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By mailboat through the Orkney Islands

To the north of Scotland, in the Orkney Island chain, there plies a small vessel of a type that is rapidly becoming a rarity in the shipping trade -- the traditional passenger-cargo mailboat. A combination of features makes the 895 -gross-ton motor vessel Orcadia unique in the British Isles, and therefore infinitely more exciting for the traveler who is looking for something out of the ordinary. Built in 1962, the Orcadia cannot be considered old. It is merely old-fashioned.

First, to set it apart from other ships in a similar trade, everything except the passengers has to be hoisted on board by the standard cargo boom. Most vessels today that carry mail, automobiles, and general cargo in interisland trips are of the drive-on and drive-off kind. Everything moves on and off the ship on wheels, a very rapid and relatively dull procedure to watch.

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Second, the Orcadia has a half-dozen cabins, which may be reserved for about what it costs to stay in a bed-and-breakfast guesthouse. As departures from Kirkwall, the largest town on the main island, are early, from 5:30 to 7:30 a.m. depending on the tide, it is an attractive arrangement to sleep on board the night before sailing. The cabins are simple, with upper and lower berths and a wash basin. Full bathroom facilities are found along the passageway.

Third, the ship has a proper dining room, with full meals available at set hours. One simply gives advance notice to the cook after boarding. Most short-sea vessels these days have cafeteria-style food, and in Britain, on the smaller boats, that can mean nasty pork pies, cold sausage rolls, and skimpy dry sandwiches.

In addition, the Orcadia has the usual amenities found on most ships -- a forward observation lounge, a covered promenade deck running the length of the short superstructure, and a boat deck for sitting outside, Scottish weather permitting. What we have here then on a vessel of only 169 feet are all the features of a mini-ocean liner.

The Orcadia sails three times a week for the outer islands of Westray, Papa Westray, Stronsay, Sanday, and Eday. On Mondays and Fridays it leaves Kirkwall for a nine-hour daytime round voyage. Wednesday is the outward run, mainly for cargo, calling at all the islands, then overnighting in Westray. On Thursday it returns to Kirkwall via the same route in reverse.

On the day of departure, the chief steward is on hand to greet the passengers as they board. He collects the fare, $12, and then suggests that they enjoy hot beverages in the dining room and book lunch if desired.Most of the passengers are local people traveling one way.Occasionally there may be a large group of high school students going home for their one long weekend a month. The out islands have only primary schools, so those who wish to continue their education must go to the government boarding school on the "mainland," as the largest island is called.

About two hours after leaving Kirkwall, the Orcadia ties up at the stone pier at Westray, the principal out-island port. Many of the passengers disembark here. One has the choice of visiting the nearby village or watching the unloading of food supplies, livestock, oil drums, cars, and the Royal Mail. As the time in port is dependent on the cargo requirements, it is best to ask the chief steward how long the stay will be.

Promptly at noon, the dining room steward calls those passengers taking lunch , which is a three-course meal featuring fresh fish and costing about $4. As one shares a table, there is a good chance to meet fellow travelers. From the window one sees a ruggedly beautiful landscape with undulating fields of barley and oats, sheep, cattle, horses, and stone houses. An occasional ruined castle or circle of stones is a reminder of the Orkneys' druidic past. The islands were originally settled by the Norse and in 1472 they were transferred to Scotland. Under the rule of the noble class, the ordinary people lived in poverty. Now they fare far better, but unlike the Shetland Islands farther to the north, the Orcadians do not benefit to any extent from the North Sea gas and oil drilling.

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The afternoon is spent calling at the remaining islands, the dockside activity providing a varied spectacle. The villagers turn out to greet friends and relatives, pick up a consignment, or post a letter. The mailboat has arrived. It is the most important event of the day.

For information, contact the Orkney Islands Shipping Company Ltd., 4 Ayre Road, Kirkwall, Orkney, United Kingdom. Schedules are printed a month in advance, as sailings are dependent on the tide.

To reach the Orkneys -- the P&O ferry, St. Ola, operates daily from Scabster, at the tip of Scotland on the Pentland Firth, to Stromness, the second-largest town, 12 miles from Kirkwall. It is a two-hour crossing. There is connecting train service from Inverness to Thurso, with a local bus to the pier.

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