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Sunday, May 23, 2010, in Kirkwall, Orkney

Hi all. We just arrived in Kirkwall, in the Orkney Islands, which are part of Scotland. Last week, we had just arrived in Scotland’s Shetland Islands, in Lerwick.

Shetland is surprisingly far north, 60 degrees. That’s the same latitude as southern Greenland, or Anchorage, Alaska. In winter, a clear night means a look at the Northern Lights, which Shetlanders call the “Merrie Dancers”. Two hundred miles from mostly anywhere, the weather can come from Scandinavia, or the Atlantic, or the North Pole. Locals say that you can see four seasons in a single day. We knew that the short-term forecast wasn��t beach weather: likely rain, and high temperatures in the Celsius teens, the Fahrenheit fifties. Clouds and wind would make it feel colder. Waves thumped against our stern in a jarring rhythm. But it wouldn’t keep us from getting out.

Shetland has been inhabited for more than 5000 years. Like everywhere else in their field of view, Shetland was colonized by Vikings in the ninth century. Later it became part of Norway. In 1468, King Christian I of Norway, Sweden and Denmark was trying to marry off his daughter Margaret to King James III of Scotland. He didn’t give the Scottish king the islands as a dowry; he actually pawned the islands as part of a dowry fundraising effort (yes, it’s quite insulting that kings needed cash incentives to take over ownership of princesses). The islands themselves weren’t the dowry, though the pawnbroker was actually James, the Scottish king. So it was sort of an investor buyout. Over several subsequent centuries, Norway tried several times to reclaim the islands, but apparently someone had misplaced the pawn ticket, because the Shetlands have been Scottish ever since.

Lerwick is the site of the annual festival Up Helly Aa. It’s a vestige of the Viking past and takes place every January. Hotels fill up for the next year by the moment that the present one is finished. It’s a fire festival, which is probably a good thing for January in Shetland. The main participants are called guizers (the main one is called the Guizer Jarl), and there’s some pomp and circumstance, including a procession, before they get to the main activity, burning up a replica Viking boat, while singing Viking songs from behind bushy beards. I confess that Id rather not be in Shetland in January, and this actually adds to my reasons.

Our first day was dedicated to our new-country list: phone service, tourist office, and even TV service. We’d never been in an English-speaking place before with a boat that had a TV onboard. The Shetlands had converted, just that week, to a digital-only signal. We’d just missed being able to watch the analog signal without buying a digital box. Luckily, the UK box wasn’t expensive. I was embarrassed to be so happy about all those gorgeous digital channels to choose from. In Sweden, we’d been able to pick up only a few free stations, and they only seemed to show Swedish programming and Two and a Half Men. Our Lerwick station search retrieved seventy-five digital channels. We still struggled to find something to watch, just like at home. But somehow it seemed like a lot of choice.

It’s hard, at least in the beginning, I assume, to be a pedestrian in the UK. Still, I saw two advantages. First, walking the wrong way around is much easier to learn than is driving (and I know that from baptism-by-fire in 2009). Secondly, Lerwick isn’t Manhattan. Nobody knew this better than Winston Churchill, who, in 1931, stepped onto Fifth Avenue and was struck by a taxicab. His characteristic response was to ask a friend, an Oxford University physicist, to calculate the impact of the taxi. The good professor responded that the force was equivalent to two charges of buckshot fired point blank, and added, as only a friend could do, that at least the damage was mitigated by Churchill’s ample cushioning. So apparently I’ve taken two lessons from this: first, look right and then left and then right again, and second, eat everything in sight, if only to ensure proper padding. The second instruction is much easier to learn than the first.

The Sunday roast is a British tradition, dating back to squires rewarding their serfs for a good week’s work. It’s common for restaurants to offer a meal like this in the middle of the day on Sundays, probably about as common as the Sunday brunch is in the US. We found a perfectly-staged one in the Grand Hotel in Lerwick, served in an ornate dining room. The Grand Hotel itself is somehow grand and yet wee at the same time (or the preferred Shetlands term peerie). The room was decorated with antiques and constructed with flourish, but there were probably no more than about ten or twelve tables. The dining room was up two flights of stairs from the hotel’s entrance on the main shopping street in town. There wasn’t a grand lobby in the Grand Hotel, only a reception counter that was about the size of the box office in an old movie theater and continually unattended. Best, one might expect the Grand Hotel to have a grand sign over the great entrance doors. We walked by it, looking for it, several times before we peered into the wooden entrance door and saw the half-turned easel that identified the place up the stairs.

Since Malta, the United Kingdom is the first place we’ve cruised where English is just everywhere (I’m not counting Ios, that backpacker-swarmed island in Greece, where the only Greek letters are on fraternity sweatshirts.) Thus I can see that our experience will be just that much richer. I feel very guilty about that. I can read every sign and every handbill. I can even interpret the poetry in the loo, and that seems to be in a language I only barely recognize. Here’s an example:

"He comes ivery mornin, acid yalla beak crossed in concentration, lookin for the best place. Settles oan tap o the grassy bank ootside ma windae."

I promise that in the future, I’ll try to restrain myself from using words like “loo”, or “pay at the till” or “mind (some vulnerable body part)”. At times, I think that there’s some minor difference in speech in every sentence I hear. I know that I sound very American here. And why do all of the doors open into the buildings instead of to the outside?

For all our similarities, we soon sensed some sharp cultural differences. The little downtown area boasts numerous charitable organizations in its storefronts. At home, these are normally relegated to less-pricey side streets or off-downtown neighborhoods. Indeed, at least in Lerwick, I’m keenly aware of the environment and humanitarian efforts, because everybody else seems to be. The co-operative market, “fairtrade” goods (which purchase only from places with humane treatment of workers), even the sugar packets in a restaurant, and evening events that serve charitable causes. The one sign I saw for a “jumble”, what we’d call a yard sale, was to benefit the arthritis foundation. I simply get the sense (whether it’s accurate is yet unknown) that “noblesse oblige” goes well beyond the noblessest.

We devoted the morning of our first weekday in town to the post office, getting cleared into Customs, and topping up a prepaid mobile we’d bought in advance of the visit. The downtown shopping area is only a few blocks long and is closed to most traffic. I’d already managed to make two visits to Harry’s Department Store, an old-fashioned shop for household goods that sprawls about the waterfront. It reminded me of Mom-and-Pop shops of my hometown neighborhood. Somehow today’s shops of the same size are specialty stores, or when they’re department stores, they’re gigantic. I’m not saying I want to go back to the past. I’m saying that it’s fun to browse around. But we did find a few things to buy for the boat, and were pleased at the price and the quality.

In the afternoon, we visited the Shetland Museum and Archives, a new exhibition that’s a living encyclopedia of Shetland history, culture, and life. There’s a working lighthouse mechanism, with a tiny lightbulb and exorbitant mirroring. There’s a boat shed that’s in use for the reconstruction of Shetland-specific fishing vessels. There’s even a cow in resplendent taxidermy. When I asked at the front desk if I had missed the stuffed Shetland pony, the woman smiled and said, “You won’t need to see a pony in the museum. As soon as you take the bus out of town, you’ll see plenty of them. And your bus driver will stop to let you look at them, if you like.” The museum restaurant is one of the best places in town to eat, offering Shetland’s interpretations of regional dishes, and serving it up on tables inlaid with Shetland woolen knits. Lamb bubble-and-squeak, anyone? (I learned later that the onomatopoetic bubble and squeak is often served on Mondays, as we’d found it, because its base is traditionally the leftover meat and vegetables from Sunday’s roast.)

We finally ventured out of town on the next day, by bus to Scalloway. This is the “other” Shetland town, once the capital of the islands. The bus rode through miles of hilly countryside, surprisingly empty, with fat sheep enjoying large individual grazing portions (whether their size was due to obesity or wooliness was impossible to tell.) We saw our first Shetland ponies, two of them chasing each other in circles and nipping enchantingly (“Don’t be misled; they can bite you,” warned another passenger as I cooed.)

Above the town is a vantage point called Gallows Hill. It’s notable now as the place where the last women were burned as witches, in about 1680. And Margaret had only been sold to Scotland in 1469, barely two centuries earlier. It’s heartwarming to see women go from being possessions to being professionals in so short a time.

We walked through Scalloway to the NAFC (North Atlantic Fisheries College) Marine Centre, which focuses on marine science research and training to support the nautical, fisheries, engineering, aquaculture and food industries. Then we walked through the town to the castle, circa 1600, and the local museum, in what was once the post office. Apparently a dedicated post office is now unnecessary. The current post office resides in a used-book store in the center of town. You can see that, because an antique sign hangs in the bookshop window. There’s a bank in town, Royal Bank of Scotland, which is quite a large banking enterprise. It’s got a storefront on the main street. We looked at the hours: Thursday, noon to 2 PM. Apparently somebody runs the town’s whole banking system once a week, on their lunch break.

By far, the most moving aspect of the town is the WWII Shetland Bus, which was based there, and memorials are abundant.

The Shetland Bus was only a bus in the metaphorical sense. It was a clandestine operation in which Norwegian fishermen shuttled back and forth after Germany occupied Norway in 1941, and continuing until the end of the war in 1945. The fishermen would bring agents and saboteurs, intelligence, weapons, communications and supplies into Norway from the Shetlands, and bring refugees to Shetland. These weren’t soldiers; and naval personnel couldn’t participate in these dangerous crossings for fear of blowing the cover of the operation. Forty-four Norwegian fishermen gave their lives to the Shetland Bus. In 1943, the US Navy transferred three submarine chasers to the Shetland Bus.

The tiny museum devotes a substantial percentage of its floor space to exhibits. But my favorite visit was to the stone memorial on the waterfront. Each of the four sides bears a plaque honoring eleven of the men who died in the effort. The stones which make up the monument were gathered from Shetland and Norway. The stones from Shetland were brought from towns like Scalloway that had participated in the operation. Stones from Norway were collected from the forty-four hometowns of the deceased, and sailed to Shetland on one of the “bus boats.”

That evening, we ventured down the road to the Douglas Arms pub, where there’s a weekly gathering of musicians who play traditional Shetland music. A few locals were scattered around the lounge.

Art asked about two varieties of lager that were on tap. We were promptly presented with two tumblers that might be the right size for a morning order of orange juice. It was like being in an ice-cream shop. Art tasted them both and then chose one for his pint, no doubt the one that would be considered a training beer here. The glass stood tall on our table. British pints are a little bigger than ours, and even an American pint would be an evening’s entertainment for Art. I gathered up the two tumblers which were each missing a single sip. Art told me later that one of those would probably have been enough beer for him.

I wanted something hot, like maybe a Shetland interpretation of Irish coffee. The barrista (or however you’d describe her) managed not to laugh at me, and emerged from the bar with what she called “a hot toddy with an American twist”. I think that it was a Courvoisier base, heated, with sugar and water, served with a twist of lemon, To me, it sort of tasted like tea, in the way that a Long Island iced tea tastes like iced tea. After my first sip, which nearly knocked me off my feet, I drank it down and then kept sipping the many beers that were still sitting on the table, unfinished by Art.

Two of the patrons then sat up straight and removed instruments from cases that hadn’t been visible to us. One was a violin and one was a guitar. They began to play. The songs are uncomplicated, and somewhat brooding, even though I could see that they were in a major key. The violin is slow and measured, and we can’t help but think about the theme music in the Ken Burns Civil War TV series, which was no doubt actual music from the time of the Civil War, reminding us of the strong connection between America’s heritage and this region of the world.

As we sat and listened, people with black instrument cases drifted in, enlarged the circle, and joined in making music. A tiny accordion expanded the spectrum. There were two more fiddlers and another guitar. Someone was playing a small wind instrument that I didn’t recognize. Eventually the ratio of musicians to drinkers without instruments was about two-to-one. I began to wish I’d brought my guitar ashore. I would have been able to follow along with no problem, even after the toddy and the beers.

Our plan for the next day was an afternoon visit to the island of Noss. Shetland is a migratory stop for thousands and thousands of birds, and this is the season that the birds are in Shetland and most busy breeding. Noss is a sanctuary, a geological haven of cliffs and caves, teeming with breeding birds.

Although there was a tour boat in the harbor, we decided to do the trip on our own. The way to accomplish this was to rent bikes, take a ferry across a small channel to the island of Bressay, and bike across the island. Once on the other side, we could call a ranger on the other side of the channel to Noss to see if the weather permitted the inflatable boat to run us across to Noss.

In the morning, we double-checked that complicated plan with the tourist office, who called and assured us that the dinghy was indeed operating. We learned that the closest bike rental was in an alley just off the shopping street, run by a not-for-profit organization. We decided to spend the morning in town, visit the local hotel for an Internet fix, and have lunch in Lerwick before getting started on this tour. It was a good day to do it, crisp and sunny and not too much wind. I could see that Shetland can get four seasons in one day, but none of them is ever summer.

We finished lunch and checked on the ferry to Bressay. It didn’t run nearly as often as we’d imagined, after we’d seen it trundle back and forth every day across from our boat in the harbor. The next crossing was 1:30. We walked down the street to get the bikes. The place was closed for an hour, for lunch, opening at 1:30. If we waited for the bikes, we���d miss the ferry and the next one would be an hour later. We had invited a couple over for a drink that evening, and needed to be back before 5:30. We decided that we’d forego the bikes, take the ferry, and walk the 2.5 miles across the island.

As the ferry pulled in, a local guy tried to help us decide whether we had enough time to do what we wanted to do. He had a lot of credibility with me, based on the fact that he was on a bike. We deliberated together, but it became clear that this trip at this time wouldn’t be the smartest thing for us. We don’t often get tripped up in the planning process, and I don’t take it that well when we do. As we walked back to the boat in the visitor’s harbor, we passed the tour boat, which was filling up for the 2:00 run, with a few seats available. We took them.

Ordinarily, we’re not inclined to take boat tours when we’re traveling. Boat tours take you where you can’t go by land, but we have a boat, so we can ordinarily go to most of those places on our own. They tend to cost substantially more than the land version of the same trip. But the woman preparing the boat for its trip managed to convince us that it would be worth a shot.

We were proven quite wrong in our analysis; not only was it a good substitute for the land trip we’d planned, it was fantastic, a trip that we could never have reproduced. The crew was knowledgeable and experienced.

We saw seals in the water, grey seals and harbor seals. Our guides spotted them and knew their genders and ages. There were birds everywhere: gulls, terns, guillemots, a great skua, eiders, and cormorants. We didn’t see a single puffin, but the season is young.

Our guides told us about the breeding habits of the terns: the male has to demonstrate to his female that he has a nice ledge for breeding and brings her sand eels while he’s courting, the tern equivalent of a steak dinner and a place in the Hamptons. The guillemots look a little bit like penguins as they strut around. The gannets (and there are so many of them!) are the ones we’d wanted to identify, with the brown on their necks, when we first arrived. Close up, they have lovely markings on their faces, and their wings have different black patterns until they are five years old and completely white.

The trip enabled us to see many things that wouldn’t be visible by land, even if we knew where to look. The boat had an underwater robot equipped with a camera. We ducked into a cave and watched the underwater show without leaving the cabin. There was a large starfish dressed up for Halloween as candy corn. We learned that jellyfish don’t have brains and we watched a pair of lobsters in flagrante delicto. Apparently the birds aren’t the only ones carousing around here.

We arrived at the Noup, a gigantic and steep cliff perforated top to bottom and side to side with little indents, that was a high-rise apartment cliff for breeding gannets. Gannets use seaweed to build their nests, and sometimes they successfully use fishing nets as a structural foundation. Sometimes, though, the attempt is unsuccessful, and can be deadly when the bird gets caught up in a net of artificial materials. Here was one; the boat had seen it struggle the day before in a spot that they couldn’t get to. A gannet needs to be in peak condition to dive-bomb into the water dozens of times every day. Not only was this bird not mating, its condition would deteriorate as it struggled in the net, starving to death. On our trip, the bird was still entangled, and this time it was near enough to us that our crew attempted a rescue. They picked up the net with a boat hook and hauled the gannet on deck. They’re pretty big birds, and when they’ve been fighting a net for a day or two, that seems to take a toll on their mood, which isn’t all that sunny to begin with. So one of the crew members held its beak shut and steadied the wings, while the other one cut the net off around him. Once he was free, he leapt over the side to the water. This wasn’t a movie where the music swells and the bird waddles away. None of us could know whether he’d be strong enough to hunt for food in time to get back to the breeding process and life as he knew it before he encountered the net. Of course, within thirty seconds of his departure, I couldn’t distinguish him from dozens of other gannets nearby.

The next day was another trip to a quiet island, this time to Mousa. We took a bus to a ferry in Sandwick, and the ferry carried us to the island. This trip combined nature and history. A park ranger took us on a walk around the island, showing us not only birds and seals, but describing the geology and the plant life. We were a little too early for the blaze of spring flowers, though I apparently inhaled whatever they were emanating, stricken with sniffles and sneezing for a full day after the trip. But we were able, this time, to get surprisingly close to the birds, even a nesting eider that barely flinched on her nest when we approached. Our guide could find birds that were in flight or walking around simply by listening to their calls, so this enhanced the experience for us. We heard breeding storm petrels cozy in the niches in a wall, sounding like tiny lawn mowers. The tail of a snipe vibrates in a distinct way, making these small birds identifiable even in flight. And the end of the walk took us to several ages of antiquity, including a Bronze Age burnt mound and the Iron Age broch or residence/fortification that is the best preserved of its kind. It’s several stories tall, two concentric circles of stone with a clever gallery between the two walls.

By the time I got back to the boat, I had a full-fledged cold, and we kept a low profile for the rest of our Shetland visit. The weather was good for sailing to Orkney over the weekend, and we took advantage of it.

This would take up most of the long weekend that the locals call “bank holiday weekend”. At least on this year, it was the same time as Memorial Day in the US, and probably serves the same purpose, to kick off the summer. But it was odd that the actual name of the weekend isn’t in honor of anything at all. It’s as if the big summer three-day weekend in the US would be called Office Closed Weekend.

We decided to leave on Saturday afternoon, and make our way down the Shetlands to an anchorage near, as it turned out, Mousa, the island we’d visited just days earlier. It was a quiet sail to the anchorage, and an early departure for our voyage to Orkney. The winds weren’t strong, and we could sail virtually the entire day, but currents made the water a little sloppy, and although I didn’t get sick, it was inconvenient to do ordinary tasks during the day. Art’s list began to grow. A small line that he’d rigged up to hold the running backstays broke and would need to be replaced. The autopilot decided that it didn’t like any of the courses we selected and started roaming around on its own (we have a second autopilot installed for exactly this situation.) And the shackle that holds the jib to the stay came apart while the sail was up. None of these problems were dangerous or even limiting, but they would need to be attended before we went to sea again. That night, we anchored out again, this time in Orkney, in what was called the Bay of Holland, leaving ourselves a two-hour motor in the morning to Kirkwall, the main town.

I could see my breath while we were docking this morning, although it was sunny with a hint of warmth as a tease. I’m still not keen on any outdoor barbecues, though, and might never be this season. Here’s hoping that your Memorial Day weekend isn’t quite as brisk as this one.

Love, Karen (and Art)