Orkney Islands Serendipity: Discovering The Best Place I Never Wanted to See

“You’ll need to catch the bus to Stromness,” says the lady at the tourist information office. She’s the cheery sort you’d expect to find working here — that rare employee who genuinely seems to love her job.

I arrived in Kirkwall, the largest town in the Orkney Islands, less than an hour ago. I’ve come to ask the best mode of transportation to the Orkney Folk Festival, three nights of continuous musical acts held over the long May weekend.

She removes a pamphlet and turns it around on the counter. She circles the schedule time leaving tomorrow night at 5:15 p.m. Her name tag simply states Kathleen.

“How long does it take to get there?” I ask.

“About a half an hour with stops,” she says. “Are you going to the festival?”

“Yes!” I say.

“How are you getting back? The buses stop running at ten.”

“Oh?” I question. “Could I take a taxi?”

I can see by the look on her face this is not an option. I keep forgetting Kirkwall has about 7,100 residents and where I’m headed tomorrow, less than a third of that number.

“You know, I think my brother is going there. He could give you a lift back.”

Before I can say no, she’s picked up the phone. After a few moments she says it’s all set and he’ll meet me in the foyer after the concert. His name is Alistair. He’ll be with his significant other, Marie.

Ordinarily this goes against everything I learned as a kid: Do not accept rides from strangers. But surely this adorable woman – Kathleen – would not be arranging dangerous pick-ups from the Kirkwall Tourism Office. That would be bad for business. No, I’ll take the risk. The scariest thing I’ve seen so far is a shocking lack of sunshine.

“Thank you! That’s so kind of you,” I say. “I’ll meet him after the concert then.”

Everyone had questioned my decision to visit this place. Nobody had ever heard of it – including me. When I’d studied the map of Scotland, something had drawn me to this archipelago of 70 islands located below the Shetland Islands. My mother had said I might as well go to the North Pole.

“Look!” Mom had screamed. “It’s practically off the page it’s so high up!”

Before leaving Edinburgh this morning, I’d asked the bellman if he’d ever been to the Orkney Islands. He hadn’t, and he was Scottish. True, Edinburgh has a lot to offer: the Royal Mile, the ghost tours, the castle. All the attractions most travelers consider Places of Interest.

“Why are you going there?” he’d asked as I was leaving.

“I’m going to the Orkney Folk Festival. This marks its 27th year,” I’d told him. “For three full days and nights, musicians from all over the world come and play.”

He’d offered a nod and quizzical smile in return.


The next evening I exit the Albert Hotel (one of about six in the entire town) and walk four blocks to the bus station. The rain has kindly stopped. For the past two weeks I’ve never been without a raised umbrella. I step onto the small bus that reminds me of a shuttle at an amusement park. I am seated behind the driver. He cracks a joke as the door shuts that the strange barking noise that sputters from the exhaust pipe is meant to be a dog. Everyone laughs. There are not more than ten people on board. The sun has suddenly appeared for the first time.

As we pull away I notice scruffy sheep standing in a nearby field upon grass so green they seem surreal. A young girl galloping by on a dark horse jumps high over a rail. Whoosh. There are two girls seated across from me. One is holding a large box on her lap and her friend says whatever’s in there smells amazin’. She’s bringing it to an annual barbecue and somebody’s even flyin’ in special.

Dandelions spring out of the ground like hedgerows. Their whitish heads are so dense they probably have ten-times the wishing power when you blow on their parachute balls. Dozens of tiny lambs look like little earthly clouds. There are beige cows, black cows, sitting cows, grazing cows. A sign posted along the road reads Blind Summit. I think it’s a warning we’re about to “fall off the page,” but luckily it’s just a steep hill, and the bus stops at the bottom in front of someone’s house. The slate planks stacked on top of the stone wall look like books tilted on a shelf. More baby lambs are running and kicking like pronking gazelles.

A teenage couple hops on and the girl says to her boyfriend, “Aw, you paid for me?” He blushes. She slides her hand in the back pocket of his jeans. The label says Mish-Mash. As the door closes, the scent of earth smells rich like wet peat moss. Someone has left a newspaper on an empty seat with the headline: Dead Heifer Washes Ashore. In a place where the animals outnumber the residents, missing cows are front page news.

The bus arrives in the tiny port of Stromness. Boats of all sizes painted in primary colors float on calm water. The bar at the Stromness Hotel contains performers carrying musical instruments and it looks as though their idea of a good dinner is the same as mine — a pint of Guinness. The room reminds me of the Old West with its oak interior and worn velvety furnishings. Even over laughter I can hear the floor creak with each step. The bartender, a dark-haired woman with tattoos, has silver hoops up the entire edge of her left earlobe. My second beer comes with a surprise – a shamrock etched in foam, almost too perfect to sip.

At just past seven-thirty, though it’s colder, the sky remains bright blue. A cluster of seagulls fly above the harbor as people on the narrow street gravitate toward the Town Hall. As I approach the entrance, it feels more like a church social; someone’s even selling raffle tickets.

“I’ll take three, please.”

A ginger-haired woman tears off a handful of hope in the form of three stubs.

“Good luck,” she says.

“Thanks. I feel lucky,” I say, stuffing numbers 35, 36, and 37 into my coat pocket.

I ascend the staircase and a man holding a clipboard says I can sit anywhere in the top section. I choose the first row to the left. The seat is barely wide enough to sit upon. My knees are knocking against the wooden casing. A woman finishing an ice cream cone waves to somebody she recognizes. I’m probably the only outsider at this music festival, an event so small, I had to get lodging on the other side of the island, take a bus here, and get a ride home from strangers.

The hall fills quickly. Some four hundred Orcadians are in attendance, a vast difference from the concerts back home. A man and his daughter squeeze past and sit beside me. He asks me where I’m from and if I’m going to the Bagpipe Concert in Kirkwall tomorrow night. His child, a beautiful girl around the age of fourteen, has brown bobbed hair and a mouthful of metal, and is missing both of her hands. I tell him that sounds like fun and maybe I’ll try to crash it. The girl smiles at me, yet never speaks. I think her face may be the purest thing I’ve ever seen.

A voice shouts, “Order, order!” The lights dim and an all-male trio take the stage. The man playing an accordion with holes in the knees of his jeans leads another man banging a keyboard while the other strums a guitar. Toes are tapping and heads are bobbing. Someone’s foot shakes the pew behind me. Here, in the dark, I cannot bring myself to clap, and stomp the floor instead, like the handless girl seated next to me.

I am more aware of the crowd than the players. My mind flashes back to the girl on that horse leaping over a high, white bar. I feel like a wild pony, mane flying, nostrils flaring, running through a green-green, greener-than-anything field.

I’m spellbound by a singer named Karan Casey. Her voice holds more emotion in each note than anyone I’ve ever heard perform live. Oh, to be born with such a gift, to move an audience, bringing tears to the eyes of those you’ve known all your life, the people of interest in unremarkable places. I wonder how many other wee towns there are in the world worth visiting. The ones so small nobody’s ever heard of them.

When the concert finally ends, the raffle begins. There are five prizes to be awarded tonight, says the lady in burgundy supervising the gentleman reaching into a jar and pulling out random tickets. The crowd listens carefully. None of my three numbers has been called and she’s about to announce the fourth prize.

“Number thirty-six,” she blurts.

“That’s me!” I cry louder than anyone else who’s won so far. The people seated around me applaud and pat my back like a friend as I descend the staircase two steps at a time.

I’m given a large tin wrapped in green and blue paper and tied with a gold bow. Whatever’s inside sure is heavy.

I follow the crowd through the exit doors and wait in the lobby. I see the red-haired lady still seated at the entrance table. Now she’s selling CDs from the acts that have just performed.

“Look!” I shout, flashing a big smile her way, holding up my present.

“Oh, that’s just grand,” she says.

There go father and daughter. The girl grins at me one final time. I can tell she knows I won’t be at her dad’s piping concert tomorrow evening. All the venues around town are sold out. I’d bought my ticket online to tonight’s show weeks ago and had it sent to the Albert Hotel. The price was less than eight dollars.

It’s after ten o’clock and I’m startled by a noisy murder of crows from the tree in the courtyard, the one next to the restrooms.

“Jill?” a man asks.

“Yes, that’s me.”

“I’m Alistair and this is Marie,” he says. He has a pleasant face and is wearing wire-rimmed glasses. His friend appears to be in her forties and is quite pretty without as much as a stroke of mascara. I can see the resemblance between Kathleen and her baby brother.

“So nice to meet you,” I say.

“Did you enjoy the show?” Marie asks.

“Oh, yes!” I declare. “It was better than I could have ever imagined.”

“Are you ready?” Alistair asks.

I’m never ready to go home.

“I guess,” I say sadly.

Alistair quickly senses my lack of historical knowledge when he mentions the Ring o’ Brodgar and the Standing Stones o’ Stenness. I stupidly ask if they have something to do with hobbits. I am oblivious that last year an archaeologist named Dr. Colin Richards spent time excavating these megalithic monuments. The standing stone circles are one of the main attractions here in the Orkneys.

“Dr. Richards said that the great ring may have been built around a pre-existing pathway and passing through it may have altered a person’s state, a bit like entering a church and moving towards the altar,” Marie shares.

Alistair pulls his car off the road and parks. As he opens the door a gust of bitter cold air sweeps through the backseat. Across the marsh on the other side I see a man fishing in a small boat. His dark outline is striking against the reeds and rippling water. He’s motionless.

Marie and Alistair have already climbed the slight incline toward the Ring o’ Brodgar’s standing stones. I’m stepping cautiously as each footprint sinks into the soggy soil. The wind swirls around me as I approach the monument.

“Touch one,” Alistair says. “They’re supposed to bring good luck. We’ll get a photo of you if you’d like.”

Selecting one of the largest stones I inch toward the twenty-foot-tall, flat rock and throw my arms around its base. Golden lichens and frosted white markings cover the surface above me like ancient graffiti. I’m hugging a mystical chunk of the world, standing in a place I’d never heard of before with total strangers.

Walking back down the hill toward the road, I hear a scuffling noise.

“Look,” Marie says, pointing. “Over there, beyond the fence.”

I see the faint outline of a cow kicking its heels up behind it, like a rodeo bull gone mad.

“Wonder what she’s so happy about?” Alistair jokes.

We all laugh, but it almost feels like I’m cutting up during a preacher’s sermon.

After a few more minutes, we finally reach the familiar town of Kirkwall. Alistair knows a shortcut to my hotel. I cannot thank them enough for the ride and the unexpected tour. Waving good-bye and watching the car drive away, I suddenly feel terrible for not giving them the prize I’d won as payment. I don’t know what’s underneath the wrap, but feel certain it’s definitely worth seeing.

Jill Paris is a writer living in Los Angeles. Her essays have been featured in The Best Travel Writing 2009, The Saturday Evening Post, Travel Africa, Thought Catalog and other publications. She has an M.A. in Humanities and a Master of Professional Writing degree from USC. She travels for the inexplicable human connection.