Ah, breathing room!
After a month of being in busy cities overrun with tourists, I was feeling ready for some open space and fewer folks. But more than that, I wanted to go remote in Scotland – something which for decades I’ve hoped to do – in large part because of a beautiful little movie called “Local Hero.”
The 1983 film is a comedy-drama starring Peter Riegert and Burt Lancaster, and tells the story of Mac, a young oil company executive from Houston who is sent to a secluded village in Scotland to buy up all of the property in order to establish a refinery. It’s not long before the gentle pace and eccentric charm of the town and its inhabitants work their magic on Mac, and he becomes conflicted about seeing the town he’s grown to love be wiped away and replaced by a behemoth oil operation.
The movie is captivating and quirky, and it’s what drew me to travel to Orkney, a large island just off the northern coast of the very top of Scotland. Even though I was nowhere near any of the myriad locations where “Local Hero” was filmed, I soon discovered that art very much imitates life — at least when it comes to the beguiling town of Stromness, where I was staying for the weekend.
From the moment I arrived, I was transported into the movie. As I took my first steps onto the quaint, quiet main street, a lone motorcycle appeared as if out of nowhere and came whizzing past me as I attempted to cross the pavement. Just like it happens in “Local Hero,” where this is a running joke. I was enchanted.
After the motorcyle moment, I searched for any similarities I could find between the real Stromness and the fictional hamlet of Ferness. Like its movie counterpart, there are no chain establishments of any sort in Stromness, just locally-owned businesses run by individuals who decide what hours they choose to be open. And like Ferness, everything is tranquil here, with an off-beat rhythm of its own. The town even manages to deliver a strategically-situated, winsome red phone box (an integral detail in the movie).
Now all that was needed was the Northern Lights to complete the picture.
Unfortunately, those Northern Lights didn’t appear for me. but, in fairness, that would really have been asking too much, considering how close it still is to the summer solstice.
But no matter. Orkney was delivering what I needed most — the bliss of personal space and a respite from noise and chaos and marauding hordes of sightseers.
Besides, there were other delights to be found on the island, which were completely unrelated to the movie. One of my favorite days was my outing to the Skara Brae settlement. Older than the Great Pyramids and Stonehenge, this prehistoric village in Orkney dates back over 5,000 years. Not much is known about the people who lived here, but visiting the site on a cold, blustery day, all I could think was, “Bless their hearts.” No one knows what happened to the people who lived here – no burial grounds or human remains have ever been found. My guess – and it’s a rather grim one – is that the rough climate and hard living finally got to one of the inhabitants and they snapped, going on a killing spree and wiping out the entire village.
I followed up my tour of the settlement with a visit to the Birds of Prey Centre which is adjacent to Skara Brae. There I got to spend some time acting as a perch for Odin, a majestic Eurasian eagle-owl and a real prince of a fellow, with glorious, piercing orange eyes which just happened to match my current hair color almost exactly. I like to think it’s why we got on so well.
Orkney is almost completely devoid of trees or shrubs to buffer the forceful, bone-chilling winds which sweep across it. Those who call the island home have to be made of hearty stock. But the climate is a flaw they seem to accept with good humor in this place of wondrous, striking beauty.
As I had only a scant few days on the island, I wasn’t going to let the weather deter me, either. On a day which, at best, one might call “bracing,” I took a stroll along the coastal walkway. As promised, it was picturesque as all get out, with kilt-wearing locals walking their dogs, and mists enveloping the cliffs of neighboring Hoy Island. The chill was further forgotten and offset as I passed alongside a golf course, where some genial players from the Shetland Islands halted their round to come over and share their whiskey with me.
The smooth stuff left me well fortified against the elements and I cheerfully continued my soggy stroll. Just as I reached the breathtaking, rugged beauty of Warebeth Beach, the sound of bagpipes came rolling down the hillside, carried on the breeze from who knows where.
It was the first time since I had arrived in Scotland that I had heard the pipes played by someone who wasn’t busking for money from tourists. The penetrating, bewitching tones were being played for their own haunting loveliness, and almost as if they were acting as a soundtrack for the “money shot” of my own personal movie. Sometimes life is perfect.
In “Local Hero,” it was the people as much as the place that Mac fell in love with, and it’s easy to see how that could happen here in Stromness. Though the locals weren’t nearly as eccentric as the fictional inhabitants in the movie (or perhaps I just didn’t stay in town long enough to get to really know anyone), the residents of Stromness had the same effortless, affable warmth to them. It was touching to not just witness the intimacy between people who had known each other and lived as neighbors for many years, but to be welcomed in and treated as one of these old friends myself. From Mrs. Brown, in whose B&B I stayed, to the young women working in the café who shared intel on the best places in Orkney to have drinks, breakfast and ice cream, they were the perfect hosts for my weekend away.
And even on the day I was leaving, when I had hours to kill before I boarded the ferry back to the mainland, Thomas, the Northlink Ferries manager very cordially allowed to stay in the company’s travel office for most of the day, even when it was closed and the staff had gone home, so I could work on my laptop and use the internet. What’s more, Thomas occasionally came in and offered to make me coffee or tea, and would give me updates on the Women’s World Cup Final, making sure I knew when it happened that the USA had won. Now that’s hospitality.
Technically, I didn’t leave town that day, but I did leave terra firma and go aboard the ferry which would take me back to the mainland the next day. A marvelous thing about the service to Orkney is that they allow passengers traveling on the first ferry of the day (6:30am from Stromness to Scrabster) to board the boat the evening before and stay overnight in one of its cabins. They offer drinks and snacks in one of the lounges that night, and next morning, there is a complimentary breakfast as well. Sounded like a good deal all around.
The sun was just going down when I boarded the ferry at around 10pm that evening.
As I looked back at the view of Stromness, it was crystal-clear why this town is widely considered one of the loveliest ports in all of the UK, and I was very much wishing I could stay longer. As in weeks longer. Possibly months. Perhaps another time. I could only hope so.
And then sometimes life delivers you a most unexpected treat.
Of the twenty-something cabins on the ferry, I had booked for myself the cheapest, which meant I had an inside stateroom, devoid of any natural light. Inside the cabin was my own en-suite bathroom complete with shower. After more than a month of sharing a bedroom with up to eleven other people, and having to traipse down the hall to co-ed, community bathrooms, having all of this to myself felt as luxurious as a stay at the Ritz.
When it came time to turn in, those weeks of fitful nights in noisy hostel dorm rooms, with people coming and going at all hours, and sunlight coming in at 3:30am, breaking through whatever anemic little curtains were provided, were all about to be made up for. Inside my cabin, there wasn’t a sound to be heard – the ferry sat silent, unmoving in the calm waters – and with the lights off, my bedroom was pitch-dark and still as a tomb. I was out cold as soon as my head hit the pillow, and slept the sleep of the dead until the ship’s engines roared to life at 6:30. I awoke to find that my body felt as rested as my spirit.
I dressed quickly and hurried up on deck to say goodbye to Orkney. As the ferry pulled away from the dock, I felt the same wistfulness as Mac did when he’d had to leave Ferness. For him, the story ends with his return to Houston, broken-hearted and with no promise of ever returning to Scotland.
But I know he did return. Just as I will. Because “Local Hero” may an indie film, but I will always go with the Hollywood ending.
Top row: The ancient village of Skara Brae; with Odin the owl; coastal walk
Middle row: Warebeth Beach and the Isle of Hoy: Stromness harbor
Bottom row: The Queen Mary 2 it’s not, but my ride to and from the island does have one heckuva fearsome Viking painted on its hull, so score one for Northlink Ferries.