A few years ago – five years ago, in fact – I went off to Orkney & Shetland. I had seen something – or not seen something, more accurately – that made me go “well, fine, then I’ll just go as far as I can then!” and booked myself a ticket for Orkney on the grounds that you can’t really get any further from Dorset while still remaining within the UK. And then I sort of discovered that I wanted to go to Shetland as well, justified by the fact that it would take a lot to get me to this part of the world again and I really should do it all at once but by then it was too late to do a round trip, into Shetland, across to Orkney and then home because I’d already booked the Orkney flights and Flybe aren’t all that friendly towards round trips and I would have had to book them all separately.
I know I’m being vague about my motivations, by the way. That bit of the story isn’t one I’m desperate to share with the internet.
(Orkney also turned out to be a stop on Juliet’s Stalking Olaf Tryggvason tour of 2011.)
In the end, the plan came down to less than twenty-four hours on Shetland, in October. I flew over from Orkney, a twenty-minute flight on what I shall refer to as a winged minibus, with a minimum of panic. I’d left my big bag – and it wasn’t even big – on Orkney and just brought a little 18 litre daysack with enough provisions for one day. However, since I knew getting anything to drink would be next to impossible, I’d packed a two litre Vapur bottle and that meant the bag had to go in the hold. It’s not too much of a problem – neither Orkney nor Shetland have the sort of airport where baggage reclaim takes up too much time and I didn’t have to pay extra to do it, but other than the bottle, I’d packed so I didn’t have to check it.
Anyway. For some reason that still eludes me, I’d decided to steer clear of Lerwick, or anything resembling civilisation. I’d found a place a mere handful of miles from the airport, which is right on the southern tip of Shetland, and I would take the bus.
It turns out the bus that goes to the stop I’d planned only goes there about once a week, so I was dropped off along the main road, four miles from the airport and two miles from where I needed to be. Fortunately, two miles in a straight line along a deserted road is no problem and although it was a bit breezy, it was a nice afternoon and those two miles were very pleasant.
I reached the hotel – well, a country hotel inn back then, then a guesthouse and evidently closed just a couple of weeks ago. It was somewhat on the old-fashioned side, by which I mean that my grandparents would probably consider it old-fashioned. It was also deserted because October really isn’t prime tourist season. I’m not sure whether I was the only guest or one of two but certainly… it was quiet. I feel like I’m criticising it unnecessarily when I call it old-fashioned. It had narrow corridors, on the dark side, and breakfast served in the bar and red flowered carpet but my room was light and airy and if the place felt weird, it was simply because there was no one else there.
My room was nice. Big bed, big wardrobe, big bath and separate huge shower, with a view of fields and white stone houses and the loch and I absolutely wasn’t scared of the wardrobe. Definitely not too scared to open it or go near. Definitely not so scared of it that it gives me the shivers five years later. I’m not irrational about wardrobes.
Since it was still early to mid afternoon I went out, and it was a good thing I did because – to skip ahead – the next day was freezing and windy and miserable. I skipped down the road and met a flock of sheep. I like farm animals – I don’t have it in me to not moo in greeting to any cow I see – so I stopped to talk to the sheep and observe a crow perched on the back of one of them. And these sheep had really cute faces.
The weather had already started to deteriorate somewhat. The loch, up close, was rough enough that I wouldn’t want to be out in a boat on it. I glanced at it, because if I was staying at Loch Spiggie, then I was going to see Loch Spiggie and then I crossed the road, went through a gap in the dunes and found one of these perfect tropical beaches that feature in Buzzfeed articles on 21 Beaches You Won’t Believe Are In Scotland! The water was the bluest blue even with the sky rapidly greying and the sand was white, if whipping around and trying to take my skin off. At one end was a very typically Scottish grey-green hill with a smattering of whitewashed farmhouses and pylons on the top and at the other was a lowish headland.
Once I couldn’t feel my face anymore, I left the perfect beach and carried on down the road. There were some cliffs in the distance and I like me a bit of cliff. I didn’t actually go down to the cliff. It was cold and it was now windy enough that I was likely to get blown into the sea if I got too close to any kind of drop into it. I have a dim and vague memory of a memory card around here – did I find one dropped beside the road? Did I take mine out? If I did, I didn’t lose it because I have the photos safe and sound. That’s the kind of detail you never bother writing down but it sticks in a corner of your mind. I think I found one. I wonder what happened to it?
As I retreated to the warmth of the hotel, and a promise of a bath, it became windy enough that I began to worry about being blown into the path of the one car that came down this road that week, which could be relied upon to come past at the very second I fell into the road. Drive on the left, walk on the right but I made the decision to walk on the left, feeling less likely to be blown away and killed that way. And nothing came along anyway.
I went back to the hotel, indulged in the promised bath with half a book (Lazybones by Mark Billingham, if you care), daydreamed a story about a spy marooned here watching a smuggling ring and then didn’t sleep very well. It was windy and I’m irrationally nervous of the wind. Too many fence panels blown down as a kid; I’m always convinced it’ll be the roof next.
Whatever plans I’d had for the next morning vanished in the wind and the greyness. I’d booked breakfast at 8 but I’d had enough of trying to sleep long before then and I put on the TV and watched the Hoobs. I don’t even remember doing it but it must have been the first and last time I’ve watched TV while I’ve been away. Even at home, all I watch is the Big Bang Theory and Mock the Week, and then only if I’m in the room when they’re on. I have a soft spot for the Hoobs because one of the puppeteers was a puppeteer on Farscape.
At 8 I went down for breakfast – “a choice of things that come in a bowl” says my notes from the time, like cereal or porridge or yoghurt. Apparently I opted for cornflakes and then, having declined bacon and eggs, I was brought some toast.
My plan had been to walk the two miles back to the bus stop but the owner was going into town and if I could delay leaving by ten minutes, he’d run me to the bus stop. Well, that meant I’d get to the bus stop three quarters of an hour before I’d planned to but what could I do or say? And the weather wasn’t exactly good.
I felt like I was at that bus stop for hours. I could hear the sea battering the cliffs well away in the distance behind me, like the booming of cannons and although I was dressed for the weather – overdressed, perhaps, I’d taken comparisons of the Gulf Stream effect between Iceland and the Western Isles to mean that the climate was similar. I’d brought Yaktrax with me to Orkney in October! – it was cold. I experimented with standing behind the bus shelter rather than inside it and found that not only was it marginally more sheltered but also, much to my astonishment, the breeze that came through the bottom of it was pleasantly warm.
My notes say I was in fact only there ten minutes and in mere moments I was at the airport. And then the trouble began. I’d intended to explore the cliffs and the Jarlshof archaeological site but it was far too cold and windy. I could hardly stand up against the wind to take photos of the sea battering the runway. I retreated inside and killed about four hours, in the second most boring airport in the world, reading my way through a book and a half. I’d brought two books with me for those twenty-four hours, on the grounds that I was halfway through the first book but I then had to buy another book at the miniature shop. I literally read two books in a row while waiting for my winged minibus (Labyrinth by Mark T Sullivan and Broken by Karim Fossum, if you care).
I got caught out by the winged minibus – a few minutes into the flight, they announced that we would shortly be landing. On an international flight, that means you’re twenty or twenty-five minutes from touching down at Heathrow and it’s the cue to start packing up and preparing. On a Shetland-Orkney flight, that twenty-five minute warning is before you’ve even got on the plane. I spent about 85% of that flight looking eagerly out of the window, thinking we were about to land when in fact, we’d only just taken off. It was still windy at Orkney; the plane rocked alarmingly but I was in a particularly calm and non-emetophobic mood on that particular flight, thanks to the other occupants of my row.
At last we landed. Half the passengers disembarked; the rest were continuing to the mainland. I had the palaver of fetching my checked-in bag again and I took the bus back to my hostel on the other side of town and started on yet another book (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carré, if you care, which I just couldn’t get into at all).