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Monday, 31 March 2008


With the weather being so good this weekend I took the opportunity to do some gardening. The ground at the front of the house is still very wet and muddy, but the border I dug last year at the back of the house seems to have well draining soil so I made a start on tidying that up.

I think I’ve mentioned before that as I’ve been digging I’ve come across layers of paths and lots of stones – this pile are only about half the stones I’ve dug up so far! However the border is beginning to take shape.

Last year I put in rosa rugosa, fuschia and hebes plus some other hardy shrubs, with some perennial border plants in between. I’m hoping to add to those this year. The border is north facing but the 5ft dyke (wall) does give the border quite a bit of shelter from the south westerly and south easterly wind. Though it can still swirl around near the buildings. And of course nothing protects it from the North wind……. There is still a lot of work to be done to the border as you can see but it feels good to have made a start.

But I’m really enjoying just pottering around – I’m not very fit so have to take lots of rests on my garden spade – but the view is wonderful. And yesterday while working I could hear some of the seals “singing”. And the birds are very busy calling at this time of the year.

While I was digging I was accompanied by Clara Cluck, looking out for any tasty worms. She is quite a character and one of my favourite hens. If I spent too long leaning on my trusty spade she would start pecking at it as if to say “get on with it, woman, I’m hungry”! None of the other hens came around until after I had finished. Though Finlay Junior was hanging about trying to pretend he was doing something important – usually scaring me half to death by crowing just behind me!

Saturday, 29 March 2008


Thursday night I was over in Stromness for a book reading hosted by the Orkney Arts Society. Louisa Waugh was reading from her book “Hearing Birds Fly”, a travelogue of her time working as an English teacher among a group of Mongolian nomadic herders. Her story and those of the nomadic herders is fascinating and I recommend reading the book! She really conjures up the hardships of the life *and* climate, but tells the stories of the people very sensitively. She is currently using her skills as a professional writer and working with a human rights organisation in Gaza City. She is planning to write her next book about her experience there.

Afterwards a few of us adjourned to the Upper Bar of the Stromness Hotel and sat round a glowing coal fire chatting. Louisa was interested in what brought each of us to Orkney and it was interesting hearing each person’s story. Some had been born here, of course, but one had come up on holiday many years ago and never gone home again, another had spent a succession of holidays here before deciding to move up for good, another had chosen to work here for one of the ecological agencies, yet another had moved here as it was a good place to raise a family and me – who fell in love with Graemsay on my first visit and bought a house the same weekend!

Having stayed overnight in town I took the opportunity yesterday to do some shopping before heading home on the cargo boat. But the wind had yet again blown up and it was quite choppy at the pier and I had to dodge the sea spray as I unloaded my shopping. Thankfully there were folk at the pier to help with shopping and I got a lift up to my car so didn’t have to battle the wind getting up the pier.

Today (Saturday) has been the most glorious day. I’ve been working out in the garden, removing stones I dug up last year. I kept stopping and listening to the birds – today I heard sky larks, curlews, and had a blackbird keep me company – hoping for some tasty worms I’m sure. I also heard a bird of prey but not sure which one. There are Hen Harriers around, and Merlins, but haven’t learned to differentiate between their calls.

Tonight is the official start of “British Summer Time” when the clocks go forward an hour. It’s one of my favourite days. Now the days are getting longer I can enjoy the evening more, especially on working days. I love to go out for a walk along the shore, or just potter outside with my newly planted trees and shrubs - weather permitting of course!

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Beach Art

A friend took this photo of some “art” along the shore just outside Stromness yesterday. Click on the photo and you can see a larger image – the legend on top of the box reads “The end of a summer romance”.

I just love the unexpectedness of walks along a shore. You never know what you may come across with flotsam and jetsam being washed up, or folk making their own art exhibits.

On the beach near Skara Brae (a Neolithic village now managed by Historic Scotland) the beach is often adorned with modern day attempts at the stone houses, or at stone circles.

I love picking up driftwood, stones and shells along the shoreline and place them on windowsills and bookcases in my house. Throughout the Spring and Summer each year I return finds from previous years to the shore and replace them with new ones.

The beaches on Graemsay are all different, the beach at Sandside Bay is sandy with shingle. Depending on winter gales and spring and autumn tides sometimes it’s sand scattered with shingle and sometimes it’s more shingle with a sprinkling of sand. I love looking at the patterns the tide has made, or arrangements of stones shimmering in the water.

On the other side of the old Sandside Pier is a “shell beach” scattered with cold-water coral (merle) and shells. It fascinates me as both beaches are separated by the pier and yet the sandy beach rarely has any shells upon it. It almost seems as though there are traffic cops under the sea directing sand to the left and shells to the right!

Each day the tide brings new finds, sometimes it’s ship buoys, last year we had a dead whale washed up – unfortunately none of the authorities would dispose of it so we had to wait some weeks before it decomposed and got washed out to sea again!

On the beach near the Hoy Low Lighthouse fragments of crockery are washed up from the wreck of the “Albion”. This ship was wrecked in 1866 to the West of Graemsay. It was carrying emigrants and a cargo of pottery from Liverpool in England to America. A Graemsay man, Joseph Mowat, lost his life trying to rescue survivors, and is buried in the Graemsay Kirkyard.

The pottery that washes up on the Point of Oxan beach at Hoy Low varies from glazed fragments, to unglazed “fruit” – tiny lemons, oranges and the like that would have adorned (one presumes) the lids of tureens as part of a grand dinner service.

So I just love wandering along the shore line to see what each day brings!

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

It's snowing!

At least the cold North wind has dropped, but much of the island was covered in a layer of snow first thing this morning. However it soon melted, and although we have had frequent snow showers throughout the day there is little evidence of it.

All the schools in Orkney were closed, and all buses cancelled as I think the forecasters were predicting snow settling on the ground. These days the authorities seem to err on the side of caution. Apparently a bus did got off the road in Tankerness (East Orkeny Mainland) on Friday, though no one was hurt. So I suppose the bus company didn’t want to take any chances.

My hens were scratching about in the snow with Finlay keeping watch. Poor things their feet must have been frozen! I gave them their morning feed on a clear patch in front of the hen house and made sure their food hopper inside the henny hoose was full.

I haven’t been outside today, other than feeding the hens as it has been another work day. Though tonight I am off to the Graemsay Craft Night just for a blether as I am getting a bit stir crazy not being able to get out.

The Graemsay Craft Club is held each week when some of the ladies on the island get together to make cards and have a go at various other craft activities. I am an honorary member not being inclined to “craft”. Most of what the ladies make goes on sale at craft fairs on the island and the proceeds get split with some going into the island community association coffers. I love to watch them working but just don’t have the patience to have a go myself. I failed “cutting and sticking” at school!

Butternut Squash Soup

Below is reciped as requested for Butternut Squash Soup (courtesy of

It has to be said that although the soup was delicious I am not a fan of cutting and peeling Butternut Squash – not unless I have a kitchen assistant like the professional TV cooks do, that is!

1 Butternut squash, seeds removed, peeled and cubed

1-2 small onions, finely chopped

2 celery stalks, chopped

2 carrots, chopped

1-2 garlic crushed (I just used a tiny bit of grated garlic)

Vegetable stock (about 800 ml)

1 teaspoon of mild curry powder

1 tablespoon of olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

1 tablespoon of chopped parsley

1. Sweat the onion in the olive oil until transparent

2. Add the cubed butternut squash and fry gently

3. Mix in celery, carrots and crushed garlic

4. Stir in curry powder

5. Add the stock

6. Leave to simmer gently until squash is soft

7. Blend it all together

8. Add more water or stock if needed

9. Season to taste

Note – if you are blending it don’t worry too much about cutting into fine cubes as the blender will mush it all up nicely as long as it’s soft.

Monday, 24 March 2008

Easter Monday

Although today has been a “Public Holiday” in Orkney (Easter Monday) I’ve been working as I had planned going over to the Orkney Mainland tomorrow (one of my usual workdays). But we have had snow showers throughout the day plus freezing winds so have cancelled my appointment for tomorrow. I shall stay home and work instead!

Although there have been heavy snow and sleet showers the snow is not settling, it’s just VERY cold in the wind. I am getting fed up with the weather now – I want it to be Spring with mild temperatures!

I’m longing to get out and work on the garden borders where the daffodils are huddling together for warmth. However it’s either too cold or too wet. Ah well hopefully warmer weather will arrive sometime soon.

I've had the heating on "constant" all day as it is so cold. The house has underfloor heating downstairs and conventional radiators upstairs and the boiler is fuelled by oil. Usually I have the heating on for a few hours in the morning, and then it comes on again late afternoon for the evening and then off overnight. It’s a very efficient system, but when it is *so* cold it seems better to keep the heating on most of the time. Unfortunately with the price of oil that can get quite expensive. My last tank of 1000 litres cost £540 and in the winter it only lasts three months! Wonder if it would be cheaper to burn pound notes…… We have no “natural gas” in Orkney so the alternative to oil fuelled heating is either electric which is also expensive or solid fuel (coal), but I hate the dust from coal, plus the effort of lugging large coal buckets around. But as I would much rather be cosy I will continue to spend vast sums of money on heating!

I have heard tractors passing the house today. No doubt it was the farmers taking silage to the sheep in the fields and the coos in the byres. Rather them than me. Even Fitz has refused to put his head outside the door today. Normally he enjoys a breath of fresh air, always waiting till I have moved away from the door before demanding to come back in. But today he flatly refused to go anywhere near an outside door and has spent the entire day snoozing in the sitting room. Lucky cat! In my next life I want to come back as a well cared for cat!!

I am beginning to get “cabin fever” though – hopefully the weather will clear up by the end of the week and I can get over to the shops and meet up with friends.

Sunday, 23 March 2008

Sunday or Monday?

Well it’s nearly midnight so not sure if this a Sunday or a Monday entry……. Have been busy this weekend with various activities and just realised I haven’t made a blog entry for a couple of days.

Yesterday spent some time doing some more baking. Date and Apple slices (made with rolled oats) were first on the menu. Mmmmm quite delicious with Greek yoghurt. Then tried a recipe for Malteser Treat tray bake, which consisted of mooshed up digestive biscuits (for those in the US they are like Graham crackers only sweeter), Maltesers, butter and chocolate – lots of chocolate. Mix together and chill in the fridge (the “cake” not yourself, though after all that melted chocolate maybe…..). Anyway I have to say – it was a disappointment. Tasting of mooshed up digestive biscuits, butter, chocolate and Maltesers. All of which I love – but they lose something in the mixing together I fear.

While all that was going on also made some Butternut Squash soup. Oooh now that was quite yummy. Though I had to concentrate hard so as not to put Maltesers into the wrong saucepan….

And baked another white loaf, this time with various seeds (that worked well D, thanks for the idea). Also topped with sesame seeds. I *know* brown bread is better for me and I do try to like it – honest I do. But somehow my taste-buds prefer fresh WHITE bread. Mmmmm toast, lots of toast……

Then spent rest of day sorting out a room I’ve recently turned into a guest room. I had a spurt of enthusiasm in the autumn to paint the room and furnish with stuff I had in a store-room. But the enthusiasm waned with the light and it remained unfinished. However I have a friend visiting from “south” soon so want to get the room respectable for guests.

So today I’ve been painting an old wardrobe. When I started on it I didn’t think it was going to work out and started to panic. Thankfully I had the presence of mind to walk away, have tea and CAKE, and on reappraisal after paint had dried it doesn’t look too bad at all. Still have the doors to do – painted the rest in a cream colour and want the doors in a deeper primrose yellow. Now I just have to get rid of the smell of paint before my guest arrives (sigh). Mary (on Graemsay) suggested half an onion in a saucer – but I used the last onion for the Butternut Squash soup. Well if the weather warms up (pah!) then I might be able to open windows.

So to the weather…… well it’s snowing but not in an interesting way. It snows, settles for a few minutes then disappears. Though it was probably just as well that there wasn’t too much snow today as we had an island Community Association meeting.

The Community Association is the local island group that manages the Community Hall and organises island events etc, fund raisers for hall funds etc. Folk volunteer to go on the committee and then we all meet together to discuss things. We’ve just taken receipt of some new tables and chairs so tried those out today – chairs were very comfortable!

And I’ve managed to get through this entry without mentioning Chocolate Easter Eggs……..

Friday, 21 March 2008

Chuck A Sian Day!

I had to go to town today to meet a couple of appointments that I didn’t really want to have to rearrange. However, woke up this morning and there was a strong North Westerly wind blowing. Chilly, but worse – it’s not a good direction for the boat at the pier. So I decided to go to meet the boat and make up my mind whether to venture across to town or not.

As expected it was very windy at the pier but we had some shelter from a vehicle so could wait till the boat came alongside the pier – but being a North Westerly and a highish tide the boat couldn’t come into the pier steps but went round the other side – which means using the ladder…… only due to the tide that wasn’t possible either really. I was kind of havering about what to do, but the two young island lads were already being helped down onto the boat on their way to school and before I could say “Um…. maybe my journey is not really necessary” Neil and Mick took an arm each and with a glint in their eyes threw me towards the folk on the deck. Thankfully John from Hoy grabbed me in a great bear hug before I hit the deck. I’m not normally a “morning” person but that certainly woke me up – no need for a caffeine rush when I got to town!

Anyway after discussion with the crew it seemed that the return journey could be as interesting. Lunch time the tide will still be reasonably high so it was considered it might be possible to disembark from the upper deck of the boat, but coming home on the 4pm boat would mean a climb up a ladder. Hmmmm – well I could probably climb a few rungs but not sure how I would manage with two bags of “messages” (Scottish word for shopping). So decided to head home at lunchtime.

When I got to town I went straight to Argo’s Bakery and gathered a basketful of goodies which I then left to be boxed up and taken to the boat. That way I knew someone would load and unload my shopping so I only had to worry about myself!

Fortunately there were a few folk at the pier at lunch time because it was very rough again. But at least I was able to just jump across from the top deck to the pier, and again there were willing hands hanging onto me both sides. As long as one remembers to let go so I’m not stretched out between them I don’t mind! And my fellow passengers helped with my shopping bags etc.

It was incredibly windy at the pier, and being fairly light-weight I needed to hang onto a couple of other folk to avoid being blown away. Thankfully once I got back to the house it seemed to break the worst of the wind and I could gather my purchases and make it indoors without too much effort.

When I described my descent onto the boat to Irene today she declared it “Chuck a Sian Day”…… quite apt really!

To be fair – it sounds dramatic and did require a degree of agility but were the conditions considered really dangerous the ferry wouldn’t go, and had there been no one on the boat to catch me I would have stayed firmly in the vehicle on the pier – whatever Mick and Neil might have had in mind!

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Weather, daylight and walking

Well it seems Spring has retreated again! Today has been cold with blustery showers and a strong Northerly wind. I watched the Hamnavoe ferry come up Scapa Flow today which is the route it chooses when it’s particularly rough in the Pentland Firth. And tomorrow it seems Northlink have cancelled some sailings due to high tides and strong Northerly winds.

I am due to go over to town tomorrow as I have some appointments I need to keep. However I shall just see how it is at the pier in the morning, and it may be necessary to come home at lunch time if it looks like the weather will get worse throughout the day. We don’t have any ferry services this weekend so I don’t want to be stuck in town for the weekend.

Tomorrow is Good Friday but for some reason Orkney doesn’t really observe the day as a holiday. The banks may (or may not) be closed, but most businesses are operating as usual, shops open etc. However “Easter Monday” *is* a public holiday and most shops, businesses and all banks will be closed. The schools will have the day off too, but I don’t think the kids get their “Easter holiday” break for another couple of weeks.

At least the days are lengthening now. The clocks will go forward at the end of the month, but currently sunrise is at 06.13 and sunset at 18.27. In Orkney we begin March with about 30 mins less daylight per day than London in the South East of England and end the month with a whole 15 minutes per day MORE than London, and it gets better till mid-summer it hardly gets dark at all in Orkney. I just love the daylight in the evening. It often means I can potter about outdoors in the garden or go for a walk to get some fresh air.

At the moment most of my walking is done on the treadmill I acquired this winter. As it gets so windy in Orkney and the days are short I found I was not getting very much exercise – particularly now I work from home. I was beginning to feel like one of the characters in a Jane Austen novel – taking a turn around the conservatory to get some exercise. So the treadmill has been a good investment. If weather permits I like to go outdoors for exercise, but in bad weather or in the evening when it’s too dark to go outdoors (without falling over that is!) I like to “take a turn on the treadmill”! Unfortunately I have not persuaded Fitz that this is acceptable exercise for an obese cat……

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Community Council

Just found myself falling asleep in front of the TV – not a good sign at only 18.45! So have put dinner in the oven and am endeavouring to find some words to string together……..

Overtired due to late night and early morning I think! Yesterday evening I went along to a Community Council (CC) meeting. In Orkney each island or group of parishes has its own CC, with members being elected by the local community. The CC (think it’s similar to Parish Councils in England?) generally meets to discuss local issues and help find solutions or lobby other agencies to help find solutions. Each CC will also be given funds from various government agencies, for which various clubs and organisations can apply. Each CC is answerable to the local authority, and there is usually an “officer” from the local authority at each meeting, plus our local authority councillors. Graemsay has three Community Councillors (of which I’m one) and we are combined with three areas on the island of Hoy. We have meetings every few weeks, and last night was one of them.

The CC can make recommendations on certain issues, and it is a useful forum to discuss island matters such as the upkeep of roads, lack of water connections, proposed changes to medical facilities etc and pass on thoughts and feelings of the community to other agencies and representatives.

The meetings rotate around each area, and last night we were in North Walls – which is about the halfway point on Hoy in terms of habitation. As we don’t have evening boats the two of us from Graemsay had to stay overnight in a B&B. To my delight the folk at the B&B had just got two collie puppies, so I spent my time before the meeting playing with them. Unfortunately the doggies had been in the byre and I suspect I carried the whiff of something not very exotic to the meeting!

It also meant rising early to get the boat home this morning. Fortunately Irene and I forwent the pleasure of calling in at the local pub last night (Note – we did *not* go to the pub!!) as we knew we had an early start in the morning. However it was a beautiful if chilly morning and the sail round to Graemsay was very calm and beautiful.

But the peace was broken when I got home and was met at the door by a demanding Fitzi-cat who made his displeasure at being abandoned for one night well and truly felt…… he still hasn’t forgiven me and is stomping around and demanding food as if he hasn’t been fed for a week. Needless to say I left him plenty for his dinner AND breakfast – but he conveniently forgets that

Monday, 17 March 2008


My afternoon peace and quiet was shattered today by the noise of an approaching helicopter. I watched it hover over the field at the back of my house and eventually land by the lighthouse. It would seem some work is to be done to the lighthouse – the helicopter also transferred several boxes which had been delivered to the pier earlier by the Graemsay ferry. Don’t know if the work is rewiring of the lighthouse or maybe some work to the generator shed – we shall have to wait and see.

There are two lighthouse on Graemsay, one tall one “Hoy High” and one short one “Hoy Low”. Not sure why they weren’t called “Graemsay High” and “Low”! Except that the stretch of water they guard is called the Hoy Sound.

The lighthouse has been fully automated for many years, with a back-up generator if power should fail. The Northern Lighthouse Board send over engineers and contractors to paint the lighthouse at regular intervals.

Tommy used to live at the lighthouse and there are many tales of him painting both of them and the surrounding walls every few years. Nowadays there are several men dispatched to complete the task with lots of “health and safety” equipment, pulleys, ropes etc. From what I can gather Tommy used to just dangle from a rope and pulley to paint most of the tower and the walls.

The lighthouses are actually “leading lights” and were designed to guide the herring fleet into Hoy Sound and the shelter of Stromness Harbour back in the late 1800s. Nowadays with even small boats using GPS their usefulness is reduced, but they are still kept in tip top order.

The light beam doesn’t sweep across the sea in what I consider the “traditional” manner of lighthouses, but both Hoy High and Low give out a sequence of flashes. Neither of them have a “fog horn” either – a fact I checked when I first visited the house! Actually I really love looking out of my windows at night and seeing the light flashing – along with a selection of beacons and buoys heading into Scapa Flow.

I’ve never been to the top of Hoy High – the lighthouses aren’t open to the public – and anyway I don’t think I have enough puff to get to the top! I have however seen quite a few photos of my house taken from the top of the lighthouse over the years. I recently acquired one from a member of the family that used to live in the house many years ago and had found it in the Shetland Museum. The photo is of the house taken in 1912 when it had just been remodelled with it’s original design of two flats (apartments) being turned into one dwelling house. I just love hearing about the past of my home!

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Films, baking and seeds

Friday night I was over in Stromness as we had our monthly film night showing “Once” an Irish film which is an unconventional musical and love story. I’ll not say much more or it will spoil it! It’s a lovely gentle story (with some bad language so be warned) and I really warmed to the central characters.

We had a reasonable turnout, just 15 folk this time but they all seemed to enjoy the evening, and as long as we cover our costs the main aim is to have FUN and watch some interesting films.

Yesterday was a lovely Spring day, a bit chilly and some rain showers but beautiful sunshine most of the day. I went for a walk along the shore on the West Mainland of Orkney with L. and her two wee Shetland collies. We walked to a well known local spot “the fishermen’s huts” which are wooden huts that used to be used by local fishermen to keep equipment, creels for lobsters etc. You can still see the marks in the ground called boat “nousts” – where the boats would be hauled out of the water above the high water mark. The nousts were dug into the ground so they provided some protection for the boats which would mainly have been small boats rowing or sail boats.

I also had a chance to do some shopping in town and bring home more supplies for the bread maker and for CAKE. Today I’ve tried a recipe suggested by a friend, adding seeds to a mixture of strong white and wholemeal flour. I’ll let you know how I get on D!

I’ve also made a date and raisin cake – it’s the first time I’ve tried that particular recipe and it was delicious (Yes I’ve hade TWO slices already). I also made my regular “farmhouse cake” – which is made using mixed fruit, but the mixture is first heated up on the hob, then add flour and eggs and bake in the oven.

Today I’ve also been settling some seeds into small seed trays. Mainly Calandula, nasturtiums and some welsh poppies. Last year I did OK with the seeds but the hens murdered them once they were put into the ground. So this year I am sowing the seeds earlier and hoping I can pot them on and grow them to a decent size before planting outside. The plants that go into tubs and planters are OK as the hens leave them alone, but if they go straight into the ground the young tender plants don’t stand a chance!

I’ve been out to inspect the garden this morning and the rosa rugosa have lots of young green shoots on. The young willow trees are already showing lovely downy grey buds. It definitely feels like Spring has sprung!

In the South of England where I used to live the fields are apparently filled with young lambs. However in Orkney lambing doesn’t usually start till about April as the climate is harsher here. It’s the same with the calves – although I think some folk aim to start calving towards the end of March. So I’m looking forward to next month when the fields will again be filled with young lambs and calves!

Mmmmm can spell the CAKE – time for another slice I think.

Friday, 14 March 2008

St Kilda II

Several folk have been asking why people chose to live on St Kilda. Donald, the speaker at our talk, didn’t actually specify that. Although he did say there was evidence of people living on St Kilda from Neolithic times (remains of an old fort on the headland for example).

But I suppose the same question could be asked of many parts of the world. Historical evidence suggests that life in any of the highlands and islands was pretty hard before the 20th century.

On Graemsay during the 1800s up to 200 people lived on the island – which is only about 1.5 x 2 miles in size! Most, if not all, would have been tenant crofters, living in “butt and ben” cottages with a few acres for livestock. Though at least Graemsay appears more fertile than St Kilda, plus we have the possibility of fishing around the island and access to the Orkney mainland for supplies. It would seem on St Kilda that vegetable crops were grown on an almost vertical slope that had very thin soil. And young kids aged about 8 years old would be sent to scramble over rocks and ridges to collect vegetables for dinner.

On St Kilda all the habitation was in one street in Village Bay. Again all the folk were tenants, the laird owning the island, land, houses etc. Most of the islanders lived in tiny one or two roomed houses, with a larger house for the Church Minister, a small shop (or shed) which also served as the post office.

The men would meet daily outside the houses to share out the days tasks. It would always be known where everyone was working during the day – which cliff face, or rock. So if someone failed to return at the end of the working day the rescuers knew immediately where to search.

It was always the men that went off to catch the birds, gather the eggs etc. The women-folk stayed at home, spun, knitted and looked after the houses, prepared the food etc. Not that there would have been much choice of ingredients for meals. Apart from the vegetables grown, they lived off the sea birds, eggs and sometimes meat from the livestock.

There were no medical facilities on St Kilda of course. Sadly at one time four out of five babies died in their first year usually from tetanus. Sometime in the late 1800s the Minister went and got some training from a Scottish Teaching Hospital and came back to the island to teach basic hygiene to folk, particularly for mothers giving birth. The mortality rate dropped sharply after that.

Boats would visit intermittently, but the islanders would have little communication with the outside world until the very late 1800s when the telegraph would have been introduced. When a Norwegian boat was shipwrecked and the survivors rescued by the islanders, they put a message in a bottle to send off for help!! Some months later a boat was sent to take the men off the island. The island folk willingly took in the sailors but of course rations were small for themselves, let alone sharing with the sailors.

Sitting in my nice cosy warm house it’s hard to imagine such a lifestyle. Once can only admire the tenacity of the people clinging to that rock in the rough Atlantic seas!!

Here’s a link to more information on St Kilda Remember all the photos are posed with the people being paid to pose. And notice many of them have bare feet – probably better for gripping the rocks than shoes!

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

St Kilda

Yesterday was a busy day. I had visitors with me all day and then in the evening I collected a chap from the boat, Donald, who was going to be giving a talk on Graemsay about the history of St Kilda (another Scottish island!). So after I had provided him with dinner we went up to the hall and met the rest of the folk on the island over a glass of wine and then Donald kept us all enthralled for a couple of hours about life on St Kilda.

For those who aren’t sure where St Kilda is – it’s 40 miles to the West of the Scottish Mainland. Miles from any other inhabited island or land. The last inhabitants left St Kilda in the 1930’s when life became unsustainable. How on earth folk lived there for so many years is beyond me. They were really just eking out an existence. Mainly they survived by living off the fulmar sea birds and puffins, collecting the eggs, and catching the birds. But egg collecting was seasonal, so they would clamber over cliffs (literally) and collect eggs which would have to last them months – so they got used to the taste of rotten eggs! They also collected oil from the fulmars, and the feathers were paid as rent to the Laird. The island is all cliff-bound, with only a small bay where the village grew up on one side. But hauling boats in and out of the water was heavy work and as the waters are rough and treacherous there was no fishing industry on the island. The islanders did keep sheep, mainly a type of Soay sheep which is quite primitive and not like modern day flocks.

Two stories that stuck in my mind are of the islanders making Fulmar slippers (no you really don’t want to know…..) and one story of a group of islanders being taken over to a rock to catch fulmars for a couple of days. However no boat came to collect them when expected and they ended up living precariously on this rock for NINE months until a boat came for them. The tragedy was that they left St Kilda where over 200 souls were living, but a smallpox outbreak wiped out most of the population within weeks and no one could go and collect the men on the rock. Eventually help arrived after nine months and the men returned to St Kilda where only 30 people remained living – a handful of adults and many orphan children. One can’t even begin to imagine how those men survived on the inhospitable rock for so long and then their joy at being rescued turning to grief on their return to St Kilda.

We were also shown a number of photographs of the local folk taken during the late 1800s early 1900s, but these were all artificially posed. The folk would have been paid to pose and there were tell tale signs that they weren’t just photos of “everyday” life. For example a woman sitting outside a croft with a spinning wheel. She is huddled in a cape and hat, with her hands buried in the folds of her shawl to keep warm, and the likelihood is the wool would have blown away anyway! But as there was little natural light in the houses it was easier to take photos outside.

Donald seemed to have studied St Kilda with a passion and could put names to many of the people in the photos. It really was a fascinating evening and thoroughly enjoyed by all I think. It’s certainly sparked my interest and I now want to learn more about the people that lived there.

Donald hadn’t visited Graemsay before and he seemed to enjoy his short visit. We had a good turn out with about 90% of the population coming along to hear the talk, and the remaining 10% being absent largely because they were off the island. So I think he was pleased with the reception he got!

Monday, 10 March 2008


Thankfully the storms that have battered England and Wales seem to have missed Orkney for once. It’s been raining and a bit of a breeze blowing today, but nothing out of the ordinary.

Yesterday was actually a beautiful day, bright and sunny much of the time. I made the most of the pleasant weather and was pottering around outdoors. The ground is too wet and waterlogged from weeks of rain to work with it at the moment though. But I’m pleased to see that the trees and shrubs I planted as twigs last year already have buds ready to burst open.

The house has a large garden that hasn’t been cultivated for probably about 50 years! I would love to do something with it, but it will need machinery to dig up and level off parts of it. And as it’s 100 ft x 100 ft it will take some looking after. So for the time being I just leave it to field grass, some rhubarb plants and a couple of elder trees. In the Spring it becomes an emergency lambing pen as the 5ft high stone dyke (wall) running around it gives protection to the ewes and their vulnerable lambs. The sheep belong to a neighbour – I just have the pleasure of looking at them, and the occasional task of checking they are the correct way up!

But I miss not working with the earth – although I can’t do much in the way of heavy gardening I just love pottering with plants! So last year I cleared a large border at the back of the house and have planted some shrubs there. It took quite a bit of clearing as again it hadn’t been worked in years. But by the end of the summer I got the border more or less level. When I started digging along by the dyke I found a submerged path a few inches under the soil. Or rather a succession of paths one under the other, made up of cinders, stone, and sand, layer upon layer. It took a while to dig up the stones and these are destined to make a base for the garden bench. There are also some huge flagstones several inches think which are leaning against the wall at the moment. One day if I can persuade someone to lay them they will make a lovely path! The local sandstone is a lovely warm reddish colour.

At the front of the house I planted some willow trees as these grow well in Orkney. A friend, J. gave me cuttings from her willows – just bits of twigs. J is a professional tree expert – though I did wonder at her advice to just use a hammer to bang the twigs in! When a neighbour saw what I was doing he said I had more chance of getting a fence post to take root than those twigs. The photo at the top shows that the trees and I proved him wrong! I was absolutely amazed that in the first year most of them took root and grew leaves and quite long branches!

I also have some Spring bulbs planted – mainly dwarf daffodils and some snow drops, crocus and bluebells. The dwarf varieties seem to do quite well as they aren’t so “leggy” and get less battered by the wind. I also love to grow seeds in trays indoors in the conservatory. They need to be given a good start before being planted out as the hens will just scratch up any bit of earth that has been dug. I am usually surrounded by beady eyes when digging – and much grateful clucking as I throw the hens some worms. Now if the weather would just dry up a bit I can get out there and get on with this year’s plans!

Saturday, 8 March 2008

Grrrr - technology!

Well I am well and truly grumpy now as I have just spent two hours sorting out what should have been a simple IT problem. Some program files got corrupted and I’d been meaning to upgrade that program for a while so went online and did just that, but then it took forever to install as first I had to uninstall the previous program (it told me I had to….), then it would get halfway through its installation and say X is marked for deletion please restart windows, so I would then have to wait ages while it ran through the start up process and everything (well ok slight exaggeration but you know what it’s like watching a kettle boil – well double it for computers) and it would go on for a while (a long while) then ask me to delete file Y…... This went on for some time. In fact it took so long that I made up a cake mixture and it is halfway through baking in the oven before my computer Idris III felt he was ready to co-operate.

I named my computer Idris after a Welsh dragon (my family are from the Welsh Valleys). Dragons symbolise transformation which seemed appropriate for my computer as it can transform zeros and ones into the most beautiful images, and can equally transform my most precious data into ash……… Hopefully Idris will slumber quietly for a while after his afternoon exertions and not cause me any more grief today.

So my initial cheerful mood today after a brisk walk in the sunshine has deteriorated into grumpiness and I shall absent myself from any more words and go and veg out in front of the TV watching a murder mystery. That should take my mind of computers for a while!!

Friday, 7 March 2008

New Car

Today has been a non-work day, so I took myself off to Stromness to do some shopping, and pick up my new island car. A friend was getting rid of her old car which is now very rusty but runs well. So I have given it a new home. You can see it being loaded onto the ferry in today’s picture. It’s a little ladybird bug of a car. Though of course the crew decided it was a “Noddy” car and will no doubt keep asking after Big Ears…… My friend drove the car to the pier – I had never driven it, but it was a regular car – how hard could it be. Well of course much embarrassment as once the car was unloaded onto the Graemsay pier I couldn’t turn the ignition key. I swear the boys on the boat did something to it, because yes, I had to get out of the car and let “one of the men” sort it out. Much laughter and joshing about women drivers etc. Sometimes folk can be *so* predictable :-) And of course the island folk waiting at the boat had to peer underneath the car as it was lifted off and mutter things about the exhaust and rust etc. Anyway my little ladybird bug is now park proudly outside the house.

So not feeling like settling down to work this afternoon I decided to do some more “creating” in the kitchen. I generally only feel inclined to cook on days off, and so my bread supply was running low as I haven’t used the bread-maker for a few days. Today’s loaf is warming up nicely as I type – I’m trying a new recipe for raison bread. Quite a sweet bread which I’m hoping will be very nice for tea breaks and toasted. Earlier this week a friend also gave me a recipe for some “seedy” bread so I shall try that this weekend too.

And I decided more soup was called for as apparently there is a large storm approaching the UK this weekend and when that happens I always reach for soup – and it can easily be taken out of the freezer and heated up for a quick snack too. So today’s recipe was for “Sweet Potato and Orange Soup” – I’ve uploaded the recipe below. I found it on the web – it seems to be on a “gluten free recipe” site – I don’t have any dietary requirements of that nature but it sounded yummy enough to attempt. Oooh it was delicious though I say so myself. And I think I preferred it to the earlier Sweet potato soup I made with the coconut milk. This recipe is not as thick, and has a lovely mixture of tastes.

I like to have music playing while I cook and today I selected Michael Buble – I just love his voice, it is really smooth - like chocolate. However I probably contravened several health and safety in the kitchen rules trying to chop veggies for the soup wielding a sharp knife while dancing around to “Fever”. The cat wisely evacuates the kitchen when I’m cooking. So I can at least truly state that “no animals were harmed during the making of this soup”…….!

Sweet Potato and Orange Soup

(from “easy-gluten-free recipes”)

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
450g sweet potato, peeled and grated
2 celery sticks, finely chopped
850ml vegetable or chicken stock
2 springs fresh thyme
Grated zest and juice of 1 orange
1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped

Note: you can just roughly chop vegetables and blend with a hand blender once cooked

Saute onions in a large pan, in the olive oil, for a minute or until tender but not browned. Add sweet potatoes, celery, stock, thyme and orange zest. Bring to boil and gently simmer for 10 minutes. Remove sprigs of thyme. Add the orange juice and parsley and season to taste.

Mmmm I thought it was delicious!

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Ahhh the silence.....

Ahhh the silence… the wind has died down again for a wee while at least. It has been persistently raining all day it has to be said, but everything is relative and the departure of the wind is a great improvement. The hens were delighted to see me this morning and came running to greet me. I think this had more to do with a large pot of spaghetti and rice that I had prepared for them, rather than my engaging personality….. However the hay bales they were using as a nest have disappeared as fodder for some young cattle stock so I shall have to begin the hunt for eggs again. Hmmm wonder if I could microchip the hens and get some sort of tracker device set up…….

I must go out for a walk along the shore tomorrow and see if there has been any more coastal erosion. Last weekend I noticed I had lost some large tufts of earth around the perimeter of the field behind my house. In Scotland you own land down to the low water mark on the sea shore – so technically I still own the bits of turf that are now sitting upon my beach – but they won’t be much use for anything.

Last week I was sent an old photo of the house taken in 1912 and one of the really interesting aspects of it is how much land there is between the road and the shore at that time. Most of that has now eroded. Even in the time I have lived here I have noticed that some of the stone from the old derelict buildings on the edge of my land have been sliding down onto the shore after each storm. Hopefully the house will be safe for another hundred years or more! I’m not so sure about our public road though. There was talk of rerouting it across the top of the hill to give access to the pier. Currently it runs past my front door – which is very handy if my car won’t start and I need a lift to the pier as I can flag down a passing motorist. Well I know we don’t have many of those, but when the boat is due there is usually at least one or two cars heading to the pier or back again.

To be honest I only live about 0.5 miles from the pier so ought to walk more but cars act as umbrellas, provide shelter from the wind and are useful as a shopping trolley!

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Missed yesterday’s blog entry as I was over in town shopping and enjoying myself. Then when I came home I felt inspired to make some soup with my purchases, having found a new recipe and it was only as I switched off my computer at night that I realised I hadn’t posted anything here.

Well the shopping trip was successful. I went to one of my favourite shops in town, the Scarth Centre, which sells everything from baking tins to paint to DIY tools to rat poison! I love the shop because I can walk through the door bearing some obscure widget and ask a nice assistant for a similar one but 1/8th of an inch bigger and I get the usual Orkney response “No bother at all” and am led to an assortment of widgets whereupon the shop assistant hands me exactly what I need. Oooh if only all my shopping needs could be met so easily! And as well as a “widget” I came away from the shop carrying baking tins and a saucepan……. And for the record I didn’t buy any rat poison either so folk are safe to eat at my house!

As I said I also tried out a new soup recipe – it was lentil, apricot and herb soup. Mmm sounds nice? Well it had garlic in it – and it wasn’t…. Might try it again without the garlic this time.

Anyway after gathering up all my purchases I then met friends for a lovely lazy lunch and chat about books, and Paris and life. We sat overlooking Scapa Flow which was bathed in sunshine that gave a deceptive appearance of Spring, when in fact temperatures were so cold it fair took one’s breath away.

But today I was awoken by the gales battering the windows again. In fact it has been so gusty (gusting over 60mph) that I haven’t ventured out to feed the hens. I do feel so guilty about it, but I know they have food and water in their “hopper”, and they have a fairly risk-free walk to a byre where they can rootle in straw and dirt and find grubs. But I hate not going to see them each morning. The forecast is for the wind to drop a bit overnight so will endeavour to visit them with extra treats tomorrow. I’ll boil up some sphaghetti, they love that – they think it’s worms!

Monday, 3 March 2008

More weather on the way

Weather seems to figure large in my life at the moment. We’ve been having heavy sleety showers today but at least the high winds have dropped. I’m off to town tomorrow to shop and meet up with friends so I hope the wind doesn’t get up. I usually try and adjust my shopping list dependent on weather. It’s not a good idea to try and walk off the boat with a large bag of 12 kitchen rolls in a high wind else there is danger of them getting blown back to Stromness! Although there is often at least one pair of helping hands as I get off the boat.

And at least it is daylight now when I get home at 4.15 pm. In mid-winter it is usually dark by about 3.30 pm. When I used to commute I would get off the ferry at 6pm, often the only passenger at that time, and have to trudge up a well lit pier to the darkness where my car was parked. Sometimes it felt like the Dark Night of the Soul! However in really bad weather the skipper would phone a neighbour to come down and catch the ropes – and me! And sometimes someone would put my island car at the pier steps so I didn’t have to walk up the pier.

I am actually getting used to winters in Orkney now. I don’t like winter anywhere – even when I lived on the outskirts of London I wanted to hibernate from about October through to end of March. Orkney is no different.

The first year I live on Graemsay I stayed in a caravan while the house renovations began. Winters are fairly mild in Orkney, it is unusual for temperatures to drop below freezing for extended periods of time. Although the water pipes and calor gas did freeze up for several days at a time, I could still keep the caravan fairly warm and snug.

The worst time was during the gales. Neighbours would offer me a bed for the night if I got too scared. I only baled out on one night and arrived at midnight at the house of some friends – complete with cat under one arm. They were rather surprised to see me with the cat – well I couldn’t leave poor Fitzi in the caravan alone. He’s a pampered London house cat and was as scared as I was with the buffeting of the caravan by the wind.

Many windy nights it was just too noisy to hear the radio or TV and the cat and I would just hide under the duvet. I knew the wind was really bad once things started falling off the shelves. But by that time it was safer staying *in* the caravan than trying to get into the car and drive up the island, what with debris flying around etc.

By the January I’d had enough and moved over to the island of Hoy where I stayed in a nice warm house till the summer!

Now whenever the wind blows I think back to that time and am grateful I live in a solid stone house with a good roof!

Sunday, 2 March 2008

A calm day at last!

Finally the wind has dropped! I have just been out for a refreshing walk along the shore. I think I was beginning to get “cabin fever” from not being able to go outdoors.

It seems it was quite a storm on Friday night, with winds from the North. Fortunately there doesn’t seem to be any damage reported on the island or to my house. BUT my telephone seems to no longer be working. Thankfully broadband seems OK today. It may be sometime before I get the phone working as the telephone engineers have to schedule in a half-day visit to the island for a job that may only take minutes – so I doubt I will be a high priority! At least the phone company have diverted my phone calls free of charge to my mobile, and I can use Skype (internet phone) for outgoing calls as long as the broadband service holds up.

I’ve been able to catch up on jobs that are impossible when it’s windy, such as putting the rubbish out in the shed, and filling the car with petrol. On Graemsay we have no petrol pumps so each household has fuel brought over in “gerry cans”. Petrol in Orkney is the most expensive in the UK, and Graemsay beats that too as we have to pay for delivery of the petrol, and pay for an account at the local garage. And one has to remember which day the empty cans get sent over to Stromness to be filled and returned the next day as obviously there are strict controls for health and safety reasons. Other Orkney islands have Ro-Ro ferries and can take cars back and forth to the mainland and can either fill up with petrol there or some islands have fuel pumps in the island village, however on Graemsay “filling up with petrol” is not so easy. Also I cannot lift the full gerry cans, so I have to get someone to decant the petrol into smaller cans that I can then use to fill the car or lawnmower. None of which can be done on a windy day!!

I keep an “island car” on Graemsay – we don’t need to have MOTs (certificates of roadworthiness) on the island so it is usually quite an elderly car. But I also keep a car on the Orkney Mainland as I like the convenience of being able to drive wherever I want to go, and it’s useful as a shopping trolley too!

It’s a similar story with fuel for heating systems such as kerosene. The large tankers come through from Kirkwall and fill a small 1000 litre tank on the pier in Stromness, then it is shipped over on a certain day when no other fuel is being transported, and lifted onto the back of a trailer. A neighbour then brings it up to the house and it is pumped into m own oil tank at the back of the house. It means I need to keep a careful check on the fuel when it is getting low as there are only certain days the fuel can be delivered, and there are only two 1000 fuel tanks, so if other neighbours are having fuel deliveries (including diesel for tractors etc) then I might have to wait another week. However so far it’s all worked out OK.

Saturday, 1 March 2008

Curried sweet potato soup

As requested (!) here's the recipe.... (hoping broadband holds out for a minute)

Curried Sweet potato soup

1kg sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
1 onion, peeled and chopped
Two dessert spoons of curry paste ( I only used a little and I've seen recipes that only say 1 or 1.5 TEASPOONS of curry paste so I'll leave you to judge!)
1 litre vegetable stock
Can coconut milk
Olive oil

Sweat onion in oil, add paste and cook for few minutes, add sweet potato and stock. Bring to boil and simmer for 20 minutes or until potato is soft. Add coconut milk. Whizz with blender till smooth.

I served it with croutons made from toasted herby bread.

Found on a website but can't find the credit - sorry whoever invented it!

Storm damage to phones

Intermittent phone and broadband access due to storm damage. I may not get on line properly for a few days (have to wait for phone engineer to come out on a boat.....)