Back To The Boat

It was a 06:45 alarm that woke us today, followed by a six and a half hour journey from Inverness to North Shields, with two stops to take on fuel: one for the car in the morning in Pitlochry and another for its passengers in the early afternoon, just outside Grantshouse.

We managed the whole 460+ km without a single puking incident from Lucas. If I tell you that we’ve had days on this trip that he puked in the first 8 km, you have some idea of how windy the roads are on the Scottish islands.

For me, it was a nice drive with plenty of variation: some two-way road, some dual-carriageway and an all too brief stretch of motorway. The two-way stretch yielded the usual frustration of slow drivers who refuse to pull over, but we made good time, were able to stop and eat lunch and still arrive just 35 minutes after check-in for our ferry had commenced.

After a short wait, we drove on board, parked and made our way to our cabin for the night. And what a welcome sight it was.

After dumping our stuff, it was straight down to the play area to reward the little blighters for having been so patient in the car. Neither of them slept at all during the journey, which was very surprising.

Ship time is CEST, not BST, and there was a kids’ event scheduled for 19:00, so we made a restaurant reservation and ate dinner at 18:00, which our stomachs thought was only 17:00, so we weren’t particularly hungry.

Eloïse went to play in the kids’ group at 19:00, followed by Lucas as soon as we had finished eating. Eloïse happily joined in with the treasure hunt, going up and down the length of the boat with the girl running the event and the other kids, apparently not giving a moment’s thought to where her parents might be. That girl’s come a long way in coming out of her shell.

After some colouring and being given some sculpted balloons, it was bed time.

I left Sarah in a darkened cabin to put Lucas to sleep and went downstairs to enjoy the corny cabaret entertainment. You have to admire people who have chosen a career in show business and are currently on the rung of the ladder that is show girl or musical performer on the Newcastle to IJmuiden ferry.

If I sound denigrating, it’s unintentional. I really have the utmost respect for people who don’t consider a gig like that beneath them. Everyone has to start somewhere and one of these people might make it big one day — no, really! — but here they are, giving it their all for a captive ferry boat audience. Respect!

After taking part in the pop quiz, which I did pretty well on, but didn’t win, I gave up on the nightlife and went back to the cabin, where I’m typing this for upload in the morning.

I’m knackered. Time to sleep.

Has It Really Been A Month?

It’s been longer, actually, by a few days.

I’m filled with the same paradoxical sensation that I always have at the end of one of our holidays, particularly the summer ones. On the one hand, it seems quite recent that we set off from Amsterdam for a month in the Scottish highlands and islands. On the other hand, Edinburgh, our first destination, feels as if it was months ago. The dismal defeat of the Dutch at the hands — or rather the feet — of the Spanish, which we watched with a friend in the restaurant of our Edinburgh hotel, is now but a dimly painful memory. It really does feel like three months ago, not one.

Tomorrow’s a long drive, from Inverness to North Shields. It will clock in at about twice the distance of our longest day of driving so far.

We’ve been quite good at keeping the number of kilometres driven on any one day reasonably low, with only three days peaking above 200 km, but this has also been dictated by the geography of the region and the nature of the roads. The distances I’ve been noting in my phone also exclude any travel by ferry.

This has been one of the best trips we’ve ever done and I’m certain it won’t be our last to Scotland. Indeed, we’re already talking about coming back for more next year.

By and large, we’ve been quite lucky with the weather. Rain was forecast for virtually every day of the trip and, whilst we had only a handful of gloriously sunny, dry days, we also had mercifully few that it rained for the entire day. Even when this was the case, we were not confined to our hotel, so the misery we suffered during our May trip to Italy wasn’t even vaguely hinted at during our travels around Scotland.

The whole family have enjoyed this trip to the hilt. No-one wants to go home. Eloïse said today that she would like to remain on holiday for as long as possible. I’m the downer here, forcing us to go back for yet another Brendan Perry gig.

Still, a month on the road is nothing to complain about, is it? It’s a good length of time. Whilst I’ve loved every minute, I’ve also adjusted to the idea of going home and am now even looking forward to it. It’s not often that we get to spend twelve days of summer in Amsterdam, as we often leave the day after school breaks up and return the day before the new term begins. It will be a novelty to be in the house without needing to set the alarm clock on the Sonos.

Our last day in Inverness was a lazy, but oddly tiring day.

We started after breakfast with a walk along the east bank of the Ness to the Ness Islands. We then looped and returned along the west bank, watching anglers at work in the water. The entire circuit was completed under a blue sky. The sun shone brightly and it was an unusually warm day, perhaps the warmest of the whole trip. I even had to remove my jacket. It may have been the first > 20°C day that we’ve had. I’m not complaining, though. We like it that way.

The afternoon was spent browsing through the streets of Inverness, doing some final shopping. The pound is still fucked, so everything is cheap. I bought a pair of sandals, a Snow White dress for Eloïse — she’s ecstatic about it — and a warm autumn coat for the wee man.

We have a very early alarm set for tomorrow and six hours of driving ahead of us before we get to the ferry. I’ll be very glad to get to our cabin and throw myself down on my bunk. We’ll be back home in Amsterdam Thursday morning.

Loch Ness

It had to be done, just so that we didn’t have to come back and do it some other time: Loch Ness.

If I make it sound as if we were dreading it, that’s deliberately misleading. Actually, Loch Ness is very beautiful, and indulging in a cruise of the loch is as good a way to kill an hour or two as any, particularly if the weather plays along.

If you can ignore the hordes of oddly-shaped people piling out of the buses, some of whom perhaps really do hope to catch a glimpse of the elusive Nessie, and the naffer-than-naff tourist tat shops — Nessie fridge magnets, bagpipe CDs and a tartan execution of just about any garment you care to mention — you can enjoy your time at the loch.

We drove a loop of the loch in anticlockwise direction, since that supposedly results in the best views. It was also the only way we could get to the departure point for our cruise on time.

Just outside of Drumnadrochit, we pulled off for our cruise of the loch, which lasted an hour and passed by Urquhart Castle. We had a few drops of rain on the return leg, but nothing bad. We even had sun for some of the cruise.

After lunch, we continued by car. The journey is nicely broken up by Fort Augustus at the south end of the loch, a pretty little town that is a big hit with the tourists, and a good place for a waterside drink. Unfortunately for Sarah, both children were sleeping when we arrived — one of whom on her lap — so she had to remain in the car while I ambled around for twenty minutes or so.

Fort Augustus has a fascinating series of locks that allow the Caledonian Canal, which runs from Fort William to Inverness, to step down to Loch Ness. If you don’t know your locks from your lochs, this is a good place to learn. I watched with interest as a yacht and several smaller boats were floated upwards from one of the lochs to the next. Very impressive, like watching a boat climb a flight of stairs.

Back at the car, an understandably envious Sarah listened as I explained the working of the lock that I had just witnessed. Lucas was still asleep, and that slumber is valuable driving time, so we headed back towards Inverness along the very scenic and equally windy B852. Luke would almost certainly have vomited if he’d been awake for that.

I haven’t given many food plugs on this trip, but one is certainly due for The Kitchen in Inverness. Both the food and the service were excellent, but if you’re going to go, be sure to book ahead. We were turned away yesterday evening.

I Come From Twatt

Don’t we all?

The double T is not a misspelling, but refers to a village on Orkney. How can you not love a place that laughs in the face of the world’s sniggering.

We left Orkney via St. Margaret’s Hope and travelled by nippy catamaran ferry to the non-existent hamlet of Gills Bay, which is nothing more than a dock, on the Scottish mainland.

There began the drive along the eastern coast of Scotland, with a stop-off at John O’Groats to take a photo of the sign — well, you’ve got to, haven’t you? — and get a bite of lunch.

The drive down to Inverness was nice and relaxing, save for the few times I got stuck behind a Sunday driver and had to gnash my teeth while I waited for a safe stretch of road on which to overtake. It wasn’t until about 10 km outside of Inverness that I was treated to my first stretch of dual-carriageway since Glasgow.

Inverness feels huge after the last few weeks of island-hopping. With more than 50,000 inhabitants, it’s more than ten times the size of any town we’ve been to in recent times. It therefore feels big; very big; too big.

In Orkney, for example, a hot topic is that the supermarket chains are moving in, which spells problems for the small grocer, butcher, etc. People will vote with their wallet and the small, local shop will suffer and eventually disappear.

Even when I was growing up in what I was certain was the anus of the universe, Cornwall, that boat had sailed; or was, at least, faring out of port.

The wheels of time turn slowly on the western and northern isles of Scotland. The tale of the death of the grocer is being told only now. Unfortunately, we all know how the story ends. Although it’s only a matter of time, there’s some comfort to be had from the thought that the rot is not as advanced in some quarters. If you were on a sinking ship, you’d climb higher and higher in an effort to postpone the inevitable, no?

Orkney has no McDonalds, no Burger King, no KFC, no Starbucks and no Costa. There’s a Boots in Kirkwall, but that’s about it. There isn’t even an M & S. And yet, nothing is missing. Kirkwall is a lovely little town, with its beating heart still intact. Long may it remain that way. Fuck the trend of globalisation that is bringing about the reduction of the high streets of every European city to homogenised pulp.

Not that Inverness is without its own charm. The pedestrianised city centre is on the verge of surrendering its individuality, but the state of decay is such that, with a little imagination, one can still imagine how things might have looked before the mobile phone shops and other chain store decay took hold.

Further down, a walk along the banks of the Ness, the river that flows to the famous loch of the same name, is still a fine pursuit.

We’ll spend three nights in Inverness before embarking on the very long drive south to catch the ferry home from Newcastle or thereabouts.

Farewell To Orkney

Today was our last full day on Orkney and the weather treated us to glorious sunshine and blue skies.

After a brief walk into Kirkwall to purchase wool for Sarah to knit with, we drove out to Mull Head and spent 2½ hours hiking around the cliffs.

Eloïse didn’t complain once during the 5.6 km hike, which was very impressive. Some of it was over rough terrain and the wind was blasting in from the sea, but she didn’t once whinge about it. Lucas was asleep in the sling the whole time.

There were no lunch options in the area, so we drove down to St. Margaret’s Hope again and had lunch at the same place as yesterday.

As a treat for the children and because it was now quite late in the day, we decided to go to the Marine Life Aquarium, which showcases the sea life found in the coastal waters around Orkney. It was rather expensive for what it was, with only a couple of rows of tanks, but the place is clearly run with a lot of love by the couple who own it and probably only just breaks even.

There’s information everywhere and bizarre ornaments adorn the walls and ceiling wherever you cast your gaze. On the tank that should contain, amongst other things, a spider crab, the proprietor has written on the tank’s label that the “brown crab ate the spider crab”. It’s amateurism in a good way, the kind that warms the cockles of your heart.

Our final stop of the day was the Italian Chapel on the tiny island of Lamb Holm, which is a chapel built during the second world war by Italian prisoners of war, who wanted a place to worship. It’s a very impressive piece of work. Such was the devotion that went into creating the chapel that, when the war ended and the inmates were free to be repatriated, one of them chose to stay to finish work on the chapel. It ranks amongst the more interesting places of worship that I have visited. You can almost feel the presence of the POWs who built it.

Tomorrow, we catch the ferry from St. Margaret’s Hope to Gills Bay on the mainland and then drive south to Inverness.