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Monday 29 March 2010

March weather....

Snow last night, sun and rain showers this morning. All these photos were taken within a few minutes of each other. Blue sky in the South with snow on the Hoy Hills, rain clouds in the North with a faint rainbow over Stromness.

Willow Buds

Spring Flowers

Button sunbathing!

Sunday 28 March 2010

Hens with the new cockerel

A successful transfer took place last weekend (after much racing around - by other people, not me!) and George is now in his new home and behaving himself. He has a larger flock of hens and couple of other cockerels to keep him in his place and so far he hasn't had time to be aggressive to any humans.

Meanwhile his replacement is a very shy chap. The hens seemed to take to him very well, however this morning I found him in the barn with the bull while the hens were in the henny hoose with the Young Pretender (a young bird that was thought to be a hen, but isn't!). So not sure what's going on there. Maybe the new chap was having a "Grumpy Old Men" style chat with the bull disgruntled at the "youth of today"! As the weather has been so poor this weekend (wind, rain, cold...) I haven't had chance to see how things are with the cockerels and hens but at least the new chap has a warm barn to sleep in if he has been feeling "hen pecked"!

The clocks "sprung forward" last night so we are now in British Summer Time - hmm wish someone had told the weather - it's now SNOWING!

Below are some eggs from the hens - for those who haven't experienced eggs from free range hens - yes that IS the colour of the yolk, a much richer yellow/orange than barn or factory hens. The taste is completely different too, really delicious.

Thursday 25 March 2010

Fresh eggs anyone?

The hens are at full production now and these are the eggs I collected this morning! The pure white ones are from the young Light Sussex hens, the mid-brown from the regular brown hens, and the deeper brown with spots from the Maran hens. The eggs are nestling comfortably in the "Sandside Plate" which is part of the wedding china given to Samuel Sutherland and Mary Sinclair Lyon in December 1877. The Sutherland family kindly gave me a piece of the china for the kitchen dresser. I like the idea that it has "returned home" and is sitting in the kitchen over 130 years later!

Tuesday 23 March 2010

Wind again....

But this time I'm talking about wind energy (see Sunday's blog entry)! On tonight's BBC News was a short item about the community wind turbine on the island of Westray (the same island with mentioned in yesterday's blog about the "Westray Wife"!). The island community, through the Westray Development Trust, raised £1.5m through loans and grants to finance the project, and they are hoping for an annual return of £200,000 once loans etc have been paid off. All the money will go back into the community. If you click here you can see a short film from the BBC correspondent to get a feel for the island. As well as the large turbine, there are also quite a few "domestic" sized turbines on the island - these are a lot smaller being only about 12m high. As the BBC chap said - there's a lot of wind on Westary. I make no comment....... ;-)

Monday 22 March 2010

The Westray Wife.....

Last August archaeologists came across a small crudely carved figure at a dig in Westray, it is estimated to be 5000 years old and thought to be the earliest representation of a human figure found in Scotland. This figure is officially referred to as the Orkney Venus but appears now to be called locally "The Westray Wife". The term "wife" in Orkney is a generic term for "woman" whether she is single, married or divorced! I'm known as "the wife of Sandside", or sometimes "the peedie wife" (peedie = small). Anyway I digress, click here for a short YouTube film showing a 3D representation of the figure.

The "Westray Wife" is on a tour of Scotland at the moment and will return to Orkney in the summer so I'm hoping to be able to see it for real, and perhaps to see some of the dig too. Personally I think it should be called "the Peedie Wife of Westray"......

Note - on a totally unrelated topic, I have recently discovered a great blog written by "DancingBeastie" about seasonal life in a Scottish castle - so take a look at today's entry "What it feels like to inherit a castle in Scotland".

Sunday 21 March 2010

Renewable Energy......

Orkney is becoming a focus of renewable energy projects. This week saw the announcement of leases to energy companies of ten sites on the seabed off Orkney and the North of Scotland to generate electricity using wave and tidal energy. Eight of these sites are around Orkney waters. (More detailed info at these links: BBC, Crown Estate and the Scottish Government). In addition there are a number of private companies and local island Development Trusts already with wind turbines. All sounds positive stuff you might think, helping reduce reliance on fossil fuels and reduce the need for nuclear power. Sadly, it's not as simple as that - particularly in Orkney.

Leaving aside the technical aspects of how much energy is generated, and investment by the UK and Scottish Government, there are a number of challenges ahead for Orkney. Take energy generated by wind - a number of the isles have Community Development Trusts and have (or are in the process of acquiring) wind turbines. The income from these (usually single turbines) will then be available to the island community. But of course private developers are keen to erect wind turbines too and usually want more than one in any location (I'm not talking about large wind farms, but clusters - currently the largest is five, but there is pressure from private developers to increase the number of and at sites in Orkney). Sometimes an island community will band together with a private developer to get some income from the local turbine, others are wholly owned community turbines. Both will have the same impact on the landscape. And that is one of the problems in Orkney. The land is fairly low lying so wind turbines are visible from miles away. Orkney is famous for it's landscape, it's heritage, archaeology and has areas that are declared National Scenic Areas, as well as the World Heritage Site of the Ring of Brodgar, Skara Brae, and Maes Howe. Wind turbines have to have planning permission from the local authority and there is often strong opposition from within the community, as well as national landscape agencies relating to the visual impact on the landscape of these turbines. In theory these are not supposed to dominate the landscape around the World Heritage Site. Other considerations are proximity to housing, and bird nesting sites (particularly rare birds). Domestic wind turbines are becoming popular in Orkney but these are much smaller - from around 12 to 18 metres in height. Although these too are subject to the same planning guidelines, but are less intrusive on the landscape (well unless you live next door to one maybe!). With the domestic turbines any electricity that remains after running the house is fed back into the national grid and the homeowner gets paid for this.

Another challenge is that currently Orkney doesn't have a big enough link to the National Grid so although the electricity can be transmitted via the National Grid, a number of large turbines have a limit placed upon them as to how much they can generate - some as little as 35% of their full capacity. The local authority and private developers are, of course, lobbying for an upgrade to the grid link.

Which brings the next challenge - the leases for the wave and tidal energy announced this week. It may take a couple of years before any actual sites come into use, and by then there may be a resolution to the grid link. And you may think that these developments will be less intrusive on the landscape. However although most of the technology will be below the water, there will also be access points to the technology above the water, and infrastructure along the shoreline to bring the energy ashore (including buildings, sheds etc). Most of the sites announced in Orkney are along a national scenic path and some of the most beautiful coastline in Orkney. All of the licences have been awarded to large companies and it is questionable just how much money will go into the local economy. It is unlikely that many jobs will be generated locally as most are fairly specialised, although it may bring new folk to live in the isles.

So there are conflicting viewpoints on the impact of "renewables"including : the people involved in tourism, which is a large part of the income for folk on the isles, and they fear that fewer tourists will come to Orkney as the landscape will no longer look "unspoiled"; those who value the landscape as it is; fishermen who fear the impact on inshore waters of the new wave/tidal technology; the general community who see a modern "industrialisation" of the landscape; those who hope new jobs will be created within the community, and a new prosperity to Orkney; communities who need the income from a community turbine to enable their island to be sustainable (most are very fragile due to an ageing population, remoteness etc) and of course there are the developers who want to make money!

There are no easy answers. One of my concerns relates to the lack of regulation relating to the new marine licences. There is a Marine Bill currently going through a consultation period in the Scottish Government (for those outside the UK, the Scottish Government has devolved powers for domestic issues of which this is one). However that won't come into being for a couple of years and it doesn't look as though it covers real environmental issues eg impact on the underwater landscape, fish, plankton etc. In addition sometimes it feels that permission is rather arbitrarily granted to wind turbines within Orkney and there are developers hungry for additional development, some of it large scale (for Orkney). So there is the potential for "industrialisation" of the natural landscape, and without much actual benefit to the local economy of the islands which might at least in some small way make up for it.

On the other hand, Orkney is a living community, not a museum. Some argue that Scapa Flow has seen many changes over the years, from both the World Wars where fleets of ships were anchored in the Flow and many servicemen were stationed around Orkney with concrete bunkers and gun turrets to guard the Flow - now some of these relics are themselves "protected". The island of Flotta has an oil terminal as a result of the finds of North Sea Oil in the 20th Century, and oil tankers conduct ship-to-ship transfer just off Orkney.

The challenge ahead is going to be finding a balance between all the issues of the many groups involved and enable Orkney to have it's own sustainable future in terms of economy, but also maintaining the beautiful landscape around (in myview!). But I am rather cynical and fear the "Green Revolution" may take over Orkney if care is not taken, and to the detriment of the islands, if care isn't taken.

And on that gloomy negative note - it's the Spring Equinox and I'm going to go and enjoy the fresh air and landscape and welcome the new season!

Below - a picture of the rig that was used to place the "Oyster", part of a renewable energy project off the West Mainland in Orkney - the yellow piece to the right is part of what was in the water. The rig was only used for a couple of months.

(Photos taken by Cathy Ritch)

Saturday 20 March 2010

Calm returns.....

The gale lasted well into the evening yesterday. Although the gusts diminished, the strength of the wind was still strong. However after a walk around the outside of the house and garden all seems well with no damage. Though it has to be said that anything that wasn't already tied down, or had weakened, would have blown away in the autumn gales! But we have had a remarkably quiet winter in terms of wind and it's easy when Spring is in the air to get complacent and not shut a door quite tightly enough, or leave something lying around to fly about. I always fear for my conservatory windows and any debris flying into those.

However all is well. It's still a bit breezy outdoors but not strong enough to deter me from a bit of gardening. I have found a slight drawback to my plan of spreading seaweed and allowing it torot over the veggie patch without the need to dig in...... it had got to a nicely dried up stage..... 70mph winds arrived...... and redistributed it around the garden! It doesn't matter too much in some areas, but I now need to do some land based seaweed gathering - I'm not sure the salt will do the lawn much good? Though it probably got salt blasted enough yesterday with the Westerly wind and the salt spray in the air. The garden is just about 50 years from the shore and although the old garden dyke protects it nicely from the wind, there are still deposits of salt on everything.

It was a joy to find this fragile flower still blooming after the gale. The thick grass around this crocus protected it from the worst of the wind.

This is a bit of an optical illusion - these are mini daffodils among my "mini" wood - young willow trees, the flowers were protected from the worst of the wind by the stone dyke.

And here is Button inspecting a tree for wind damage ;-)

Friday 19 March 2010

Not quite Spring then.....

We are currently in the teeth of a gale - sigh. It could get as strong as a Force 9 later! At the moment the gusts for the Graemsay area are 67 knots that's about 76 mph! (according to the Orkney Harbour web site).

Below is a view from the back door!

I had planned a day in town, but it's just too wild out there and so I've ordered some supplies from Flett's the Butcher, in Stromness, which will come out on the lunch time boat (if it goes!) and a neighbour has kindly offered to deliver the box to the house as I'm not sure I can stand up on the pier in this wind!

I did make it out to feed the hens - they are sheltered from the worst of the West wind by their stone henny hoose so can be outdoors a bit or roost indoors. They came rushing towards me gleefully as I threw scraps for them (bread and rice soaked overnight). I still have George the cockerel (he has lost his "gorgeous" title due to his behaviour!). I couldn't managed to hold the vinegar spray (cockerel attack deterrent) , the scraps for the chickens AND Charlie's cat food so I just yelled at George whenever he came near me. I may be small but there's not many that will argue when I'm cross!

Charlie was very vocal, clearly wanting breakfast NOW - presumably he'd not been out hunting in the wind and the rain. It was a bit breezy in the barn so I threw the food down and made a run for home. A large gust of wind caught me as I walked through the yard and rather than be blown over I made my legs go faster - first time I've run in years! Though wind power rather than lung power meant I quite enjoyed the experience! But I had to hang onto a gate to stop myself.

Button was fretting and wanting to go out and in the end I got fed up with her grumping and threw her out the front door. She was not at all pleased at this. After a few minutes I relented and opened the door and yelled - she'd been sheltering among the willow trees out of the worst of the wind but was very pleased to come indoors again. I got a real telling off from her after she was safely indoors (and she'd watched me shut the door in case there was danger she would be thrown out again!). She is now recovering in her favourite warm spot below the sofa, with the underfloor heating warming her paws......

The ferry service to the Scottish Mainland is under review and some sailings cancelled. The Churchill Barriers (cause-way that links South isles of Burray and South Ronaldsay) have been closed. The tide is also expected to be high so some of the houses in Stromness may be under threat from flooding. The floodwater doesn't necessarily come along the street, in some of the old stone houses on the old stone piers it just seeps up through the floor and the first you know about it is your carpet is floating! Thankfully I'm far enough from the shore that I'm not threatened by *that*!

Weather is forecast to be like this for weekend. I feel sorry for the farmers who are trying to work in this. The sheep are in the field but lambing doesn't start on Graemsay until April, so it's just the ewes sheltering where they can. Most of the island cattle are still indoors in the byres, but I pity the poor farmers driving around on tractors with silage bales in this gale!

Tuesday 16 March 2010


The mini-daffodils are out in the garden! Spring is here!! Yes!! It's lovely to see the clumps growing among the willows which are fluffing up with buds.

In Stromness the Rooks are busy building nests in the trees. They are so noisy! I don't think the Rooks are very popular with some town residents as they make such a mess around the nesting sites.

Button is spending more time out hunting at night. However, a girl needs to warm her paws upon her return as the ground is still cold!

Sunrise in Orkney is 0635 (London 0617), sunset is 1810 (London 1803). The days are getting longer!!

Monday 15 March 2010

On the Transfer List.....

Gorgeous George, my Light Sussex cockerel is on the transfer list...... He can be seen in the centre of the picture above. I've had him a few months and he is beautiful, however this last week or so he has become very aggressive towards me. I fear he may think I'm a little red hen, being small and with red hair! Anyway I've been having a bit of a battle with him when I go and feed the chickens in the morning and it is getting beyond a joke - I have several bruises on my leg from him nipping me with his sharp beak. Fortunately I wear a fairly robust coat as he has jumped up at me with his feet too. My chickens are completely free range and he doesn't seem bothered any other time, just first thing in the morning at feeding time - but that's bad enough!

Anyway, it had been suggested I try controlling him by spraying a strong vinegar solution at him so I will try that. But I suspect he will either need to move to a new home where he will be less of a danger, or....... chicken soup may be on the menu. Sorry George but you've broken the terms of your employment contract! Have you not heard the expression "Don't bite the hand that feeds you"........

Note: I've just come back from feeding the chickens. George was on his own and was fine with me, but when the hens all ran up to me he got aggressive. So he clearly thinks I'm another cockerel that is threatening his harem, or just a threat to his hens. Though the hens don't looked afraid of me at all and chatter around my feet. Clearly Chivalrous George has not heard of "Womens Lib"!

Saturday 13 March 2010

Beep Beep

This week I took delivery of a shiny new tractor-mower. Not exactly essential, but since the garden was renovated last year (grassed area about 80 feet x 80 feet), and I try and keep quite a large area of grass around the house tidy, it's a bit much for my walk-behind mower. Although to be fair my neighbour, Mick, has been doing a lot of the mowing for me as the grass bag is too heavy for me to empty, but he has other things to do as well as my grass! So after much consideration and consultation with friends who know a thing or two about proper tractors and machinery, I selected my shiny new tractor - see photo above of it arriving on the island.

Now.... I'd not driven this before - didn't have a trial run, but how hard could it be? It's only a mower, with a forward and reverse pedal, and a clutch/brake. So I'm at the pier in Stromness when the chap delivers it to the boat and explained how to start and drive it - as I thought - easy peasy. It gets loaded onto the boat with lots of comments from the crew, unloaded off the boat with even more comments AND they put it the wrong way round deliberately so I'd have to reverse or turn it round - Boys!

Anyway, I sit on the tractor - I do, of course, by now have an audience of neighbours, all offering advice on how to start it. I smile smugly, I KNOW how to start it and drive it. I start tractor - vroom vroom..... I take foot off clutch/brake - it stalls. M gets on, it moves, I get on - it stalls, much laughter and comment about women drivers. M gets on again, it moves - repeat - it stalls for me. C gets on, it moves, I get on.... yup it stalls. More laughter and comments about my inability to manage a clutch. By this time I'm getting cold and a little cross that I can't drive my shiny new tractor..... So I sit on the tractor, A works the go-forward pedal, M works the brake and I work the throttle..... all three of us slowly traverse up the pier. M takes hand off brake, I shove foot hard on pedal and off I go up the road.

Slight consternation from those left at pier as I disappear over the horizon - alarmed that I wouldn't be able to drive it in a straight line, I suspect - harumph! So everyone hastily follows me up the road. I turn to smugly wave at them. I stall the tractor...... BUT I have now figured out the problem .... as had the neighbours but were enjoying the entertainment too much to tell me! There is a safety switch underneath the sea - I don't WEIGH ENOUGH to drive my peedie tractor!! Well to be truthful, if I sit in the middle of the seat it works, but as I lean forward to reach the pedals I shift my weight off the seat - hence all the stalling. So - a slight modification is needed so a pixie sized person can drive a pixie sized tractor without being "supervised"!! I did eventually manage to sit still enough to drive my new bright green John Deere mini-tractor mower all the way home. I did, however, refuse to reverse it into the barn where it will be safely stowed till needed.......

Wednesday 10 March 2010

Just random.....

I went for a walk along the beach the other day - accompanied by Button of course. She is quite insistent that I "take the air" in the morning.

There are various large chunks of metal littering the shore, embedded in the sand. I like the texture and form of them among the seaweed, stones and shells.

This is the nameplate of an old wooden hull of a boat, lying on the shore near the old stone pier at Sandside. Again I like taking photos of the ageing wood, rusting metal and peeling paint.

Returning home I came across some crocus sheltering beneath the willows at the front of the house

Harbingers of Spring!

Monday 8 March 2010

A touch of Spring

It was a glorious weekend, the sun shone, no wind, and mild temperatures. It was a joy to be outdoors! I spent a while just basking in the sunshine, and then tended the veggie patch. Time to do a bit of weeding and forking the seaweed all along the vegetable border. The border runs for about 100 feet and the fun at this time of the year is the dreaming and planning of what crops to sow. (Photo above of garden border with Stromness and the West Mainland of Orkney in the background).

The seaweed is from the nearby shore and full of colour, texture and the smell of the sea. Wonderful stuff which helped provide a lovely crop of veggies last year and will do the same this year too (I hope!).

Meanwhile the buds on the willows are bursting forth, all fluff and bringing the promise of future growth.

"Georgous George" and the girls were enjoying the sunshine too. Though George is turning out to be a little aggressive towards me. I adopt my best Joyce Grenfell voice and say "George - don't do that, dear!"...... I may need to change tactics soon.

And yet, despite the sun and the warmth, snow clung stubbornly to the Orphir hills!

Note : New Orkney website under development and worth a look : click here

Wednesday 3 March 2010

Cats - how to train your human

OK I've had Button just over a year and she has succeeded in training her human well.

Button's daily schedule...... (Cats may wish to take notes....)

Between 5 am and 7am - need a little light exercise and food. If weather inclement, wake up human. Do this gently : sit by bed and softly meow....continue till human awakes. If human picks you up and puts you out of room, sit at bedroom door nearest bed and meow loudly for two minutes....... leave gap of five minutes, then resume meowing..... eventually human will give in as she seems to like to sleep..... well so do I, so feed me and we can both get back to the important activity of sleeping.......

Upon returning from a little light breakfast, jump on bed carefully avoiding human, snuggle down beside human and purr attractively. This is irresistible and will result in much tickling behind ear in the special spot, so both can sleep warmly for another couple of hours.

Upon human rising, remain in bed for 15 minutes - human requires water to slosh over face and body - do not get in way of this - nasty......

Demand to go out with human to feed hens and that scruff-bag Charlie-in-the-Barn........ demands will be denied but guilt is good for humans..... continue daily.

Upon human's return from feeding of outdoor creatures, meow demandingly for attention. Insist upon going out the Front Door which requires human assistance. Inspect weather, if weather fine, insist human accompanies you for a walk around the garden boundary- air is good for humans, and they like to feel included, sit at door looking pathetic if human ignores your appeals - works every time. If weather inclement, insist human participates in play activity. She seems to like to use the fluffy snake on a stick and is proud of herself if she can touch my ears or my tummy. Let her win a couple of times, then kill the bloody fluffy thing.

After this exhausting morning routine, retire to warm snuggly place and sleep till 4pm - demand food, return to sleep till 7pm. Human eats about 7.30 - if human is eating meat or fish she will provide a small morsel - no need to rise or make presence known. She will locate and hand feed with tasty morsel. More sleeping till 9pm.

At 9pm time to walk the bounds and check for intruders outdoors - insist human opens door, refuse to use cat flap to exit house, only use to enter. Return at 10.15 when human has emerged from that hot water thing she does AGAIN. Light supper, and then meow loudly if she shows no signs of going to bed. 15 minutes of snuggling is essential to aid good sleep in order to facilitate early rising at 5am to start this hectic schedule all over again......

Note: Humans have poor hunting skills. Ensure they get plenty of practice by bringing in and releasing live prey at regular intervals. This is also good entertainment value, particularly if visitors are present.

Monday 1 March 2010

In preparation for Spring.....

Well today IS the 1st March! Though there is still snow on the Hoy and Orphir hills, and snow showers remind us that Winter is not yet done. Icy sleet is bouncing off the window as I type. However to cheer myself up I have been making preparations for the garden this year. Though they have been "theoretical" ones as I "did something" to my back at the end of last week and spent most of the weekend trying to find a comfortable position to ease the pain -failing miserably. However pain has now departed and I can think coherently again!

Today was a busy day on the island as we completed our "First Responder" training and have been issued with our kit, and reflective jackets. If we all wear those the folk on the Mainland will be able to track wherever we are - the jackets are so bright! But it was an excellent day of training which was delivered in great style by our trainer from the Scottish Ambulance Service in Kirkwall. So we now have 13 First Responders on the island - that's half the population! Let's hope we don't get any call outs...... (you can read more about this here).

So, anyway, back to talking of the garden - last year I used seaweed as fertiliser and it worked really well. I dug it into the ground, but was a bit nervous of doing that this year (see above) plus now the whole garden is complete that would be a big task. But on "Countryfile" a few weeks ago, the programme was in Jersey in the Channel Islands, and there the farmers just spread the seaweed on the field and let it rot down, with all the goodness going into the ground during the process. So that's the plan this year. Anyway, at the weekend, a neighbour kindly gathered the seaweed into the bucket of a tractor and deposited it in my garden ready for spreading.

So far it's gone from here:

To here:

Hopefully next week it can start to be spread along the vegetable border!

Note: Sunrise was at 0709 today (0646 in London) and sunset was at 1741 (1740 in London). Woohooo - the days are getting longer!