Tales from the Travel Zeitgeist: Days in the Orkney Islands.

On the ferry to Orkney.

Here’s where things on the trip took a turn for the difficult. Overscheduling. Fatigue. Separating the wheat from the chaffe. My time in the Orkney Islands was a strange combination of wonderful and disappointing. As usual, traveling with any hint of expectation is bound to lead to frustration. It’s always, ALWAYS, best to proceed with an open mind and a willingness to experience whatever comes your way.

We left our small hotel in Tongue, along the far north coast, reluctantly. It was comfortable, the food wonderful and the staff engaging and kind.

The Tongue hotel. In … you guessed it… Tongue.
That Heather lady again.
Our room at Tongue Hotel. Comfy digs, for sure.

We drove east, along the coast. The landscape became progressively tamer with every mile. Farms, tiny towns, even sandy beaches appeared intermittently. We stopped in Thurso, a small town – maybe THE small town along the way. The rest could really only be called villages or townships.


Driving, driving, driving. We were headed to Gills, where the ferry across to the Orkney Islands waited for us. Quick stop to eat lunch and have a look around a potential future inn, then we were on our way to catch the ferry.

Queued for the ferry. For desert dwellers: you drive on, are directed to park in a sardine-like formation, exit your car and then go up to seating areas (inside or out) for the ride over. Just prior to arrival on the other shore, you run down, get back in your car and wait until you are directed to drive off the ship. Apparently in nasty weather, this process is more difficult. We had a calm, sunny crossing. Hooray for small favors.
Have no idea what type of nautical equipment these might be, but I found them fascinating. Each is about five feet tall.
On a fine day, the ferry top deck is the place to be. This gentleman is watching a car with pop-up trailer being guided through backing down the ramp, on to the ferry. Yikes!
Passing by the island of Stroma, now uninhabited. Empty croft houses dot the land. Scotland’s version of a ghost town.

I love a ferry crossing. As a land-locked New Mexican, I find any time on the water exciting – even this slow moving, utilitarian voyage of an hour. On the crossing to Orkney, it was hard to tell which land forms were connected, which were islands and which was the mainland. The one distinctly different island was Hoy, where huge cliffs jut out of the ocean on its southwest side. The other side of Hoy is like it’s sister islands, each gently sloping to the sea. From my lat glimpse of Hoy’s dramatic cliffs, I’d find Orkney a remarkably tame landscape. Much tamer than I’d expected. After two days in the Orkney Islands, I put my finger on it by saying to Heather, “On Skye and much of the mainland northwest coast, the wild landscape predominates, while tiny pockets of townships and crofts introduce a but of tame landscape. In the Orkney Islands, it’s just the reverse. The tamed landscape predominates, with just a bit of wild peeping through here and there.”

Orkney is a collection of low-lying islands, with gentle hills that slope down to the surrounding sea. Farmhouses (many looking quite well to do instead of the more typical hardscrabble Highland cottages) dot the hills. Broad swaths of fenced pastures keep cows, cows and more cows in this field or that one. Occasional sheep as well. But mostly (and surprisingly) cows. As one local put it “If there’s one thing we produce here, it’s grass!”

So, my idea of Orkney was that it would be akin to Shetland, or even the northwest coast. But in fact, it was pastoral and gentle.

One of the few pictures I took of the countryside in Orkney. It just seemed so unremarkable. Like pastures and farmhouses and livestock anywhere…

On arriving, we drove from the ferry at St. Margaret’s northward. Farms, cows, fields, occasional small townships. By the way, we were mostly on single track roads during our time in Orkney. While this might intimidate some people – you have to stop and back up to a passing place or move forward to one when you encounter a car coming from the opposite direction and much of your drive time feels like a mad game of chicken – Heather gets a special gleam in her eye when we drive these roads. If I didn’t know her so well, I’d be nervous. However, she drives the UK the way others approach video games. I’m good at this and I WILL WIN. I just knit and look at the passing landscape.

We stopped at the lovely Hoxa Gallery. They do beautiful tapestry work. I took a few pictures as I began wandering in there. The proprietor left the folks with whom he was conducting a transaction to tell me, quite severely, that there is no photographing allowed. Only then did I notice the 733 graphic signs all over the place: a camera with red circle and line through it (the international sign for No! Don’t do it!) I was so embarrassed. It put me in a bad mood for quite a while, as I berated myself endlessly for being a bad tourist.

Notice, please, that I am posting no photos of Hoxa Gallery or the work therein. Good Suzie.

We drove into the largest town on the Islands, Kirkwall, for a visit and tour of the famed Highland Park Distillery.

Highland Park whiskey is bright (like the Speyside whiskies) with just a hint of pear. Not smoky, like those ones from the western isles. Ach, it’s like kissing an ashtray, those whiskies from Islay! Here’s what I learned about peat: on Orkney, there are no trees, so all the peat is made from thousands of years of condensed heather and other wildflowers. When burned to heat the barley, it imparts a sweet roast. (As opposed to those other, uncivilized peat blocks that include trees and make smoky smoke.) So, it might be a load of marketing shite, but it was poetically presented.

If you’ve ever taken a distillery tour, you know the general process used to create whisky from three ingredients: barley, water and yeast. Every tour imparts the same basic information and then shows you their facilities for doing so. But then each whisky producer must convey to you why their whisky is so special, or so well thought of, or so worth buying. Highland Park was no disappointment in that arena. They are among the preeminent whiskies made in the country. And they let you know it!

We next made our way down into Kirkwall, the largest town on the island. A dance to find parking, a dance to find the hotel, a dance to find our way to our room… and then a brief hour to take a bit of a wander. I stepped out on my own to explore Kirkwall.

St. Magnus Cathedral. I’ll get back to that later.
And, not to be missed… Monday Night Lawnbowling!!!

Our evening meal was a series of frustrating incidents involving children with loud bleeping, blurping and wooping video games at their table, fifteen minutes of no one approaching our table, getting up and wandering Kirkwall in search od somewhere to eat dinner during a pandemic and on a Monday night, a very overwhelmed but wonderful host at the Kirkwall Hotel restaurant finding us a table and bringing us drinks and dinner finally by about 9 pm. Whew! Roll ourselves back to the hotel and up the stairs to our room… and you can understand why I thought to myself “Well, I’ll take a night off from writing. I’ll have time tomorrow and having an extra bit to write about will be well worth the sleep I get tonight”.

Which is much like using your credit card to pay for something you can’t afford. You think you’ll be able to pay for it later, forgetting (possibly on purpose) that you’ll need that money for things that lie ahead.

Since I’ve not travelled in such a long time, I forgot how the cumulative small difficulties of travel add up to overwhelm you occasionally, how the vagaries of schedule and technology impact your ability to do what you set out to do, and how many thoughts I would want to share would simply be lost among the days’ events.

Perhaps telling you of the trip in such detail is an unreasonably high mark to set.

Perhaps the fact that I’m writing on Thursday about events on Monday makes me feel incredibly behind.

Perhaps none of it matters. I forgot the most fundamental element involved with travel: you really have no idea what you will encounter. And that only matters – or is alarming – if you think something has to happen in a particular way. (Then doesn’t.)

So, let’s try a new approach, shall we? I’ll write as I’m able. I’ll post as I’m able. And I’ll write what seems worthwhile to share rather than every little sequential detail. How’s that?

Resounding silence comes back at me.

Oh, right! You have no choice in the matter!

Well, I’m off for the day’s events. I believe it involves a sheep sale preview, some fine bakery goods and a lot more conversation.



  1. When I started traveling again in 2016 (I’d been to Europe, especially Scotland, in the mid-1970s) I decided I’d choose a guided tour as gone were the days of just roll into town and look for a b&b. All, or most, of Suzie’s frustrations are eliminated for RTT travelers. You get up, eat breakfast, and wait to be told where we’re going. Thanks for working out the kinks Heather and Suzie.


  2. love details sweeping through days!

    On Fri, Aug 20, 2021 at 2:19 AM Studio Briddsang wrote:

    > esuzabeth posted: ” On the ferry to Orkney. Here’s where things on the > trip took a turn for the difficult. Overscheduling. Fatigue. Separating the > wheat from the chaffe. My time in the Orkney Islands was a strange > combination of wonderful and disappointing. As usual, tra” >


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