Sugar rush

Apr. 23rd, 2009 09:25 pm
shewhomust: (bibendum)
Today we took the plunge and booked our trip to Iceland. Which seems as good a reason as any to post one last installment of last year's holiday in the (not quite so) Northern Isles.

My notes say: "All you really need to eat well in Scotland is a sweet tooth." Oh, yes. The comment was provoked by Shetland's Sunday teas, but it applies the length and breadth of the country. Almost the first thing I ate, in Coldstream, as soon as we'd crossed the Tweed, was a piece of Border tart (from the debatable lands on either side of the border).

On Shapinsay we were served a dessert which our hostess called 'Island Mist': like Eton Mess, it is a mixture of whipped cream, broken meringue and red fruit (raspberries, being Scottish, rather than strawberries). But it is enriched with small lumps of fudge, and then crème de cassis is poured over the top. It's served with a finger of shortbread, presumably to reduce the overall richness.

In Shetland, home baking is a competitive sport. Each week the Shetland Times carries advertisements for 'Sunday Teas' (there is no singular; it's always in the plural, and I see why) held in the Village Hall to raise funds for some good cause. We went to Aith, where the Teas were combined with a plant sale. The trestle tables along one side of the hall displayed the plants (although most of these had gone by the time we got there - but what does it tell you about the desperate yearning for trees in the Northern Isles that there were sycamore seedlings for sale? For sale, admittedly, not all sold, but still, something that I uproot from my garden with a vengeful cry...). On the other side of the hall, the tables were piled high with scones and cakes and buns and traybakes and biscuits. You paid a trifling amount, you piled your plate high, you found a seat and someone came round with an enormous teapot and poured you a cup of tea. And when you'd emptied your plate, you went round again. Each time you went round, something new would have appeared, as the plates were emptied and replaced: it's apparently a matter of pride to contribute something home baked, and people have their specialties. We ate as much as we could, honestly, but it wasn't possible to try everything.

I'm told there are people - well, I'm told there are women - who visit several teas in an afternoon, just to compare the standard of what's on offer.

And the next day we sailed back into Aberdeen. There were traffic lights! And trees - tall trees, in full leaf, some of them - once we left the city - silhouetted against fields of rape. Things were flowering: rhododendrons and lilacs and even the occasional hawthorn. Spring had arrived while we were away in the north.
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One of the things about Shetland is, you can see where the oil money has gone. The wealth that has flowed into the islands (in payment for serving as a base for North Sea Oil) has been visibly translated into the fast, smooth road that runs the length of Mainland, into swimming pools in small villages, and into a smart new library and museum in Lerwick.

Lerwick museum


We spent most of the next day in the museum, five minutes walk from 'our house': turn right and down to the end of Burgh Road, carry on straight ahead through what appeared to be a builders' merchant's yard, and you are at the 'sail' end of the building. We were exhausted before we'd seen half the collection, but three things which I wrote down at the time:

  • A case containing the book Shetland Lichens (by Kery Dalby, illustrated by his wife Claire), and a note headlined "A Passion for Lichens" explaining that "Kery Dalby, who stays in Perth, has been studying lichens for over 30 years. He has identified 26 new species of Shetland lichens, and collected countless specimens. He recently donated a collection of these to the museum." I'm not sure what it is about this that appeals to me so much. On the one hand, Shetland's lichens are genuinely magnificent (I took photographs of them myself); on the other hand, a collection of countless specimens of lichen is not everyone's perfect gift...

  • Skekklers - wonderful photograph! go look! - are guisers, and wear a costume made of straw.

  • J.J. Haldane Burgess was known as "The Burns of the North" and "The Shetland Esperantist".
shewhomust: (bibendum)
The day after we had visited the southernmost tip of Shetland (southernmost, that is, excluding Fair Isle, which will have to wait for another trip), naturally, we had to head as far north as we could. Two ferries took us from Mainland to Yell, and from Yell to Unst, the most northerly inhabited island: in fact we cut it fine crossing Yell, and screeched down to the jetty to see the ferry pulling away - but as we watched, it paused, and then backed up to collect us.

We drove all the way north to Hermaness, and walked far enough beyond the end of the road that honour was satisfied. We didn't reach the coast ("Next time," we said), but we walked further than we'd intended to, because the air was cold and clear and hard as rock crystal, and the stones glittered in the sunlight. There were bonxies (great skuas) nesting, but there was also a great twittering of small birds. Sea birds don't seem to dominate the avian conversation in Shetland the way they do in Orkney - several times on the road north we'd disturbed gangs of starlings.

Unst is 12 miles long and five miles wide, with a population of 500: what would we find to entertain us there? There were Shetland ponies - and baby ponies, even smaller and fluffier than the adults (Shetland has a number of distinct species, smaller than the equivalent elsewhere in Britain, apparently: as well as the ponies, there are the sheep which provide wool for the knitwear, and a Shetland wren). We had lunch in the Northern Lights Bistro and Gallery, where we drank beer from the Valhalla Brewery, "the most northerly brewery in the United Kingdom." We visited the boat museum, bought knitwear from the knitwear shop and failed to post anything at Britain's most northerly post office (where it would have received a distinctive puffin postmark). We explored Muness Castle - Scotland's most northerly castle ('most northerly' is a recurring theme in Shetland - Britain's most northerly barbershop stood at the end of the street where we were staying in Lerwick - but it is on Unst that it really comes into its own).

Unst's major tourist attraction, though, is none of these things: Ta - DAH! )

Then it was back to the ferry and the drive south down the length of Mainland in golden evening sun that warmed all the colours of the moorland.
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Two puffinsAnd the reason why we were driving south (past Sumburgh Airport, where the road crosses the runway with a sign saying "Ahead Only") was to see the sights of Sumburgh, the southernmost tip of Shetland's Mainland. There's a lighthouse, and a fascinating complex of archaeological remains (layer upon layer, back into the past) and best of all, there are puffins. And the puffin, as we know, is my totem animal.

For I shall consider the puffin - with much squeeing and many small photographs... )
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Look out for aliens


Driving north to Brae the previous day, I had been struck by the absence old farms; but all we had to do was to loop off the broad smooth ribbon of the new road (in Shetland, you can see exactly where the oil money has been spent), into the village. Beyond the new houses in Fladdabister are a group of abandoned crofts, reduced to grassy mounds, heaps of stones, tell-tale patches of feral rhubarb. Here and there lie a piece of rusting farm macinery, or a stack of old doors, because after all, they might come in handy some time. And beyond the grass is the sea, and beyond the sea are more low hills.

And that was Fladdabister.
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We do not do New Year's resolutions in this establishment; but at one point over the holidays Sue (who does not have a LiveJournal, but did accompany us to Shetland) asked me whether I had ever got round to sorting out the photographs I had taken there. I hadn't, of course; this tab is still open. The reminder sent me back to those photos, though. Many of them are now uploaded to Flickr (and many more to follow); there are puffins on my desktop; and while I am fighting back the urge to post all my favourite photos here, with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one - well, I'll try not to do that, but there will probably be the odd Shetland post.

There is a sign on the road into Lerwick, which reads:

Welcome to Lerwick
Leirvic - Old Norse - Muddy Creek

Truth in advertising is a fine thing, but this may be taking it too far.
shewhomust: (bibendum)
Tuesday morning we breakfasted with the relief nurse: when the Shapinsay nurse is away, she comes over from Rousay for the three midweek days, and a colleague who lives on Mainland covers the four-day weekend. I suppose eventually you become accustomed to the casual nature of this island hopping. Certainly the ferry back to Kirkwall was as straightforward as a commuter bus journey, if rather more pleasant (always bearing in mind that we were very lucky with the weather).

We spent most of the day in Stromness; it's a very agreeable town to wander about in, and I wanted to visit the Pier Art Gallery. It's a gallery I've loved since my first visit to Orkney, not so much for its collection as for its setting. It has a fine collection of modern - that is, what I think is still called "modern" - British art, but I'm not particularly modern in my tastes. The building, though, was once the offices and stores of Hudson's Bay Company, very plain and simple interiors, running down to the harbour with - like many of Stromness's harbourside buildings - its own pier. So a Barbara Hepworth sculpture could be displayed in a small, deep set window, framed by the white walls but with the sea behind it. I love sculpture in landscape, and this comes as close as an indoor gallery can. Since our last visit the gallery has been dramatically extended, and the new building has one entire wall of glass looking out onto the harbour.

Barbara Hepworth's standing stonesThe other charm of the collection is that the heart of it is just that, one woman's collection. Margaret Gardiner was a friend of many of the artists whose work she bought, especially Barbara Hepworth and Ben NIcholson. Many of the pieces are accompanied, on the descriptive label, by her comment on what it is, and how and why she bought it. I liked her account of visiting an artist (not a name I recognised, and I've now forgotten it) and saying "Everyone tells me what a good paimnter you are, but I can't see it." He replied that she needed to live with one of his paintings for a few months, unhooked one from the wall and sent her home with it. And, she explained, he was quite right, and after a few months she couldn't bear to part with it, so she bought it, and here it was.

Some of the descriptions, however, come from a different source: children from the local primary schools have also been invited to suggest what some of the works might represent. This is more successful with the purely abstract works. Works which actually do represent something are liable to fox the children: this Paolozzi collage of an oil lamp, for example (probably my favourite piece in the collection), was described as two people facing each other in profile - up to a point. But Barbara Hepworth's 'Group III (evocation)' - there's a clearer picture here, but mine has the advantage of showing it in situ - is another matter. Margaret Gardiner's note explained that it is one of a sequence of works resulting from Hepworth's visit to Venice, and observing the groups of people in St. Mark's Square. Willie Deans of class 2, however, saw it as "the Hamnavoe in the water going by the standing stones." He wins.

And at midnight we caught the ferry to Shetland.

Shapinsay

Sep. 10th, 2008 08:38 pm
shewhomust: (bibendum)
Shower not en suite


Each time we visit Orkney, we try to land on an island we've never been to before: this time it was Shapinsay, a small flat island, tucked into the arms of Orkney's Mainland. From our B & B at Hilton Farmhouse we had a fine view back to Kirkwall.

The harbour and the village are at the south-west corner, dominated by Balfour Castle, the perfect Scottish baronial castle, all spikes and pepperpot towers, and of course pure Victorian. The Balfours had apparently owned land on Shapinsay for generations, but it was the David Balfour for whom the castle was built who stated making improvements ("You've maybe come across the name David Balfour before," said our guide. "There's our David Balfour, but there's also the Edinburgh banking family..." She didn't mention the hero of Kidnapped, but it seems Stevenson was a friend of "our" David Balfour). He drained the agricultural land of the island, and divided it into regular plots crossed by straight roads; he built, in addition to the castle, the home farm, the gas works and the mill. He built a new, planned village on the site of the old village, Shoreside, and persuaded the Post Office to rename it Balfour. (We were also told that when he realised that the roofs of the village blocked the view of the castle from his yacht in the harbour, he had the offending buildings reduced to a single story).

The tower in the foreground of the photo is the dishan, built - I am not making this up - as a saltwater shower, with a dovecot on the top. If you were staying at the castle and wanted a shower, you told the servants who went up the tower and poured the water, heated if required, down on your from above. And presumably the reasoning goes that once you are building a tower, you might as well put a dovecot on top. This is, after all, the village with a public convenience which is washed clean by the tide.

Monday was warm and sunny, and we wpent the day walking. There's a well-equipped hide on the Bird Reserve at Mill Dam, with a view down over the wetlands below, but we actually saw more birds from closer as we walked along the road. In the course of the day we saw sparrows, oyster catchers, lapwings, curlews, mallard, geese, various gulls, pheasant and two peacocks. And the fields were alive with rabbits.

One of the reasons I love Orkney is that people are generally very welcoming to visitors: when they emerge from the farm to ask "Do you need help? Are you lost?", they don't mean &qout;Get off my land!" they really do want to know if you need help. We took advice about whether the path continued round the cliffs (it didn't) and picked our way round the foot of the cliff, primroses growing above us and thrift below. Later, as we sat on the doorstep of the church in the only available shade, two more ladies came out to ask us if we wanted to see round the church (we didn't, thank you, we were just having a drink of water).

The beaches were fascinating, though tricky underfoot, steeply sloping pebble beaches, and I took many photographs. We walked as far as the Second World War gun emplacements, great complex concrete structures, and then back down the road. It seemed odd, on what is not a large island, to be leaving so many sights unseen, but we felt we had gone as far as we wanted to, and returned to the farmhouse where we finally cracked the previous Saturday's crossword!
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Saturday was our last day in Orkney as a threesome; on Sunday [livejournal.com profile] durham_rambler and I were to deliver Gail to the airport for her flight home, and then catch the ferry ourselves to Shapinsay. So we had to pack in as much as we could, which meant a visit to Yellowbird Gallery, and then on to Kirkwall.

Over lunch at the garden centre, we picked up the local paper, and realised we had stumbled into the middle of the big news story of the summer: Northlink Ferries were asking passengers to produce photographic proof of identity. We hadn't noticed this on our way to Orkney, as we had sailed with the rival company, but on Tuesday [livejournal.com profile] durham_rambler and I were due to catch the midnight ferry to Shetland. He had his bus pass; I had nothing.

The two local papers were full of claim and counter-claim, different stories about the ridiculous effects of this recently introduced requirement. One - if I am remembering correctly - claimed that a local football team had been allowed to travel to mainland Scotland, but that Northlink had made difficulties about letting them return (except for the man who was able to produce a Kirkwall library ticket). The Orcadian countered with Northlink's denial, under the headline: "No rugby player left behind". A visiting rugby team had cut it fime and nearly missed the ferry, but had made the crossing without difficulty, except for the member who had left his documentation in the car in the car-park, and had returned for it and caught the later ferry, accompanied by a colleague who had volunteered to wait with him. The letters column carried a letter from the man with the library ticket: he had witnessed this, and was not amused.

Reading between the lines, this tightening up of identity checks was nothing to do with security, and everything to do with stopping non-residents benefitting from the cheaper fares charged to islanders. A Kirkwall library card was clearly acceptable as proof that someone who didn't appear on the electoral roll did, nonetheless, live in Orkney. We could only hope that Northlink would be equally flexible about whatever proofs of identity we could offer them.

But there was nothing we could do about it now; so we went off to be tourists. The Cathedral has a fine collection of tombstones arranged around the wall (I didn't take pictures, and can only find this detail and another here, which does at least show a trace of the beautiful square lettering: why isn't there a book about these?)*, and we browsed these until the brass band became too much to bear (not bad, just loud), and we moved on to the Earl's Palace, the Bishop's Palace and the secondhand bookshop.

And ended the day, as I've already said, with a pleasant meal and a magnificent sunset.

And of course there was no problem getting our ferry ticket endorsed to the effect that the Northlink office staff believed that we were who we said we were - although we didn't know that until Tuesday morning.




ETA: * Another Flickr set - some beautiful details, and enough examples to indicate how the same themes repeat. But still no pictures of the stones as a whole, and no indication of the distinctive lettering.
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We spent two nights on Mainland, staying in a B & B at Choin, up in the northwest of the island, not far from Skara Brae (here's their web site. We had a little trouble finding it, because our directions told us to turn at the phone box, and though we drove all the way up and then back down that stretch of road, there was no phone box to be seen. Eventually we turned at the post box, and arrived just fine. Later we asked our host about this: "Oh, no," he said, "that's right. It was a Hallowe'en prank - a couple of lads blew it up. Pity - it was an old red one, and the Korean and Japanese tourists used to photograph it..."

The house is newly built, the most modern accommodation we stayed in all holiday, and our bedrooms have views down the west coast on Mainland, and on to Hoy - sometimes, when the mist clears, you can see the Old Man. But it's the breakfast room with its two high glass walls - actually even more spectacular than in the picture here - around which the house was designed, with the instruction: as much glass as possible. This is a treat for the guests, but also for Stuart, who is a serious birder. Almost the first thing he said to us was "The corncrakes arrived two days ago" - corncrakes being extremely rare, and in the habit of nesting in the field at the end of the lane (and no doubt there are people who choose that B & B for that reason).

The only disadvantage is that the isolated setting means that when we go in search of dinner, we have to take the car. The first night we went to the Merkister Hotel, on the shores of Loch Harray, large, smart and busy, serving competent pub food at hotel prices. I warmed towards it as we left, and I saw the plaque identifying it as the family home of Eric Linklater, author of many things but especially The Wind on the Moon (googles: what do you mean, it's out of print?)

The next evening we decided to try to track down the hotel where [livejournal.com profile] durham_rambler and I had lunched with [livejournal.com profile] desperance on our previous visit. It had looked a little run down - in fact, we had wondered whether it had closed for the season - and the décor was not smart and modern. But the proprietor had been friendly, and had served us home-made mushroom soup (made from mushrooms he had picked himself) and sandwiches. So now we followed our recollections of the route, while the silver sunlight gleamed on a sea like milk, still, white and opaque, and came to the Barony Hotel.

You can't have too many sunsetsThe dinner menu was very similar to the one we'd been offered the previously night, but the food was well prepared and served with grace, and the three of us enjoyed it far more. And while we were eating it, the sun slid around the windows, and we took turns leaning sideways to avoid looking straight at it, and then leaning the other way to admire the clouds, which were taking on a rosy glow. So after dinner we drove out to the Brough of Birsay, and watched for a quarter of an hour while the sun descended in flames into the sea.
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Listening to the radio news a week or so ago, I heard that the Antonine Wall had been accepted as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Once upon a time I was a little sniffy about the proliferation of World Heritage sites; what had once been something rare and exceptional (like Durham Cathedral and Castle, for example) was becoming more usual. Why, at this rate, the whole world would soon be a World Heritage site! Then I stopped to think, and decided that that wouldn't be such a bad thing... Besides, the list of sites, though long (currently 878 properties), is full of good things (as this Flickr group demonstrates).

In fact, the inscription of the Antonine Wall is only part of the story, as I learned when D. came visiting last weekend, bringing with him that latest copy of British Archaeology magazine. This (web site currently not responding) carried a fascinating article by David Breeze, a leading member of the team behind the bid for WHS status, explaining (among other aspects of the story) that they were conscious of the desire to limit the number of such sites, and responded to it by proposing a single transnational site, the Frontiers of the Roman Empire. This would trace not only the northern limits of the empire across Britain (at both Hadrian's Wall and the Antonine Wall) but also the southern boundaries across north Africa, and a line snaking south and east through Europe: a line similar in length to the Great Wall of China, surviving in three continents and over 20 modern countries. That's heritage on a world scale.

At a more local level, there's a learned paper to be written on how the presentation of Orkney's prehistoric remains has shifted. My impression is that when I first visited the islands the emphasis was on the extraordinary number of such remains, scattered everywhere throughout the islands. There were earthhouses down farm tracks and on industrial estates ("Call at Ortak Jewellery workshop to collect the keys and a torch..."). Now the focus is on shepherding the visitor through the great monuments of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney WHS, a genuinely extraordinary sequence of a chambered tomb, standing stones and the stone age village of Skara Brae.

Helmet wranglerThere's a learned paper to be written, but I'm not the one to write it. What I retain from a day following the corridor of monuments, from our return to Mainland on the ferry from Hoy in the morning to arrival at our B & B in the evening, is a series of snapshots: bright sunshine and insistent winds; Maes Howe, a mound covered in violets; the path to the Ring of Brodgar through the kingcups. Skara Brae was shelter from the wind, and a late and welcome lunch, watching in disbelief as the staff opened the cardboard boxes (shipped through Felixstowe, made in China) and set to work assembling horned helmets for the gift shop.
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Along the wallHoy was too large to photograph. That's crazy when it's one small island among a group of small islands, peaty hills surrounded by water, as if the summits of Weardale had been sawn off and dropped in the sea, but I couldn't capture that within the range of my camera. We visited Rackwick Bay, where the sea thunders between the arms of the hills, and the only pictures I am satisfied with turn their backs on the cliff and show you the bothy.

The Royal Hotel was under new management, and had the decorators in, but fried us something for our supper. The proprietor didn't have a local accent: "Are you from Burnley?", asked [livejournal.com profile] durham_rambler. "Close; from Rossendale."

We walked from Melsetter, past the the beach we'd visited earlier, on the the Tor Ness lighthouse and over the cliffs to the next bay. There were violets in the turf of the cliff top, and on the far side of the bay the seals were singing to each other, a strange booming, hooting, cooing noise: "Oooh... aaww..." As we walked round they slithered off their rocks; had we scared them off, or were they swimming over for a closer look?

And on Thursday evening the fish and chip van comes to Longhope.
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Well, two out of three's not bad:

When the call of the sunshine lured us out of Scapa Flow visitor Centre, and we had raided its café for sandwiches and buns for our picnic, we went to Lyness Naval Cemetery.

Unknown sailors Within sight of the sea, and framed by the hills of Hoy, it's a patch of tidy green lawn where the dead lie in neat rows, sorted by service and denomination: here the Royal Navy, there the Merchant Marine, here the catholics and there the protestants, and not far away the German dead, all with their matching tombstones. Every one has its own story, but it was the single stones which caught my imagination, right over by the wall of the cemetery, two unknown sailors: "A Parsee Seaman, Mercantile Marine" and "A Musulman Seaman, Mercantile Marine". How did these two men come to be unknown?

Further along the wall was something quite different, a stone carved with an elaborate lozenge design, and the following text:
A stone of honour
to
Zu Sing Kang
R.F.A. Tuscalusa
Who died at Scapa Flow
2nd May 1916
My witness is in heaven, my record on high. Job 16 19
Erected as a memorial of a kind act done by a Chinaman in nursing a blinded working man afterwards Senator McGregor of the Australian Commonwealth


North along the main road, following the coast, another lonely grave is an odd tourist attraction, even by Orcadian standards. Accounts of Betty Corrigall's grave (the Orkneyjar web site tells the story, and has a good photograph) tend to start with the sad story of the girl abandoned by her lover, who killed herself for shame and was buried here, in the no man's land at the boundary of two parishes; the discovery of the grave by peat cutters follows.

But I read the narrative the other way round, and wonder how the story came to light. The grave is discovered in 1933 by men out cutting peat. The story, as Sigurd Towrie tells it, has poor Betty so little remembered that at first her discoverers think they may have found treasure. Yet, somehow, not only is the dead woman identified as someone who lived a century and a half earlier (in the late 1770s), but her story is pieced together in considerable detail. Of course it's possible that the story was remembered, but that's not how it's told: "There she lay, forgotten." It feels like folklore in the making (and, talking of folklore, here's video of Kerfuffle playing Betty Corrigall's Lament).

It gets odder: the rapid deterioration of the body (and the accompanying noose), the decision to bury Betty again in the same lonely spot, her rediscovery in 1941 by soldiers who gave her the name "the Lady of Hoy" and developed a macabre fascination with her, the intervention of the officers who moved the grave (although not to some more conventional burial ground) and secured it against incursions, still without marking it... I suppose in the 1930s and 1940s there still existed the taboos about unmarried pregnancy, and on suicide, which had caused this lonely burial in the first place; it still seems an odd way to treat someone identified as the heroine of a tragedy.

By 1949 it certainly seemed sufficiently wrong to Kenwood Bryant, a visiting American minister, that he placed a wooden cross on the grave, and asked Harry Berry, the Customs and Excise officer for Hoy, to provide a more permanent gravestone. Which he did, but not until 1976. (And the "stone" is made of fibreglass, because the peat bog would not bear the weight of real stone).

One last tomb, but the best of them all: the Dwarfie Stane, a huge lump of rock perched on the hillside into which two side chambers have been laboriously hollowed out by hand, without the use of metal.
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One of the places we visited in Shetland was the Bonhoga Gallery (part of the genesis of the Herring House gallery in Ann Cleeves' White Nights). We were underwhelmed by the paintings on display, and resisted the temptation of the café, but I had a great time in the card shop.

I was particularly taken by a series of cards in which miniature figures were photographed interacting with foodstuffs: the one I bought shows two figures shoveling what might be snow but is in fact the icing on a birthday cake.*

So now, before I send it off to the lucky recipient (who has her own creative touch with cakes), I need to note that the creator is Claire Grove, and that the card company (who seem to be the only source of her work) is Holy Mackerel.

Update (30.08.10): Claire Grove now has her own web site, and her cards seem to have vanished from Holy Mackerel. Her Gallery section icludes (but under different titles) Sunny Side Up (man v. egg), Anchovies at 3 o' clock (men v. pizza) and Home Sweet Home (colour-coded living in a Battenberg cake).



*Sad fact: and the letters which spell out "Happy Birthday" are in our old friend Cooper Black.
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The Scapa Flow Visitor Centre at Lyness is primarily a collection of material relating to the rôle of Orkney as a naval base in both world wars. [livejournal.com profile] durham_rambler and I had visited it before, and enjoyed it, but the sun was shining and our plan was to make the most of this outdoors. We just dropped in to see what information we could pick up about where to go, what to see (and maybe where to buy a picnic lunch, too). The centre is housed in the pump house from which the fleet was supplied with fuel, and the objects and photographs on display are arranged around the original mechanisms, all freshly painted, the brasswork gleaming. Without meaning to, we were drawn into this documentation of times when this beautiful and empty island was home to a large population, most of whom were, at least at times, not entirely happy to be there.

The friendly custodian abandoned her lawnmower to make sure we had all we needed, pointed us to the café (under the enamelled sign reading "Church Army Rest Hut" and encouraged us to look inside the - newly cleaned and restored - oil tank before we left. Dutifully, we entered the huge cylindrical space, just to be able say that we'd done so - and admired the variety of items (the reflector from Cantick Head lighthouse, a yole, a boat used by the free Norwegian forces) dispersed around a central cinema space. Our comments resonated around us, and [livejournal.com profile] durham_rambler clapped his hands so that we could admire the echo (and yes, I have tried the famous echo in the British Museum Reading Room; this was better). On our way out, we met the custodian, and remarked on it, and she told us that the skipper of one of the Scapa Flow diving boats was a trained opera singer, and that whenever she was at Lyness she would stand under the center of the tank and sing. It had also served as the venue for a midsummer music event by a group specialising in place specific music.
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Tribute to Harry Bruce We seem to have spent a lot of time hanging around in cemeteries. What can I say? The sun was shining, the gates were open, there were things to see and stories to speculate about. With a fine synchronicity, Gail was reflecting on the recurring forms of words dutifully inscribed on memorial to people whose families had nothing to say about them, and I was taken by this anonymous tribute, apparently raised by nameless acquaintances who weren't obliged to say anything, but chose to do so:
This stone has been
erected to mark the
Remains of
HARRY BRUCE
The Tacksman of the
Mill of Rysa, a man who[se?]
Kindness of heart, and
integrity of life, render-
ed him alike the Object
of respect and affection
Died December...
and there my photograph (though not, as far as I can remember, the original) fades into illegibility.

(Also in Osmondwall Cemetery, the Longhope Lifeboat memorial and the Moodie mausoleum).
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Orkney is full of contrasts. Our home on Hoy was the Spinning Cottage at Melsetter House - the last homely house at the far end of the wildest and most rugged of the islands. You drive from the ferry south along the coast, and at the very end of the island, just before the Ayre - the causeway that carries the road to the connecting island of South Walls - you see the clustered roofs and gables of Melsetter. Turn up the lane, between the high wall and the open pasture, and in through the thicket of sycamores, round the corner of the house, and you find yourself looking out down a broad driveway. Ahead of you are the gates, leading out to the factor's house and other cottages, behind you is the Italianate courtyard and the house itself, to your left is the chapel and to your right is the Spinning Cottage. Now turn half-circle, and that's what you see in the picture:

Our front yard


Melsetter was built at the very end of the nineteenth century. Thomas Middlemore went into the family leather business in Birmingham, carried on where his father had left off in developing it into new areas (leather seats for bicycles), married Theodosia Mackay, who was involved in the Arts & Crafts movement - she was an embroiderer and weaver, and friend of May Morris (whose description of Melsetter provides the title of this post). In 1896, Middlemore sold the business, looked for somewhere in Scotland to build a house for himself and his wife - and bought Hoy. Architect William Lethaby took as his starting point an existing eighteenth century house, and developed into something which feels entirely natural and traditional, and yet is ingeniously planned to be both beautiful and comfortable, opening windows wide to the beautiful sea views yet giving shelter from the persistent cold winds. The house is privately occupied, but Miss Seatter, who lives there, was kind enough to show us round, and it was a delight to see the house maintained very much as it had been designed, with many of the original fabrics and pieces of furniture, not as a museum but as someone's home, kept unchanged because it was so much loved.

There are notoriously very few trees in Orkney; they do not grow well in the fierce winds. They huddle up to buildings taking shelter, instead of giving it. Nonetheless, Melsetter is surrounded by a narrow band of woodland ("I know people elsewhere don't like sycamores,"said Miss Seatter, "but we like them because they are so hardy"), and under the trees the bluebells were in full bloom - the first of the two bluebell woods we saw in the islands. When we walked down to the beach - which was neither the cove to the south of us nor the bay to the east, but a quarter hour's walk north to the sandy beach - we returned along the avenue lined with bluebells of all colours.

We went down to Longhope, to the shop. You drive back the way you came, down the lane with the high silver-grey stone wall to your right, the lush green of the farmland to your left, and ahead the luminous sapphire blue of the sea - and the red splash of the pillar box directly in front of you. At certain times the sun catches the bare branches of the trees and makes them gleam white as bone - but never when I was on foot and could photograph it. And the first time we went to Longhope, just as we turned onto the Ayre, a heron flapped in to land, to the indignation of the seagulls who buzzed it repeatedly. It ducked its head on its long neck, apparently unperturbed.
shewhomust: (Default)
The next morning, Barbara, our host at St Margaret's Cottage, checked that we had plenty of coffee and could not possibly eat any more toast, and then pulled up a chair and joined us for a chat.

We told her that we had been on the beach at Dingieshowe, watching the oystercatchers diving into the sea, and she told us about the diver among the wrecks in Scapa Flow, who had seen a cormorant pass by 30 feet down.

We asked about the concrete construction we had noticed on the Churchill Barriers (causeways linking a series of the islands): were these new? Which provoked an entertaining disquisition on how the old blockships, which used to act as breakwaters, were at long last sinking, and instead of replacing them by towing other derelict ships into the same position, the council had consulted consultants, who recommended an artfully shaped concrete wall to deflect the waves. Only this acted instead to redirect the waves straight up into the air, so that a large wave was liable to fall back down from a height, and if it landed on a car could smash its windscreen.

MarketingFortified by a sense of being up to date with the essential gossip, we headed off to the Trading Post to stock up on basics, ready to move into self-catering accommodation on Hoy. Then there was just time for a quick visit to the Round Church at Orphir (now no more than a fragment of curved wall, but an unusual building and a favourite of mine), before it was time for the ferry.
shewhomust: (Default)
On our first full day in the islands, we headed down to the very tip of South Ronaldsay, to the Tomb of the Eagles. When we were first in Orkney, over twenty years ago, I remember seeing an exhibition at the museum about the finds from the Tomb of the Eagles (it was excavated in 1976, and I think this must have been not long after), from which I gained the impression that since the site was privately owned, it could not be visited. I don't know if that was true then, or if it was simply the tone of voice in which the professional archaeologists discuss the efforts of amateurs.

The next time we were in Orkney, we discovered that it was now possible to visit the Tomb, thanks to the "private enterprise" of the owners. This phrasing suggested exploitation, slickness and mercenary values, but we decided to risk it anyway, and discovered that nothing could have been further from the truth. You parked outside a farmhouse, and went into a conservatory leaning against the side of the house, in which a young woman was encouraging a group of visitors to pass round stone axeheads. We joined the group, and were handed a skull, and told the story of how, in 1958, Ronnie Simister went out into his field to look for stones to use as fenceposts, and found the tomb. After this introduction, we were shown the path to follow, and told "Ronnie will be waiting for you in the Bronze Age house." And he was, and told us about this second archaeological site on his land, before directing us down to the cliff top and the Tomb of the Eagles.

These days, things are a little more professional - there's a sizeable car park, and a purpose built museum, and visitors are no longer allowed to handle the skulls. Ronnie probably won't be waiting for you by the burnt mound (we're no longer confident that it's a house), either. But the welcome is still as personal and enthusiastic, the stone implements are still passed from hand to hand. There's a photo on display of Ronnie with Dick the eagle (taken during the filming of a wildlife programme) and you are invited to speculate about what the two of them are saying to each other. The Tomb of the Eagles web site captures the tone of the operation: the multicoloured text and scrolling strapline are not the most professional design, but it's full of helpful information not only about the tomb itself, but about where to stay and where else to visit.

The Tomb of the Eagles


And it's still as beautiful a walk as ever down the farm lane to the burnt mound, and beyond to the cliff and the tomb. There's a helpful trolley on wheels ("Granny's skateboard", apparently) to help you through the low passage into the tomb, and if you don't fancy that, there's a box of rubber patches (bits of car tyre) you can tie on to protect your knees. Inside, there's a dim light, and a high enough roof to stand comfortably, and the quiet stones and the peaceful sense of somewhere that was important to people for a long time, a long time ago, and the sea visible through the entrance.

We walked back along the cliffs, and round the inlet, and Gail saw a seal. Then we drove off and followed the signs to the Skerries Bistro, where we had lunch - and a very pleasant lunch, too, though I do [oops: ETA "not"] feel that "skerries" and "bistro" are words that fit comfortably together.
shewhomust: (bibendum)
We stayed in St Margaret's Cottage, which from the outside looks tiny, a cottage indeed, but is larger inside than seems possible - I'm still not sure where that extra space comes from.

We went for a walk, which took us through the village and on minor roads through farmland, then along a sweep of stony beach and back to the road between grassy verges lined with bluebells - white, pink and bluebells. The junction of the stone wall and the wire fence was marked by a large stone "gatepost", topped with a stone otter to which someone had added a red bow tie. This brought us to the far side of the island, and the sandy beach where the boys' ploughing match is held.

NestingWe bravely left the road to follow the cliff top path, full of enticements: violets underfoot, pink campion growing by the wall, now and then a glimpse of the gulls nesting on the cliff below, and mysteriously, laid out along the path, three sky blue eggs, one after another. Too good to be true, the path ran out at the fence of a new house - and while he was considering this, [livejournal.com profile] durham_rambler was buzzed by a bonxie. We picked our way across the field, back to the road.

We dined at the Creel: I had duck and pork belly terrine, surrounded by dabs of picalilli and beetroot, seared tusk and steamed megrim (because I couldn't resist; they're both fish, of course, it was obvious from the context they were going to be fish, but still...) with red peppers, intensely red and savoury against the white sweetness of the fish, and lemon tart, accompanied by a spoonful of marmalade ice cream in a miniature brandysnap basket. It seems inappropriate that a brandysnap basket should become the "signature dish" of someone who cooks fish as well as Alan Craigie does, but there you go: you can hardly claim "fish" as your "signature dish". Besides, that ice cream was wonderful - velvet smooth, sweet and bitter: I am an unworthy person with low tastes, and that ice cream was the highlight of my meal.

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