Sunday 28 February 2016

This one's for Captain Sundial

Another day, another beach.

This one's a bit closer to home, just a leisurely amble down the hill from Tense Towers, to fritter away a Sunday morning with some quality beach-combing. Shells, sea glass, animal bones, seaweed, there's always something interesting to find.

In the distance is St Nicholas' Kirk, often featured in these pages, but I don't think I've photographed it from this beach before. What isn't apparent from the image is that although the church stands on a low mound, it is not on the top of the mound, but off to the eastern side of it. And the mound obviously pre-dates the church.

Does this matter at all? Well, of late, it has started to puzzle me, because of the other archaeological sites in the area. Across the other side of the bay of Howes Wick is Castle Howe, an undistinguished lump sat between shore and pastures. It looks for all the world like a broch site (and there's plenty of those about in Orkney), but excavations in the past have shed doubt upon this. Then, farther afield, there is a Neolithic tumulus, known as North Cairn, on the rocky peninsula of Rose Ness. In my hazy thoughts, I reckoned that a straight line could be drawn between all three.

Certainly, drawing a line with a ruler on an OS map of the area would seem to suggest this is correct. Don't worry map addicts and pedants, I didn't really draw a red line on one of my precious paper maps!

Unfortunately, I wasn't carrying anything other than my phone, but a quick trip to the churchyard, locating the high point and then looking south east (yep, I wonder what celestial event that augurs, eh?) fairly well nailed it. So, this exercice might have to be repeated early in the morning on December 21st.

To be continued...

Saturday 27 February 2016

Echo of an echinoderm

Today, we took a circuitous route to Birsay, via Old Finstown Road, Heddle Hill, Harray Loch and Marwick, before parking by the cemetery near Birsay Bay.

We took the track north, through Palace village, being very good and not stopping at the tea room. This will be difficult for regular readers to comprehend (I'm still coming to terms with it myself), but it's true.

Once past the ruin of the Earl's Palace, we turned towards the beach. Standing on top of the low cliff, we watched a long line of waders on the shore below, feeding at the water's edge. As the birds rushed up and down, sprinting to try and keep one step ahead of the tide, it reminded me a little of circuit training. Out to sea, a large flock of Wigeon were bobbing about between the waves, with a pair of Shelduck closer in to the shore.

As we walked back south, clambering over rocks and searching the sand for booty (note to American readers, it means 'treasure'), Our Lass let out a yelp of glee. Wondering if she had actually found some treasure, I made my way over to where she was excitedly pointing. Nestled in amongst the seaweed was a sea urchin, its outer shell still intact, despite its journey to the shore. Not sure whether it was still alive or not, Our Lass placed it into a rock pool, but the next wave just carried it further up the beach and deposited it back on the sand. Not wanting to enter into an ultimately futile battle with the North Atlantic Ocean, we conceded defeat.

A little further along the beach, we had a graphic reminder that we hadn't visited the tea room yet. I would like to think that this is strong evidence of the interconnectedness and holistic nature of all things, but who knows for sure?

Perceptive brick fragments notwithstanding, we continued around the bay, before returning back to the car (and, yes, walking straight past it and on to the tea room).

Later in the day and back home once more, we were treated to a grand sunset, complete with sun pillar.

Sunday 21 February 2016

A View to a Kill

Indoors was the place to be this weekend. The weather has brought a constant gale from the west, with frequent hail showers 'machine gunning' the windows at regular intervals. On top of that, I wasn't feeling my usual perky self, so I've been catching up on some reading.

Fortuitously, this afternoon, it meant that I was sat in the lounge, book on lap, taking in the natural history of far-flung and warmer climes. A movement outside the window made me look up. A large bird had been flying low past the house and had glided over a field gate, before disappearing from sight. I had thought it was quite dark in appearance, but the light wasn't great and I only saw the bird for a fleeting second as it flew away from me.

Raven, maybe? Seemed bigger than a Rook or a Hooded Crow.

Curious as to where whatever it was had gone, I made my way to the window, but was unable to see it. Hmmm, odd. It had definitely gone to ground in a ploughed field just after the gate. Before I could think of moving to another window for a different angle on the area, the bird took to the air again (from a position behind a concrete gate post - gah!). It swooped over another fence into a pasture, gliding along for several metres before alighting in the shelter of some grass tussocks.

It was very not a Raven.

It was a rather handsome male Hen Harrier.

As soon as I thought it would remain where it was for a while, I felt able to risk taking my eyes off it and dug out my camera. The harrier had obviously made a kill and now set about plucking and devouring it. Joined at the window by Our Lass and her bins, we watched the harrier feeding for half an hour, through a hail shower and fading light. My assumption was that it had caught its prey during the initial swoop into the ploughed field, though I couldn't be sure it didn't arrive with it. This meant that talk of prey ID revolved around Starling and Rock Dove. The one flaw in this argument was the total lack of a flock of said birds during the initial encounter. We tried not to think about what else it might be.

When the harrier had feasted sufficiently, it took off and flew west, seemingly oblivious to the gale. How do they do that?! Our Lass and I looked at each other for a moment, each considering their next move, but I didn't think that there was any chance of her donning outdoor gear and pootling into a muddy field to retrieve evidence.

Oh well, me it is, then.

Did I mention it was blowing a hoolie and hailing?

Having located the crime scene, I must apologise for the quality of the image, but it wasn't until I was back indoors that I realised how shoddy it was. However, I was not going out again.

My earlier concerns appeared realistic, the assemblage of feathers looked rather wadery. Back home, I laid out my hurried selection on a bench and deployed a ruler.

Between ID guides and the web, it certainly looked as though this used to be a Snipe.

Our Lass is not available for comment...

Sunday 14 February 2016

Watching the detectives

We have been looking forward to one evening a week for the last month or so, tuning into BBC1 and indulging in the latest series of a police drama.

It ticks all the boxes for us:

A remote island location     Check!

A detective inspector with his head and heart in the right place     Check!

But who is unlucky in love     Check!

He has a slightly uneasy relationship with his boss     Check!

There's some stunning scenery     Check!

There is a female detective sergeant     Check!

One of the local constables is in a new relationship     Check!

The local music is infectious     Check!

I'm not sure that I could hack the weather     er... check?

So, it must be Jimmy Perez, Tosh, Sandy, the Procurator Fiscal and Shetland, aye?

Give over, it's Death in Paradise...

Humphrey, Florence, JP, the Commissioner and Saint Marie!

And Shetland is on the following night! Yay!

Friday 12 February 2016

A taste for conserve-ation

After the roller coaster ride of the other day, when my emotions went from the crest of a wave one minute, to being dashed upon the rocky shore of despondency the next, the ebb and flow of daily life has returned to calmer conditions. Littorally.

An email exchange with Wilkin and Sons produced an offer of replacement jars of Rubus gold as well as the below explanation of the difference between 'blackberry' and 'bramble'...

Our technical department have confirmed the following:

“It’s the same thing!  Strictly speaking it should be blackberry jelly as the fruit of the bramble is the blackberry.  I have always thought of brambles as being the prickly bushes on which blackberries grow! (Wikipedia agrees!)  However bramble can also refer to the fruit of the bramble bush, i.e. the blackberry.  “Bramble Jelly” is, I believe, a romanticised name for what should be blackberry jelly!”

I have to admire a technical department who are so passionate about their work that they can liberally sprinkle exclamation marks throughout their correspondence.

Wilkin and Sons were also happy for me to donate the unwanted Black currant jars to our local Foodbank which I consider is a generous and compassionate attitude for them to take.

This afternoon, a courier knocked on our door to deliver another package...

Oh, what dark and sweet delights could be hidden inside?

These beauties, that's what!

Nom, nom, nom.

Wednesday 10 February 2016

Jam tomorrow

Our move northwards, several years ago, was preceded by a great deal of thought and in-depth conversation about 'what if'. There were many considerations to take into account, but none of them involved foraging in hedgerows. It wasn't so surprising, I guess, as there aren't many hedgerows in Orkney in which to forage.

Not that we spent huge amounts of time in Milton Keynes wandering about the countryside looking at hedges, you understand. Well, actually, we did do a lot of that, but not in a foragey way, more of a natural history way! No, our list of wild food activities was limited to annual brambling expeditions, collecting blackberries, each late Summer or early Autumn.

For the reason mentioned above, there's not too much scope for that in Orkney but, for the past two years, I've been self-medicating my blackberry habit through the medium of Mackays Bramble PreserveBut the thing is, it's just not the same, or possibly it's because the preserve is cut with other lower grade stuff.

The time was ripe for a change.

So what to do? One option was to grow my own blackberries. It's not illegal, as far as I know, but would have to be done indoors as I don't imagine that the climate here would be particularly conducive to a good crop. But did I really want to go down the 'windows lined with alumimium foil' route? Probably not.

Buying online seemed a reasonable option, nothing too seedy, you understand. After all, folk say that you can purchase just about anything through the internet. After browsing the dark fruit web for a while, I discovered the Wilkin and Sons site. Really, at this point, Our Lass should've taken my credit card and cut it up.

A modest perusal of their wares led me to an astonishing discovery. There's Bramble Jelly, and also Blackberry Jelly. What is that all about? Surely, both products are the same thing? Hmmm, apparently not. A brief look at the ingredients showed that there are different strengths of blackberry-ness, so I obviously needed to be a bit careful. It's a thorny problem.

And this also explained why the Mackays jars no longer satisfy my cravings. Even I might have to admit that I've got it bad.

Mackays Bramble Preserve - 35g of fruit per 100g
Thursday Cottage Bramble Jelly - 50g of fruit per 100g
Wilkin and Sons Tiptree Blackberry Jelly - 60g of fruit per 100g

Several days later, a parcel arrived at Tense Towers. My joy was unconfined! Frantically ripping off the outer plastic packaging and tape, I discovered a neatly-packed, but suspicious-looking, consignment of...




To be continued...

Monday 8 February 2016

Happy New Year

It's the Chinese New Year today. Yay!

For over five decades, I have been blissfully ignorant of the fact, so you may be wondering, dear long-suffering reader, what has changed this year?

Well, it's funny you should ask...

The other week, I was at a customer's house, and all was going along normally, or at least normally for these parts: there was a fault which needed rectification; a solution was effected in an efficient and damp manner (it was raining); customer approved of repair; customer provided tea and cake. You can see why I like my job.

There was some other stuff with an invoice and a receipt but, let's face it, the tea and cake were the important part of the transaction.

However, in a change to the advertised routine, upon leaving the premises, I was given a fridge magnet. My quizzical look (yeah, ok, I always look like that) prompted the customer to explain that it was soon to be the Chinese New Year and, in 2016, it would be the Year of the Monkey. 

As I've subsequently discovered, the Year of the Red Fire Monkey, to be precise.

My fridge magnet isn't red.

Neither is it on fire, which is probably a good thing for a fridge magnet.

But it does look rather...


So does this mean that in 2016, I'll be mainly not setting fire to things but going "Ummm..." instead?

Sunday 7 February 2016

Alarm call

One early morning this week, we were sat up in bed drinking our 'wake up' mug of tea and staring at screens bringing the latest news from around the world, mostly bad. There was still an hour to go before sunrise, but despite the gloom there came a sound, drifting in through the open window and assailing our ears for the first time since last August.

Has it really been six months?

There was no mistaking the strident piping from several individuals which announced that the Oystercatchers were back. A very few of these strikingly-plumaged waders are seen around these shores throughout the Winter, and larger flocks of returners have been spotted in recent weeks, foraging in rockpools and flooded fields near the coast. But here was a positive indication that the year is slowly rotating towards the renewal of life, as birds begin prospecting further inland.

We celebrated with a second mug of tea and a shared smile at the clarion call heralding the approach of Spring.