Swept Away HR46 at anchor Second Wind at anchor Northern Exposure at anchor

Sunday, June 13, 2010, in Inverness, Scotland


Hi all. We’re finally on the Scottish mainland, in Inverness, on the east coast. Last week, we were still in Orkney, awaiting our opportunity to sail here.

We knew that we had lots of time and only two sailing days to get to Inverness, where we’ll be meeting crew next week. But each day of sailing had to manage both the weather and the tides. Our plan was to spend another day in Kirkwall and head to Wick, on Scotland’s mainland, on Tuesday. Art called the harbormaster in Wick, who informed him that Monday’s weather would be a much better choice. So we decided to leave.

We knew that there wouldn’t be much wind, so we’d sail a straight line and at a predictable speed. We also knew that we shouldn’t arrive until after low tide, at three in the afternoon, so that the incoming current would carry us into the harbor. Art said to me, “We’ll be able to sleep, since we won’t have to leave.' And then he said, “Until about 6:30.” So we’d sleep in, until 6:00AM.

And we did, but we arrived at Wick about a half hour too soon. We drifted for a while, and then we motored into the harbor, met by the friendly harbormaster.

This was my first exposure to Scotland’s mainland and our first stop in a place that isn’t by any means a resort. The name Wick is derived from the Norse word meaning “bay''�, the same root as in “Vikings,” although there’s evidence of settlements even older than that. The ruins of a twelfth-century castle greet you as you enter the inlet.

Wick was once the world’s largest herring port, but the business fell off after World War II, when, like so many others, the fish all decided to emigrate. It’s too bad. In the 1860s, there were 650 coopers in town, making 125,000 barrels a year to export the little fellas. Wick used to export nearly as much herring as the rest of Scotland put together.

It wouldn’t be easy to establish a tourist industry in Wick today. Lonely Planet barely gave the place a mention. Here are some of the slogans I could propose:

  • As a child, Robert Louis Stevenson stayed here!
  • We’re in the Guinness Book of Records for the world’s shortest street! (It’s 2.06 meters, or 69, and almost didn’t qualify until they gave the single door a postal address.)
  • Scotland’s most northerly mainland distillery! (This phrase is actually on a tourist brochure.)
  • The gateway to John O’Groats, where you can get a ferry to Orkney!

Homeboy Alexander Bain did invent the electric clock. He also invented a chemical telegraph which greatly improved upon Morse’s previous version. My favorite invention of his was the facsimile machine, patented in 1843. Sending a fax wasn’t exactly easy in those days. The first telephone didn’t get patented until 1876.

Okay, so this isn’t exactly London, or even Edinburgh. But there was something appealing about the lack of pretension of the place, nondescript stone buildings, many needing roof repair. Restaurants that would look at home in any middle-class neighborhood in America. And, in fact, a French restaurant in town for us to celebrate my birthday.

The next day began with raindrops and continued all day with downpour. We’d already walked the length and breadth of Wick the afternoon we’d arrived. At lunchtime, we opted to dine aboard, a decision never made lightly (I knew we’d be having dinner ashore, though). The only temptation of any kind in town was the Wick Heritage Museum, billed as “the largest multi award-winning museum in the north of Scotland.” Apparently the Shetland Islands aren’t in the running for this competition. But we had another full day to spend in town, and chose to hunker down and stay dry instead.

It was worth a walk through the rain to have dinner at the town’s French restaurant, where the meal was authentic, delicious, and reasonably priced. The next day, at lunchtime, we visited a luncheonette, where I had haggis for the second time since I’d been to Scotland. The weather was dry, but it was still too cold to be outdoors for its own sake, and somehow the little museum in town couldn’t draw me from a cozy afternoon onboard.

Our next stop was Inverness, about seventy miles away. But the distance wasn’t the only driving factor for our 5:30 AM departure; it was the tides. We needed to leave Wick at a decent tide and arrive with a favorable current. At least it was the last foreseeable early morning departure for nearly two months. I put away the lines and fenders and rushed back into the relative warmth of the covered cockpit. But the cloud cover all day never really created the sunny greenhouse I wanted.

The trip itself was interesting, though. We didn’t think that we could sail, but there was a bit of wind, and our oddly-timed departure and arrival gave us too many hours to be at sea. So we loafed along at a medium speed, and arrived just when we needed to get there.

The birds on view were as spectacular as on our arrival in Shetland, and this time we knew what they were. Gannets swooping close to the water, with indifferent guillemots looking on. I saw a skua, and puffins (finally) waddled around so close to us that I could make out the stripes on their beaks. Taking a different sort of flight, close to Inverness, several fighter jets careened around the bay so banked and so close to the water that I hoped they wouldn’t come too close to us. Later, I saw a military base on the chart where they might have originated.

Our best show of the day was in Moray Firth (a firth is a Scottish term for a large sea bay, or a strait). We were finally motoring through a glass-flat sea. A handful of bottlenose dolphins decided that our bow was the closest they’d find to a water park, and paralleled our motion. They’d swim just alongside, or tickle themselves with our bow wave, and occasionally they’d pop completely out of the water and dive back in. Right next to the hull, they seemed huge to us, at least eight feet long. We learned later that Moray Firth is home to the largest bottlenose dolphins on earth, possibly because of the cold water in which they live. They can be 3.9 meters (nearly 13 feet) long.

The marina is about a mile from downtown, and the walk there takes an industrial and unattractive path. But the town itself, with narrow winding shopping streets, centuries-old stone buildings recycled into shops and residences, and plenty of pedestrian-only walkways, is fun to browse through. Following a suggestion in my guidebook, we had a great and affordable lunch at a place along the bank of the River Ness.

Town was probably especially busy, with a disproportionate population of young people and musicians. We’d arrived on the first day of a weekend music festival, with the clever name of Rockness Festival (a triple pun, as I count it, on the River Ness (1), a rhyme with nearby Loch Ness (2), and my favorite, making a noun out of “rock and roll” (3). Here’s my sentence: “yeah, that was a great festival, since it had lots of rockness.)

The shopping streets were a mix of the old and the new and the quirky, from pubs and music venues to coffee shop chains, from the bagpipe maker to mobile phone shops, and from sporting goods to the kilt tailor. One arcade in the old farmer’s market had a hobby store, which had built a corridor around the ceiling for a model train that circled around for our pleasure.

Tides were becoming an important part of planning sails, and they created noticeable surroundings even when we were docked. The marina’s entrance led to two very long floating ramps, bisected by a platform, to accommodate the five-meter (16-foot) tidal changes. We hadn’t seen tides like this since we sailed in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where we climbed metal pipes in a ladder leading up the concrete dock. The ramp was definitely easier.

I was still having occasional trouble understanding the Scottish accent, the way that sometimes I wish that certain movies from the UK would provide subtitles. Whenever I heard a woman of a certain age greet a friend with “Helloooo”, I spun around, thinking that Mrs. Doubtfire was nearby. There were other indications that we were in Scotland, the sight of a boy or a man walking around the streets in a kilt for no particular festival, the accordion band with one violin playing in the town square in a clear rebuke to the Rockness going on in a field outside of town, or the signs that post information in English and in an indecipherable code that I assume is Gaelic. Is it possible that someone who lives here doesn’t speak English and needs the translation? It’s certainly not for the tourists.

The one aspect of British life I’ll never get used to is being a pedestrian. We’re very careful about observing traffic lights, when they exist. But this left-hand driving turns my instincts upside down. If I’m walking along a street where traffic drives fast, and there’s only a pavement on the side where traffic comes up behind me, the sound of the motor makes my heart race and my adrenalin bubble. I must be accustomed to that feeling in the US; when traffic approaches my left side, I must never have noticed it. So I live in fear that some lunatic is driving on the wrong side of the street and will jump the curb at any moment. And it doesn’t help to realize that my pedestrian instincts are simply to do the opposite of whatever is safe.

On the plus side, I put away my long underwear, hopefully for the season. Our next set of trips will be through a canal, with warmer temperatures, calmer conditions, and later departures. But there were still few days without rain, and none where we could safely leave the boat without a jacket. Some teenaged locals, of course, were in sandals and tee shirts. But even most of them had outerwear that wasn’t much lighter than ours.

On Saturday night, we went back into town to watch the World Cup match between England and the US the proper way, flanked by Brits and beer. Art had expected that we’d need to root quietly, for fear of “getting a pasting”, as he put it. I suspected that he was wrong, and proved it to him when I saw the mannequin in the kilt shop next door to our chosen pub. There it was in full splendor: kilts, knee socks, the hat, the whole uniform, plus a tee shirt that said “ABE”, translated to Anybody but England. Yes, the Scots feel about England the way most of America feels about the Yankees.

The pub was decked out in all its glory. Old Glory, that is. There were American flags used as bunting around the walls. American flags were taped to the ceiling. And there was yet another tee shirt on display: “I root for two teams: Scotland and whoever is playing against England.”

It’s a rainy day today, and we have another week to prepare for company and explore Inverness. Hope you’re all having summer fun, too.

Love, Karen (and Art)