Look at the map of Scotland on the left. See the two sets of islands at the top right corner? That’s where we spent our holidays this summer. The archipelago at the north-east tip of Scotland is Orkney and the one further north still is Shetland. They have only been part of Scotland since the 1460s when the impoverished Christian I of Norway mortgaged them in lieu of dowry for his daughter, Margaret, who married James III. The mortgage has never been redeemed, but there’s still a strong Nordic influence.
We last visited in 1996 and vowed to return – though it has obviously taken us a while. So what has changed and what has stayed the same over 19 years?
We followed exactly the same route as last time – overnight ferry from Aberdeen to Shetland, a five-hour crossing from there to Orkney and a final short hop back to Scrabster on the mainland. However, the ships have improved somewhat. My memory of the overnight crossing 19 years ago is of bunk beds and a trek down the corridor to the facilities. This time, we had a rather nice en suite cabin to enjoy. Well, until someone visited the bathroom in the night and, because of the small space and the sea-swell, set the hairdryer going by knocking it off the wall. By the time he worked out how to put it back (for it was the follicly challenged one – he doesn’t need to know these things normally) the whole ship was probably awake.
Neolithic sites don’t change much, and there’ll be plenty about those in subsequent posts. The change we did notice was that many places we had visited 19 years ago now had new, or upgraded, visitor centres, museums and other cultural buildings. For example The Mareel, above, is a music, cinema and creative industries centre on one of Lerwick’s quaysides. Tourism felt more professional, but sometimes that meant the loss of a quirky charm.
Here I am on the ferry leaving Stromness (Orkney) in 1996. I’m now (obviously) older, heavier, greyer, and with poorer eyesight. Much the same is true of John. But some things haven’t changed! I bought that jacket for the 1996 trip – and it’s still my go-to hill-walking jacket. In fact, I took it with me this year but only wore it once because the weather was warmer. Not only that, but I was carrying the same small rucksack and John was wearing one of the same pairs of walking trousers. (Alas, they have now had their day. He sat on a rock and tore them on a jaggy bit when he stood up.) I don’t say this to make us sound parsimonious (maybe we are) but to say congratulations Paramo, Eagle Creek and Rohan – your products last!
Finally, we have less energy than 19 years ago. When I read my old diary and see the number of things we did each day I think we must have been up at the crack of dawn. I prefer a more leisurely start these days, but we still packed a fair amount in and John (mostly) took hundreds of photographs. Stay tuned for more, starting with Lerwick in Shetland tomorrow.