A skein of honking geese hug the contours of the land. A black bag, ripped, flaps against a barbed wire fence. A window creaks in an abandoned house. The wind gets everywhere, like water. Ducks are alarmed at my approach. By the time I reach them, they are only ripples in the burn.
A hailstorm sweeps the landscape. I bow my head and plough on. The green earth has turned white. A hint of red amongst dawn's greys.
My run's objective is the broch. Inside its thick walls it is calmer, the howl of the wind different, a bluff buffeting as if waves against a ship's hull.
I take a still moment, a deep breath, and head back.
We arrived in Orkney for a short break. Orkney in February? But why not? Perhaps we would see the Northern Lights.
"You should have been here in winter!" said the first man we talked to. I looked around. There was snow on the ground. Isn't this winter? He shook his head. The sun was shining.
Loch of Harray:
We returned to a favourite spot. Above, the Kitchener Memorial. Below, Marwick. What was that black dot... no...? yes. A surfer. Suffering fuck, that must be freezing.
People in Orkney are often named after their place, she explained. The people from Twatt, well, their surname was Twatt. But some didn't like it. They changed their name to Watt. But if you meet a Watt, she said slowly, drawing the vowels out, you know they're really a Twatt.
Hailstorm passes Marwick:
I went for a run and counted more than twenty tractors in a field. What was going on? "It's the plooing match," said a retired farmer. Straightest furrow wins. I wished I'd asked how the field gets chosen. Dounby. Farms surrounded by a bowl of low hills. Never mind Kirkwall, this part of Orkney feels like the real heart of the archipelago.
At Skara Brae officialdom greeted us. Did we have a ticket? No? Sorry, it was about to close. We could return tomorrow. Only Maes Howe and Skara Brae operate through the winter as tourist sites, she said. She was snugly wrapped up against the wind. Only her blue Viking eyes were visible. But the inference was clear. We could wander at will elsewhere. A rugged-up family drew pictures in the sand. A black dot in the big wave near the rocks. I don't believe it. There was another surfer out there.
We went to the Ring of Brodgar for sunset. At this time of year that's 5pm. The whaleback hills of Hoy, the pale space of Loch of Harray, empty as the sky, the scattered lights of Dounby. We breathed in the cold, keen air and returned to our rented cottage for dinner, bath and a fire.
Ring of Brodgar:
This is the time of year to visit Orkney. No cruise liners. No queues. Just you and the wind and the locals.
It's soundless but for my boots crunching snow. The trees are furred with frost, the dark extremities of birch white, looking like the ghosts of trees, like a photographic negative. The fog has closed in but the hint of sunrise I saw earlier, that hint of an extraordinary day about to begin, appears in a hole in the fog, a rosy mountain peak plastered in snow.
The forest I am wandering in smells of cold and pine. A heady and free scent. I feel so glad to be alive.
Ten minutes. If only it were all day. I get back in the car and drive on to my rendezvous, passing walkers preparing for a cracking day on the hill. I feel a pang of jealousy. They have all day to enjoy this!
But a lot can happen in ten minutes, if you know how.
We arrived in Fortingall late on a dreich afternoon, lights already on.
What a handsome place this Perthshire village is! Its arts-and-crafts thatched cottages look more like a chocolate-box English village than the more usual grey boxes of Scotland, setting their faces against the weather.
The church site is old. Monks from Iona preached here in Pictish times. The reason this site was chosen for a church seems obvious. The surrounding area of Glen Lyon is rich in prehistoric remains, with Fortingall the focal point, its ancient yew tree a likely fetish object for the old time pagan religion. And the early Christians liked to repurpose existing sacred sites - it made the adoption of the new religion much easier.
A stone in the path leading to the yew says 'imagine those who have passed this way before'. The yew tree is estimated to be 5,000 years old and the oldest living thing in Europe. That is a lot of imagining! Landlords and industrialists, clansmen, knights and ladies, Gaels, missionaries, Picts, Romans, metal workers, farmers...
Inside the yew:
There is a legend about Fortingall - it would be a shame for such an ancient place not to have one. Fortingall, so the locals say - other localities dispute this - was birthplace of Pontius Pilate, the Imperial Roman governor who condemned Jesus Christ to death. If the legend is true, he may be the first named Scotsman to travel abroad to find his fortune - but he certainly was not the last.
I was browsing the map of our locality. How far up the River North Esk could I extend my training runs? My eye was caught by what looked like a stately home and grounds. Penicuik House. Never heard of it. I looked it up.
How could I have been living here so long and not have heard of this vast pile before? Explorable ruins are catnip to my wife. We vowed to visit as soon as possible.
The approach is made over estate tracks, past a round tower folly on a hill. The house was destroyed in a fire in 1899 and only recently were the ruins cleaned up and stabilised. But although this was our first knowledge of it, many other families were out walking dogs. Clearly this is one of Penicuik's top recreational spots.
Another folly - The Ramsay Monument:
The house itself is a handsome Palladian design. (The even more interesting house it replaced no longer exists - a Scots baronial pile called Newbiggin which was demolished for the rational grander of the current ruin.) It was built in 1761 by Sir James Clerk, 3rd Baronet of Nova Scotia. (The Clerks also built the earlier Mavisbank House, further down the Esk). The family gained a fortune in France in the 17th century, land at Penicuik in the mid 17th century, and the 2nd Baronet fame as a politician who supported and drove the Union of Parliaments with England.
Penicuik House gable end:
The Clerk family still live on the estate, which is now a much appreciated green lung for local visitors. I suspect that for most regular visitors the glories are the riverside, forest and paths, and that the ruined house barely merits a second glance. I will be back - perhaps on a long training run from my own, rather more modest, house.
I've been interested in Scotland's countryside and history since leaving school, and am delighted to have the opportunity to share a love and knowledge of Scotland with people all over the world via the internet. This blog will publish some of my ramblings, impressions, and poems about Scotland.