One does not associate the
Pentland Firth with hazards for caravanners but
the Admiralty pilot for North Scotland advises masters of small craft
to avoid the area in westerly and easterly gales. On a falling tide,
westerlies are the more feared. As the ebb tries to empty the North
Sea and billions of tons of water flow through the strait against the
wind, mountainous seas quickly develop and the blown spume from the
crests appears almost solid as the All Father, Odin, strips the waves
of their substance in his eternal battle with Njoror. One comes to
accept the Norse stories of the cloud ship Skidbladnir
and sympathise with its master, Freyr, who, when he is not sailing in
it, carries the vessel in his pocket.
But a caravan should be safe,
and we pitched camp a few yards from the cliff top overlooking a wild
but not dangerous sea. Below us was a rocky beach where the children
were able to seek cowrie shells in the sandy crevices. No-one warns
experienced northern sailors against northerly winds and we watched
fishing boats and the ferry as they passed by, rolling and heaving on
the swells for which Scottish waters are notorious. Eight miles away,
the cliffs of Orkney could sometimes be seen through the torn clouds
as skuas and gulls wheeled and screamed and fought. Fulmars, those
recent immigrants from the Arctic, abandoned their normal, graceful,
stiff-winged flight and and frolicked and
played like teenagers at a fairground. We thought we saw a storm
petrel but it was certainly an artefact of our imaginations – or
perhaps, I fantasised, it was Loki, the mischievous, in one of his
Darkness falls late in the
northern summer but, that night, it came earlier than usual. By ten
o’clock it was no longer possible to read without artificial light
and we retired to our beds, protected from the increasing tempest by
the cliff which threw the wind high overhead. We could hear it
keening and thrumming on the cliff edge like a horde of Valkyries
searching out the souls of dead warriors slain on some terrifying
battlefield. The thunder of breakers sent us to sleep and we were
unaware that, as darkness finally fell, the wind was backing to the
west as if its origin was being drawn by a malignant sun to its
grave on the horizon.
We were woken at one o’clock
by a sudden shuddering as the caravan rocked on its corner steadies.
We always called them ‘anchors’ and, on this occasion, the
nickname seemed appropriate as the caravan lifted again and then
“I think we’re dragging our
anchor,” I joked but no-one laughed.
By now, the wind had shifted due
west and was hurtling across the open moor, slamming into the side of
the caravan. Loki, I was sure, was playing with us. The shelter
afforded by the low cliffs which had so impressed us earlier in the
night had vanished. As the storm increased and the caravan rocked on
its springs, we were driven to wondering whether the cliffs
themselves had blown away.
Jennifer and Michael shared the
bunk beds at the front of the caravan, Jennifer on top and Michael,
aged four, below.
“Are we going to blow over?”
Michael wanted to know.
So did I.
At two o’clock I decided that
we probably were – if I didn’t do something about it. But
what? Well, I could park the car between us and the wind. Surely a
ton and a half of steel should be an
effective windbreak? Loki was created before mankind invented steel
and I had heard that the powers of the gods of Asgard were
ineffective against modern technology.
I dragged myself out of bed and
out of the caravan in my pyjamas – we aren’t the sort of people
who go caravanning with dressing gowns and my anorak was in the car.
Even on the sheltered side of the caravan, it was difficult to stand
but the car felt reassuringly solid and I drove it round and parked
tight against the windward side of the ’van. When I returned to its
shelter, both children were crying quietly to themselves. Michael was
trying to comfort his older sister and the two children were holding
hands between the upper and lower levels of
the bunk. No one held my hand.
Moving the car seemed to have
made things worse although I knew that wasn’t possible
unless my information about the gods’ powers was wrong – Loki,
again defeating the unwary. Clearly the awning had to come down
before it was torn down. Of course, I had known this earlier, but the
damned thing was always a pain to take down even on a calm afternoon.
Now, Rosemary and I battled with what seemed like acres of canvas
that flogged ever more vigorously as we removed the pegs and poles.
Of course it tore and could never be used again.
four o’clock we knew we had to move. Striking camp is never
pleasant. Apart from the sadness of finishing one’s holiday, there
is the need to coil wet and dirty electric
cables and to empty waste water containers and the chemical closet.
The spare wheel, stored under the caravan, is always wet and muddy.
That morning, in what felt like a rehearsal for a latter-night
the wind howled with increasing ferocity and two white-faced children
watched through the car windows as Rosemary and I struggled to cope.
As I moved the car from its sheltering position, I was sure the
caravan would blow over if not actually join Skidbladnir
in its headlong flight. But, with our obviously impending departure,
Loki must have relented because we were eventually able to hitch up
undamaged and park face to wind. We sat resting from our efforts.
Loki must have thought we were changing our minds because, even now,
the vehicle rocked and swayed with the headwind.
Sighing, we drove away from our
idyllic camp-site. Half an hour later,
bowling along the A9 into a 60 mph headwind of our own making, the
car and caravan – but not our nerves –
were rock steady. We pulled into the side of the road. It was just
coming light, the wind had dropped to a slight breeze
and we decided to have breakfast in the caravan. Rosemary detrmined
to do us proud and produced bacon and eggs which we ate as the sun
rose from over Sinclairs Bay. For a moment, the tower of the castle
of Old Wick stood blackly exactly in the centre of the red disc as it
climbed above the horizon.
Michael was unusually quiet and
then he said, “Daddy?”
I had been researching Norse
legend for several weeks but I knew I had kept my research, and last
night’s fantasies, to myself.
“Yes. It was him, wasn’t
“He made the storm,
I temporised and asked Jennifer,
“Who do you think Loki is?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never
heard of him.”
“You haven’t said about him
“No. I’ve never heard of
“Have you, love?” I asked
Rosemary. She was busy with breakfast and wasn’t listening.
“Have I what?”
“Have you said anything about
Loki to Michael?”
“Who’s Loki?” she asked.
“Michael said, “It wasn’t
just Loki. There was others, too.”
“Were others too, Michael. Not
was others. Who were the others?”
“I don’t know.”
“Who told you about Loki?”
“Nobody. I saw him. In the
wind. He said he was called Loki.”
“What did he look like?”
“I don’t know. Sort of ...
big. He was laughing.”
Michael nagged me to tell him
who Loki is but, you see, I’m no longer sure that I know.”