Friday, 22 August 2014


A classic line from the movie Casablanca. More accurately of course, what Ingrid Bergman really said was "play it Sam".

One of the verses of that classic song, sung and played by Dooley Wilson in the film, goes like this:

And no matter what progress
Or what may yet be proved
The simple facts of life are such
They cannot be removed

The other day I met a close friend for lunch. As the meal and the chat progressed up came the question of when we had last met. We were both astonished to discover it was back at the start of March, getting on for six months! We had been in touch regularly, but almost six months had elapsed since we had last met face to face.

This had me thinking about how time really does fly past doing whatever it is we do, or to quote the title of the song above, As Time Goes By.

In that period that has gone by since March I have actually achieved quite a lot; my business has grown like at no other time; I have become a teacher of young students in film; experienced a new landscape in the Orkney Isles and a friend of mine started and finished a 9,000km cycle of the northern reaches of our planet. A lot indeed.

It has been an amazing summer in Scotland, which has spawned incredible growth in nature, and the sun has brought a smile and an air of positivity to all those around me, including myself.

But half a year. Gone already. I'm aware, as most of us are, of the time wasted in those six months, over-thinking situations, and worrying about matters that I have little or no control over. There are also so many things we postpone until another time, when really we should just get on and do what we want to do. As another friend of mine, now living her dream on the island of Gozo, once told me, she lives every day as if it is her last. That sounds depressing, but what she actually means is she will not let a single day go by where she does nothing.

Progress, if that is what it really is, continues every minute of every day, demonstrated by the next must have in technology gadgets, creating stress for those susceptible to the constant barrages of adverts enticing us. But as the verse above says, no matter what progress, the simple facts of life cannot be removed.

How we worry about matters that, on reflection, seem trivial most of the time, that distract us from the simple facts of life. We're all after the same things fundamentally. It sounds like a cliche, but we have to go for it. We have to chase our dreams. We get one opportunity. Life is not a rehearsal.

After all, we don't get to play it again.

Friday, 15 August 2014


They say scratch the surface of Orkney and it bleeds history and archaeology.

On a windy day, something of a feature on the Orkney Isles, Pauline and I arrived in Stromness, the westerly port of the Orkney mainland.  We set up our tents for the night in a campground on a small spit of land jutting out into the sea on the outskirts of the town.  The ship we had arrived on was called the Hamnavoe, named after the bay that Stromness is situated on. It is a Norse name, Hamna meaning small island, and Voe meaning inlet.

The narrow main street of Stromness is set back from the sea by a winding row of houses, and it's flagstone-paved road had a ribbon of cobbles running down the centre to prevent horses from slipping on the wet flagstones in days gone by. We cycled east for a few miles to one of Orkney's most famous sites, the Ring of Brodgar. Looking at a postcard or internet image of this stone circle you would be forgiven for thinking it is just a set of standing stones. But when you are there, standing next to ten foot tall slabs of stone, erected some four and a half thousand years ago and lit by the soft glow of the early morning light, there is a real sense of something very special. There are only 23 of the original 60 stones remaining but it was enough to make you wonder how the Neolithic people erected them, let alone got them to the site in the first place. Our timing was perfect as we had the entire site to ourselves and just over an hour later the ubiquitous coach parties started to arrive for their whirlwind visits.

We retraced our route just a mile back down the road to a Neolithic chambered mound, a burial mound to be more precise, Maes Howe. The mound itself is 35m wide and entry is via a low passage way made from giant flagstones. On this occasion we were part of a guided tour, the only way to gain access to the inside. Much like the experience at the standing stones, it was baffling to wonder how on earth, 5,000 years ago, they managed to first of all keep slabs of stone, measuring three foot by 20 foot, upright on their edges, whilst lifting another of the same dimensions, weighing several tons, on top. Inside the main chamber, some five metres square by four metres high, there were three chambers leading off, presumed to be where the deceased were laid. More fascinating for me was ancient graffiti, scratched into the stones by Vikings in the 12th century. It was amusing to learn that they wrote familiar things such as "I was here".

Seven miles to the north west lies probably the most famous of all sites in Orkney, Skara Brae, dating back to 3,500BC. It is Europe's most complete Neolithic settlement, set on the edge of a white-sand beach with aquamarine waters gently lapping onto the shore. In 1850 however, that gentle sea had an altogether different mood. Skara Brae was discovered when a storm in that year washed away the top soil, revealing the outline of the village. 164 years on and it was now swarming with visitors, over 50,000 every year in fact, but that didn't detract from the wonder of such a well preserved piece of history, older than Stonehenge and built before the pyramids in Egypt.

Our camp for the night was on the opposite coast to Skara Brae, not far from the Broch of Gurness, in amongst the sandy dunes of yet another picturesque beach. The wind dropped and I sat in quiet contemplation of the days experiences as the sun set on the horizon.

After a hearty breakfast of eggs on croissants, we set off south east for around 20 miles, to the capital of the Orkney Isles,  Kirkwall. The wind gradually picked up through the day, reaching a challenging headwind of 20mph, and we worked up a sweat powering against it for a further seven miles south of Kirkwall to visit two second world war sites, the Churchill Barriers and the Italian Chapel. After a daring U-Boat attack just months into the start of the second world war, it was decided that four of the entrances to Scapa Flow would be permanently closed off with enormous concrete block barriers, to protect the British naval fleet that regularly anchored there. Scapa Flow is of course world famous as a diving site on the wrecks of the German fleet, scuttled there at the end of the first world war. One wreck though cannot be dived upon, that of HMS Royal Oak, the ship sunk by the U-boat with the loss of 800 men in just a few minutes. Every year since, the Royal Navy replace the ship's ensign as a mark of respect.

At the end of the first barrier is the Italian Chapel, built by Italian prisoners of war in 1943. The prisoners were brought to this spot in the early part of the war to help construct the barriers, and it was decided that a place of worship was needed, so two nissan huts were joined together. What they created is both astonishing and beautiful, and we both felt very moved at the experience.

The following day we travelled by a ferry an hour and a half north to the island of Westray. It was  pouring of rain when we arrived on the island, and the harbour crew kindly allowed us to sleep in the small waiting room at the port for the night. But the following day was glorious, and we set off to explore the island. At a lump of isolated cliff on the east coast called Castle Burian, a large number of seabirds nest. It was late in the season but we were pleased to see a few late nesters of puffins and fulmars. The sea lapping at the edges of the cliff face was the North Sea, and just one mile in the opposite direction we found ourselves on a beach called Mae Sand with the Atlantic lapping onto the shore.

At the north end of the island is the main town of Pierowall, beautifully set in its own bay, on this day bathed in warm sunshine. The final stop was Noup Head lighthouse to the north west, atop high cliffs, home to yet more nesting birds. We returned to the mainland that evening and sadly I knew the next day it would be time for me to leave. Pauline was going on to Shetland but I was returning to  Edinburgh.

The Orkney Isles are a magical place, almost like a different country entirely from Scotland. I had only  scratched the surface of `Orkney, but,  as the ferry rumbled into life and set sail into the darkness, I shed a tear of farewell to these astonishing islands and vowed to return some day soon.

Photos on this Flickr link.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014


At last it was time to load my bicycle and head off on a new adventure, to a group of islands off the north coast of Scotland that I had never visited. Orkney.

The first part required very little effort: as it was by train from Edinburgh to Inverness to meet up with my adventure buddy Pauline, on the  leg of her Northern Exposure adventure.

My arrival in Inverness late on Saturday night was a bit damp, due to heavy squals of showers passing through all day. Pauline was there to meet me and guide me to the campsite for the evening.

The following morning was dry, and even sunny at intervals, as we headed out on the first 50 miles, first across the Kessock Bridge spanning the Moray Firth, along busy roads, then quiet back roads, climbing to a vantage point with Moray Firth to our right and the Cromarty Firth to our left.

It was a glorious morning as we flew downhill into the little village of Cromarty itself, where, after lunch, we took a short ferry ride across the firth to the start of the next half of our first day on the road.

The next big town was Tain, 15 miles on, but with a tailwind we reached it in good time and easily. Here we stocked up on groceries and fresh water before finding a quiet little wild camp spot in the forest beneath Dounie Hill, eight miles after Tain.

Quiet at first that is, until a local, atop her horse, came through, though the horse was a little spooked by the site of our tents in the forest.

Day two was our big push to the northern coast and the town of Tongue, some 56 miles on. I hadn't had much sleep the night before due to still nursing a painful elbow injury, and by mid morning, just 16 miles in, I was wiped out.

Nothing a good cup of tea and bacon roll couldn't cure though, and soon we were back on the road, albeit with a strong side westerly side wind.

Another 21 miles under our belt brought us to Altnaharra where we stopped for lunch. However, the local population of biting midges were waiting for us despite a strong breeze. But we weren't beaten, as a small local church was open, with an "all welcome" sign on the door, and so we sheltered in a small side room to replenish our energy. The church was in sad decline, with only one service on the first Sunday of each month now held. The paint on the walls was bubbling and flaking from the creeping damp and holes in the ceiling would likely now go unrepaired.

The last 16 miles to Tongue were the most picturesque of the journey so far. We passed first across rolling, heather-covered hills as the road constantly but gently rose, then once over the pass into a very different landscape of lush green indigenous woods and lochs. The rain was ever threatening, but always up ahead, clearing east across our direct north path, and apart from one light shower, we arrived in Tongue dry. Our camp for the night was just below Tongue in the grounds of the youth hostel with a commanding view over a small bay.

The morning gave rise to midgie hell as we packed up to leave, and we were glad of the breeze on the bikes. It was a scorching hot day with the wind south easterly, so at times we had a headwind as we now travelled due east along Scotland's most northerly shoreline for 45 miles heading for Thurso. The first couple of miles looked out across picture postcard bays with sunkissed sandy beaches framed by sandstone cliffs.

The first two thirds of this part of the route were relentless up and down steep, long hills, with the first seeming to go on forever and be impossibly steep on my bike with fully loaded panniers. Strangely though, I found the challenge both hugely rewarding and a highlight of the day. Steep uphills always have a reward of course . . . a fast downhill.

After a mid morning tea break, where we met a guy on the final day of his Lands End to John O' Groats run, we pushed on through more steep climbs and fast downhills, though none as long as the first.

The final part, passing close to the Dounreay nuclear power plant, now being decommissioned, was along a very busy road, unsuitable in every way a part of a National Cycle Network route. We had some respite over the final 12 miles on a back road, but this turned out to be a rat run for locals and commercial traffic.

Thurso, and the end of our Scottish mainland section. After a supper of chips from a local fish & chip shop, we headed for the ferry port of Scrabster, just two miles east.

Two thirds across the Firth of Pentland we passed close by to the world famous sandstone sea stack called The Old Man of Hoy,  a faviurite with climbers the world over. And so it is, courtesy of the Northlink ferry, Hamnavoe, that I find myself writing this weeks blog from the campsite in Stromness, Orkney.

So what of these northern isles of Orkney? Well, that's a story for next week.