Tuesday 28 February 2017

Edges and ditches

A day that begins with a flight on an eight-seater plane always feels adventuresome. I think it has to do with the altitude as much as the noisy, cramped confines of the aircraft. For inter-island flights, Loganair's Britten Norman Islanders are at just the correct height to engage in a spot of airborne reconnaissance, be it either a little aerial archaeology or discovering previously unseen water bodies which might harbour dragonflies. Not so low that the ground whizzes by in an unseemly haste, not too high that landscape features are lost in the general background. So a work trip to North Ronaldsay yesterday was a bit of a treat. The forecasted poor weather failed to materialise and I enjoyed a pleasant sunny day (for February in Orkney!).

The Winter sun cast long shadows, accentuating the lumps and bumps in fields, and giving tantalising glimpses of what once was, what might have been or what is yet to be discovered. Flying over the island of Sanday, a small cemetery near the coast came into view. The ruined church buildings (just walls, not one roof amongst them) drew my gaze, until I noticed that in the adjacent field was a set of crop marks that indicated more, but hidden, structures. There were definite rectangular walls with, at one end, a circular shape outlined. At the time, I wondered whether this was an earlier kirk, the round structure being a tower perhaps, but later, searching an online archaeology website, no such thing was shown. There was a well in the field, so perhaps the field markings were of a croft, and the circular structure was a drying kiln.

Whilst on North Ronaldsay, there was more archaeology right next to where I was working. It can be seen in the photograph below as a faint circular outline (thanks, Google!). The owner kindly explained what it was and how it was used.

And thank you to Bing, too, as the next photo shows the structure more clearly.

After I had completed my task, I took a few photos of the site from ground level.

It is a horse-driven mill, or gin. Two horses would access the open air platform by a short ramp on the west side, and then be harnessed to the main axle. A pit in the centre of the platform contains gearing to drive a horizontal shaft that runs under the mound and into a barn to power a threshing machine.

So, with work done and a few hours to kill before my return flight, I wandered around the island, enjoying the wildlife and the balmy conditions.

Walking along the edge of a field, I noticed that I was approaching a ditch with steep banks. At my presence, several Moorhen began running away, along the bank, traversing the tussocky ground with an ungainly and hazardous scampering. I was trying not to smile as their progress made them disappear and reappear from my view, and I had got as far as counting seven birds when my chuckling turned to consternation. The blighters had turned around and were running back! Had my mirth been the last straw? Was I to be the first birder in history to be trampled to death by a flock of angry railing Rails? The truth, when it dawned on me, was much more prosaic. A hen harrier was gliding up the ditch line and the group of Moorhen were now caught in an unintentional (at least on my part) pincer movement. Preoccupied with hunting, the harrier didn't register my presence until the last second, so I was fortunate to have a fantastic view of it as it climbed steeply up and flew over me. The Moorhen simply disappeared, melting away into who knows where.

Blue sky and burbling Starlings.

If this ditch retains plenty of water, it is going to be great for odes come Summer (can you spot the pair of Whooper swans?).

The setting sunlight catches some Atlantic breakers.
In the fading light, the Islander transported my fellow passengers and I back to Kirkwall. A pleasant day was rounded off with a clear, but crisp, starry sky. An infinite number of worlds, all with an adventure to recall in their twinkling eyes.

Those magnificent men...

in their flying machines, or so the song goes.

Last weekend, I was showing a postcard album to a visitor. Said album was put together by my father in the 1940s, I think, and features postcards of aircraft of the time. Somewhat predictably, bearing in mind the date, the majority of the subjects were war planes. I guess it was a good thing for the general public to be able to recognise what was flying above them during World War 2.

I remember this album from my childhood. It wasn't just birds that were flying around back then and capturing my interest. Aeroplanes were a massive part of the fabric of my life as a kid. The house where we lived was on the southern flight path into Newcastle Airport, so there was a steady stream of civilian air traffic overhead. Due to the proximity of the Pennine Hills and the many air bases located along the A1 road, there were also countless military aircraft about: small propeller-driven trainers (Bulldog), small jet-propelled trainers (Provost), as well as many fighters and bombers of the RAF and other forces (Hunter, Buccaneer, Phantom, Vulcan, Lightning, F111). For a rural setting, it wasn't quiet. In fact, the loudest noise I've ever heard, was a pair of Lockheed Starfighters directly over the house at low altitude. I guess I should be grateful that they made it over the house, their safety record wasn't great.

So, there we were at the weekend, browsing images of aircraft manufactured by the likes of Sopwith, Armstrong Whitworth, Blackburn, Bristol, Fairey, Vickers, Miles, Saunders Roe and Handley Page, to name a few. A bygone era, indeed.

There was one postcard that I didn't remember...

and on the back was this...

which left me rather perplexed, as I couldn't recall the flight ever being mentioned.

Fortunately, with the card was a letter, written much later (post 1993), which explained the circumstances. And I had forgotten about it, too.

So, my Dad was about nine years old when the flight occurred. But who knows when he put his name on the card! A bit of a scamp, me Dad, though to look at him, you wouldn't suspect it. And it took him 60 years to 'fess up!

Sunday 19 February 2017

A Winter's Tale

As often happens during the early part of February, the UK experienced a few days of wintry weather. Orkney wasn't unduly troubled with snow, if anything it made the place even more picturesque.

From the front door, looking to the hills of Hoy
Kirkwall marina

The roads were a bit icy-dicey, first thing, but by the time I arrived on Eday for a day's work, the snow was just a distant memory. As far distant as Rousay, in fact.

Working on the west side of Eday, tucked away from a chilly south easterly breeze, I was actually shedding layers in the gentle warmth of the returning sun. Bizarre!

Saturday 18 February 2017

Ploughing rig

Looking out of the lounge window this morning, I was puzzled by some stacks of bales that had suddenly appeared in a field across the valley. Then I put my specs on. They turned out not to be little pyramids of bales, but the latest round of the local ploughing championship.

Between taking the two photographs above, it had rained quite a bit and we'd been for a walk, so my damp brow was as furrowed as the distant field.

The vessel out in the Flow, is the accommodation rig Safe Zephyrus, which is one of three flotels currently anchored here for, presumably, maintenance. The other two are Safe Caledonia and Regalia.

Inaugural auspiciousness

At the beginning of the month, Tense Towers had another visit from First Born. She arrived in a bit of a gale (interesting plane landing), had several sunny walks (yes, really) and finally managed to synchronise social engagements with Sian from 'Life on a Small Island'.

First Born, Sian and Our Lass
Years ago, before Our Lass and I moved to Orkney, it was First Born who found Sian's blog and pointed her dad in its general direction. The rest, as they say, is history... or his and her stories, if you're being pedantic (Who? Us?).

So it was a rather special moment to be present at the first meeting of the two, which occurred, unsurprisingly enough, in a cafe. The table didn't stay this empty for very long.

I'm not sure why they're being all so smiley and looking at the photographer, but it could have something to do with the fact that the cake counter is behind me.

Tuesday 7 February 2017

Test for eco

Today, several pieces of social media output converged upon a single point in time and space somewhere between my left and right ears. It was a critical mass of scientific information that pointed to the folly and fecklessness of our species, and which I could no longer ignore. The evidence has been there for ages, that's part of the problem, but it is also out of sight. So although the message has been trying hard to get through, it has often fallen short of the mark or not been tuned to the correct wavelength, possibly because we do not want to hear it, having raised prevarication to the status of an art form.

Firstly, a beach-combing Facebook page alerted me to a hitherto unknown initiative.

Then, another post, this time by global environmental campaigners Plastic Free July, provided a link to a blogpost concerning the dire consequences of our actions which affect sea birds.

Lastly, I searched for info on the 'hitherto unknown initiative'.

And here's the thing, for once, for a fleeting microsecond, for a distance measured in nanometres, I was ahead of the curve.


The previous weekend, we had been walking on the beach at the Sands o' Wright, in South Ronaldsay, when I spotted some small thing out of place. I bent down to pick it up, rolled it around in my hand, concluded that it was a tiny piece of plastic and, unthinkingly, stuck it in a coat pocket.

I have just retrieved the object from its forgotten resting place.

Yup, most likely a nurdle.

It's a tiny drop in the ocean, there's just way too much of it out there.

It's a tiny drop in the ocean, but it's a start.

Wednesday 1 February 2017

Not-so-wordless Wednesday

I am always delighted to receive a new book, so when a mystery parcel arrived last week, I was surprised and excited in equal measure. The gift was from First Born, and once opened, it sat there on the kitchen table, in all its wordy potentiality.

But hang on a minute...

There's something awry here...

Ah... not a heavy tome, then...

More of a footnote, really.

And so...