‘Tell only happy hours’

DSC_0097Drink anything with enough alcohol in it and you’ll start tasting almonds, oranges, coconuts, pine needles, Christmas cake. But there’s no pretence in the tour at the Scotch distillery: our guide, who wears a badge saying Team Leader, points to a pile of peat in the corner cut months ago, still hasn’t dried, says their whisky isn’t as smoky as the island peats down south because they haven’t got any trees up here in the Orkneys, it’s what’s in the soil, the roots, that makes the smoke.

And it’s true, I thought about pitching stories to see if I could manufacture a way to get paid to write about the distilleries but it didn’t pan out to think of it that way, as I’m here with my family and the only one who drinks Scotch, my kids being 10 and 8 and my wife, more sensible, also working, which means she has to get on conference calls and get secure WiFi connections at night, and it doesn’t add up, but I don’t know that I’ll be back, so here I am.

The outline of Scotland resembles Jack Frost with a slow-motion still of him blowing his brains out, the shrapnel of it islands off to the west, a jagged cut of the Loch Ness running northeast to southwest like a scar, and on the narrow causeways they’ve built to connect the pieces of land it all feels thin as a slice of cheese with as many holes, and frightening to drive across when the wind really kicks up and your car is about the same level as the sea, and the waves and spray cross the road and the signs say basically, you’re on your own.

At the hotel bar I meet a rugby referee from Edinburgh on his first visit to the Orkneys, aglow with an all-expenses-paid work trip, says he’s sure to get drunk tomorrow night and it could happen tonight, too. And then excuses himself to a group of older men huddled in the corner grunting and laughing, and that’s that.

The colour and flavour from the Scotch comes from the casks they age in, and Highland Park uses Spanish oak, American oak, and puts sherry in first to season the casks, toasts the inside of the barrels to make them more absorbent, which draws out the natural vanilla and tannins in the wood, and that’s what you taste in your drink, and I’m in love.

We have a budget, for as extravagant as our times here sound, and though this is reckless and kind of bad logic, we’re not spending more than we would in Seattle in any given month; we’re averaging $120 USD/night on lodging, which includes an extravagant ferry ride from Amsterdam, and doing our best to control our spending so we can travel more when we’re back in the Schengen next year.

On the Orkney Islands we blew our budget the first couple days though, and had to see if we could live off £60 our last day, which meant three meals out, some attractions, and incidentals. So I took to the Tesco to buy our breakfast and lunch, ready-made meals, and got the marked down ones because they were going off, and managed to do it — discovered the Scotch Egg (hardboiled egg wrapped in a breaded meat compound, good cold), some wraps and smoothies for the kids, and no one’s gotten sick yet.

Actually said aloud in the car today I’m ready to go back to work, as a matter of pride and self-esteem, a way of keeping the strain off our relationship with Dawn acting as sole breadwinner now for almost a year. Passed some sheep and posited what do they do with them, all these sheep, everywhere, sheep? I said they must eat them after they use the wool, but Dawn said you have to get to them young otherwise they get old and bitter, start blogging.

In two days, we take the kids to six archaeological sites, older than Stonehenge, the Pyramids — really intriguing stuff. Not great weather, but not a lot of tourists either, this time of year — and the last, Skara Brae, is a 5,000 year-old farming village preserved beneath a sand dune, discovered in 1850 after a terrible storm ripped the head off the dune, revealing the village below. It marks the end of the Neolithic Age, the new Stone Age as it were, as they moved from communal burials to individualised ones.

What I liked most is the fact they took all their garbage, their compost, to a community area and reused the material to rebuild their houses: picture structures made out of bones, seashell, animal dung, everything they didn’t have use for, but managed to reuse in the most vital sense, for shelter. How far we’ve strayed from that practicality, how simple their lives seem, crouched down behind rock walls, out of the wind — how invigorating to imagine a hard life like that, and how queer for them to look upon ours now, and how far we’ve come.



Categories: travel

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26 replies

  1. the scotch sounds delicious and i don’t even drink scotch. yet. this leg of your adventure sounds wonderfully windy and chilly and full of life once again. think i heard you whisper that you are ready to work again? has the blowing wind in this journey cleared out some of the cobwebs for you, and are you rebuilding with bone and garbage and anything you come across?


  2. Ah, you’re off to Skara Brae – lucky man. Just imagine how rough their lives were there – life’s still pretty tough up there now! They had indoor whelk tanks and stone beds and the houses were part buried to keep off the wind – tough as old boots those people. I do hope you love it.

    We’re always meaning to go up there for a visit and I guess if you can come all the way over from Seattle (via Germany) then we can journey from Bristol to the Orkneys. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • It was our sixth of six archaeological sites with kids, early November – shocking it was as good as it was, we’re lucky. Skara Brae was our last stop, just as the winds were really coming on from Joaquin. They were awfully surprised to see Americans on holiday, very curious what we were doing there, very up for conversation in the gift shop, and awfully funny, lovely people. We saw some other sites I’ll write more about I actually preferred to this one, even though Skara Brae is probably the most impressive. I preferred the places you could just walk out to, and our kids loved running around them – though we had to remind them to kind of be careful, you know. Not destroy anything prehistoric, neolithic.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I’m sure they don’t see too many foreign tourists at this time of year. I heard the weather was supposed to be pretty rough up there – interesting for you to see it in full swell (if still pretty mild). I’ll look forward to hearing about the other sites you’ve been to. Sounds like Skara Brae is a little like Stonehenge – very hands off, very controlled. Understandable, but very nice when you can wander about somewhere, feeling a bit freer.


      • There were two Broughs we visited in the north end of the west mainland of the islands, on either side from one another, and quite different: one, you can only get to by walking on a narrow causeway at low tide, and were lucky to hit it at the right time. Truly magical, coming on these places with no expectation and no others around really, and then discovering this ancient world…truly wondrous for our kids too. So many photo opportunities everywhere, stunning. I love the rare occasion you arrive somewhere and feel instantly sad in a way, you’ll never be able to relay the wonder of it – and how lucky to feel that way too.


      • Yes, you can take as many pictures as you like, but you’ll never convey the emotions the place makes you feel, how the falling light, the quiet, the isolation, the weather, your own memories and associations all add to your experience. Nothing can communicate perceiving the world through your own personal lens


  3. “Breaded meat compound.” That’s some good eatin’!


  4. “but Dawn said you have to get to them young otherwise they get old and bitter, start blogging.” good one!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. So funny that you mentioned nobody getting sick yet. Do you mean in all of Scottish history? You can romanticize their simple times all you want. I’ll take a good wifi signal and proper indoor heat every day of the week. These posts are magic.


  6. I wanted more, so I went to Wikipedia and found a little fuel for the Whisky critic dream: “Orkney was rated as the best place to live in Scotland in both 2013 and 2014 according to the Halifax Quality of Life survey.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s interesting, I guess the lack of light doesn’t weigh too heavily. I think we could do island living, but not for a while, a good retiring kind of thing, but then you have to start thinking about getting air-lifted off…best not to go there. The narrow causeways are a real trip. Gives you the feeling it’s all rather flimsy, there.


      • Funny, flimsy is not the adjective I would associate with the islands. The image I have of them (and the inhabitants) is tough, sturdy. Then again, I also imagined them rockier than what I’m seeing in the pictures.


      • I think it’s the holes in the land and all the water (on Orkney Island, at least), the sense a good tide could swallow it, that makes it feel flimsy. But no, like you said, certainly not the right word to use with the rest of it – rugged and stark, windswept.


      • Ahh, the good old paradoxical dichotomy. Rugged yet fragile.


  7. Heard bagpipes today at our school’s Remembrance Day service. Got my fix.


    • I really love the sound. The first night in Inverness I kind of got lost walking to the grocery store, coming back, and was able to navigate by the sound of a bagpiping busker to the foot of our steps, back up to the street. Actually worked.


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