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.


Mark said...

that was really interesting. What is your job, is it fitting satelite dishes?

Imperfect and Tense said...

You can't move for archaeology up here. Although the Neolithic takes centre stage, there's a fairly continuous record all the way through to the Second World War. The day's task was a satellite broadband installation, as remote locations can struggle to get above 1Mbps with a landline connection.