I sit in a frigid and remote bus shelter at 5 am, chatting with a Dutch pensioner about the merits of traveling alone.
She says that the freedom is worth the occasional loneliness, and I pull my hat a little further down over my ears.
It’s bloody cold.
My eyes drift halfway shut the moment I’m enveloped by the steamy confines of the bus, and I’d probably have missed my stop if it weren’t for the Dutch woman’s helpful nudge upon our arrival at Kirkwall Airport.
I’m generally not a nervous flyer, but then I’ve only been on massive jumbo jets so solid I can’t actually believe I’m 500ft in the air. On the Northern Isles – these handfuls of land scattered carelessly from John O’Groats, growing less accessible with every longitude line left behind – the aircraft are a different breed altogether. My heavily subsidised flight from Kirkwall to North Ronaldsay will cost me a mere £20 return, and will be on a tiny wee plane the likes of which I’ve never set foot on before. As I haven’t really done my research, however, I’m not entirely sure just how small the plane will be.
I sit in the airport lounge, waiting for my flight. The miniscule 2-man plane in my mind grows steadily larger as more and more people fill the seats around me. I’m surprised to see so many passengers heading to what I thought was a very sparsely populated island, but considering how little I’ve looked into the matter North Ronaldsay could be home to thousands of people.
The minutes pass and soon only 5 remain until our scheduled departure time. The status board isn’t showing the flight as delayed, but perhaps they’ve simply forgotten to update it.
The door to the runway opens.
The man who checked me in waves me over, and I head out onto the tarmac, pleased that I will be the first to board. I look behind me, to see that only 3 other people – and a dog – have followed me out the door.
The plane seats 4, not counting the pilot or the dog. We take off right on time.
I’ve no idea where everyone else was headed, but I have no time to think about it as the flight takes up all of my attention. It’s exactly like every wartime film I’ve ever seen, where twin-engine planes tilt madly from side to side, dials and lights flicker along the dashboard, and engines roar at ungodly decibel levels. We soar through the predawn darkness, leaving the few lights of Kirkwall behind us. I clamp my hands over my ears to lessen the pain.
The pilot, whose bald head I could easily rub for luck even though I’m 2 rows behind him, gives me confidence with his cheery air and his old-timey uniform, gold chevrons shining from his shoulders, all competence and calm.
18 minutes in the noise suddenly ceases and the plane begins to drop dramatically. I can see nothing but waves below us. It’s not a great feeling, but I try to remind myself that we’re traveling to a tiny island and OF COURSE it will feel like we’re about to land in the sea.
And yes, I’m right. We touch down with barely a bump and disembark within minutes. All in all it was a painless, even enjoyable flight, and gives me a glimpse of what air travel might have been like in the days before security procedures and red tape stupidity.
My first night on North Ronaldsay is spent in the Manse, an echoing, drafty old house that seems to have been lifted directly from the set of Father Ted. It’s beautiful and largely empty and has tall shutterless windows that flood the rooms with sea and sky from every side. The sunrise is visible from my bed!
I’m compelled to sit in the stairwell despite the cold, because the acoustics are just lovely. Here, I’ve recorded a Belle & Sebastian cover for you!
My fortunate position is due to extraordinary generosity of Helga, who runs Verracott – a cosy rebuilt stone cottage. She’s allowing me to stay at no charge, and has furthermore offered me the Manse – her own home! – for my 1st night while there are other guests in the cottage.
When I head over to Verracott with all my stuff in the morning, I stumble through the back door (having somehow completely missed the front one) and am immediately overwhelmed by the sheer charm of the place. Wooden planking on floors and ceiling, cast iron stoves at either end, a bathtub with a view of the sea, and a BOX BED. I’ve never outgrown my childish love for forts, and I’ve spent most of my adult life longing for a bed just like this.
I’ve promised to feed the hens, although I’m not sure where they are, so I set out to find them. I imagine they’re outside somewhere, just wandering around like hens should. I open the grey door where I’ve been told I’ll find their feed, and immediately crack my head off the low stone ceiling when a hen startles me from her perch atop the feed barrel, creepy wee eyes shining in the gloom.
My knowledge of hen feeding is entirely informed by films and children’s books, where pink-cheeked girls with tight blonde braids scatter handfuls of corn from their apron pockets onto the packed earth of their tidy, well-kept yards.
I’m indoors, but I figure the principle is still the same. I’ve liberally coated the floor with feed before I realise that a) it’s already coated in feathers and chicken shit and b) there is a feed trough standing in the middle of the room.
I’m a farming genius.