As I go through possible stories from this trip in my mind, I realize that there were quite a few rude or annoying people along the way. Somehow I didn't notice that until now. Some were worrisome at the time and faded away with the miles, some were just there and then gone as soon as I walked away. here's one of the latter case, presented in its natural environment.
In This Installment: Island or Mainland? Not entirely Scottish. The trip north. A quiet night out. Keeping it quiet.
"This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,"
- Shakespeare, Richard II
These lines from Richard II refer specifically to England, but the geography they describe is the mainland of the British Isles – the contiguous kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Wales, combined. This "sceptered isle", surrounded by smaller islands, likes to thinks of itself as equal to any other land-mass to such an extent that traveling to Europe is not referred to as going to the mainland but rather "going on the continent." It's not strange for an Island nation to see itself as the centre of its world as opposed to being a satellite of some larger landmass, but I found a place where the question of what is an island made me stop and laugh.
After 2 weeks of trekking steadily northwards through the Scottish highlands I arrived in Inverness ready for some time off my feet. In the information centre there I found a package deal that charged only £40 for all busses and ferries needed for a round trip to the Orkneys. It was a good deal, would show me a new area of Scotland, would take me farther north than I had ever been in my life, and wouldn't require me to carry my home on my back the whole way as I had been doing up until then.
Look on any map of the Orkneys and you'll see a group of small islands closely surrounding 1 larger landmass, roughly 15 miles north of Scotland. The Orkneys belonged to Denmark until they were given to Scotland as a wedding gift to James III, a mere 100 years before Shakespeare, and from what I saw of the culture, accent, religion, and symbolism in my week there, have never fully accepted the change from independent Danish outpost to British Isle. Look at any map of the Orkneys – from the antiques hanging in the museums to the free ones you get in the Visitor’s Centres – and you'll see the central landmass clearly labeled "Mainland". I laughed the first time I saw this, and I’m still chuckling about it. No, I don’t think they've fully assimilated into Scotland.
The trip north was relaxing and uneventful – the little girl sitting behind me on the bus chanted "I'm gonna see the se-als, I'm gonna see the se-als" for about 5 minutes and then settled down for the rest of the ride. We arrived at John O'Groats with a good half-hour before the ferry, so the roughly 15 of us explored the gift shops, looked at the outside of the scenic old black and white hotel (which is closed and will be torn down and replaced by a modern building if a local development firm has its way, but that's another story), looked at the "You made it!" sign where coast-to-coast hikers have their picture taken, looked at the "Last House in Scotland", and then at the one even farther north (the Really Last House in Scotland?), and otherwise passed the time. I dropped my pack next to a picnic table and walked along the rock shore a ways, looking out to sea and skipping stones into the Pentland Firth – the name of that 15 mile wide passage through the North Sea.
The ferry came, unloaded something over 100 passengers, loaded up the few of us and started north for Burwick, which at the southern end of the southernmost Orkney isle. A few of us were smart enough to head to the top deck and enjoy the passage without any glass or metal to separate us from the elements; the late afternoon air was sunny and hazy but we could just make out the various islands that lined the way. The wind was refreshing and the boat rolled in an easy 6/8 rhythm. The rolling green water had a surface that was rough and textured from the wind, but dotted with smooth circles of water – each maybe 10 or 20 feet across – that were unruffled by wind or wave. No one I met could explain these, leaving me to imagine a thousand tiny thermal vents below us, bubbling up to form these smooth patches of water in the otherwise textured sea. I hummed sea songs across the wind as I watched them pass by and we were soon entering the small harbor at Burwick.
The hundred or so people waiting to get on the ferry slowed us somewhat, giving us a chance to acclimate to the new atmosphere – no, there's nothing intrinsically different about the air in the Orkneys, but Burwick harbor, like many parts of the islands, smells of cows. A sensation that mixes with salt-sea air about as well as toothpaste mixes with beer.
After arriving in Kirkwall, the central city of the Orkneys, and setting up in the campsite just outside of town, I thought I'd take a walk around to get my bearings and a pint of something good. It was late – even at 59º North latitude in late summer the sky can get dark – and I wandered around without plan until I had some sense of the layout of the town. There are a few small hotels along the harbor each with a pub, but none had live music coming from them. I walked into one, ordered a pint of a local dark beer and sat down in a booth to relax, let the day settle, and just take in scene around me. The beer – Orkney Brewery's Dark Island Ale – was surprisingly good and became my drink for the rest of my stay. But I never returned to that pub.
The place was large, open, and populated mostly by young people – roughly 17-25 at a guess. They sat in booths, at the bar, played pool, worked the juke box, and chatted and drank with each other as teenagers do. Some passed from clique to happy clique, particularly whenever a pool game ended, and one of these decided he didn't like me. He was 19 or 20 years old, uncombed brown hair, and an AC/DC T-shirt. He didn’t talk much and from my booth by the wall I could see that he was definitely feeling the effects of the beer; He was fine standing still, but required a couple steps to check his balance whenever he wanted to start or stop moving.
While moving from the pool table to the large, circular booth next to mine and full of his friends, he paused in front of me and stared blankly. I looked up and stared back with my own blank stare for a second or two and then smiled. I don’t know if he decided he didn't like me because of one of these expressions, or because I was just sitting quietly drinking my beer... whatever the reason, he didn't forget me as he continued on the extra few feet to stand by his friends' booth. For the rest of the evening, whenever he thought I wasn't looking in his direction he would turn and violently flip me the bird. That was the full and repeated expression of his disapproval, and it was done so dramatically that my peripheral vision could make it out easily.
I got the impression that if I called him on it he would have gladly taken a swing at me. This didn't worry me as one teenager, drunken and literally unbalanced, could be easily handled, but if he swung and I pushed him over (or just stood back and let him fall) then his friends would probably have wanted an explanation. I preferred to ignore him and drink my beer. In a way I appreciated his consistency; when he was standing around watching me I kept my eyes open and a part of me waited for something to happen. When he was gesturing I knew he wasn't doing anything else, and the gesture itself was so clumsily, almost comically, done that it broke whatever tension had built between it and the previous time.
We passed a slow while like this and when I had finished my beer I got up and left, chuckling to myself that if this was the local culture I would have to dig a little deeper to enjoy myself. If I hadn’t spent the previous 2 weeks hiking the sparsely populated Highlands, that bar might not have seemed such a change. Over the next few days I adjusted to the idea of having stores and people around me. Kirkwall is the largest city in the Orkneys and has a significant population of teenagers who like to hang out on summer nights the way they do in any city in the world. I could have found Mr. AC/DC in any city in the world, but in his mind we were not in some small outpost in the North Sea, but in the centre of his world. Or at least a place that could be called the "mainland".
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