Saturday, August 15, 2009

greetings from the Orkney Tourist Board

We just got back yesterday from a week in bonny Scotland, visiting my parents and surprising my father for his 70th birthday. My folks have lived in Orkney for almost 10 years now -- and from the first moment I visited them, I fell in love with the place. I feel especially blessed that I got engaged and had my marriage blessed in Orkney.

My parents live in the northeast part of Mainland, the largest member of the Orkney archipelago, in the parish of Birsay. Like much of Orkney it is enjoyed a long and vivid history and is home to a broad array of wildlife, from seals to puffins. After a quick Google, I discovered that Toadsnatcher had visited Shetland and Orkney recently and being a little more scientifically minded had actually kept a nice tally of all the plants and critters they'd seen. The Brough of Birsay is linked to the mainland by a tidal causeway and has some tall cliffs on its west side that provide some excellent aeries for guillemots, razorbills, and skuas. The puffins, sadly, had left in the previous two weeks to head out to life at sea again but I did manage to get some nice pictures of fulmars soaring off the cliffs.

The Brough is also home to Ruth Rosie's Teas & Tabnabs Snack Van -- which is awesome.
Homemade soups, cakes, and even if they are flavor-enhanced with salty sea air, magic bacon butties! We met a guy who happily drives 35mins from Kirkwall to enjoy a nice, fresh baconbuttie with a lovely ocean view. Just round the point from the Brough parking lot is Skipi Geo (in Orkney and Shetland, a 'geo' is a narrow inlet or gully) marked by this whale rib and vertebra.

Like many island communities -- Sicily, Cyprus, or the Sea Islands along the South Carolina and Georgia coastline, for that matter -- they have been home to a deep, rich vein of human history as populations came, went, settled, and passed through. One of the monuments to Orkney's rich human history is St. Magnus Cathedral, begun in 1137 and designed and built by the architects of Durham Cathedral. I feel additionally blessed to have heard my parents sing and my oldest cousin play the violin in this wonderful, red,
sandstone auditorium. (One of the unusual traits of the cathedral is that, while consecrated for worship and an annual maintenance fee paid by the Church of Scotland, it is owned and maintained by the burgh of Kirkwall. And as such has enjoyed and still enjoys a variety of secular purposes.) But on this visit home, I wanted to get the special, behind-the-scenes tour of the cathedral, up into the galleries, the bell-tower, and ultimately onto the balcony outside, high above the town. Sadly, I can't find the contact phone numbers or schedule for the tours which are generally offered twice a day, BUT the virtual necessity is to book in advance. Each tour can only take five people, all of whom need to be comfortable in narrow, stone spiral staircases and at ease with heights. While this picture is clearly from ground level looking east toward the altar and choir, being able to see the building from on high adds an even greater sense of the lofty aspirations of Norman and Gothic ecclesiastic architecture.

Our unexpected highlight of the trip came on our final evening as we came back down from the Brough. Call me a freak, heaven
knows my wife did, but I can spot a red-dog from 400yds! And gravity just got me there faster on the downhill. I'm sure there are exceptions, but vizsla people are just plain nicer. And smarter. And better-looking. Like their dogs. Aster (named after the very pretty sea aster flower) was visiting Orkney with her human companions, Judy and Alistair. They were so nice we invited them to my parents' house for tea.

Red Girls? Where were you?


Meg said...

In addition to meeting the red girl and her lovely parents (and eating chocolate cake to celebrate Iain's birthday), another highlight of Birsay for me was listening to the sound of seals 'singing' as I ran in the early morning along a trail by the sea.

High Mountain Horse said...

Hi Andrew,
Told you I'd have time this week to finally catch up... what a great trip it sounds like you had, and what a super treat for the apparition of the Vizsla! Serendipity by the sea...

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