LOOKING BACK: The Shetland and Orkney Islands

Warning: Longer Post

I realised a few days after Travis left that I hadn’t been entirely truthful when I said this is the first time that I’ve been alone in who knows how many years.  Actually, I was surprised at myself for having forgotten the most recent time that I was completely and totally on my own, considering that those two weeks last year were actually the catalyst of this very trip.  So I think it might be a good time to remind myself that I actually have survived on my own before, while traveling, and having faced quite a few unexpected obstacles.

In August 2017, I was very much in denial about the pending end of my marriage.  For nearly six months, I had been steadfastly refusing to acknowledge that I was on the verge of losing the man I loved and a life I desperately wanted.  I’d been doing everything in my power to turn the tide towards reconciliation, including throwing myself whole heartedly in to a marriage renewal program I found online (Side note: While this program would ultimately fail to save my own marriage, I actually found it to be incredibly helpful and enlightening… it changed the entire way I think about marriage and long term relationships, and I would recommend it to any couple whether their relationship is in trouble or not.  In many ways, Marriage Fiteess by Mort Fertel taught me how to love, and I consider that one of the silver linings of having to get divorced, even if it came too late: https://marriagemax.com).

During this time, my husband had made a trip back to the States for family reasons, and as his return neared, I began to realise that I literally couldn’t face him.  I needed some time and some space from the situation to come to terms with what was happening, so I packed my bags one day, loaded Nefsi, Moomkin and Nibble in to my Subaru and hit the road.  I had absolutely no game place other than to drive “north” which I did aimlessly over the next couple days.  Eventually I found myself in Aberdeen, on the coast of Scotland.  I happened to drive by the ferry dock, and out of curiosity, stopped to see just where the ferries were headed.  Fifteen minutes later I walked out with a ticket to the Shetland Islands, which I had heard of only with reference to the Shetland pony and whose actual geographic location was a mystery to me.

You can probably imagine my shock when I boarded the ferry and learned that it was an eight hour, overnight trip to the Shetland Islands.  I hadn’t actually paid the least bit of attention when booking, and I assumed we were headed on a short trip to an island off the coast.  So ending up in a subarctic archipelago of over 100 islands was a surprise to say the least.  It turned out to be one of the most pleasant surprises of my life.

The Shetland Islands are not a hot spot tourist destination, which means that while people are definitely missing out, the islands remain a wonderfully pristine, almost untouched landscape.  There are pieces of Neolithic and Viking history dotting all of the islands, rarely preserved and almost never identified on any map or by sign.  The dogs and I spent a week wandering from island to island, stumbling over ruins that seemed to spring up out of the blue as we walked.  I walked through Viking places of worship, sat on beaches holding tools once used by ancient civilisations, and took in views that I could only have imagined in my dreams.  We slept in the car, sometimes at campsites, sometimes just where ever I could find.  The people were wonderful, the history fascinating, and the quiet and solitude, and absolute complete lack of phone service or wifi brought some much needed peace to my fried emotions.

At the end of my week in Shetland, I was taking a final drive up to the lighthouse on the south of the main island when I had a tyre blow out.  It was a Sunday, and thankfully, I was close enough to a major town to be able to reach an emergency car service… on the Scottish mainland.  It took a few hours and a great deal of begging, but eventually a local tow company agreed to bring me back in to Limerick, the main settlement and let me sleep at the garage until morning. First thing Monday, they gave me the bad news that they didn’t have the size tyres my Subaru Forester needed, and that it could take weeks to have the correct one shipped to them.  My best bet was to head for the Orkney Islands, which was more settled and should have a better selection.

So I booked another ferry ticket, this time for only a four hour journey south.  Unfortunately, the seas were not so calm for this trip, and the stress headache I had been nursing because of worry over the flat tyre turned in to a full blown, vicious migraine.  I hadn’t booked a cabin, and instead was sitting in the regular seating area where, about 30 minutes in to the roller coaster ride, I passed out.  I came around when Nefsi, who was traveling above deck with me (the mastiffs stayed in the car in the cargo hold), woke me with frantic licking.  At his insistence, I was able to gain my feet, bracing myself on him.  Of his own accord, he dragged me to mid ship, where he sought the first person he saw and whined adamantly to bring their attention to me slumped against the wall, blinded from the migraine.  A few hours later, when the ship captain came personally to wake me up and check that I had survived the rest of the journey, he told me that watching Nefsi work had been one of the most incredible things he and his crew had ever seen.  He was even more amazed when I informed him that Nefsi was not trained to brace, respond to migraines, or seek help from strangers…  but he wasn’t any more shocked then I was, who despite years with Nefsi at my side, couldn’t believe that he had known how to handle my sudden collapse and following blindness.  Once again, my dog had become what I needed without any training or guidance… my very own miracle.

When we arrived on the main Orkney Island, I was directed to the best mechanic in town, who was pleased to inform me that the had the size tyres I needed in stock.  A few moments later, we were both staring in dismay as not one, but two bolts snapped as we tried to remove them to change out the donut tyre.  Even worse, they did not have the right bolts available, and we would need to order them from the mainland; it would take a week for them to arrive.  I was still feeling sick from the ferry, and now I was frustrated and near desperation.  I was sleeping out of my car, unable to get home, alone with my dogs, and now I was facing the prospect of spending an entire week parked at a garage because the roads on the islands were no place to be driving on a donut.

Before I could even decide what I was going to spend the next week doing, the mechanic shocked me by motioning me over to a van parked just behind my own car.  It was his, and he didn’t need it for the week.  Would I like to take it while we waited on my bolts so that I could explore the islands and wouldn’t have to sleep at the garage?  The back seats were already out, so it would house the dogs nicely and I would easily be able to sleep in the back as I had been doing in the Suby.  I was shocked.  He was offering a perfect stranger his van so my trip wouldn’t be interrupted by my car troubles.  I gratefully accepted, marvelling at the kindness of people.

The van had no power steering, and anyone that knows me and my driving knows that made for a very funny breaking in period.  Reversing was especially challenging to start, and I spent most of the first day being passed on one lane roads by local drivers probably wondering why their friend’s van was struggling to make turns or go faster then 30 miles an hour.  But I did get the hang of it eventually, and the week that followed was truly spectacular.

The Orkney Islands are like a much more inhabited Shetland Islands, with the most notable difference being in how well preserved their historical sites are.  While it was possible to chance upon some old ruins here or there, more often then not, signs, visitor centres, and guide books were available to guide you around.  I stayed on the main island so that I would be close if my own car was unexpectedly finished, but there was plenty to see.  I bought a book that had a map in the back with each of the main sites marked and numbered.  I spent the week driving around the “Heart of Neolithic Orkney,” a UNESCO World Heritage Site, exploring Skara Brae, walking around the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar.  One of my favourite experiences was laying on a skateboard and pulleying myself in to the chambered tomb of Maes Howe.  I didn’t neglect some of the more “recent” history (and how amazing is it that 15th/16th/17th century ruins are recent there), taking time to see St. Magnus’ Cathedal, the Bishop’s Palace, the Earl’s Palace, and Skaill House.  In all, I managed to visit over half of the 40 sites on my map over the course of the week.

To this day, the Shetland and Orkney Islands are my favourite places that I’ve travelled to.  Spending two weeks exploring the civilisations and ruins that are older then the pyramids was mind boggling and truly humbling.  It was impossible not to reflect on my own situation in life and see it “in the big scheme of things.”  When I returned to England, and the man who no longer wanted me, I finally had begun to accept that the life I had dreamed of wasn’t coming true.  And the idea of travelling with my dogs as a path towards healing had taken root in my brain.  When my life finally finished imploding all the way a little over a year later, that idea seemed to bloom and grow until it couldn’t be ignored any longer.  And so, here I am, having last year visited the northernmost church in Britain, and now having taken in a service in BiH.  How far I have come, in more ways then one!