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Monday 27 September 2010

Preparing the garden for .... Spring!

I didn't have the heart to cut down this beautiful Scottish Thistle that has grown in the vegetable patch.  The bees love it and I think the flowers are pretty and I love something about the spikiness of the plant so it gets to stay a little longer.

I've been laying down recycled silage-plastic across the veggie patch in an effort to keep weeds at bay until I'm ready to plant next Spring. I'm hoping it will help the earth warm up a little earlier too ready for planting. Cathy from Fillets, "up the road" on Graemsay delivered the silage plastic and helped me lay it out, which is just as well as there is no way I could have weighted it down with *those* stones!

The sun shone and clouds created lovely patterns across the sky.  I soaked up the peace and warmth, taking great gulps of fresh air (not least cos I was out of breath from the work!).  Thursday sees Easterly gales forecast with winds up to 60mph so time to batten down hatches as Autumn is really here now!

Sunday 26 September 2010


This is a photo of Hoy Low lighthouse with Hoy High in the background, both on Graemsay. Yes I know, why not Graemsay High and Low? Well the lighthouses are built on the Hoy Sound and so take that name. Below is some information gathered from the Stromness Museum and also the Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership who are preparing an "interpretation board" for visitor information at the Graemsay Pier.

Hoy High is 115 feet high and Hoy Low 40 feet high.  The lights are "leading lights" rather than more traditional revolving lights. This is because they were designed to guide the herring fleet into Stromness Harbour. When the lights are lined up correctly mariners have safe passage through the Hoy Sound to the harbour.  There are a number of skerries in the Sound which are hidden just beneath the surface at high water.  Although the lights look white from certain angles they appear red - again to ensure that ships enter at the correct angle.

The lighthouses were designed by Alan Stevenson, one of the "Lighthouse Stevenson's" who designed most of the Scottish Lighthouses which come under the Northern Lighthouse Board.  The lighthouse was built in 1850. The huge blocks were cut and shaped in Stromness and then shipped across to Graemsay to the slipway just below Sandside. The stone would have been transferred to the final location via ox cart on a rough road laid across the island for the purpose, before being put together like a giant jigsaw!

Inside the lighthouse towers the staircases were decorated with "angels". Below are two of the "Hoy Low Angels" which are now in Stromness Museum (Photo: Rebecca Marr)

The lighthouse keepers were also stationed out on Graemsay to tend to the lamps. However in the 1970's the both the lights were automated and so only one keeper was retained.  The last one being Tommy Thomson who retired a few years ago. Now the lighthouses are managed from Stromness, with a warning system alerting to faults which engineers come out to repair. Both the towers are painted regularly too and are still owned by the Northern Lighthouse Board.  However the Keeper's houses are now private residences and neither the lighthouses or the Keeper's houses are available to the public.

Hoy Low was also the location of a gun battery during WWII. I've posted about this before here. Below are the remains of the gun battery.  This was unusual as the gun emplacement had no roof cover and search lights were mounted in pairs. The battery operated between 1943 and July 1945 linking up with gun batteries on Hoy and Stromness to protect one of the entrances to Scapa Flow.

Gun Battery (photo courtesy of Tom Muir)

Saturday 25 September 2010

Harvest Moon

This is a photo of the Harvest Moon rising over Orphir on the Orkney Mainland. The harvest moon is the full moon nearest to the autumnal equinox, which is when day and night are equal length. According to the BBC News website this year's moon is special because "for the first time since 1991, these two events coincided in the small hours of Thursday, in the northern hemisphere."

The last few nights have been beautiful and I've lingered while returning from shutting the hens into their henny-hoose.  Last night was particularly beautiful as the wind had dropped and in the stillness all I could hear were the waves gently lapping the shore as the moon rose over the Orkney Mainland. I love waking in the night and seeing the moonlight streaming through the window.  I'm not really a night person, but I do think I'm a "moon-child"!

Wednesday 22 September 2010

Autumn equinox

Well OK not quite, I think the Autumn Equinox is actually 23rd, but anyway, here are some photos taken over the last couple of days as we slip into Autumn. 

The sun has tracked several miles south-west across Scapa Flow to set behind Graemsay now.  In mid-summer the sun sets more nort-west behind Black Craig on the Orkney Mainland. Today sunrise was at 0656 and sunset will be at 1912, such a difference from the "white nights" of summer. Last week I was raging against the fading summer as we had gales for several days.  But after a few days respite of warmth and sun I've made my peace and am happy to let summer slip away for another year and welcome the more reflective time of Autumn and Winter.  Though no doubt I will have more fruitless rages against the weather!

Mid-summer sunset

Late summer sunshine on the green fields of Graemsay and the Hoy hills behind.

The sheep are enjoying the last flush of grass and the sun on their backs.  The house in the background is Western Horn.

Monday 20 September 2010

Bird feeders

As autumn is here I thought it time to put out some food for the garden birds.  I'm fortunate to have a lot of sparrows around, and they love picking the seeds from the pampas grass! So I bought some bird feeders and hung them in the only tree in the garden big enough to hold them - a old gnarled elder, with leaves blackened by the gales of last week.  I'm not sure how successful these will be given the strong winds, though their location is protected from the worst of the South Westerly gales.  I had to reinforce the hangers as these were most definitely NOT robust.  Anyway peanuts and seeds feeders and some "fat balls" now adorn the tree in various places.

I can't accommodate the ground feeding birds like blackbirds as anything I put down will be eaten by the hens, but I'm hoping the blackbirds etc will get some of the "spill" from the feeders, and I can throw a little seed for them in the morning while the hens are otherwise occupied with their scraps!

I remember as a child, my mother would feed the garden sparrows at 4pm every day and the birds would line up on the shed roof and if she was late would even tap on the window!  So I'm hoping my ground-feeding birds can learn a similar time-keeping discipline for the morning and arrive in time for "breakfast"!

It has been lovely this summer as the garden has developed more "garden" birds appearing, and of course outside the garden are the field birds (meadow pippits etc), and the shore birds (lapwings, curlews, oystercatchers) and the sea birds.  Several broods of swallows have fledged from the barn. So the air around the house has been filled with a variety of bird calls from the different species.  It's lovely, just being 100 yards from the shore to hear such variety.

Anyway, back to the bird feeders. The packaging instructions of the bird-feeder said "Site out of range of predators" - Um........

On the plus side Button is a night prowler on the whole, so at least the birds will be free to eat in safety during the day - I hope!

Saturday 18 September 2010

Hoy Landscape

I've posted photos of  the island of Hoy several times before, because I just love the wildness of the landscape.  I'm unable to walk much of it myself, but friends who do share their photos with me.  So here are some pictures taken by J. last weekend of the South coast of the island of Hoy (which is the larger island to the South of Graemsay).

A small inlet along the coast

A reed pool

Tuesday 14 September 2010

Vertical Rain!

Yes I hear you say, rain is vertical.  Um.... not usually in Orkney!  Yesterday, before the gales returned, I stood on the doorstep listening to the gentle pitter-patter of rain on the flagstones, watching the droplets bouncing gently, and hearing the lovely plip-plop noises of raindrops on puddles.  The rain sang through the guttering and I rejoiced in the pure sound of RAIN!  Today we are back to the horizontal variety blown by the wind UP down-pipes (watch out incy wincy spiders!), lashing against windows finding any crevice it can to creep through, seeking weaknesses around doors, spitting through key-holes, and pouring through the cat flap so fast I have set Button to bailing out (you can imagine how THAT went...).  This afternoon we even had hail showers - they hurt!  Ah well I shall hold the memory for a while of the gentle pitter patter of rain and dream of Gene Kelly......

Sunday 12 September 2010

Last of the summer harvest

Today was a lovely warm sunny day and I made the most of it by harvesting the last of the broad beans and peas, as well as digging up some "tatties", and picking a few courgettes.

The veg garden has produced mixed results this year. Potatoes are doing well, two varieties this year, Pink Fir Apple and a Pentland variety (I forget which one!).  Onions were "early" onions, planted last autumn, and after just sitting there for months on end, and  being nearly dug up as I'd given up on them, they then produced a wonderful crop.  Broad beans have done well again, peas were slow, runner beans non-existant.  Strawberries gave a bumper crop, as have courgettes (grown outdoors), and salad leaves did well, though some lettuce bolted. Carrots were slow, but tasty. Everything was really "late" this year as Spring was cold, in fact Summer wasn't much warmer!  But I'm pleased with my 2nd year harvest and already have plans for next year. Lots of fresh veggies throughout the season, and a good supply of peas and beans in the freezer for winter soups and stews!

Given the walled garden is only about 50 feet from the shore, and Orkney is on a similar latitude to Anchorage in Alaska I think the garden has done well this year!  Though it has to be said, regarding Anchorage - we do have the benefit of the Gulf Stream so our winters are mild in comparison!  However the gales and salt do a fair bit of damage, and generally, apart from netting things to protect from hens, I just leave everything to get on with it.  A mulch of seaweed in the autumn, and a light dig in the Spring before planting is the extent of my "gardening", and of course the ever present battle against the weeds!

Thursday 9 September 2010

I lied.....

.... it wasn't the last of the Summer sunsets!!  After three days of wind, gales, more wind, today has been a beautifully calm, quiet day with not even a breeze, wonderfully warm in fact.   Indeed even warmer than most of the summer!  And tonight the sea is flat calm in the Bay, though it still roars out in the Atlantic off Warbeth. Tomorrow winds are forecast to return, but for tonight I shall bask in the calm and beauty of a September sunset!

Tuesday 7 September 2010

Last of the summer sunsets.....

This photo was taken a couple of weeks ago... the sun has already moved further to the left, setting behind the edge of Graemsay.  I'm trying to be positive about the move to Autumn, but three days of strong, near to gale force winds are testing my patience!  Winds are expected to die down by the end of the week thank goodness!

I went to the pier at lunch-time to collect my groceries from the ferry (sent over by the grocery shop in Stromness).  The spray was breaking over the pier! Thankfully neighbours offered to bring my groceries up so I didn't have to venture down to the boat, which was much appreciated.

The days are shortening too.  Tonight sunset was at 19.56 (19.34 in London).  But at least it's been a bright few days - even if going outdoors is a challenge......

Monday 6 September 2010

Ness of Brodgar Archaeological Dig

I wrote last year about the excavations underway at the Ness of Brodgar site on the Orkney Mainland. This site is believed to date from the late Neolithic period and is still being uncovered. A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to go on one of the tours around the site to see progress since last year.

An aerial view and some discussion of interpreting the site has been made by Dr Colin Richards of the University of Manchester who has excavated several other sites in Orkney and it makes fascinating reading.  The Ness of Brodgar sits between the Ring of Brodgar, the Standing Stones of Stenness, the Barnhouse Settlement, and with Maes Howe nearby.  Quite how all these sites are interlinked is still under investigation, but it is quite extraordinary to actually stand and watch archaeologists uncovering the past before our very eyes!

The diary here gives a daily account of the dig, written by various of the volunteers, students and archaeologists working on the site. Some "art" has been found, and painted stones, possibly the earliest examples of painted stone in Europe.
The Ness of Brodgar dig is directed by Nick Card of the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA)
and it was he who gave us the "tour".  His enthusiasm knew no bounds as he walked and talked us round the site - despite driving rain!  As a "spectator" I could feel the energy and excitement around the dig. I wanted to grab a trowel and have a go myself!  As it was I settled for watching a young lass slowly revealing some neolithic pottery shards before my very eyes.  Magic! 

It looks chaotic but I'm assured there IS order in the chaos!!  And you can see the site is really big.

Some of the "dressed" stone

Nick Card explaining the work in this area - I wanted to ask - Should you be standing on a neolithic stone wall ?!!

You can quite clearly see a "W" shaped wall appearing here

Here are just a few of the finds

The BBC have also been filming, and the History presenter Neil Oliver was on site several days.  Apparently the dig will form part of a BBC broadcast this winter. 

Sunday 5 September 2010

Heather in bloom at Brodgar

The heather is looking gorgeous at the Ring of Brodgar just now.  I love visiting this place during all the seasons, it looks and feels quite different at other times of the year. Currently Historic Scotland, who manage the site, are trying to repair some of the grass footpath around the stones as due to lots of visitors these footpaths get quite a battering each year. I've posted about the Ring of Brodgar  previously in the winter (this stone circle dates from around 2,500 to 2000 BC) but here are some photos from the late summer. Tomorrow I'll post some photos of the recent archaeological dig at the Ness of Brodgar....

I love the hairy lichens that colonise the stone!

Saturday 4 September 2010

Swallow fledglings

Well I *think* they are swallows - I get confused between the swift/swallow/house martin family.... However swallows have been in evidence around the house and outbuildings most of the summer so I'm assuming these are swallow fledglings.  They are rather late and I fear they may not make the migration South. The parents have already fledged one brood, so this is their second and have been nesting in an old outbuilding - right above my ride-on mower!  So I've had to ensure I cover the mower otherwise they cover it for me - sigh.  But I love seeing them swooping around the field and garden so I shall forgive them anyway!

The border at the rear of the house has come on really well this year.  Below are a couple of "before and after" shots.  I planted the border up in May 2008 with willows, fuschia, rosa-rugosa, and there's a pampas grass and some perennials in there too.  I'm really pleased with the way it has all "knitted" together - not that much space for weeds now!  That's my kind of gardening :-)

"Before" in May 2008

"After" in September 2010

Today has been one of those lovely late summer days with blue skies, and quite warm out of the breeze.  The island kids have been down on the beach with their dogs playing in the shallows and having fun!

Friday 3 September 2010


Sea Arch at Yesnaby
Yesnaby is one of my favourite places on the Orkney Mainland. It has rugged cliffs, raging seas, and on a clear day you can glimpse the mountains of Scotland in the South, and even see Ben Hope.  Even on a beautiful sunny day it can feel really wild.  It is off this coastline that it is proposed to put the marine energy technology sometime over the next few years.  The Scottish Government have granted licenses to various renewable energy companies.  It remains to be seen what actually appears on the water but potentially it could have a strong visual impact on the landscape at Yesnaby.  For now I shall rejoice in the wildness of the space!

The sea slowly eroding the shore
Sea Cliffs looking towards the tidal
island of Birsay
The pastoral landscape rolling out
behind the cliffs

An old work-horse to pull the boat
safely ashore

Thursday 2 September 2010

Beach treasure

My favourite beach on Graemsay is known locally as the "shell beach". Although shells can be found on other parts of the island shore, this particular beach has layers of them, together with cold water coral. Beautiful! I love walking on the beach, largely because of the view and to hear the waves lapping the shore. I have to remind myself to look down at my feet and wonder at the myriad of sea creatures that once inhabited these tiny shells.

Some of these shells are so small!

Below are "Groatie Buckies", a local name for this tiny cowrie shell, which is supposed to bring luck to the finder. They are shown next to a 50p piece (if you don't know the UK currency then this won't mean much to you!)

And not forgetting the plants which grow on that in-between space of land and sea......

Wednesday 1 September 2010


Sorry - I've been busy with work, a visitor from "south" and - well life in general. I've been neglecting this blog which is very remiss of me. However I have photos and tales to tell so will try and get back on track again now the night's are drawing in....... it's SEPTEMBER - arrrgghh!!

Anyway - photo of Hoy High lighthouse with Stromness on the Orkney Mainland in the background..... back soon.....