Category Archives: Holidays

Why the devil helped to build a church

I was going through some old holiday photos the other day and came across this cheeky little fellow:

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I posted him on my Instagram account, but couldn’t remember much about him, except that I’d snapped him in the northern German town of Lubeck several years ago.  (There’s an umlaut on that ‘u’, by the way, but my WordPress account doesn’t stretch to non-British punctuation. Sigh.)

So I turned to Google for a bit of research, and found this charming post which explains the myth beautifully.

Apparently back in 1250 the townspeople of Lubeck were starting work on their new church, the Marienkirche (St Marys).  The devil saw all the commotion and believed they were building a tavern, so came swooping down to help.  It wasn’t until the building was quite well advanced that he realised he’d been tricked.  Needless to say he was a bit cross, but was prevented from destroying the church when the people promised to build a tavern across the road instead!

The church, the tavern, and a boulder that the devil threatened to destroy the church with, are all still there.  As is this little statue, perched on a stone at the side of the church.  As the author of the blog I quote above says, he may very well be the cutest devil in the world.  He certainly brought a smile to my face.

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Four seasons in a day at Peterhead

Okay, I’m exaggerating a little there – we didn’t get snow and we didn’t get a heatwave.  But we did get pretty much everything else, from flat grey skies to pouring rain, and then when that cleared, sunshine and a gale force wind.

Interestingly, it was quite a choppy trip down from Lerwick overnight but this time the ship behaved itself.  Given that we saw open hatches in the hull during our stop the previous day, we’re thinking the crew took the opportunity to make some fairly hefty mechanical repairs to the ship, the thrusters, the stabilisers, and possibly even the heating/air conditioning, which didn’t seem to have been working properly before that.  Thank heavens for a much more comfortable night’s sailing; what a pity they left it to almost the end of the holiday before fixing things.

Peterhead is a nice old fishing town with impressive docks, some interesting old harbour buildings, and quite possibly the world’s smallest museum!  The ship moored up at an industrial harbour just outside the town, but there was a regular shuttle bus service back and forth to the centre which avoided a two-mile hike.

First stop was a café for coffee; the ship was devoid of decaff so I’d been drinking tea all week and was desperate for a coffee… any coffee…  and very nice it was too.  I felt rather like the old adverts for the Bisto kids.  Aaaah!

By the time we’d emerged again the rain had arrived so we had a quick wander round then headed for the Arbuthnot Museum.  Our cruise literature had mentioned this as being a fascinating, in-depth look at the town’s history, the fishing trade, whaling, and goodness knows what else, so we were expecting something at least the same size as Lerwick.  What a difference!  For starters it was balanced above the town’s library.  Then it turned out to be not much more than one room, with a gallery of paintings to one side.  It was interesting, with some unusual exhibits (pretty Inuit whalebone carvings, a stuffed musk ox…) but it was very, very small and even poring over the displays only took us around fifteen minutes.  So we headed back outdoors again.

By now it wasn’t just pouring, it was absolutely hammering down, with the sort of rain that bounces six inches off the pavements and soaks you to the skin.  And the wind was getting up.  We mooched around some more, explored the main harbour/fishing port area (neatly avoiding two huge seagulls fighting over a dead frog), and then found a Wetherspoons pub where we dripped, squelched, and wrapped ourselves around a chilli nachos platter to share.  And it just shows how poor the food on the ship was when I say that that was easily the best meal we’d had all week.

The rain gradually eased off and the skies brightened, but by now the wind was so strong it was blowing the camera off the level in my hand, so I couldn’t take as many photos as I’d have liked.  We tramped over to the bay on the other side of the spit that Peterhead is situated on, stared at the lashing waves, and then caught the shuttle bus back to the ship to start our packing.

Overall, the cruise was a disappointment, especially given how much we’d paid for it.  Locations, excursions and on-board lectures got a nine out of ten.  The ship, about two.  We’d happily travel with National Trust for Scotland again sometime, but we’ll be keeping our eyes peeled and won’t be setting foot on the MV Berlin.

Pictures this time include a couple of nice statues hidden around the town, and an amusing cake in the local baker’s front window!

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A Wet Friday in Lerwick

A quick bounce down the coast saw us moored up in Lerwick, capital of the Shetland Islands, on Friday morning.  We grabbed a quick breakfast, donned boots and waterproofs and set off to explore.

The weather wasn’t particularly kind – pouring with rain and blowing what I believe is known as a ‘hoolie’ north of the border.  Amusingly, when we popped into a café to dry out and wrap ourselves round a coffee, a friendly local told us that “at least it wasn’t windy”.  Well, if that’s flat calm, I’d hate to see the place in a gale!  Damp feet and inside-out brollies notwithstanding, we had a really good mooch round the town, discovering some old fishing cottages and warehouses, the Napoleonic fort (later used during both World Wars), and the dry and fascinating haven of the town’s museum.

This was an absolute revelation – quite possibly the best small museum we’ve ever been in.  It told the story of Shetland from its geological beginnings, through early man, and into the modern age of fishing and, eventually, the discovery of oil.  Laid out in a series of rooms with things to look at, listen to, and prod, it was a fascinating journey both literally and figuratively, with some memorable exhibits: the reconstructed face of a Stone Age woman which looked startlingly modern; another reconstruction of an 18th or 19th century crofter’s house which didn’t seem to have changed much from the days of Skara Brae on Orkney.  And after a nice lunch (in the next-door arts centre, since the museum restaurant was bursting at the seams) we returned to explore the boat sheds, where experts are currently conserving one of the lifeboats from HMS Oceanic, one of the White Star line ships (think Titanic).

All in all Lerwick seems like a lovely little town and we really enjoyed poking about, and would love to come back some day for a slightly longer call.  Of course, the minute our ship set sail the rain stopped, the clouds rolled away, and the sun came out – but at least that gave us a taste of what the place could look like on a decent day.

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Thursday: Discovering Fetlar

Things gradually calmed down overnight after our exciting trip to St Kilda, as we chugged steadily north-westwards for our first ever visit to the Shetland islands.  The heavy swell still had the last word, though, as we were three hours late getting to our destination: the small, northern Shetland island of Fetlar.

This was a real shame as we’d been looking forward to exploring the place, which is known for wildlife and beautiful scenery.  What should have been a pleasant afternoon tramping around the coast turned into a two-hour zoom with a good deal of clock-watching to make sure we got back to the ship in time for dinner.

Even so, we managed a walk along the Urie coastal path: three miles of fields, stiles, beach, and bog with amazing views, ancient stone burial sites, and a whole ruined village thrown in for good measure.  It was lovely just marching along in such an unspoilt place, watching for signs of otters and seals (several of the latter lazing around on a small islet just off Urie loch; no sign of the former apart from lots of dismembered shellfish littering the shore) and listening to a host of unfamiliar bird calls.  One of these, a low hooting cry that seemed to spring up out of the ground itself, turned out to be a short-eared owl – something I’d never come across before.

The footpath was described in local leaflets as ‘challenging’, but was actually quite a gentle affair with a few complicated stiles and one brief, stiff climb that brought us out at the top of a small hill next to a heap of dead sheep.  Moving swiftly on, we found our way back to the harbour road all too soon, with a feeling that we’d barely scratched the surface of this very special place.

The seals were too far out to get good photos but here’s a taster of the landscape, and evidence of some surprisingly artistic otters:

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A Wild Wednesday on St Kilda

P1020705Overnight from Orkney the weather really started to deteriorate.  This shouldn’t have mattered, as our itinerary showed us heading north to calmer waters, before turning south-west on a course for the remote island of St Kilda.  However, for reasons known only to himself, the ship’s captain decided to cut the corner by sailing through the Pentland Firth.  For those of you who don’t know it, this is a notorious stretch of water between Orkney and the northern tip of mainland Scotland, where Atlantic and North Sea currents meet with violent consequences.  It’s bad enough in flat calm conditions.  We tackled it in a Force 8 gale.  With no working stabilisers.

To say things got uncomfortable is an understatement.  Dave and I are usually excellent sailors but the weird cork-screwing motion got to both of us.  Dave succumbed to sea-sickness quite early on and even I felt queasy, and so shivery that I had to retreat to bed fully dressed.  And there we lay, for hour after unpleasant hour, as the ship pitched, tossed, rolled and yawed its way west, and books, glasses and even a couple of full, 2-litre bottles of mineral water slammed around the cabin like missiles.

By the next morning we’d reached Village Bay on St Kilda and the sun had come out.  There was still a wicked swell, though, and knowing that only one in four trips leads to a successful landing on the island, we were all set to be told we couldn’t go ashore.  Once again, though, the captain had other ideas.  He sent a tender (ship’s boat) off to check, and informed us that although there was a one-metre swell, it was possible for the fit and healthy to go ashore.  There would be a regular, half-hourly tender service back and forth and we could come back to the ship at any time.  Reassured, we decided to go.

We last visited St Kilda four years ago and were lucky enough to get ashore then as well, so we knew what to expect in terms of beauty but also sheer wildness.  There are no permanent residents now, just a few National Trust for Scotland rangers who stay during the summer months, and the occupants of a small military base.  To all intents and purposes though, there’s no food or water available, so we made sure to take a bottle of the latter with us.

Getting off the ship onto a swinging, rocking tender wasn’t easy, but we managed, and spent a wonderful couple of hours strolling around the old settlement on the main island of Hirta, in and out of the ruined cottages and ‘cleits’ (small, turf-roofed storage buildings), and amongst the birds and famous Soay sheep that dot the landscape.  Finally, we trotted back to the harbour ready for the eleven thirty tender to take us back to the ship for lunch.

This is when the problems really started.  We arrived to be told by the NTS member of staff on duty that the tide had gone out.  So much so, it was impossible to get the tenders alongside the quay because the water wasn’t deep enough for them.  ‘Half past twelve’, they said.  ‘It’ll be okay by then’.  So we stood around, kicking our heels, on the quayside, until half past twelve.  The water had barely moved.  Hardly surprising when we discovered that the 11 o’clock tender hadn’t been able to get ashore, and low water wasn’t until midday.  By our reckoning, that meant at least 1 pm before conditions were suitable again.

One o’clock came and went.  By now we were starting to get hungry, and a fair queue of passengers had built up, all wanting to get back to the ship.  Half past one came and went, and with it good news – one of the tenders, bouncing its way from the ship.  It tried, manfully, to tie up at the quayside, on a one-metre swell on a rising tide.  And failed.  The lack of decent fenders didn’t help, meaning that every time the helmsman got close, the boat was slamming up against the harbour wall.  Nor did the old-fashioned twisted ropes, too thick to fit easily through the quay’s rings and impossible to tie once they got wet.  The crew worked and worked, but didn’t seem to gel together as a team.  They eventually  managed to get about six passengers off, but the extra weight meant they were dangerously close to scraping the sea-bed and they had to return to the ship.

Another lengthy wait; another tender.  This one couldn’t get tied up at all, in spite of the efforts of a senior officer sent over from the ship.  They worked and worked, snapped two ropes, worked some more, and eventually had to give up.

By now we were starting to panic.  It was about quarter to two, we’d had nothing to eat since about 7.30 in the morning, and lunch on board stops at two pm.  Many of the passengers didn’t even have water, and there’s only one working toilet on the island, which was having to be shared between anything up to 200 people.  And conditions weren’t improving, and there was no sign we would ever get back on board.

At this point a local tour boat came to the rescue (literally), offering its dinghy to ferry food and water from the ship.  The NTS staff helped, and by just before 2pm we finally got a bottle of water, a sandwich, and a piece of fruit each.  And then the second tender came back for another go, and the tide must have risen just enough to make things possible again.

It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t nice.  It took six crew members to get each passenger off the quayside onto a bucking bronco of a boat, and even sitting on that we were thrown around like peas in a sack.  I collided with part of the wheelhouse and bruised my arm, and we were lucky there were no worse injuries than that.

Finally they got around 50 passengers onto the boat and headed back to the ship.  We made it on board at quarter past two, almost three hours late, shattered, bruised, and slightly scared.  The ship’s crew had at least extended lunch for us, so we got food after all, but it was a bit nerve-wracking to realise that those same tenders, and the inexperienced crews who were working them, would have formed the ship’s lifeboats in case of an emergency.  And very sobering to realise that the captain had apparently made the decision to go ashore, in poorly equipped and poorly-manned boats, without checking the local tide timetables first.

On the bright side, St Kilda was every bit as wild, beautiful and fascinating as it was four years ago.  Sadly, we’ll remember our second trip to the island for very different reasons to those.

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A rushed Tuesday on Orkney

By Tuesday we were due at Kirkwall on the Orkney ‘mainland’ (ie, the largest island).  Overnight, though, the problems with the ship had really started to show themselves.  We were due to leave Hoy at midnight, but after much clanking, grinding and banging the engines were switched off and we stayed put.  The same thing happened at two am, and we didn’t finally get moving until four am.  We later heard that a tug had had to be called out from somewhere to drag us off the quayside at Hoy.  According to the official version, this was due to ‘high winds’ but, er, it wasn’t particularly windy.  Another mechanical fault on board, methinks.

All this meant we were late arriving at Kirkwall.  We’d booked on our only tour of the cruise, to the famous archaeological sites at Skara Brae (stone age village), Brodgar (henge monument) and Stenness (standing stones).  Luckily, the tours were still running, but the late arrival meant we were short on time and had to cut the duration at each stop, particularly the Stones of Stenness where we literally hopped off the coach, took a photo and hopped back on again.

The tour itself was fantastic.  We had a friendly and knowledgeable local guide called Frederick who was originally from Sweden but had settled on Orkney years ago and knew pretty much everything about everything.  He nattered on, not just about the archaeology, but about the history, mythology, geography, climate, and general way of life on Orkney, all of which was fascinating.

And Skara Brae was amazing.  I studied the site at some length at university, many years ago, but had never visited before.  Even looking at plans and photographs, it’s hard to get a proper ‘feel’ for a place, and it was lovely to be able to put the site into context in terms of its size, proximity to the sea, and the size and surprising level of comfort of the houses.  Best of all, perhaps, was the reconstructed house which showed what the place would have looked like when people were actually living there.  It was a revelation – I’ve seen nineteenth century cottages that were less cosy and less well equipped!  So much for Stone Age man being thick, saying ‘ugg’ a lot and living in a cave.

We’d have liked time to look round Kirkwall itself but by the time we got back to the ship, there simply wasn’t time.  Shame, as on a brief drive through on route to the tour sites, it looked lovely.  We’ll definitely be back for a closer look.

I took loads of photos at both Skara Brae and Brodgar, but the weather was pretty awful and I got water in the camera-lens-opening-thingy, which jammed, so not all of them came out.  A shame, as both were wonderful, wild spots.  Here’s a selection of the best.

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If it’s Monday, it must be Hoy

P1020684After our undignified departure from Leith, we chugged steadily northwards overnight and arrived on Monday at the Orkney island of Hoy.  More specifically, the quay at the village of Lyness on the island’s east coast.

We knew a little of the area’s history: the fact that the British Navy was based here during both World Wars, and the story of the scuttling of the German fleet in nearby Scapa Flow just after the First World War.  What we didn’t know was that during both wars there was a massive military encampment at Lyness, which must have roughly quadrupled the size of the village.  Barracks, stores, workshops, warehouses, pumping stations, even a series of massive oil tanks and (later) an entire reservoir of oil under the neighbouring hillside – this camp was vast.

Now, of course, there are no military personnel left, except for those buried, movingly, in the military cemetery at Lyness.  The buildings, however, survive, some ruined, some still intact, and all providing an extraordinary and poignant backdrop to some stunningly beautiful scenery.

Most of the official tours were heading off north-west-wards to see the famous Old Man of Hoy sea stack, but we’d chosen to explore locally on foot by ourselves and were really glad we had.  We discovered the cemetery, a memorial to British and Russian sailors killed during the Great War, a fascinating museum of the history of Lyness and Scapa Flow, and a walk up the hill of Wee Fea past masses of industrial archaeology, often just lying at our feet.  Chuck in loads of wild flowers, a good selection of birds, and tea and cake at the museum’s tea room, and you have the makings of a really fantastic afternoon stroll.

Here’s a small selection of the photos I took, showing the cemetery, the village still dominated by ruined military buildings, and an old army oil pumping station near the top of Wee Fea.

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