The Journey Part 2 – Orkney Islands to Ullapool, Scotland
“Simon, my Achilles hurts.”
“Really? My carves are wrecked.”
“Are we doing injuries? In that case my back is killing me.”
If I’d closed my eyes, I could have been on Emergency Ward 10, but instead, I was in a bothy in north west Scotland. I’d joined the Cape Wrath Trail as part of my 2,500-mile hike through Britain and was bemused by the hikers’ tales of woe.
I’d walked alone through Shetland, a portion of Orkney and a slither of the Highlands by this point, having started my journey in the far north of Britain a few weeks earlier in May, 2017.
The stone wall bothy was luxurious for limping hikers, with no tents to erect or wind to fight against. We were equal in our unimaginative breakfasts of porridge and oatcakes but as we parted ways, I saw the strain that the Cape Wrath trail had put on the hikers. Two were hobbling as they set off laiden down with ultra heavy packs. Ironically, I was the only one who seemed healthy despite having covered nearly three times the distance. Little did I know that would be short lived.
Over 150 miles earlier, I had left Shetland and made my way to the Orkney Islands to see the wealth of Neolithic sites woven between arable land and barbed wire. “Oh bugger. Not again!” I let out a lung-emptying sigh as I stared ahead at what was to become the bane of my Orkney hiking experience: a five-tiered barbed wire fence. After a mini foot stamping episode, I made my way back to the main road on the island of Westray and suddenly wished for Shetland’s fences and bruised knees.
Beyond the wire were curious cows and skittish bullocks. They were slighty wary of me hunched over carrying my house on my back. They ran to the fence to study me more closely, eyeing me cautiously while licking their wet noses and flicking their tails.
“Hello ladies. How are we today? Are we going for a walk then?” And with that, the entire herd accompanied me along the other side of the fence until they reached the end of their field. As we said our goodbyes (they all mooed at me), tourists stopped their cars to take in the hunchback and her four-legged disciples before continuing on their journey to tick off the “must-visit” sites.
I was on my way to see a remarkable lady myself, after getting the lowdown on her from county archaeologist, Julie Gibson. As I entered the room, I could see the woman was diminutive, frail, and exceptionally old but without the signs of ageing I was expecting.
“This is the Westray Wife,” the man at the Westray heritage centre told me. I gasped in amazement. Behind the glass panel stood a 5,000-year old female statue, one of the oldest complete surviving pieces of Neolithic art in Europe. And I was sanding right before her. I did another lung-emptying sigh, but this time in complete awe. “She’s incredible!”
Taking advantage of the summer sun, I hopped over to the tiny neighbouring island of Papa Westray, with its white icing powder beaches and blue marbled sea. “Bit different to Blackpool,” I mused to myself as I clambered over rocks and ducked when nesting skewers, unimpressed by my intrusion, dive bombed me.
I spent time weaving between the oldest houses in Northern Europe, the Knap of Howar, which are brilliantly preserved and undervisited. That was juxtaposed by the hoards of tourists on the main island of Orkney, all jostling for the prime photo to showcase on their social media pages. The Neolithic sites were impressive, from Maeshowe burial chamber to the village of Skara Brae. But the forced road walking, grass verges potted with concealed holes and the all too frequent impolite tourists had me longing to leave Orkney.
I hit the Scottish Highlands on a mission. I knew I’d be taking in remote paths and river crossings and the weather had been rather miserable, so I was told, for the past week. “There are going to be gales and torrential rain on Tuesday, so just be careful,” the owner of a tearoom warned me. “I’d want to be holed up then,” another local said. I heeded their advice and watched as swollen river banks burst and flooded the area, nearly catching me in its onslaught.
A couple of days later, I finally wound up on the Cape Wrath trail having completed the whole route the previous summer. Inside the little bothy, a free and basic shelter, were walls echoing the tales of Cape Wrath woe.
“Do you not think you should rest for a couple of days?” I asked the walking wounded.
“Rest?! We don’t have time to rest!”
Typical men, I thought, always having to show bravado even when injured.
Plastic bags were placed on feet, soaking wet jackets slopped back on, woolly hats at the ready, all despite it being June. I was armed with my Sealskinz waterproof socks, the only thing immune to Scottish rain and bog. I had learnt the hard way, having been a casualty of near trench foot the year before.
After 125 miles from Thurso through the Highlands, I finally reached Ullapool in eight days. It was a time for eating (and boy, did I eat!) and resting. And then my heels started to ache. Thinking this was psychosomatic I paid little heed to it. That was until I reached the Outer Hebrides and a trip to A&E was in store…
Jane Batchelor is currently hiking 2,500 miles through Britain, looking at the history of the country. For more photos, follow her Facebook and Instagram pages. To find out more about her journey, click here.