4am on Tuesday morning and Finn is awake and eager to start the day. The two of us are heading to the Orkney Islands for a week long camping trip by public transport and will not arrive at our destination until midnight. Our journey there will encompass two busses, a train, a six hour ferry journey a taxi and a further bus and walk the following day. As I lie awake I’ve plenty of time to question what I’m doing. I will continue questioning my sanity, several times a day, for the first five days of our trip. It all seemed like such a good idea just over a week ago when I made our last minute bookings. The excitement! The spontaneity! The adventure! The reality was that it was a challenge but if there’s not some challenges along the way then it’s not an adventure, right?
Challenge #1 was trying to persuade my son to nap on the ferry. Unfortunately for me, he is a Duracell Bunny. He goes on and on while all competition (i.e. me) is left flagging. By 7.30pm I was pleading with him to sit quietly and rest. Fortunately at 9pm he succumbed. Unfortunately, this meant I had to wake him two hours later. Challenge #2 was trying to manoeuvre two heavy bags, Finn’s small bag and a tired and angry Finn off the boat. The challenges continued the following day when two minutes after we got off the bus to Stromness and began our walk to the camp site the heavens opened and we were greeted with torrential rain. I was carrying what felt like my own weight in baggage and dragging Finn along in the wind and lashing rain aware that I had to keep smiling and pretend I was really enjoying myself in order to keep up morale or risk complete meltdown. By the time we arrived I was ready to cry. We’d not had lunch and I still had to put the tent up, get dry and pass the afternoon trying to keep up with the Duracell Bunny when all I wanted was to lie down and sleep.
As each day passed, despite the further challenges of negotiating the Orkney Islands public transport network and still frequent meltdowns, I stopped thinking that maybe we should have stayed at home and started appreciating where we were and all the wonderful and varied experiences we were sharing. And the fact there were no midges. In Scotland. In summer. Yes, this is the Northern Isles’ best kept secret.
We certainly did end up having some memorable experiences. Since we’ve been home and he’s been asked about his trip, Finn most commonly cites that we were on a ferry for 6 hours and didn’t arrive on Orkney until NEARLY MIDNIGHT!!!. So I’m inferring that this was the most exciting part of the trip for him. That and the launch out on the Severn Class Stromness Lifeboat. Finn has a mild obsession with the RNLI. As well as saving up to join the ‘Storm Force’ (the RNLI young supporter’s club) the vast majority of his holiday money always gets spent in the local RNLI lifeboat shop followed by a donation in the bucket. At home he will discuss the different classes of lifeboats and their merits and builds models of them and labels them to show in his ‘museum’. We don’t even live near the sea!
For me, spending time among some of the finest Neolithic monuments in the world was a privilege. This part of Orkney is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, which includes Skara Brae, the Ness of Brodgar, Ring of Brodgar, Maeshowe, the Standing Stones of Stenness. Finn and I also learnt an awful lot about the part played by Orkney in the defence of Scapa Flow in both World Wars when we were the only ones who turned up for an evening tour of the Ness Coastal Gun Battery and Finn got his own private lecture.
My most memorable day was our penultimate one when we took the small passenger ferry to the island of Hoy. Much of Orkney is flat and agricultural but every day I’d been looking wistfully from our camp site across to Hoy, which is more mountainous and wild, Hoy meaning ‘High Island’. Our aim was to walk to the Old Man of Hoy, a rock stack standing on a lava platform and one of Orkney’s most well known icons. I’d had no success in trying to book a taxi to take us from the ferry quay to the beautifully atmospheric Rackwick Bay but we took the ferry over regardless. The island’s community bus didn’t detour the 6 miles to Rackwick but the driver told me to speak to Albert in the large people carrier behind. “We’re full” was Albert’s eloquent reply but the Swedish couple in the front insisted everyone squeezed up and that we’d fit in. It was not until reaching Rackwick that I realised this wasn’t a public bus service at all and that the two families of Swedes had hired a driver and vehicle to take them on a private tour of the island. There was no offer of a lift back to the ferry after we’d hiked to the Old Man. Ah well, I didn’t let that deter us and we pressed on, Finn tackling the route up the hillside with a hop, a skip and a jump, brandishing his Orkney flag all the way.
His enthusiasm lasted for the first scenic mile after which we stopped for one of three lunch stops. We got through the further two miles to the Old Man by playing a game of ‘roadblocks’ whereby Finn would run ahead with his flag blocking the path and indicate with a subtle movement of his eyes whether I was allowed to stop or go. Finn-intitiated games like this are our secret to managing long walks together. His longest hike up to that point was 7 miles of walking in the Peak District, 4 miles of which passed with Finn telling an elaborate but repetitive story of Roman and Greek inspired battles and conquests. Finn managed those four miles with ease, leaving me mentally exhausted. We had fun spotting the bonxies and surprised a mother and baby snipe in the heather as we ventured off the path. We stopped to build some miniature cairns and to chat to people we passed. As when I’ve travelled alone, the highlight of a journey is often the interesting variety of people you meet. With Finn on board this took on a new perspective. Finn’s antics drew people to speak with us and as a pair we were quickly recognised in the town and further afield as we repeatedly met some of the same people. We chatted to people from Australia, America, Spain, Italy, Germany, Belgium and even Orkney! We met a retired man who had just finished walking from Land’s End to John O’ Groats and a Scottish-French family with two young children who were cycle camping round the islands.
On reaching the Old Man we shared biscuits with a woman from Wales who told us stories of the trips she used to take alone with her two young children and of travelling the world with her father when she was a girl. She then nonchalently declared that he was still there with her as she pulled out a ziplock bag containing some of his ashes. She continued regaling us with their adventures while munching on another biscuit and scattering ashes on the ground, affirming how much he’d enjoy the view.
Back at Rackwick via another lunch stop and more games of ‘roadblocks’ and I had a decision to make. Cross my fingers, start walking along the road and hopefully hitch a lift back to the ferry or take the wild and scenic 4 mile footpath through the two highest mountains of Hoy to Moaness, already having walked 7 miles. We had plenty of time so I optimistically decided on the latter, my back up plan being that I could try and squish Finn into my backpack and carry him for a short distance. Finn’s newly invented game of ‘scouts and explorers’ involved him telling me exactly where to place my feet across every stone and puddle and eventually (along with another lunch stop) got us a further two miles, at which point it started to rain. I insisted Finn put his waterproofs on, which was my downfall as a meltdown ensued (Finn does not like wearing waterproofs) and the next two miles involved a long drawn out battle (not just one of Finn’s stories this time). We were revived by stumbling across the old church, renovated as a community and heritage centre, where we helped ourselves to a packet of biscuits and cup of tea in return for a donation. Finn got a second wind, took up his flag once more and skipped down the last stretch just in time for the ferry. All together he walked 12 miles that day, but would he go quietly and willingly to sleep that night? Oh, no, this is Finn we’re talking about.
At times, our trip felt like I was stuck in a social experiment or reality T.V show. One where two strong willed and stubborn characters were thrown onto an island in a tiny tent to see what chaos ensues. There were highs and there were lows. There were several meltdowns a day. There were ample opportunities for me to practice mindfulness and patience. There were moments where the experiences I was seeking were at odds with what Finn wanted. Trying to soak up the atmosphere and energy of the enormous stone circle, the Ring of Brodgar, when all Finn wanted was to play an energetic and monotonous game of hide and seek behind every stone. Yet now I’m home and with hindsight I can look back and appreciate much more the experiences we’ve had and the memories we’ll share and how through all the meltdowns and disagreements our relationship has grown and deepened.
So would I do a similar trip again? Yes! Absolutely! When I say to Finn that we will not being doing something again, he always reminds me in a resigned tone “you’ll forget mum, you’ll forget”. And yes, I probably will forget all the challenges, arguments and battles of wills, remembering only the joyous moments and experiences. In fact, I think I’ve already forgotten as here I am daydreaming of our next adventure.