So this morning we vary our usual drive north and head up the M1/M18/A1 before hanging a left at Scotch Corner to take the A66 onto the M6/M74/M73 into the eastern side of Loch Lomond National Park. Variety is the spice of life even when in the car. Then, for the second year in a row, we head to Immervoulin Campsite in Strathyre. It worked out ok there last year, so if it ain’t broke and all that. We eat again at the Inn at Strathyre and the Broch café does us nicely for breakfast.
The book we chose to accompany our trip this year is ‘The End of the World Running Club’ by Adrian J Walker which obviously appealed to the athlete in us both and it is also rather appropriately set in Scotland, at least initially.
It’s about a chap called Ed who is an out of shape excuse of a human being, a poor husband and an inadequate father. So it’s lucky then that he’s about to die in an asteroid strike. Only he manages to get his family down into the cellar where they wait out the disaster before getting rescued.
They emerge to find the country in ruins and very few survivors. However, the army are in charge and they take them to barracks near Edinburgh from where they organise trips foraging for food and water while also trying to make contact with the outside world. They actually seem to be surviving just fine as they are and this could well have been the end of the book. If it had been I wouldn't have complained but then it all goes a bit weird.
Returning from a foraging trip, Ed discovers that his wife and kids have abandoned him and been airlifted to Falmouth where boats are going to be sailing for resettlement in another country. What's even more remarkable is the son of another survivor called Richard has gone too, on his own.
For reasons that are not clearly explained there will be no more airlifts, so they can either stay put or walk to Falmouth. This is what Ed and a few others do. Along the way they meet various other 'survivors' who try to kill them, feed them to pigs or are very occasionally and grudgingly welcoming to them. It’s all a bit over depressing. Eventually, about half way through the book, just as we pull into Thurso, they start to run (a little).
In Thurso we do another revisit, this time to Turso Bay campsite and the Holborn Hotel for food and a few pints of Red Macgregor, which is rather appropriately from the Orkney Brewery. After breakfast in the campsite’s Blue Door café we head to nearby Gills Bay to get the ferry to Orkney with Pentland Ferries.
The ferry only takes an hour from this northerly point and soon we are on mainland Orkney in St Margaret’s Hope, although this is actually a separate ‘island’ called South Ronaldsay, and looking for somewhere to stay. There’s not a lot of options and we end up at Wheems Organic Farm, which is a bit cranky but absolutely fine.
The pubs aren’t up to much in St Margaret’s Hope so we end up in a café. The food is basic but they also do beer and serve Swannay’s Scapa Special, which we quickly find is the default beer option for most of Orkney.
We have come armed with Julian Cope’s books The Modern Antiquarian: A Pre-Millennial Odyssey through Megalithic Britain. Which does what is says on the tin, that is if you understand what it says on the tin. We see lots of his recommended sites (stone circles et all) during our sojourn on Orkney but being tight wads we don’t pay to go into any of them such as the Tomb of the Eagles on South Ronaldsay. Mind you we are investing in the local economy in other ways.
On the Sunday we travel from South Ronaldsay across the islands of Burray, Glimps Holm and Lamb Holm to land on the real ‘mainland’ Orkney without getting our feet or tyres wet. That is thanks to Winston Churchill who basically bricked up the gaps between the islands during the Second World War to protect the natural harbour of Scapa Flow where the British fleet were moored during both World Wars. This was done after HMS Royal Oak was sunk at her moorings in 1939 by a German U-boat after the strategy of using sunken block ships to fill these passages had failed.
Many of these block ships are still visible, in fact there are wrecks everywhere. In 1919 the German Navy attempted to scuttle its entire fleet of 74 vessels which had been interned after the end of the First World War. Most of them sank and quite a few are still there. There’s also a tasty assortment of wartime battlements adorning the coastline.
I have digressed because we are heading to the capital of Orkney, Kirkwall, where the most secretive race known to man is being held. This is the Kirkwall Half Marathon that rather quaintly you can only enter by post and cheque. It does have a Facebook page but this has no link to the organiser. I did eventually manage to get hold of the guy by good old landline and he promised me a place.
Half an hour before start time there is still no one in sight at the Pickaquoy Leisure Centre where it starts, then suddenly everyone appears and I sign up. It’s a bargain £8.
Although the race now clearly exists I’m a bit worried about signage as the race briefing consists of the locals being told which side roads have roadworks on them. As the field of 40 depart on a rolling but enjoyable course I’m not totally convinced we will have such standard features as signage and marshals but I needn’t have worried as we have both, even water stations and mile markers.
I finish in a good time, in 19th place which is later bumped up to 18th when someone is disqualified. Oooh controversial, I know not why.
The t-shirt isn’t red, isn’t long sleeved and doesn’t have a turtle on the front. This is because there is no t-shirt. I also don’t get a crap medal because there is no medal. There are however countless plates of sandwiches and cakes along with tea and coffee, so I’m not complaining. Now to find a post-race pint.
This turns out to be a pint of Orkney Dark Island which we drink sat outside a place called The Reel while barking at passer-by’s. In the evening we got to the rather nice Sands Hotel on Burray for food and more Scapa Special.
Monday we break camp and go for a wet walk in Deerness. I misjudge this totally and wear trainers, which then take five days to dry out. We also unintentionally walk about three miles which I had doubts whether Doggo could do but he copes fine.
We then head to Stromness where we camp for two nights at the Point of Ness Campsite and eat both nights in the Ferry Inn which has not only Scapa Special and Dark Island but also an IPA from Swannay. On neither of the two nights do I manage to attach to their wifi so one night we have to have a night cap in the Stronmess Hotel (more Scapa Special). Stromness is a quaint place where what appears to be the main road runs down a pedestrian walkway.
Back at the campsite I do manage to spend about an hour on the campsite’s own faltering wifi trying to get the result of Derby’s cup game with Carlisle which ends in a marathon penalty shootout which goes through both team’s entire squads before going around again. It’s a torturous thing to follow with my Dad texting after every penalty but due to poor reception his texts frequently arrived out of sequence while the BBC were typically infrequent with their own updates. It ends up 14-13 to Derby.
On Wednesday we are booked on to a ferry to Hoy but then, having researched our destination, we realise that there is no one to camp. At least no recognised sites and it has a reputation for fearsome midges. We debate how to cut short our visit but then when we turn up for the ferry fate seems to have intervened. Our departure is delayed because they can’t get the vehicles off the arriving boat due to the exit ramp being stuck up. We take the opportunity to cancel, head back to Kirkwall and try to book one to Westray instead. However there are none available with convenient times, so we end up with a booking to Sanday instead.
Sanday turns out to be a great choice. It feels more like a proper island because with it being smaller you can see coast all around you. It’s also sparsely populated and the only group of civilisation (and that’s a very small group) is in Kettletoft. There they even have two pubs which are side by side, a bit of bad planning perhaps. We only visit one of them, the Kettletoft Hotel, as the other has no food on at the moment. I suspect they take it in turns. Wednesday turns out to be fish and chip night, which pulls all the locals in.
Neither has real ale on at the moment, claiming to be waiting for the boat but the local shop does have plenty of bottles of the calibre of Orkney Skull Splitter and Swannay Old Norway.
On Thursday, L buys a ball chucker in the local Sanday store to exercise MD. On Friday, back in Kirkwall, Doggo eats the ball. Instead MD gets his exercise by going running with L and me. We have now setup camp next to the Pickaquoy Centre where the Half Marathon started. In the evening we pub crawl Kirkwall before deciding the best one was the first one we visited, the Bothy bar at the Albert Hotel and we return there to eat.
On Saturday there is another Half Marathon over on the island of Rousay known as the Rousay Round. Rousay is a mere half an hour away by boat but all the ferries are booked up by eager runners, so I can’t do the race. Instead we day trip to Shapinsay instead. We are mere foot passengers so the dogs join us on board but Doggo struggles with steep steps, so we all spend the return journey on the car deck. Not that there are any cars.
There’s not a lot on Shapinsay and what there was closed early due to a local wedding. This leads us to discuss something called the ‘Blackening’ which I read about in the guide book. This is where the groom or bride to be is kidnapped by their ‘friends’, stripped and then tarred (usually treacle) and feathered. They are then paraded around on the back of a truck. Rather bizarrely we witnessed this several times once back in Kirkwall.
Our time on Orkney is now nearly done but before we depart we head to the Scapa Distillery to get a bottle of Scapa Skiren, which we have started having a shots of in the local pubs. We also finally manage to get in the incredibly busy (and small) Good Beer Guide listed Helgi's in Kirkwall where I get a pint of Swannay Dark Munro which is only new addition to my dark beer trial that I make this week.
We eat at the West End Hotel in Kirkwall where they have no beer, so we drink wine and they have no Scapa whiskey either, so we drink the other local dram which is Highland Park.
On Sunday we are back on mainland Scotland, heading south and once more listening to the most depressing book on the planet. It had a great premise with a killer title but now it turns out that the world isn't actually ending and as I’ve already mentioned there isn’t a whole lot of running in it either. There’s also the fact that I took a dislike to Ed from the start and felt his family were always going to be better off without him. So at least the ending cheered me up.
After some deliberation and missed turns we end up at Dalraddy Holiday Park near Kincraig. This is just south of Aviemore which we had aimed for but then kept driving as Thunder in the Glens was happening, or had happened, was loud and probably best avoided. It seemed to be a motorbike festival of mainly Harley-Davidsons. We eat at the nearby Loch Insh Watersports Centre.
One thing we escaped this holiday was the midges. Our theory about the east coast being relatively midge free seems to have held up.
In the morning we do a running relay with MD as L tries to get back into her running and I need to as well. Doggo is also very keen to get involved. Then we continue driving south and end up at an old haunt at the Camping and Caravanning Club Site in Moffat. It’s such an old haunt that neither of us remember it. We have a few alfresco beers and then fish and chips back at the tent.
Then finally home.
(Tuesday 30th August)