“Aye, this rain! We’ve had it for months now, I tell ye,” said Captain Mike as he stowed our luggage in the hold. “It’s a dreich day, gloomy even by Scottish standards.” He untethered the boat from the dock at the Kirkwall corn slip, and we wobbled to the cabin. “OK?” he asked. We nodded from our wet seats and the captain took to the helm. “Noo, aye you’ll go,” he announced, and we sped north toward Shapinsay, the next island in the Orkney archipelago.
The captain’s voice faded as I stared out the window and tried to situate myself in a reality I could hardly fathom. I’m on way to my wedding in a castle that can be reached only by boat or helicopter, I thought. Is this really happening? If you would have asked me last year who got married nowadays in a real castle, I would have said Madonna or Princess Di. Certainly not me. But now here we were. And here it was: a majestic assembly of stone materializing at the edge of the horizon—stark, gray, and utterly imposing, like something out of a British novel.
Commissioned in 1847 by David Balfour, fourth laird of the estate, Balfour Castle was planned as a calendar house. Which means it has seven turrets, twelve exterior doors, fifty-two rooms, and 365 panes of glass. In 2009 new owners refurbished the interior, careful to keep the same look and feel, albeit modernized, as Colonel Balfour and the architect, David Bryce, had intended. It’s still the home of the new owners, but they rent it out on an exclusive-use basis when they’re away. Lucky for us.
Elodie, the castle’s caretaker who moved here with her award-winning chef husband, Jean-Baptiste, and their two young children, met us at the pier. We’d exchanged so many emails over the past several months that I felt like I already knew her. At first I had felt intimidated to even write her concerning the details of our arrangements. Was she the lady of the house? How was I supposed to address her? But I soon realized she was as eager as I was for our visit to go well.
“Zee boax hazzz arriived,” she said. “And your drezz hazzz biin steamed, Madame.” With all the excitement of our arrival, I’d forgotten about the trousseau. Our crummy cardboard box was dented, scuffed, and ripped at one corner, but it was there. Now I could check off “missing wedding dress and kilt” from my list of things to worry about.
We met Andy and Heidi—Chris’s brother and sister-in-law, and our witnesses for the occasion—in the wood-paneled library for a postprandial cocktail by the fire. The new owners had left this room untouched, and it was by far the coziest, with well-worn leather chairs, hand-woven rugs, and a collection of first editions by Twain, Thoreau, and others that had likely been sitting there since their publication.
The staff had all retired to their quarters after our dinner, but we were wired and far from sleepy. At 59 degrees latitude, and only 300 miles from the Arctic Circle, Shapinsay’s summer nights here never turn pitch black. Why not take advantage of the light? So, like any self-respecting group of Scooby Doo watchers, we boldly took to the hallways
At first it was silent, too silent. We crept around on tiptoes, lifting statues and peeking into drawers and closed doors. Then the wind rattled the 365 window panes, and big dark clouds moved in. Outside, beyond The Shining garden maze, the sea started to roil.
We returned to our rooms, ushered by the heads of red stags which lined the hallways. These weren’t just hunting trophies. They were lamps. Little light bulbs (once gas flames) flickered from the point of each rack. Their eerie glow lit gilt-framed portraits of Balfour’s ancestors, men in ruffly shirts and high collars who glared at us. If ghosts exist, they’re living right here, I thought.
But the early-morning sunshine shooed away the hoodoos. The stuffed critters under glass and overhead lost their Stephen King potential. And the sea, which had looked so angry the night before, now dazzled us with a glittery net of diamonds for the big day. It was an ironic gesture, considering I’d long ago accepted that our wedding weather would be broody. I’d even packed Wellies to wear under my wedding dress. Still, I gladly took the blessing. Maybe we hadn’t ticked off the Balfour ancestors, after all.
While Chris and Andy played a game of croquet on the front lawn, Heidi and I tried to figure out my hair. With no hairdresser on the island—just a few farmers, retirees, and a ceramic artist—we’d resorted to YouTube videos the night before to figure out what to do. Now, a can of hairspray later, we’d reached the limit of our combined abilities.
“Time for the dress,” Heidi said. I stepped into the stiff meringue of cream silk and Japanese organdy, and she pulled the zipper halfway up my back. Then stopped.
“What’s the matter?” I asked. It was the moment I’d dreaded. After a month on the road with no scale to weigh myself and far too much temptation, it was bound to happen. The dress didn’t fit.
“Don’t panic,” Heidi said. “Just give me a second. It’s probably just hung up.” She worried the zipper, but it wouldn’t budge. Finally she pulled it back down, then up again. It snagged at the same place. “Are you holding your breath? Put your arms down,” she said. I let my hands slip from my hips and blew out. Bingo. The zipper slid straight to the top. I looked in the mirror for a final check and met my own eyes. It was the last time I’d see myself as an unmarried woman. Would I look different in a few hours?
“Are you ready?” Heidi asked.
“I think so,” I said. Of all the escapades Chris and I had embarked upon, this was the most terrifying. By far. I closed my eyes and said a silent prayer: Please let me love Chris the very best that I can. And please let us never lose each other. “OK,” I said out loud and opened my eyes. “Let’s go.”
Paul the piper stood outside the door in full Scottish bagpiper regalia, ready to escort me to the drawing room, where we would exchange our vows and literally tie a knot of tartans in a traditional Scottish ceremony. “You look beautiful,” Paul whispered. Suddenly I felt like sobbing. Every inch of my body trembled, and I had to remind myself to breathe. “Just follow me, OK?” he said. I nodded and Heidi arranged my dress one last time.
No more worrying, no more planning, no more wondering. After weeks of hiking across the Highlands, we were finally at the actual wedding march of our Wedding March. Paul took a deep breath, broadened his shoulders, and filled the bag. Then, at full pitch, the skirl of the pipes flooded the castle walls with the soaring notes of “Amazing Grace.”
Amazing grace, indeed.