Tuesday 31 May 2016

Stromness, Kirkwall and Standing Stones

On Wednesday evening, I caught the last ferry from Scrabster to Stromness. After a short 90 minute sail across the Pentland Firth, we docked and I made my way to the B&B.

The Old Man of Hoy sea stack

Stromness is at the 59th parallel, which at this time of year, provides 18 hours of daylight. After a very restful sleep, and an Orkney Continental breakfast of locally sourced meats, cheeses and fish, it was time to learn what I could about this island. 

My first stop was at the Standing Stones of Stenness. 

Then up the road less than a half mile to see the Ring of Brodgar

From Stenness, I continued on to Kirkwall to see the Weeping Window of Poppies, which has been set in place to commemorate the Battle of Jutland. 

In addition to the poppies, I toured the cathedral

From the Cathedral, I went to see the Earl's and Bishop's Palaces 

After touring the local museum, Tankerness House, I headed back to Stromness, stopping to see the Barnhouse Prehistoric Village, next to the Stenness Stones, on the way. 

I was fascinated with the documented history that was displayed through the wall plaques on the buildings in Stromness

My final stop was the Stromness museum. What a little treasure! The archival information is amazing. They have records for men who were recruited to work in the HBC's inland factory at York, lists of men who were pressed into service with the Navy, lists of ferries, dingys and lifeboats and their workers and fate, men who served and fell in service for both world wars, the records of the Stromness Hearse Company, donated private collections, Orkney Shipwrecks, Pentland Firth Crossings that ran into trouble. I can't begin to explain how much I love and value the local archives and archivists in Scotland. 

TimeSpan - The Museum Without Walls

My next stop was the TimeSpan museum in Helmsdale. On my way, I stopped in Rogart. I wanted to see the memorial cairn dedicated to the grandparents of Sir John A Macdonald, first prime minister of Canada. I was truly baffled at how desolate Rogart is. Not just remote. Desolate. But I did manage to find the cairn, which is well signed.

Then it was onto Helmsdale. What a treasure the TimeSpan Museum is! And innovative. They have a museum that explains the Clearances, and gives individual stories. They also have an archive upstairs. I was able to chat with archivist, Jacquie Aitken and was truly in awe of the records that the archives holds. In addition to the standard BMD and Census records, the archives has Sutherland estate records pertinent to the parishes of Kildonan and Loth. These include rent books and lists of those who were cleared.

But perhaps the best jewel is the app. TimeSpan is dubbed as the "Museum without Walls" and it truly is. Download the app from either Google Play or the App Store and you are on your way to learning about and experiencing the impact of the Clearances. There are 10 way points that are clearly marked and grid referenced. At each way point, there is text to read or you can turn on the sound and  listen to the story. A truly innovative way for people to experience what their ancestors endured.

For the rest of the drive to Scrabster I was truly and deeply aware of not just Kildonan, but of the other parishes affected by the Sutherland Clearances.

Oh Dornoch!

Once I arrived in Edinburgh, I hired a car and started my way north - Destination: Orkney. Orkney has been on my bucket list for a while now. But rather than flying in, I chose to drive so that I could also spend some time in the Highlands.

My destination the first night was a B&B in Tain. The next day I was up, had breakfast and was off. My first stop was Dornoch. I discovered that the heritage museum, Historylinks, has put together an historic walking tour with waymarks.

I was able to visit the Cathedral

Sarcophagus of Sir Richard DeMoravia, brother of Gilbert, the Cathedral's founder

 Dornoch Cathedral Charter 1223

The remnants of the old Castle, now an upscale hotel and restaurant

 And the old Jail, now a boutique shop

Dornoch had an Inn that provided a temporary home for those who had been cleared from the Sutherland Estate

I was also able to visit the stone marker that marks the spot where the last witch was executed in Scotland. Although the stone reads 1722, the execution actually occurred in 1729 and 9 years after the execution, punishment by death for witchcraft was rescinded. 

I spent far more time in Dornoch than I had planned, but the history was too absorbing to leave without seeing it!

Get It Together, WestJet

Being Canadian,  I was delighted to learn that WestJet (a Canadian Company) was joining the international flight market and, lucky me, were starting to offer flights to Scotland and England. Wanting to support a Canadian business, I happily booked up with WestJet. That was the start of a traveling nightmare.

WestJet has a lovely app that allows you to book, track flights, check in online. 24 hours before my flight, the app notified me that I could now check in. I clicked the link to learn that the flight had been cancelled. Surely they had simply moved us to a partner airline. I logged on to the website - no it was true, the flight had indeed been cancelled.

Normally I am fairly relaxed and go with the flow when it comes to travel. But this time, I came completely unglued. Missing the flight would mean losing money on the connecting flight that had already been paid for, missing the car that had been reserved and missing the hotel that had been booked and paid for.

In the end, I was on the phone for over an hour. I was repeatedly told that they were "sorry" which doesn't do anything to fix the problem. The issue, it seems was a maintenance issue. I could get re-scheduled onto an earlier flight, stop over in St Johns and then carry on from there. There was ONE seat left. I spoke with the supervisor who was a bit condescending but once that was pointed out, was quite apologetic.

I took the earlier flight and learned that everyone one the earlier flight were ALL from the original flight that had been cancelled. So, there wasn't in fact just one seat left as the notification to the passengers had not yet been issued when I called in. Similarly, the second flight was also mostly filled with passengers who had been on the cancelled flight. One poor couple had to drive from PEI to Moncton, fly from Moncton to Toronto, Spend 9 hours in the airport in Toronto and then fly back to Newfoundland, then onto Gatwick. I can only imagine how comforting WestJet's apology was to them. They were totally exhausted and their holiday hadn't even started.

Most people received no compensation beyond the apology. Then a few days later, we were all offered a 20% discount on our next flight. Really? You want me to take on that stress again?

WestJet, this is major fail. You look bad in the world market. I was so excited that you were going to be an option along with the big boys traveling to the UK (Air Canada and Air Transat). However, it appears you are too small to play in the big league. Unfortunately, those of us who supported you have suffered as a result. Time to rethink your ambition and simply continue to fly domestic flights? Certainly after my own experience from hell, I can not in all good faith and consciousness, recommend WestJet as a way for my tour participants to get to Scotland for future genealogy research trips. 

Monday 23 May 2016

Nightmare Averted

Everything was in neat little piles, ready to be packed in suitcases. Money had been exchanged (thanks to today being a bank holiday). Itineraries, lists and confirmation were printed. The excitement was building. Just 24 hours until my flight to Scotland. 

Up popped a notification from the WestJet app letting me know my flight was just 24 hours away. I could now "check-in" I clicked on the invite to see a notice that the flight had been cancelled! 
Surely not. Opened the laptop, onto the WestJet website. It was true. The flight HAD been cancelled. 

As a seasoned traveler I generally go with the flow when things go wrong, and chalk the experience up as being part of the adventure. Not this time. This time I completely unraveled. 

After a frantic hour on the phone, I was rebooked onto an earlier flight. A longer stop over and a bit of chaos but I will still make it to London on time to catch my connecting flight, be on time to pick up the car I have reserved and can still make it to the hotel that had been booked and paid for. 

Needless to say my night was almost non-existent with making sure everything that still needed to get done actually got done. 

Arrived at the airport with lots of time to spare. First on the agenda, a long, cold pint of craft ale!