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Thursday 30 June 2011

Drama with hens....

OK it's more me being a Drama Queen than the hens it has to be said, and all ended well in case you were wondering. But this morning I went out to feed the hens (and barn cat, Charlie) and found the hen that I knew had hatched eggs yesterday was out sunning herself and her chicks. Fortunately Charlie is more keen (at the moment) on tinned cat food than the two legged ball of fluff variety - particularly as he'd have to get past a very aggressive hen. So I fed him and turned my attention to the Mother Hen and her chicks.

She has some very cute ones, my favourite are the brown fluffy ones that look like sparrows! These must be her own eggs, the others will be eggs laid by other hens.  Because that's what hens do - they appropriate eggs! Or at least several hens will lay eggs in a nest and one will decide to brood them.

 Well I was trying to count the chicks and thought she had nine, but it's hard to tell as they kept running about! Anyway I left them some food and left them to their sunbathing.

Later this afternoon I heard the strimmer working outside and looked out to see my neighbour strimming the grass near the henny house which had got overlong. It was actually getting difficult to get into the henny house - human OR hen, never mind chick.  But I was rather alarmed as I knew that the older chicks that hatched about five weeks ago often hid in the long grass.

These chicks have now been abandoned by their own mother and left to fend for themselves. This isn't as bad as it sounds, as the hen teaches the chicks to feed themselves at only a few days old. But of course they no longer have the hen to protect them from predators.  So they seem to stay, quite sensibly, around the long grass.

So I trotted down to speak to Neighbour and asked him to stop while I located the chicks. "Oh" he said "it's OK there are three of them in the hen house.".  Here's the drama queen bit - because of course I said there should be NINE. "Nobody move" I said and started looking for chicks in the grass.  Then I went into the hen house to check on the hen and chicks and...... it was a DIFFERENT hen with completely different chicks that also look only about a day old!!  This hen had been sitting in the barn....... So I do a few more histrionics of "Oh god, oh god, where are the chicks" and went in search of the other new brood..... they were with the hen who was rather indignant and standing in the barn. At which point my neighbour told me I couldn't count because she has ELEVEN chicks, not nine as I had thought..... All were well so I then had to hunt for the adolescent ones - they were hanging about in the other barn, rather like adolescents hanging about on a street corner..... I suspect ASBO's (anti-social behaviour orders) to be served on them any day now.....

Anyway with all livestock accounted for (9 five-week old chicks, 11 day-old with one hen, 3 day-old with another hen, and the rest of the flock), my neighbour then continued to strim the grass to at least enable week chicks to get into the henny house, but leave enough of the cow parsley and long grass for them to also hide from predators......

I am going to lie down in a darkened room after all that excitement.... and await MORE chicks as there are at least two more hens brooding somewhere in the barn (completely inaccessible.....).

The cockerel, meanwhile, is strutting about and giving me a look which clearly says "Harumph and you thought I wasn't a working model!".  I told him it was the hens that had done all the work and to take the smug look off his face....

Meanwhile, having a final check of the hen house just now, here are the adolescents on their perch with the new mum below, you can just see the head of a wee chick peeping out from under her chest.  The other new mum is back where she hatched her chicks tonight. I'm hoping, if all is quiet tomorrow, she'll take them into the henny hoose too.....

Wednesday 29 June 2011

Bumble at the Lighthouse...

This is a picture of the wee "caddy" lamb at the lighthouse. She's been bottle fed having been orphaned, and the children at the lighthouse have been leading her around with a collar and lead. The other orphan lambs have gone back into the flock but as she's become such a "pet" she's being kept back till she's a wee bit bigger. Meanwhile she's living down at the lighthouse at the back of one of the houses there and apparently wakes the children up in the morning shouting for her breakfast!

I met Bumble today when I went down to the post office which is in the garden at the lighthouse. Yes Graemsay has it's own post office even though we are an island of only 26.  And yes we have our own postman too - he lives at the lighthouse.  Post office opening hours Monday and Friday from something like 7.30am to 8.30am - I'm vague about the time as I am highly unlikely to be awake enough to want to even *visit* a post office at that time of the morning! Fortunately the post office is also open on a Wednesday from 11.30 to about 12.30, and that's when I pay a visit! Unlike post offices in most towns, you are not likely to encounter a queue at ours :-)

Today I also had some visitors from "south" - well Aviemore in the Highlands. V & G hadn't been to Orkney for about 12 years and this was also their first visit to Graemsay. Fortunately the sun shone upon us and we went for a walk along the beach and up to the old Quarry.

This evening I was working in the garden and heard the sound of cattle "shouting" - lots of bellowing from cows and calves. I looked up to see some cattle being moved onto fresh pasture. I love watching this - the cattle trot about and the calves gallop around. Eventually all settle down to grazing on fresh grass - happy cattle.  I heard the bull mumbling too (well OK a low kind of mooing), I think he was just checking all his ladies were present!

There have been some lovely sunsets this past week, the one below was from Monday - it looks blurred but actually that is the tide moving (honest!).

Tuesday 28 June 2011

Wild flowers.....

....Don't expect this to be an informative post! I only know half a dozen wild flowers and they are REALLY common!  But today Julian Branscombe, of the Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership, came over and led a walk looking at Graemsay wild flowers.  We started down at the old croft of Quoys, which has a burn running beside it, and old, mostly native (to Orkney) trees. Probably the only patch of native trees on Graemsay. I love going down to the old croft house and hearing the sound of the "babbling brook".

Anyway, here is Julian explaining the finer points a plant....oooh I remember now, it was a "wild" variety of forget-me-not.... I think......

There were also tree ferns (no not the tropical ones!), these really are ferns that grow on trees (well on Graemsay they do anyway).

 And one of my favourites - a moss covered tree.

Then there was "hay rattle" (ok a bit blurry)

This is Ladies Smock

This one is a potentilla (the wild variety not the cultivated garden one).

And this is a wee Water Sprite!

Monday 27 June 2011


Temperatures in Orkney have been somewhat below "average" for June, rather like the rest of the UK. But we have had sunshine, and the buttercups are doing well!

 This is Sandside beach, lots of sand! This is about 100 yards from my front door.  Bliss!

And this is the view from my "back door" - the henny hoose is at the end of the "lawn".

Sunday 26 June 2011

Garden flowers

The flower borders in the walled garden are coming along. I'm really pleased with the "wild flower" feel of one border in particular (photo above). I am a very impatient gardener, I want everything growing in abundance immediately, and as all gardeners know, nature doesn't work that way.

Currently the Dame's Rocket, geraniums and verbascum are growing taller than the weigelia, but it's time will come!

Still, I have to remind myself that the garden has come a long way since this...... (please note the sheep is *sleeping*, not dead! No animals were harmed in the making of this garden!!). The borders were only planted up in Summer 2009, so it will take a while for the trees and shrubs to get established.

Button enjoys accompanying me to inspect the flowers daily. Here she is doing the usual cat thing of dealing with vertical slopes without any hesitation....

Mostly though she enjoys a little sun worship!

And of course the new bench is an ideal vantage point to watch birdies and butterflies......

St Magnus Festival footnote : If you read my recent posts, last Saturday I went to a rather odd performance as part of the MagFest, the fringe theatre element of the festival. I've just read a review of the performance when it was performed at the Barbican in London in 2010 - thank goodness it wasn't just me then that didn't "get it"!  Don't get me wrong, I *love* "alternative" theatre performances. When I lived in London I frequented mostly fringe theatre rather than the big "shows".  A performance which had a huge impact on me was Samuel Beckett's "Not I", and "Waiting for Godot" is my all time favourite. But THIS performance was just bizarre with nothing to recommend it.  And most of the audience I heard talking about it felt the same, and it isn't that Orkney audiences are "unsophisticated"!  I'm probably more disappointed that I saw something that didn't work well for me, when there were so many other wonderful things I didn't see.  Sign.....

Saturday 25 June 2011


These photos were taken a few days ago on an evening ferry home. Above is Hoy High lighthouse. Below the sun is setting on the entrance to Scapa Flow

And here we have the hills of Hoy wearing a hat for the occasion!

Friday 24 June 2011

St Magnus Festival II

The recital by brass quintet "Pure Brass" exceeded expectations!  The quintet are a young group of professional musicians who gave a brilliant and, at times, witty, recital.  My personal favourites were the Fnugg, wonderfully executed, and I had NO idea a tuba could make those kinds of noises! Another fun piece was "the Reform of Rank Bajin" which included members of the audience being serenaded (um.... not sure if that's *quite* the right word for having a trumpet thrust in my right ear?!). Other more serious pieces were great too.

And the folk on Hoy made everyone welcome as usual, with lifts from the pier to the Hoy Kirk, via the cafe for tea and cake.  On the boat journey home we could hear the seals calling, a perfect end to a perfect evening.

And on the ferry over to Hoy we saw Dave MacLeod who had, the day previously, completed the ascent of St John's Head cliffs. Breaking new ground as that particular route hadn't been climbed before (and that is the limit of my climbing knowledge!).  He is either a very brave man, or completely bonkers! Either way, well done to him. Dave's description of the climb can be found on his blog here

One of my blog readers commented that I portrayed the Orkney landscape as soft rolling hills.  Well generally it is, though there are some high points around the coasts, and the island of Hoy has a hill just a wee bit shorter than a mountain! I must post some pictures sometime..... Graemsay though is definitely low lying with the highest point being just 65 feet!

Here are some of the Hoy Hills from Graemsay, but the cliffs that were climbed are out of sight....

Wednesday 22 June 2011

St Magnus Festival

As I mentioned briefly yesterday, this week it's the St Magnus Festival, the annual "arts" festival in Orkney. It began in 1977, set up by composer Peter Maxwell Davies, a long time resident of Orkney (now Master of the Queen's Music or some such fancy title!).

Anyway this signals a week of events including performances of classical music, poetry readings, theatre and performance. This year due to pressure of work I've only been to a couple of events, and one more to go tonight.

Both Kirkwall (the main town in Orkney), and Stromness (the town just across the water from Graemsay) are quite lively during Festival week. Visitors come from far and wide to join locals in all the events which include "Festival Clubs" going on into the wee small hours.

On Saturday I went to a piano recital given by Alessandro Taverna performing pieces by Bach, Beethoven, Debussy and Stravinsky. It was a brilliant recital. We were in the "cheap seats" up in the gods of the balcony of the Town Hall (a former church), but actually we had a great view and could watch his amazing fingerwork across the keyboard. I love local festivals, because as well as having the chance to see international performers, you always meet lots of folk you know and it gives you a chance to catch up with them in the interval or at the local cafes!

Later that evening we went into Kirkwall where the St Magnus Festival always has a "fringe theatre" space. This year it was in an old builder's merchant shed, and we saw a show which was billed as "A stunning, hypnotic show. The sorceress-puppeteer creates theatre of startling images, at once droll and frightening." Hmm let's say it was from the sublime to the ridiculous. Several people walked out and it was one of the longest hours I have spent..... It will be interesting to see the reviews - I'm not sure anyone in the audience I was part of enjoyed it.....

One of the "events" that even made it to the BBC news was Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (known locally as Max) incensed at the number of mobile phones ringing during performances. One in particular apparently ruined a magnificent silence at a performance in the cathedral. It's amazing considering there is ALWAYS an announcement at the beginning to turn off your mobile phone!  Even at the piano recital I heard a phone ring, but fortunately it didn't disturb the musical atmosphere, just made people cross! Mobile phones can be wonderful but oft-times they can equally be a curse!

Tonight it's off to Hoy for a performance of the Stromabank Pub Choir (from the island) together with a visiting group "Pure Brass". That should be very entertaining!

As well as the Festival there are other activities going on, including a new summer exhibition at the Pier Arts Centre, and an initiative by local artists which consists of the display of works by 45 local artists in shop and house windows along the main street in Stromness.  It's a great idea and I love seeing the art in unusual spaces! For a review click here.

Tuesday 21 June 2011

So much happening...

... in Orkney at the moment!  The St Magnus Festival, the Orkney annual arts festival, is currently in full swing, more of that later.

Today is the summer solstice, sadly rather cloudy so I'm not sure there will be much of a sunset and certainly not much sun worshipping going on!  However, I'll celebrate it anyway with a walk to the shell beach this evening in the hope of seeing the sun setting!

It's the anniversary of the scuttling of the German Fleet in Scapa Flow in WWI in 1919, over 92 years ago!  As part of the Armistice agreement the German Fleet were anchored in Scapa Flow. The Commander of the German Fleet didn't want the dishonour of handing over his ships to the "Allies" so he scuttled them. Eventually most of the wreckage was salvaged in the 1920s and 1930s. There's lots of information online, but for a brief history click here

Now to the present day!

Currently on the island of Hoy, one of Scotland's leading climbers, Dave MacLeod, is leading a team to climb the St John's Cliffs. The island of Hoy has some magnificent cliffs and an old sea stack called the "Old Man of Hoy", which are a magnet for climbers. Apparently the cliffs that Dave is attempting are particularly challenging. His climb is being filmed and the production team have a blog here. Amazing photos!

The road home....

.... is probably the name I should give to the photo at the top of my blog. This shows the island "main road" leading from the pier westwards. At the bottom of the hill is my home. Across the water (known as "Hoy Sound") is the town of Stromness, nestling within the bowl of the hills. The fields in the photo are covered in buttercups - a very good year for them. The thing that looks like an oil rig in the left of the picture is in fact "Excalibur" - no, no, not the King Arthur version! This one is a "jack-up" barge which is involved in a renewable energy installation at Billia Croo, West of Stromness (more about that in a later post).

Sunday 19 June 2011

"You're not helping!"

.... is basically what I told Button(s) this afternoon.  I was attempting to put up the fleecy cloche over my supposed carrots.  She thought this was a wonderful cosy new sleeping place.

Then I moved onto sorting out the peas, most of which have been eaten by slugs so a resowing required I fear. But their growth is NOT helped by Princess Button(s) sitting on top of them!  The netting is down to stop the chickens eating them and scratching them up..... Buton(s) clearly thinks she had better keep watch too....sigh....

As you can see my crops are well behind those of you growing veggies in the South of England! Generally in Orkney we don't plant much before June as the ground hasn't warmed up enough. 

Wednesday 15 June 2011


Last night was a spectacular sunset. The photo above was taken at 22.50!  I'd missed the earlier actual setting of the sun which was about 22.20 but the sky stayed a wonderful colour for some time to come. The white in the middle of the picture is cow parsley - it flowers much later in Orkney compared to in the South of England. I love this plant, it always reminds me of my old pony, Badger. We would arrive back in the stable yard with him dragging an entire plant, complete with roots, proudly in his mouth! It was always just at mouth height for him and he could never resist and tasty cow parsley plant!

Tonight there is due to be a lunar eclipse but after a lovely sunny day it is now clouding over - sigh. So it's unlikely we will see much in Orkney.

Meanwhile, I found one of my hens had died during the night. Poor thing. She was one of my Light Sussex hens, large with beautiful soft feathers. She had seemed to be unwell for a while in that she wasn't hanging about with the other hens but often on her own. No idea how old she was - I've lost track of the ages of my hens - they remain in glorious retirement here long after they have stopped laying! It's the least I can do for producing an egg a day for most of their lives.

However the hens were soundly told off the other day. I had put some bedding plants still in their boxes out in the garden to "harden off" while I was away in Westray.  I came back to find a lot of the plants had been "nibbled" and the hens had even eaten the polystyrene! I dread to think what THAT will do to them (or the eggs!).

 Needless to say, the hens completely ignored my scolding as they carried on even when I had planted the tubs up!  And yes I do blame the hens and not the cockerel - he just seems to follow on behind, rather than "leading the way"!

Tuesday 14 June 2011

More on Westray

While I was on Westray I went in search of puffins.  I've seen puffins flying past Graemsay but never seen them on the ground.  The Castle O' Burrian in Westray is an ideal place to just lie on your stomach on the grass and look across to the rock stack known as the Castle and just watch the puffins come in and out of their burrows. I have no photos as just focussing on them with the binoculars was challenging enough and I didn't want to miss any of the action! But we all know what a puffin looks like so I'm sure you'll excuse the aberration In Orkney they are known as "Tammie Norries" - no idea why but I think it suits them. I watched about 15 or so, flying in, flying out, or pottering among their burrows. I find it amazing that these wee birds spend most off their life out at sea, just coming onto land to nest and breed.  They mate for life and come back to the same burrow too.

I've been following the Shetland Puffincam rather obsessively. Apparently the egg is due to hatch within the next few days.  The link is here

I also paid a visit to the "Westray Wife" (know internationally as The Orkney Venus). You can see her below - she's tiny!  But she is 5,000 years old and was discovered during the links of Notland dig in 2009. There's a closer view here along with another part of a figure found at the same dig. Both are on display for the summer in Westray.

Below is a picture of the ruin of Notland Castle, which has had a rather lurid past, the original owner who had the castle built was the brother-in-law of Mary Queen of Scots and was tried for treason. He seems to have had murderous tendencies in more than one direction! There are some caves on the coast not far from Notland now called "Gentleman's Cave" where it is reputed Balfour, the owner of the castle, hid from those trying to capture him.

But carrying along the road leaves behind the darker past and the view across cliffs and the lighthouse on Noup Head open up.

Another lighthouse designed by the Stevenon family who also built the 2 lighthouses on Graemsay

And these horses seemed to be enjoying the lush grass (we are not suffering the same drought conditions of the South of England as you can see!).

The cottage we stayed in was at the North end of the island near the airport - now before you start imagining London Heathrow - here is a photo of the plane which landed twice a day near the bottom of our garden!

The plane also makes the trip to Papay Westray, the island in the background - it's more the size of Graemsay but with around 60 inhabitants a wee bit more crowded!  From Papay, as it is known locally, to Westray you can get the world's shortest commercial flight (and a certificate to prove it!) - the plane journey takes about 3 minutes and most of that is landing and take off! 

The more usual form of transport is the local ferry, again much bigger than our Graemsay ferry and this one is a proper roll-on-roll-off ferry able to take cars, tractors, livestock trailers and articulated lorries - unlike our own wee ferry!

So that's it for Westray for this year.  There are some more photos from my visits in previous years if you want to take a look: 2008 and 2009.

Monday 13 June 2011

Trip to Westray

While the rain pours down outside (we've had a severe weather warning from the Met Office for torrential rain!) I shall remind myself of my sunny trip to the island of Westray, one of Orkney's most northerly islands. The island has about 600 inhabitants (huge then compared to our 26) and has lots of interesting archaeology and lovely sandy beaches. Not to mention cafes with homebakes and lovely (local) fish and chips, and excellent hospitality with fantastic carrot cake.... but more of all this later. First some "beach" photos...... above look closely and you can just about see some seals on the shore....

Shorelines with not a soul to in sight....

And ruins right along the shore - coastal erosion has probably made them even closer.....

and Pigs in Paradise.....

I was personally introduced to Molly and Alfie by Malcolm (as of the blog "The Edge of Nowhere") I also saw "Little Kim's" wee piglets that are about to be weaned....hmmm might have to give up bacon after that introduction.... they were so sweet.....

And these are Merlin (a wee Shetland stallion), Teddy, (the bigger Shetland, and Malc's boots...

I also met most of the other animal inhabitants of the farm (dogs, ducks, ducklings), and his wife Sal provided the best carrot cake I have ever tasted. And as you know I am something of a connoisseur of Cake... Their farm has the best view over Westray I think, a combination of farmland, hills and sea.  Fantastic place to rear pigs - and live, of course.

As for the rest of the island, most of the "industry" is farming, lots of farms and crofts, some fishing (I think it is the only Orkney island with a fishing fleet now), and also renwable energy (they have a biodigester and wind turbines). There are also two hotels, a couple of "general stores" where you can get all the essentials of life, including Westray shortbread biscuits, a pottery, and gallery selling photos of the locality AND home bakes. And then there is the archaeology - but more of that tomorrow.....

I'll leave you now with this fascinating rock formation - I wonder what traumatic earth events formed this? I spent a while pondering this question while soaking up the now peaceful atmosphere of the landscape.