In September 2014 I went cycle touring in Scotland and the Orkney Islands. It was my first cycle touring trip with a tent on the back of the bike. It was also my first time alone in sparsely populated areas where nature was everywhere. This is an account of my first day on the Isle of Hoy.
I stopped the bike and listened. There were no sounds to be heard. The boat was on its way back to the mainland by now. I looked behind me but there was no one to be seen. The few people who had disembarked were gone on other paths. I thought of the young woman I had talked to on deck before the wind carried our words away. She was heading to Rackwick on the west coast of the isle, like me. But I knew I wouldn’t see her here. She was not one for the roads. She was somewhere to my right, walking among the hills.
I looked at the road ahead and shivered. I took my phone out of my pocket. There was no signal. I glanced over my shoulders, tempted to cycle back to the pier. The boat was gone but there had been houses and a road going south, to Lyness where there would be more houses and even a hotel. I got back on the saddle and pushed the bike forwards. I was going to Rackwick.
My heart was thumping hard even though the road was flat. I tried to ignore it and immersed myself in my surroundings. The sky had disappeared behind the fog leaving me alone with the hills. They stood enormous above the ground as if coming from another world and it wasn’t hard to visualise the tales of a giant building this island as he threw lumps of earth around. My legs began to slow and it was difficult to keep a momentum going. I wanted to get to Rackwick and find the safety of the village but at the same time I couldn’t tear my eyes from the hills. They encompassed everything around me and in that instant felt like they were the entire world. And I, I was the only human in it, on a bike with a tent for only shelter and a few scraps of food in a bag. A chill ran through my body and settled in my legs, grinding me to a halt. I knew this was irrational. This was a very small isle, there were people around, and I was not in any danger. But reason was of no use. My frailty was too glaringly obvious between those hills and I had to face it.
‘I’m okay,’ I whispered tentatively. ‘The worst that can happen is a fall from my bike. I wouldn’t break anything.’ I paused, considering. ‘Would I?’ I took a deep breath. ‘No. I wouldn’t. And why would I fall from my bike? Stop being ridiculous and get back on it.’
I obeyed my own order, trying not to let my sudden fear of death take over me. I was starting to fall into a rhythm, the movement of the bike emptying my mind with each pedal stroke, when I saw stones protruding from the hill. I stopped, intrigued. This had to be one of the burial chambers the guide at Maeshowe had talked about. Maeshowe is a Neolithic chambered cairn and passage grave from 2800BC. I had visited it the day before and had learned about death rituals on the Orkney Islands from all those centuries ago when people were deposited into small chambers made of rock. I left my bike by the side of the road and followed the path leading to the grave.
History and legends had been what drew me to the Orkney Islands. All I had know prior to my visit was what the Arthurian legends had taught me, and I knew most of it was lies. I had wanted to find out for myself what those islands were truly like and how people had lived in the time of King Arthur’s legends. What I had found had been more fascinating than I could have imagined. A whole village from ancient times (between 3180 and 2500 BC) had been preserved at Skara Brae, stones circles still laid on the land free for all to visit, and burial mounds littered the ground. Those traces of the past were mostly left on their own, or so lovingly cared for you couldn’t help but feel initiated to their secrets when being guided through them.
This particular tomb (Dwarfie Stane) was a large rectangular slab with a small hole on one side. A smaller rock was placed in front of the hole, obviously carved out of the main block. How did people transport it here when all I could see was peat and heather? How did they carve such a block out of this huge slab? It was unfathomable to my mind. I knew that all those millennia ago, the world had been very different and there had been more people on this isle, but they hadn’t had the technology we have today. Carving a block of stone, and then creating two small chambers within the main block must have taken ages and be a difficult job. What had it meant to them? Why hadn’t they simply buried their loved one in the ground? All those questions remained unanswered as I explored this ancient tomb, sticking my head in the hole, walking around it for signs of runes and modern graffiti, and leaning against the smaller rock watching the circle of white the sun created in the grey clouds. Eventually I walked back to the road and pedalled towards Rackwick, my head full of questions and my fears extinguished for a moment.
As I approached the village, the road divided into a fork. On my right, I could continue uphill towards the village, or I could follow the road for a few more metres before it petered out into a footpath on my left. I wanted to walk to the Old Man of Hoy, a 449 feet high sea stack, and I knew I needed to go right for that but I veered left. I could see a motorhome before the start of the footpath and I was hoping to be able to pitch my tent next to them, but when I reached the vehicle I discovered that the parking area was entirely made of tarmac. Anxiety began to bubble inside of me and once again I forced myself to ignore it. Instead, I pushed my bike through the grass and leaned it against a toilet block before walking down to the beach. There was an old blackened out house at the edge of the sand.
‘You must go to Hoy’s bothy when you’re there.’ The words of the campsite owner I’d stayed at a few days before echoed in my head. This had to be the place she had talked about. It was as she had described it. Magical. A lone house by the sea with a garden plot on the side, it was easy to fall in love with the sight. But all I could feel were my hands trembling and my breath growing shallower. The shelter was only a few metres from the sea, barely raised from its level. What if the weather turned and a storm battered the beach? This was a stupid thought. This house had obviously been on that spot for many winters without being torn to pieces. This was a safe place to be. I knew it but couldn’t reason with my body. So I walked back to the junction and wheeled my bike to the village.
I didn’t know what I was hoping to find, but a hostel wasn’t on the list. I walked to the door, read the notice on it, and phoned the indicated number hoping someone would come to open the locked building for me or let me know where to collect the key. Instead a grumpy woman told me in no uncertain terms that without prior notice the hostel wouldn’t be unlocked but that yes, I could pitch my tent in the garden but that there was a bothy down by the beach. I hummed and agreed, relieved to be allowed to sleep in the garden.
There were a handful of houses around me, and although they were clearly empty I felt safe in their midst. Nothing bad could happen here miles above the sea level and away from the cliff edge. I leant my bike against a wall of the hostel and prepared a snack for the walk to the Old Man of Hoy.
I raised my eyes, a little unsettled to hear a human voice I recognised. ‘Hi,’ I replied to the young woman from the boat. ‘How was the walk?’
‘Great. How was the ride?’
‘Great’, I lied not wanting to reveal how scared I had been feeling since disembarking at Linkness.
‘Are you staying at the hostel too?’
‘Not really. They’re closed and when I called the number I was told no one is going to come unlock it as I didn’t book in advance. But you can try. They know I have a tent so probably can’t be bothered to come.’
She dropped her bag to the ground and tried the number but it quickly became apparent that she was receiving the same answer as I did.
‘Well I have my tent if you want. I only have a sleeping mat but if we spread some clothes on the floor I’m sure it’ll be okay and we can open my sleeping bag into a big blanket?’
We agreed this was probably the best course of action as there was no boat leaving the island before the following day. I finished packing my pockets with sweets and went to refill my water bottle from the tap in the shed. As I came out, I noticed a piece of blue plastic sticking from under a flower-pot. I lifted it and found a key ring full of keys.
‘Heather,’ I called from the back of the house. ‘I’ve found keys.’ I run back to the front of the hostel and excitingly inserted one of the keys in the lock. It fitted perfectly and under my command began to turn.
‘Tadam,’ I exclaimed pushing the door wide open. ‘We have a bed for the night.’
We giggled like two school girls and stuffed our bags in the entrance hall before pocketing the keys and setting north in search of the famous sea stack. The village receded behind us, the waves crashed at the bottom of the cliffs, and the wind ruffled our hair, all isolating us in a world shaped and dominated by nature. But I wasn’t scared anymore. I had a bed for the night and a friend by my side. I was alright.