Monday, 27 January 2014

Birthing news!

In a worldwide exclusive, I&T can reveal that it has become a parent!

Blog and author are doing fine, thanks.

The nascent offspring, christened Odometer, is available to view by following the link towards the top right of the page.

We kindly request that no knitted garments are forwarded to the Comments section.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Burns Night

Yesterday, 25th January, was the anniversary of the birth of one Robert Burns, who is considered to be the national poet of Scotland. It is traditional to celebrate this day with a Burns Supper, especially in Scotland, but more widely where any Scots gather.

As this was our first such occasion since moving to Orkney, and therefore nominally Scotland, we felt it was appropriate to enter into the celebration in some way, so spent the preceding day looking for a wild haggis, Haggis scoticus*, around which to base our evening meal.

Though Orkney suffers from a general lack of mountain terrain, their favoured habitat, the best place in the archipelago for seeing this species in the wild are the hills of North Hoy. Sadly we did not have the option of making the trip across Burra Sound, so we scoured the rugged hills of Mainland in the hope of snagging our prey. Steering clear of the hunting restrictions in place on the Birsay Moors nature reserve, we concentrated our efforts between Corrigall to the west, Cottascarth to the east and Starra Fiold to the north. Though there were plenty of scat and other more ephemeral signs of the beasts, we were unable to confirm a single sighting, let alone approach close enough to realise our dreams of an authentic wild centrepiece for our Burns supper. The habitat here provides plenty of low cover, so that even experienced hunters in this landscape, such as Short-eared Owls and Hen Harriers, rarely catch a haggis, unless it is suicidally unobservant.

As the light and our hopes faded, we made our way to Stromness to activate Plan B.

Now, away sooth across the Pentland Firth, a few enterprising farmers have diversified into new areas that don't involve wind turbines and sheep. Although the featureless expanses of Caithness are not ideal terrain for raising a happy haggis, it has proved possible to breed these creatures in captivity, to supply the many restaurants and eateries keen to provide a tourist meal through the Summer and also the local market at the end of January.

However, we were wary of the provenance of farmed haggis, concerned about the conditions that are rumoured to prevail in cramped, dark barns, where nary a sprig of heather or a tranquil burn is present and the poor creatures are force-fed on a diet of animal offal and fermented barley spirit. I can't imagine anyone eating that. Instead we sought out the local butcher's shop in Stromness, where we had been told it was possible, with a nod and a wink, to acquire an Orcadian free range haggis. At least with one of these tasty specimens, we could be sure that it had breathed the fresh air of these isles and felt the fragrant touch of heather blooms on its scraggy hide. We were not disappointed and came away with a neatly-prepared half a kilogramme of Orkney's finest. 

I should point out that the Scottish Minister for Environment and Climate Change has no plans to introduce a cull of the wild haggis to reduce the incidence and spread of tourist TB**.

Our evening meal was a splendid success. The neeps were just the correct side of lumpy, the tatties were mashed to within a buttery inch of their lives and the succulent, free range haggis was spicy, warm and filling.

* Haggis scoticus

** TB = total bo##ocks

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Slim pickings

It's that time of year again, the RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch. A time when it's OK to be a bit of a wimp and birdwatch from the warmth and comfort of your own home.

There's none of this trekking through acres of mud in your bare feet in all weathers, dragging several tonnes of optical equipment, to arrive at a damp, dark hide, which because it's colder inside than out, seems to have discovered the secret of refrigeration without all that CFC and electricity malarkey. Nuh-uh, cosy toes and cups of tea are the order of the day.

For the Tense Team, this year, the garden birdwatch weekend will be a bit of a damp squib compared to previous ones. We've not been in our rented cottage long enough to build up a loyal band of feathered visitors. That and the fact that if we did put food out, it would disappear off downwind at a goodly rate of knots*, last stop Scapa Flow.

In the six weeks that we have been here, the only birds we have seen are a couple of Blackbirds, a Robin, a Wren, a few of House Sparrows, a small flock of Starlings and a Sparrowhawk. The latter intent on reducing the 'a small flock of' to 'several' status. Nothing exotic like a Blue Tit or a Goldfinch (yesterday, in a neighbouring village, we had to be revived with smelling salts when we saw a Chaffinch).

So, to make up for the lack of any birdy news from this Orcadian garden, here, as they might say on BBC [insert season]watch, is what happened in previous years, whilst living in MK:




Why that last one wasn't a pun...

Numbers and birds - discuss

A bit about counting

I hope that normal BGB service will be resumed by January 2015.

* Not, you will note, Knots

Sunday, 19 January 2014

All lace and legs

How much are we slaves to our hormones and gender conditioning?

For blokes, and I can only speak for blokes, I don't think the wiring diagram is too complicated, nor does the internal circuitry contain much in the way of resistors. Plenty of amplifiers, though.

So when the silky siren call came, I responded. What else could I do? It's pre-programmed via thousands of years of evolution. Or sin, depending upon your viewpoint.

You will have to judge for yourselves whether this is the sweet-sounding, seductive siren of Greek mythology...

The Siren, oil on canvas by Edward Armitage, Leeds Art Gallery (
or the less easy on the ear, nerve-jangling, piercing klaxon of alarm.
But returning to the siren song...

A female voice called from the bedroom, full of emotion and yearning.

"There's a spider in here... on your side."

Now it's probably fair to say that, wherever a spider appeared, in a bedroom or anywhere else, it would be on 'my' side*. If this seems to you like a rather arbitrary** rule, I would say you're correct, but perhaps we're both missing the point.

Returning to the arachnid in question, it was indeed on my side, halfway up the wall in the corner of the room. It wasn't a species that I had knowingly seen before, so I took the opportunity to photograph it for posterity. Apologies for the poor quality of the shot, I don't think the designers of image stabilisation technology had this particular scenario in mind. As luck would have it, Very Wrong Len was fitted to the camera, so I had to be a minimum of 1.5m from my subject to bring it into focal range. I realised later, that some indication of scale would have been useful, but I don't think my dulcet-toned partner would have been happy holding a ruler within 30cm of anything that looked like this...

A lace webbed spider, Amaurobius similis, I believe
The internet reckons that one of its prey species is the humble wood louse. Yep, we've got those too, so Well Done, Mr Internet.

Photo shoot over, the spider was bustled outside to take its chances with the local Wren.

* The same is not true for bed space. None of that is my side.

** I can do arbitrary too, though. For instance, I don't think Our Lass should remove a 'weed' from the garden unless she can identify it. Or, folk out hunting duck should know exactly which species of duck it is, before they blow it out of the sky.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Making light work of it

With a dry day forecast, we opted to travel up to the north west corner of Mainland for some fresh air. This had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that the Birsay Tea Room was open and it was purely coincidental that we arrived bang on lunchtime. What were the chances of that happening?!

Despite an overcast sky and a stiff south easterly breeze, we then walked from the Brough car park along to the whalebone marker, slip sliding our way past the boat nousts and along the muddy cliff top. There were a few birds about close to the shore - Oystercatcher, Turnstone, Redshank, Goldeneye, Merganser and Gannet, but we spent most of our time looking at the nousts at Skipi Geo. A noust is a place to store a small boat to protect it from the waves and the weather.

Skipi Geo inlet

Small boats could sail up to the beach
Then they would be dragged up the slope out of danger, away from the force of the waves

Steps cut into the cliff

The nousts where the boats would be stored between fishing trips
On the return journey, our attention was caught by some activity out to sea. The Northern Lighthouse Board must be carrying out some maintenance or building works at the automatic light located on the Brough, as their helicopter, G-CGPI, was ferrying materials from the NLV Pharos up on to the island.

The Brough of Birsay (lighthouse just visible on other side of the island)

The NLV Pharos

An underslung load arriving at the lighthouse

Nearly there...

Once the load was delivered, the helicopter returned to the ship for more

Gently does it

Up, up and away

Another delivery

Here we go again

I wonder if you can order pizza this way?
Whilst researching this blogpost, I discovered that a helicopter and pilot had been tragically lost here just over a decade ago, carrying out this type of task. It was a salutary reminder of the perils that some brave folk face in their 'office work'.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Taking the air for the good of my health

After yesterday's dreich weather, today began in a similar vein with poor visibility and persistent rain. It did differ in the fact that it was almost vertical rain, which is a bit of a novelty in these parts, meaning that the wind had died down. However, my guardian angels (I have more than one, how lucky am I?) insisted that I should be outside, taking the air and absorbing lots of sunlight to produce vitamin D.

As luck would have it, by lunchtime the skies had cleared, so I drove across to Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar. A ranger from Historic Scotland was conducting a walk and talk, which I was keen to experience, for although we've been visiting Orkney for 8 years, we had never attended one of these group tours.

Under increasingly blue skies, with the sunlight glinting off puddles on the waterlogged ground, I arrived at the car park to be greeted by one other vehicle, which belonged to Ranger Sandra. It was my very good fortune to have a personal tour of the site, which included a great deal of information about the henge, but also about the surrounding landscape. In fact, we must have talked about every period of history from the Neolithic to the present day, pretty much all of it relevant to the World Heritage site, which illustrates quite neatly what archaeologists say, that sites often have a continuity of occupation or use. This is certainly true for the Ring of Brodgar, whatever made it special 5000 years ago, its mojo is still talking to us in the 21st Century. After all, we're the same folk really, just in different clothes. At the end of the talk, after I'd given my profuse thanks for such an excellent tour, Ranger Sandra left me alone with the stones for some quality henge time.

I could, possibly should, have returned to the car and grabbed my camera gear, but the moment was now and I didn't want to lose it.

The golden light radiated from each lichen-clad slab and I soaked it up, trying to absorb the knowledge of several millennia and the scenes that these stones have witnessed. Wisps of white cloud swept across the azure sky, like ethereal memories of rituals that cannot be decoded, despite all our technology and ingenuity. There was a peace and tranquillity to the place that must be quite rare these days. No birds calling, no other visitors, no traffic. For this beating Heart of Neolithic Orkney draws people to it, as it always has done and as it always will.

Viking graffiti

Victorian graffiti

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Life of Pi...

A week or two ago, I discovered something about Our Lass that shocked and stunned me.

We had just driven into a car park by the marina in Kirkwall, and to be honest, my mind was simply reeling from finding a free space. Then, without any warning, Our Lass suddenly blurted out "Do you know what I really fancy right now?"

I looked at her, dumbfounded, my thoughts racing.

"A Scotch pie," she murmured.

I was taken aback. As they say, my flabber had never been so ghasted.

"Not just any pie, then?" I asked.

"A Scotch pie," she repeated.

Ee, you know someone (well, you think you know someone) for thirty odd years and then they come out with a thing like that.

Now, to me, a pie's a pie, so I had to ask what defined said savoury delicacy as the Scotch variety, as opposed to just a normal pie.

"Oh, the normal one's are Melton Mowbray pies," Our Lass replied.

At this low emotional ebb, I foolishly asked if there was any other pies I should know about.

"Well, the ones with the egg in the middle are Gala pies, " she said, matter-of-factly. 

"Will you stop naming pies!" I cried, shaken by the sudden vast culinary knowledge that my nearest and dearest was exhibiting for meat and pastry-based products.

It was truly unnerving. You see, we're all quite partial to a pie now and again, in the Tense clan, but not one of us has ever professed a knowledge of pie nomenclature that would allow them to make use of it as a specialist subject on Mastermind.

So why here, why now?

Today, I think I discovered the reason.

At lunchtime, I was listening to the radio. A news and discussion programme was being broadcast by BBC Scotland and one particular article grabbed my attention.

It was about pies. Not just any pies. Scotch pies.

For today, the Scotch Pie Club announced the winner of the 2014 World Scotch Pie Championship. 

Yes, really.

And, no, it wasn't Our Lass. She's more interested in the consuming aspect of pies, rather than the whole 'slaving over a hot stove' gig.

Well-deserved congratulations to Stephen McAllister of The Kandy Bar!

So what did we have for tea* tonight?

And they say romance is dead.

Probably from clogged arteries.

* Translation for southerners, 'dinner'

Rather dreich

Watching the weather forecast this morning on BBC Scotland, I had cause to pause when the introductory summary was given as "Rather driech."

My consternation was on two counts:

  • The return of horizon-to-horizon glowering clouds, persistent showers and gale force winds, with isobars tighter than a duck's proverbial;
  • I thought it was spelt 'dreich'.

From the kitchen window, the view of the ayre that separates the freshwater lochan from the sea has taken on a surreal... er... air. With the strong south easterly wind, the normally calm surface of Echnaloch is much more turbulent, with waves hitting the gentle grassy slope that defines the road verge. Whereas in a bizarre twist and despite it being high tide, Echnaloch Bay seems calmer, as it derives some shelter from the ayre and the gale pushes the sea water north west across Scapa Flow.

Whilst folk on mainland Scotland, rather than those in Orkney, are more likely to use 'dreich', it would appear that, according to my Oxford Dictionary, the word has its origins in Middle English, in the sense of 'patient, long-suffering'. This in turn came from a Germanic origin, corresponding to Old Norse drjugr meaning 'enduring, lasting'. At some point, the alternative spelling 'driech' seems to have sprung up. Confusingly, both are used by BBC Scotland.

A more in-depth discussion of the word can be found here.

Some Orcadian weather words can be found here.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Burray and the Barriers

Hmm, that could be the name of a 50s skiffle group or an early rock 'n' roll band, but... no.

As I have mentioned a few times of late, we're currently living in a cottage on the island of Burray. This is one of 16 inhabited islands out of the 70 or so that make up the Orkney archipelago.  As one of the southern isles, Burray is joined to its neighbours by fixed road links across the Churchill Barriers that were built during the Second World War to protect the eastern approaches to Scapa Flow. 

Barriers Number 1, 2 and 3 take the road from Mainland to Lamb's Holm, then Glimps Holm and on to Burray. Barrier Number 4 connects Burray with South Ronaldsay.

These links enable folk who live on South Ronaldsay and Burray to quickly and easily commute to Mainland (the largest island in the archipelago), providing that the tide, sea swell and wind are not causing 'overtopping' the barriers. 'Overtopping' is a quaint euphemism for what happens when waves come crashing over the sea defences, which can produce a range of emotions from mildly irritating to wildly intimidating, depending upon the extent of the damage to your vehicle. Occasionally, at high tides during stormy weather, an enforced closure of the barriers is put in place to prevent loss of life. However, in the main (no pun intended), the barriers are normally open and perfectly safe.

On the northern coast of Burray are the remains of two brochs (Iron Age drystone towers, thought to be for defence) which on approach from Mainland, were likely to be the first things that invading Vikings encountered. The name 'Burray' is thought to be a contraction of the Norse 'Borgarey', meaning island of the broch. 

Today, I walked up to Muckle Wart on west Burray, the highest point on the island at 80m, to take in the view and to see if it was a vantage point from where to photograph the barriers. As I crested the rise from the northern slope, the full force of a strong south westerly breeze welcomed me to the final approach to the trig point at the top of the hill. For those wind junkies amongst you, it was 28kts, with gusts of 37kts. To be honest, it doesn't take very long living on Orkney to become such an aficionado.

I had elected to bring along Very Wrong Len, assuming that the distance to the barriers would be great enough to require a 300mm prime lens. However, as I soon discovered, a 200mm zoom would've been the better option, but sadly that is in storage. This means that I can show you bits of Barriers 1-3, but not all of them in one shot as I had intended.

In the above photo, Barrier Number 3 is nearest the camera, Number 2 travels from the centre of the shot to the right and Number 1 is in the distance on the left.

I retraced my steps down the ridge and then headed south towards Burray Village, as we needed a few comestibles from the local shop. On the way, I managed an image of Barrier Number 4 with my phone, just to complete the day's set. This barrier has a dune system behind it on the North Sea side, which has developed over the intervening 60 years since the end of the Second World War. We have had several pleasant ambles here already and it's where Our Lass found the as-yet-unphotographed Snow Buntings. 

My main problem with the barriers, and I don't know if this afflicts anyone else, but if you're a regular customer of a post office or a bank (or any other business where there is a queueing system for a limited number of cashiers/assistants), you will be familiar with it.

Every time we approach a barrier, for example the one pictured above, I can't resist exclaiming "Barrier Number 4, please!"

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Choosing colours

There may not be many hours of daylight at this latitude during mid Winter, but lack of quantity does not mean lack of quality.

This was exemplified during a walk along the cliffs at Burwick this morning.

Orange - Muckle Skerry

Grey - Duncansby Head (Scotland)

Blue - Hoy hills, with Martello Tower in foreground, left of centre

Silver - waves breaking over rocks

Gold - interesting strata in cliff

Oops, I dropped the palette

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Wide-eyed and lensless

Over recent days, Our Lass and I have explored a few more beaches, as wind and rain have allowed.

On New Year's Day, we ventured across to the east side of South Ronaldsay, to the Bay of Newark. The tide was in, leaving only a small strip of sand at the top of the beach, which we joyously shared with storm-strewn seaweed and a host of waders, the latter busily searching the former for morsels of food.

A gale was urging the incoming waves to put more effort into crashing onto the beach, so between the sea spray and the wind-blown sand, I was quite nervous of my optics. Indeed, in only a short time, the neutral filter on the object lens was coated with salt. There was so much action, I didn't know which way to look first: Long-tailed Ducks and Red-breasted Mergansers were feeding in the breakers; Turnstone, Redshank, Purple Sandpiper, Ringed Plover and Sanderling were scurrying between the incoming tide and the drift line; and, at one end of the beach were several photogenic structures, a church, the remains of a windmill and a couple of sets of rusted winding gear. Predictably, I tried to do everything at once and failed miserably, but it was an exhilarating location and will be well worth another visit.

Waders (US - Shorebirds)

Sanderling and Turnstone

Purple Sandpiper

In one corner of the cemetery adjoining St Peter's church, were several recumbent grave stones which were decorated with memento mori in the form of a skull and crossed bones motif. My understanding is that this form of grave decoration is to remind us of our mortality and dates from the 1700s. More research required, methinks.

Above the bay, on the slope of a hillside, was a large monolith, the 14' high Sorquoy standing stone. There wasn't any other Neolithic structure visible in the landscape with which to relate it. Perhaps there used to be something under the present day church?

I'm not brave enough to caption this one
The following day, we explored the dunes and beach adjacent to the 4th Churchill Barrier. Again this was around the time of high tide and the beach faced into the wind, so discretion being the better part of valour, I left my camera at home. If anything, we found ourselves in the midst of even more bird life, and closer! Drat and double drat.

At the northern end of the beach was a low grass-covered cliff. This was providing shelter and food for several flocks of Twite and Rock Pipit, with a couple of Wrens joining in for good measure. The beach itself was home to plenty of waders, but we were busy watching the huge waves that were crashing onto the shore. After a while, Our Lass nudged me and pointed to her left, where she had spotted a movement amongst the seaweed strewn at the top of the beach. With the naked eye, I couldn't immediately see what was there, but with the aid of my bins, a small flock of Snow Bunting materialised, about seven birds, busy searching the ground for food. Damn my caution in leaving the camera behind.

Today, on a somewhat calmer morning, we returned with optics in the hope of a repeat performance, but to no avail.

So this is what everything is eating?

Waders evading radar
Then, late this afternoon and sans camera again, we pottered up the hill behind the cottage, to investigate the view. As the south western horizon began to turn pink with the setting sun and a crescent moon glowed faintly, a tiny dot in the sky caught my attention.

Even at a great distance, the flap, flap, flap, glide... flap, flap, flap, glide... was unmistakeable. A Sparrowhawk. As I directed Our Lass onto it, I noticed something else in the sky behind it, a tiny thin crescent. Hang on, we have one of those already, I thought, and lowered my bins to check on the location of the Moon. Sure enough, there it was, just about where we'd left it, so who was the interloper? I guessed either Venus or Jupiter, but I had to wait until we were home to confirm that it was the latter*. Predictably, and by that point I was reunited with Very Wrong Len, the sky had clouded over. Some days there just aren't enough expletives.

* 06/01/14 Today I received an email from Captain Sundial, informing me that Venus will show phases, but Jupiter won't. After re-checking the direction we were facing in the above photo, the relevant OS map and a planet visibility app, I can now confidently say that it was Venus. We were facing SW, not SE, and it was the setting Venus, rather than the rising Jupiter. Sorry, Capt S, my humble apologies :o(

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Rolling forward the years

Happy New Year, dear reader. May the tide of fortune flow in your favour in 2014.