'Smile, wee lass, you're going home,' says the jolly steward on the Hjaltland. It appears we're nearly there.
'Is this where you live?' he asks.
'No, but I did once, a long time ago.'
'A sentimental journey then?'
Leaving the boat, I search for familiar faces in the dark. Bob and Lu have come to meet me.
A wander round Kirkwall stirs old memories. My most recent of Broad Street is watching the Ba' one New Year's day.
The Ba', which is technically 'no' a spectator's sport, is one of Orkney's unique traditions, first recorded in 1650. The object of the game between the Uppies and the Doonies – Up-the-gates and Down-the-gates – is for the teams to get the Ba' into their goal, the Uppies at Mackinson's Corner and the Doonies down to the harbour and touch the water for a win. A player's status as an 'Uppie' or a 'Doonie' depends on which side of the Mercat Cross they were born or where they first entered Kirkwall, although these days it is generally based on family loyalty. The rules are: there are no rules. The Ba' is thrown up at the Mercat Cross and any means required – kicking, carrying or smuggling the Ba' – are used to get it into goal.
The thrill of the Ba' is a vivid memory. I can see myself on dad's shoulders, craning for a better view. The atmosphere is one of intense excitement but also apprehension as the scrum would sway violently and without warning into the spectators.
After the game, the Ba' is presented to a well-deserved player. This is a great but expensive honour. The winner is required to host a party which lasts several days.
At the newsagents' my ears detect that gentle lilt which I have not heard for so long. The Orcadian is just out, and the sports pages are dedicated to this year's Ba', won by the Uppies for the 10th time in a row, 'despite a brave Doonie show of strength.'
On the way home I drop into the cathedral, an impressive Romanesque edifice which has witnessed over 800 years of Kirkwall life. The harmonious union of graceful pillars and rounded arches glow in a warm atmosphere created by the use of Old Red sandstone.
Jim is head custodian at St Magnus. A complete eccentric, he prefers to describe himself as an 'embittered romantic.' Although the cathedral is pivotal to the town and welcomes large numbers of visitors, he points out the dwindling religious following in the community: 'It is like fighting a losing battle.' According to Jim, materialism has changed the people here.
He claims that even commuting between areas or islands was unthinkable 30 years ago. It seems a strange issue to be so passionate about, but he describes travelling from Hoy to work in Kirkwall as if it were potential material for a tabloid scandal. 'In my day people kept to their own territory. We were hardly off our own street.'
The big identity issue is, of course, how 'Scottish' the Orcadians consider themselves.
'Well, we have been since the 15th century.'
I can feel a 'but' coming.
'Anyone who knows history has no reason to love the Scots. People have a romantic identification with Scandinavia.' He tells of the recent Orcadian and Shetland flags emblazoned with Icelandic crosses. 'They said "up yours" to the Scots…Everyone had one.'
Bob and Lu take me to the other prominent town on Mainland Orkney. My parents were married in the Town House, Stromness, 24 years and one day ago. It's not exactly glowing in romantic aura but I guess it's kind of sweet. I attempt to conjure an image of the happy newly-weds bouncing down the path in a sea of confetti. (My mother later corrects me – it was snowing, the witnesses were rounded up at the last minute, and there was room for only eight – plus the dog – in the registry office where they were united by a colporteur). Buy postcard to send delayed anniversary wishes.
Bob has a meeting at the Pier Arts Centre – he is the chairman – so I go along. The permanent collection is owned by Margaret Gardiner, who, in the 1930s, moved in social circles with Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. The gallery boasts a selection of abstract works by such pioneers as well as pieces by the younger artists of St Ives that Gardiner supported.
I feel immediately drawn to the gallery: it's one of the finest art spaces I have experienced. The upstairs gallery is particularly special. It has a bright ambiance and features a slanted roof and a series of windows at varying levels. Some are tiny at floor level while others are full-length from floor to ceiling. The ones facing out to sea frame picturesque scenes, constantly changing like works of art in their own right.
Driving back to Kirkwall we are blessed with one of those Orkney sunsets. A brochure I read on the boat describes the 'changing skies of Orkney' – this is not just a marketing ploy. Today the sun seems to be playing a game where it leaves most of the land in darkness and selects only a small part to illuminate. Rays stream through a hole in the clouds silhouetting the hills across the bay. We drive around the coastal road and I spy the tiniest island ever – it is even devoid of a sheep. I wonder if it has its own speck on the map of the British Isles.
Saturday night: Kirkwall
In the Ayre hotel, a sign above the bar reads: 'Avoid hangover. Stay drunk.' I've come to the right place, then. Order a glass of dry white wine, roll a cigarette, and am approached by Gavin, a cheery 22-year-old from Inverness who has lived on the island for seven years. He invites me to join his group an spend the evening with them.
Gavin tells me that all Orcadians are snobs at heart and prejudiced against outsiders – 'the downfall is not having the accent.' They seem pretty friendly to me, though. Several drinks and a few games of pool later, someone proclaims that it is 'time for Matches.' From my study of the Lonely Planet guide I recognise this as Orkney's only nightclub, Matchmakers.
I am soon queuing at the cloakroom of Matches to dispose of multiple layers. Girls in bright lipstick peel away their jackets to reveal low-cut black tops and sparkly jewels. It's not a bad venue and certainly no worse than any of the mainstream clubs back in Edinburgh. At closing time Gavin insists that I sample the delights of the burger van down the road. Before I can protest, he has bought me a bacon cheeseburger which is truly the tastiest post-club snack I have had in a long time.
Set off for Holm, my first home. It's a bleak afternoon and has barely been light all day. As we drive across the treeless landscape, Anne (a family friend) tells me stories from when I was 'peedie totty.' We pass her old house. Nearby lived the man who registered my birth – he was actually a carpenter. It was tradition then to take a half bottle of whisky to the registrar and I still have the spelling errors in my birth certificate to prove it.
Our house has been modernised – but it’s still surrounded by dilapidated farm buildings.
Monday: Maes Howe
Maes Howe is 5,000 years old. It consists of a large mound with an entrance passage and burial chamber. In the 12th century it was invaded by Norsemen and Viking crusaders, who left runic inscriptions in the form of graffiti, some of it risqué. Those who built Maes Howe would certainly have been aware of the seasonal behaviour of the sun: the entrance is built in the direction of the midwinter sunset. On the shortest day of the year, and for roughly 20 days either side of the winter solstice, just before the sun sets behind the hills of Hoy, it shines into the tomb.
Moira, my tour guide, describes this 'magical' experience: 'It is so intense, like a light being switched on and no matter how often you see it you feel the same excitement.' You stand in the dark until the first chink of light appears on the right side of the passage. Rays hit the back wall until finally the whole tomb is lit up. This partly natural, partly man-made occurrence seems to have a particular significance in a place where seasons are largely defined by darkness and light.
My final meal with Bob and Lu is spent listening to the windows rattling in the howling wind. 'Don't worry, it's a westerly wind, it won't affect your crossing on the east,' Lu assures me. Next door, Anne offers to give me sleeping tablets for the boat.
'At least it's not the Stromness-Scrabster crossing across the Pentland Firth,' her husband David adds. 'Don't worry about it.' I wasn't worried about it (until everyone kept telling me not to worry).
Finally we leave for the port and say our goodbyes, thank you and come back soons.
And come back I do: very soon. The boat from Lerwick has by-passed Orkney because of the bad weather and has headed straight for Aberdeen.
'And when will the next boat leave here?'
'Friday,' comes the reply.
Today is Monday.
Go to bed and read a poem called 'Bloody Orkney.'