Friday, 30 January 2015

A weekend at Celtic Connections

The blogging 'radio silence' triggered by our broadband outage didn't completely dominate the January news. Our Lass and I found time to travel down to Glasgow for a weekend break at the 2015 Celtic Connections festival.

During the occasional break in cloud, the flight from Orkney to mainland Scotland gave views of snowy hill tops.

After meeting up with Second Born and her friend Martin (All at Sea), we walked from the hotel to the city centre for a pleasant meal at an Italian restaurant. Then it was a short amble to the Old Fruitmarket for some music.

Motu :: Oiléain were an interesting combination of traditional Irish folk musicians with a dub/reggae band from New Zealand. Now that's fusion!

Then it was time for Shooglenifty and their 25th anniversary concert. As befitted the occasion, some old band members put in an appearance for a few numbers, which was a nice touch, I thought. Also joining the Shoogles on stage were the Dhol Drummers of Rajasthan, their combined sound being simply spine-tingling.

At one point a huge cake was brought out, 25 candles all aflame, and the audience treated the band to a serenade of 'Happy Birthday'!

The following day, we walked along icy paths, through Kelvingrove Park to the Art Gallery and Museum. I had forgotten how depressed I become at the sight of countless dead things, but the collections were an eclectic mix of stuff, perhaps best typified by this...

A Spitfire AND a giraffe?

Tracking the course of the River Kelvin downstream, we arrived at the Riverside Museum on the banks of the Clyde. We all spent some time photographing the scenery around what had once been bustling shipyards.

Here's Our Lass in a screen test for Bonnie and Clyde.

And this is the Glaswegian Gull Photo-bombing team, producing a perfectly executed synchronised triple spread.

Inside the museum, the quirky combination of African wildlife and European mechanical hardware continued...

After a quick trip back to our hotel to freshen up, we again walked into the city centre, this time to St Andrew's Church. Following a lovely meal in the restaurant below the church, we took our seats in a very religious setting for a concert by Nordic Fiddlers Bloc.

I wasn't sure whether a trio of violinists could hold my attention for a complete set, but I needn't have worried, the banter between the three guys was excellent, as was their musicianship.

Our last morning in Glasgow was spent walking upstream along the banks of the Kelvin. Though we had already seen a few species of bird during the weekend (Goosander, Blue Tit, Great Tit), Our Lass struck gold in the urban setting with a Dipper and then a flock of Long-tailed Tits.

As we dragged our tired legs back to our hotel, we rested briefly at Felix and Oscar, a cafe/gift shop with a tasty Hot Chocolate menu.

The golden syrup tin is being reused as a sugar bowl. Top marks!

Early in the afternoon, we left Second Born and Martin, as we headed back to Orkney. The younger generation were staying on for another night to see The Chair (an Orcadian band) at the Old Fruitmarket.

Mind you, this isn't them...

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Back in blue

After six weeks' absence, broadband returns to Tense Towers and I can now spend an hour or so sweeping up the many and discarded expletives that litter the office floor.

Oh, and I may even have time to upload a blog post!

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

New Year walk

Traditionally, the Orkney Field Club organise a nature walk during the New Year break and this year was no exception. Our Lass and I had returned to Orkney the previous evening, so were keen for a leg stretch after a day confined to driving north through Scotland.

Nine hardy folk gathered in the car park at the southern end of Churchill Barrier 2 for a circular walk around the edge of Glimps Holm, a small uninhabited island in the chain of ‘linked’ isles, which also includes Lamb Holm, Burray and South Ronaldsay.

We set off in a clockwise direction, along the sandy beach bordering Weddell Sound. The low cliffs were affording us some protection from the south-westerly wind, but they themselves are subjected to erosion whenever an easterly sea crashes waves upon the shore.

Various members of the group were scanning the tide line for interesting specimens of marine life. Amongst all the seaweed cast upon the beach, a few stalks were home to sponges, a fact that absolutely amazed me. In the strand line nearest the sea, mixed in with all the broken bits of shell, a few fortunate folk were able to spot ‘groatie buckies’, the small conch shells which often become the focus of beachcombing and rock pooling in Orkney!

Crossing the main road at the northern end of Churchill Barrier 3, we continued around the westerly section of the peedie island, which is buffeted by the waters of Scapa Flow. Here the coastline is more rugged, with the beaches comprising of shingle or just bedrock.

An air/sea rescue helicopter flew by, searching the Orkney coastline for survivors or wreckage from a cargo ship that had sunk two days previously. Sadly, despite an extensive search by lifeboats, other shipping, helicopters and coastguard teams on the ground, no survivors were found. The eight crew of the Cemfjord are presumed to have been lost at sea, when their vessel was likely overcome by heavy seas in the Pentland Firth. The wreck has been located on the seabed and the Marine Accident Investigation Branch are attempting to identify the cause of the disaster.

Whilst I was photographing one piece of cliff face (first photo below), Our Lass pointed out, in true pantomime style, a section of landslip behind me, which looked to have been very recent (second photo below).

Along the northern coast of Glimps Holm, are recent archaeological remains from the First and Second World Wars. We explored an air raid shelter and various concrete structures, before turning our eyes to the sheltered waters by Churchill Barrier 2 to identify several species of waterfowl: Eider, Red-breasted Merganser, Black Guillemot, Great Northern Diver and Shag. A mournful piping call overhead alerted the group to a passing flock of Golden Plover, which joined some previously-unseen birds on the low moorland at the centre of the island.

Returning to our starting point, the majority of the group then went on to St Mary’s village to explore another headland and a small loch, but Our Lass and I offered our apologies, departing for home to undergo incomplete metamorphosis from holiday mode to work mode.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Festive family frolics

Christmas and New Year are usually a time for families and friends to gather together. I guess it's just the up-to-date version of the ancient tradition of feasting and celebrating the rebirth of the sun.

This year, the occasion has had a much greater resonance for us, as we're such a long way from our nearest and dearest (farthest and dearest?).

On Boxing Day, Our Lass and I set off from Orkney, journeying south to spend the night near Dunfermline, before pushing on the next day to reach Manchester. We stayed here a few days, meeting up with First and Second Born for some Christmassy activities, such as exchanging presents...

and going for a family walk.

Then, after heading east across the Pennines, we spent another few days visiting my brother's family and my parents.

Currently, we're pausing on the way back north, sharing Hogmanay with Our Lass's family in central Scotland. This is the largest gathering of the break, which presents a few logistical problems for our wonderful host.

Cranachan, hidden in the fridge

Peas and goodwill to all mankind.

Monday, 22 December 2014

Solstice saunter

If you've been wondering where old Tense has got to, don't worry, we're just experiencing a temporary bout of internet outage. Well, I say, temporary, but the sad fact is that following nearly two weeks of thunder and lightning in Orkney, there's rather a long queue to gain access to a BT engineer. To be honest, the reported number of lightning strikes per hour was some huge figure, so if the only damage is a bit of wire, it could be said that we're lucky.

The earliest consultation will be on 15th January, but that's just to investigate and, hopefully, diagnose the problem. A full repair may take longer :o(

This past weekend saw a return to more normal, changeable weather. Our Lass and I took the opportunity to have a walk around the local loop as a low key celebration of the Winter Solstice.

Impulsive and spontaneous are two words that aren't often uttered in the same sentence as His Tenseness, so to general shock and awe, we walked the loop in the opposite direction. The slightly different views that this presented were interesting. As we descended the gentle hill from Greenwall, looking across to Rose Ness, I was reminded of a chance meeting the previous weekend with an archaeologist from the college in Kirkwall. On hearing that we lived near Rose Ness, he explained that he had been surveying that area this year and discovered some new features.

The only obvious earthwork, to our eyes, is a small, incomplete mound, so I asked if this was likely to be from the Neolithic, the First/Second World War or somewhere in between. His reply was that it was the former, but more exciting still was the information that the old beacon further along the promontory was stood on a previously unrecorded Neolithic earthwork.

This thought was in my mind as I scanned the view from Rose Ness, to our left, across the ruined broch by the edge of the bay and around to our right, where the present day church of St Nicholas' Kirk stands. On a mound.

Yes, walking in the opposite direction did give a different perspective of the topography. So I'm a bit keen to be reunited with the internet to continue informal investigations.

Meantime, many thanks to Orkney Library and Archive for coming to the rescue, in the shape of their excellent computer room.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Garden bird quiz results

Just over a week ago, I asked a question on this blog based on the identity of the birds visiting Tense Towers.

"Which eleven species were seen by us in our Milton Keynes garden during the winter of 2012/13 and also in our Orcadian garden during the Spring, Summer and Autumn 2014?"

As I admitted at the time, it wasn't hugely scientific, but it did set an interesting challenge. Three readers accepted the mission to ID the eleven species and I thank them all for the time and effort that they put into the task.

In a time-honoured procedure, I will now pointlessly build in 'tension' and 'drama' by offering up some thoughts on the quiz before finally revealing the answers and the winner.

Interestingly (at least for me!), the three contestants are very different in several respects:
  • knowledge of the site(s) - one had not visited either, one had visited only MK and one had visited both;
  • knowledge of wildlife - this ranged from casual interest, through professional interest (but not particularly for birds), to professional interest (with more affinity for birds).
That said, the spread of results was small, only 2 points separating first and last, which either goes to show that it was a bonkers question in the first place or, as pointed out previously, it isn't very scientific.

So, "Jolly Well Done!" to all participants!

The incorrect answers received were:
  • Blue Tit (resident MK only) - rare in Orkney;
  • Great Tit (resident MK only) - rare in Orkney;
  • Coal Tit (resident MK only) - has bred in Orkney in the past;
  • Wood Pigeon (resident in MK and Orkney) - but not seen at OTT;
  • Collared Dove (resident in MK and Orkney) - but not seen at OTT;
  • Magpie (resident in MK only) - rare in Orkney;
  • Jay (resident in MK only) - very rare in Orkney;
  • Pied Wagtail (Winter visitor to MK garden, Summer visitor to Orkney garden) - however, crucially, during the MK survey it was not recorded;
  • Grey Wagtail (occasional Winter visitor to MK garden) - rare in Orkney;
  • Song Thrush (resident in MK, does breed in Orkney) - but not seen at OTT;
  • Dunnock (resident in MK, does breed in Orkney) - but not seen at OTT;
  • Reed Bunting (resident in MK, does breed in Orkney) - but not seen at OTT.
OK, the correct answers are:

  • Four species ID'd by all contestants - Starling, Blackbird, House Sparrow and Chaffinch (though for our Orkney garden, the latter was only 3 birds on Autumn migration:
  • One species ID'd by two contestants - Robin (seen more during Spring and Autumn migration in Orkney);
  • Two species ID'd by only one contestant (but not the same contestant in each case) - Blackcap and Greenfinch (the former on Autumn migration in our Orkney garden, but overwintering in the MK one, the latter present throughout);
  • Four species not ID'd - Goldfinch, Wren, Sparrowhawk and Goldcrest (the two 'goldies' being Autumn migrants in our Orkney garden, but with only the 'crest a migrant or overwintering bird in the MK one). The Wren was as elusive in Orkney as MK, but seen occasionally. Sparrowhawks just like to be where there's loads of finches, I guess.
And the winner?

Well, there was a tie for first place, with 6 correct answers.

But I think I'm going to reward all participants with a calendar, for entering into the spirit of the thing and spending some time thinking about Nature.

A 2015 calendar, featuring twelve images from this blog during the past year, will soon be on its way to each of you, Martin, Martin and John!

Thursday, 11 December 2014

He's not a weather bomb, he's a very naughty storm!

The last few days have seen a vast and all-encompassing threat descend upon the British Isles. I refer, of course, to the media frenzy regarding the 'weather bomb' storm that made landfall yesterday, beginning in the far north west.

As far as Orkney is concerned, strong winds are a way of life, with the consequent hazards, and their subsequent mitigation, just a necessary part of living at 59 degrees North.

For OTT, this has meant one foray out into the garden to remove a large sheet of soggy bale wrap from the barbed wire fence that separates us from the neighbouring farmer's field. I'm sure it is slightly easier when it's not blowing a severe gale, but it probably made amusing viewing for anyone fortunate enough to spot my attempts to extricate it as I didn't wish to risk the whole fence disappearing eastwards at a great rate of knots.

What has been unusual though, is the sheer quantity of thunder, lightning and hail that we've been experiencing. This began on Sunday afternoon and the squally showers haven't really stopped since. Our Lass and I watched one thunderstorm traverse the length of Hoy, then hop over Hoxa Sound to continue its journey down South Ronaldsay.

So here we are, five days later, and there appears to be no let up in the amount of hail that is scudding Orkneywards.

The only downside to this is our letter box. It appears to be under the mistaken belief that it is some sort of water transfer system, rather than a portal for mail. I had carried out some remedial work on it in late Summer, with a tube of silicone elastomer gunk, but the dryish Autumn obviously lulled me into a false sense of security, as this week has seen a veritable torrent pouring through the door. A torrent only partially matched by my dark and profane utterances at the damp situation.

Of course, until it actually stops raining water and ice from the sky, there's very little chance of successfully fixing the problem. And the weather forecast gives very little hope in that regard.

Last night, I cooked a sausage casserole, as the time seemed right for some Winter comfort food. Seasonally, I look forward to celebrating the return of the parsnip and the Brussel sprout. Nom, nom,nom.