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Friday 30 April 2010

Spring Sunset

We've had poor weather the last couple of weeks, chilly, breezy, heavy rain, low temperatures. However now Spring does seem to be emerging. The temperatures have lifted, some blue skies and sunshine, and the rain has made Graemsay green again. The fields and gardens are beginning to get that lovely vibrant lush spring flush of grass. Last night I managed to catch the sun before it sank below the clouds.

I've planted tatties, onions, carrots and broad beans in the garden, and have courgettes and marrows in pots in the conservatory, but have got behind with planting out the peas. However it amazes me how quickly things do grow once they get started. Nothing will grow much till the earth warms up a bit anyway. Though the garden is a bit of a sun trap so the veggie border is beginning to warm up.

Here is a lone pansy that self seeded among the flagstones of the Old Post Office (which ajoins the house). I rescued it and potted it up as it would get squished being near the doorway - I use the Old Post Office is used as a shed now. The "new" Post Office is located down at the Lighthouse where the "Post Mistress" lives. Yes Graemsay has it's own post office, though only open a few hours a week but the service is excellent! We even have our own postman who collects outgoing mail from the post box in the middle of the island, and collects the incoming mail from the boat each morning (Mon-Fri) and delivers to each household. Orkney along with other rural areas is constantly striving to keep open rural post-offices and so far Graemsay has held on to ours!

Thursday 22 April 2010


Enough of boats and planes (well we don't have enough) - no flights in or out of Orkney till at least 1pm today, though our Hamnavoe boat is expected back in Stromness tomorrow morning and will also bring some folk home from Aberdeen. But today some light relief!

I know nothing about geology (as will become apparent if you read on!) but I am fascinated how the landscape is fashioned. I love looking at the microcosm of stone and strata and imaging the aeons of wind, rain, time and tide that have fashioned the wonderful forms. The photos in this post are taken on the West shore of Graemsay near the lighthouse, Hoy Low and are provided by kind permission of Tom Muir (Orcadian, archaeologist, folklorist, storyteller of international renown, writer and a jolly nice chap). Tom visited Graemsay last summer and took these photos. He has also provided a couple of stories that go along with the photos and has kindly allowed me to reproduce the photos and stories here.

The photo at the top of this post is called the "Cha'mers of Goldie", and the photo on the left shows a niche in the stone where legend has it a young man from a croft called "Goldie" hid in here in the early 1800s to escape the press gang. The press gangs went about capturing local sailors to be "pressed" into the Royal Navy to fight during the Napoleonic Wars. The story goes that the young man put up such a fight that he was killed (some stories say he was shot). The red marks on the stone are said to be his blood stains.

The photo below is know as the "Hattie Man o' Ree" - who, legend says, was a man, maybe even a giant, who came from the island of Hoy to destroy a newly built church when Christianity was first introduced. However he was turned to stone as he set foot on Graemsay (source - Geordie Marwick, unpublished paper).

More rock formations below

Wednesday 21 April 2010

Boats and Planes

For the next two-three days Orkney is without it's lifeline ferry service supplied by Northlink and subsidised by the Scottish Government* led by the Scottish National Party (SNP). This is due to the knock on effect from the volcano eruption in Iceland and cancelled flights etc.

According to BBC Radio Orkney bulletins the Scottish Government have been in discussions over the last couple of days to take the ferry which runs the main Scrabster (North Scotland) to Stromness route (the Hamnavoe) and use it to rescue 200 stranded passengers in Scandinavia. This would be a once only trip but would mean the ferry is out of operation in Orkney for THREE days. OK not too bad as there is the Aberdeen-Kirkwall (Orkney)-Lerwick (Shetland) route and folk are stranded and in need of help. Only it seems that the Scottish Government and ferry operators Northlink, omitted to tell Orkney politicians that as well as taking the Hamnavoe out of service to Orkney, the "Aberdeen" service would not stop at Orkney until further notice due to a backlog of passengers and freight bound for Shetland (which is a hub for North Sea Oil rigs/workers/supplies and of course locals).

Both the Northlink services receive £10m annual subsidy from the Scottish Government as they are declared "lifeline" services. Hmmm OK so the SG can take our so called lifeline service away when it wants then? Accepted this is an emergency and I think folk would have been more amenable to the decision to take the Hamnavoe out of service for a couple of days had it not been that the Aberdeen service is now not available.

There is ONE service running. A single private operator, Pentland Ferries, run by Andrew Banks from Orkney (who receives no subsidy from the SG). He had been involved in discussions relating to the Hamnavoe being out of service and had said that he could take up the slack but it seems even he wasn't told about the Aberdeen service being out of commission for a while. So now it's uncertain whether there is capacity.

You may think this is us pleeping about nothing, but - the majority of supplies for our local shops and supermarkets are transported via these boats, as well as other essential supplies (fuel, supplies for businesses etc) and when there are no flights available it is the ONLY way folk can get south either for business, or vitally visiting Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, as well as the route for post and newspapers.

Northlink said in an interview on Radio Orkney today that they had the only "Euro Class" ferries available in Scotland that could go over to Scandinavia on the rescue mission, and that Shetland had a huge backlog as it provided the only ferry service, and with no planes for days folk needed to get to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary for hospital appointments and treatment. That is true - but they omitted to say that the same is true for ORKNEY!

Aberdeen RI is our nearest main hospital - the NHS Balfour Hospital in Orkney provides a limited service (and it is a good service!). But it is more of a "community hospital" providing limited medical and surgical services, Accident & Emergency etc. However if you need a CAT or MRI scan, major surgery, medical treatment, difficult delivery of a baby etc it's a trip by plane to the ARI. But with planes grounded, including the air ambulance (leaving medical evacuation to the Coastguard) the only other option was the Aberdeen ferry. Not now it's not! Although some flights have gone over the last couple of days, it's just been announced (11.25) that ALL flights in and out of Orkney are now grounded!

It begs the question in Orkney as to just what the Scottish Government led by the SNP think of us! Especially as they were not open with our local politicians as to WHAT they wanted (eg TWO not ONE boat). Alex Salmond, leader of the SNP, said when he came to power he wanted a "Scotland independent of Westminster" and wanted a referendum for independence for Scotland. Seems to me that the SNP are as partisan as the Westminster government. Think Alex, you may well have lost a large proportion of the 20,000 potential votes in Orkney for "independence" with this decision!

More on the topic at All About Orkney and BBC News

Interestingly though - a couple of folk I know have said they now understand how it felt on Graemsay when, until recently, we would be without a ferry to Stromness on 3 out of 4 winter weekends!

*For those outside the UK a quick explanation - "domestic matters" such as transport, housing, social care, health care, education and one or two other matters are "devolved" to the Scottish Parliament which sits in Edinburgh. However the Scottish Parliament receives huge amounts of funding from the central Westminster government, but it makes the decisions on where and how to spend it. In Scotland therefore each constituency has an MSP (member of Scottish Parliament) and an MP (member of Westminster Parliament). Currently the Scottish Parliament is governed by a minority government of the Scottish National Party - SNP, who many feel are as equally partisan in dispensing their favours as the Westminster government can be eg SNP stronghold is in the West of Scotland, including the Western Isles, who get greater subsidies for a range of matters than other parts of Scotland, including Orkney which has been "Lib-Dem" for many years.

Note - Radio Orkney also have a page on Facebook - it's been a great way to keep up with developments of news!

Tuesday 20 April 2010

Assistant gardeners

My hens love accompanying me when I'm gardening. Despite having very small heads and therefore even smaller brains, they know there will be plenty of worms for the picking. The wheelbarrow is also a useful spot to perch while one does a little grooming.

Junior, the younger of the cockerels, however, prefers to do little more than pose handsomely for the camera. He's a young Light Sussex Cross, though does look very "Light Sussex".

And this was another photo from last weekend when the sea mist (haar) finally began to roll away.

Note: Inter-isles flights are operating in Orkney today, and also to Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh, but not to Shetland or Inverness. Though with increased volcanic activity in Iceland who knows how long that will last!

I was sent this link courtesy of my friend, diane, some fantastic volcano pictures - click here

Monday 19 April 2010

Lambs and snow....

OK, one lamb happily taking breakfast! And we had brief sleet/hail showers yesterday too! Brrr! It was 4 degrees C at 6pm, and 19 degrees C in London - not fair!

Still no planes in the air due to volcanic ash. Even the small 8-seater inter-isles propellor planes are not going although they fly at about 1,000 feet at most. Northlink are putting on more ferries to and from Aberdeen. Lots of students needing to get back to University, plus folk needing to go to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary for tests and appointments (our Orkney hospital is a "community hospital" without equipment to do lots of the more complex tests). Our mail and newspapers usually arrive by plane, so no doubt there will be delays there too.

Below the Hoy hills covered in snow not volcanic ash!

Note : for the fifth day in succession, no flights in or out of the UK, including Orkney and Shetland although it had been expected that our flights might have started yesterday. Apparently volcanic ash still causing a problem.

Sunday 18 April 2010

Broch of Birsay

Sun shining today, but hail that hurts and it's still cold! However these photos were taken last weekend when it was sunny and *warm*! The photo above is of a whalebone along the shore at Birsay on the Orkney West Mainland (erected in about 1876?). I think it looks like an owl in flight in this photo! In the photo below though it looks more skull like and sinister. It *looks* like it is made out of wood wood but it IS whalebone, all of it even the vertical "pole". This was the first time I had seen it up close. It was removed a couple of years ago as it had become rather fragile and disintegrated. It now has a couple of bolts through it but is at last back in place along the shore where Orcas swim in the summer.

I was quite fascinated by it as it really does look like wood - here is some detail.

The photo below is of the "Brough of Birsay" (Broch pronounced a bit like "brock", not as we would say in England "bruff"!). You can get out to the island, which has a lighthouse on top, via a causeway at low tide. The island has the remains (foundations) of Pictish and Viking settlements at the lower part (managed by Historic Scotland), but you can just walk around the edge to the wonderful cliffs at the top near the lighthouse.

Saturday 17 April 2010

What Spring?

It's turned cold, wet and windy again. Which isn't good news as folk here are busy lambing. The byre and barn at Sandside has ewes and peedie lambs in sheltering from the worst of the weather. Poor wee things! I think Charlie Boy will be requesting earplugs with his breakfast cat food tomorrow - it's a bit noisy in there! The weather is set to get worse with the potential for snow on low ground next week!! Not that unusual really but my heart was set on Spring having arrived now.

The only gardening I've been able to do today was pot up seeds for marrows, courgettes (green and yellow) and some garlic chives. I have tatties waiting to go in the ground - Pink Fir Apple again, plus a "Pentland" variety which I'm hoping is a good hardy variety as it is named after the Pentland Firth (the stretch of water between Orkney Mainland and the island of Scotland ;-) ....). Lots of other seeds to plant too but they will go directly into the ground (peas, beans, chard, spinach, salad leaves).

Still no flights out of Orkney. Some domestic flights in Scotland may go this weekend but generally the UK (and large parts of continental Europe) shut down till tomorrow night! There was a film of dust over my island car yesterday, but that's not unusual being so close to the shore - often gets sand covered. But my mainland car had a definite film of grit over it which I suspect was volcanic ash.

On the news last night was a report of a Coastguard helicopter having to medically evacuate a casualty from Shetland and then being grounded and cleaned afterwards with tiny particles of ash found on the rotor blades, fuselage and around the engine. So the precautions of grounding aircraft seems worth the effort - if frustrating!! I suppose we are used to be able to go where we want when we want these days. Though if you live on an island you do get more used to adding a day on either side of a trip south just in case of delays or cancellations to ferries or planes!

Oh - I know I mentioned lambs earlier - no pictures - I *told* you it was cold, wet and raining, I'm not hanging about outdoors taking photos!! Plus I'd probably be tempted to bring them all indoors and wrap them in the duvet...... I'm still a "soft southern townie" at heart it seems.....

Thursday 15 April 2010

Twilight Zone?

I woke up today and through the haze of coming to what passes for "consciousness" before 12 noon, I heard on the radio about flights being cancelled in the UK due to a cloud of volcanic ash. HUH?? I wondered if it was a belated April Fool! But apparently it's true! The ash cloud is emanating from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland. Due to the danger of aircraft sucking in particles from the cloud which would damage the engines causing catastrophic failure, all flights in the UK have been grounded. Not sure now if some in the South of the country (England) are beginning to operate but it's been announced that all flights in Scotland will remain grounded for today at least!! Blimey! Met office info here.

The ash cloud is higher up in the atmosphere so can't see anything here in Orkney, though whether some of it may fall to earth over us who knows. Last summer cars were covered in sand in Kirkwall which was allegedly sand from the Sahara blown across on strong winds!!

Isn't nature amazing?? And scary...... and wonderful!

Tuesday 13 April 2010

Mars and Venus mow the lawn....

I now have my new tractor-mower "modified" so I can drive it without stalling (due to shifting my weight and triggering a cut-out switch). So I've been busy mowing the grass around the house and also the new "lawn" in the walled garden. My neighbour, Mick, stopped by with words of "advice" and commented on the fact that I wasn't mowing in straight lines....... um.... see picture above, (though in the picture the woman (Venus) is on her mobile)..... but - straight lines are dull and lack creativity, "nature" doesn't do "straight lines" and neither do I, and I had to evade the clothes-line posts! But I cranked up the engine and the noise thankfully drowned out any remaining comments. I just waved regally and sped off ( if 3mph can be called "speeding"?) to complete my mowing. As it was I had Button AND the chickens casting an eye over my efforts. Everyone's a critic..... sigh....

Note: copyright of picture above is Annie Tempest

Monday 12 April 2010

Warm weather!

Temperatures have reached 20 degrees C in some parts of Scotland this weekend! That is very unseasonal! Though apparently there are still five ski runs still functioning in the Highlands (particularly the Cairngorms) and with the exceptional snow this winter they are hoping to continue well into May!

However the dry warm spell has brought some hazards. On the neighbouring island of Hoy there has been a heathland fire burning for the last 24 hours. Apparently the fire was stopped just short of Berriedale, which is "the most northerly piece of remnant native woodland in the British isles and Orkney's largest and most complete piece of native woodland." Quote by Jenny Taylor of Orkney Woodland Project from BBC website.

Apparently the fire has left a scar in the heather about a mile long. To make matters more difficult the ground is peat, which tends to smoulder away and often, even when the fire looks to be out, is still burning away under the heather.

Hoy does have fire-fighters on the island with equipment, and there are lochs and the sea to draw water from, as well as local folk volunteering to help with the fire but two fire teams were called out from Stromness on the Orkney Mainland today, as well as a fire tender and team from Kirkwall. Apparently even a helicopter was called upon to drop water onto the fire. One report said flames were up to 40 feet high at one point. The fire is reported as being out now, but a fire crew is on standby. As yet I've seen no photos of the scenes. At least it is early in the bird nesting season so ground nesting birds should not have lost any young chicks. The photo at the top of this post is of Rackwick Bay - though I think the fire was more to the left of this picture. But you can see the heather covered heathland across the top of the hills and gullies.

Thursday 8 April 2010

Harbour seals....

.... or as they tend to be more popularly know around here "common seals" - except they aren't as common as their name suggests. This last week researchers from the Scottish Ocean's Institute have been in Orkney as they are beginning a study to survey the detailed diet of Scotland's Harbour/Common seals. The harbour/common seal has been in continued decline around the UK shores, despite various conservation efforts. Apparently the severest decline has been in Orkney and Shetland so it's hoped the study will give some clues to the reasons for the decline.

I haven't seen many of the common seals, generally the seals we see on Graemsay are grey seals. In the picture at the top of this post are grey seals on Sandside beach. Sadly they don't haul out on the beach so much nowadays, preferring the skerries and shoreline. On the island we've noticed declining numbers of the grey seals, however friends over on the Bay of Ireland have commented on an *increase* in the number of seals they see hauled out there. So maybe our "Graemsay" seals have just moved location. Certainly their new location is quieter and less likely to be disturbed than Sandside beach. OK so Graemsay is hardly a buzzing metropolis, but the "main" road does run parallel with the beach and folk walk with kids, dogs and er - cats which disturbs the seals afternoon nap, so perhaps they've chosen a quieter resort to sunbath!

I love seeing the seals - all has been quiet this winter but yesterday I saw one sunbathing on the rocks just below the house. When I first visited Orkney "househunting" I was keen to see seals and searched the sea for just a glimpse of a bobbing head. I imagined every creel buoy or distant "blob" was a seal! Eventually I came out to Graemsay and before even looking round the house, the seals on the sandy beach were pointed out to me. I knew then I wanted the house, despite the holes in the roof, the pigeons in the bedrooms (through holes in the roof), boarded up windows (broken by the pigeons...). So - need to see my selkie friends on a regular basis! (Selkie is Orcadian dialect for seal. Lots of folklore surrounding the "selkie-folk").

Tuesday 6 April 2010

The light is on again!

Engineers came over and fixed the lighthouse light today. No idea what the problem was but at last it's shining out across the waves again. It did feel sad last night not seeing the light out of my window.

I'd mentioned yesterday that I thought it was the first time in it's history that the light wasn't shining, but I wonder whether it was dimmed in WWII? I'm curious now so shall have to find out. No info on the web but I have heard there is to be a new exhibition at the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre and Museum in Lyness (on the island of Hoy) from this weekend so there might be information there. This permanent exhibition will " illustrate the impact the Second World War had on the island of Hoy and on the thousands of service men and women stationed there. Fortress Orkney is a local history initiative and part of Their Past Your Future Scotland." Must go over and see the exhibition this summer. The island of Hoy would have had only about 200 people living on it during WWII, can you imagine how life would change with an influx of thousands of extra service people?!! I was talking with one of the curators, Jude, today and she was saying it was a really exciting exhibition and included an oral history project with locals. There will be a website for this project which is run in conjunction with 7 other museums across Scotland, but it won't be ready for another couple of months. I'll post the link once it's "live" so others can have a window on the past too.

Monday 5 April 2010

Who turned the lights out?

No we don't have a power cut, but the big light of the Hoy High lighthouse next door is out tonight. I hadn't noticed but apparently it was out last night too. Usually there are back up systems - battery packs and generator, so it must be some other fault. It may be the first time in it's history that it has not been shining it's light across the water.

It was originally built by Alan Stevenon in 1851 (one of the "Lighthouse Stevensons") and would originally have been run by oil. Of course in those days the lighthouses were manned and lighthouse keepers and their families lived in the houses beneath the light.

These days the lighthouses are all "automatic" and engineers have to come out for maintenance, either by boat or via helicopter. It's Easter weekend and given that most vessels have GPS perhaps it's not felt it's an "emergency" to get the light working. It's sad,though, looking out of the window and seeing the tower in darkness.

Note : Here's a link from Judith in Nova Scotia, Canada - their community bought their lighthouse! Click here

April Showers - and gales......

It's been a mixed bag of weather this last week. Temperatures are warming up, and yesterday (Easter Sunday) started with rain but ended up a beautiful mild sunny afternoon and evening. However today we are back to wind, grey skies and rain.

But I made the most of the sunshine yesterday and was out transplanting "perennials" from the border at the rear of the house to the new borders in the walled garden. The rear border has been populated with rosa rugosa, willows, fuchsia, hebe and other fairly tough shrubs which are all now growing together and filling in the gaps. I'd started planting perennials there a year or so ago in preparation for the walled garden, so it's satisfying to be able to split and transplant clumps of plants. Though it will be some time before the walled garden borders look anything but sparse - sigh. Each border is 100ft long - that's room for a lot of plants!

As ever, the hens were in attendance. During one of the more windy days last week the "gate" keeping them out of the garden blew down, so the girls came in and helped me with the gardening. At one point I was lifting a clump of cornflowers with a garden fork underneath the plant and a hen on top of it!

The new cockerel is as yet unnamed but is much more amenable than the last one. At least this one is scared of me and runs in the opposite direction when I appear. Maybe he's heard the stories of what his fate will be if he doesn't behave! Anyway the girls seem happy with him. Though he did spend two days in the pen with the bull. He managed to get in OK but couldn't seem to get *out* again - clearly not the brightest of specimens..... Junior, the younger cockerel was hand reared before I got him and is very friendly and lets me stroke him. So hopefully all will be well again.

Below Junior doing the poultry equivalent of "Nah Nah, Nah-Nah, Nah" on the fallen garden "gate"