Holiday! part seven: in which there is No Time for Old Men

Today was Hoy! The second attempt. Which we actually achieved. Sadly, we could only get a slot on the ten o’clock ferry over and the two o’clock ferry back, giving us a grand total of three and a half hours on the island. The guy at the ferry office did warn us it was at least a half hour drive each way to Rackwick, where the walk to the Old Man of Hoy (a gigantic cliff stack) starts, and then three hours to get to the viewpoint and back. Even without my own calculations coming to the same, i.e. miss that return ferry by even five minutes and you’re looking at sleeping in the car overnight, I like to think we would have taken his advice.

However, that left plenty of time to go to the Dwarfie Stane, which the G Monster felt was the main attraction anyway – or at least, my main attraction, since it was in no way natural. Well, it was originally – it’s an eight metre long boulder left in the valley behind the Hoy hills by a glacier, but the Neolithic peeps, for some unfathomable reason, decided to carve a tomb into it (again, without anything stronger than stones, bones or antlers). Apparently this is the only time (that we know of) that this has ever been tried, possible because it was such a monumental pain in the arse, and possibly because of the general lack of boulders of suitable size, who knows. Maybe a bit of both.

I have to say I felt ever so energised just as soon as we got off the ferry. Possibly, because it had not yet started raining and the sky was bright, but it had held such false promises before. I like to think it was because I was back on my native ‘soil’, Hoy being a rare igneous part of Orkney. Indeed, if I did somehow have some sort of affinity for bedrock, think of the possible applications! ‘I would love to achieve more, but unfortunately our village is on carboniferous sediment, my hands are tied’.

Maybe it’s just because the G Monster invested in a number of new Combichrist albums for the journey. You wouldn’t think they should work for the rural landscape, but for some reason they really do.

The RSPB were parked up in the Dwarfie Stane carpark, and had a telescope out and everything, showing a view of a white tailed eagle sitting on her nest on the cliff across the valley. Bloody hell, that thing was huge, you couldn’t imagine mistaking her for a sitting buzzard, for instance. Think Ludo out of Labyrinth (if you’re old, like me) only with the head of sarcastic bald eagle out of The Muppets.

We had been told the Dwarfie Stone was a ‘bit of a walk’ up ‘a bit of a slope’, which did confuse me somewhat. I suppose, this might be the one time ever the phrases have been said without sarcasm.

Now, I had been a bit ‘surprised’ by the price of the ferry (dumbass here offered to cover it before checking the prices) and the Dwarfie Stane was certainly promising to be the most expensive prehistoric site I’ve been to this side of Giza, so seeing a real eagle, even through a telescope, cheered me up greatly. However, when we got to the Dwarfie Stane, I was impressed to discover I could actually identify the two little trees seen through the telescope by eye, and even a tiny speck that might be the eagle’s head.

Sadly, my big lens was back at the apartment, for which the G Monster did Voice His Opinions of my packing ability, but hey, his camera was good enough to confirm that yes, we were looking at the right spot and he even got what I think is a pretty good photo of a wild eagle. Given the choice of a) no camera or b) no clue where the eagle is, I think a) was pretty damn great.

On the other hand, it was only the other day that I failed to recognise him walking down a side street towards me, resulting in a near heart attack when he suddenly lunged at me, screaming (in his defence, he says he thought I was deliberately dingying him and only realised he was wrong when I was halfway through a flowerbed in a defensive pose). So, as I said to him, although I am pretty-much face-blind, it might mean I am… eagle eyed.

His response was that I should sleep on the veranda.

We went a walk on the beach at Rackwick, (a settlement which is pretty much 1. beach 2. camp site 3. youth hostel), had a nice lunch and ice-cream floats at Emily’s Ice-cream Parlour on the road back to Lyness, and spent a bit of time admiring the gun emplacements etc at the ferry jetty. These are, allegedly, relics from the two world wars and not aimed at the ferry so that car-owners who have not paid for the crossing can be duly ‘penalised’ por enourage les autres.

Whales were all around as we sat on the top deck and instantly wished we had brought another three or four layers of clothing, on top of the ‘all the clothing’ I have found is suitable for Orkney weather (again, just like home). Unfortunately, by ‘all around’ I mean, ‘and several miles off in every direction’. I have tried to look them up on the group we were advised on, truly. Unfortunately, being out in the countryside with little signal, I’ve mostly had time to glean that ‘Orcas sighted Hatston’: time-tag 90 minutes ago; then neither been able to discover where they were reckoned to be going after that, nor what Hatston even is.

Today, it turned out a different pod of Orcas had been playfully close to the ferry’s path – ninety minutes ago – and were heading steadily away from us. No, back towards us. No, away from us. Etc. Eh, screw it.

Unfortunately, after we went to visit the 11th century Earl’s Bu church (or, one remaining segment of what was originally a very fine circular church, with a bonus mead hall’s ruins by the gate, where a bonus murder took place, with a bonus rare Norse watermill in the field just behind it), then the Scapa Flow beach – ‘we ought to’ said the G Monster, ‘it is right by the apartment’ – we discovered Hatston is, um, right by sodding Kirkwall, and ‘orcas’ meant ‘pilot whales sighted by over-excited first-timer’, and far from sodding right off, as seems normal, the pilot whales had been in the bay all that time.

Not by the time we found out, of course.

In conclusion: well, one cannot have everything. We did, however, have beers, and Ghostrider 2 on the telly, which I daresay was better than one would have had in the Neolithic.

Holiday! Part six – in which there is a trip to the Neolithic Heart of Orkney and Comeuppance is Delivered

We did indeed pay for the good weather yesterday. I thought we’d got away with it at first – the morning was overcast, but not too dark – and we were only going a short way, eh, to a bunch of talks on the various big, famous structures round Stenness. So it turned out neither of us put on All the clothes like we did yesterday, and it turned out that was an error. The first raindrops hit the windscreen just as we pulled up at the Stenness stones (half an hour early) and within five minutes there was a biting gale and we were getting hammered by the rain. We did meet some nice foreign people as we all tried to shelter behind the same standing stone (and failed miserably). Note to self: just dress for the worst, like at home.

(They had gloves. God, I was envious of the gloves. It’s summer.)

The talk was really good, actually, and I suppose the awful pelting added to the ambience. Someone did ask if the Neolithic folks had this sort of weather to contend with and the tour guy assured us that Orkney was actually a few degrees warmer back then – and that we’re at latitude 59 degrees, the same as where the Hudson freezes a metre deep in winter, and as Moscow, but it doesn’t get anything like that here.

We don’t know anything, the guide kept telling us. We think the Barnhouse Settlement behind the Stenness stones is to do with it, what with them being so close, the same age, orientated together and the hearth in the middle of the stones appearing to be from there, but that’s not the same thing as proof. We think the same people built Maeshowe, and indeed Stenness is orientated towards it, and we think the beds are so small because they all slept sitting up and huddled against each other for warmth because that was probably a massive priority (eep!)

On the other hand, they obviously had the leisure to hack out a great big henge four metres wide and two deep, right out of the rock (the G Monster pointed out that it’s ‘only sandstone’, aye catch me doing that without metal tools; he also says me hacking out a smaller area for a retaining wall with a pickaxe will be impossible). Then they hauled stones weighing several tonnes apiece overland for at least eight miles, probably without the aid of wooden rollers since the islands were scrub trees at that point, although they might have used seaweed as lubricant.

(Here we are in the pub and the G Monster is telling me they could well have made roads of ice using buckets of water, if they were patient and waited for a winter day, and that’s very efficient for moving big weights along.)

This much is probably true for all the stone circles around here. However! They reckon this one is the very first circle, not just in Orkney but in the whole of the UK and western Europe (it’s 5,100 years old, happy birthday to it). Which might explain why it’s an ellipse. (‘Arg say not bad, but next time, use string’.) It’s a good six hundred years older than the Ring of Brodgar up the road, I think he said, and a lot older than Stonehenge. (He also said they’ve found the bones of cattle raised in Orkney at Stonehenge, so there was a fair amount of moving around back then). Maybe stone circles were invented here partly because the rock cleaves so easily into big, thin slabs (another game you can play while driving around is ‘standing stone or gate post?’) The stones for this circle were brought in from all around, however, each of them aligned in the circle so that their outer surface points back towards where they came from, which makes me wonder if it was a sort of ‘and we all bring a bit and all build it together’ as some kind of kinship affirmation, or ceremonial ‘binding’ of the settlements or something. Hey, your man said since we don’t and cannot know the why, then every theory is true!

(Personally, I would have said ‘every theory is Schröedinger true’ – like, only one (or none, if we’re all way off) is actually true, and just because nobody can ever open the box and find out which doesn’t mean ‘as viable as each other’ = ‘Totes Legit How it Went Down!’ – but then, I’m surprisingly pernickety about that sort of thing, you know, for someone who finds the word ‘trundle’ hilarious.)

Anyway, the stones were cut horizontally out of their beds – apparently we can tell that now – and the upper side faces outwards, while the ‘fresh’ side faces inward; which made me think maybe they were meant to be a huge mouth for eating the sky – remember! This too is totally as true as anything! – but he went on to say one of the notable archaeologists of this place has discovered the stones of the tomb inner walls are also orientated like this, i.e. fresh face in, weathered face out, and he has an exciting new theory that the inner face absorbed the essences of the corpses inside, and then made the bones stronger in return, so the tomb itself became the ancestors, as it were, and the bones were discarded. Which could explain why the living had no problem moving them about and putting them here and there after they were, erm, clean. They weren’t really the ‘resting place’ of the soul anymore, right?

The guide did say this chap – Colin Richards, I think he said his name is and I hope I have that right because I want to look up his work – is full of off-the-wall ideas. However, he does have a pretty big ace up his sleeve in terms of being right, because he discovered the Barnhouse Settlement, back in 1984, I think he said it was. Despite being right next to the Stenness Stones, nobody knew this was here, until your man drew a line through from, um, something to something, possibly Skara Brae to Maeshowe, but I could be making that up, and then went round all the sites during the spring ploughing, having a look at what was churned up (pottery shards, vole bones etc – apparently the Neolithic peeps brought voles and red deer and all sorts with them, which is pretty damn organised for people who didn’t have a cruise liner). And was there ever a lot churned up at this place! So he dug an experimental trench, which the guide helpfully pointed out on the Barnhouse Settlement map. It was exactly in between all the houses, along the only possible line which could have missed them all, so let’s hope he never played Battleship. However, he dug again and this time discovered the village, which was still a hundred percent better than anyone else had ever managed.

The guide did say, we don’t know anything about what Neolithic people thought, or believed, and given that there can apparently be enormous differences in outlooks in different cultures and times; to the extent that if someone modern had been living in, say, 400 BC China, it might be impossible for them to think in terms of some modern concepts (and vice versa) so we will never know whether the Neolithic peeps even had religion as we understand it. He did say, however, that they were extremely prone to losing things, given the amount of really amazing artefacts that had apparently just been put down and forgotten about, which makes me think about toddlers and their habits – though, the idea that people who can organise something like this and have the minds of toddlers is a bit scary, really. Then again, my abilities at organisation are simultaneously a) ferocious! at work, and b) involve forgetting to pack socks, so maybe I should stop while I’m ahead.

The G Monster had speculated that this place was so clustered with sites because of the two freshwater lochs, but we found out the Barnhouse Settlement predates them – that used to be a marsh, and the sea broke through some hundreds of years later and flooded the place, taking out at least part of the village, which must have been quite traumatic. I suppose wherever it got through closed up again at some point and the salt… leached out again? (Oh look, something else that I totally don’t know how it works and should look up).

So even though we were soaked through and horribly cold, that was an hour well spent. Fortunately, the Maeshowe visitor centre had a wee cafe we could go thaw out in, too, before we took the guided tour to that. The guided tour is the only way to get to Maeshowe, if anyone reading this is thinking of going; you go to the visitor centre down the road, get in a wee bus, trundle for about two minutes and have a short walk. And do mind out you don’t bang your head on the way in.

The guide for this one said – and I have noticed it at other sites – that the Neolithic people were well into restricting the way into sacred places; aye, look at the avenues to Stonehenge and similar sites, and the henges (the ditch and embankment, it took me ages to realise ‘henge’ does not mean, the big stones with a stone across them) round them. Also, apparently, at Barnhouse and the Ness of Brodgar up the road (currently shut, alas), there is one very big building, with no sign of domestic use, which had a hearth right in the entranceway (Barnhouse) and no less than five hearths in the entranceway (Ness) which… well, it did a good job at restricting access, but nobody knows why.

One guy in the party did declare it might be a doorbell, with the person trying to enter yelling ‘ow! Ow! Ow!’ and the guide laughed and laughed and said he was stealing it. If you ever go, and hear this theory, know it was formed on this day, year of our lord etc etc.

Damn, I’m pre-ruining the tour spiel, so I’ll knock it off now. The tour is free, however, and that particular guide was very good, so I’m glad we went. Even if we were soaked.

Maeshowe – well, about as much is known about that as about the other sites, i.e. close to eff all. However, it does have a midwinter sunset alignment – as opposed to Newgrange, which has a midwinter sunrise alignment – only in Maeshowe’s case, you do have a three-week window, and at Newgrange I think this is the only day?

However, for some reason (nobody knows! The mating call of the TV programme QI) it all got abandoned at some point, until a group of Vikings, sheltering from a snowstorm – ha the climate must have changed then – broke in through the roof. Their legend says there were a hundred of them (the twenty or so of us looked around at this point, as if trying to imagine how the hell five times our number fitted) and they were in there for three days. During which time, they amused themselves carving outlandish Boasts on the walls. “I am so and so and I carved this using [a famous axe I almost certainly did not lay hands on and would never have wrecked in such a way if I had]’ was a typical one, as well as ‘There was all this treasure and you totally missed it (spoilers, there was probably not – the Neolithic did not have any metal, including gold or silver)’ and ‘look at me I am standing on my mate’s shoulders to carve this higher than anyone’ (it could explain how they all fitted in, after all). One of them was even a high-ranking woman who joined in the Boasting (boasting was a Viking Accomplishment, as far as I can tell from the sagas, there was none of this being all backward about blowing your own trumpet. Though the Vikings did give the English language the word ‘shy’, although hell, it might well have meant ‘someone who did not kick your teeth down your throat as a greeting’). And there was a tiny, gorgeous dragon someone had carved, and I like to imagine all the others, once they had hacked out their biggest and best runes*, being dismayed because Sven (or whoever) had just quietly and patiently made something lovely.

*one guy’s runes got much smaller as he went up the wall, and then went sideways, giving a good indication of his height, if nothing else.

So, mind aflame with all sorts of ideas and failing to fathom five thousand years, I got back in the car to Skara Brae. Seeing as we had free entry and high hopes that we might get a seat for lunch. Which we did. And then, the Ring of Brodgar, though my camera was still all fogged up from all the changes in hot/cold, wet/slightly moist and I will have some pretty damn atmospheric pictures, despite the obvious blue skies.

Holiday! Part five – Hoy Ahoy. In which the weather is Nice and we will Suffer for it Later

Up at the crack of dawn this morning, or rather what would have been the crack of dawn if we were further south, but here the sun had been up for an hour before we were. It was a lovely, cheery sunny morning, if you don’t count the showers happening all around.

On which note, that is quite a novelty of the Orkney landscape; you can see showers stalking the horizon in almost any direction you look. (In contrast to the normal Scottish landscape, where there is invariably a hill blocking out one, or two, or often three sides of the view. I mean, forming, not blocking out.) Some body of water or other too is often clearly visible from about anywhere hereabouts (I originally said ‘the sea’, but the G Monster’s mate pointed out that often they are lakes). It’s that low and flat and rolling and green that the horizon is usually further off than I’m used to, and it is not in any way like Skyrim at all. (I had deliberately refrained from investigating what it was going to look like before we came, just stuck every prehistoric monument I could scare up on a google map). I’d even say it doesn’t look so much like the rest of Scotland. Tow this archipelago into the Med and you would have a certified paradise!

Although, maybe you wouldn’t need to. There are plenty more trees than I had been lead to believe, and most of them deciduous, not conifers. Almost every house seems to have a big hedge and a row of them as a windbreak, which is just like home, really, but there are also wild fuschias and rhubarb growing along the side of the road, along with red poppies (which will be about another month coming along, back home) and clumps of rhubarb. Bleak and barren, it is not. Yeah, if it looked like this 5,000 years ago, I can see why the Neolithic peeps were all, wahey!

Anyway, we roared off to the ferry terminal in Houton (well, the ferry terminal seems to be Houton, much like Tingwall, which I innocently expected to be a village, is a jetty with an office atop it) to see if we were early enough to book the car over. The original plan was we could take the passenger ferry from Stromness, cycle to the start of the Old Man of Hoy walk, walk for three hours and then cycle back, but the G Monster pointed out that the hash I’d made of cycling on Rousay put the idea of making it back for the last crossing in significant jeopardy. Fair enough.

We were not, however, early enough to get the car booked for the ferries back, so we made a reservation for another day and went to find a coffee and plan something else.

The nearest coffee turned out to be in Stromness, which was sitting looking all pretty in the sunlight on the other side of the bay, so we went there, and indeed it is worth a look. I was expecting the ‘standard’ Scottish coastal village – the road goes along the promenade at the front and the backroads stretch up among the houses beyond, but this turned out to be a bit different – the houses all have slipways or walls going straight down into the sea, and the main road is a flag-stoned, windy thing behind them that looks more like something you might find in York or some other town that’s still all Medievally in the middle. Was I ever glad I was not the one trying to navigate it. It was all very picturesque though, and lots of people had little plant-pots of colourful flowers sat out in the street. (First, I noticed they had all the same species. Then I noticed they were all plastic. Ah well. It added something anyway).

In Ell’s Coffee, the wee lassie behind the counter made conversation about how bitterly cold the wind was and how she had been woken up by hailstones (this on the most summery of days we had experienced yet). However, I was Prepared for this, this time around, having learned from Rousay the other day and worn pretty much all the clothes I had brought. I roasted later on, it is true, but that was better than shivering.

The G Monster found a coastal walk that promised to have standing stones, chambered cairns (not opened) and a broch, so off we went. It was a glorious day with the sea sparkling away, Hoy sitting like a louring lump to our left (Hoy looks more like ‘classic’ Scotland – steep and heathery. It’s apparently on a different and harder kind of rock) and the wind blowing hard in our faces. Sadly it blew over the rocky beach first, bearing a stench as if something huge had crawled out of the water, taken the most gigantic crap and then possibly expired beside it, but the source was just bladderwrack seaweed. I must look up why it stinks so. What was far more cheering was watching a large rain-cloud head over to Hoy and dump its contents all over it, while we remained dry.

We found the standing stones, in a field, we found some cairns up behind the field (a lot of them are near farmhouses, you can play ‘modern midden, or priceless archaeological site?’ all day) and we found an impressive ruined house on the headland, where the broch was meant to be. The G Monster eventually spotted the remains of the broch – some piled stones, looking a bit like part of the cliff, that used to form the leeward wall. The rest of it is already in the sea, and the base of the sandstone cliff under the ruined house is looking a bit undercut too, so if anyone desperately wants to see the remains of this broch (it’s possible!) I would go soon.

The Ferry Inn did us a fab lunch, if a bit dear. For some reason, they told the couple of people in front of us that they did not have a spare table for lunch, and then whisked us straight off to one, which was a bit of good fortune but also utterly mortifying. We will pay for this later, I muttered. Plus, I laughed at Hoy getting the rain when we didn’t, so we will probably pay for that too.

But it remained dry as we drove back through Stenness, which is where most of the Neolithic structures are clustered. I really do mean clustered, they were popping up one after another like whack-a-mole. Which… is pretty much like Skyrim after all.

Back at the apartment I asked the owner about his polytunnel and got a potted life history as well as plenty of advice. Fair play, these peeps have been here their whole lives and have been mightily industrious the entire time. I also met a man buying marine supplies. ‘What a terrible cold wind it is!’ he said. Since this was the second person who had commented on it just today, I asked if it wasn’t always like that though, and he said yes it was. How was I finding it? he asked. Much like home, I confessed.

The G Monster’s mate had invited us to theirs for an ‘Indian feast’ in the evening and when we got there he turned out not to be kidding. There were at least eight main dishes and the same number of sauces, almost all of them cooked from scratch, by him, and not only that he had laid them out lovingly on beds of carefully-arranged salads… well, it put the Ferry Inn to shame. It also put my attempts at hospitality to shame, but we will gloss over that.

It hailed down while we were there. It hailed down later in the evening, too, but the walk home was under a clear sky.

We will no doubt pay for that later, too.

Holiday! Part Four – in which there is more History and all the Calories Burned Yesterday return with Reinforcements

As mentioned, the G Monster has friends living in Kirkwall – friends who, in a mild coincidence, moved here recently from the village next to ours. Not only did they save us from a long and tired wait for the guest apartment to be ready on Saturday, they had offered to show us the sights, hit us up with whale sighting info, and the hubby had even volunteered to be designated driver if we wanted to visit the Orkney Brewery. Well, it would be rude to pass that up, right?

Lo, today dawned bright and sunny with only a fraction of the rain we had yesterday. How typical. There were even a couple of wee rainbows here and there. It was nice enough to walk round to his place in the morning, and he drove us off to Skara Brae, where a 5,000 year old Neolithic village had been preserved under a giant sand dune until a big storm in 1850. The local Laird, who lived in Skaill House nearby, promptly undertook some archaeology and had it investigated and preserved for posterity (presumably not quite as well as reburying it would have done, but you can’t have everything). Apparently it was the owners of the Highland Park Distillery, a stone’s throw over our shoulder from this apartment, who stumped up for the Rousay cairns to be preserved too, so that’s quite nice.

All our Historic Scotland cards were promptly declined on entry, which was quite impressive, because they were from wildly different dates and places of purchase. We got in eventually, however, and went to the replica Neolithic house. This is pretty roomy! I said. We went to see a Mesolithic house on Santorini one time and I could have just about fitted in the rooms if I curled up, and I do mean just about. And I do mean length-wise, not width.

This one’s a to scale replica, was the reply. Oh.

Later on we saw the real one it was based on. Yeah, maybe not quite as big. Much more impressively preserved than other houses of the same period that I’ve seen, though; they still had a 5,000 year old stone dresser, beds, and even strange square boxes sitting about the floor. Neolithic storage units? My favourite part was how all the houses were built into a cairn-like structure and had passageways between them, so you could go visit your mates without having to go outdoors (I assume that was the point, anyway) – once you were inside the village, you were all snug and warm and safe wherever you went. The G Monster said that once you warmed up thick stone walls with turf over the roof they stay warm for ages, too, so it would’ve been mad cosy. Someone did ask the tour guide about the floors, and apparently they were flagstones in the corridor but sand inside the houses. The first example of the ‘shoes-off’ rule?

The G Monster’s mate said he had volunteered with the school trip one bank holiday, being off work, and they got to go down and in and out the ruins (if they could fit – well, the kids probably could) and that it was quite awesome. We didn’t get to do so, however. Well, the Big tour was off a cruise ship, and imagine if someone got wedged and delayed their schedule…

We had a brief shuftie round Skaill House as well. I had read up on the ghosts of Skaill House on the web the night before; several, apparently, and they found a whole raft of skeletons when they went to dig a patio and refloor the hall, which turned out to be a Norse graveyard, so they… put them back where they found them, and they are still underfoot today.

(I have to do something about the vast gaps in my knowledge of history, on that note. It goes ‘something Neolithic something something Iron Age Broch something Vikings something Victorians’, and that covers rather a lot of ground where I have no idea what went on.)

There were Owls on the terrace, because if you have any sort of stately home open to the public it is Mandatory these days that you have Owls on the terrace so that eejits like myself can stick a couple of quid in a bucket to hold their jesses (the leather things attached to their feet, not anything personal). Why this is mandatory, I do not know, but it works every time.

After that, we went to the Orkney brewery, which is round the corner, has a shop and a bar and a restaurant and does tours. The tour guide today looked not unlike Gerard Depardieu (which makes me wonder, where did Gerard Depardieu go?) but swore he was educated in Sussex, although, if Gerard Depardieu was undercover as a brewery tour guide, he probably would say that. This was a pretty decent tour, for the record. I’ve been round distilleries and breweries and stuff before and it’s all ‘and this is the big tub at X degrees where ingredient Y goes in and…’ but this guy did a lot of explaining of the why things happen. So we got it explained how the different kinds of malt barley affect the taste, and how the hops are used for two things, acids and aromatics, and therefore the type of hops is important and they get added twice, first for the acids, and second for the aromatics. And also, why the big kettles are the shape they are and how that affects the process. Definitely in my top five of tours, and that includes my all-time favourite, ‘The Fall of The Berlin Wall, Told in Reference to David Hasslehoff’s Career’.

There followed a lot of beer, and an enormous cheese platter (the guys went for gorging on cake instead, but each to their own), and then we bought a lot of beer to take home so I am now bankrupt until payday. Thankfully that would be the day after tomorrow, but there remains the fact that all that painful hard work yesterday is undoubtedly undone.

We got home to find a message from our designated driver’s wife saying there are Orcas in the area. Alas, we were too stuffed to roll over the moors in search of them. They will just have to come to us, if it was meant to be.

Holiday! Part Three – in which Decisions are made that turn out to be a bit Disastrous

Having taken the bikes apart and stuck them in the car and driven them six hours, I thought we should put them to good use. Therefore I suggested we get up at the crack of dawn on a Sunday, drive them over to Tingwall, take the ferry to Rousay and have a leisurely cycle round the island, gawking at the prehistoric chambered cairns. Fifteen miles, said the internet. I mean, that’s a long way to walk, but not so much on a bike, right? You could do that in a few hours, surely. ‘And it’s not like we’re going over a hill’, the G Monster pointed out. ‘We’re just going round the edge, and that should be quite flat’.

I had second thoughts about the whole thing when I found a site including the phrase ‘despite the long and gruelling climb’, but the G Monster assured me he had had a look at the topographical maps and there was nothing of that sort there at all.

We got there horribly early. Like, two hours early. There was a cold, cold wind coming in from the east, there was no cafe or office or anything open (though they had kept the door open to the loos, which was decent of them) and I realised that ‘suitable clothes for cycling’ did not so much match up with ‘suitable clothes for standing stock still in the frigid breeze’. Also, my bike had a puncture, but that was okay because we had two hours to fix it. As we did so, two women swam merrily through the harbour, chattering away to each other and laughing, and then stood in their swimsuits by their car, getting changed and chattering away to each other and laughing. The only thing chattering between me and the G Monster was my teeth. I have no idea how those two weren’t human icicles.

I warmed up a bit on the ferry, but not nearly enough. There were lots of other cyclists there too, by that time, all of them looking rather more professionally decked out than me (I looked like a top-heavy woman in a miniskirt, if you insist on having a mental image of it, said miniskirt being there mainly to keep people from having to see my arse in leggings, and with a skull and crossbones cycle helmet topping it all off. I looked Ridiculous.) Also, the weather forecast had suddenly crashed from ‘10% chance of precipitation all morning, even-stevens thereafter’ to ‘80% all day’. Still, there we were, having paid the return fare and everything, and it was too late to back out now.

My first problem was remembering how to get onto a bike. My second problem was remembering where the gear changey things were (I am not used to a bike with four of them. I had one, when I was a kid, and it got stuck in the top gear and that was just how I had to get around). This one got stuck in the top gear, too. I made it out of the ‘port’, up the hill, round the corner, halfway up the next hill and then had to climb off and wonder if I was going to puke or just faint. The other, skinnier, more professional-looking cyclists all sailed past me at that exact point, because of course they did.

It then started raining, because of course it did. Meanwhile, my arse was already remembering how truly uncomfortable it finds bike seats, because it turns out some things you do forget.

Mercifully, Taversoë Tuick chambered cairn was only a short way off. The other cyclists clearly had other things on their minds because they kept going, leaving me and my lack of fitness with a merciful lack of observers, if you didn’t count the taxi full of people who were also going to look at the chambered cairn.

I am pretty impressed with Rousay’s treatment of its chambered cairns. They’ve concreted over the tops and provided helpful ladders etc, as well as fencing them off and having a little information sign. So you can go inside, which was quite a novelty, and also climb down into the lower bit, because this one’s a double-decker chambered cairn. Also, the bike helmet came in useful all day, stopping me cracking my head on the doorways.

Unfortunately, we then had to get back on the bikes.

By the time we got to Blackhammer chambered cairn, I was doubting my ability to get round the whole island. By the time we got to the Knowe of Yarso chambered cairn, I was doubting my ability to get round all four of the cairns in one piece, let alone back again. To make things worse, we kept catching up with the damn taxi tour for some reason, so everywhere they went there was this stout, middle aged woman in a pink cagoule, a miniskirt and a skull-and-crossbones helmet staggering after them like some sort of albatross (a tired, ageing-Goth albatross, I suppose, as much ‘Nevermore’ as The Ancient Mariner).

The taxi tour went for a slap up meal in the Tavisoe restaurant nearby, which has excellent ratings. The G Monster and I went round a corner to find shelter from the wind by a ruined farmhouse and eat sarnies we’d bought in Tescos. I fell off backwards on the dismount and rolled around in a horribly ungainly fashion, but fortunately there were no witnesses. Well, except the G Monster (but we’ve been together eight years now, it’s not like he was expecting grace and agility, right?)

It is only three miles to the next cairn! the G Monster kept telling me. This was your idea! he also added. All these things were, sadly, true.

We saw a ruined broch by the sea, but no way to get near it. We also saw a very impressive standing stone, on a tiny island of grass on a corner between a farmhouse and the road. I did not stop to take photos of its majesty because it was on one of the few, precious downhill runs and I needed every bit of momentum I could scrape up for the next uphill slog. Which went on and on, forever and ever amen, and it was proper raining by this time and my arm was giving it proper laldy where I fell on it. (Do not dismount on the downhill side of your bike. Everyone knows that, even I know that, but by the time I realised there was a downhill side and I was on it, it was too late). The G Monster was, by this time, but a speck upon the horizon.

Who rolled up at the same time I finally staggered into the Midhowe carpark? The taxi tour again.

I was slightly heartened by their dismay at the steep descent to Midhowe Broch and Chambered Cairn. I was even more heartened when I didn’t slip and go all the way to the bottom on my arse, as I suspected I would. The G Monster pointed out a skua low overhead (probably an omen of doom, I thought) and we saw a lovely, fluffy little black and white and grey bird with a black bar across its eye perch on a post in the field. I think it’s a fly-catcher! I said. I shall look it up when we get back!

But first, the chambered cairn.

This bugger was inside a massive hangar, which was pretty impressive in itself (I’d seen it from the carpark and thought it was a very posh barn). It was gigantic, and is well worth a gander at if you happen to be in the area, even if you’re not really into this sort of thing. I did notice where the first two cairns were round, the last two were sort of barrow-shaped (long barrow, that is, not wheelbarrow) but why the difference, I have no idea. Also about a hundred yards from this is Midhowe Broch, which is also very impressive and worth a gander. As the information sign says, by the time the broch was built, the chambered cairn had been abandoned for a thousand years; and yet, to me, even when I’m trying, it all sort of falls under the heading of ‘extremely old stuff’. Oh to be around when future teachers have to explain that no, the Vikings did not use GPS, and while yes, the Romans had water mills, windmills and wind turbines were invented 600 years apart and the cutting edge of military technology during the former was the crossbow, whereas now it’s the drone-strike.

Anyway, then we had to somehow get back to the ferry; and before the last sailing, too, or be marooned overnight.

Despite being mostly uphill on the way out, it was still mostly uphill on the way back. This is, of course, physically impossible, and yet there it is. Worse, the wind was now against us, and though the G Monster sped down the downhill parts and off into the distance without touching the pedals, I was forced to pedal continually just to keep from slowing to a halt. Given that even I can’t be that un-aerodynamic, I concluded that it must be the ferocious grip of the mountain bike tyres; at least, I hope so.

A ferry started approaching as we went, leisurely cutting through the water with a promise of hot showers and being out of the wind and this by-our-lady miniskirt. I watched the G Monster speed up, disappear over the hill and wondered if he was going to wait for me and, if not, if he remembered he had both our return tickets in his pocket.

I made it to the jetty with half a minute to spare.

It was nice to warm up a bit on the ferry, even if it only served to accentuate how cold and drenched I was. Shame that half an hour later we had to pile out again, which was when becoming wet and cold a second time got really unbearable. Plus, I managed to break my bike getting it into the car. Was that a stab of pure joy when the G Monster told me I’d knacked it and it would have to be repaired when we got home? I swear, it was not.

Turns out he manage to fix it with his supertechy skills, though. Woe. I mean, woo!

Mercifully, there were indeed hot showers. And a warm apartment and clean clothes and cold gin and a hot meal, too. Also, I got to inspect my arm, where there is a small pink point as if I had bumped gently off the business end of a set-square. Well that’s… epic.

As an end-note, as well as divers and a hare and a skua, it turns out we saw a shrike today. An actual, fearsome shrike! The ‘Butcher Bird’, the one that impales mice and voles on thorns to eat later; the Shrike that Dan Simmons’ Hyperion series named the metal, invincible, time-travelling robot monster after. It was that fluffy little grey and white and black thing that would fit in your hand. Go figure. And indeed, perhaps that one was the omen of doom after all. For lo, I cycled ten miles and rued the day, and the ‘safe’ route I had looked at cycling to the new job and back is twelve…

Holiday! Part Two – in which the Worst Driver in the Party has agreed to do the Drive to Orkney

Holiday! Part Two – in which the Worst Driver in the Party has agreed to do the Drive to Orkney

I’m not a terribly confident driver. I did learn away back in the day when I was seventeen, but there were rather a lot of incidents that summer, like that horsebox that tried to run me off a cliff into the river, and that time the gear linkage fell off while I was overtaking a bus and I ended up blocking the entire main artery west into the valley and causing a three hour traffic jam, and, well, I never actually had the budget for a car after that, so the whole thing was moot anyway. The G Monster insisted I should start driving again, however, on the not-wholly-unreasonable grounds that sometimes he would like to not be the designated driver, so seeing as I had the luck of having a good friend whose husband taught driving, I got some refresher lessons off him. And also got a rather fearsome number of people saying to me, upon hearing this, ‘why are you taking refresher lessons? You never forget!’ Which is not something I want to try and prove true after twenty years, using a half-tonne of metal. Especially since there seem to be rather more cars around than there were back then.

But off we set, with a very tight schedule, through a part of the country I had never even visited before. We are on a very tight schedule! the G Monster kept reminding me, as we went over the big scary bridge and up the big scary hills and over the splendid scenic causeways, none of which I got a proper gander at because a) driving and b) we promptly got in behind a giant delivery lorry. Fortunately he must have been delivering crisps or something light like that, because I had trouble keeping up with the bugger. But we made it, even with my phone turning the camera on and the google maps off every time we went over a slight bump. I even made it onto the ferry without running anyone over or hitting a pole.

A series of impressive causeways and sunken ships later, and we were at the G Monster’s mate’s house, where we got fed to within an inch of our lives and entertained by his happy friendly children until it was time to find the guest cottage. Which we almost managed to do. We were just reversing out of the wrong cul-de-sac when this bloke appeared at our window as if by magic. Are you lost? he said. Where are you looking for? he said. Follow me, I think I know where that is, he said.

He owned the place, didn’t he. I only realised it when he ushered us inside.

We have fallen on our feet with this one. It’s a palace! All the rooms are massive, the heating was so warm we had to turn it down, it’s got wet-rooms, they put in lots of thoughtful little things like washing powder for the washing machine and a jug of fresh milk in the fridge, and it’s got a veranda where you can watch Shetland ponies playing in the field above Scapa Flow.

We celebrated our good fortune by dumping our stuff and going for a sleep. Bear Grylls, this is not.

Holiday! Part One – in which a Break is Needed from the Old Routine

So I’ve been a bit burned out recently, although heaven knows why and I’ve not been doing anything that far outside the norm. Job 1 has been quite stressful, it’s true, since the amount of work I’ve been assigned has doubled and then some, but I’ve knocked job 3 on the head for now because after 11.5 hours of work plus commute, a three hour shift of audio on the back of that turns out to mean guaranteed migraine the next day. Oh frailty, thy name is Anya, etc.

(So far the hardest part of job 2 is trying to get work done while people are waving cakes at me and want to hear all about my life/ tell me interesting things about theirs. I love job 2).

I then had to spend all the money I’d painfully earned working three jobs on new clothes for the new job (during which I will be keeping on the other three, in some form or another, if my luck holds). There is something deeply unsatisfying about that, but my lanyard has bobbled the heck out of all the old office clothes and needs must.

Anyway, with the new raised beds all made, the lovely trio of boundlessly energetic dogs away home again and me getting to the stage of genuinely not being able to work out what day it is, let alone which town I should be getting off the bus in if it was that day, it was time for A Break.

Just kidding, we booked this months in advance. I always sod off for my birthday, because of that One Time (at band camp) that only one person turned up (everyone’s had a birthday like this, right? Right?) So, once was enough, I’ve had seven months without a proper week off, I’m doing nothing but vegetating of an evening and I want to go explore some history. I looked longingly at Rome, where all my colleagues seem to have gone for a short break this year and said it was brilliant. I looked longingly at the castle trail in Germany. Then I looked at the budget.

Thus it was the G Monster booked us a week in a wee cottage on Orkney.

I would love to say I’d been looking forward to it. It’s one of the places I’ve always wanted to go (see under: all the places, everywhere, ever), but this one’s chock full of prehistoric ruins, wildlife, Views, etc, and I was convinced it would look just like Skyrim.

Unfortunately I’m paranoid about looking forward to things, because the things I’ve looked forward to most have always turned out the most horrible of fiascos, so I now approach them with the sort of superstitious trepidation anyone with any sense would show when the gods descend to give them closed boxes of Surprise! for no discernible reason. The theory is, the trepidation will negate any bad luck resulting from, say, cartwheeling about the place, shouting “this is going to be awesome!” as if daring the gods themselves to do Something About it. (Although they know that now, of course, and are probably not chuffed). Besides, if you don’t expect anything, everything you get is a bonus, right?

It was my fault, however, that we took the bikes. The G Monster’s been looking longingly at a replacement for Dogface since we had the trio of dogs over, so I mentioned if he wanted to have space in the car for bikes, now was the time. Granted it’s been something like four years since I was on a bike but they say you never forget.

More on that later.

First, we had to get there. The G Monster had a cunning plan where we would get up early of a morning, having packed the night before, roll into the car, roll the car up the road to a McDonalds, and eat pancakes before carrying on up to the highlands. Unfortunately, this plan did not account for the Urgent Admin Phonecall (there is always one, every time we go away. I’ve sorted out everything from insurance claims to new jobs from various motorway service-station car-parks). This time the Urgent Admin Phonecall involved HR urgently requiring info for my new job (this is at least the third time this has happened while we tried to get away from it all), which of course they only realised they didn’t have four weeks after the interview, on the very day we went away (third time, ditto). Of course I didn’t have it with me (it had to go Really wrong sometime, right?), so since that would hold everything up and I would be persona non grata with the new boss from day one, in a fit of novelty we had to turn round and drive back home to get it.

In a further fit of novelty, the G Monster is actually still talking to me after that.

We still managed to make the Highland Wildlife Park for lunch, however, and had enough time to meander round the polar bears and snow leopards and see a goose getting hoofed by a reindeer (the G Monster got a cracking picture, feathers flying everywhere. And fair enough, the goose did start it).

Then we arrived at the hotel in Inverness and I realised I had packed exactly zero socks. Coincidentally, Packing No Socks is my biggest packing nightmare.

Fortunately there was a Tescos round the corner. Even more fortunately, the G Monster was still talking to me after that, too. In fact, he got the beers in and we shivered in the beer garden for two pints apiece until we admitted it really was far too cold for that sort of thing, and got inside just before it chucked it down. Sadly, we had left it far too late to bag a table, let alone food, so we had to stand at the bar to finish off, then go back out in the rain and find somewhere else. Which we did, round the corner. So far so good. We met a friendly guy who drove lorries up to Wick, and a friendly lady whose husband is in Antarctica, building a wharf for whatever they called Boaty McBoatface in the end. What time do we have to be up for the drive to the ferry tomorrow? I said.

Five a.m., apparently. And I’d apparently said I’d drive it, too.

Beware the Ides of, um, April?

So, I’ve spent March, and the first part of April, working jobs 1 through 3. This was Fine, honestly. I met new people in job 2, who were all very lovely, and learned just how much a different office in the same department can have massively different ways of implementing the same admin systems. Whereas in job 3 I, erm, learned about being a self-employed person (read, pieceworker) and also, the underrated art of not throwing everything out of the window in despair. All told, I put in about 100 hours of extra work, most of which will not be paid until next month’s pay-cheque, alas.

Last week, however, the overtime at job 2 dried up (thus teaching a valuable lesson about pacing myself, which I will not learn because I apparently like to give value for money more than I like earning the stuff). The shifts at job 3 dried up as well, leaving me looking at an empty typing-queue at six every morning like a chump, but such are the vagaries of zero-hours contracts, as the G Monster said.

All was not lost, however! For instance, we had a trio of variously-sized border collie crosses to take in for half a week! A bittersweet opportunity to reminisce about Dogface, you might wonder? Even better, they’re his old pack!

My, three dogs sure are more work than one dog. I wasn’t strong enough to walk them all on the lead together, so they had to go in shifts, both before and after job 1. They had to be fed one at a time. Not only that, the evening the G Monster went out and left me alone with them, I was feeding them all (in ascending order of size), and while the biggest one was wolfing down his dinner in the porch, the other two had some sort of ruckus against the kitchen door, shoved the doormat up against it and basically barricaded the pair of us out. I honestly did not see that coming.

I eventually managed to wangle a gap no wider than my hand. I then discovered my arse and doorhandles, both of which occupy much horizontal space within such a gap, are at the same height.

Desperation can, however, achieve miracles.

With that excitement mercifully over, I could get down to making the most of my unexpected most-of-a-week off. With bonus unexpected good weather thanks to the east wind! Instead, I spent a good half of it asleep, because it turns out three jobs all spent sat on one’s arse, in addition to making it more difficult to sneak past door-handles, play merry hell with the physical tone and fitness and what-have-you. Either that or I’m getting old. Surely, just gutting the house, putting up 36 metres of chicken-wire (small dogs may now neither enter nor leave along the front of the house without permission; they can still go all the way along to the drive, but I have a better chance of catching them at it), replacing the raised beds and putting up a trellis would not have been that strenuous a mere ten years ago?

Of art and writing, there has unfortunately been none. Well, not quite none. I managed a short story for a “Grumpy Old Gods” prompt (there is a Grumpy Old Gods 1 anthology, turns out, and this is volume 2). I plan to purchase both, if funds finally arrive before the black hole in my bank balance starts expanding its domain uncontrollably, but may as well publicise them even if nothing comes of my submission; karma and a’ that. If it sounds like your bag, it might be worth a look. I also wrote a wee story ‘The City and the Dragon’ which, well, nobody who requested a swatch has commented, which could mean any one of a dozen things. Let us pretend it is a good one!

It hasn’t really been all work and no play, however. One weekend, I was deputised to attend a beer festival and bring back many beers; there was also steak and Prosecco and cocktails in the evening. I am amazed I can remember any of that day. And this weekend, fresh from a day of hauling logs, I got taken out to dinner and the Love from Stourbridge tour, which was most excellent. The Poppies were at their best, I think, of all the times I’ve seen them, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin played a blinder as well, and the G Monster not only endured Miles Hunt’s acoustic set at the start but admitted afterwards that he had very much enjoyed it.

Ooh, and I also had a job interview at the tail-end of last week, which… yeah. Funny story, it was for a job a whole lot closer to home, and with more hours, which is the reason I’m attempting to jump ship, but not until the morning of the interview did I read the letter properly and discover I was supposed to turn up… at my actual place of work! A lot further away and oh jeebus would you look at the time.

I made it, to my vast surprise. Unfortunately, I was thrown into something of a tailspin by (re)discovering my own idiocy; that and having spent the whole week talking to nobody other than the G Monster and the canine crew, and as soon as the first difficult question was asked (hint, it was the first question) I just turned into a stumbling, stammering mess. So that was… special.

Also, my colleagues don’t recognise me when I turn up unexpectedly in a suit with makeup on and so forth. That was quite nice, actually. Well, apart from the screaming.

So imagine my surprise when I got a phone-call yesterday and they offered me the job. The G Monster is all delighted. Me, I’m suspicious, being of the opinion that It’s A Trap! Because it usually is, I’ve discovered. Sometimes, life just decides your wagon needs fixing, whether as punishment for hubris, a test of personal growth, bit of both, who knows, and you can tell because a) a Challenge arises! and b) you start sucking. But you try anyway, goddammit, only the more staggering and stumbling you do, the more pitfalls you oh-so-narrowly avoid, the higher the stakes rise and the greater the thump when you finally do fall over.

On the other hand, if it isn’t A Trap!, that would be very nice.

The 28 Drawings Later Challenge has ended in the nick of time!

The 28 Drawings Later Challenge has ended in the nick of time!

For the last few years, I’ve entered this online challenge, where you produce something creative (or at least work on one – and it can be a scribble, a doodle, a piece of knitting, bark sculpture, or as one person did on a day they were short of time, a face made by hoovering the carpet just so) every day for the whole of February. This year, I actually managed to put something up on time every single day!

Fortunately it’s all over, not because I didn’t have a lot of fun, but because this week I not only got offered extra days at a different office, covering long-term sick-leave, but also I’ve been accepted for some piece-work; technically I am Lady Three Jobs for the foreseeable, and there will be no time for such self-indulgence, by crikey!

Because I am just as great at timing as I am at making money (none of these are particularly well-paid gigs, I’m hoping to save up a bit simply by sheer… mass?) it is also the season to start on the garden after its winter sleep, there are gallons and gallons of wine to be racked off, and I took on being treasurer of a charity, didn’t I, because nobody else was available. For free, of course. None of us are getting paid for any of this!

Meanwhile, the 12 Days of Cthulhu-mas proofs came back and they are BORKED, so I have to do them over even though I have little idea what caused them to go wrong in the first place. I can see this being a Groundhog-Day-esque fiasco where I endlessly tweak the template and pay my money and wait three weeks and get back roughly what I got back last time.

I’m a bit scared of how much I have bitten off, in short, and am thinking wistfully of how, if I didn’t need to sleep, I would have two whole extra days in the week to get stuff done!

…Mind you, there is something psychologically very comforting about the way sleep breaks life into manageable chunks. ‘Eh, I’ll deal with it tomorrow,’ I can say, tossing the borked proofs wrathfully into a corner.* ‘Eh, I’ll deal with it in… seven hours and forty four minutes’, by contrast, really lacks a certain something.

*I didn’t. That was earlier this week. I still haven’t, and probably won’t for some time.

Anyway! Here be a whole lot of pictures; not exactly 28 of them because some were works in progress, and some are from January. My theme this time around was ‘Skyrim’, if anyone’s familiar and wants to play ‘guess where this is’, please feel free! Just don’t look at the names at the bottom which I did not know about when I uploaded them, ha. Live and learn.

While there is either little or no artistic Value to these (I cannot sell them, they are not originals, etc), I had a lot of fun playing with the lighting and colours, and I feel confident that I could use the practice as a good basis for turning flatly-lit and boring photos of castles (of which I have many) into something a good bit more striking. I could even, or such is the dream, sketch out my own structures purely from imagination and bring them to life!

…Oh wait, I’m Lady Three Jobs. Never mind!

Woo! My first ever picture-book is at the proof-printing stage!

Woo! My first ever picture-book is at the proof-printing stage!

I really shouldn’t start everything with “woo!” but I am easily excited, and clearly quite immature.

Anyway. After much labour of drawing, scanning, editing out pixels (and then almost the same amount of time again wrangling PDFs, because you know where you are with a virtual eraser, just saying) the publishing company reckons it can make me a proof of the book and in about 2 weeks I shall discover if I have to do the whole process over. Excitement! Dread! Etc!

And now I will be fit for nothing for the rest of today and probably the next fortnight, go figure.