Why spending a month away is different

We have been in Orkney for a while now. The first couple of weeks were very like any other vacation. We had our sons with us and we went to see all the famous tourist attractions, such as the Ring of Brodgar (standing stone circle) and Skara Brae (neolithic village). It was a great break. But it was not really why we came here, and this week has felt different. It has been wet and windy all month, but this week particularly so. So there has been more hunkering down in front of a fire, and less tourist stuff. I have read a couple of books, and watched some new films. It is very chilled.

But I am not the kind of person to sit still for long, so I have been out discovering the less famous sites in Orkney. It is a quite incredible place, full of history. At low tide we walked across to the Brough of Birsay, where the vikings became Christians and started a monastery. Near Finstown, I climbed down through a roof hatch into Wideford Chambered Cairn, hidden on the side of a hill, where Neolithic people buried their families. We found the ruins of a rare circular church, at Earl’s Bu, next to a Viking drinking hall. Despite sideways hailstones in a gale, I found the Brock of Borthwick, an ancient tower on the edge of a cliff. It feels as if there is history around every corner here.

These are the kinds of places you never have time for in a short vacation, the kinds of places known by locals. And I have found that talking to local people has been another difference. Perhaps also because we are out of season, I feel that we are treated less as outsiders on this trip. I have met fascinating people. I had a personal history education session from a guide at Maeshowe visitor centre. I found out about Stromness in the Royal British Legion Club. The local butcher knows me by name.

I even heard about a place called “Happy Valley” which I have not seen in any of the tourist books, and has no signposts. Orkney has very few trees and has quite a bleak landscape. So 70 years ago, a man called Edwin Harrold bought a cottage on a hillside and over his lifetime, built a special garden around it, with trees, flowers, brooks and waterfalls. When he died, he passed the property on to the council and it is maintained free to visit. I am guessing that few tourists discover this special place, and when I went to see it, I felt there was no-one for miles around.

So it does feel different. Indeed, Mandy & I have been considering staying even longer. I suspect we will decide to come back to civilisation for December, but we do feel privileged to have shared these very wonderful islands for a little while.

I love Orkney

I am writing this at dawn, sitting in my lounge overlooking the entrance to Scapa Flow in Stromness. Stromness is the second town in Orkney and for the next month we are staying in a cottage that once who have been owned by a fisherman, with its own pier and tiny beach to launch the boats. Dawn here is currently a very civilised 07:40 so I have not had to get up early to see the sun rise. And boy is it beautiful. Here are a couple of pictures from a few days ago:

Since we arrived last Saturday, we have already fallen in love with this wonderful set of islands. It is true that you can have every season here in thirty minutes, and some of the landscape can be bleak. Very few trees grow here for instance. But because it is an archipelago, around every bend in the road, over every brow of a hill, you come across the most stunning views.

One of my sons, Tin, near Kitchener’s Monument after a torrential shower
The beach at Scapa, after a whisky tasting at the distillery

Out of season it feels as if we have the islands to ourselves. For instance the Ring of Brodgar is a Neolithic set of standing stones, as impressive as Stonehenge. But in Stonehenge you would be surrounded by coachloads of tourists, and kept a long way from the stones on fixed visiting paths. At Brodgar it was just us.

Ring of Brodgar

Quite a few restaurants are now closed for the season, but that has not stopped us finding the most wonderful food, including what we have cooked for ourselves. Sorry vegetarians, but picking our own lobsters straight off the fishing boat was wonderful. My son Tin is trained as a chef, and they tasted sooooo good.

Yum

I have to go now. A ferry awaits to take us to the island of Hoy, for another stunning walk, and my other son, Rob, is arriving for a few days. This is going to be some month.

Who would go to Orkney in November?

I am very excited. We are currently travelling up to Scrabster at the top of Scotland. Tomorrow lunchtime we take the ferry over to Stromness in Orkney for the next month For anyone that does not know, Orkney is a set of islands north of the Scotland mainland, and south of the Shetlands. Orkney is a popular summer tourist destination, when it has daylight from about 2am to midnight. In winter, Orkney tourist attractions close, it is windy, wet and dark. So why on earth would we want to spend a month there?

The original retirement plan was to go in February, after stopping work at the end of the year. It was meant to help wind me down, hunkered in a cottage with a warm fire as the rain and winds blew around. Well the last lockdown put and end to that plan. In February we were not even allowed to leave West Lothian. Instead the retirement got kicked off properly with our long narrowboat adventure – more to come next year. But we still really wanted to visit Orkney, and November is much like February.

There will still be many archeological and historic sites to visit, amazing walks and views, great food and drink. And there will still be plenty of hunkering. We are super excited. Next week I will let you know whether reality matches my imagination. Orkney here we come!

How far back does your family tree go?

This week I have been a genealogist. Several years ago I built up my family tree with the aid of the Genes Reunited website, stories from older relatives and lots of censuses, birth, wedding and death certificates, together with visits to graveyards and old houses.

A small section of my tree

I have not kept the tree up to date and decided to transfer it to the Ancestry.co.uk website, so there was quite a lot of work to do. I also recently received a number of old photographs – one pile from an old tin chest in my Mum’s loft, that turned out to contain all the papers left to my Dad when his parents died; one pile from my Mum’s cousin, who’s own mother recently passed away; and one pile from my wife’s aunt, who’s husband died last year.

It has been time consuming and a little bit obsessive. At one point my wife instructed me in no uncertain terms that I needed to come down for dinner, because I had been sitting in my study for over 12 hours without a break. But it has also been both rewarding and a little sad. Rewarding because I really find it exciting to find our new things and to connect with the past. If you have watched “Who Do You Think You Are?” You will know the experience. But what has been sad is finding quite a few photographs where I can’t identify the people. I have pictures that have been kept carefully for over a hundred years, but where everyone who could have identify them has now gone. Here are a few examples:

Some of my relatives – but who are they?

So this week, I have one request. If you have pictures or papers from the past, please annotate them on the back with the names of people involved. Please use real names, not things like “Grannie and my Uncle”. By doing so, future genealogists like me will be able to connect faces to names, and keep them alive in memories. Do it this weekend.