was open to strolling about. We’ll go back tomorrow.
On the way back, we enjoyed street performances and took more photos. Nathan returned to the room to start supper from our leftovers whilst Dallas and I went to the grocer for more food. With deepening shadows and a bit of nip in the air, the streets grew quieter as locals and tourists alike began to either go home or gather in the many cafes and pubs lining the Royal Mile and side streets of Old Town.
At last the day arrived for our flight to Scotland. We deliberately scheduled our stay to include being in Edinburgh for the big vote! On September 18, citizens of Scotland will vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on a referendum that will give them the opportunity to become independent from England.
Edinburgh has endured through the ages, with archaeologists really not able to establish the exact date of the famous castle of the same name which serves as the anchor for the town. Some references to the castle exist from 600 AD. However, it is certain that the castle became a royal principality under King Malcom III with his youngest son having died here in 1107 AD. Edinburgh has been the capital of Scotland since 1437, but under English rule since 1707.
Allen drove us to the Kansas City airport for our first and uneventful flight to Chicago, however, mechanical failures on our trans-Atlantic 757, caused 2 hours of delay as the plane sat at the gate with every seat booked. Once underway, however, the flight was excellent. Thankfully, I slept a good deal of the way, but the boys stayed awake watching movies until our break through the clouds to a dark and misty Edinburgh – the weatherman describes it as ‘murky.’
Since we had no checked luggage and most of the passengers were locals, we proceeded quickly through customs due to a short line and the late arrival. After exchanging a few dollars into pounds, we found a call booth to ring Dave Stewart, our ‘meet and greet’ guy for the apartment. What a treat to discover that he arranged for us to check in 2 1/2 hours earlier than the 2pm standard checkin time!
Both boys took long naps, then whilst Nathan continued sleeping, Dallas and I found a grocery store only seven minutes walk away. After a snack of Scottish-made butter, cheese, and freshly baked bread, we toured the John Knox House and a made a quick run through the Museum of Edinburgh, both a short stroll east of our 1 Parliament Square apartment.
Nathan’s knee was beginning to bother him, so he headed back to the room – taking fine photos along the way; Dallas and i stopped by the grocer again and selected some meat (including a chub of haggis, and chips, all made in Scotland to augment our snacks, as well as eggs and biscuits for brecky. We have found this to be a tremendous savings to prepare our meals in the full kitchen versus eating meals out.
As the terrified screams from participants of the Edinburgh ghost tours wafts away in the late hours,our eyes grow heavy and we drift off to sleep.