The old stone building that seemed crumbled out of the cliffs, hunkering down at the far end of the cove. The fire of pinewood that I walked in on, ducking under the low entrance, Steve and Rafaella in two armchairs. Him 22 with seven year dreadlocks, a veteran of Amsterdam squats and forest action camps. Her 34 with a silver Susan Sontag stripe, sprigs of heather by her pillow and a deep love of Keats. They crouched in the corner of the bothy, burbling melodiously in Italian, stoking the fire with folded pine twigs and telling me about the stone house they lived in back in a minor European mountain range.
“So what do you do then?” asked one of the expedition leading dads or gore-tex and trekking pole couples who passed trough after a day or two, leaving us chuckling at their mannerisms while tiny blackened pots bubbled on the pine fire.
“Well, eh we tend the vegetable patch no? Sometimes Steve snowboard to the village for eggs and we make a cake…”
There is…drizzle in the mornings, the hills of Hoy cut halfway by cloudbank, but it brightens in the afternoon and once the horizon sparkled one single golden line past the red sandstone cliffs…a boulder beach, one pebble of maroon for five basalt black…a dead dolphin, a day-glo orange buoy, rocks with swirling strata that get half submerged by pristine sand and look like planets. Every second day we did a long walk: to the Old Man of Hoy, the seastack on its black rock rib; through the U-shaped valley of peat and stunted native forest; past the Dwarfie Stane, the hollowed-out ice-transported block which Steve always meant to return to with his didgeridoo.
The tranquillity was hard won though. When I first arrived, having cycled from the ferry pier with two spanking new red panniers, there were worrying numbers of teenagers swarming over the sheep and midgie paddocks, unloading vans, carrying beer crates in wheelbarrows, hooking up Robbie Williams to car batteries. I woke up one morning to find open conflict between the bothy hippies and the lager laager encamped in the stonewalled field just adjacent. The alcopops and car battery hi-fi had been fired up at 7 am, calling forth a torrent of rage from a more than usually crusty Steve:
“You come to such a place, with your fucking car battery…don’t smile at me girl, I will fucking break this thing.”
“Wouldn’t have thought it, talking to him last night,” said the concerned dad, joiner and part-time trampoline instructor who tried to patch things up. Entering into the spirit of things in the bothy the previous evening he had talked about his love for growing vegetables, for just eating broccoli raw, just like that: “Aye I cannae get enough of it, ain’t that right Claire?”
“Dunno,” said his daughter, who somehow managed to remain concealed behind a packet of Walkers crisps for the duration.
“Ay but to jus come steamin in like that,” said the ringleader of the beer drinkers, chucking a cigarette butt among the boulders, “I mean it’s our island.”
“I surprise you can speak anything to them that morning,” Rafaella said after they were gone, leaving only a smouldering heap of Value burgers and burnt plastic. “I could only shout Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!”
We tramped home from the post office which sold UHT milk, chocolate and a single postcard. Each garden in the Orkneys seemed the same: a small flower bed, a line of tormented laundry and a trampoline under the grey helmet of the north Atlantic
“That fucking plastic sausage smoke is still in the air,” said Steve, sniffing outside from the bothy door when we got back.
They were two people who, I realised, would go to great lengths to remain untainted by the stupidity of the world. The pine smoke that hung under the slate flagstone roof warded off the midgies; the bay was cupped by red sandstone sea cliffs where two glacier gouged valleys converged on the sea. So we were almost insulated from irritants, at least when the car battery campers left, taking their high-vis jackets and loud voices with them.
Stupidity tried to inch back in, though: through red phone box that stood out on the hillside, where I waited in a Scotrail queue but couldn’t book a bike berth. Via the gabbling climber woman who had just hauled herself up a rock stack disappearing into mist but could only talk about pension crises, immigrants, how once you had seen New York you had seen Tokyo. Who compared the price and packaging of increasingly banal foodstuffs – tea biscuits, M&M’s, Marmite – in different parts of the world, incessantly. I had cycled close on 50 miles that day, down to the south end of the island, loading up my panniers with provisions that for once seemed valuable and rare. She found an ideal audience in Cody, the Californian who had travelled the world, yet supped on 30p pasta sachets and seemed to exist in this world solely to remark on how expensive everything was in Norway.
“Yup I reckon even those kind of biscuits we’re talking fifteen, twenny kroners”
“Please, this cross-cultural exchange!” Steve erupted eventually from the armchair, “It’s so beautiful to hear but enough now!”
But after a week of hiking along peat-soaked in cliffs, trampling the stone flecked ridge to the archipelago panorama of Ward Hill, I have felt the body flushed clean by gradients, vegan hotpots, fire and stone. Bitterness drained, drawn out by my bike’s black cogs and chunky tyres on that long, coasting pedal to load up with lentils, bread made with vegetable fat, oatcakes and rollmops. One afternoon last day the sun emerged strongly for the first time; we warmed up by running along the beach and then charged the crystal blue swell.
“You can look through the wave even when it is at the point to break,” said Steve, ringing out his dreadlocks, “I never saw that before.”
“Aw, Steve, there is little children down dere,” said Rafaella as he embarked on a nude salute to the sun.
“Oh but they are naked half the day in any case, and my penis is so small in the cold.”
I let myself be instructed in walking meditation until I padded across the sand in a state of grace, looking at my shadow in a place of no mirrors, seeing my hair getting big and ragged again. The Scraibster ferry went by in the distance. A light aircraft swooped across when I visited the Old Man again. Gulls hung at the cliff rim for long seconds, then hinged their wings and plunged. A plastic lunch packet launched out of our hands at the viewpoint, went up then was rammed toward the sea by a downdraft, joining the lip of the ocean far below. To make up for it we picked litter off Rackwick Beach– grease tubes, fisherman’s crate corners, a pot noodle.
“Yes but I think it’s now part of the ocean, this,” said Steve as I tugged at a rope under rock, festooned with seaweed. He also retrieved orange peels that we scattered on a hill summit, saying they were from South Africa, and might hurt a bird’s stomach. Rafaella trooped up to the phone box to book a flight to Pisa but he was against flying, and would be hitching back via Belgium.
“Oh but he is a…what you say? A Taliban him…first he have a problem with me eat Nutella in the morning.”
On the last night they talked about adjusting to each other in the mountain cottage, the vegetable gardens gone to seed, the scooter in winter, how once she slapped him on a faerie bridge when a Sicilian decorator brought bad vibrations.
The skuas dived us on the last day, when the cloud ceiling lifted for once and we saw all the other islands – Graemsay and Shapinsay, Westray and Papa Westray – low and fertile, patchworked and so different to wild high Hoy. The sun was coming in through a window far to the east, the hills of Scotland distilled under the greys and blues.
Steve read poetry as the fire died, most of it anarcho-hippie ramblings, but his Belgo-Italian voice was hypnotic and one line stuck in me: “Big moments come from small openings.” It seemed a good enough motto for a week which began as I stooped under the low entrance of Burnmouth Bothy in Rackwick, north Hoy.
The next day I retraced by steps all the way to Edinburgh, rolling smooth and unhindered on bike, ferry, bus and train. The stupidity seeped back soon enough. It was there in the laminated menus of pierhead cafes; in the flatscreen adverts of the ferry deck urging me to “Taste the Rainbow;” in the denim brand names tattooed in big letters across shapely local buttocks. BENCH. But I watched the Hoy coast slowly recede and knew that it had been diluted somehow, and that each good journey would dilute it still further. My first coffee in days produced a strange poem to answer those in Steve’s journal; hardly one I could read out around the fire but meant in the best possible way:
Yes they are full of contradictions
Yes they crouch in the corner of the shelter, surviving on what two day campers leave behind, biscuits and bread, as long as it is vegan, beer and beans
Yes they are tobacco addicts, asking me to parley with the Tennents and Robbie Williams teenagers for it
Yes they tap other people’s gas cylinders and scrape from other people’s peanut butter, the Americans they will laugh at, late over the fire
Yes they do not know how to talk to locals; they give offence across the languages, set the nations ringing
Yes they write bad poetry yes their sketches lack precision, definition
Yes they move from Keats to faeries to energies in a single sentence
Yes they tell a tired father to turn down his lamp, so as to feel vibrations in the didgery dark
Yes they do nude yoga on a family beach then ask for a lift in a posh land rover
Yes they walk into the mist without maps, and tell me it will be OK to follow the cliff line
Yes they curse the shopkeeper for mouldy bread from the mainland
Yes they have chosen some few CD’s and stuck with them
Yes they will pick up even a peel with great ostentation
Yes I know they will ask me for money, sooner or later
But now I am back in the city, the end of the festival, the end of the summer
And I miss them