Monday 24 March 2014

Shedding some light

Our Lass is currently away 'sooth', visiting The Two Ones and twitching rare bird species such as Magpie and Jay. As England is much nearer the Equator than Orkney, she has also mentioned that it's rather warm. This leaves me holding the fort on my own, or 'Gnome Alone' as one of my blogger colleagues calls it.

Fortunately, I haven't been bored or stuck for things to do. One of the many pleasant side effects of moving to this island community is that I have (and this will be hard to believe) developed a social life (see, I told you it was bordering on the incredulous). So last Friday I went to a very interesting talk by Eric Meek, arranged by the Orkney Field Club, which shed some light on the final season of a five year Scottish project to confirm and map the locations of dozens of species of plants. As you can probably imagine, the rarer plants tend to grow in some rather remote and stunning places, so the tale and accompanying slideshow were very enjoyable.

The following day, I drove across to the Stromness in West Mainland to attend a Spring Fair organised by Orkney ZeroWaste, a charity promoting the mantra Reduce, Recycle, Reuse. On the way there, I was fortunate to spot my first Short-eared Owl of the year (a proper definition of the abbreviation SEO, rather than all that Search Engine Optimisation malarkey). The main reason for the trek over to the diametrically opposite side of Scapa Flow was that there was a plant sale at the Fair. In fact, not just any plants, specifically trees.

Our Lass is keen to begin planting shelter belts in and around our half acre of mud, to provide windbreaks for less hardy things, like cornfield annuals and me. To this end, before she left for the sooth, I was entrusted with a shopping list and a budget.

Another blogger, Sian from Life on a Small Island, had tipped me off that the lady I needed to speak to was called Jenny, who is a bit of a tree expert. On arriving at the Town Hall, it was immediately obvious who Jenny was, as she was stood behind several tables laden with all manner of native Orkney saplings. I patiently queued for a chance to ask Jenny's advice and when I was able to introduce myself, she remarked that she knew who I was because our neighbours had told her. Orkney is not a place to keep secrets!

With Our Lass's list and Jenny's sage counsel, I was able to select 24 saplings of 6 species, as well as 80 Willow cuttings for the south easterly perimeter. There was one tricky moment when I couldn't read my nearest and dearest's writing, so had to choose between Alder and Elder.

All that retail therapy was thirsty work, but happily there was food available too. Before I ordered a light lunch, I was able to introduce myself to one of the caterers, Fay from The wind and the wellies blog. It was great to have a bit of a natter about our blogging experiences. The soup was very tasty, as were the cakes. 

Yesterday was much less eventful, spent at home putting up more pictures and photos on the walls. After a video chat with Our Lass, I went to bed quite early, to read for a while. I am re-reading Terry Pratchett's Snuff, a tale of slavery, drugs and oppression, which uses a race of goblins as the allegorical downtrodden masses. I put the light out at about 10pm, briefly woke up in pitch darkness at 1am and went straight back to sleep. When I awoke again, it was very bright and I dozily thought it was morning and I must have slept in. However, it suddenly dawned on me that my bedside light was on and it was only 4am. Odd, I mused, I must have knocked it in my sleep (it's a touch-activated device). But that didn't explain why Our Lass's bedside light was also on, which was most definitely out of my reach (it's a big bed, you see. In fact, so big we normally have to text each other "Good night").

Hmmm, it's the middle of the night and, bizarrely, our bedroom lights are switched on, all on their own. 


A swift tour of the house confirmed that everything was secure and nothing was missing. But it was a bit of a puzzle. As it proved impossible to get back to sleep, I spent some time interrogating the internet for an explanation. It would appear that touch-activated lamps can be triggered by a surge on the electricity supply, and I recall that this may have happened once before, many moons ago, but in the daytime.

I can vouch for the fact that it has much less impact in the daylight!

Saturday 22 March 2014

The Victor Scale explained...

Everyone's heard of the Richter Magnitude Scale, developed by Charles Francis Richter, in 1935, to assign a single number to quantify the energy that is released during an earthquake.

However, not many people are aware of the Victor Scale used to quantify the sudden release of energy during a seismic rant at some unfairness or lack of service. The scale is named after the fictional character Victor Meldrew from the BBC TV series One Foot in the Grave. The identity of the originator of this measuring scheme must remain anonymous, so I'll just refer to him as John. 

Day after day, the scale was developed through a series of tirades against poor workmanship, shoddy customer service, unfathomable decisions from superiors and incompetent bungling by those in power.

Each logarithmic step in the scale is referenced to a quote from the grumpy and curmudgeonly Victor, as shown below:

Figure 1: The Victor Scale
Various additional steps can be added depending upon the level of frustration felt or whether the letter 'F' is still functioning on one's keyboard.

Thursday 20 March 2014

To the power of four

Perhaps it is because we lived on Burray for two months, but one of the Churchill Barriers fascinates me. And it's not the ones that cause all the traffic problems when the wind, weather and waves combine. No, it's Barrier 4, which connects Burray with South Ronaldsay.

Recently, I was looking through a book of old photographs that I'd borrowed from the local library. Amongst all the interesting pictures of times past was this photograph...

Plate 137 from Images in Time (Orkney life through the lens of James W. Sinclair)
This image shows the newly-constructed Barrier 4 open to traffic for the first time. Several 'block' ships (the previous defence against a sea-borne attack) can be seen on the east side of the barrier, where they were scuttled to restrict access to Scapa Flow (now on the west side of the barrier).

The area looks very different now, not least because there are crash barriers to prevent vehicles falling into the sea. But more of the differences later.

With my appetite whetted, I searched for other images of the barrier on the web.

There is a site record on the webpage of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, with five images taken at different times. This aerial photograph from the late 1940s shows the barrier and block ships from overhead.

The barrier is still a narrow causeway between the North Sea and Scapa Flow.

Contemporaneous with the above shots I can but assume, is this postcard which is now available on eBay.

One of the local ferry companies, Northlink, has a short article about the barriers on its website, where the image below can be found. Sadly, I do not have a date for this photo.

However, as can clearly be seen, not only has the power of the sea begun to break up the block ships, but a sandy beach has formed.

Probably from around the same time, a postcard was issued, also now available, like so much else, on eBay.

Moving forward in time to nearer the present, the road across the barrier was upgraded and fitted with crash fencing on the Scapa Flow side, as can be seen in this photograph from a genealogy page of the Cromarty and Ross family.

These days, the dune system on the east side of the barrier is still growing. and after south easterly storms, the sand has to be removed from the road. I nipped across to Burray this afternoon to try to recreate the first photograph at the top of the page. Coincidentally, a hailstorm was coming in from the west, so I didn't hang around long!

Finally, here's a shot from a different day, from the other end of the dunes and looking back to where the original photograph was taken, approximately right of centre where the small white building is located.

I find this dynamic landscape enthralling, that such a habitat can be formed within the span of a human lifetime. Where was the sand's original location? How has the movement from one place to another affected wildlife? Which reminds me, today was obviously a camera day, so no Snow Buntings. Gah!  

Sunday 16 March 2014

Ploughing a colourful furrow

This is probably a sweeping generalisation, a lazy stereotypical swipe and a move guaranteed to drop me deep in the matrimonial mire...

I have long felt that when we choose a replacement car, Our Lass never worries about the make, the model, miles per gallon, engine size, resale value or even insurance group. She may fleetingly wonder about handbag storage, but only ever, ever, ever really considers colour.

To her credit, Our Lass takes my chromatic joshing in good spirit, so there's no great er... hue and cry. However, since moving to Orkney, this theory has taken on a life of its own.

As part of her job, she visits clients in their homes, which in Orkney is often the family farm. There has been an unlikely spin off from this. Through the toys of the many children she meets, Our Lass now knows some of the tractor manufacturers who grace the UK market... by colour.

Massey Ferguson = Red
JCB = Yellow
John Deere = Green
New Holland = Blue

Will there be pressure on me to find room on our drive for one of these vehicles? That would raise a few environmental concerns. Does that make me a Rainbow Worrier?

Saturday 15 March 2014

Seeds of change

It has been a lousy day, weather-wise, with constant rain hammering on our windows, driven hard by a westerly gale. Fresh air and exercise were sorely needed, but not in these conditions. We will wait for tomorrow, when it should be drier, though the wind is set to remain strong.

As the afternoon wore on, Our Lass and I exhibited the early signs of cabin fever, but there was one bright note to accompany the monotonous drumming of rain upon glass.

Shortly after 5pm, I noticed a movement out in the garden (though 'garden' is too grand a term for it as, with this latest deluge, it has returned to mud and puddles). Whilst it was difficult to focus my binoculars on the action, due to the rivers of water cascading down the windows, I initially thought that a small group of Linnets were sheltering in the lee of the dry stone wall. Grabbing my camera and moving to a different viewpoint, I revised that identification to Twite*, four of them, thoroughly bedraggled but obviously glad of the respite afforded by our wall. It looked as though they were finding seeds, probably from the host of dockans that had colonised this plot of land, before the builder had placed a veneer of topsoil over them.

At least one of the flock was sporting an ID ring on its left leg, but it was impossible to read the number on it.

When planning what to do with this area of the garden, I think we will remember these plucky visitors and plant or landscape accordingly.

* Post blog edit... later that same day... After posting a few of these pics on Orkney Wildlife's Facebook site, Martin Gray pointed out that this small flock are in fact Linnets (so much for going with my instincts!). Martin's comments were "They're not an easy pair to separate and even the 4 birds pic shows different degrees of streakiness. The single bird image above has a rosy breast, grey head and dark grey bill; twite would have a yellowish bill, no colour on the breast at this time of year and lack that grey 'hood'. There's also a bit too much white in the wing of all for Twite. Both species have done well in Orkney in recent years, especially with sacrificial bird crops becoming more popular."
Apologies to one and all.

Friday 14 March 2014

Surely not?

Earlier this week, I had the brief opportunity to visit Caithness in Scotland, for my first trip 'off island' since arriving on Orkney in December. The weather was absolutely peachy, barely a breath of wind and glorious day-long sunshine. As I drove to the ferry, the North Sea and Scapa Flow, on either side of the Churchill Barriers, were flat calm. The low morning sun produced some wonderful lighting on the reed beds at Loch of Graemeshall, but I didn't not have time to tarry and admire the view or look through the flocks of birds assembled on the water. The 60 minute ferry crossing was as smooth as anticipated, so I was able to risk a bacon sarnie, without any fear of consequences.

Once back on the Scottish mainland, the journey to Dunbeath took about an hour. During the drive, I was surprised at how less green the landscape looked compared to the Orcadian fields around our home, just a scant few miles away across the Pentland Firth.

On arrival in Dunbeath, I was startled by a somehow strange, yet oddly familiar, sight... a thronging bird table and feeders. The air was filled with birdsong and the sounds of squabbling over a precious resource. Colourful avian characters jostled one another for nuts and seeds in a continual feeding frenzy of wings and beaks. It occurred to me that I had made a trip from one county to another, a journey of several hours, at no small expense, and was now clocking up new species for the year at an alarming rate. This sounded awfully like the definition of a twitch, that much-maligned and idiosyncratic behaviour beloved of way-too-serious birders. Bloomin' heck, Tense, get a grip of yourself!

So what were these rare and precious creatures that were exercising my eyes and ears?

Er... Blue Tit... Great Tit... Coal Tit... Goldfinch... Dunnock... and Song Thrush. Impressive, huh?

I hadn't seen any of that lot since leaving England three months ago!

A Tale of Two Cities

A good choice of post title? Almost worth writing a book? Ahem, back to reality...

After 3 months of living in Orkney, steeped in its many layers of history, it is probably time to reflect upon the subtle differences between where we used to live and where we currently reside.

Milton Keynes (1990-2013)

Milton Keynes has always called itself a city, though it doesn't have a cathedral, so in the strict, traditional definition of a city, it's a town. However, the original designation, in 1967, used the word 'city' and MK's inhabitants have mostly always seen it as such. Bizarrely, however, there have been several bids to formalise the city status through applications to the reigning monarch, all unsuccessful. It's now a county, apparently.

Kirkwall (2013-present)

Technically, we do not live in Kirkwall, but in the parish of Holm (pronounced 'Ham'). However for the purposes of this blogpost, I will use Kirkwall, as it is the largest settlement in Orkney. It isn't a city either, despite having the wonderful St Magnus Cathedral at its centre. No, Kirkwall is a Royal Burgh.

So, neither town is a city, yet its signage would have you believe otherwise.

Pedantry aside (and it is very difficult to put pedantry aside, believe me), both are fantastic places to live, but in very different ways. MK is not yet 50 years old, whilst Kirkwall has almost a millennium to its name. There are probably more trees in any one Milton Keynes housing estate than in the whole of Orkney. Both have living, breathing farm animals grazing within a stone's throw of the city centre, though MK probably clinches it by several yards (this slightly makes up for the concrete cows... just). Many of the grid roads that allow residents to traverse from one side of Milton Keynes to the other, in fairly short order, are dual carriageways. I haven't found a dual carriageway on Orkney, yet. Kirkwall's centre is full of independent shops, with only the occasion national chain in evidence. 'the centre:mk' (sic) is full of national chains, with barely a mention for local or independent retail outlets. Horses for courses, I guess (though neither has a race course).

If you're wondering why I haven't included a photo from Milton Keynes in this blogpost, it's because I have. That first picture isn't taken from inside a Neolithic burial chamber on Orkney. It's taken from inside the cafe at the Waitrose supermarket in MK. Tea and cake, anyone?

Sunday 9 March 2014

Life's a beach

This morning, we paid a visit to the sand dunes and coast adjacent to Churchill Barrier 4. It had been a few weeks since we were last there, but even in that short space of time the beach had seen some changes.

During this trip, the tide was further out than on previous visits. But there was something else different, which took me a while to figure out. A great deal of sand had been pushed higher up the beach and dumped in uneven mounds above the normal strand line. A most peculiar effect.

The weather forecast was predicting a dry day, a rare commodity at the moment, but this is Orkney, where changeability comes as standard. So, although we set off from the car park in glorious sunshine, it didn't last.

A flock of Starlings were feeding on the masses of seaweed strewn upon the northern end of the beach. At first glance, it wasn't easy to see them, they were surprising well camouflaged amongst the tumbles and tangles of brown stems and fronds. However, seaweed doesn't normally keep up a constant burbling chatter, so the birds were quickly located. As other beach-goers passed by, the Starlings would rise as one, the flock would disperse to some convenient overhead wires, before returning once more when the perceived danger had gone.

As we walked along the tide line, a few Pied Wagtails were also spied amongst the sea-driven detritus and, across in the dunes, a small group of Snow Buntings hopped through the grass, searching for food. In the surf, Long-tailed Ducks bobbed and dived, seemingly unconcerned at our presence.

A few drops of rain heralded the disappearance of the sun and we hurriedly covered our binoculars.

Within minutes, we were engulfed by a shower and sought some respite from the stiff breeze under the low cliffs at the southern end of the beach. As the rain became heavier, we deployed our hoods and almost missed a Sparrowhawk wheeling over our heads, interrupted in its imperious and deathly glide along the cliff edge.

With the rain, the rocks and shells on the beach took on much more vibrant colours and patterns, so we pottered about looking at these for a while until the shower moved on. Our reward for the soaking was a rainbow, arching from Burray Village, over the Ayre of Cara and out into the bay. 

After the deluge, the rain clouds moved off eastwards, out into the North Sea, revealing the blue skies and warming rays of the promised dry day.

Returning to the car, we passed another small flock of birds in the dunes, Ringed Plovers. In the suddenly bright light, their bills and legs were the most vivid yellow, as if they had been dipped in the yolk of the greatest organic, free range egg of all time.

Upon which culinary note, we decided it was lunchtime and headed for the pub, feeling a little less like fair-weather naturalists.

Friday 7 March 2014


One evening last week, my mobile phone chirped with an incoming text.

'Northern Lights now!' the message read, and as we had not yet experienced this phenomenon, we rushed outside.

Due north of our home, just over the hill, is Kirkwall Airport and then the town of Kirkwall itself. These are probably our only real sources of light pollution, but Northern Lights tend to be in the north, I guess.

As our eyes became accustomed to the gloom, we were aware of a pale, slowly changing cloudscape close to the horizon. Hey, those aren't clouds. And they're very faintly green.

The aurora!

But as we watched, the colour intensified and then morphed into red as well.


I now rushed back indoors. My camera was not set up for this kind of photography, a shocking lack of respect for the 7 Ps. Shame on me.

Swapping lenses, dialling in a set of best guess parameters and mantling a tripod all at the same time, I stumbled back outside into the dark and experimented with a few shots.

Perhaps focussing would be a good idea?

That's a bit better

 But as the evening progressed, things were to become a bit more lively.

Not sure what was causing the ripple effect in the centre, but it was apparent on many of my shots
Northern Lights and the Light Of My Life
This particular auroral show was visible over much of the UK and much further south into England than normal, possibly the best display for several decades. We were privileged to witness it as our first Northern Lights sighting.

The next morning, the local Facebook page for sky phenomena was aglow with some amazing photographs, all a zillion times better than mine!


Mid morning, Our Lass hollered from the kitchen, "Come and have a look at this!"
As there were no discernible baking aromas, I was a bit nonplussed.

Making my way to the kitchen door, I saw that my better half was stood gazing out of the window, so presumed that she had spotted some wildlife in the garden.

"Ah, I'll need my specs," I said, turning towards the lounge to collect them.

"You won't need them for this," she replied.

Eh? What animal or bird could this be? It must be large!
Otter? White-tailed Eagle? Velociraptor? 

Rushing to join her, I scanned the view until I spotted a very rare species in these parts. At least, rare of late. A BT van!

The local engineer was scoping out what work was required and politely declined our offer of a hot brew. Over the course of the next few hours, in the teeth of a westerly gale and horizontal driving hail, he proceeded to connect our land line and broadband. Big respect to the guy, it wasn't the weather for working outside. 

So, yes, here is my inaugural blogpost from TT2 (I really must come up with a more imaginative name than that).


Wednesday 5 March 2014

Ups and downs

Still no news, neither good nor bad, on the landline or broadband. I've been promised an update tomorrow. So, whilst I wait at home for the plumber to arrive to fix a dodgy valve, here's a post from my phone, courtesy of an intermittent 3G signal... Hello? Hello? Are you still there?

However, Mother Nature has been keeping me upbeat. At the weekend, on both Saturday and Sunday evenings, a Hare was grazing in the field across the road. Yesterday saw the first sighting from the lounge of an Oystercatcher (and they were rather vocal at 05.30 this morning). Then, just after lunch today, a ring-tailed Hen Harrier flew over the field, another lounge first.

This latter event prompted the beginning of a garden list, which with the addition of the harrier, sits at 26 species. Admittedly, in previous Winters, we could see that many species in the garden of Tense Towers in a week, but that list wouldn't feature a harrier or a Pink-footed Goose.

At the weekend, whilst on a pleasant stroll, we spotted a Merlin a few hundred yards from the house. This probably explains the furtive nature of our local Robin!