Compass Buster #5: Fort Augustus to Kirkwall

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August 14th 2016
Published: March 13th 2017
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What a horrible early morning! We left at some ungodly hour (I forget the exact time, but it was around 7 am or before it). The hostel had made us breakfast boxes up, to be honest they were a bit shit and I wish I'd saved my cash. Luckily, our new guide knew the score and left us to sleep the ride away. We drove through Golspie continuing on our way north. We also drove past the shortest street in the world, Ebenezer Place in Wick, which is just 2.06 metres long. Our first legit stop was Duncansby Head, which is the most north-easterly point in the Scottish mainland. The weather was bit brisk when we got off the bus,which was probably a good thing as it would help chase the cobwebs away.We took a walk along the cliff, not too close to the edge, looking for birds nesting and other animals. There is also a lighthouse there, which was built in 1924 by David Allen Stevenson. A few minutes walk further along the headland and we came to a stunning view, the Duncansby Head Sea Stacks. Sea stacks are caused by wave and wind erosion over a long period of time. These stacks were quite angular and pointy, I could have spent hours just looking at them. They were just awesome! I would have loved to have been able to get closer to them and visit the small bay, where you could get a view of them from a different angle.

A short drive took us to the infamous town of John o' Groats. I can now say I have been to the northern most tip and the furthermost south, too, as I visited Land's End many, many moons ago when I was a teenager. We had a bit of time to kill in the village.You can tell we got there early as all the gift shops weren't even open yet. We went to take photos at the obligatory John o' Groats signs. There were a couple of houses about, I really liked the big one with the turret style roof, kind of like a castle-lite style. The harbour was also pretty with all the little fishing boats in it. We also watched our ferry come in. There are a couple of cafes, I think one is a Starbucks or some other kind of chain. I got a coffee as I desperately needed a shot of caffeine. There are some public toilets in John o'Groats and they cost 20p, I think. We were all faffing on trying to find change to put in the turnstile, when a local gent came over and told us not to bother and that you could just turn the turnstile and let yourself in. Score! Also the toilets weren't in the nicest state so I'm glad I didn't pay as it definitely wouldn't have been value for money.

We had been told to be back at the carpark for a specific time as we had to drive down and board the ferry on the bus, not as foot passengers like in the Outer Hebrides. One of the guys was late back, so we had a laugh, trying to hide the big yellow bus from him and driving past him in the carpark. So childish, but so fun! The ferry to Burwick on the Orkney Islands was pretty quick. The sailing took less than an hour. The best part was that there was a kiosk selling hot beverages and hot sandwiches, bacon, egg, sausage! It definitely helped us all feel a bit more human. We were all snoozy on the ferry ride.

I didn't really know anything about the Tomb of the Eagles, but the brief story our guide told us on the drive there. To be honest it sounded totally mad! It was discovered by a local farmer in the 1950s and his kids used to play with the skulls and other body parts found in the tomb. The farmer, Ronald Simison was digging flagstones when he discovered the Neolithic chamber in 1958. However he waited until 1976 to excavate the site as he had watch the archaeologists work on the Bronze Age site. 16,000 human bones ad 725 bird bones were found on the site, most of which were from white-tailed sea eagles, hence how the tomb got its name. The bird bones were from around 2450 - 2050 BC, which is about 1,000 years after the tomb had been built. It is amazing to believe that the tomb was used for over 1,000 years. It definitely shows how tiny and fleeting our lives are in comparison. Our first stop was the visitors centre, where we paid the entrance fee. It was around £7-8. The visitors centre is run by the daughters of Mr. Simison and they each showed us around different rooms explaining the history of the area and about the tomb. It was really interesting, I loved that because they had grown up there, we were hearing first hand tales of the discovery. They used to play with the skulls and stuff as toys. Also, their accents were different, I found them easy to understand and different to the stereotypical Scottish accent(s).

The actual tomb is maybe a mile's walk from the visitor centre. Since weather throughout the British Isles can be crap and unpredictable, they have all manner of waterproofs and wellington boots that you can borrow to walk down to the tomb. They also let you store your bags there, so you don't have to cart all your stuff down there, so nice! The weather was really nice here, cool but clear skies. The walk to the tomb didn't take too long and there was a bench to stop and sit at if it you wanted a rest. There were also some stone cairns and big rocks sticking out of the ground. I wondered whether they had been planted there like the Standing Stones we had seen in the Outer Hebrides. The tomb was actually really fun to visit. The opening to get in is really small so you have to lay down on a trolley/skateboard type thing and using a rope on the ceiling pull/push yourself into the tomb. The tomb is fairly small, so only a few people can go in at a time. It is mad to think that it has survived being there for so many years, and that it houses so many dead bodies. There is a Bronze Age site there, too, but we didn't have enough time to visit it.

Our last stop for the day was the Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm, a small uninhabited island. The chapel was built by Italian Prisoners of War, who had been captured in North Africa in 1942, and transported to the Orkney Islands. While they were imprisoned there, they were set to work constructing the Churchill Barriers, a set of naval defences built to protect the anchorage at Scapa Flow. This is one of Britain's most historic stretches of water and played an important role in many conflicts notably the First and Second World Wars. The chapel was constructed with the limited materials that the POWs had. It is a testament to their ingenuity and devotion. We didn't go into the chapel but admired it from the outside. I think its isolated location made it look even more beautiful and also the lighting as the sun was starting to wane a little. We had an Italian couple in our group, too, so that made visiting a little more special.

We arrived at our hostel, Orcades Hostel, which wasn't in the centre of town, but wasn't too far. There seemed to be some confusion about whether the wifi was free or not, the posters said you had to pay, but I don't think we did in the end. The hostel was really nice, it looked brand-new and well looked after. The peaceful setting would make a lovely change from trying (and failing) to sleep above the bar the night before. One problem, there was no washing machine and no launderette open at this time on a Sunday night. But the hostel did have some washing powder and a nice, big garden with lots of line space, so I did some hand washing in the sink. A bit too much effort for a lazybones like me, but I wasn't paying the ridic price the last place had wanted to charge, I simply don't have enough clothes to make it worthwhile. I had missed going out for dinner and to explore the town with the others but I wasn't too bothered. There was a huge Tesco just a few minutes walk from our hostel, so I grabbed a salad and pasta dish for my dinner. Nice to see this place isn't uber religious and the Tesco is open (and until pretty late) on a Sunday. The Orkney's are a different kettle of fish to the Outer Hebrides. I didn't miss much as most people came back pretty early and we all chilled in the lounge room with brews watching the Olympics.

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