Sunday, June 3, 2012

Orkney Captured My Heart

Only two times in my life have I enjoyed a vacation longer than a week. The first time, I was in my early twenties, and I went to Wisconsin to visit my boyfriend and accept his proposal to marry him. Well, we were young and both a little foolish at that time, and our words and actions tripped us up, and instead of getting married, we became lifelong friends, which is a very good thing, a relationship to celebrate in its own right; but I can't say that the visit, which included a lovely time in Chicago, was a very good indicator of how one spends a two week vacation.

In 2007, when I unexpectedly inherited some money, enough for a two week vacation for two to my dream destination, the British Isles, my elder two children, Amy and Gavin, encouraged Grant and me to go. They would watch their dad, taking turns around their work and college schedules.  Wow, how exciting, but the question was, where should we go? We tossed around the idea of Wales and Ireland--Wales because I love all things about King Arthur and Ireland because my best friend lives there. However, Orlagh couldn't have visitors at the time we could visit Ireland, and I was afraid that I had too many romantic notions in my head for Wales to live up to them. So, we decided on Scotland.

I am one quarter Scottish, and my children are 5/8 Scottish, so Grant and I decided to explore Edinburgh, a place I always dreamed of visiting, for our first week and Orkney Mainland for the second week. Naturally, on our way back home, we would stop in London for a couple of days to visit the British Museum, British Library, and Westminster Abbey.

I can almost hear you asking, "Why Orkney? Where's Orkney?" Orkney lies off the northern tip of Scotland, where the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean meet, and is made up of several islands. My husband's grandparents came from two of its islands, Rousay and Stronsay, but our destination for our week was Orkney Mainland. We had two goals--the first was to visit the archeological wonders like Skara Brae, Standing Stones of Stenness, and the Ring of Brodgar, and the second was to search for family.

Our first week in Edinburgh was a dream come true. I vividly remember the sense of delight and freedom and joy that I felt when I awoke that first morning in Edinburgh, and Grant and I roamed the streets on our way to the castle. Both Grant and I felt like we'd come home. That may sound crazy, but everything felt so natural and right. The week flew by. We loved every minute of it and rued the fact that we barely scratched the surface of Edinburgh. We vowed to return.

Our week at Orkney began well with Susan greeting us at the airport and taking us to our car rental. Then she guided us to their charming guest cottage at Blinkbonny where Grant and I would spend our week. The late April day was warm and sunny, the sky the most brilliant blue we'd ever seen. After dropping off our bags, we decided to go exploring and buy provisions. We had chosen Blinkbonny for the gorgeous views, the neighboring cows, and the fact that we could cook many of our meals. 

Off to the market we went, and, as I've done throughout my entire life, I got completely lost. Grant tried to save the day by telling me where to turn, but it turned out to be a one way street, and we were going the wrong way. With a car headed towards me, I reacted instinctively, completely forgetting I was in a British car on a British road, and crashed into a wall. Suddenly, all I wanted to do was get back to our cottage. I was mortified. The only way we could get to the street was to keep going the wrong way, ignoring the stares of the people walking along the street, and making our way to what we hoped was the correct road.

It was not. Before we knew it, we were driving on a narrow road with land, sea, and cows all around, but not a house in sight. I pulled to the wrong side of the road, again forgetting I was not driving in America, and had a total meltdown. I was crying and frightened at being lost. Here I was surrounded by beauty, but I no longer could see it.

Grant, very sensibly, got angry with me. I came to my senses, and we somehow got back to the cottage, where I curled into a sobbing ball of misery. I felt like such a failure. How was I going to drive Grant and me to the archeological sites if I couldn't even get us to the grocery store? I decided we would have to go home. I called two friends for help, but thankfully neither was home. Grant, meanwhile, called Amy and Gavin. Gavin called me and was very sweet. He told me to rent a favorite movie and drink some wine and not make any decisions until the next day.

So, that's what we did.  Grant and I made our way, successfully this time, to the grocery store. We parked and walked down the main street of Kirkwall. We found a movie rental place and rented some movies. On our way back to the grocery store, we found the library and checked the internet and our email. At the store, we bought steaks and wine for dinner and headed home to our cottage.

The next morning dawned grey and drizzly. We decided to visit Saint Magnus Cathedral, the Bishop's Palace, and the Earl's Palace, which we could get to by parking in the grocery store parking lot and walking the rest of the way. Well, this is when Orkney captured my heart. I'm not a fan of grey, drizzling days, but somehow it didn't bother me that day. Grant and I explored and had a marvelous time. All the people we met were so nice. They were charming, commonsensical, and delightfully a tad whimsical.

The next day, Grant and I explored the town of Kirkwall, and I spent hours in the library with the people working in the Archives looking for Gordon's grandpa's relatives, and I had fantastic success, or so I thought. We found Shona, whose husband owned a store in town. One of the archive ladies directed us to the store, and Grant and I cheerfully announced that we were relatives from America. Roy burst our bubble by telling us that his wife did not have American relatives. I was crushed. I was so sure I'd found a cousin.

Finally, I got my courage up to drive to Skara Brae. It was another gloriously sunny day with brilliant blue skies and tulips lining the roads. We stopped at the Stones of Stenness first, and then we got to Skara Brae. My imagination was completely captivated by the people who had lived there 6500 years ago. I felt a longing to know them, to understand them. It was a feeling I had not felt before.

One thing that tickled our fancy was seeing how many people had scratched their names into the stones at the Ring of Brodgar. I was struck by what is an archeological wonder to one person is merely a stone another person has grown up seeing every day, and what better place to carve your and your beloved's names than in one of the stones. It's all, I guess, a matter of perspective.

Grant and I got into interesting conversations with many residents and learned one amazing fact--everyone we met wanted to live on Orkney for the rest of their lives. One young woman, a waitress at the amazing restaurant Foveran, told us that she wanted to go to Glasgow for a couple of years to party, but she wanted to return to Orkney when she married because she said Orkney is the best place in the world to raise children. Several others, too, said that they would leave or had left Orkney for a bit of fun, but they always wanted to come back to Orkney. We marveled at the hold Orkney had on the hearts of its residents.

About Foveran we cannot say enough. We had an outstanding meal one evening during sunset. We had a window table overlooking Scapa Flow. Every once in awhile, while Grant and I were talking, we'd suddenly be silent, overcome by the serene beauty, reveling in Orkney's enchantment.

And Orkney is completely enchanting. Grant and I spent hours taking walks or sitting on the porch, soaking up the beauty and the peaceful atmosphere. One afternoon, we saw a vivid, brilliantly hued complete double rainbow. I could feel the pain in my heart (from Hugh's schizophrenia and Gordon's dementia) start to lessen. Everything seemed handleable on Orkney. I know in my head that no place is perfect, but I feel that Orkney comes close.

Grant and I finished up our archeological visits on Orkney with a trip to the Round Kirk at Orphir. It was another gloriously sunny day, and we meandered through the graveyard and walked along the pebbly beach, so very different from the white sand beach at Skara Brae. We talked about the Vikings that afternoon.

We also made another trip to the library, and I made a genealogical tree that I wrote down for Shona. Grant and I again made our way to Roy's shop. I urged him to show his wife the family tree, and we are so grateful that he did. Shona called the day before we were flying out, and we made plans to meet just before the plane left. We got to meet many cousins that day--Anne, Tina, James, Inga, Christina, Roy, and, of course, Shona, and we have stayed in touch ever since. Last year, my nephew Bob from Washington D.C. went with his wife to Orkney, and so more cousins are connected. Soon, my niece Lynn  from Ohio plans to visit with her husband. All these new connections and bonds make me very happy.

Even more than our wonderful family there, and even more than the marvelous archeological sites, Orkney itself captured my heart.  Recently, I wrote this to Shona: "Orkney captured my heart. I think of Orkney as this lovely gem with a mighty spirit that has seen thousands of years of people living on it because they discovered its special magic and didn't want to leave, so they made it their home." I long to live on Orkney for at least a year so I can begin to understand the secret of Orkney's elusive yet pervasive enchantment.

Take care,


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