Do Marriage and Travel Mix? Seriously, I Wonder.

Last Friday, cocktail hour on the patio. It’s a rare evening of light and warmth here on the north shore of Long Island, and Top Cat and I were soaking up the golden rays and the zephyr breezes like we were a pair of those swans that mate for life, gliding on the smooth surface of untroubled waters. The weekend has officially begun, and it’s the first day of Summer-like weather. I think,  This was a good time to talk about a touchy subject. I ask Top Cat, “Why do you think we were so off during our [ 10-days of rants and sulks] trip to Scotland?”

He puts down his drink and thinks about it.

“Well, we got off to a bad start and just never recovered,” he says. I notice that his answer is basically just a re-wording of my question, and although I usually find tautologies hilarious, in this instance I want answers so I do not comment on the circularity of his reply.

“I know that,” I say. “But why couldn’t we recover?”

And then he says something that I never expected to hear. He says:

“It was hard for me to say it then, but you were right. So I’m saying it now, that about a lot of things in Scotland, you were right.”

And here is a story about one of the things that I was right about. I was right about Wednesday:

My mind works vertically. So, when I map out a trip, I make a chart like this (above). Each day of our trip gets a column, and I do a lot of research and planning before I enter activities into each column. When I arrange the columns in succession, into a chart like this, I can get a good visual idea of the “flow” of the days.  (BTW, this chart travels with me, attached to all the many receipts and confirmations and supporting docs I’ll need for hotels and planes and cars and trains, so I can keep track of things.)

In the Wednesday  column of our trip to Scotland, I had planned just one thing: We were going to pack a lunch and at 12 noon we were going to take a 32-mile ferry ride north, to Rapness Pier on Westray island, and then walk two and a half miles to a rock formation known as The Castle of Burrian to see PUFFINS.

I had it all figured out.

Now, if you have read last week’s story, you know that Top Cat and I have, the previous day, managed to go a whole day without fighting. So we get up on Wednesday morning and by 10 o’clock we have had a big breakfast without incident and we are walking the mile from our BnB into Kirkwall. And Top Cat announces that he has other ideas about what he wants to do for the day.

For the sake of maintaining our streak (of not fighting) for another day, I do not argue with him. I’m not completely happy about this sudden change of plan, but I’ll go along.

So we tramp to the tourist office, we slog to the car rental office, we google stuff on our phones, we investigate tours and public busses and private car hires to go to other parts of the main island, other neolithic excavations, other villages, other bird-seeing sites, and maybe we’ll even go chase orcas.

After all that, guess what we end up doing.

We end up taking the 12 noon ferry to Westray to go see PUFFINS. Exactly what I had planned a month ago.

The skyline of Kirkwall on the main island of Orkney.

Rapness Pier on Westray island:

We’re on the way to see PUFFINS!

The island of Westray has had human settlements on it since 3500 BCE, and currently has a year-round population of 600. But mostly the island is a home to birds. The spectacular sea cliffs are home to thousands of seabirds including 60,000 common guillemot, 50,000 black-legged kittiwake, 30,000 razorbill, and numerous black guillemot. 

The Castle of Burrian (below) is a colossal sea stack renowned for being the best place on Orkney to see PUFFINS at close range. OH MY GOD, I couldn’t wait to get here!! To see it covered with thousands of PUFFINS!!

PUFFINS only come on shore during their breeding season, from mid-April to mid-August. They dig burrows on steep sea cliffs, and each female PUFFIN lays one egg per year.

As you can see from the photos, we had a lucky break in the weather on this Wednesday when we went to see the PUFFINS! It was still mighty cold, but it wasn’t raining ! PUFFINS!

After a 2 and a half-mile hike from the pier through a few light rain showers, through tall wet grass, on paths at the very edge of the coast (no guardrails!),  we’re here at the Castle of Burin and we search the area for PUFFINS!


I learn later that when the weather is fine, the PUFFINS all go fishing. It’s when the weather is lousy with pouring rain, maybe even sleet because that can happen in May on Orkney, that’s when the PUFFINS stay at home and roost upon the Castle of Burrian by the thousands.

Well, I figure there has to be at least one PUFFIN who’s like me, who would like to take advantage of an empty Castle of Burrian and stay home with a good book and a cup of tea.  So I stay and watch, and watch, and watch…and at last I see my totem bird waddle out from her burrow:

Look hard. There’s a PUFFIN in there. I did not expect them to be so small, about half the size of a sea gull.

I am so excited I could plotz.

But where, O Where, is Top Cat?

This is Top Cat, looking at a different cliff.

Top Cat had got bored looking at the place where the PUFFINS were supposed to be so he staked out a different cliff out of sight of the Castle of Burrian. So, because he did his own thing (as he is wont) he never saw a PUFFIN.

PUFFINS, when you get the chance to see them close up (or with a really good zoom lens) look like this:

After tramping 5 – 6 miles to the Castle of Burin and further along the coast back to the starting point, I was cold and wind-blown and soggy of spirit. Top Cat wanted to hike even further out to another side of the island so I left him to his own devices while I, with a lovely graduate student from Manchester that we met on the ferry, went to have a cup of tea at the only cafe within five miles:

It’s the converted car garage of the only house within walking distance to Rapness Pier.

After a bracing cup of tea and a Scottish clootie, we all boarded the last ferry off of Westray at 5:55 (arrive Kirkwall at 7:20).

You only need to make a reservation on the ferry if you are bringing a car with you. If you are a pedestrian, you can buy your ticket on the same day.

Upon landing back at Kirkwall (the capital of Orkney, BTW), we took our grad student to the bar/cafe called The Reel to see the Orkney Accordion and Fiddle Club:

It was the hot spot on that Wednesday night so the place was packed. We ran into practically every tourist and resident that we had come into contact the previous two days. We had wine and beers and a jolly good time. We left a ten pound donation for the musicians and we walked the mile out of town back to our lovely BnB in the 10 o’clock twilight:

So the day went pretty much according to plan (my plan), minus the lack of PUFFINS, with just the right amount of chance encounters and unforeseen blessings that make travel such a serendipitous thing no matter how thoroughly you plan it. Plans are good. We should trust The Plan. Not that I’m bragging…but everybody on this trip should, by now, as the sun sets on Day Four of the Scotland Vacation, Get With The Plan.

Or so I thought.

When we flew to Orkney from Edinburgh, the trip took  50 minutes. Getting off of Orkney and traveling to Glasgow by land and sea, the trip will take 2 days. But don’t worry. I have a plan.

Step one: Thursday morning, leave Orkney by ferry and head southwards to the tip of mainland Scotland.

Thursday morning, the ferry from mainland Scotland arrives with 200 passengers who will climb aboard 8 coaches for their various day tours of the isles of Orkney.


That same ferry turns around and heads back to the Scottish mainland. Top Cat and I are the only passengers getting off of Orkney this morning.


The ferry pulls into John o’ Groats, a small settlement on the mainland of Scotland, the northernmost settlement on Great Britain.


A motorcycle club from Manchester gathers for a souvenir photo at the famous milepost on the northernmost tip of Great Britain:

Step Two: Mosey win John o’ Groats for an hour and five minutes (have a nice cup of tea in one of the half-dozen cafes available to wanderers and motorcyclists in John o’ Groats).  Top Cat and I will then board the bus that takes us to the train station in Thurso.

So far, everything has gone to plan.

Looking back, now, on how the rest of the day went, I have to say that sometimes I don’t know what gets into us.

Step Three: It’s now 12:45 in Thurso, and we decide that we would like to skip sight-seeing in Thurso and hop on the 1 o’clock train to Inverness. Problem is, I have pre-purchased our tickets (at a great savings, a month ago), and they are for the 4:32 train to Inverness. In order to convert our pre-paid tickets from the 4:32 to the 1:00, we would have to pay a penalty that amounts to 37 pounds, or $51.00. Which, taking into account the money I saved from pre-purchasing the tickets a month ago, is really only a net penalty of $38.00.

I don’t know what gets into us.

For some reason, we dither and agonize over paying the penalty. OK, the net penalty of $38 almost doubles the cost of the tickets, but it’s only THIRTY EIGHT DOLLARS and we are really in the mood to not hang around Thurso and we are dying to get, as soon as possible, to Inverness.

Oh, how we dither. We calculate and extrapolate and weigh pros and cons as if we were discussing our last thirty eight dollars in the world. Top Cat especially does not like the idea of paying a $38 penalty AT ALL. And if I do say so myself, he’s acting as if I have blown our entire budget by buying the wrong tickets to Inverness in the first place, and I am resenting that I have to take the blame for this dire, catastrophic THIRTY EIGHT DOLLAR miscalculation.

I really do not know what gets into us. As we stand in the Thurso train station and bicker about $38.00, we have so much cash in our pockets that we will end up coming home with over 300 Scottish pounds that we couldn’t manage to spend. But, as is always the case, conversations about money are never (or almost never) about money.

In the end, we pay the $38 penalty and board the 1 o’clock train to Inverness. The conductor makes one pass through the car, calling for all Thurso tickets, and I hold up our newly-issued premium-priced tickets, and he walks right past me as if I am invisible. I am so taken aback that can’t even holler at him YO!  Get back here and take these damn tickets that cost us so much peace of mind!

The conductor is in his 20s and to him, I know from experience, a middle-aged lady like me is invisible…but that has never happened to me when I’ve had my husband in tow. We never see the conductor again.

And now comes the Fish Incident.

Top Cat had purchased fish — some kind of herring, I think — from The Orkney Fisherman’s Society two days ago. It’s what he will have for lunch on the train to Inverness. (I have a cheese sandwich.)

I can not abide the sight of fish, and I especially can not abide the smell of fish. Also, I can not abide people who eat smelly food, such as fish, on public transportation, such as trains. But, since I am not in charge of the world, I can not kick Top Cat off the train for eating smelly fish, so I eat my cheese sandwich in silent, and begrudging, magnanimity.

Top Cat eats slowly. He is enjoying the train ride, the scenery, the shot of whiskey he got off the drinks trolley, and he is especially enjoying his stinking Orkney fish. The minutes tick by.

AN HOUR LATER I can’t take it any more. “OK,” I hiss, “It’s been a fucking hour. Get that stinking fish out of here!”

Top Cat takes great offense to my tone. I take offense that he’s taken offense, and that it took him a goddamn hour to eat his goddamn stinking fish. So that’s where we are…again.

For some reason, Top Cat then pulls out a map of Scotland and studies it. Tomorrow, we are driving from Inverness to Glasgow, and then on to Wigtown. I already have a plan but Top Cat, looking at the map, wants to go a different way. We debate, and then we argue, but Top Cat is adamant. Because, judging from the map, my way looks boring.

His way will be scenic, judging from the map.

Top Cat’s Scenic Route

So we are, to put it mildly, not on the best of terms when, 90 minutes later, the train pulls into Inverness station, in the pouring rain, and we have to find our way through town and across the Ness River through heavy dinner-time traffic IN THE POURING RAIN. We have different ideas about the best way to navigate our way from here to there, and arguing about it on the sidewalk IN THE POURING RAIN is not the best way to reach consensus.

After a false start, and another one, Top Cat does succeed in getting us to our destination, and that’s a good thing.  But now it’s my fault that I booked us into a B&B that he hates. I concede that he has point. The room is very small, and the bathroom is even smaller, and the shower is ridiculously small. But it’s just one night and shit, we’ve been through harder days and had worse rooms (like a mere four years ago when we walked across England on Hadrian’s Wall for 90 miles and yet always managed to cozy up at the end of a grueling day) so I think to myself, and I’m sure it shows on my face, Suck it up, buttercup.

Top Cat stalks out to find a pub and I stay in the room, watching TV. On a BBC program about Glasgow I learn that there’s an  historically significant subway system in the city, so I eagerly put on our To Do List. (P.S. I later learn, in Glasgow, that its historically significant subway, like the rest of Glasgow, sucks.)

The next morning, sore feelings slightly mended by an evening apart from each other and a good breakfast, Top Cat and I continue discussing travel plans for the day. Top Cat wants to drive down from Inverness to Glasgow on the A82 more than I want to drive down from Inverness to Glasgow on the A9, so I give in. OK, we’ll take the A82.

Here’s a picture of the way I wanted to go, on the A9:

Here’s a picture of the way Top Cat wants to go, on the A82:

You might be reading this and you might be wondering, What’s the big deal about the A82?

Here’s the big deal: Three weeks later, Top Cat and I will be sitting on our patio at our house on the north shore of Long Island, soaking up the golden rays and the zephyr breezes of the first Summer-like day of the year, and we will be like a pair of those swans that mate for life, gliding on the smooth surface of untroubled waters, and he will put down his vodka martini and say to me, “It was hard for me to say it then, but you were right. So I’m saying it now, that about a lot of things in Scotland, you were right.”

He will then look at me with love and say, “We should never have taken the A82 from Inverness to Glasgow.”

And that’s a tale of misery that I will share next week. That will be the final installment of Top Cat and Vivian’s  Battle of Scotland, I promise.

But I also promised you, last week, to a story that isn’t really about Scotland (remember?) So here’s my story that isn’t really about Scotland, and it starts in Scotland:

Let’s go back to when Top Cat discovered the Orkney Fisherman’s Society, where he buys the herring that will cause so much stinkitude on the train to Inverness.

Trust me, the Orkney Fisherman’s Society  is well off the tourist track. It’s about a mile out of the town of Stromness, and Top Cat was in heaven when he found that he could get fresh Scottish fish for lunch (and a herring for later). We bought his fish, and were sitting at a picnic table outside the Orkney Fisherman’s Society, having lunch, when something baby-blue, a small flat rock in the corner of the parking lot, caught my eye:

I pick it up and turn it over; there’s a message on the other side. I take it inside the Orkney Fisherman’s Society and ask the nice Polish girl who works there what it means. She brings her supervisor out of the back office, and it is explained to me that this is a game that is going on in the small town of Stromness on Orkney.

There are a number of painted rocks hidden around the town, and the game is that when you find one of them, you take a photo of it, post it to the Facebook page of Stromness Rocks, and you hide it somewhere for someone else to find, and repeat.

“Can I take this home to New York and hide it there?” I ask.

The two ladies at the Orkney Fisherman’s Society look at each with surprise. “Oh, yeah,” they agree, “That would be different.

So I took the blue rock home, and yesterday Top Cat took it to Times Square in New York City:

Of course Top Cat didn’t hide the rock in Times Square because Top Cat and I are going to Kobiayashi Maru it. We are changing the rules of the game.

So far, this is the only Stromness Rock that has made it off Orkney. What we would like to do for this Stromness Rock is, we would like to send it around the world. Or around America. America’s a pretty big, and scenic, place.

So, Dear Readers, if you have a desire to take a rock from Orkney to your hometown and are willing to photograph it at a memorable landmark for the children of Stromness, please contact me. Let’s make a chain, from me to you to you to you…put out the word.

The Stromness Rock fits easily into a pocket or a purse, so if you are traveling to an exotic locale it would be easy to take it along for the Photo Op.

Everybody who takes the Stromness Rock for an outing will be put on my ChrisHanuKwanSostice list and will receive my hand-painted holiday card this coming December.

And everyone who gets on the list will be entered into a contest to win one of my original watercolors (we haven’t had a give-away in a long time!). I’ll paint the portrait of the cat or dog of your choice.


Have a great Pride Weekend, everyone. I have to go break up a fight in the Comments section of this blog now, but I will be back here next Thursday or Friday and I hope you’ll be here too.

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