After our brief visit to Isle of Skye, we reversed course towards Inverness, transferring trains at Dingwall to take a northbound train to Thurso. Our destination was on the northern coast of Scotland to take a ferry to the Orkney Islands the next day.
We didn’t know that before the day was over, we’d have two of the most delightful experiences on our month-long journey. One was a serendipitous meeting; the other involved bagpipes.
After a hearty breakfast of eggs, rolls, ham, fruit, and cereal, our B & B host — who’d charmed us with more stories about life on the Isle –drove us into Portree to catch the bus to Kyle of Lachalsh for the morning ScotRail train.
One of the joys of traveling on rail or bus in Europe is the serendipity of meeting interesting people along the way. A friendly conversation with strangers rarely happens in a tense airport security line or munching peanuts crunched next to a fellow passenger on a crowded plane. Airline travelers are wary and aloof these days, reluctant to engage in meaningful conversations. Not so on European public rail or buses.
Godfrey and Janet
As we got off the train in Dingwall for a 40 minute layover, we followed behind a couple wheeling their luggage like we were to wait for our connection to Thurso. As we were scanning the monitor, I started a conversation.
What’s to lose? After all, we were dressed similarly in traveling clothes, slacks and jackets, and wheeling luggage. They wore small backpacks, we carried shoulder bags. The gentleman was even wearing a baseball cap like I was. They looked like a retired Oxford don and his wife, he tall, distinguished, with a warm smile and a twinkle in his eye; she also tall, attractive, and trim, with stylish gray hair, the image of a happy grandmother.
They introduced themselves as Godfrey and Janet from Cornwall. Godfrey was a retired accountant who had commuted into London to work for commercial banks. Janet raised their three children who all had good educations, jobs, and families. After retirement, they moved to Cornwall, a remote peninsula in southwest England.
Cornwall has a reputation for being a bastion of old English traditions touched with the a bit of eccentricity. They live in a thatched cottage near Truro, like something out of a Thomas Hardy novel. Godfrey consulted for a few years, but recently gave that up so they could travel more and visit grandchildren. Sounds familiar.
Our conversation got off to a great start when they told us they had just celebrated their 40th anniversary at the remote hotel on the Scottish coast where they had honeymooned. They looked as happy and in love that morning as I’m sure they had been four decades ago.
Journey to the Orkney
That anecdote started a lively round of ‘where have you been?’ and ‘where are you going?‘ and ‘where have you traveled before’? conversations. The ice was broken. and Godfrey said they returning to the Orkney Islands to hike for a week. We were on our way to the Orkney as well, but only for a day and on another ferry.
Godfrey had done his homework and pulled out a map to show the islands they were visiting. They were even taking the shortest commercial flight in the world, a two-minute Loganair flight 355 from Westray to the northern island of Papa Westray.
They had visited the Orkney before, and showed their familiarity by using the term, ‘the Orkney mainland.‘ I thought the Orkneys were all islands, but Godfrey pointed at his map, and sure enough, two of the larger segments were called ‘the east and west Orkney mainland.’ Like I said, he’d done his homework. I was embarrassed at my elementary knowledge of our destination.
After sharing travel stories and family backgrounds, I couldn’t wait to continue our conversation on the Thurso train. But the platform at Dingwall was filling up with other passengers. By the time the three-car Thurso train arrived, we got separated and ended up in different cars.
The train was packed and passengers had to stand in aisles and between cars. But as passengers got off at various stops, we found them in another car and continued chatting like old friends at a reunion.
Their grandchildren live in Switzerland and Kent, so they visit them and also travel on the continent. We even travel alike, choosing major destinations, but select sites to visit a day at a time.
When we parted in Thurso that afternoon, we exchanged addresses and emails, vowing to get together again, possibly next summer if we return to the UK. I’ve always been curious about Cornwall; I wonder what it’s like living in a thatched cottage?
Thurso is the end of the road, the northern most town on the British mainland. The A-9 highway ends here, as does British rail. Thurso is on the same 58 degree latitude as Juneau, Alaska, Stavanger, Norway, and St. Petersburg, Russia. London is 700 miles and Glasgow is almost 300 miles to the south. As remote in Scotland as you can be on the mainland.
Thurso was a puzzle. A seaside town with a scenic cliff side path looking across the North Sea at the Orkney Islands a dozen miles away. The dramatic setting featured spectacular views of windswept beaches, and waves so strong that international surfing competitions are held here.
But Thurso was missing something; there wasn’t a seafood restaurant offering North Sea cod or salmon.
After experiencing that frustration, we walked back into town, certain we had missed the High Street where there would be seafood restaurants as well as pubs, curry shops, pizza joints, or a Chinese restaurant. I stopped a woman to inquire, and she relayed the sad news that there was only one restaurant in town and that served only steaks, burgers, and lamb raised on their farm.
When we found the restaurant, it was closed (7:30 PM). Salmon was on the window menu, but breaded and fried! We ended up back at our hotel dining room for a tiny portion of haddock, a few marble potatoes soaked in cream, and over cooked broccoli. Marilyn’s explanation was that they were saving dinner for two buses of tourists coming in that evening. She was right.
It’s time to talk beer, or more precisely British ales. Although disappointed by the weak and bubbly ales I’d tried in London, I was pleased to find ales from the British Isles that deserve mention. At the Castle Hotel in Neath, Wales, I had daily pints of a local ale with the Welsh name something like ‘Crym Bwrt.’ Seriously, no vowels. I asked about the origins, but the pub maid who had poured, simply shrugged and said, “It’s made local, Luv. Sorry, dunno ‘ny more.”
I searched on the internet, and nothing came up for that name. Local breweries brewed only light lagers and ales, but not the tasty ale served at our hotel pub.
The ‘Ale With No Vowels’ was a creamy, mildly hoppy amber ale, smooth on the palate and tastier than ales I’d tried in London.
On the Isle of Skye, I was delighted to sample a dark ale from a local brewery, Black Cuillin, named after the highest mountain peaks on the Isle. The black ale was rich and creamy with a touch of heather honey and smoked oats. It looked like a stout, brewed with roasted barley and roasted oatmeal, but was not as heavy or smoky. A real treat after so many disappointing pints in England.
In Thurso, our hotel pub served a dark ale, Dark Island, brewed on the Orkney in the tiny town of Quiyloo, a mile from Skara Brae, a 5,000 year old Neolithic village, which we toured the next day.
Dark Island was dark, chocolatey, with a smooth, fine finish. In cask, it won two CAMRA Best of Scottish Ale awards.
Imagine, on two remote Scottish islands, finding dark, distinctive ales with rich tastes. Labels were attractive, drawing on the local Scottish heritage.
Scottish Bagpipes and Dancing Lassies
After haddock dinner at our hotel, I was checking the internet in a lobby off the pub when a troop of young men and women came in dressed in tartan kilts and woolen stockings, and carrying bagpipes and drums. They were at the hotel pub to entertain a visiting Dutch tour group who had hosted them in the Netherlands the previous year. The pub turned out to be too small for the bagpipes and dancing lassies to perform, so the celebration went outside.
As the group assembled on the vacant street outside our hotel, I chatted up the lads and lassies and videoed them as they rehearsed. When the pipes were pitched, the drums thundered, and the lassies were warmed up, they marched and danced in a celebration of their Scottish heritage.
It was another delightful, serendipitous experience that day; a touch of the real Scotland, with a lively, attractive group of young Scots.
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Next destination: Orkney Islands
In addition to writing this travel blog, I write fiction — thrillers, mysteries, and suspense novels. I’m currently writing a thriller series based in Milan featuring the anti-terrorism police, DIGOS, as they track down domestic and international terrorists.
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