We drove North until the road ran out, heading to an ancient and windswept realm.
Caithness ends at the Pentland Firth, with its eddies and swirls and tidal races. It is treacherous and violent water. Viking lore says that when the sea witch turns her grinding-wheels, the Swelkie whirlpool swallows small craft and careless seamen. Even large ships can be tossed and turned and pushed off course.
There are about 70 Orkney Islands, most of which are tiny and uninhabited. Little ferries connect some of the most remote. The main islands are linked by giant stone causeways, built by prisoners of war to protect the naval fleet in the great natural harbour at Scapa Flow. By blocking and redirecting the tides, the barriers have created rich dune and beach habitats. Colonies of little terns nest on the pebbles among the thrift and sea lavender, and hunt in the shallows with their Arctic cousins. Little ringed plover and sanderling dance on the shore, flighty and reactive.
It is a place of ancient stones and stories. Mesolithic nomads left behind their traces; neolithic people settled and farmed. They created sacred spaces: great stone rings, ceremonial tombs and drinking halls. Marking the movement of the sun, they saw the moon grow fat and charted the spinning stars. They felt the earth grow warm and watched the seasons change. And they made sense of it in their story and song and art. And now, for eight weeks every summer, their homes are uncovered and our archaeologists try to make sense of their world.
We were absorbed by pre-history, myth and legend. We walked around the precious sites to hear the whispers in the shadows. It felt strange and wild and very far away. Around every headland there was a beach of silver sand, fragrant with bracken and dog rose and seaside herbs. A million seabirds cried to the wind. Fulmar turned and angled along the shore. Guillemot, kittiwake and puffin clung to the cliffs and great skuas patrolled. They flew at our heads and tried to keep us away, swooping in steep dipping dives; they pivoted on the air and came again, and again. Hen harriers, precious and rare, were mobbed by lapwing. The short eared owl, cat-faced and easy to see, breeds well on Orkney. There are around 70 breeding pairs hunting above the grassy meadows, gorging themselves on the successful vole population. But for us, the honey-coloured owl stayed hidden. A reason, perhaps, to return. Orkney is a place full of stories. It is very windy and very, very far away. It is definitely worth the journey.