(CNN) — The sun was starting to set over Skara Brae, a prehistoric stone village on the Orkney Islands, an archipelago off the most northerly tip of Scotland.
A lone figure stood alone among the 3,000 year-old stone buildings, cradling a cup of tea in the waning light.
Rachael was a history graduate in her early 20s. As a child growing up near the Scottish city of Glasgow, her imagination was captured by history classes on the Neolithic archaeological sites of Orkney. Working as a tour guide at Skara Brae was a dream come true.
In the height of summer, Rachael would show lines of tourists around the UNESCO World Heritage Site. But on this day, in March 2013, there were no visitors. Instead, Rachael was gazing out across the vast expanse of blue ocean, enjoying the calm.
Her reverie was interrupted when her radio buzzed in her pocket.
“My manager radioed me to say there was a visitor coming, to kind of be on guard and put down the cup of tea.”
Rachael obliged and made her way to Skara Brae’s entrance. Peering down the path, she spotted a solitary figure making their way towards her.
As the person got closer, she could see it was a man, dressed all in black and wearing a hat with a feather sticking out of it. Right away, Rachael was intrigued.
“It was sort of that magical feeling of just seeing someone in the distance — and you get that vibe of like, they seem familiar to you, but also kind of quite magical and intriguing.”
The mysterious man with the hat was Anthony, an American college student from the University of Wisconsin, studying abroad in Edinburgh. Like Rachael, Anthony was fascinated by history.
“I planned a trip up to Orkney to see the stone circles, Neolithic tombs, and best of all the village of Skara Brae,” Anthony tells CNN Travel.
Anthony had traveled with a friend from Edinburgh, catching the ferry from Aberdeen. By the time the two arrived in Orkney, both were tired. Anthony wanted to get a glimpse of the sites as soon as possible, but Anthony’s friend opted out.
Anthony and Rachael first met at Skara Brae, a Neolithic settlement, on the northerly Orkney Islands, pictured here.
WILLIAM EDWARDS/AFP/AFP via Getty Images
Anthony hoped that by heading to Skara Brae in the early evening, he might be able to get close to the prehistoric buildings — rather than observe them from afar, as is usually recommended.
“So when I was walking up, my first thought when I saw her was ‘Dammit, that’s not gonna work out. There’s going to be someone here. I can’t sneak in,'” says Anthony.
But when Anthony and Rachael, who have asked for their last names not to be included in this story for personal reasons, introduced themselves, his misgivings quickly faded.
“Everything changed. Rachael had this way of bringing the site to life, making the place feel human and real as opposed to the crumbling pile of stones in front of us,” says Anthony.
Rachael, excited to speak to someone as passionate about history as she was, offered to take the American stranger on an informal guided tour around the prehistoric village.
Wandering around the stone edifices, the two talked about the history of Skara Brae. Anthony says he was “enchanted” by the way Rachael brought the site to life.
“It’s not about stones, it’s about people and about stories,” he says.
“Needless to say, we completely lost track of time and I was smitten.”
“I think we noticed then there was this sort of connection between us,” says Rachael, who adds that she barely heard her radio buzzing. Night was falling, and her manager was radioing her to return as the site was closing.
‘I should be with him’
After their time together at Skara Brae, Anthony and Rachael went their seperate ways.
WILLIAM EDWARDS/AFP via Getty Images
Later that evening, Anthony and his friend were wandering around a local grocery store. He turned down one of the aisles, and to his surprise, there was Rachael, arm in arm with another man. It was obvious this was her boyfriend.
“I was pretty crestfallen,” says Anthony. “Not that it mattered. I was also only in Orkney for the weekend. Realistically, what was I going to do? Start a long distance relationship with a tour guide in Orkney?”
Rachael remembers this moment too. She wasn’t surprised to bump into Anthony again — living on a small island made those kinds of moments commonplace — but she was surprised by her reaction to this moment of serendipity.
“I just kind of briefly said ‘hi’ to Anthony and his friend. Then I can remember getting in my boyfriend’s car and we went to drive to my flat on the island. And I remember so clearly looking out the window and seeing Anthony walking past with his rucksack on.”
Their eyes met, and Rachael registered the disappointment on Anthony’s face.
“I just knew in my heart I should be with him, I shouldn’t be with this other guy, I should be with him,” says Rachael today.
Still, back then she swiped the thought from her mind — she knew Anthony would soon be heading back to Edinburgh and then Wisconsin. She would likely never see him again.
And as time went on, she resigned herself to that fact, even while she enjoyed recollecting their walk around Skara Brae at dusk.
“I always had a selection of visitors that I remembered, because I either had a unique connection with them — or something they said, or the way they interacted with the village really struck me, or just the type of person they were. So I think I just put Anthony into that bracket in my mind of top five interesting visitors to Skara Brae.”
As for Anthony, back in Edinburgh and then later in Wisconsin he found himself replaying his conversations with Rachael in his head. Their meeting of minds had an important impact on his work.
“Thanks to a certain tour guide my research focus had narrowed from Neolithic Britain to Neolithic Orkney,” he says.
Anthony also consigned Rachael to the past.
“It was a travel story — and one of the best ones I had — but that was kind of all it was.”
A second chance
Rachael and Anthony unexpectedly reunited at the Neolithic chambered cairn of Maeshowe, also on Orkney.
A year and a half later, in the fall of 2014, Anthony had the opportunity to return to Orkney to continue his research. This time round, he visited all the island’s Neolithic tombs, plotting solar alignments with the aid of a detailed map from the UK’s Ordnance Survey.
“I spent a month and a half traveling around the archipelago on a bike with a compass and an OS map,” he recalls.
Meanwhile, Rachael had switched from working at Skara Brae to another Orcadian archaeological spot, Maeshowe, a chambered burial site.
She had separated from the boyfriend she was with the year before, and was enjoying her days hanging out with her friends, enjoying the island’s beauty.
Rachael also appreciated time to herself, including the Thursday mornings she spent flipping through the local Orkney newspaper, the Orcadian.
One Thursday, Rachael sat on her couch, thumbing through the paper. The publication was full of the usual local stories, but one article in particular caught her eye. It was a story about an American tourist who had discovered a message in a bottle. There was a photo of him, wearing a cap with a feather in it, holding the bottle and grinning.
Rachael couldn’t believe it. It looked just like him. In fact, it had to be him — the man from Skara Brae.
Meanwhile, Anthony had finished his solo cycling adventure and had joined up with his college advisor, who was visiting Orkney for a few weeks to check up on his student.
Anthony’s professor wanted to visit Maeshowe, so the day after the newspaper article was published, the two unwittingly headed to Rachael’s place of work.
“I’ll never forget walking into the visitor center and seeing her there,” says Anthony. “It’s the weirdest thing, but I remembered her voice more than anything.”
“Then basically freak out ensued, because — ‘How are you here?’ It was too much.”
Rachael recognized Anthony too.
“The visitor center was an old mill building, he ran up the wooden stairs and kind of swept in, opened his leather jacket and pulled out tons of leaflets and tickets and passports and everything, and kind of threw them over the desk,” she recalls.
“He said he wanted to book a tour, and I asked him for his name. And then he told me his name and I was able to kind of think, ‘That’s the same name from the newspaper. So it must be him.'”
A few minutes passed, and Rachael started running the tickets through the till. Then she looked up at Anthony again and decided to say something.
“I think I remember you from before,” she said. “At Skara Brae.”
Anthony felt a rush of emotion — relief, surprise and excitement.
“That was a fantastic moment,” he says now.
The connection Anthony and Rachael had enjoyed a year and a half previously was still present, and both felt it. Rachael’s colleagues picked up this chemistry too. Rachael wasn’t supposed to be doing guided tours that day, but her work friends switched around the schedule to make sure it would be Rachael showing Anthony and his professor around Maeshowe.
“We ended up kind of doing the tour together, because Anthony has so much knowledge of Neolithic Orkney,” says Rachael.
They worked as a team, talking about the history of the site and sparking off one another.
“My work colleagues were all kind of already calling Anthony my new boyfriend,” says Rachael, laughing. “They were just being silly and they were like, ‘Who’s this guy following you around like a puppy dog?'”
After the tour, Rachael asked Anthony for his number — seeing him again was such a coincidence, she didn’t want the opportunity to pass.
Anthony was thrilled, but he also wasn’t sure if Rachael was asking him out as a fellow historian, or as a friend, or something more.
Later that week the two met up, heading for lunch in a local cafe, and then a walk on one of Orkney’s windswept beaches.
“The spark of connection was just there,” says Anthony. “We didn’t stop talking for like two and a half hours.”
A few days later, they went to watch a film together, in a pop-up cinema in a church hall in the Orkney port town of Stromness.
“We were about as close as you can possibly be sitting, but not acknowledging this,” says Anthony.
Afterwards, he broached the topic.
“I’m finding it hard to just be friends,” he said.
“That was quite cute,” says Rachael now.
After that, they were a couple.
“We never did the like, casual dating thing of ‘Oh, we’ll see how it is.’ It was always: ‘This is us, we’re together, we’re going to try to find a way to make it work,'” says Anthony.
Navigating transatlantic romance
The standing stones of Stenness in Orkney played an important role on Anthony and Rachael’s story.
White Fox/AGF/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)
Looking back now, Anthony and Rachael say neither of them understood what it would mean to embark on a relationship with someone who lived an ocean away.
For one, traveling between Orkney and Wisconsin was no mean feat.
“The first journey I took to America. I think I had to travel from Orkney to Glasgow and then Glasgow to Amsterdam, and then Amsterdam to Detroit, and then Detroit to Milwaukee. And then Milwaukee to where Anthony’s mom lives,” says Rachael. “You can imagine what I was like when I finally arrived.”
Over the next couple of years, the two met in locations including Scotland, the US, Canada and the Netherlands, every six months or so.
“I think my family were quite concerned that I was confused, that I was kind of getting my hopes up about this quite outlandish thing that probably wouldn’t work out,” says Rachael.
“My mother was ‘Team Rachael’ from day one,” says Anthony. “My friends were exceedingly skeptical. All of them, every last one, was skeptical of this working out.”
But despite the challenge of distance, Rachael and Anthony were committed to making it work. Only a few months into their long distance relationship, Anthony proposed.
He’d hoped to ask Rachael to marry him while visiting some Wisconsin waterfalls. But while Rachael was used to the wild climes of Orkney, a Wisconsin winter was on another level. She didn’t really have the right clothes for a snowy hike.
So instead, he proposed in his bedroom.
“He just got down on one knee by the bed, and said, ‘I love you, Rachael, will you marry me?’ says Rachael.
“And of course, I said yes, straightaway. And it was very magical. and wonderful. And yeah, slightly surreal.”
Anthony and Rachael got married at the standing stones of Stenness in Orkney in 2016.
More long distance followed before the two married in May 2016 in an intimate ceremony at the prehistoric standing stones of Stenness in Orkney, back where it all began.
“It was very cold and windy but, to me, on reflection, that’s kind of like the spirit of Orkney being there with us at the time,” says Rachael.
There was a small crowd of friends and family in attendance, including Rachael’s family, but Anthony told his loved ones not to travel the distance. He later regretted that, but two of his best friends surprised him on the day by flying in from North America.
Rachael and Anthony were married via a pagan handfasting ceremony, a Celtic tradition where the couple’s hands are tied together to symbolize their union.
The attendees stood in a circle, with Rachael and Anthony in the middle. The couple held a velvet bag, offering it to each wedding guest, who reached inside, picked out a hand-written vow, and read it to Rachael and Anthony.
“Everybody in the ceremony had a role to play,” says Anthony. “But also, it was cool, we got to write the entire ceremony ourselves.”
Afterwards, there was a meal with speeches, and the couple included some American traditions, like feeding each other cake, among the Celtic influences.
Getting married didn’t solve Anthony and Rachael’s long-distance issue right away, after honeymooning on Scotland’s Isle of Skye, they had to part ways again to sort out visas.
Eventually, Rachael moved to Wisconsin with Anthony, and the couple lived in the US for a few years, before relocating back to Scotland in early 2020.
Rachael and Anthony pictured in Edinburgh, Scotland, where they now live.
Anthony & Rachael
Today, Anthony and Rachael live happily in Edinburgh, in a cottage in Dalkeith Country Park, an historical estate and park which, coincidentally, is where Anthony was based as an exchange student back in 2013.
“Sometimes life goes full circle like that,” says Anthony.
Nine years after their first meeting, the couple find it interesting to reflect on how two Orkney encounters and a message in a bottle brought them together.
“I don’t necessarily believe in fate,” says Anthony, “I think this is something that people said to me, on and on and on again: ‘Oh, it’s fate.’ And the reality is, it was a lot of work.”
“It was a lot of work,” agrees Rachael. “But I think some of the things were quite magical. Some of the connections I think would be quite hard to just be happenstance.”
It’s quite emotional, kind of reflecting back on all the different things we’ve been through. Obviously, there were some really good times, and some were challenging times, like everyone goes through. I guess it just shows that magic is real for me.”
Top image courtesy Leah Abucayan/CNN/R Gemmell/Getty/Adobe Stock