When we flew back from Dublin to London, our Ryanair coyotes hustled us off the plane, across the tarmac and up some strange back stairwell into Gatwick airport. I’d been wondering if we’d need to go through immigration control going from Ireland back into England, but that point was made moot by our use of the service entrance.
Finding the rental car area in a UK airport is much tougher than it is in the US, because no one drives over there. Huge signs will direct you to the trains, the buses, the underground or the mule carts, but if you want to rent a car you’re looking for a piece of notebook paper somebody scotch-taped to the wall.
Once we found the right place I punched my reservation number into a kiosk in the middle of the room and a rental agent was released from a cold storage locker to assist us. He was very friendly and unintentionally made me laugh by questioning the address on my driver’s license and saying “This is your address? You Yanks have strange addresses.” This was funny because British addresses generally look like this: “Nigel Krunk, 2B Hyland Court, Church Street, Zippleshits Lane, The Beehive, Chelsea’s a Bitch, Rodentia Boulevard, Turn Left at the Cow, Middlesex, Leftsex, Schnozberry Gardens, Crustworthy, United Kingdom 0IC U812.” Having anything shipped to my sister in London is always an exercise in running out of characters in the online address form and then guessing how much of the address I can leave out and still have the package get there. So I tried not to laugh out loud when the guy was baffled by my address because it had “South” in the street name. Wacky yanks.
One thing that I realized was strange for the British is that our address numbers go up so high. So I imagine it was confusing for him that I live at number 2888 when none of their building numbers go past seven.
I’ve rented a lot of cars over the years and am pretty used to the routine, but the thing that caught me off guard in England was how hard they lean on you to upgrade to a nicer car. The second time this happened I realized it was because I’d found a good deal booking online. I don’t know if the agents are on a commission or if their business model is based on listing cheap prices online and then browbeating people into spending more once they’re there in person or what. Both times I rented a car in the UK the agent was very nice and friendly, interested in my travels, etc., then you know, as a friend they’d recommend upgrading to this other car that’s only twice as much as the one you reserved. Because, you know, it’s diesel and you’ll totally come out ahead in the end because the fuel mileage is so much better, you’d really have to be an idiot not to switch.
When you ask for specific fuel economy numbers they don’t know and then start quoting some nonsense about miles “per tank” like that’s a unit of measure anywhere on Earth. And when you say no thanks, at that price getting 10% better mileage would only put me ahead if I drove to the moon and back, they make the car you reserved sound like the biggest piece of shit deathtrap that has ever been recalled seven times. And by the way there’s a dead hooker in the trunk. This goes on for a while. I could tell this usually works, since British people hate awkwardness and confrontation above all else. I was actually kind of amazed that these British rental agents could stand being so pushy. I’m pretty sure they just went home and cried every night.
After a long while the agents give up, and in both cases the tone then shifted very suddenly from friendly conversation to you can take your car and fuck right off now thanks. Oh, so that’s how it’s going to be, British rental guy? I thought we had something special when you mocked my weird yankee address, and now we’re not even friends? I feel used. I’ll just take my Vauxhall and go beat the shit out of it across Scotland for ten days now, thank you very much.
My brother’s girlfriend Libby was along for the trip with us, and when her Scottish co-workers found out that two vegans were traveling to the highlands for ten days, they laughed for about half an hour. And then they politely informed us that Scottish people don’t eat vegetables. This sounded absurd to me, but ended up being 100% true. We somehow found a bottle of cold-pressed kale juice in a Tesco in Scotland and the ruddy-faced cashier looked at it like we’d handed him a dead alien baby. “Ech. Whas this? Ecccch. There’s samethin for all tastes, I guiess.” He shook his head sadly. “So you’re from tha states, then?” I spent much of the rest of the trip doing impressions of this awesome guy. “Me wyfe tried to geh me to try veg-e-table once. She call it a ‘carrot.’ I said nay! Ech.”
I generally found the Scottish people to be very merry and pleasant, if a bit hard-living. However my illusions about meeting a sweet Scottish girl were shattered when 90% of the women we came across fell into either the “just fell out of a pub” or “fully capable and ready to snap me in half and use my corpse as a canoe” camps. There was definitely an undercurrent of tribal history there, like you could believe Braveheart happened last week. We saw one seven-foot tall gentleman on the ferry who looked to be about one generation removed from chopping people’s heads off on the battlefield with an axe. I didn’t see him eat any vegetables.
One thing I found hilarious and inexplicable across the UK was their hatred of redheaded people, or as they call them, gingers. Calling someone a ginger over there is basically the same as calling an American a pedophile. Every time I asked someone why this was, they struggled to explain something that was so obviously self-evident to them, like if someone asked you why you don’t like pain. It wasn’t like “You know I’ve never thought about it, that’s kind of strange!” it was more like “Of course we hate gingers, what right-minded people wouldn’t? Ick.” I struggled to find an American parallel. We tell dumb blonde jokes, but that’s more of a “beautiful people don’t need to be smart” joke, there’s a compliment wrapped up in the insult. People looked at me weird when I explained that redheaded women are considered sexy and somewhat exotic in America. The best explanation I could get out of people was that there was a certain connotation of low intelligence, which must have come from a historical English distain for the Irish and Scottish. Nice one, England.
Strangely, in spite of this deep-seated hatred of gingers, British people put ginger in absolutely everything. This kind of grossed me out for a while, until I just gave up and embraced it. Soon my favorite drink was Gingerella ginger ale, which we fondly referred to as Ginger Bitch so we could fit in over there.
On the way up to Scotland we’d stopped to see some family in the Lake District in Northern England, which was lovely in spite of the 3,000 crows living in the tree outside their cottage, every one of which shit on our car. I also had my dreams of seeing a hedgehog in England shattered, as in spite of the truly obscene number of hedges in the area, they were all hogless. And no one I talked to on the entire trip had actually ever seen a hedgehog, supporting my theory that they’re merely a special effect, like the gopher in Caddyshack.
Walking around in the Lake District was a very welcome break from the hurly-burly that is London, and walking past the old church and the meadow and the cows in the field I realized this scene was exactly what they’re selling you when you buy a box of English breakfast tea. Well that and some packets of dirt and thistle or whatever they put in that shit.
Scraping off the outermost layer of crow squeezins the next morning so we could get into the car, we headed off to Glasgow, where dreams come true. Glasgow is actually a fairly flat industrial city, but they love their music there and we had a nice vegan lunch in spite of the fact that everything was chips on chips and they had a separate more limited menu for sitting outside for no discernible reason, even though you were sitting three feet away from the lucky bastards who were dining indoors.
After we left Glasgow it was up up up to the Isle of Skye, our first real destination in Scotland.
Before I left the US, friends were asking me what part of the trip I expected to enjoy the most. At first I was answering “Paris,” but after some reflection I changed my answer to “Skye” and hot damn, that was the right answer. Skye was every bit as dramatic and enchanting as I’d wanted it to be.
The drive up through the Scottish mainland to Skye was gorgeous, though I realize there are only so many times I can say something was gorgeous before I become the boy who cried gorgeous and you get bored of hearing about it, but suffice it to say it beat a kick in the balls.
There’s a bridge to get to Skye from the mainland, which was nice since ferrying our racy red Vauxhall Insignia from island to island was pretty damned expensive. We cruised up through Skye to its northern end, on up to our rented trailer near the beautifully-named town of Uig (pronounced “oooooooog”).
The trailer (strike that, “caravan”) was a character in and of itself, with walls so thin they were no impediment at all to room-to-room conversation, interior doors that could only be opened one at a time due to space constraints, and the dollhouse-sized room I was sleeping in that was the exact size of the bed frame. The best feature however was that it came stocked with DVDs of Scottish scenery backed by inspirational Jesus music that was really funny for a few minutes and then deeply unnerving for the rest of their running time. Our host was a book illustrator whose unseen back room husband was probably not the woman doing a deeper voice, probably, but she was very kind and let us jump on her trampoline and she put up with our general weirdness and the fact that we found one of her books somehow buried in the car when we were returning the rental. Our deepest apologies, Scottish Illustrator Jesus Lady.
The thing that stands out most in memory about that caravan though was that there were aliens outside. My brother and I were standing outside as it got dark and something flew over our heads going waggagaaagaggagaggaaaa, a strange electronic undulating sound that sounded like a space goat on acid. It was too dark to see what it was even though it made several passes, a dark blur would arc just over our heads in the twilight and then suddenly change direction, making sure we knew that waggagawaagaaaggaagaaagaaa. We stood out there for a long time theorizing about if it was some kind of robotic bird, or a bat, a huge insect, or a very small flying saucer. In the end I decided it must be a bat because I didn’t want to think there were only tinfoil caravan walls between us and bugs that freaking big.
We spent much of our time in Scotland trying to figure out what the hell those things were, even trying to come up with the best way to ask the locals without being that guy who walks up to a stranger on the street and says “Hey! What’s that thing that goes WAAGAGAGAGAGAGAGAAAA?”
A few days later we were at Uig Sands beach on Isle of Lewis (this is unrelated to the Uig on Skye, “Uig” means bay in Norse so there are Uigs all over the place) when the sound caught up to us again. WAAGAAGAAAGAGAGAGGAGA. Is that how it’s spelled? Maybe it’s OOLLULULULULULULULU, it depends on your accent I suppose. It wasn’t quite twilight this time so I was able to discern that it wasn’t a bat or an alien robot superbug, it actually was a bird that was zipping over our heads in unpredictable swooping arcs. WAAAAGAAAGAGAGAGGAA. I couldn’t figure out how in the hell this little bird was even making that sound, we’d ruled out birds in the first place because they don’t have synthesizers. Unfortunately, this bird didn’t have any ID on him and we had to let him go.
For the rest of our time in the Scottish isles, in the very small pockets of time when my phone would stumble across signal for a minute or two, I’d Google bird forums and try to figure out what the fuck this thing was. I was in a Tesco on Orkney on their free Wifi when I finally found a recording of what we were hearing. The answer was almost insulting: The Common Snipe. Common Snipe? That makes it sound like a dime-a-dozen city bird, not something we were going to catch and sell to the National Enquirer. But that was it, the common snipe. It turns out the bird attracts a mate by flying around like an asshole and divebombing so fast its tail-feathers vibrate together and make that Space Invaders sound:
Our annoyance at having been on a snipe hunt all along was assuaged when I learned that the Finnish call them Taivaanvuohi (“sky goat”), which is more like it. They’re also known as “heaven’s ram” which I don’t know if that even makes sense but it still sounds pretty badass.
Back on Skye, our first morning we woke up and set off to find the Faerie Glen. This wasn’t on any of the maps and all the directions I could find were along the lines of “Drive to the Uig Hotel and ask Dennis. He knows where it is.” Finding the glen is half the charm, though I’m not sure how that math works if you never find it. We got to the general area and started walking around, then eventually asked someone who lived there and then walked back to our car because we weren’t actually in the general area at all. But they pointed us in the right direction and before we knew it, the hills around us were pointed and curly and tufted with strange rings of grass. There was no obvious place to park or sign that you were actually there, but eventually the road dead-ended into someone’s driveway so clearly that must have been it back there, let’s see how fast this car can go in reverse.
We got out and hiked up into the pointy fairy hills and down into the glen. A tiny waterfall ran down an even tinier rocky creek that I hiked along while Aster and Libby surveyed the scene from the tops of the pointy hills like giants in a miniature landscape. Further down the creek bed I came into a secluded valley nestled between the hills that was full of perfect multicolored square boulders, and I stood there for quite a long time under a tree, soaking up the playful energy of the place and watching an ewe with a tiny lamb in tow very slowly graze their way up a winding path on up the hillside. This was one of those moments in life you wouldn’t mind staying in forever, existing in a perfect peace apart from everything you’ve ever known.
After returning from the Faerie Glen we hiked past some very excited dogs to the Rha waterfall...
...then drove up around the north tip of the island and past many extremely ambitious cyclists. I should probably mention that we lucked into five or six sunny days in a row at the beginning of our Scotland trip, which is completely unheard of for this part of the world. The day before we left they had a halfway decent day in London and that was literally the only thing on the news. It seemed fairly unspectacular to me but I could tell from everyone’s reactions that this was the sun their grandparents had told them about when they were young but that they had only taken as legend. By the end of the Scotland trip British weather caught up with us in Orkney and I finally understood what everyone had been so excited about.
On the other side of Skye we hiked up Quiraing, which I’d call a mountain range but they call a landslip, you say tomato I say giant clown nose, whatever. Suffice it to say it’s a very unique landscape with breathtaking views out to the sea, and it’s a fun word to say. At one point we decided the trail wasn’t steep enough and opted to climb straight up the slide of the slip, which isn’t something I’d recommend at all.
After that we stopped at the Kilt Rock waterfall, then hiked out to see the Old Man of Storr (they like comparing everything to old men up there), basically it was a rock that I think would have been pretty impressive from the proper vantage point, perhaps that of a helicopter, but from the ground it was kind of bullshit and I lost some tour guide credibility by dragging everyone up a landslip to see that thing.
Much more successful was our journey out to the Fairy Pools, a series of crystal-clear waterfalls streaming down from the Cullin mountains that drop into a long series pools in vivid shades of greens and blues. This proved to be a perfect place to strip down to your pants (that’s British for underwear) and dive in. Everyone there was either there to strip down to their bare ass and frolic in the water, or there to take beautiful undisturbed nature photographs, two populations that existed in absolute conflict with each other. I received an equal mixture of thumbs-up and annoyed frowns for being in my underwear in public, which has been my experience in most countries.
As the sun was starting to get low in the sky on our drippy wet hike back to the car, we decided to squeeze in one last sight to see: Catching the sunset from Neist Point all the way out on Skye’s far west coast. So I drove like a common snipe trying to impress the ladies, bombing down Skye’s windy little roads and dodging sheep left and right in a race against the setting sun. This was not helped at all by the fact that the sheep seemed to be congregating right on the edges of the roads. We were trying to figure out if the road was warm or if it’s a sheep’s natural defense to imitate a speedbump, but whatever the reason they were all over the road. I made a joke in the Ireland chapter about Ireland having more sheep than people… I’ve since learned that this is actually true. And it’s true in Iceland. And Scotland. So you can sense a theme here. If you’re wondering why there aren’t more people in my vacation photos, they’re behind the sheep.
We got to the coast right as the sun was starting to set and launched out of the car in a sprint to get to the cliff’s edge before the show was over. One thing I’ll warn you about regarding Scotland: You see that beautiful green field there that you really want to run across? Even though you can’t see it at all, randomly strewn throughout the field are three-foot-deep patches of bog that you will absolutely lose a shoe if you step in. That lovely lawn between us and the cliff was like a minefield of wet socks and broken dreams. “GAH!” “Ha ha, you-OH dammit” “Scotland, you ginger bitch!”
But we did make it, and were treated to a glorious sunset as we perched on the cliff face with our feet dangling over the edge and watched the Neist Point lighthouse signal its existence out across the sea. And the lighthouse on the next island over answered back in flashes of white, as the wandering lambs on the grass far below us were separated and reunited with their mothers in waves and the ewes took no mind of any of this at all in their singular and devoted pursuit of chewing the living shit out of that grass.
On the way back from the cliffs in the dark, there were all kinds of sheep just sleeping right in the middle of the road. I pulled up to a group of about five sheep napping right in the middle of the lane and honked my horn. All but one of them got up and trotted over to the side of the road, while the fifth sheep just stared at our car. I waited a second and then honked again. The sheep’s eyes went wide and without getting up at all he looked over at his friends by the side of the road in a panic, like “Guys?? Is he honking at me?” After a pause I honked again and his eyes got really big, like “Oh my God! He IS honking at me!” Pause for a beat, then he looked over at his friends. “Guys? WHY is he honking at me?” Still hadn’t moved an inch. I rolled forward until I was almost touching the sheep and honked again, at which point he saw a tasty-looking dandelion over by the side of the road and ran over to eat that.
The rest of the drive was like they had just laid the road yesterday through a field of sheep and the sheep hadn’t adjusted yet. They were all over the place. Having had limited success with the horn I experimented with other methods of interspecies communication. Since your main way of communicating with other drivers in the UK is by flashing your brights, I experimented with flashing my high beams at the sheep in the road. This just seemed to hypnotize them. I’m pretty sure if you figured out the right sequence of flashes you could program sheep to do your laundry or mow your lawn, but we didn’t have that kind of time.
The next morning we were up at the crack of damn these walls are thin, packed up the car to the cooing of the cuckoos in the trees, and jammed down to the port in Uig to catch the ferry to the bustling metropolis of Tarbert on the Isle of Harris.
This was my first time on a British ferry, and I was surprised by the café, the gift shop, and most of all the casino located inside. I’m not sure how gambling laws work in the UK, there were certainly bookie shops all over the place in London and at a highway rest stop I approached what I thought was a pinball arcade only to find it was actually a nook full of electronic gambling machines. But we had no time at all to explore this since the ferry had couches in the forward lounge and this meant naptime!
I vaguely remember having some kind of strange ferry-themed dream and then we were there. While filing down to our cars to exit the ferry, several announcements were made over the loudspeakers by the Scottish crew. I figured I must be groggy since none of that made any sense to me at all. Then one English passenger nearby asked another “Did you catch any of that?” “Nope.” Oh Scotland, your accents are adorable and I hope none of that information was important for our survival.
We wheeled through Tarbert and off onto the Isle of Harris’s famed Golden Road, the scenic drive to beat all Scottish scenic drives. Why is it called The Golden Road? Because it was damned expensive to build. I’m not sure why, it was a fairly standard “No seriously this is two lanes?” Scottish road, which was precisely the width of our car. But whether they’d had to pave it in gingers or what I was happy they had since it was a lovely scenic drive, constantly winding and dipping and weaving amongst Harris’s bizarre lunar landscape.
The exciting and unnerving thing about driving on Harris was that the road was constantly dipping up and down, up and down, so you’d accelerate to the crest of a hill with no idea what was going to be waiting for you at the top. The road could suddenly veer to the left, or there could be a sheep there, or a house, or the sea.
The biggest surprise on Harris was Scarista Beach in Luskentyre, an inexplicably tropical beach on the west coast of the island. It was completely surreal to be standing in crystal blue waters on a powdery golden sand beach that had clearly been transported there from the Bahamas, only to remind yourself that you’re way the hell north in Scotland, at the same latitude as Alaska. The illusion was shattered somewhat when you ran down the beach stripping off your clothes and splashed into the water and it was roughly the temperature of liquid nitrogen, but still, this was an amazing place.
From there we crossed over to the Isle of Lewis, which actually isn’t a separate island but people refer to the north and south halves like they’re separate islands so they have somebody to talk shit about. We headed to Stornoway and checked into our AirBnB, which was a cute little house being rented out by an adorable Scottish woman who didn’t live there any more because she was marrying her neighbor and I wish we’d had more time for that story. This was easily the most comfortable place we stayed in Scotland, so it was a real shame that we spent about six hours there. After dropping off our stuff we were out again and off to see the Callanish Standing Stones, my main reason for wanting to visit Harris & Lewis in the first place.
Callanish did not disappoint, as it immediately wrestled with the Faerie Glen to be my favorite thing I saw on this entire trip. Part of this I think was the seclusion, we had the 5,000-year-old stone circle to ourselves and it was tucked away enough to not get major tourist traffic and had retained its enchanted feeling.
When I walked up to the first stone and put my hand on it, I almost yanked it back because it felt like touching a person, resting your hand on the curve of someone’s hip, the sense of presence was tangible. Walking from stone to stone this experience repeated, the energy a bit different at each one.
I put my hands on one relatively nondescript-looking stone well into the ring, and felt a presence extending deep into the ground. Interesting. I stood there for several minutes as the feeling refined into an inexpressible sense of communication.
Somewhat startled, I stepped back from the stone and got my bearings. I looked down, and down in the grass at my feet, there was my name. I blinked hard. There it was, four letters spelled out in the patterns of shadow and light amongst the blades of grass. Wow, that’s got to be a crazy hallucination.
I walked away, then came back. It was still there.
It appeared that whatever energy existed in the stones, Earth energy, elementals, nature spirits, whatever name you want to give it, was letting me know I could communicate with it.
It seemed that my life was opening a new door. I thought back to what a rough time I’d had with the dense energy in London and Paris and how maybe that was just the downside of a new awareness that was opening up for me. This in front of me was the upside.
For a minute I couldn’t believe it. But as I reflected, I was reminded that this experience wasn’t entirely unprecedented. Years ago when I was hiking in the woods in Minnesota I came around a bend in the trail and up ahead there was a little man, about a foot tall, standing at the base of a tree. Clear as day. I stood and watched him for a few minutes until he seemed to realize I was looking at him, not through him. It was like he wasn’t used to being seen. And just like that, he stepped into the tree as if through liquid, and he was gone.
A few years after that I was hiking with my brother in Pennsylvania and came into a grove of trees where there were little balls of light floating around the forest floor. I sat down and as one light floated by I had a brief mental conversation with it. This went something like “Holy shit, you’re amazing!” “You’re the one in a body, you’re more powerful than me.”
Last year I found a book on nature elementals. The chapter on Earth elementals included a drawing of the little dude I’d seen in the woods, and described exactly what I’d seen when he disappeared into the tree. The chapter on Air elementals described what I had experienced in Pennsylvania. Well okay then.
Now here I am in Scotland, and the rocks are talking to me. All right, I’m gonna roll with this. Scotland, you need to update your travel brochures.
From there we headed to Uig Sands beach, made famous by the ancient Viking chess pieces discovered there, which had been carved out of walrus tusks and I guess this was all a big deal for some reason. In commemoration of this momentous event somebody had carved a giant life-sized Viking chess king and put it on the beach, which was pretty cool. I was in the middle of a staring contest with the king when a snipe flew overhead and told me hey, by the way, WAAGAAGAGAGAGAAAGGGAAA.
Uig Sands was a beautiful white sand beach that we enjoyed fully while lying and watching the sun set into the ocean, with the company of about 10,000 rabbits that lived in a rabbit apartment complex in the next dune over.
In the morning we got up at the crack of oh my god and caught the early morning ferry from Stornoway to Ullapool on the mainland. I honestly don’t remember this ferry at all so I must have been sleeping pretty hard. Getting back to the mainland from Lewis, we had an eight-hour drive ahead of us to the northern tip of Scotland, where we’d catch our ferry to Orkney. Rather than going the shortest route inland, we followed some local advice and stuck to the west and north coasts, which was one of the best choices of the entire trip, as this drive was really stunning. We rose in elevation as we went north, and before long we were driving among mountain tops and pristine alpine lakes. This was the kind of landscape you associate with Colorado or Montana, not something I expected to see in the UK. The hillsides were on fire with bright yellow gorse, flowers so pretty and vibrant I reached out the car window to grab a handful before discovering that they’re jam-packed with these goddamn three-inch-long thorns and now I’m all mixed up inside, beauty and pain are as one, thanks a lot Scotland.
Occasionally the road would crest a summit only to suddenly drop straight down into a lush little valley tucked between the mountains before shooting back up again. Scotland was just kind of showing off at this point.
After all the crazy driving in Ireland, it wasn’t until Scotland that I nearly killed everyone. We were barreling through a wide-open valley in the highlands at around 85 when I made a slight, seemingly-innocuous unconscious adjustment to the left to make room for a line of cars coming toward us. Unfortunately the road was a little narrower than it looked in that spot and our left wheels went just a smidge off the pavement, which was enough to catch loose gravel and yank the car violently off the road. Fighting the car back over the lip of the pavement and back onto the road required a sharp turn to the right, which put us right into the path of the rapidly approaching oncoming cars, and what followed was basically a high speed slalom back and forth between almost dying on the left and almost dying on the right, zig-zag, zig-zag. Thankfully after several seconds of pure chaos I was able to center the car and get control of things again, at which point Libby woke up and asked why all the food in the car was now in the back seat.
And so we lived to see another town, and that town was Thurso. Due to the timing of the ferries we had plenty of time to kill in Thurso, and we killed it by eating at an inexplicably placed health food store and café called Carrot’s. Our joy at finding a vegan-friendly eatery that far north was enough to overcome the fact that the Scottish cope with the few vegetables they occasionally eat on accident by overcooking them into a meat-like mush. My brother ordered a flapjack, which I was excited to try since I hadn’t had pancakes in ages. Imagine my surprise when it came out and, joke’s on you, yank, flapjacks are what we call mushy granola bars over here. Good one, Scotland, only not really.
On our way out we bought up pretty much their entire stock of vegan chocolates and treats because that’s how we roll. When we left, the woman behind the counter said goodbye to us 47 times. “Thank you goodbye goodbye goodbye goodbye thanks goodbye goodbye yep goodbye good day goodbye goodbye goodbye have a goodbye goodbye goodbye goodbye goodbye.” I found this quite odd until I remembered the chapter that Libby had read to us from her book on British customs, which talked about how it takes at least an hour to say goodbye to a British person because of their innate awkwardness, which leads to extremely long goodbye rituals and many rounds of “We really must get together again”s. It was clear this Scottish woman had been deeply scarred by a lifetime of this bullshit and was attempting to get through the entire ordeal in fast-forward, a sure sign of British post-traumatic social stress disorder.
After some general wandering around we sent some postcards and bought some drinks and before we knew it, we were over in fabulously-named nearby Scrabster and on the ferry to Orkney. Orkney! The most mysterious of the Scottish isles if you’re American and don’t realize this is the isle that everyone goes to because it’s the most like mainland Britain! Orkney! That ancient wonderland of spiritual-no wait it’s a bunch of grass and sheep. Orkney!
After boarding the ferry we staked out the best place to nap, which on this boat was a café with comfy booths and inexplicably mirrored ceilings:
Thankfully we woke up just in time to run out on the deck and see the Old Man of Hoy, which is a huge rock on the coast that sort of looks like an old dude ordering soup. Mark that sucker off the list. Soon we were disembarking in Stromness, wheeling through Kirkwall, and across the Churchill Barriers to the isles of Burray and South Ronaldsay, where we were staying at an organic farm on the beach. Without fully realizing that we had just seen a sped-up preview of pretty much everything we’d be seeing in our days on Orkney (it’s not a huge place), we parked our car on the grass and piled into the yurt for some yurtin’ good times.
If you’ve never stayed in a yurt, and I’m guessing you haven’t because unless you’ve been holding out on me you’re not Kazakhstani, it’s like a big wooden tent covered in blankets and whatnot, with a little metal stove in the middle. Ours also had a bed and a couple of chairs, all of which felt pretty rustic and authentic. The general idea is that the whole thing can be broken down and schlepped on a camel’s back in case you need to bust ass across the steppe because Attila the Hun is coming or because you just realized you’re in Orkney and you must be very very lost. What I’m not sure they’re made for are the nearly-constant high winds on Orkney, a consequence of there being no trees or features at all on the island, but thankfully ours was strapped down and if it came loose it wasn’t going to be that long of a cartwheel ride down into the ocean anyway.
I was sleeping on a traditional Kazakh futon mattress on the floor, and once Aster got a roaring fire going in the stove it was nice and still cold as a motherfucker in that yurt, oh my God. Libby introduced us to the British custom of sleeping with a hot water bottle in your bed, which seemed like a low-tech solution but made me feel like Goofy in an old Disney cartoon and the overall effect was quite lovely.
I set an alarm for five so I could see the sun rise over the ocean, but when I got up at 4:30 the sun had somehow already been up for about three hours, so I just enjoyed a walk along the lawn and the opportunity to get my shoes really, really wet, which was the natural state of things in Scotland. I came to understand a bit about the British love of really quite awful tea from the fact that it was unrelentingly damp and windy and damp and cold and damp most all of the time, which of course is going to make you want to pour something hot down your face even if it’s been steeped in owl pellets.
Our first stop on our big Orkney adventure day was The Italian Chapel, which is a small church built by Italian prisoners of war during WWII. I’d never really thought about where the British kept their prisoners of war and it turns out it was Orkney. No insult intended to Orkneyans, but when the worst punishment your government can think of is to send people to live with you, it’s time to take a hint or at least get somewhat offended. I think the Italian prisoners mostly just played volleyball and huddled behind sheep to get out of the wind until a cheeky German U-boat commander snuck his submarine through the narrow channels between the Orkney islands and sunk the battleship HMS Royal Oak in the Scapa Flow waters, something no one had figured to be possible. Due to being the point in the UK the furthest from the airfields of Germany, this is where the British fleet liked to hang out, so it was kind of a problem that U-boats were suddenly showing up uninvited.
So the Italian prisoners were put to work casting huge blocks of concrete and dumping them into the channels between the islands, thousands of them, until there was no way for submarines to pass through. The side benefit of this being they could then build roads on top of the huge piles of concrete rubble and American tourists could wonder what all the “You drive on this shit at your own risk” signs meant as they’re driving obliviously from island to island.
Eventually the Italian prisoners finished building these Churchill Causeways and had some free time on their hands, so they built a church out of a couple of barracks and whatever random garbage there was in the surrounding area that wasn’t nailed down. A really impressive church. The concrete walls were painted to look like brick (take that, contact paper!) and the concrete floors were etched to look like stone tiles and they’d somehow fished metal out of shipwrecks in the area to fashion delicate wrought-iron gates and railings. The head prisoner in charge of building the church actually got so into it he refused to leave when the war ended and stayed on in the prison camp to finish the church. Several decades later, the church was in need of repairs as tends to happen when you make a church out of trash, so the BBC shone the Italian Prisoner Architect signal in the sky and the dude came back and fixed that shit up before disappearing again into the night.
In Kirkwall we stopped into St Magnus Cathedral, which was very dark and rough-hewn and interesting, with a bizarre layout that featured at least three different altars. Reading the plaques in these churches is always a gamble because you may not have wanted to know that so and so is buried in this pillar or that you can’t go downstairs and tour the dungeon until 3pm. Dungeon? Oh, Christianity.
One of the bizarre highlights of the church was the “Weeping Window,” a window on the front side of the cathedral that had thousands of ceramic poppies streaming out of it, down the side of the building, and across the front steps. This was supposed to commemorate the British lives lost during WWI, though I don’t think the Wizard of Oz fans napping in the middle of the whole thing knew this.
The main reason I’d wanted to go to Orkney was to see the Standing Stones of Stenness, a circle of four twenty-foot tall Neolithic standing stones from 3100 BC. Apparently there were several more stones in the circle until the early 1800s, when a hilarious asshole by the name of Captain Mackay started blowing up the stones with dynamite because people were cutting through his field to go see them. He’d blown up a few before the locals returned the favor by trying multiple times to burn down his house, then finally the authorities had to get involved and James Cameron’s lawyers shut the whole thing down for stealing the plot of Avatar in advance.
The stones themselves were cool to see up close, imposing and oddly shaped, and the mystery of their original intent was juxtaposed sharply with the half-dozen derpy sheep they had fenced in with the stones on permanent lawn-mowing duty. These were some of my favorite standing stones that we saw, not quite up to the standard of the Callanish stones, but worth a week of eating Scottish food to see.
I stood in one particular spot amongst the stones and closed my eyes, trying to tune in to whatever was there. I felt my entire body turn into flames and rise up into the sky. Well hey, that’s never happened before. I mentioned this to Aster and he laughed. What?
“I just read the information plaque over there. You were standing in the spot where they used to have the ceremonial fires. Good tuning in, ha ha.”
Not far away was the Ring of Brodgar, a younger and much larger circle of 27 stones much more popular with the tourists and much less popular with the sheep. This was decked out with numerous signs warning you to not walk across the center of the circle, as it was clearly a time portal of some kind. We did the loop and introduced ourselves to all of the stones, though unfortunately they all had the personality of the board of directors of your local bank. We blamed the high level of foot traffic and the lack of a crazy dynamite farmer backstory.
After the Ring we headed to the beach to spot some puffins, which we were convinced were hiding deftly in the rocks rather than wintering in Morocco as all easily-deceived sources of information claimed. Sadly, puffins are crafty birds and we had to settle for a decoy puffin they’d made of shells and random debris to satisfy the tourists, though we did have a nice nap on the big flat stones that tilted like an escalator rising up out of the sea.
A meal of very expensively mediocre Indian food later and we were tucked into the yurt like bugs in a wet, shivery rug and off to sleep.
The next morning we woke up early in the yurt that was cold in a way that only a yurt on the beach can be, and we broke things down in a hurry to make it to the early ferry back to the mainland. There are two ferry companies that take people and cars to Orkney, on the way out we’d taken the nicer ferry, on the way back I’d booked the cheaper option, both to save some money for flapjacks and since this ferry took a different route back, which only matters if you’re staying awake for the ferry ride. It turns out the difference with the cheaper ferry is that they cram the cars in like sardines, we were directed to pull up until our car was practically touching paint with the cars around it, then the cars in the next lane over had to wait for me to get out and get my rain coat somehow looped around the recline lever on the driver’s seat like John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles and then eventually free myself and shut my door and fold in the mirror before they could pull up and do the same. Up in the passenger cabin there were no fancy booths or gift shops or casinos, just seats and a sign that said no dirty overalls in this lounge you fucking animals.
None of this kept us from sleeping the ferry trip away, almost long enough to miss the starting gun for disembarking, which would have been interesting since nobody can get out until the cars in the front row are ready to leave and they probably would have just pushed our car into the bay. We were off like a shot into John O’Groats and west to Thurso where we made it back to Carrot’s in time for a proper English breakfast.
That’s actually what I ordered, The English Breakfast, which I would come to realize is a standard thing that’s exactly the same everywhere: bacon, sausage, baked beans (??), toast, fried potatoes, mushrooms, black pudding, and half a grilled tomato. Of course I was getting the vegan version so it didn’t shorten my life as much. On the way out we bought up more chocolates and goodbye goodbye goodbye goodbye goodbye goodbye goodbye we were on our way.
The night before in one of the very brief moments of cell reception we experienced on Orkney, I got the news that our grandpa had passed away after losing a long battle with trying to drink all the alcohol in the whole world. The service wouldn’t be for a few weeks, so I decided we should hold an impromptu memorial for him on our way back down through Scotland.
We cruised down the highlands to Loch Ness, which they really need to put a mechanical dinosaur in already, c’mon people you’re throwing money away here. We drove around the edge of this quite striking lake, getting out once to hike up to a waterfall, via a path oddly festooned with Robert Burns poetry.
Once we found a suitable beach on the lake we took off our shoes and waded into the waters of Loch Ness, which was inexplicably the coldest water on the face of the Earth. Normally when you get in cold water it stings for a second and then you acclimate, this water did no such thing. It stung, and then it stabbed, and then it went to go get its gun. I spent a second trying to figure out how this water was somehow colder than the ice water I used to soak in after my marathon training runs, and then I pissed myself and forgot my name. Standing in the monster-infested waters, we said a few words of blessing for our grandpa, fewer perhaps than I had planned because my feet were trying to figure out a way to stand on top of the water and I couldn’t remember who had died or where we were. We quickly scrambled back out of the water, taking care to walk right over some broken glass embedded in the mud because it was the shortest path to not being that cold ever again.
We had originally been booked to spend the night in the Loch Ness area, but after the wet and wild times in Orkney none of us were quite in the mood for this and we made the executive decision that we were just going to barrel all the way down to London, 25 hour travel day be damned, which would give us a chance to see our sister before she flew off to the US to help plan the service.
So we were off to Edinburgh, which is pronounced Ed-in-bro for no reason at all. Edinburgh is a very impressively gothic-looking city full of hidden pathways, uneven streets and a massive castle up on the hill. Getting to Edinburgh was an interesting adventure. The bulk of the drive there was amazingly similar to driving through Yellowstone National Park, and we were driving through this landscape behind a pickup truck (a real rarity in the UK) for so long that for about an hour I forgot I wasn't driving in the US. Thankfully the road was so narrow there wasn't a “right side” to accidentally drive on, it was all middle. Then as we got a bit closer to the city, the route gradually became more and more convoluted and bizarre, and it seemed like the city would never appear.
Later, I figured out that this was because my brother ticked the “avoid highways” setting on my phone before he fell asleep in the back seat, so we were taking the horse cart route to Edinburgh. After looping through every suburb and cow pasture on the way there, we had to get into the city itself. The drive into Edinburgh was completely insane, as I was trying to get Libby to her friend’s apartment for dinner, but once we entered the city this required approximately 437 turns up narrow cobblestone streets. Google Maps was pretty much talking nonstop this entire time, turn left here then right there then right here then two lefts and six rights, etc. At one point in exasperation I exclaimed that you could drive all the way across America in fewer turns than this, which was completely true. Thankfully we did eventually get there, dropped off Libby, and headed off on foot to have a late dinner.
We had my favorite meal in the UK at Henderson’s Vegan in the old part of the city (just kidding, it’s all the old part of the city). Vegan Haggis, it's a thing! Wait... how is that a thing? When the waiter brought out or check around 10pm he asked me what our plans were for the rest of the night. I said we were driving down to London (which is about 7 hours south). The waiter did a double-take and asked why we were getting such a late start. I said well, we did start the day on Orkney. He looked at me like I’d just said golf was overrated and then composed himself. “Wow, you guys are road people!” “We’re Americans,” I explained. “Oh, yeah yeah. My Australian friends are like that. They’ll drive three hours like it was nothing.” I nodded, already knowing that British people wouldn’t drive three hours to attend their own mother’s funeral.
Leaving Edinburgh we drove west to see The Kelpies, which are two gigantic metal horse sculptures situated near The Helix retail development/tourist pit. The Kelpies were great and scary and lit from within, with canals running around them and some weird rooms inside the horses which I guess is where they keep horse thieves on Ironic Punishments Day. Also in the parking lot there were young people racing tricked out rice rocket cars because why not Scotland. There were some restrooms there that looked closed and when I went to try the door handle it fell off, which in Scotland means they’re closed.
And then we drove, drove, drove through the night down to London. I slept through almost all of this, folded into the back seat like a lawn chair and dreaming that I’d pissed off two giant horses.