March 1, 2010

A Chance to Travel: Nordic Scotland

By Joseph A. Woods

Following the 2008 ABA Annual Meeting in New York, my wife Virginia and I flew from JFK to Inverness, where we joined a chartered coach that took us north to the M.V. Hebridean Princess for our trip about the Northern Isles of Scotland. 

Such is the comfort and personality of the ship that the very living on her for a week affords much of the pleasure of the cruise. (A few years ago, the British government concluded that maintenance and operation of the royal yacht Britannia was not a wise application of national resources; she is now a popular tourist attraction, tied up at Leith in the Firth of Forth near Edinburgh. Not having the Britannia for the family outing, Queen Elizabeth chartered the Princess for the occasion—giving you some idea of what a pleasant ship she is.) There are no tiaras in evidence when we are there, not even on gala night, but the comfort and appointments of the facilities, the graciousness and efficiency of the staff, and the quality of the cuisine suggest that the Princess probably did quite well by the Queen.

We had sailed on the Princess some years before, mainly in the Hebrides, so we had a fairly clear idea of what to expect, though, of course, there had been some changes—generally, for the better. One notable improvement concerns beverages. Formerly, house wines, beers, and ales had been included in the tariff, but spirits were not. On that earlier voyage, I had tried the eighteen-year-old Macallan, to compare it with the ten-year-old Macallan, and had discovered that I, at least, could not appreciate the difference. I asked a fellow passenger, a Scot about my age, what he thought was the difference. “The price,” he said. I then quickly decided against further comparison with the twenty-five-year-old, saving much sterling in the process. Now, however, there is a “Hebridean Princess” single malt, it is excellent, and it is covered by the tariff. Thus, a great hazard of the trip is that one might be overly impressed by the economy of it all and miss the marvels that a clear eye can see in the Northern Isles.

The Princess accommodates forty-nine passengers, all of whom can be seated comfortably together in her dining salon, mostly at tables for two, though tables for larger groups can be arranged, and there are communal tables, primarily for passengers traveling alone. The dining salon is on the same deck as the reception lobby; the lounge, on the deck above. There is no elevator. Several destinations lack wharf facilities for ships, so the Princess anchors and transfers ashore are by the ship’s boats. There is no bingo, no limbo, no entertainment, except for one night when we are joined by the Orkney Strathclyde and Reel Society, expert fiddlers whose performance leaves no doubt at all about the origins of the music that propelled the Great Frontier in America and is to be found in Nashville in our own time, or at least was before the electric guitar and the amplifier.

There are only four Americans among the passengers, the remainder being British, about half English and half Scots. It is a convivial group, with much interesting conversation (perhaps facilitated somewhat by the changed beverage policy), and one readily imagines that he is a guest in a well-modulated floating country house.

Scrabster lies in the northeast corner of mainland Scotland, just west of the wondrously named John O’Groats. (Early in the years of the international trade in herring, a large part of the Scottish economy of the time, a prominent figure was the Dutch factor, Jan DeGroot. “John O’Groats” is thought to be a corruption of that name.) For each, the main reason for going there is the leaving of it: to take the ferry or a cruise ship for the Northern Isles, the Orkneys, or the Shetlands, or, between them, Fair Isle, where all those sweaters come from. From Viking times, these places have been more Nordic than Scottish. It was in 1468 that they first came under Scottish rule. Margaret, Princess of Denmark, was to be married to King James III of Scotland, but her father couldn’t come up with the cash for her dowry, having just engaged in a costly war with Sweden, so he pledged the lands as security. The pledge was never redeemed. Place names evidence that Nordic heritage. Even now, there are vestiges of a separate language, Norn.

When the Greek geographer Pytheas of Marsalia visited in 330 BC, he called the place Ultima Thule, the outer limit of the known world. To us now it’s the Shetland Islands. People had lived here for thousands of years before that visit from Pytheas. At Jarlshof (“the Earl’s house”) there are at a single site fragments of a Stone Age village, remains of houses of the Bronze Age, an Iron Age broch (modified to become the center of a wheelhouse), Viking long houses, the ruins of a thirteenth century farm house, and a Laird’s house dating from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. (A broch is a circular stone tower, double-walled and flared out near the base, with stairways and storage bins between the walls. The enclosed center was divided into levels by timbered floors, supported by niches in the inner wall. The broch at Jarlshof includes a water well. A wheel house is a circular hut, divided radially into rooms, as if by the spokes of a wheel, each room shaped like a piece of pie after the first few bites off the tip, the center being a communal space.)

Near the northeastern tip of Mainland in the Shetlands, is Lunna Voe (pronounced “Lŭn'nah Vo”). (“Voe” is one of those vestigial Norse words, meaning “narrow inlet.”) Aside from its isolation, it is notable for its small but ancient kirk and for a large manor house that served in World War II as the headquarters for a daring operation known as the Shetland Bus. A fleet of small vessels, largely Norwegian fishing boats, plied a regular trade, ferrying arms and other supplies (and the occasional agent) to Norway in support of the Resistance there. Clearly, this was a dangerous venture, but it was conducted with considerable success, all those verboten items carried along with the fish and the herring barrels. (Its interesting, even inspirational, story is well told by a young Royal Navy Officer, David Howarth, in “The Shetland Bus,” now available in paperback, published by The Shetland Times Ltd., of Lerwick, Shetlands.)

Generally speaking, the Orkney Islands rise high from the sea and are bordered by steep cliffs. The Shetland Islands are more rounded and low-lying, and thus are less impressive landscapes. Some confusion comes from the fact that the principal island of each group bears the same name: Mainland. The contrasting topography is most notable at Hoy, in the southwest quarter of Orkney. One sees off-shore there the towering sea stack, the Old Man of Hoy, a shaft that looms some 450 feet above the sea.

The Ring of Brodgar on Mainland in the Orkneys is an ancient and enigmatic construction, much like Stonehenge—testimony to the skill and industry of Neolithic peoples, but posing the tantalizing and ultimately unanswerable question of its purpose. It appears once to have been a circle of sixty monoliths, twenty-seven of which remain standing. Stumps and fragments mark the former locations of the others. One of the missing has been fragmented by lightening within recent recorded memory.

Nearby is Skara Brae, the partially excavated remains of a Neolithic community, dating from about 3100 BC. It had been covered by sand long ago, lying unnoticed near the manor house of the Laird of Skaill. It was uncovered in 1850 by a violent storm that stripped off the turf and carried off the sand that had protected it for centuries. Now roofless, of course, but otherwise remarkably well preserved, its layout is clearly defined, including built-in bunks, dressers, hearths, and stone tubs for holding crab catches, fishing bait, or the like. The tomb at Maes Howe is thought to be related to Skara Brae. The central chamber of the cairn is entered through a narrow tunnel. We are told that the tunnel is 39 feet long, but it seems much longer, as one must be bent over almost double to squeeze through it, the overhead being as low as it is. The chamber itself is bare, except for graffiti (largely Norse), the contents having been plundered by the Norsemen centuries ago.

Kirkwall is the principal city of the Orkneys. St. Magnus cathedral (erected 1152) stands in the middle of the city, looming red sandstone rife in these islands, with the bustle of the community all around it. The Orkneys are said to contain the greatest concentration of Neolithic remains in all of Europe. Readily believable: Not long ago a parishioner leaving St. Magnus found a prehistoric axe head lying on the pavement near the steps.

Mainland and its outlying islands encircle a vast harbor, Scapa Flow, for many years the principal base of the British Navy. The great battleship H.M.S. Royal Oak was anchored there early in World War II, when a German submarine found its way at high tide through a narrow channel between islands, sinking the Royal Oak and managing to escape the way it came—a remarkable feat, with tragic consequences, including loss of 833 British sailors. Oil still bubbles up from the submerged hulk, much as from U.S.S. Arizona at Pearl Harbor. Unlike the Arizona with its elaborate viewing platform, however, the Royal Oak’s grave is marked by a simple buoy, view-able only from a distance. In reaction to the loss of the Royal Oak, concrete structures (“the Churchill Barriers”) were built across the channels between the outlying islands. These are still there as roadbeds connecting the islands for motor traffic. The naval presence is now largely historical, and this splendid harbor is used mainly as a major depot for North Sea oil.

Westray is the largest of the northerly islands of Orkney. In its northwest quadrant lies Noup Head, with its extensive gannetry. Large numbers of gannets nest crowded together, giving the cliffs a quilted appearance, much like the effect gardeners achieve by closely clustering succulents to make those floral clocks one sometimes sees in municipal gardens. Mostly, the topography being what it is, gannetries are to be seen from the sea. Noup Head is unusual, as there are points and indentations in the jagged face of its cliffs, so that one can look back on the gannet nests from close aboard, seeing the birds fly in and out, landing at their nests (How do they find the right one?), sitting on their eggs. There are several Neolothic sites on Westray, only partially excavated, one of which is believed to be even more ancient than Skara Brae. At the Heritage Center, a small museum, one sees the remarkably carved Westray Stones, slabs said to be the finest known examples of Neolithic sculpture.

And so, one returns to another mainland, mainland Scotland, the part now called “Sutherland” (to the Norse, “Sunderland,” “the land to the South”), and one is reminded just how far north one has been.

What’s left before the return to Inverness is the Catain’s Farewell Dinner. In his travel memoir of many years ago, “In Search of Scotland,” H.V. Morton notes: “You either like haggis or you give it up and try to hide it under the potatoes. It is no good persevering.” But care for it or not (and it happens that I do) there is no denying the spectacle of its proper presentation, the dramatic recitation of Robert Burns’ poem, the plunging of the dagger into the steaming “great chieftan of the puddin’ race.” Try it, you might like it.

Joseph A. Woods is of counsel to Donahue Gallagher Woods, Oakland, California. He is a former chair of the Fellows of the American Bar Foundation.