I'm at the very tippy top of the mainland of Scotland. It's named John O'Groats but I won't spend my time researching who he was. Instead, I'll walk onto the stony beach and visit a 5,000 year old village and pretend I'm settling onto a stone box bed with a sheep skin for cushion. How did they light their fires with so few trees? (story below)
I've been entranced by druidic tales and strong female characters of the Highlands since a child. My father says we are of Scottish and Irish decent but it goes no further of understanding than his red curly hair and freckles that I inherited. I feel comfortable here though it may be the outrageous kindness of the people I've encountered in the three days I've been here or something that flows in the blood and imagination.
The inescapibility of the ferocious wind makes me feel a bit better about my hunters cap, complete with faux fur and red plaid covering. I remember my friend, acupuncturists and skillful decorator, Melissa, telling me about wind in chinese medicine. It isn't quite literally the wind that causes sickness but the dampness at certain points in our body. I think my ears are the gateway to my downfall. If my ears are hot I can't concentrate but if the cold wind is licking them like we're in a sexual foreplay, I'm brought to my knees, trembling and disoriented. Luckily, I believe ear muffs never go out of style!
I did a new thing yesterday. I took a tour bus. Initially I felt quite ashamed as I am that person who outwardly sighs and inwardly cringes when a tour bus rolls up on a peaceful adventure. However, being so close to the Orkney Islands I couldn't come up with any reason not to visit the remote Isles only accessible by John O' Groats and home to some of the greatest Scottish tales of all time. Being on foot this was the cheapest and most accessible option. I thought of it as a holiday before beginning my foot adventure in the Highlands.
My tour guide was a jolly fellow who shared a love for history and particularly for the Orkney Isles.
Here is my new favorite story (adapted, edited and spicefully reframed by me- initially told by my tour guide! Silver lining in all decisions. This story was worth the trip.)
The local villagers attended church every Sunday where the pastor always included a prayer, "If God chooses to cast down a ship may he cast it down on our shores."
With no native trees it was difficult to find ways to keep the cottages warm in the winter months. They relied on imports and shipwrecks to fuel their fires.
One evening, close to sunset, all the villagers gathered to watch a large wooden ship being blown by a brewing storm towards their rocky cliffs. They watched with anticipation of all the trinkets, tools and timber the ship wood provide.
Then they saw a small row boat tossing itself towards the ship. It as little Janis.
Janis had grown up with a love for rowing and would practice in all kinds of weather, especially in rainstorms. She was known to be a bit of a tomboy but her popularity was in her second-sight.
There was a game children played on guessing whether the cow would give birth to a male or female calf. Janis never guessed wrong.
And even her rowing came natural as if she could control the waves and currents, or at least knew what their next dance move was.
As the villagers watched Janis row in the storm they became tense as they realized she was headed for the wooden ship. Janis was leading the ship safely through the rocky terrain. The captain was able to save the ship and the hundreds of crewmen onboard.
This angered the villagers. And started talk.
Talk that Janis was a witch.
She was arrested and sent to the prison in Kirkwall where she was tried as a witch and found guilty. This meant burring at the stake.
Janis had grown up with a local fella, Darragh, the same age and an equal fervor for life. They had learned and practiced rowing together and had grown affectionate for one another over the years. Some say they were lifelong lovers since they met as children.
But when Janis was just twenty years old Darragh's boat washed ashore without him. He was pronounced dead.
While Janis awaited her religious burning, a familiar looking man entered the village. Darragh had returned.
He had gone out fishing but an angry storm had pushed him further into sea where he was rescued by a British Naval ship. He had to abandon his boat and continue on with the ships direction, leaving his love and life behind. The ships course was determined and could not change course back to the village.
Grateful for being saved, Darragh offered his services to the Navy while vowing to return to his love and hometown.
It took him three years and when he returned to his village he discovered that Janis was imprisoned and awaiting death by fire.
He had saved money in hopes of buying some land for him and Janis. But this situation beckoned something immediate and skillful.
Darragh went and bought two of the best bottles of Scotch he could find. He traveled by horse to Kirkwall and entered the local jail. He began telling his stories of Navy service to the Jail guards while offering them shots of Scotch. Another shot. And a few more until they were sloppily drunk.
When one had passed out from drunkenness, Darragh grabbed the keys to the cells and roamed the halls until he heard Janis answering his calls.
He found her and freed her.
They ran to the seaside in search of a vessel to carry them far from their village.
Both of them were in disguise and offering their cooking services to gain access on a ship.
Janis had gone to a local shop for provisions when she recognized someone. A man with a black beard and the smallest hint of a white streak in the center of it. It was the British captain of the wooden ship she had veered through safely outside her village. He agreed to take her and Darragh onboard.
Some say they spent their life assisting the Captain as experts at sea while others like to think they made their way to another part of Europe and settled.
Although nobody knows the outcome, the story ends the same.... that they lived happily ever after.