“Just drive the speed limit. We’re going to make it. We’ll make it.” I said this to Mike as he was barreling down the road on Orkney Island at speeds that made my hair turn grey. Somehow, we had become sucked into a vortex of time. It was probably those damned standing stones we saw that day. Two sets of them; but the second set, The Ring of Brogdar, was really huge. I’m pretty sure that was the guilty party. Was that a disturbance in the force I felt while we were there? Or maybe we tarried too long at Skara Brea, the World Heritage site that showcases the incredible remains of an ancient neolithic village. We left there at a wee bit after 3:00 thinking we had plenty of time to get back to St. Margaret’s Hope. Somewhere, we had lost 1/2 an hour and we never found it again.
Our ferry left the dock at 4:30 and we were told to be there at 4:00, which is really like 4:15 when you see how long it takes to load a ferry. Any ferry. It was now 4:06 and we were still well north of Kirkwall, which was 15 miles from the ferry dock. Short of sprouting wings, or running over the bloody tractor that decided right then was a good time to pull slowly out in front of us, we would never make it. It looked like we might have to spend the night on Orkney Island. Oh, woe is us.
As we rounded the curve toward the ferry terminal in St. Margaret’s Hope, we witnessed our ferry pulling away from the dock. It was like rubbing salt in the wound to see that it was actually 4:50 pm and the ferry was leaving 20 minutes late. Even so, we weren’t there. I almost had a panic attack when I saw that ferry leaving. There were certainly words coming out of my mouth. Lots of words.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to stay on the island. We didn’t have nearly enough time there. It’s that I didn’t want to pay for another hotel, IF we could even find one. We already had a perfectly serviceable, if dark and cavelike, room back in John O’Groats, a place that, while not technically at the end of the world, sure feels like it is. I’m kind of cheap that way. If I’ve already paid for a hotel, I want to stay there, even if I’m not crazy about the place.
But here we were, and my panicked brain almost went down the rabbit hole of woe. What if they couldn’t get us on another ferry for several days? What then? What if we couldn’t find a place to stay for the night? I had already resolved myself to a sleepless night sitting in the car in the the ferry parking lot. My brain can get very dramatic at times.
I’m kind of proud to say that I was able to talk myself out of that panic and consider whatever money we spent on this little adventure to be, well, just money. Which is not to say we can afford to waste it. But in a pinch, you do what you can. So it was with an open heart and my tail between my legs that I walked into the ticket office at the ferry and told the nice people behind the counter that we had just missed the boat.
The woman looked at me in a disappointed and disapproving way. It was mild, but direct. Man, that hurt, but I didn’t blame her. I mean, we looked terribly irresponsible.
“Did ye just lose track of the time, then?”, she said in her Scottish lilt. I swear she was trying to find some redeeming quality in me at that point.
“Well, no, actually. I don’t really know what happened, to be honest. We thought we had left in plenty of time to get here but what with tractors and road work, and other American drivers on the road going too slow, it just took way longer than we thought. I’m still wondering why it took so long myself.”
Apparently these things must happen on Orkney Island, because she immediately said they could put us on the ferry first thing in the morning. Then she apologized to us that it was the early ferry! Are you kidding? I wanted to kiss her and bear her children! She didn’t charge us a fee, either. We were well prepared to have to pay extra because, after all, we were on the roster so no other car could take our place. But no, not a peep about that. We were told, jokingly, not to be late. I half joked back that since we’d likely be sleeping in our car in her parking lot, we would certainly be on time. And I think at that moment, she actually believed our tale and knew that we had not done this on purpose, just to spend more time on the island, but were really a bit out of sorts about it.
As I was telling Mike the good news out by the car, the young man who was also working the desk came out and in a worried tone, told us if we needed a place to stay to try the Murray Arms Hotel right up the hill. If there was no place at the inn there, we should try this other hotel up the road. He looked very concerned that we were actually going to have to stay in our car, and you know, that really could have happened. It was a Bank Holiday in Scotland and everything was booked. Everything. I had little hope we’d be able to find anything that was available, much less affordable.
So we drove to the Murray Arms first thing, literally 2 blocks away, and asked at the desk. And, of course, the nice young woman said they were fully booked. However, magic was in the air. As she was calling another place on our behalf, the manager came in and said they had a last minute cancellation. A couple had decided to check out early, leaving their room free. Whaatt?? What kind of magic is this?
Turns out, it’s the very best kind of magic where things just work out for the best. We had an absolutely lovely room, just the kind I had imagined staying in on an island in Scotland, filled with light and comfortable beds. It was the kind of room you don’t mind spending a little time in. Mike didn’t even ask the cost. He just put his credit card on the table and said we’d take whatever they had and were very grateful to them. We celebrated our lucky find by having dinner in their bar.
As we ate we made a little bet about how much the room would cost us. I said at least 150 pounds, and he thought 120 pounds. Turns out we were both wrong. That room goes for 190 pounds, but we got the room, with dinner and beers, for 126 pounds and change. We just shook our heads in wonder. The way I figure it, the room had been paid for by the original couple and when they suddenly decided to check out early, they received half their money back. We paid the other half. I have to say, that level of honesty and kindness always leaves me amazed and humbled. Not to mention grateful. They could have easily charged us the full 190 pounds for the room, but they didn’t.
The extra time spent on the island was well worth it in many ways. We got some practice being flexible and going with the flow, skills we will be needing. And I enjoyed a long walk on the beach at the harbor at low tide and discovered it was littered with small fragments of decorated porcelain and pottery. Enchanted, I picked up several, along with the biggest scallop shells I’ve ever seen. Back at the hotel, I showed these pottery pieces to the woman working there. She explained these were pieces of dinnerware from the remains of ships sunk in WWII and these were common on the beaches. The presence of these pieces of pottery made the history of Orkney Island’s role in WWII that much more present and personal on that Memorial Day weekend. Servicemen who gave their lives ate off these plates; a poignant reminder of the human sacrifice all war requires.
We’ve made a pact to go back to Orkney Island, a wild place with a deep history.