We arrived at the front door of Bencorragh House in Upper Gills, near John O’Groats, and it was opened by Sandy Barton with a cheerful welcome that was quickly followed by the news that our luggage had not been delivered there as promised by British Airways. It was getting late and we were hungry; I had researched the Seaview Inn when I had been planning the trip, and knew that the menu had vegetarian selections and that they served until 9:00 PM. Since it was a little past 8:00, we had enough time to make the ten minute drive and have our dinner.
When we arrived, just a little after 8:30, we had to enter through the pub entrance where we were told that the dining room had closed. John O’ Groats is not a large town. It isn’t as though we had any other choice for a restaurant. The server clearly registered the look of overwhelming disappointment on my face (that probably looked more like despair at that point) and she went off to the kitchen to see if they would fix something for us. We were invited to sit in the pub and she arrived in just a couple of minutes with a “pub grub” menu, asking that we order something simple and the kitchen would be happy to fix it for us. We then enjoyed what still rests near the very top of the list as one of the best meals we had on the entire trip. We each had Grilled Goat Cheese on Rocket Salad with a balsamic and wine dressing; Marsha had ginger beer and I had a half pint Scapa Special.
When we got back to Bencorragh House (named for the small hamlet on the western coast of Ireland), Sandy was both helpful and supportive as I tried yet again to get in touch with British Airways and locate our luggage. She allowed me access to her desktop, since the battery on my laptop had run down long before and the cord was in my suitcase. We checked the status which still said that they were out for delivery; we emailed to let them know exactly where we were and how to contact us; she let me use the house phone so that I could call again. This took us until past 10:00 PM, and the entire scenario repeated itself in the morning before we left to catch the ferry for Orkney.
Woven in between the telephone madness and during the long periods of time on hold were conversations with Sandy about her life in the windy north of Scotland. Bencorrahg House is a ten acre croft, complete with Highland coos, Jersey cattle, sheep, ducks,, geese, a couple of guest-loving cats, and Sandy’s champion show dogs. Her Irish Red Setter is Bardonhill Wait Until Dark over Bencorragh, and her Irish Read and White Setter is Taniswood Summer Rose with Bencorragh. When I saw the garden out in front of the house in the morning light, even in its autumnal state it called to me to come and sit in it, and I wished I had had the time to do so. It looks out over the Inner Sound to the island of Stroma (Old Norse: Straumar-ǿy, “island in the tidal stream”), the most southern of the islands in the Pentland Firth between Orkney and the Mainland of Scotland. (Pentland, from the Old Norse Petlandsfjörð “the Firth of the land of the Picts”) The picture windows in the dining area look out in to the small animals’ area where the outbuildings show the charm of the steading.
On my previous trips over to Orkney, I had taken the big Northlink Ferry that sails between Scrabster and Stromness. This trip, I had been advised by a friend who lives on Orkney to take the smaller, less exprensive, environmentally-friendly and locally-owned Pentland Ferry that sails between Gills bay and the island of South Ronaldsay (Old Norse: Rognvaldsey, Ronald’s island”). It was a smooth crossing even though it was raining and we docked at the charming, out of a storybook town of St. Margaret’s Hope. Now the third largest town in Orkney, the site was originally a chapel named Sant Margrat in the Howp, pronounced “Hup”, and the town is still referred to by the locals as “T’Hup”. The chapel and then the town were named for one of the two famous Margarets in Scottish history. The leading opinion is that it was named for Margaret, the wife of the Scottish King Malcolm III, who spent her life (1045-1093) doing charitable work and was canonized in 1250. The other possibility is Margaret, Maid of Norway, who was a very young Queen of Scotland for four years until she died on Orkney at the age of seven in 1290.
One of the neatest things about driving around in Scotland is that not being able to find what one is looking for brings opportunities for some very nice conversations with locals. It’s the American accent that gets their attention, I think, and they are all too willing to be as helpful as they can. While doing research for this trip, I found a tea room/ art gallery where I’d thought we would have tea when the ferry landed at 10:00 AM. We had a tour appointment at 1:00 PM and we wouldn’t have tie for lunch until afterwards. The online directions made it seem as though the tea room was closer to the center of town than it actually was. As I drove and the road was heading further out of town, I saw a couple out for a Saturday morning stroll and stopped to ask if I was on the correct road, which I was. We waved cheerfully at them again as we passed by going the opposite direction after we discovered that the tea room was closed for two weeks. Things can turn out to be even better sometimes; we happened upon the Fossil and Heritage Center and Café in Burray Village on the little island of Burray as we drove north. We had yummy in-house made treats, good coffee, and a fun conversation with the young server who was getting ready for her first trip to New York City.
Thusly satiated, we headed to Mainland Orkney continuing on the A961 which crosses the Churchill Barriers. The Barriers are now causeways that were originally built in WWII as naval defenses protecting the anchorage at Scapa Flow just off the coast of Orkney. In 1939, a German submarine was able to get past the nets that were in place and unfortunately sank a ship in the anchorage. Churchill ordered the barriers to be built, but they were not completely until four days after the was in Europe ended.
There are huge signs warning drivers to cross at their own risk because the waves occasionally come up and cross the road. Crossing during a heavy storm is forbidden. With the rain, there was an occasional spray of water, but nothing very threatening. We crossed all of the four barriers that connect the islands of South Ronaldsay, Burray, Glimphs Holm, nad Lamb Holm to Mainland Orkney.
We had the rest of Saturday and most of Sunday on Orkney (which I will write about next) and then we drove across the barriers again to take the ferry back to Gills Bay where another night at the Bencorragh House awaited us. Sadly, our luggage did not. Sandy greeted us warmly but quickly since she was on her way out to be part of a group that was counting bats as they left their cliff side cave homes near the little town of Latheron Wheel (Latheronwheel, Latharn a’Phuill, “muddy place of the pool”), about an hour’s drive south of Upper Gills, near the town of Lybster (in Gàidhlig, Liabost, from the Old Norse hli “slope” and bólstaôr “farm”). She was away for three hours, and I was still on the phone with the British Airways call center in India when she got back. I had just been told that the offices in Edinbugh were closed and there was nothing that they could do. Two hours and forty-five minutes of my life wasted. At that point, we drove off to the Seaview in time to get to the dining room for dinner. The dinner wasn’t anywhere near as good as the pub grub had been, and we wished we’d ordered it again. Still, we had a good night’s sleep ahead of us and clean clothes to wear thanks to Sandy, with another day to look forward to.