Another year has almost rolled on by. Man, that was fast. It’s only now, as we speed toward Christmas 2017 and people occasionally reminisce as to their whereabouts at the same time last year, that I realise I still haven’t written MY ORKNEY CHRISTMAS circa 2016!
Many years ago, in sunny Sydney I made a great mate. His name is Andy and he hails from the Orkney Islands, an archipelago off the coast of north Scotland, way up near the Shetlands.
His mum and sister and her family still live on Orkney and his brother and sister-in-law, also an Orkney local, also head there during the festive season to celebrate with family. Andy now calls North Queensland home, and is happily married to a bonza, Aussie chick. In 2016 he flew back to Scotland to spend Christmas with these fabulous folk and asked if I wanted to come along. Sure, why not.
If it was cold in Istanbul, it was colder in Orkney! A storm settled in just as I arrived and nature in her full glory was letting everyone know who was boss.
I’d caught the train up from Edinburgh to Thurso to take the ferry to Stromness in the Orkneys, the next day.
The view outside the train window en route
Descending from the train around 5pm, persistent drizzle and midnight style darkness ticked all the atmospheric mid-winter boxes for this part of the globe. And cold, did I mention it was cold???
It was two days before Christmas and I had pretty much counted on all my travel arrangements going to plan, leaving no room for a contingency plan. Those plans were made well before the weather went and got seriously crazy.
Overhearing punters on the last leg of the train journey from Edinburgh, I realised that the severity of the storm upon us might well result in the cancellation of the Orkney ferry service.
I sat in trepidation, along with the many of my fellow train travellers, also hoping to make the crossing home for the holidays. On arrival in Thurso, there was good news for those travelling that night. The service was GO!
However, there was no such surety for the ferry leaving the next morning. Double eek, the realisation of the real possibility of spending Christmas solo in this cold, dark, one horse town. Mmm. Off to bed with fingers crossed and seriously think socks on.
The next morning, I ventured down to the rustic, hotel dining room enquiring en route for a storm and ferry service update at reception. I was in luck. The morning’s service would go but all following services for the next few days had been cancelled. Phew.
Feeling relieved I sat down for a full Scottish breakfast the likes of which I’d never truly experienced before. The kind that will guarantee a hardening of the arteries. Haggis, sausage, egg, bacon, tomato, hash browns and baked beans, just in case I didn’t know I was in the UK.
As I was making my way through this mammoth feast, a tall, fair fellow enquired if I was taking the ferry that morning and would I like to share a taxi with him to the port. Sure, why not. As it turned out, he was an ex Orkney local, well known to my mate, Andy and his family. Indeed, there was a strong family link somewhere…Everybody knows everybody in these here parts.
The ferry crossing to Stromness was remarkably calm considering the chilling stories I’d heard about this journey. Apparently, we made a detour from the usual route to avoid super stormy conditions and my new friend from the shared taxi ride was informative and easy going company.
On arrival, Andy was there to pick me up. In blistery weather we traversed the island en route to Kirkwall, Orkney’s capital and home to Andy’s mum and sister. I had arrived just in time for the full force of the storm it seemed.
The previous days had been calm and pleasantly sunny.
Decked out in full wet weather garb we stopped off at The Ring of Brodgar and despite the wild conditions this circle of standing stones were still eminently easier to visit than their more famous cousins at Stone Henge. No payment, no buses or queues to negotiate and yes, totally magical.
Setting off again we stopped at a couple of stormy scenic outlooks. Experiencing tempestuous weather we traversed bridge crossings awash with poundings from not-for-the-faint-hearted, North Sea waves.
On arrival in Kirkwall, totally fabulous wall to wall hospitality for the next few days, full of the usual Christmas fun, food and frivolity plus the added bonus of witnessing the famous Ba, a yearly football type competition which harks back at least 300 years.
‘If you arrive in Kirkwall in the days or even weeks leading up to Christmas you might wonder if the town is about to be besieged. Wooden barricades are erected to protect doors and windows as if from some sort of violent attack. The truth is that the barricades are put up to protect buildings from hundreds of bodies that surge through the streets in pursuit of a leather trophy; the Ba’.’
The battle for the ball led us to the waterfront
Kirkwall’s Doonies (Downtowners) and The Uppies (Uptowners) battle it out for ultimate possession of the prized leather ball and the prestige of being the Ba’ winner. I can attest to the sheer madness and popularity of this twice annual event. Mad as cut snakes these Kirkwallians!
Participants and spectators speed through the town regardless of the frigid conditions. The civilized stone streets of Kirkwall transform into a chaotic maze of bodies as competitors vie for supremacy. A real spectacle.
Thanks Andy and all the Grants for such a great Christmas, if this year is half as good, I’ll be a lucky gal.