Standing Stones and Serendipity Along the Road in Scotland






We headed out of the hotel on the high street to take our luggage to the car. There was a heavy morning fog which had rolled in from the harbor. Actually, you couldn’t even see the harbor, but we knew it was there having driven past it a dozen times searching for a parking spot the night before. The Viking heritage here was not lost on us – imagery and ancient-ness seemed to ooze from this place. Symbols of Norse dragons and place names from Viking settlements of centuries past helped to color the otherwise homogenous landscape and all beige eco-architecture that is Orkney. The previous evening we dined amidst an assorted crowd of locals, seafaring types, families and scarce few tourist at the Kirkwall Hotel. Dinner was lovely, dessert was even better. I don’t remember what we had, I just recall that it hit the spot after our nearly eight hour journey by road and then ferry from John O’Groats to the Orkneys from deep within the Scottish Highlands. This morning at dawn, we were on a mission to see the Ring of Brodgar, a mere 10 mile or so drive from Kirkwall on Mainland, Orkney.

Too bad for us, the heavy fog prevented seeing anything of this ancient place. Even on the drive we were lucky to make out road conditions just beyond the front end of the car. Mostly, the fog won the day. Yes, in many ways it was the winner as it prevented us from ever making it to the World Heritage Site that I had longed to see. Instead, we found ourselves a short distance – well, actually less than 1/8 mile – from the Ring within the Ness of Brodgar at the neolithic Standing Stones of Stenness, possibly the most ancient of all henge sites in Britain. We were none the wiser, thinking we were at our planned destination, and limited by fog to know anything else.

What we witnessed at Stenness was a mystical sunrise burning its way through the cloud cover to reveal the flat green pastures filled with sheep and the mist covered Loch of Stenness where a bevy of white swans glided across the calm water. Here at this prehistoric site we felt the presence of those ancient connections, and in a broader sense, we were connected to the very essence of it.  We absorbed the near supernaturality of this moment and left with a feeling of deep appreciation for a land echoing the past with no desire to leave it.

Back in Kirkwall at the car, I was nudged by a spirit, or so I imagined having just experienced that sunrise-over-Stenness phenomenon most would consider other-worldly. I was jolted back to reality when I looked down to see a massive white dog whose fur and shining eyes were brighter than any light we were yet to see in Orkney.

As I attempted to figure out the moment, a blue wooden door opened in front of me on the high street just past the sidewalk in front of the car. While I had been rummaging through the trunk to reposition belongings and make way for the return ferry crossing to John O’Groats, I had been watched unbeknownst through the window near that blue door.

A tall, robust fellow, however elderly, wearing overalls (most uncharacteristic for a Scot) and a bright blue shirt emerged from behind the door to greet me and retrieve his curious dog. “That’s Xyza, my companion,” he said.

I was delighted to make their acquaintance, “Zi-za, you say?  How do you spell it?”

“That’s X – Y – Z – A – Xyza, meaning of the sea. And I’m Wally,” he explained.

Wally went on to reveal that he was very much ‘of the sea’ himself having spent a lifetime on the waters in the RoyalNavy and having lived here in the seaport of Kirkwall for oh so many years. He had lost his wife last summer and had recently suffered a stroke. He had little cottonballs covered by bandages along his arm where his blood had been drawn to test the current state of his health.

“I’m 80, you know. And now all I have here is Xyza.  My son visits from the mainland. I just don’t know how much longer I can remain in my home. I will miss it. I’m pleased to meet you,” he smiled.

As Xyza pranced around me, I could see the joy she brought to Wally with her saucy spirit and gentle soul. I could sense a lonely heart in Wally, but I knew he was in great company in between family visits from far away.  I also knew this was a man who had known love and was deeply loved now.  And while this encounter lasted only moments, I took with me something that has sustained.

As we savored a cup of tea and biscuits on the ferry crossing back to the craggy coast of Scotland’s most northerly point, I noticed the discarded wrapper that had housed my wee stack of cookies to dunk. There on the label was an image of the Ring of Brodgar, an image that in no way resembled the Stenness Stones we encountered through the fog and what we thought was THE Ring. As it sunk in that indeed we had gone hundreds of miles out of the way to see the wrong henge monument, falling short by a literal stone’s throw, I realized that this was a moment of different monumental proportions –  not the standing stone variety. This was ‘the-journey-not-the-destination’ moral that is preached in the sermons of travel.

While at first I was profoundly disappointed by the magnitude of our error – of course, ‘the fog’ was to blame – later I saw the profound beauty of the moment – the sunrise over the most ancient stones, the surprise of the enchanting Xyza, and the smile of a gentleman Scot. I can still see them clearly now, realizing it is not only what, but also who we encounter along the way that leaves an imprint on our souls. And on this day serendipity made it even better in a place of such mystical origins, a place of the sea, a place called Orkney.