Saturday, 29 August 2015

Orkney August 2015: Part the Eighth.

Our penultimate day on Orkney and we spent it on another island - Papa Westray (known colloquially as Papay). We've been going down in size with the islands we've visited: Mainland with a population of 17,000, Westray with 590, Shapinsay with 300 and Papa Westray, by far the smallest, with just 90. As we did on Westray we are taking a tour organised by the island 'council', the advantages of which are making the best use of our time, seeing all of the sights and sites, having a local guide who knows the island well and, finally, putting some money back into the local economy.
Our Dash Islander plane, with room for eight people, on the runway at Kirkwall. Our scheduled route was Westray and then Papa Westray, the last leg, at two minutes, being the shortest commercial flight in the world. In the event, as we were the only two people booked on the flight, they asked us if we minded going straight to Papa Westray. We didn't (not much) and had a 13 minute flight instead, with great views from our own private plane.
The fact that this garden shed is strongly tethered to the ground gives a good indication of the prevailing weather - windy!
The fact that this stone wall is completely covered in lichen gives a good indication of the air quality - pure!
Now restored but still in occasional use, St Boniface Kirk is set in an important ecclesiastic site dating back to the 8th century. It stands above the rocky shore towards the north west of Papa Westray. It has Iron Age, Pictish and later remains nearby, dating from the 6th century BC to 12th century AD.  A Norse hog-back gravestone and two Early Christian cross-slabs found in the Kirkyard all combine to suggest a site of great significance. The island name Papa refers to the early Christians, who would have been Catholics and adherents of the Pope.
A multi-layered midden on the seashore close to the kirk. Exposed and gradually being lost to erosion. And this is a good example of a problem the smaller islands have - unique archaeology and few resources for excavation and conservation.
The island service station - make a note of what you take in an exercise book and settle up at the end of the month.
The Knap of Howar is Papa Westray's most famous monument. It comprises two oblong stone built houses which are the earliest standing dwellings known in Northern Europe. Dating back to around 3800 years BC, they are older than those at Skara Brae and very similar - the furniture and fittings include hearths, pits, built-in cupboards and stone benches.
They were occupied by neolithic farmers for at least 500 years. From midden remains the mode of subsistence was primarily pastoral, rearing cattle, sheep and pigs. There is some evidence of cereal cultivation and harvesting of fish and shell fish. Entrance to the houses is by low, narrow passages giving shelter from the Orkney weather and they are linked by a low internal passageway. It is unlikely that these were isolated and there must be other houses around just waiting to be uncovered.
A rather handsome cockerel - he really fancied himself this one and enjoyed strutting around for all to admire his fine plumage. A bit like me.

One of the things I was hoping to see on this visit to Orkney was the Scottish Primrose (Primula scotica). This small, delightful flower grows on moist but well-drained, grazed grasslands. It is often found near the coast and is endemic to a small area in the very north of Scotland and some of the islands. We came across it when we walked around the RSPB reserve at the north end of the island. Although nationally rare, there were plenty to be seen.

Another rare plant we came across was the Autumn Gentian (Gentianella amarelle). It hadn't quite come into bloom but it was worth taking a photograph of for its rarity.

Continuing my series of slightly out-of-focus bird photographs, here's one of a Black Guillemot with a butterfish lunch. Not many of these cliff nesters around at this time of year so it was a treat to see one. 
Here's a strange thing. You know what it's like when you suddenly notice something odd and then keep looking to see if you are right? Well, I did this with washing lines and, when I pointed the oddness out, so did Mrs P.  And she'll attest to the fact that we saw no bras on washing lines in Orkney. I pass this fact on with no further comment other than to ask, if you ever visit Orkney, that you check it out.
Rush hour at Terminal 1 at Papa Westray airport. All staff have two or three other jobs and turn up for their aviation duties about 2 minutes before the plane lands. Security checks? Never heard of them! Identity checks? What are those? Ticket checks? Why would they want to do that?
All that and just 10 minutes for check-in - and even this is not really necessary.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Fun for the grandchildren

In keeping with my responsibilities as a dutiful and doting grandparent, I am constantly on the look-out for innovative ways of entertaining our grandchildren. I spend hours scouring the internet seeking for that special game that will cause shrieks of delight as they play. Imagine my joy when I discovered the ONE. It was buried in a book called "The Home Entertainer" which was published in the 1930s. Here was an entire book devoted to the question of how to entertain house guests and what could be more appropriate for our little playmates.

The game in question is entitled "The Mummy" and here's how it's described:

"There can be a great deal of fun in playing The Mummy, if it is well prepared. Every one is sent out of the room except the leader and one other. This one lies flat on the floor and the leader covers him with a sheet. His hands are stretched beyond his head, and on them he holds his shoes, uprights as though they were on his feet. These shoes must just protrude from the end of the sheet. With a little adjustment, and maybe the help of a cushion, the leader will be able to make the "mummy" look as though he is lying the other way round, and as though the shoes really contain his feet and his head is where his feet actually are. A "mummy" arranged in a suitably convincing manner is shown in Fig. 6

The leader then calls in the first victim, explaining in an awed voice that here is a mummy who is said to be able to answer any question addressed to it with proper respect. So the new-comer kneels down by the mummy, by what he supposes to be the head and proceeds to ask his question, say "Oh mummy can you hear me?"

"Surely!" replies the mummy - the voice, to the astonishment of the kneeling person, coming from near what he had assumed to be the feet. If the mummy, at the same time, sits up, from the "wrong end", the surprise is even more complete."

You must admit it sounds like a first class jape and just the thing that modern children will love. Who needs an X-Box when there is "The Mummy" to be played. I can't wait to try it out with them. Yet more brownie points for their Bampi, methinks.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Orkney August 2015: Part the Seventh.

Part the Seventh? Yes, indeedy, but we're almost at the end of our stay on the Islands. Today we decided we needed some fresh air and what better way to get our lungs full than with a walk along the coast? So off to the Deerness Peninsula to walk around Mull Head, via The Gloup, the Brough of Deerness and the Covenantors' Memorial. Spectacular cliff scenery, wide ranging sea views, birds and seals all made for an extremely pleasant 6 mile walk in perfectly acceptable weather.
The wonderfully named Gloup - a deep cavity joined to the sea by an arch of rock.
A typical seascape of the day. This one shows the southern islands in the distance.
The ruins of the Norse chapel (tenth century) on top of the Brough of Deerness. This was built on top of an eight century structure and continued being used until the mid seventeenth century.
The Brough of Deerness is a rock stack barely joined to the mainland and accessed by a rather vertiginous narrow path (with a chain handrail, I'm glad to say). On the seaward side is another stack, which is an ideal roosting place for many shags.
Here's a beautiful flower - the Grass of Parnassus. But it's not a grass and its range is getting increasingly northern as its preferred boggy habitat is becoming more and more scarce down South. It is said to smell of honey and a quick sniff suggests that this description isn't too far out.
A curious Grey Seal, one of many we came across. Curious is the correct word to use as they genuinely seemed to be interested in the strange creatures they could see on the cliffs looking down at them.
A geo - a narrow inlet caused by erosion and rock falls. There are a lot of them around this part of the coast. 
Shags on a wave swept rock.
The Covenantors' Memorial, erected in 1888 in memory of 200 Covenantors, taken prisoner at the Battle of Bothwell Bridge, who were shipwrecked on the rocks below while being transported to the Americas. This brief description does not do justice to the cruelty and tragedy behind the story. Try Googling to find out more.
Despite all of their positives, I find it difficult to reconcile their intrusion into some beautiful scenery. However, they are making most of the islands net generators of electricity. It's a great pity that the cable infrastructure limits what they can feed back in to the National Grid on the mainland of Scotland.
The series of Southern Islands are joined by the Churchill Barriers, erected during WW2, after a German submarine entered Scapa Flow one night and sank HMS Royal Oak, with the loss of over 800 lives. I don't think I'm being too fanciful in thinking that this string of low lying islands and their linking causeways reminds me of the Florida Keys. Am I the only one who makes this comparison?
At the end of the day, another sunset.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Orkney August 2015: Part the Sixth.

A day of unexpected surprises and pleasures. We'd heard of a couple of hardly known and hardly publicised Neolithic (what else?) cairns in the vicinity and we thought we'd take a look at them. And we were glad that we did. Then, on our way to find somewhere for our missed mid-morning coffee/tea, we came across an unusual Norse church and the ruins of a Norse earl's house. Follow that with a pleasant shoreline walk and a brief cliff walk and you've had a pretty good day.
The first of the sites we visited was the Cuween Hill Cairn built, unsurprisingly, into Cuween Hill just above Finstown. A spectacular position and it makes you wonder if Neolithic man (or woman) ever stopped and admired the view. Of course they did. The beauty of some of their artifacts shows that they had an appreciation of aesthetics.
The cairn comprises a main central chamber with four smaller chambers branching off from each wall.
The interior is dark and only lit by the light of the door. Historic Scotland very considerately provide a torch, albeit one with very low battery power remaining.
Access to the interior is by a low narrow entrance which, being less than a metre high, means a wet and muddy crawl.
I never used to believe in fairies but look at this note they left us to find at the Cuween Hill Cairn. They must exist because who else would have written such things?
After a walk of just under a mile from the associated car park, we came to the Wideford Hill Cairn, built on a level platform quarried into the hill by its builders. Originally it would have looked like a domed mound but when it was taken into state care, the conservationists removed some of the covering earth to reveal its structural walls.
Access would have been through the narrow entrance you can see in the photo above but nowadays it's through the roof.
And once in the central chamber, you can make out the three smaller side chambers. As always with these structures, the stone masonry is spot on. And, as I've mentioned before, all of this was done without any metal tools whatsoever.
The remains of the tenth century Norse church at Orphir - only one of two such circular churches on Orkney.
Near the church was a Visitors' Centre with, amongst other things, a very interesting 'family tree' of the Norse earls and kings. We were amazed to see that they'd been able to get
 photographs of some of them. Click to enlarge and see if you can recognise any of them.
Whenever I come across the name in a remote place, this time the churchyard next to the Norse church, of someone killed in WW1, I'm always intrigued to find out a little more about them. In a small way, I like to think that I'm remembering them. Here's what the Commonwealth War Graves Commission records have to say about William Victor. "William Victor Linklater Sclater Pte S/12854 7th Seaforth Highlanders born Kebro, Orkney enlisted Kirkwall Age 21 Killed in Action France & Flanders 12-Oct-16 Son of James Sinclair Sclater and Jessie (nee Linklater) Sclater, of Kebro, Orphir, Kirkwall, Orkney. Memorial: Kebro. Thiepval Memorial M. R. 21 Pier 15C" And the action in which he was killed? A quick search pulled up a document which contains the following information:
"7th Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders (in 9th Division) attacked the Butte de Warlencourt, in the northern part of the Somme battlefield, on Thursday, 12th October 1916.  It was one of Orkney’s saddest days of the war, because at least fourteen Orcadians died as a result of 7th Seaforths’ failed attempt that day to capture the Butte, while two more died, in a South African and another Scottish battalion.  That Orcadian death toll was approached on a couple of other days, but then casualties were spread across many units.  The failed attack on the Butte de Warlencourt on 12th October 1916 was, in Orcadian fatal casualties, the most costly battalion action of the Great War.....The names of seven Orcadians, Seaforth Highlanders Private James Learmonth, Private George Gray, Private William Sclater, Private James Simison, Private William Sinclair, Private William Sutherland and Lance-Corporal Thomas Twatt, whose bodies were not found or identified, are inscribed on Panel 15C of the Thiepval Memorial".
From the shoreline at Stromness looking out into one of the seaward entrances of Scapa Flow. This boat was having a hard time ploughing into the wind.
The pebble on the top was mine - placed extremely carefully. On the beach near Yesnaby Cliffs.
A sunset at the end of the day, of course.

Orkney August 2015: Part the Fifth.

Something different for Wednesday - a trip to one of the northernmost islands of Orkney, Westray. There we joined a guided tour hosted by Graham Maben of Westraak, who turned out to be extremely personable and knowledgeable about all aspects of the island's history, wildlife and social fabric. He added enormously to a very enjoyable day. And our impressions of Westray? Well worth visiting but windy.
An early start to get the 7.20 am ferry from Kirkwall to Rampness on Westray. It's about 30 miles and takes just under 2 hours. Sailing conditions were good but visibility somewhat limited by mist.
Our first stop was at the 10th century Norse settlement of Quoygrew. A collection of houses associated with a nascent cod fishing industry that exported the catches to Scandinavia because of their quality. The house shown was extended end-on-end over the years and the last building was occupied until the 1960s.
Noltland Bay. The significant factor here is the sand. Why? Because at regular intervals bad weather picks up the sand and dumps it elsewhere, resulting in significant coastal erosion.
One place where the sand was dumped was on top of the adjacent Bronze Age domestic settlement called the Links of Noltland. Another site being actively excavated and there were 10 - 15 archaeologists hard at it. The buildings being uncovered were of typical 'Scara Brae' design and seemed to be enclosed within a circular stone wall.
For some reason this site was abandoned by its occupants and, in the process, there seems to have been a ritualistic 'closure' of the area. They didn't just leave and let the elements take over. Items of value and significance were left behind and then, as we've seen elsewhere, the site was covered with domestic refuse called midden., This midden is wonderful stuff as it contains all sorts of artifacts that excite the archaeologists. They love a bit of stratification and will scrape away happily for hours with their tiny trowels and fine-hair brushes. 
And here are just a few of the items that one of the archaeologists had uncovered the morning of our visit. There were shards of grooved-ware pottery, stone skin scrapers and an axe head. At least that's what the archaeologist told us was there: to the uninitiated, it all looks like a handful of muddy stones.
One of the diggers getting to the bottom of something interesting.
But probably not as interesting as this sandstone figurine uncovered a few years ago. This is the Westray Wife and is thought to be the oldest/earliest depiction of a human form found so far in Europe. It's only about three inches tall but is impressive despite its diminutive statue.
A few old stone walls? How interesting. Actually, yes, they are because they are the remnants of an industry that was once very important to the economy of many of the islands - seaweed or kelp gathering. From the mid 1700s to the mid 1800s seaweed was gathered from the foreshore and burnt in shallow stone lined 'kilns'. The resultant strongly alkaline white ash, rich as it was in sodium and phosphate, was shipped down south to Newcastle to be used in the soap and glass making industries. This activity declined but was replaced by the use of the stalks of the kelp being exploited as a source of agar. And this is where the low walls come in. They are called 'tangle steeths'. Tangle being the dialect word for kelp (Laminaria and Fucus species were used) and steeth the word for wall. The kelp was draped over the walls so that it would dry and was then stored until a boat from the processors came to pick it up. Apparently this went on until the 1980s.
A grey seal chilling out on the beach at Pierowall, the 'capital' of Westray.
The lighthouse at the Noup Headland. The view without the mist would have been fantastic. And have I mentioned the wind? The ever present wind?
One of the reasons for coming to Noup was to see the birds nesting on the cliffs. Unfortunately we were at the back-end of the nesting season and the only birds remaining were gannets, fulmars and a few predatory skuas. In season, the cliffs are jam-packed with razorbills, kittiwakes, guillimots and puffins. But there were enough birds remaining for us to be treated to some spectacular flying displays and the pungent whiff of guano. And have I mentioned the wind?
Adult gannet - amazingly agile birds and accomplished divers for food.
Fulmar in an undignified pose.
Almost the last place we visited was Noltland Castle. Dating from the 16th Century, it was built by Gilbert Balfour but was never really finished. Gilbert's life was quite colourful and his downfall was his involvement with Mary, Queen of Scots. He was found guilty of treason for supporting her and was forced to flee to Sweden where, in 1576, he was executed for his part in an attempt on the King of Sweden's life. Seems like he never chose the winning side.
Sunset on the way back to Kirkwall. Mainland to the left and the island of Rousay to the right.