The first seven weeks…

Bird tracks in the snow outside our house (image: Graham Brown)

Bird tracks in the snow outside our house (image: Graham Brown)

So, how is 2018 for you so far? Some small triumphs? Some big positives? And, for some, of course, there will have been loss and sadness. Sorry.

The world rolls round, our nervousness about the Korean peninsular slightly eased by the Winter Olympics; Brexit continuing to breed uncertainty and division, in the UK, Ireland and elsewhere; we’ve had more dangerous nonsense from the United States President; more cases of the abuse of children and women coming to light; disturbing news about Oxfam; and another horrific mass shooting in the States.

For Mrs Brown (Kathie Touin) and I the year had a very quiet start. We had stayed at home over the Christmas period while our Border collie Roscoe recovered from an operation (he is doing very well, thank you for asking). Our first notable outing was our village Hogmanay event in Quoyloo Old School which must be, I think where it happened…

On 3 January Kathie and I both crashed with the flu. And I mean crashed. Within a few hours of feeling unwell we were both in bed, hardly able to move, not wanting to eat. I have had “flu-like colds” before but not the flu – this was wicked.

For several days we alternated between bed and short, exhausting periods in front of the TV. We had to ask a friend in our village to go shopping for essential supplies for us, making sure she left them in the porch and did not come into the plague house.

In the past I have thought an illness would be a great opportunity to catch-up with my reading but, when it came to it, I did not have the energy. Thankfully the programmes I had saved on the BBC iPlayer Radio app provided some entertainment and brain stimulation.

We got to day ten of the illness before I felt well enough to take Roscoe for a walk.

After nearly a fortnight I felt well enough to go into the RSPB Scotland office in Stromness, where I had been asked to provide cover for a colleague.

Roscoe in the snow (image: Graham Brown)

Roscoe in the snow (image: Graham Brown)

Since the end of December we have experienced an unusual amount of snow in Orkney – never enough to cause drifting but enough to make some of my journeys to work a little tricky. And, this is the exciting part, enough for Roscoe to roll around in.

We had really heavy snow the first winter we lived in Orkney (December 2010) but that was before Roscoe came to live with us. Then it became so bad that only very large tractors were able to drive down the track past our house and they left a channel so deep that when I walked in it the surrounding snow came up to my waist.

Older Orcadians tell us that in their youth it was much more common to get snow here and archive black-and-white photographs of Orkney seem to bear this out.

Snow, snow! Throw the ball! (image: Graham Brown)

Snow, snow! Throw the ball! (image: Graham Brown)

My latest stint working at the RSPB was, essentially, the second half of January. One aspect I enjoy about going to work is the chance to listen to CDs in the car (not that I don’t enjoy Kathie’s conversation when she is in the car). The Audi A1 which I inherited from my father has a very good sound system.

So it was that I found myself, for the first time in some years, listening to my double Les Misérables CD (Original London cast) all the way through.

To go back some years…

I was not particularly interested in musicals though both of my parents enjoyed them. I remember as a child my father would burst into extracts from Oklahoma as he walked around the house – “There’s a bright, golden haze on the meadow…”

Then in the 1980s I have a memory of my mother talking enthusiastically about a moving song (which turned out to be Send Him Home) from a new musical (which turned out to be Les Mis) which she had heard on the radio.

In 1986 I moved to London and so began a series of visits from my parents. Inevitably, they wanted to go to the West End theatres and, in particular, musicals. The first one they chose was Les Misérables . It was not the first musical I ever saw but the first that really hooked me – since then I have seen the show about half-a-dozen times. It ranks as my favourite musical, along with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. I challenge you to sit through a decent stage production of either without regular need of a hankie to wipe your eyes.

One of the Les Misérables productions I have seen was by Orkney’s Kirkwall Amateur Operatic Society (KAOS) in 2015 – the first time an amateur group in the UK had performed the show. I admit I was slightly dubious about going to see this production but the local cast did it proud. Well done all.

Listening to my CD while driving between our home in Quoyloo and the office in Stromness (it took a few trips before I finished, it’s only a nine-mile journey) I was reminded again what a stupendous work Les Misérables is – a tale of love, loss and redemption, with some great soaring tunes, and a timely reminder of what it is to be at the bottom of the heap in society.

Theatrical history tells that Les Mis got very poor reviews when it began and it is remarkable how, in an age before social media, the audience’s love for the show and word-of-mouth overcame this early setback.

The original French version, based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, was written by Claude-Michel Schönberg (music) and Alain Boublil (most lyrics). The majority of the English words were written by Herbert Kretzmer, a South African who had a long career in Britain as a journalist and a lyricist. When I first worked at the BBC he was one of the national newspaper TV reviewers who regularly called into the press office.

Les Misérables logo

Les Misérables logo

If you get a chance to see Les Mis on stage, or listen to the CD, please do. But remember your hankie. Incidentally, I have yet to watch the film (movie) version as I am nervous as to what they have done with it.

This first six weeks of 2018 have seen completion of two projects at our house: the guest room en suite, delayed for months by a mystery leak which turned out to be water seeping through the actual porcelain of the toilet, and a new stone wall at the front of the house, designed to cover the drab concrete blocks and to prevent anyone falling off our frontage.

This past weekend Kathie and I did some tidying outside, filling the new “lower flower border” – oh yes, we have an upper border as well – with compost, much of it from our own bin. And Kathie constructed a stone bench from pieces of stone we have about the place – the sun even shone allowing us to try it out.

Kathie Touin tries out her new stone bench (image: Graham Brown)

Kathie Touin tries out her new stone bench (image: Graham Brown)

Back in early February Quoyloo Old School – of which Kathie and I are “Managers”, ie committee members – was hosting a dangerous goods course for lorry drivers or, if you are American, truck drivers. Thankfully this did not involve dangerous goods in the school, but it did involve the Managers providing the lunchtime catering.

Two of the Managers, John and I, donned aprons in order to serve the soup. Our Chair, Edith, thought this rather funny and she asked if, in a previous life, we had ever thought we would find ourselves in a remote old school, dressed in pinnies, serving soup to lorry drivers. Answer, no.

Anyway, it was a manly apron from the Kent & East Sussex Railway, not a pinny.

Graham Brown

P.S. Kathie and I went to see The Darkest Hour last night. A great performance by Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill. And, I must admit, hearing again some of Churchill’s speeches has made me feel my English language skills are a little inadequate.

To find out more

BBC Radio –

Wikipedia on Les Misérables –

The Orcadian on Orkney production of Les Miserables –

Quoyloo Old School on Facebook –

Kent & East Sussex Railway –

And the trailer for The Darkest Hour…


RSPB Scotland: Orkney Local Group AGM

A different format for the blog entry this time… Here’s an article I wrote on behalf of the RSPB Orkney Local Group for The Orcadian, Orkney’s weekly newspaper. It was published on 11 January, 2018 (thank you, guys). I have added some links to the RSPB’s work and activities at the bottom of the article.

Highlights – and some of the challenges – of RSPB Scotland’s year in Orkney were outlined at the charity’s Orkney Local Group AGM.

Orkney Manager Sarah Sankey told members about a detailed programme of monitoring, surveys, land management and conservation work undertaken including a survey of all 21 square kilometres of RSPB land at Birsay Moors to provide baseline data for the future. Reserves staff are also studying to see how some of the Birsay Moors habitat can be restored.

Also during 2017:

Additional funding allowed for three contract staff, plus additional sabbatical staff, to survey breeding waders on 90 sites across Orkney. This will help determine the impact of stoats and their removal. The data is still being sorted so there are no results to share yet.

A third year of monitoring great yellow bumblebees was completed and, for example, more than 100 were counted on Copinsay.

The Hoy white-tailed eagles proved a disappointment, the pair were on their territory in February but by March had gone. However, three white-tailed eagles were seen hanging around over Hoy through the year and the RSPB Eaglewatch went ahead to help visitors and locals engage with these majestic birds.

The RSPB’s Outdoor Learning Officer Lindsey Taylor visited 50 schools in the year, engaging with more than 1,000 schoolchildren.

Egilsay CU chick Christine Hall

Egilsay curlew chick (image: Christine Hall, RSPB Warden)

Members were given a presentation about the RSPB’s work on its Onziebust reserve, Egilsay, by Project Officer Mike Partridge and Egilsay Warden Christine Hall.

The management of the farm has been taken in-house with the aim of improving habitats for species including curlews, corncrakes and great yellow bumblebees. The infrastructure of the farm is being improved and it is planned to host wildlife-friendly agricultural training events there.

This is a five-year programme and RSPB Scotland has secured grant funding from RSPB central funds (50%); the Scottish Government and EU Orkney LEADER 2014-2020 Programme; Highlands & Islands Enterprise; and Coastal Communities Fund (Big Lottery Fund).

The RSPB purchased 271 hectares of land on Egilsay between 1996 and 2002 (55% of the island). The island once supported a small population of breeding corncrakes, but has not had a calling male since 2014.

However, among the birds recorded on the Onziebust reserve in 2017 were: 42 pairs of curlew; 28 displaying male snipe; 45 pairs of lapwing; 50 pairs of redshank; and 63 pairs of oystercatcher.

The meeting also enjoyed presentations on: the Orkney Native Wildlife Project in which RSPB Scotland is working with Scottish Natural Heritage to eradicate stoats – a public consultation is under way (see The Orcadian of 30 November and 14 December); conservation in Poland, compared to the UK; and satellite-tagged hen harrier chicks which are providing new information on the birds’ behaviour.

Local Group Chairman Dick Matson praised the wide variety of work undertaken by volunteers for RSPB Scotland in Orkney and highlighted some of the events organised by the local group including boat trips into the Gloup, viewing Harrier Sky Dancing and spotting migrant birds in Sanday.

The Orkney Local Group committee was re-elected at the AGM on 23 November: Dick Matson (Chairman), Pauline Wilson (Secretary), Graham Brown (Treasurer), Grace Currie, Kathie Brown, Shirley Tolley and Robert Wilson.

Graham Brown

To find out more

RSPB Orkney Facebook page

RSPB Orkney blog

RSPB website



Now We Are Six(ty)

Well, clearly there has been some error of calculation. But, it is said, I turned 60 in the month of December. Reaching the ages of 30, 40 and even 50 did not concern me much. But 60 does seem more challenging, that bit closer to the, well, the end, I suppose.

Still, Winston Churchill – admittedly in different circumstances, in which he was looking forward to the end (of the Second World War) – said: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

I think I will settle for that.

And remember Churchill was already 65 years of age when he became Britain’s Prime Minister as the country faced perhaps its darkest hour. So maybe I have more I can achieve yet.

My birthday was marked on the Friday night by a dedication on BBC Radio Orkney’s request show thanks to Mrs Brown (Kathie Touin). She asked for Nils Lofgren’s 60 Is The New 18 (from an excellent album called Old School) without realising some of the lyrics are a little colourful…

However, Radio Orkney has played worse – some of the chart sounds requested for small children are clearly inappropriate (klaxon, klaxon, old fogey alert).

A party was arranged for the Saturday night at Quoyloo Old School which, for those who do not know it, is our village community centre. Unfortunately it coincided with some wintry weather and icy, slippery roads.

Kathie and I started to think there might just be a few folk there who had managed to walk but, in the end, about 30 people braved the conditions to make a memorable evening. In fact, I enjoyed myself so much I forgot to take any photographs. Sorry to those who asked to see them.

Not everyone was able to be there, of course – it would be too much to expect family and friends from the south of England to venture all this way in December for a party and, within Orkney, conditions were varied. Two of our friends set off by car, only to nearly slide off the track from their house, so wisely thought better of it.

Kathie booked a cake for the party but we never got it because the cake-maker was taken ill with a suspected kidney stone (I hope you are better now).

However, I must thank Kathie for all the hard work she put into the party – my only regret is that she did not stop dashing about all night. I love you.

Since turning 60 I have done a few daft things which, normally, would pass almost without comment but, after such a big milestone, it encourages thoughts of there being something potentially wrong.

For example, I was waiting to greet Kathie outside the house with our dog when I managed to loose my footing and fall over, though, if I may say so, I did it quite elegantly and without injury. And only the other day my T-shirt felt a bit uncomfortable – later I discovered I had put it on back-to-front. This is nonsense which I shall ignore.

Sixty is also the age when some of the body’s aches and pains start to be felt. A few months ago I noticed my right-hand small finger is slightly bent and a little painful. I visited the GP only to be told something like, “Oh, it’s age, there is nothing you can do.”

I understand from others that this reaction is a familiar refrain from doctors these days. Given how people are living longer they might need a re-think.

Reflecting on my crooked finger which, with the blessing of a long life, I might have to put up with for 30 years, I think I am going to seek some alternative treatment. I have already noticed that exercising and manipulating the digit makes it feel better – so there is something to be done.


Roscoe, in his blue post-op coat, shreds Christmas wrapping (image: Graham Brown)

Speaking of medical matters our dog, Roscoe, a Border collie, underwent an operation a week or so after my party to remove a non-malignant but fast-growing fatty lump from his side. Hence we have spent a quiet Christmas period at home while he recovers – which he is doing, and thank you to everyone who asked after him.

In our little family in the past it has been Kathie who has faced numerous operations – if you ask her she can give you a list – but, curiously, this year was bookended by Roscoe’s op in December and mine back in January (see below for my blog “Thank you NHS Orkney, Mrs Brown – and Amelia”).

Now I have turned 60 I feel I should have some profound thoughts to share. That is one reason why this blog entry has been a little delayed – I’ve been struggling to come up with anything very enlightening.

I was struck by some words posted on Facebook by the wonderful songwriter Gretchen Peters, who turned 60 in November. She wrote about her fifties being a “remarkable decade” and it made me think about how my life has changed in the past 10 years.


Blurred Roscoe playing in the snow – without his post-op coat and well on the way to recovery (image: Graham Brown)

The biggest change was Kathie and I moving to Orkney, in 2010. It was an inspired move for us, we love it here (see numerous previous blog entries). We have also had Roscoe come to live with us. I have unexpectedly become a (part-time) employee of the RSPB, and I have re-discovered the joys of volunteering – also for the RSPB, and for Quoyloo Old School and for the project which marked the centenary of the loss of HMS Hampshire.

Anyway, Gretchen Peters is touring the UK again in 2018. If you get a chance to see her, and her talented husband Barry Walsh, do take it. Kathie and I will be at the Edinburgh Queen’s Hall concert.

Gretchen concluded her thoughts on turning 60 by writing about her work and her new album, due out in 2018: “It’s what I do, and what I can do in this most uncertain hour, as Paul Simon put it.” She is referring to the politics of her US homeland, and to Paul Simon’s song American Tune (see below for lyrics and for my blog entry of a year ago, “That Was The Year That Was”).

I am not musically creative – in our family that is left to Kathie, who is also working on her new self-composed album. Some of the early demo tracks sound great.

So, for me, as Churchill said, “We must just KBO.”

May I wish you and your loved ones a peaceful, healthy and fulfilled 2018.

Graham Brown

Find out more

Wikipedia on Winston Churchill –

My blog “That Was The Year That Was” –

My blog “Thank you NHS Orkney, Mrs Brown – and Amelia” –

Gretchen Peters’ website –

Lyrics to Paul Simon’s American Tune –

My 60th birthday request on BBC Radio Orkney –

A-hoy – we’re over here


Kathie Touin and Roscoe on a cold walk in South Walls (image: Graham Brown)

Sometimes it is good to look at life from a different perspective. And that’s what Kathie Touin and I did when we went to Hoy for the weekend.

Hoy is one of the Orkney islands, in fact the largest after Orkney Mainland where we live. We can see the hills of Hoy from our house.

One of the pleasures of living in Orkney is being able to take a short break, or even a day trip, to somewhere that involves ferry travel. A journey over water makes me feel as if I am getting away from it all.

So on Friday morning (it was 3 November, fact-fans) we set off with Roscoe, our Border collie, in Kathie’s Ford. We were only staying three nights but we had enough clothes for several days and plenty of food – we heard just before leaving that Hoy’s Stromabank Hotel was not open for evening meals on this particular weekend.

The ferry port you need in Orkney depends where you are going and which company you are travelling with. By my calculation on Orkney Mainland there are three different departure points for journeys to the Scottish Mainland, and then a further four ports for journeys within Orkney. These “internal” journeys are operated by Orkney Ferries, in effect a subsidiary of Orkney Islands Council.

For our journey to Lyness in Hoy we departed from Orkney Mainland’s Houton ferry terminal, sailing across Scapa Flow which was the main anchorage for the Royal Navy in both world wars.

There is an excellent naval museum at Lyness but we were not visiting on this trip because, like many Orkney tourist attractions, it closed at the end of October. In fact, it will remain shut for all of next year while it receives a major revamp.

So, after checking the second-hand books at Lyness ferry terminal (take your pick, donations to the RNLI, Kathie chose two) we turned right and headed towards the hills of North Hoy which we can see from our house.


The author and Roscoe at the Dwarfie Stane, Hoy (image: Kathie Touin)

Kathie had never managed to get to the Dwarfie Stane so that was our first visit. It is truly remarkable, it appears to be a Neolithic tomb, but it is hollowed out from a huge solid piece of rock. How long it would take someone – or some people – to do that with stone tools I cannot imagine.

The reverberation inside the stone particularly impressed Kathie. Roscoe posed for a photograph sitting inside the entrance.

Next stop was to the splendid Emily’s Ice-Cream Parlour and Wild Heather Crafts, a short drive around Mill Bay from the Lyness ferry terminal. You might imagine it is a little cold for ice cream in November but Emily also serves lovely lunches and all-day breakfasts. The cafe is open on Fridays and Saturdays out of season – something we welcomed, as we returned for lunch again the next day.

Then we took a leisurely drive south to our weekend accommodation. We told everyone we were going to Hoy for the weekend though we were, technically, staying in South Walls, a neighbouring island that is joined to Hoy by a road causeway.


Late afternoon in November at one of the lovely beaches in South Walls (image: Graham Brown)

South Walls is very different from North Hoy – much flatter, more reminiscent of the rolling countryside where we live.

Our first stop was at the shop in Longhope, J M F Groat & Sons, next to the harbour in which Longhope lifeboat is moored. This shop seems to have everything – food, drink, newspapers, a Post Office, washing machines for sale, and delightful knitted hats in animal shapes (Kathie bought two).


The beach and cemetery at Kirk Hope bay, South Walls, a short walk from our weekend accommodation (image: Graham Brown)

From the windows and gardens of our lovely self-catering accommodation, Old Hall Cottage, we could see a range of Orkney islands – Hoy, of course, Fara, Flotta, Switha and South Ronaldsay – and the Scottish Mainland.

We could also watch many ships passing by. The smartphone app MarineTraffic was really useful for identifying vessels, sometimes on long journeys across Europe.

So, here we were just a short distance as the crow flies from our home, but across the water and with a completely different perspective. Very refreshing.

We spent the rest of the weekend relaxing in our accommodation, eating and drinking, talking to friends who joined us for the first night, and walking with Roscoe.

Our dog particularly enjoyed the beaches – there was one a short stride from our house – and we also explored the remains of a World War Two radar and guns site.


Longhope lifeboat memorial (image: Graham Brown)

Just below Old Hall Cottage, just above the beach, is a cemetery with a wonderful memorial to the eight men lost in the Longhope lifeboat disaster in March 1969 – it is a statue of an alert lifeboat crew member stepping forward as if he is about to respond to a call. Just outside the cemetery is an informative display about the events of that awful night nearly 50 years ago.

We ran out of time on our weekend for the Longhope Lifeboat Museum – that must be top of the list for next time. However, earlier in the year we saw the musem’s lifeboat at Stromness (see previous blog entry).

But that’s Orkney – always something more to do.

Graham Brown

Postscript one

You might remember from my previous blog entry that I was elected to Harray and Sandwick Community Council. I am pleased to report the first meeting was fine except afterwards I fell over a kerb in the dark as I was walking back to my car. I might raise the subject of lighting at the next meeting!

Postscript two

It’s a busy time of the year for Quoyloo Old School, where Kathie and I are on the committee. Thank you to everyone who made Saturday’s Harvest Home such a brilliant success, what a fantastic turn-out. We are lucky to still have this traditional event taking place each year in our village. Coming up on Friday 24 November is the next quiz night, all are welcome whether you have a team or not, 7 for 7.30pm.

Postscript three

The RSPB’s motto is “giving nature a home”. I think they may be taking this too literally. We recently had some RSPB bird food delivered. A couple of days later Kathie was unfolding some of the brown paper packing material on our counter top when a mouse appeared to hop out. Could this be correct? The paper had not been chewed. Do mice hibernate, or sleep for long periods? We then spent a few days setting humane traps from which the mouse was able to steal the food without getting trapped. Was it underweight after its journey to Orkney in the box? Thankfully, the fourth triggered trap did contain the mouse which we were able to release outside (but not near the house).

Speaking of the RSPB, you can find out what the charity has been doing in the past year in Orkney at King Street Halls, Kirkwall on Thursday 23 November. The meeting, “A year in Orkney”, begins at 7.30pm. All are welcome, members and non-members, admission is free.

To find out more

Hello again

Now, where were we? Oh yes, writing a blog, at least one a month is my self-imposed rule. I see I published a blog each month until, oh, there was no blog in June. But there was one in July and then – err, nothing since. So, it is time to get this blog back on track. Oh to be like our neighbour Sarah Norquoy who writes something like eight blogs a month (well worth reading, by the way).

Since mid-July I have been either working full-time or showing three sets of visitors around Orkney. I took early retirement before moving to Orkney in April 2010 and I found full-time work pretty exhausting. That said, they are a good crowd at the RSPB office in Orkney and I do enjoy spending time with them.

Anyway, here we are again – what do I have to tell you?

Welcoming visitors to Orkney in July and August was a reminder of why my wife Kathie Touin and I moved to Orkney. There is so much to see, beautiful islands to visit by ferry, lots of history (including neolithic, Viking, both world wars), wildlife, empty beaches and wonderful people.


Statues in the grounds of Trumland House, Rousay (image: Graham Brown)

Trips with our friends included two visits to the island of Hoy, which have prompted Kathie and I to book a weekend trip there in November in order to see more. One day we sailed to Rousay and enjoyed a picnic in the grounds of Trumland House in the rain and midges – but we enjoyed it. Incidentally, if you are thinking of visiting Orkney, please do, and be reassured that midges are not usually a big problem.


Kitchener Memorial, Marwick Head (image: Graham Brown)

We visited the beautiful St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall and the small but packed and fascinating Orkney Wireless Museum. We discovered more about neolithic times at the amazing Ness of Brodgar dig where pre-history is being re-written, and we looked at the memorial wall bearing the names of 737 men lost with HMS Hampshire in 1916, unveiled last year next to the Kitchener Memorial.

And we took the family of three who stayed with us to experience West Mainland Show in Dounby, not far from where we live, the second biggest agricultural show in the county. It is a great social occasion.

Having visitors is a good way of making you look up – both literally and figuratively – to appreciate what you have. One day we drove to our house from Stromness, a nine-mile journey I take when I return from the RSPB office. “Graham, this is a wonderful commute,” said my friend as we drove through the countryside and past Stenness Loch. He is right.

Other recent highlights for Kathie and me, though not with our visitors, include the Stromness Lifeboat 150th anniversary event and the HMS Tern open day.


Stromness Lifeboat, Longhope Lifeboat Museum vessel, Longhope Lifeboat and Thurso Lifeboat in Stromness Harbour (image: Graham Brown)

Living so close to the sea really makes me appreciate the sterling work done by lifeboat crews, and those in their on-shore back-up teams, and all voluntarily. Orkney is big on charity fund-raising and, as you might imagine, the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) is one of the top priorities.

Orkney has three lifeboats – Stromness, Kirkwall and Longhope, Hoy. In 2019, no doubt, there will be moving commemorative events to mark the 50th anniversary of the Longhope lifeboat disaster when the TGB capsized and all eight crew were lost.

At the Stromness event four lifeboats were on display – Stromness, Thurso (from across the Pentland Firth in mainland Scotland), Longhope (current) and the vessel from Longhope Lifeboat Museum.


Control tower at HMS Tern airfield (image: Graham Brown)

HMS Tern is a former Second World War airbase, also known as RNAS (Royal Naval Air Station) Twatt, which is only a couple of miles from our house. Tours of the site are available and some of the remaining buildings are being restored. This will include, in time, the control tower. The open day was a chance to see progress and, of course, another social occasion to meet friends.

Meanwhile Kathie remains busy with her music: teaching piano, taking guitar lessons, writing, and recording both her own music and guests in her Starling Recording Studio.

Otherwise we try to do our bit, volunteering for the RSPB (as well as my paid part-time office work) and as Managers, or committee members, for our village community centre, Quoyloo Old School.

Events at the Old School include a monthly quiz to which all are welcome. The next ones are 20 October and 24 November. And we have Harvest Home on 11 November.

Coming up, I have a new challenge.

I was persuaded to stand for the Harray and Sandwick Community Council by Edith, a village stalwart who is standing down from the council after 30 years. I was flattered to be asked and, it turns out I have been “elected” – eight people stood for eight places so we all get on. My first meeting is due to be in early November so wish me luck.

Graham Brown


Rainbow, with faint second rainbow, seen from the track to our house – which is behind you (image: Graham Brown)

To find out more

Sarah Norquoy’s blog –

HMS Hampshire –

Stromness Lifeboat –

Longhope Lifeboat –

HMS Tern –

BBC Radio Orkney In Conversation – Robbie Fraser speaks to Cecilia Pemberton and Walter Crosby about life in the Second World War at HMS Tern –

RSPB Orkney –

Quoyloo Old School –

Kathie Touin –

PS For a blast of nostalgia, and a demonstration of how radio should be done, try this show I have just listened to: Alan Freeman’s last Saturday Rock Show for BBC Radio 1 from 1978…

12 days in northern Italy

I aim to write a monthly blog. What with one thing and another, notably lots of disruption at home with workmen, and being at work, my planned June blog is appearing now at the end of July. Here goes…

On 7 June Mrs Brown (Kathie Touin) and I embarked on our first overseas trip – excluding visits to see family in (kind of) English-speaking California and Arizona – for more than 10 years.

In preparation for our expedition Kathie was busy learning some Italian on a smartphone app. Kathie also worked hard to find our accommodation and read lots of guide books. My contribution was to throw in a few ideas now and then.


View from our window in Bologna’s Hotel Paradise (image: Graham Brown)

We stayed in Bologna, the capital city of the Emilia-Romagna region in northern Italy, in the wonderfully-named Hotel Paradise. Very good it was too, helpful staff and in a good location for walking to the many ancient churches, historic attractions and shops – even the railway station was only about 20 minutes’ walk through attractive architecture.

I will not take you on a blow-by-blow, day-by-day account of the trip, and everything we saw, – phew! – but here are some themes that struck me.


The 12th century Two Towers of Bologna – due torri (image: Graham Brown)

Elegant, cool and medieval – with graffiti

Bologna is a large city but the central historic and shopping areas are reasonably compact. Though temperatures reached as high as 35 C while we there – 95 F to Americans – we stayed reasonably cool thanks to the architecture. The city is blessed with miles, or, should I say, kilometres, of porticoes – arched colonnades covering the pavements (American: sidewalks) – which allow one to walk around in the shade.

The city has some fantastic medieval, Renaissance and baroque architecture – numerous churches, civic buildings and the two towers (due torri) reputedly dating from the 12th century.


Some of Bologna’s graffiti makes a serious point, in this case about Syria (image: Graham Brown)


And some of the graffiti is humorous – this reminded us of Roscoe back home (image: Graham Brown)

We noticed that graffiti seems to be tolerated. And by graffiti I do not mean the usual crude scribblings of names and swear words, but some fantastic pieces of art, some comic, some supporting political causes.

The city had, to me, a relaxed atmosphere with outside eating areas for most cafes and restaurants (like so much of continental Europe), and elegant-looking residents, even while riding their numerous bicycles, mopeds and scooters.


Bologna, like all European cities, has its fair share of monuments and statues. Among the more unusual ones, to my eyes, was a large monument to partisans who fought the Nazi and Fascist occupiers towards the end of the Second World War – it was made up of numerous small photographs of the individuals involved.


On the left, the many photographs of Italian partisans who fought the Nazis – it seems appropriate that young people are relaxing in the sunshine (image: Graham Brown)

A war memorial for Italians lost in both world wars, inside the Santo Stefano complex of churches, struck me as interesting as it listed those lost on both sides of the conflict.

But I think I was most touched – perhaps with recent events in London and Manchester in my mind – by monuments to the 85 who died in the Fascist bombing of Bologna railway station in 1980.

There is a glass panel in the Piazza del Nettuno listing all the names of those who died in the attack (and in two other outrages). There are further memorials at the station itself including the clock stopped at 10.25, the time of the attack.

We also visited a photographic exhibition, housed in a wonderful underground exhibition space, containing 500 photographs of Bologna’s history as well as film – including the chilling visit of Italian dictator Mussolini to the city.

One room of the exhibition was entirely devoted to the station bombing. A constantly evolving montage of photographs was projected onto the walls of the circular room, along with the sound of emergency services radio conversations. It was very moving – literally and emotionally.


Music, or musica as the Italians say, featured in our trip.


Kathie Touin in Museo internazionale e biblioteca della musica (image: Graham Brown)

We went to two fascinating museums – one of historic keyboard instruments, the other was Museo internazionale e biblioteca della musica – it features Bologna’s collection of musical manuscripts, books, sculptures, paintings and instruments. The origins of the collection are an 18th century Franciscan friar, Father Giovanni Battista Martini, who numbered Mozart among his students.

We also enjoyed live music. We attended two brilliant piano recitals held in the Oratorio di Santa Cecilia, appropriately the patron saint of music. Stand up, and take another standing ovation, Enrico Elisi and Benedetta Conte, fabulous performers both.

And we went to Teatro Duse for a production of Gershwin’s Crazy For You musical. The songs were sung in English, the conversations were in Italian but we had read the plot outline beforehand so we could follow the story.


The poster for Crazy For You – a fabulous show starring Manuel Frattini

The show featured Manuel Frattini who, judging by the audience reaction, is something of a star. And rightly so. He is an old-fashioned song-and-dance man who can sing, dance and be physically funny – Kathie said he reminded her of Gene Kelly.

It was an uplifting evening – enough to make you forget how hot the theatre was – with wonderful staging, dancing, singing and comedy.

Trains and Ferraris – vroom…

We spent 13 nights in Bologna so we had 12 days to be out and about. There was so much to see in Bologna that we never got round it all, bearing in mind we had to stop for coffees, ice creams and meals.

But we took three day trips out of the city by train, to visit Modena, Venice and Florence.

You will have read and watched much about Venice and Florence so I will not go into detail on those – just to mention that in Venice, on an overcast day, we were caught in an Orkney-style storm of heavy rain and strong winds. We sheltered in a passageway and the storm soon passed, our clothes were just about dry by the time we left this strange city.

The main purpose of our visit to Modena was to see the Enzo Ferrari House Museum, one of two Ferrari museums in the region (the other is at their Modena factory). There were some beautiful and ruinously expensive cars on display, both racing and road examples.


Kathie Touin choosing a Ferrari to take home (image: Graham Brown)

I have to say I find modern so-called “super cars” not to my taste but the classic Ferraris on display were a joy to behold. By the way, if anyone is short of ideas for next Christmas, Kathie would like a Ferrari Dino.

Our train journeys were smooth, comfortable and on time, apart from a delay departing Venice because the above-mentioned storm had caused flooding on the line. The regional train services are not expensive either – our journey to Modena, and back, for both of us, admittedly only about 30 minutes each way, cost less than £15, and we did not have to pay in advance or trawl websites for a cheap deal.

Our trip to Venice – about two hours each way – cost about £50 for both of us. We travelled upstairs in a double-decker coach.

However, our trip to Florence was more expensive. We did not get to Bologna railway station until mid-morning, only to discover all the second-class seats were taken. So we had to travel first class – this, and the fact that the service was operated by a high-speed train, made it much more expensive, more than £70 for both of us one way.

Never mind, we enjoyed travelling in first class (though the second-class return was perfectly fine) and being on a high-speed train, even though most of the route was in tunnels.


Slightly fuzzy night-time photo at Bologna railway station but on this train we travelled at 186mph – Kathie shows off her Florence shopping in an Orkney Maeshowe bag (image: Graham Brown)

On the return from Florence to Bologna we noticed that the passenger information displays were, at times, showing the train’s speed. We reached 299kph, which I calculate to be 186mph. I think this is a land speed record for both Kathie and me. The 67-mile journey took 31 minutes from the wheels starting to roll at Florence to standstill in Bologna. Wow. Incidentally, the ride was smooth with little impression of such speed.

What else?

General Election

The first day we spent in Bologna was also the day of the General Election back home in the UK. I do not think I have ever been abroad for a General Election before so we made sure we voted by post before leaving Orkney.

On the Thursday night I watched BBC World for several hours to follow the election results coming in. It was a strange election in many ways, made stranger for me because I was watching from afar.


One of the notable sights – and sounds – of Bologna at the time of our visit was the hundreds of screeching swifts flying high above the city. It was wonderful to see these acrobatic birds, which even sleep on the wing, and to think of them heading back to Africa after their breeding season.

For us, we returned to the cooler weather of Orkney – but since being home we have been delighted to see the swallows nesting in our garage fledge four young.

Graham Brown

To find out – and see – more

More of my photographs on Instagram (no log-in required) –

Guide to Bologna –

Wikipedia on Bologna –

The 1980 bombing of Bologna railway station –

Museo internazionale e biblioteca della musica di Bologna –

Wikipedia on Museo internazionale e biblioteca della musica –

Website of pianist Enrico Elisi –

An earlier performance by Benedetta Conte –

RSPB website on swifts –

Writing about writing

Orkney Nature Festival banner

Orkney Nature Festival banner (image: RSPB Scotland/Orkney Nature Festival)

Orkney is big on festivals. You name it, and we seem to have a festival for it. Some are big, well-established events in the diary – notably Orkney Folk Festival, which starts tomorrow (25 May), and the St Magnus International Festival, an arts event in June. Both of these bring many visitors to the county each year.

But we also have festivals for wine, jazz, blues, rock, storytelling, drama and science – and I am sure I will have missed at least one out – plus numerous events which, while not called festivals, might loosely come under that category.

Then there is the Orkney Nature Festival, established in 2013, co-ordinated by RSPB Scotland in conjunction with a number of local groups, partners and volunteers.

Mrs Brown (Kathie Touin) and I attend some of the nature festival events each year and so last week I found myself helping to write a collaborative poem. This confirmed me in an early career choice. Let me explain.

The event was billed as “Poetry and pilgrimage: exploring the St Magnus Way with the George Mackay Brown Fellowship and Orkney Pilgrimage”.

Writing this blog reminds me of the number of aspects of Orkney life we can take for granted and that might need explaining to a wider audience. So, St Magnus is Orkney’s patron saint and this year the 900th anniversary of his death is being commemorated by, among other events, the creation of a pilgrimage route, the St Magnus Way. George Mackay Brown, who died in 1996, is one of Orkney’s best known and favourite writers. Wikipedia says: “He is considered one of the great Scottish poets of the 20th century.”

Leading the poetry and pilgrimage event were writer Yvonne Gray, of the George Mackay Brown Fellowship, and Rev David McNeish, Chair of Orkney Pilgrimage, and our local minister.

Now, I cannot give you a detailed explanation without getting it wrong but we were there to write a renga, a Japanese form of collaborative poem. The event was fun and fascinating – and, I felt, good for my brain cells to be stretched in a different way.

Yvonne wrote the first verse and then we all came up with suggestions for the following lines and development. We started with spring and then worked through the seasons until our five-verse poem concluded back in spring.

brough of birsay graham brown

Brough of Birsay seen from Birsay Bay (image: Graham Brown)

We worked over the course of a day spent in Birsay, starting with a walk from the village past St Magnus Kirk to the coastline at the bottom of the graveyard, where David talked about Magnus’ life and example. Then we walked round Birsay Bay towards the Brough of Birsay, completed the first section sitting outside, before retiring out of the wind back in the kirk to complete our work.

When we had finished I noticed that very few of my suggestions had been incorporated, even though we were a small group of eight. This is not a complaint or a criticism – I thought Yvonne was thoughtful, inclusive and inspiring – but an observation. I think I am literal rather than artistic.

It reminded me of another event I attended in Orkney a few years ago, where each of us in the group went to the coast, found a place to sit down with our sketch pad, and were asked to “draw what we hear”. So, I heard a gull, for example, and drew a simple gull. I heard a tractor, and drew an outline of that.

Afterwards I discovered others in the group had interpreted this task in an artistic, not a literal, way, and come up with rather interesting abstract paintings.

So my decision back in 1977, after an abortive flirtation with town planning, to become a journalist was the correct one. Getting some words down in roughly the right order, reflecting accurately what people have to say, and often working against the clock, this was what I did – but artistic flair was not required, thank you.

My first job as a reporter was with the Lynn News and Advertiser, a twice-weekly newspaper based in King’s Lynn and covering West Norfolk. It was an ideal start to my career – friendly, helpful and knowledgeable colleagues and, because it was not a weekly, a greater sense of urgency with more deadlines to meet.

I recall that on more than one occasion I was at an important court case which was in progress, or had concluded, as the newspaper was approaching its final deadlines. So I had to go to a phone box – remember those? – and, with only my shorthand notes in front of me, dictate the story down the line to a colleague sat at a typewriter – remember those?

Of course, the sub-editors in the office could tidy up my hastily assembled words but I had to get the salient facts in place first time. It certainly concentrated the mind.

All that said, I think a few of the lines I came up with at the nature festival event are worth repeating, though they may not make much sense out of context. Remember, we were writing about the seasons in Orkney…

“Sand martins dart along the coast
Building home and new lives”

“Visitors – flying, swimming, walking –
Feathered, blubbered, backpacked,
Congregate at the home shore we love”

“The birds depart
The visitors dwindle
The days shorten”

“Books with many-coloured jackets
Sit on shelves, ready to tell tales of Orkney
Inspiring schoolchildren, visitors – and me”

Graham Brown

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