29 April 2017
We were very grateful for solid walls around us not only on Monday when the snow covered the landscape but also on Tuesday, when extremely high winds of 40 knots blew all day. Our only outing was brief trip to Tesco's in Kirkwall, for supplies. To our amazement planes took off and landed as normal at Kirkwall Airport nearby, these island pilots - and passengers - are made of strong stuff!
On Wednesday with some reluctance we left the comfort of James' lovely warm house and headed off across mainland in better weather. We stopped at Dounby at the Coop to refuel at the cheapest filling station we have seen in a month. Apparently fuel prices here are subsidised to some extent. Then onwards toward the north west tip of mainland, and Birsay. Ju had spotted a campsite based at an outdoor centre, and we found that quite easily. There were no other motorhomes campervans or tents in evidence, but someone was strimming the grass and someone else came to meet us, then disappeared to reappear with two large plastic grids for us to place our drive wheels on, as she felt the grass was a bit spongy.
We decided to stay for two nights, and for the first night we were the only people in the place. There was no imternet and no mobile phone signal in this location, but otherwise it was terrific. The view down to the Brough of Birsay was spectacular. We walked down to the village and looked around the Earl's palace, a huge building, of which the outer walls survive, but the inner parts are all in a state of ruin. Beside the palace is a church founded in 1064, yes that is two years before the Battle of Hastings!!! There is also a little shop called the Palace Stores, selling crab sandwiches to die for, and a very lumpy thick vegetable soup. So we sat outside and had lunch, then walked back to the campsite along the extensive rocky strand, saw some seals basking on a spit of shingle, avoided harassing some black cattle, and got back to base. We had dinner then watched Masterchef on the tv in the lounge of the hostel.
The wind was very gusty, so we decided for the meantime to take down the roof of the van, until better weather came along. We only decided this after we had got into bed, however, so it involved a lot of upheaval, relocating all the stuff we normally pop up in the roof space. We even put the dog crate in the ladies, to keep it dry overnight.
The next morning the weather was not much better, so we explained to the warden about the dog crate, which she was fine about, and headed off down to Stromness, leaving our reserved marker and electric cable to discourage anyone else to take up our prime spot, right next to the toilet facilities. On the way we stopped at the car park for the Kitchener Memorial, and walked up the very windy path to see the new additions to the building. They comprised a crescent shaped low wall with the names of all of the people who died in the wreck of the HMS Hampshire, and some other ships too. Hundreds of names. The ship struck a mine, laid by a German U boat which was designed to lay mines while submerged. It was a moving sight, but the wind was so powerful up on Marwick Head that we had to bend double into it to regain the path down to the car park!
We went by Skara Brae and Skaill house, and Ju bought a rather nice t-shirt. Skaill House has some amazing stuff in it, not least of which was crockery from Captain Cook's ship which made landfall here after his last voyage, during which he himself died.
In Stromness we walked about for a bit, found the new Coop and bought some Ecover laundry liquid, which we planned to use to do some laundry. We noticed a new statue of John Rae, Orkey's famous Arctic explorer. Good to see him honoured in this way.
We were just preparing to turn in much later when a car pulled into the campsite, around 10.30, and after a bit a young man saw our lights and came over to ask if we were the warden. We put him right on that score, and told him just to go ahead and go in to the hostel and talk to the warden in the morning.
Next morning we did our laundry, and while it was drying took another walk down the road this time down to the village for some more crab sandwiches for lunch. Then later in the afternoon we went for,a walk and visited the Antique Centre, a strange emporium just 100 metres from the hostel, containing an incredible amount of old stuff. Reminded me of the kind of china ornaments my mum and her sisters used to love sticking round shelves in their sitting rooms. No room for such stuff in the van, so we walked on. Our walks in Orkney tend to be rectilinear, and the roads and paths follow the shape ofmthe fields, which are all big rectangles.
We finally solved the problem we had since flattening the battery on the ferry, that the interior lights were stuck on standby, and wouldn't switch off or on. I got the spanner out of the toolkit and disconnected the leisure battery completely for an extended time. After a minute or so Ju reported that they had switched off. So I tightened up the leisure battery terminals and we tested their switching operation, and it was good as new. Fantastic.
The plan was after staying a third night, to go to Tingwall via Dounby for shopping, and cross over to Rousay for a few days.
We packed up on Saturday morning and headed off as planned. But the best laid plans of mice and men were definitely ganging agley today, as the ferry man finally told us the ferry would not be sailing until an official inspection had been completed, and he could not say when that might be. So we went off to kill some time and visited the Broch of Gurness, and had a terrific conversation about broch archaeology with the Historic Scotland guide on duty. A brief visit to the broch itself followed, much bigger in diameter than Mousa Broch in Shetland, and surrounded by a considerable settlement. Promising ourselves to come back when we had more time, we headed back to the ferry terminal, only to be told that they really did not know when the ferry would sail. Hopefully this afternoon, th man said.
We decided that hanging about wasn't too good an option in a really cold wind, so it was back to Kirkwall, minus the snow this time, to the campsite at Pickaquoy. Our walk into town was productive, I bought Cathy's birthday present and card, and we saw a performance theatre company doing a strange music and dance piece based on horses.
Back to the campsite, and dinner.
Scrabster to Stromness to Kirkwall
24 April 2017
Well the first thing we got wrong was I forgot to switch off the fridge as we laft the van on the car deck of the ferry. Didn't realise, but by the time I did there was no way I coupd go below and fix it. So the battery quietly flattened itself. After a slightly bouncy crossing and a viking burger for lunch, we arrived in Stromness. I have fond memories of arriving there years ago with the girls aged 10 and 8, we were all on bikes, and we noticed two things. One was the poet, George Mackay Brown, sitting on a bench watching the ferry passengers disembark, and the other was the Craigmount High School Pipe Band, from Edinburgh, playing as we arrived. The girls both attended that school later, as we lived in Edinburgh then.
So i them made my second mistake of the day, and set off along the ancient stone-flagged main street, at times only about a foot wider than the van, rather than follow the clear road sign to Ness Campsite, pointing in the opposite direction. Well, readers, I only met two vehicles coming the other way, and all was well. But then it appeared that the low road to the campsite was closed, so we had to take the diversion anyway. Such is life.
We arrived at the wind-blasted site to find reception closed, and the location that Ju had booked on the ferry was on sloping, muddy grass, at right angles to an increasing gale. It did not take us long to go for plan B, to go straight to Kirkwall, and try the site there. It proved much better, hard standing, with terrific toilets, showers, laundry, lounge and kitchen facilities. We booked in and set up for the night. The wind got stronger and stronger, and we debated taking the roof down, as its tentlike sides flap and bang in high winds, and gusts could cause them damage. The forecast was for it to moderate later, so we left it up.
We had just finished dinner when our friend James messaged us, with an invitation to stay at his place, in this inclement weather. We arrqnged to do that tomorrow night, as Tuesday was forecast to be even windier.
Monday dawned cold, and when Ju went to take Jack for his early walk she came back covered in sleet. It got progressively worse until effectively a blizzard hit! We packed up and did some shopping in Tesco's, while Ju went to collect James' key. We then set off with windscreen wipers barely coping with the amount of snow falling, visibility low, and the road ahead whited out and not gritted. The joy of four wheel drive!
We found our refuge without difficulty, and enjoyed a light lunch, then sat and watched the world warm up, the whieout disappear, and the lovely Orcadian sun come out to warm up the poor shivering lambs, for whom this must have been a sore trial.
Blair Atholl to Brora to Scrabster
23 April 2017 | Orkney
Blair campsite stayed really quiet overnight. We both agreed it would not have been so agreeable in high season, in summer school holidays. We did not take advantage of the discount card we had been given to tour the castle, but got straight back on to the infamous A9 for the next leg of our journey.
Weather was mostly fair with slight rain showers as we drove on up this mixture of single and dual carriageways, and road works. We pulled off the road at Newtonmore, and sought out the house of friends Denyse and Lilias. We had not been there before, but found it quite easily, parked, and rang the doorbell a couple of times. When no reply came, and we knew there was no car parked at the front of the house, we gave up and headed on north. With hindsight we should have gone round the back, but hey, that's hindsight for you. Turned out later they had been in, but hadn't heard the doorbell. An opportunity missed.
We drove on north via Kingussie, and moved through country we both knew well, as far as Grantown on Spey, then unknown sections towards Forres. Rolling upland moors, magnificent in sunshine. Our satnav, Jim, took us to our campsite, right beside what was RAF Kinloss, at Findhorn. There, in the corner of the airfield, sits a solitary Nimrod, part of the legacy of the last government (DC's), which decided to ground all the Nimrods while they built newer better ones. Then they decided against that, and scrapped the machines being built. One of the finest long distance ocean search planes ever built.
The campsite is run by the Findhorn community, and while the facilities are a little tired, it suited our needs well enough. It was quite busy, families with small children and lots of dogs. One group had a fascinating wigwam shaped tent, with a cone of tent material at the top which could be raised for ventilation, or closed for rain. There were great dog walks, on the beach of the bay, or towards the sea. I was walking Jack along a gravel road when a four by four towing a trailer with a digger passed me, and stopped. A man got out, wearing country ranger type gear, and I thought I was going to be told off for using a private road. To my amazement he knelt down in front of Jack and started petting him, asking if he was a Schnauzer! We had alively conversation about dogs, after which he got back in his vehicle and drove away. Jack had given him. Great welcome, tail wagging etc.
Saturday morning arrived, and we set off for a rendezvous with an old colleague of mine at Brodie Castle, just outside Forres. Jennifer is an NTS guide to the castle, and had offered us a personal tour followed by tea and scone in the tearoom. It was great to see her after nearly twenty years. She and I used to work on the Women into Management courses for Lothian Region teching staff. She hasn't lost her touch, and the tour of this remarkable castle was a real eye-opener to how the Scottish aristocracy got started. She showed us a tiny fragment of paper with handwriting on it, from the 13 hundreds, written on behalf of Robert the Bruce, granting Brodie his lands. Apparently it had been found by accident when it fell out of one of the many thousands of books in the library. And the family lived there all throught the centuries until 1980 when it was handed over to the National Trust for Scotland. I heartily recommend a visit, the pintings, the books, the ceramics, it is a treasure of all the stuff a family of rich collectors could put together, and because it was handed over in time, those are all still there.
We thanked Jennife for her tour, and the rip to the tearoom, having caught up on her news, the most sensational of which is that her daughter recently became the first female chief adinistrator at Gordonstoun!
The road took us to inversneckie, then over the Kessock Bridge on to the Black Isle, then off again northwards past the Glenmorangie Distillery, over the bridge on the Dornoch Firth, nd on to Golspie, where we stopped at the Coop for supplies. Our campsite was a few miles further on, in Brora, a little hard to find but we got there eventually, despite Jim getting muddled. It is a certificated site of one of our two club memberships, and is pretty basic. Loos but no showers. It is actually in the grounds of a former military radio station, a listening post for GCHQ, no less. The view is spectacular, sea and distant glimpse of the Moray shore.
It is amazing how easily we slip back into the familiar routine of life in the campervan. In Little Else I used to love that part of the day whn the journey was over, the boat was at anchor or moored up, and it had morphed from vehicle into home again. Exactly the same with the campervan. Reg takes us where we want to go, then Ju sets off with Jack for a walk while I pop up the roof, turn the front seats, stow all the bulky items like the dog crate and the Cobb in the roof space, then cover the driving seat with Jack's rug and towel because that is his space when we are parked. Then it feels like home. The electric hookup means we can recharge iPads and iPhones, and run the small fan heater we carry for cooler evenings.
There is no site wifi here, but we carry the same antenna and wifi booster kit that worked so well for us on the boat. And it does work on PCs. Unfortunately we are having a real problem with the Alfa software that came with the kit we have to use with Apple devices, as they have no USB port. We scan and can see lots of local wifi connections, it appears to connect, th n inexplicably drops out half way through the rebooting process. This we are going to have to fix. And soon. Any suggestions anyone?
A pleasant drive from Brora to Thurso and Scrabster across more upland moors, with enough wind farms to power a large chunk of the country, and huge substations to help it all on to the grid. The wind is increasing, but we decided to make the hop today before it gets any stronger, and the crossing was pretty calm, compared to the Southern Ocean!