John O' Groats is such a fabulous name it attracts lots of us who should know better. Walkers who collect charity funds by walking 874 miles-- the longest reach in Great Britain-- from Land's End (Cornwall) to Scotland, aim for here. A recent rambler completed his second coast to coast trek --naked . Dunnet Head , the windy overlook just outside of town, is considered the most northerly mainland point in Great Britain. It's magnetic appeal draws those who just want to stand here and take a picture-- as well as those who want to to sail out of its port to Orkney --a collection of small windswept islands whose inhabitants ally more with Norway than Scotland. They raise cows. An island joke is that they used to raise chickens but there was a high wind and the chickens all blew away. My friend Alison says that sometimes the winds are so strong, the children at the primary school have to be tied to ropes at recess.
We've driven in the rain, passing the nuclear power plant that is closing down in Dounreay where the only employment will be as part of its clean-up, and arrive at our base in Mey--the Castle Arms where, in mid September, we are two of its four guests.
The morning's ferry, the locally owned and operated Pentland Venture which has surely seen better days, is us, some others, and a boat full of hearty Germans who enjoy the sun and breeze up on deck on the outward leg and climb into tour busses with German tour guides when we reach Orkney. The rest of us climb into the single English language bus, even though some of us are Japanese and French, and take off for a whirlwind tour of the sites--Skara Brae (a neolitihic village excavation whose most meaningful message is twofold: people were really, really short 5000 years ago, and they lived in what look today like miniature golf courses), the ancient Ring O' Brodnar stone circle and the Churchill Barriers whose wartime design and execution were the work of Winston C. and 1500 Italian POW's even though they didn't finish until 1945. The wind is strong--and getting stronger. We get a message from the bus driver after the Italian Chapel (the one the POW's stuck onto the end of a quonset hut) that the weather is "deterrrrriorating" and we'll have to cut the Kirkwall free- time to hustle, because our boat is leaving---now. We arrive at port just after the German contingent and chase a safety-overload -double crowd on to this last ferry. As soon as the last of us has cleared the gangplank it is drawn up; the gates slammed shut and the small ferry chugs off into the gathering gloom, even though it is only four o'clock on a northern Scottish early autumn's day. The only seats left are on the upper deck which is okay and kind of exciting until we hit open water and the waves jump over deck and on to us. The wind winds its way through each of us and every thing. Although the people who live here know wind as their daily element, it is growing stronger and seems just on the verge of savage-- but none of us is actually saying so.
The German crowd cheerily raise their voices over the elements (which now include a sharp, drenching rain) to be heard, and seem to be thrilled. I am not thrilled-- nor is the young woman from Swansea sitting next to me. By the third great swell, I announce a desire to be lashed to the deck-- as there is little to describe the alarm to the uninitiated caused by a large wave breaking over your head on a small boat. I'm soaked to the skin--she's not. We holler small talk over what is now full fledged storm about her "miracle" trousers which are waterproof, windproof and cost a hefty pile of pounds.
When I look over at Tom, he seems to be, annoyingly, enjoying himself. He smiles encouragingly at me and I wonder what our children will do without us once we are washed overboard or go down with the ship. The Welsh woman next to me asks me politely if--- given there are the three of us, and she and I are staring fixedly at the one life ring strapped to the deck in front of us--could we share?
I think for a minute about striking a quick deal--her miracle trousers for one hand on the life ring but say, "Of course."
We reach the small, deserted harbor at John O' Groats pushed in by enormous waves which seem intent on taking us right over the jetty and on to Inverness-- the boat is expertly hauled around and chained to the pier. Stumbling down the stairs as they still pitch and sway, we make our way out, run across to the car in lightening and thunder and huddle with the heat on full blast until we have thawed enough to drive back to the Castle Arms. The storm that night is the kind that sends the lights on and off, a Morse Code of chance and we hang out with the Germans at the inn's pub and its comforting fire, thinking Dr. Who-like about the end of the world.