A place so windswept it scarcely has a tree. Average tempratures so low that sightings of people wearing shorts makes the local news, even in Summer. People who can be insular by nature and suspicious of outsiders. An unremarkable landscape. Extremes of daylight or darkness.
Does that sound to you like the sort of place that you'd go on holiday to more than once? At all in fact? Well I'm describing a place that I've been to on no less than eight times and each time purely for pleasure and never for business.
Those that know me well know that I'm not the sanest most sensible person around. But perhaps even for me this sounds a bit daft.
So where is the holiday destination that I'm talking about? Its Orkney. That's right the little set of islands to the North East of Scotland.
Ok everything I said in the opening paragraph is true but its not the whole story. Orkney is a fascinating place to travel to. Its a bleak place but with its own beauty. There is an unbelievable amount of history. The people are difficult to know and to read but never less than fascinating.
Most of the natural beauty on Orkney is provided by the sea. Standing on the cliffs of Yesnaby feeling the wind blowing and looking out at the Atlantic is to feel the power of the elements. There are several beaches and as long as everyone is attired appropiately (last time it was my hooded parka over two other layers) you can have a pleasant time fishing, flying kites and even making sandcastles. Although its difficult to believe the climate is relatively mild in Orkney considering the latitude thanks to the gulf stream.
As well as the main island (known as the mainland) there are many islands. You can catch ferries (and even planes depending upon your budget) to several of these islands. I've only been to one, Hoy. Our host took us to the sheltered bay of Rackwick which was warm enough for some amongst us to strip down to their underwear and go swimming.
Its hard to believe now but once upon a time Orkney was a major player in several periods of history.
It was an important base of operations for the Vikings. In fact due to the fertile soil Orkney was considered a great prize. It was owned by Norway and was eventually given to Scotland as part of a dowry (along with the Shetlands) in a marriage between royalty from both countries. Even to this day Orkadians (as the locals are called) see themselves as Vikings rather than Scots!
There is naturally a big seafaring angle to the history. When the Hudson Bay Company was exploring Canada. Orkney was the last stop before heading across the Atlantic and the Orkadians were highly prized members of the crews due to their hardiness.
During the First World War the captured German Fleet were held at Scapa Flow just to the South of the mainland. The captives scuttled their ships and to this day there are wrecks out there which are popular with scuba divers. In both world wars Orkney was an important base and many events and tragedies occurred during these times.
Perhaps the most fascinating historical sites though are much older than any events I've mentioned so far. The remains of an ancient stone age village, known as Skara Brae, were uncovered in the late 19th Century. The village is said to pre date the pyramids. There are other neolithic tombs and stone circles scattered throughout the islands.
As for the people. The person I know best is Bobby who is one of my oldest friends. Through him and his family I get an insiders view of the island. In a way the Orkadians can remind you of dour Yorkshire men (both after all have Norse roots). There is a dryness and cynicsm about them. But they are loyal to each other and love their homeland.
Finally a word about travelling there. Just getting to Orkney is part of the adventure. There's something romantic about the idea of jumping in your car and heading for the top of the country. Road trips aren't easy to come by in the British Isles but this is the real mccoy. Its a fair trek even now that we're based in Yorkshire. I once went from High Wycombe in my racing green Mini Cooper. Of course the reality of such a long drive is that it can be pretty gruelling (particularly the return journey and particularly if you've been as sick as a dog on the ferry as happened to myself and my better half on the previously mentioned Mini Cooper trip). Still the memory edits those bits out and leaves you with the best bits.