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Friday 31 July 2009

Orkney archaeology

I forget who it was who said "Scratch the surface of Orkney and it bleeds archaeology" but it certainly seems to be true. Orkney, due to remoteness, escaped the worst excesses of the industrial age and the land is largely undisturbed. So not only have wonderful Neolithic sites (neolithic period from about 4000 to 1800BC) such as Skara Brae (photo above) been discovered, but other sites are still being explored and interpreted with several "digs" being conducted in Orkney this summer.

One of these digs has a daily blog written by those working at the site of the Ness of Brodgar, which is quite close to the Ring of Brodgar (a circle of standing stones, photo above). They are finding interesting bits of pottery and linking together the history of this site with others on Orkney. The dig goes on through August and I'm hoping to get along to one of the tours given by the team. I'll post some photos when I do!

Thursday 30 July 2009

Happy Valley....

..... the one in Orkney, that is. I love visiting Happy Valley at any time of the year. It's a garden just outside Stenness which was created by Edwin Harold from a bare hillside from the late 1940s until the 1990s when he became too old to maintain it. Sadly Edwin died in 2005, but the land has been taken over by the local council and is maintained by a group of volunteers called "The Friends of Happy Valley". Lots of new trees have been planted in a new part of the garden, and new saplings are growing where old trees have died. This isn't a garden in the formal sense of the word, but woodland with unusual trees and plants around - the only turkey oak in Orkney for example.

And a monkey puzzle tree! The bark looks so exotic!

I love the garden, there is a stream running through it and tree lined paths. It feels like the woodlands I used to walk through as a child, or ride through with Badger. Edwin built stone waterfalls, arches and bridgeways during his time there. The old stone house is in sad repair now, with the trees and roses hugging it closely, giving it protection, as if they hope Edwin may come back.

I visited the garden with friends on Saturday and we spent a couple of hours just sitting in the sun on the grass outside the old house, listening the the stream burbling in the background, the trees occasionally moving in a light breeze, birds chattering, and the most amazingly loud hum of thousands of insects (seemingly friendly non-bitey creatures). It was magical.

There are trees on Orkney - when I first visited it was the absence of trees that struck me. But now I see there are lots of trees and shrubs around, however woodland is scarce, so Happy Valley is a real treat, hidden away with no ostentatious sign post to direct hoards of visitors. A quiet reflective place full of beauty.

Pink Purslane

And hypericum

Er - a large yellow flower .....

Wednesday 29 July 2009

Brough o' Birsay

Saturday was a lovely day and I spent it out on the West Mainland (of Orkney). These photos are around the Brough of Birsay ("brough" is pronounced like "brock" - well that's how I pronounce it but I have an English accent - I suspect it's a softer "broch" in Orcadian). When the tide is low there is a causeway to the Brough and you can walk up to the lighthouse or visit the ruins of Pict and Norse settlements near the shore. But usually we just walk along the main shoreline to the "Fisherman's Hut". This is an old hut with traditional turf roof which would have been used to store creels and equipment for the various fishing boats that would have been kept on the shore in the "nousts" (indentations in the ground), safe from high tide and sheltered from the wind.

Somebody had been building a cairn out of beach stone in one of the inlets along the shore

And in this photo you can see the island of Westray in the background, just behind a fishing vessel that was anchored offshore.

Tuesday 28 July 2009

Provender from the garden......

The first of the "early" carrots from the veggie plot! OK I am pathetically pleased with my first attempts at growing veggies! But oooh the flavours are wonderful. The carrots won't make it to the pot but will be eaten raw so I can fully appreciate the lovely flavour of fresh carrots. And I have to confess I've actually been munching on lettuce leaves for a while now, but this was the first lettuce with a "heart" (no not a candidate for character from the Wizard of Oz....)

The peas are podding up nicely but nothing ready to pick yet. The broad beans are beginning to pod too. The tatties are doing OK - checking daily for warning signs of blight. Onions growing well. Courgettes are settling in but no sign of flowers yet, though I did plant them rather late. Strawberries - few this year as they are new plants, and I have to confess just pick them individually and eat them as they are ripe.

And the sweet peas are divine......... their beauty and perfume food for the spirit! Shown here in a pottery vase from Westray.

Monday 27 July 2009


These young swallows have clearly fledged but aren't yet self sufficient. They've been sitting on the conservatory roof beneath my study several days in a row, waiting for their parents to bring food. You can still see the young birds "gape" mouth. Bless..... I wish them well on their journey this year.......

I took the pictures through the window (and yes it needs cleaning....) so the photos are a bit hazy but didn't want to open the window and scare them off!

There is still a swallow sitting on a nest in the old barn, not sure if she has chicks yet - I hope so as I would have thought it was getting a bit late for hatchlings if they have to fly south in September?

I've seen a hen harrier around again - though not close enough to get any photos. And the other weekend (when, of course I had no camera with me) there were two Basking Sharks in Burra Sound - the ferry stopped for a few minutes to let them get clear. They are huge animals but beautiful. It feels a real privilege to see them on my own "doorstep" so to speak.

Sunday 26 July 2009

Shopping Week in Stromness.....

This week the weather has been glorious for "shopping week" - a gala week in Stromness, with various events and parades taking place. I think it's called "Shopping Week" as it is organised by local traders to encourage trade in the town, as well as being a local gala. It's now in it's 61st year. But of course in the UK anything "outdoors" is at the mercy of the weather, and last year there was rain and fog. However for most of this week the weather was dry, bright and sunny. Yesterday (Saturday) was the best day of all - very warm (tee shirt weather - no really, even for "softie southerners" like myself.....), brilliant sunshine and the colours of the sky and sea were beautiful (see above, looking from Stromness, across the Holms to Graemsay, with the Hoy Hills in the bacground).

I usually avoid the town during shopping week - parking can be an issue and it's not possible to get a car to the boat as the road is closed for the side-shows etc. However I was in town yesterday morning and bought some raffle tickets, plants and chocolate from the various stalls. I even found a Fireman selling chocolate....... a Fireman with chocolate, now what more could a girl ask...... ;-)

There was street entertainment too - Pirates seem to have arrived in town with a bit of swash-buckling and - er - juggling........ Sadly no Johnny Depp..... sorry, another fantasy.......

I spent the day out in the "country" with friends and will post some pictures during the week. I came back home on the early evening ferry - as I'd been over all day I decided to miss the street party that takes place in the town on the last night of Shopping Week, along with a parade of floats through the street to the Market Green. Though there is a special "late boat" at 11pm back to the island for those who want to participate. I have been before and the street is always packed with folk having a merry time - in every sense of the word! (And amazingly the debris from the street party is cleared away by council road cleaners by about 7am!)

I did however stand outside the house and watch the firework display. The sky was still light from the setting sun, but it was a lovely display, with lots of colour.

Today it's breezy and rainy....... gearing up for the parish agricultural shows, culminating in the County Show on 8th August. I do hope the weather clears up for all the folk who put such effort into the shows!

Sunday 19 July 2009

Westray visit

(Picture: Pierowall village, Westray) A few das ago I spent a couple of days on one of the more Northerly of the Orkney islands - Westray and have only just got round to writing about it! I had visited the island some years ago with a friend from South so had done all the usual tourist sites etc. So this visit was very relaxing as I didn't feel the need to try and visit everything or walk everywhere. Instead my time was filled with pottering around galleries, walking along deserted shores, eating fish and chips, and of course, a plentiful supply of tea and cake and chatting to local folk! I did visit the ruin of Notland Castle, and had several walks along desserted sandy beaches!

Notland Castle (ruin)

I can't do justice to the island with this blog or my photos so I do encourage you to go to the Westray web link and take a look at the short video which provides some panoramic views and fascinating insights into the artists on the craft trail. The commentary is provided by a local Orcadian so you will get a feel for the cadences of the Orcadian accent - quite different from a Scottish accent. As I've said before - Orkney became part of Scotland a mere 400 years ago, being payment for a debt of a Norwegian King, so although we are 12 miles from Mainland Scotland many of the links and traditions of the Orkney islands are Norwegian.

Papa Westray (known locally as Papay) is a small island off Westray and visitors can experience the shortest flight in the world (and get a certificate to prove it!) by flying from Westray to Papay on the little 8 seater plane that provides a vital link between the islands and the Orkney mainland. I didn't visit Papay this time but it is a small island with about 60 folk on, so much smaller than Westray which has about 600 inhabitants.

Puffins can be seen in several locations on Westray, though I didn't see any on this visit. Primula Scotica are also blooming on the island, a rare plant and it must be a delight to the island to have a colony of their own.

I also met Malc, a fellow blogger, who keeps pigs on his croft. We spent a pleasant evening at the bar in Cleaton House discussing similarities and differences of our islands over a plentiful supply of liquid refreshment.

Westray countryside

The Pierowall Hotel has wonderful fish and chips - I sampled several varieties..... and I had to make a daily visit to the Wheeling-steen Gallery for the homebakes as well as being able to sit and admire the art of the local farmer, Edwin Rendall, who as well as farming also draws, paints, takes photos, makes all the frames for his art AND runs the gallery and cafe. Another wee gem was the Westray Pottery where we could see Martin throwing his pots and hear about his ideas for future glazes etc.

On my way home trip the Westray Ro-Ro ferry was busy with trucks returning to Kirkwall - including a consignment of scrap cars!

Westray Ferry

There will be an influx of Graemsay folk to Westray early in August as Kevin, a Graemsay lad, is marrying a Westray lass, so a large party is in order.

Sunday 12 July 2009

Running to catch up....

I think most bloggers find that summer is so busy it's hard to find time to blog (though there are a few notable exceptions!!). Last weekend the broadband connection to the island, and other parts of Orkney, failed due to a lightening strike somewhere near Thurso on the Scottish Mainland. However trying to persuade the very nice lady at the BT call centre somewhere in Asia that I knew for a fact it wasn't my own line, modem or whatever but that I lived on a small island off the coast of mainland Scotland and that we had a microwave link, that all my neighbours, whatever their ISP, were experiencing the same problems, took 45 minutes and a lot of patience on my part...... Anyway, eventually Sunday evening the connection was restored.

Then this week I took a trip to Westray, one of the more northerly of the Orkney islands, as a friend had rented a cottage there for the week. I had a jolly nice time and I'll share more of that and some photos later in the week.

I returned to find my garden continuing it's metamorphosis, having been levelled. I'm off to town this week to get the grass seed!! A 5ft border around the edge will be left and the centre will be grassed over. Not very adventurous I know, it's a traditional linear design, but most importantly, will be reasonably low maintenance. As the garden develops I may make incursions into the central grass but for now it's easy steps!

So it went from this:

to this (with the aid of various bits of machinery and a lot of effort by my neighbour, Arthur):

I phoned Shearer's in Kirkwall to ask about collecting some grass seed. The very helpful chap asked what sort I wanted as they did a variety of seed. I replied "The sort that doesn't grow above two inches during the summer"......... Don't think they'll have that kind in stock though...... sigh.......

Oh - and yes I still have the veggie patch. I found a tiny pea pod among the folage yesterday - the first of the peas!!

Friday 3 July 2009

Did you miss me?

OK that's a rhetorical question! I've just returned from a quick work-related visit to London. The temperature there was 31 degrees C (that's around 90 degrees F) and on any scale that was way too hot for me!!

I was delighted to return to a WARM Orkney though, with sunshine and blue skies. Today it's been 23C (74F) in my study with windows open and on the side of the house away from the sunshine! Must be some sort of record for Orkney. However there has been a slight breeze so it's been glorious outdoors.

I came back in time to see my field being cut for winter silage. For the first time in ages (due to long grass) I've walked down to the shore through the field and saw these guys sunbathing.

Tonight the Oystercatchers, Starlings, Curlews and regular gulls are scratching about among the stubble, rootling for insects and worms. The swallows are swooping across the field too, and I discovered a swallow has nested in the barn. I saw her while I was rummaging for two of my hens which have disappeard and I suspect have gone broody. The other two hens are hiding their eggs too so I am grumpy to be without fresh eggs seeing as I seem to be feeding FOUR hens! (Well two of them probably aren't eating much due to sitting on a nest, which worries me as nothing will hatch as I despatched the cockerals some time ago).

Note: Broadband on the island seems v-e-r-y slow since a thunderstorm yesterday, so if it goes quiet again for a day or two it may be due to technical problems - sigh.