48 Hours: my father and I

Clive Brown and Graham in Belgium
We were younger then. My father and I, in the early 2000s, on the Waterloo Memorial in Belgium (image: Graham Brown/Frank Bonte)

This is a true story and not a very cheerful one, you might think, though it does have its moments of redemption.

On Good Friday this year I left Orkney for a month, my longest absence since moving here six years ago. I did not want to leave Orkney behind, or Mrs Brown (Kathie Touin), or our dog, Roscoe. In fact, saying goodbye to Roscoe was in some ways the most emotional and difficult part – perhaps because it is impossible to explain absence to a faithful hound.

But I was on important family business. My father, Clive, aged 82, in Lincolnshire, had undergone a planned but serious hospital operation three days earlier and we had agreed that I would care for him for four weeks when he was released home. After that he was due to go to his sister’s for a further fortnight although, pre-operation, he clearly thought he would be sufficiently recovered for that to be unnecessary.

I flew from Kirkwall, via Edinburgh, to East Midlands Airport. At Edinburgh Airport I got some lunch and listened to a BBC Radio 4 programme I had downloaded about the hymn I Vow To Thee My Country. This was a favourite of my late mother and I found myself, sat in Costa, getting tearful. I don’t think anyone noticed in the airport hubbub.

At East Midlands Airport I was met by a taxi driver for the 60-mile journey to my father’s house in Pinchbeck, just outside Spalding. He was an engaging and chatty travel companion.

One of the subjects I raised was the distance between the home I had chosen, in Orkney, and my father’s home, more than 600 miles away. This is something over which I have carried some guilt ever since we moved.

“You cannot live your life for other people,” he said.

I arrived at my father’s house and found his brilliant neighbours, who were going to be out for the evening, had left me a home-made curry to heat up.

The next day I went to Morrisons supermarket in the morning, stocking up for my father’s release from hospital, trying to choose food and ingredients I thought would be good for him and would suit his medical condition.

Back home I had a quick lunch and then I was off to the Pilgrim Hospital in Boston to visit my father.

His ward was on the fifth floor. He was in a room of four beds, each containing an elderly gentleman. I knew he had undergone a major operation but I was not prepared for how tired and pained, how old, he looked. He greeted me and asked how my journey from Orkney had been.

But there was not much more conversation as he dozed, and he was not up to reading the newspapers and magazines I had brought him. He did not sleep much either because, I think, he was not comfortable with his level of pain or with his position in the bed.

The nurses – brilliant, ever cheerful and patient – visited a number of times to try to make him more comfortable and to complete their checks.

My father had been speaking, before the operation, of going home on the Monday after my arrival. It was clear to me he would not be well enough. I asked the opinion of one of the nurses, who agreed with me, but she said he might be well enough by the end of the week.

As he dozed through my six-hour visit I read a little and was able to take in the surroundings. The windows had a commanding view across the flat Lincolnshire countryside. The crows came and went in the trees. The pigeons chased each other.

And the smell. What is that hospital smell? A mixture of disinfectant, warm bodies, I don’t know. But when I think of that afernoon I can still smell it.

Towards the end of my visit my father asked me to find his watch in his bag and put it on for him. This was a mistake. With little else to do, he checked the time every two or three minutes.

Eventually I said I should go home for dinner. “Yes, you don’t want to stay here,” he said, or something to that effect.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” I said as I left and moved to shake his hand. He clasped my hand unexpectedly strongly.

Walking out of the hospital I could not find a working car park pay-terminal, and while searching got caught in a sudden downpour that soaked through my clothes. While sheltering back inside the hospital entrance I met some helpful folk who pointed me in the right direction.

On my drive back to my father’s house I stopped in the village of Surfleet to get fish and chips, at the wonderfully named Cod Squad. There was a conversation with the friendly guys behind the counter about my Scottish bank notes, which I produced to pay, and why I was visiting. They wished me and my father all the best.

I knew that when I got home I would be into a round of telephone calls and conversations about my father’s condition so I decided to eat my supper in the car in the lay-by to get a few minutes to myself.

That night I was not early to bed but I did not worry because I did not have to be up early in the morning, hospital visiting did not start until lunchtime.

I slept soundly until… suddenly, I was awake, my mobile phone was ringing. It was 1.15am. There was a nurse from the hospital at the other end. Could I come to the hospital now?

“Why, what has happened?” “You just need to come now.” I was told to go through Accident & Emergency to get into the locked hospital.

By the time I was out of bed, visited the bathroom, dressed, and got the car out of the garage, it was close to 1.30am.

The journey to the hospital was relatively quick, about 25 minutes, there not being much traffic. On the way I did not, for some reason, want music so for distraction I listened to a talk station, Talk Radio. They were discussing that night’s big boxing match and how one of the boxers had been rushed to hospital. Hmm…

I left the radio on but wondered to myself, as I drove, why I had been called, presumably it must be something serious? I got through A&E, where they seemed to be expecting me, and made by way through the hospital.

In the lift I noticed the clock said 3am. How can that be? Oh yes, I thought, we are moving onto British Summer Time tonight, the clocks are going forward.

As I walked into the ward I caught sight of one of the staff make a small head and eye gesture to a nurse to indicate my arrival. The nurse showed me into a side room and a doctor was called in. I was starting to realise what was happening.

He told me so carefully and sympathetically what had happened to my father that I remember saying to him, to be sure: “So, he’s dead then.”

Yes, he was. I will not go into my father’s personal medical details but there had been developments, complications, during the night. He died at about 1.30am, about the time I was setting off for the drive to the hospital.

The doctor, who was the surgeon who carried out the operation, was visibly shaken himself at this turn of events.

Did I want to see my father?, the nurse asked. Yes, I said. I was thinking to myself, here I am, aged 58, and I have not seen a dead body, until now.

My father was still on the ward, in his bed, surrounded by a curtain. Despite having seen him hours before, when he was clearly seriously ill, I was struck now how small, how diminished Dad looked. I touched his hand, I think I told him I loved him – not something we ever said in life.

I collected his belongings from the nurse, including his watch, and was shown out of the hospital.

On the drive back many thoughts went through my mind. One was the realisation that my father had died on Easter Sunday, which seemed ironic; another was that the car I was driving, my father’s, probably no longer had valid car insurance with his passing.

I rang my wife when I got home and then wondered when would be an appropriate time to ring my father’s three siblings. I needed to tell them soon, but was there any point in waking them? My calculations were complicated by the clocks changing.

Eventually, through the early hours, I spoke to everyone and then, at about 7am, went to tell my father’s neighbours, who were very close to him. There was shock, some tears and cups of tea.

The end of my 48 Hours.

Graham Brown

 

Threads from the past

My old cactus plant with its beautiful flowers (image: Graham Brown)
My old cactus plant with its beautiful flowers (image: Graham Brown)

Many years ago – perhaps 20 or 30 years – my mother gave me a small cactus plant. It never grew very much, if at all, but always looked fine. It has moved from home to home with me, through laughter and tears, good times and bad times, the ups and downs of life.

My mother died in 2001. My wife Kathie Touin and I met in 2002, married in 2003 and moved from London to Orkney in 2010. The cactus, still with me, or us as we had become, was put on a window shelf in the lounge in our Orkney home. By luck we had chosen a good spot because it started to grow steadily.

Last year, for the first time, it flowered, but so briefly that by the time we realised what was happening the flower was virtually gone.

This week, though, the cactus produced two beautiful yellow flowers. My mother, Mary, would be so thrilled to know this. The flowers help keep a thread through the years, to someone much loved and fondly, regularly, remembered.

Coincidentally when Kathie and I were married the celebrant placed a yellow flower on the altar to represent my late mother. So yellow flowers are starting to symbolise my mother.

These threads from the past fascinate me. I have an aunt who has researched the history of my father’s side of the family. She has told me a little about it but I really must make time when I next see my aunt to sit down and understand it properly. One of the disadvantages of being in Orkney – though it is a great place to live – is distance from family.

We have different attitudes to our ancestors – my father, though admiring of my aunt’s work, told me “I don’t worry about all that.” But family history fascinates me. One of the projects I had in mind when I took semi-retirement in Orkney was to research the history on my mother’s side – a project I have yet to start properly, along with learning the ukulele.

But one story my aunt uncovered sticks in my mind because she emailed me about it in 2012. She wrote: “Did [your father] tell you of our ‘foreign’ 3 x Great Grandfather (4 x in your case)? He must have come from Prussia as I think he was in their army fighting Napoleon’s lot – until they were routed in 1803. In 1804 that part of their army was disbanded, by which time many had come/escaped to England where they joined the King’s German Legion. Later they fought under Wellington at Waterloo in 1815.”

I thought about my great great great great grandfather when the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo was commemorated last month. I tried to picture him as I watched a TV documentary about the battle. How frightening it must have seemed. Some years ago I visited the battleground, while on holiday in Belgium, with no idea that an ancestor of mine had fought there.

My aunt’s research paid off. Not only did she find a fascinating family story, she attended the service of commemoration for the Battle of Waterloo at St Paul’s Cathedral as a descendent of a soldier who fought there. Others attending included Their Royal Highnesses the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall. My aunt reported back to me: “It was exceedingly well done and the present Duke of Wellington has a superb voice!”

I wonder what my 4 x great grandfather was like? This is ridiculous, what is his name? I must ask. Does this thread across the decades and across Europe explain why I feel drawn to Germany and its people, or would that be too fanciful?

An incident from my own recent past came to mind later in June with the passing of the actor Patrick Macnee, aged 93, best known for The Avengers TV series. My memorable encounter with this true gentleman, at Peterborough’s Nene Valley Railway, was recounted in an earlier blog in February, The Day I Met An Avenger.

Fionn McArthur of BBC Radio Orkney interviews the author at the Kitchener Memorial (image: helpful passer-by)
Fionn McArthur of BBC Radio Orkney interviews the author at the Kitchener Memorial (image: helpful passer-by)

Meanwhile, here in Orkney we are having a pretty poor summer weather-wise, following an unusually wet winter and spring. It’s not all gloom, we get some lovely sunny days as well – but not enough of them this year. BBC Radio Orkney reported at the beginning of June that in the first five months of 2015 we were already well on the way to having three-quarters of our normal annual rainfall.

Some events in Orkney’s August show season have been cancelled, the latest being the annual Vintage Rally because of the state of the ground at its venue. It’s a friendly event I enjoy – there is always a beautiful selection of restored vehicles on display – and this year I was due to be volunteering on one of the stands as a committee member of the Kitchener & HMS Hampshire Memorial project.

Speaking of which, I’ve just made my first appearance on BBC Radio Orkney, interviewed by Fionn McArthur, about this project to restore the Kitchener Memorial at Marwick Head, and build alongside a commemorative wall to all 737 men lost with HMS Hampshire in June 1916.

We are making good progress though we are about £15,000 short of the money we need so there is still work to do. But we are encouraged by supportive comments from Orcadians, and from the descendants of those lost, who also feel the tug of the threads from the past.

Graham Brown

To find out more

Prince of Wales attends Waterloo service of commemoration at St Paul’s – https://www.stpauls.co.uk/news-press/latest-news/-prince-of-wales-to-attend-waterloo-service-of-commemoration-at-st-pauls

The Day I Met An Avenger – https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2015/02/06/patrick-macnee/

John Vetterlein interviewed on BBC Radio Orkney about our rainfall (11 minutes in) –
https://soundcloud.com/radio-orkney/around-orkney-tuesday-2nd-june-2015

The author interviewed on BBC Radio Orkney about the Kitchener & HMS Hampshire Memorial project (after the news) –
https://soundcloud.com/radio-orkney/around-orkney-friday-10th-july-2015

Kitchener & HMS Hampshire Memorial project blog – https://kitchenerhampshire.wordpress.com/

A Californian and an Englishman taking part in momentous Scottish events

Flag of Scotland: Saint Andrew's Cross, or the Saltire
Flag of Scotland: Saint Andrew’s Cross, or the Saltire

So, after weeks and months of campaigning – years and decades for some – we are coming towards the end of the Scottish independence referendum campaign. The vote on 18 September is three weeks away and the pace of debate and argument is more frantic. Many of us watched this week a heated, that is code for shouty and ill-tempered, debate between First Minister Alex Salmond, speaking for Yes Scotland, and Better Together’s Alistair Darling.

When my Californian wife Kathie Touin and I, an Englishman, moved to Orkney four years ago we never imagined we would be participating in the biggest vote in Scotland, and in the United Kingdom, for more than 300 years. It could lead to the biggest change in the United Kingdom since Ireland became independent, perhaps ever.

It is a privilege to live here at this time, and it is wonderful that – some social media abuse from a minority aside – the campaign has been conducted peacefully, politely and democratically. And, if friends in England are not sure, yes, as British citizens resident in Scotland Kathie and I do get to vote in the referendum.

There have been many public meetings to debate the issues – we went to one such event in our small village of Quoyloo. And Kathie went to a women’s conference in Kirkwall. How many years since political campaigns have inspired public meetings? I can vaguely remember as a child going to one such meeting, in Huntingdon, I think, to see Huntingdonshire MP David Renton speak at an election meeting – that must have been about 50 years ago.

Of course, the vote on 18 September will not settle everything, whether Scotland decides to go independent or to stay in the United Kingdom. Either way the future for Scotland, and the UK, is uncertain, but exciting as well. I get the feeling that folk in England are only just starting to realise and consider the possibilities. Those living in Wales and Northern Ireland, I suspect, may have given it more thought.

On the day I will be voting for… against… come now, you would not expect an old-fashioned ex-BBC employee brought up on impartiality to give that away would you?

But I will tell you this. I am concerned about the Scottish Government’s proposals for broadcasting in an independent Scotland.

Broadcasting was not mentioned as a topic in either Salmond v Darling TV debate and has only briefly, for a day or two, been in the media coverage of the debate. But, for me, it is important.

In summary, the Scottish Government, ie the Scottish National Party, proposes a Scottish Broadcasting Service (SBS), funded by the existing TV Licence fee, at the existing rate of £145.50-a-year. The SBS will provide TV, radio and online services, working in a joint venture with the BBC – not something the BBC and Licence payers in England will necessarily want.

We are told that we can expect to retain BBC Alba (Gaelic TV channel) but also to receive a new TV channel (details unspecified).

On radio, we will continue to receive the existing BBC stations Radio Scotland and Radio nan Gaidhael (Gaelic), and a new radio station (details, again, unspecified).

The SBS will also provide online services, to include a news website and a catch-up player.

In addition, SBS will have the right to opt-out of BBC One and BBC Two, as BBC Scotland does now. This proposal also has issues, will the BBC want to cede editorial control for chunks of its BBC-branded channels?

We are assured, under these proposals, that popular programmes like EastEnders, Doctor Who and Strictly Come Dancing will still be available. Leaving aside the question of why EastEnders is popular – every trail I see for it seems to be unmitigated gloom – I think this is correct. Even if BBC channels were not available in Scotland, programmes like these can easily be bought in by a Scottish broadcaster.

But how do these proposals add up when we think of the full range of BBC services? Somehow, without increasing the Licence Fee, and without taking advertising (as RTE does in Ireland), viewers and listeners in Scotland will get everything they do now plus a new TV channel and a new radio channel.

To me, it doesn’t add up. Something would have to give. For example, a BBC that no longer has to cater for Scottish licence payers could decide to turn off, or stop maintaining, transmitters north of the border. Can we guarantee getting the full range of BBC programmes? BBC Radio 4? Or BBC Radio 3? What about BBC Four? Or the BBC News channel?

We are told that people in many other countries receive BBC channels quite happily. But, in truth, they do not get the full range of services, and they are likely to be paying extra to get BBC channels. My friend in Belgium, for example, gets BBC One and BBC Two as part of his cable subscription. If he wanted to get more channels, he would have to pay more. And only some BBC Radio services are available.

I also have a concern about our local service here, BBC Radio Orkney. We get a properly staffed, professional news service, giving us a 30-minute news programme each morning, and a lunchtime bulletin, as well as a weekly request show and, during the winter months, nightly documentary, music and community programmes.

Given that the Scottish Government proposals seem to be trying to get a quart out of a pint pot – or whatever the metric equivalent might be – some cuts in existing output might be needed. Someone (in Glasgow or Edinburgh) might decide to reduce Radio Orkney to a morning-only service, or perhaps a joint service with BBC Radio Shetland, with a dedicated reporter or two in each place? Hopefully not.

Now, you might think my concern about broadcasting is mis-placed and that the Scottish Government proposals make sense. Or, you might think that voting for independence will give Scotland a chance to get its own TV and radio services and losing some BBC channels would be a price worth paying. One person on Twitter – @AAAForScotland – contacted me after I raised this issue to say: “BBC! lived without it for years out of choice I would never miss it, personal boycott in protest anti Scots.”

At the beginning of the referendum campaign I predicted that the result would be close. I stand by my prediction. Here in Orkney I would be amazed if there is a majority for independence. But across Scotland? It might just happen.

The night of Thursday 18 September could be very interesting. And not just for those of us living in Scotland.

To find out more

Scotland’s Future: Your Guide To An Independent Scotland –http://scotreferendum.com/reports/scotlands-future-your-guide-to-an-independent-scotland/

Better Together –
http://bettertogether.net/

BBC Annual Report 2013/14 –
http://www.bbc.co.uk/annualreport/2014/home/

Lord Birt says Scotland would lose many BBC services after yes vote –http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/aug/19/lord-birt-scotland-bbc-independent

Scottish independence: ‘Yes’ vote would ‘devastate’ broadcasting –http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-28863806

Post-independence break up of BBC would be ‘devastating’ says Curran –http://news.stv.tv/scotland-decides/news/288964-post-independence-break-up-of-bbc-would-be-devastating-says-curran/

Scottish independence: BBC services might not be free, says ex-Trust member –http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-27116556

My previous blog on this subject, Across the Border: Broadcasting In An independent Scotland (2013 article) –
https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2013/06/27/broadcasting-in-scotland/

How would the BBC be divided if Scotland became independent? (2012 article) – http://www.theguardian.com/politics/reality-check-with-polly-curtis/2012/feb/29/how-would-the-bbc-be-divided-if-scotland-became-independent

How did we get here? Via Paris, actually…

Kathie and Graham in front of the Eiffel Tower, Paris
Kathie and Graham in front of the Eiffel Tower, Paris – on the way to Orkney

So here we are, in Orkney. Time speeds by and, amazingly, come April it will be four years since our move here from London. A Californian woman and an Englishman. How did we get here? And, as we are often asked, how did we meet in the first place?

I will explain. And along the way I will explain how we had two weddings. But I will not attempt to explain Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, though I’m sure it has a part to play.

Emails and Nanci Griffith are to blame. And piano lessons. And fate. Or accident. And the Barbican. And other people’s life choices. And a moment’s snap decision.

Well, back in the 1990s, possibly the late 1980s, email started to come into my life. At first it was a closed system within the BBC and I couldn’t see the point of it. In time we were able to email the outside world and – although it was intended as a work tool – inevitably I also used the email for personal reasons.

I was a big admirer of the singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith and I discovered that her fans had an email discussion group called the NanciNet. You may realise that this was started in the USA as in the UK the group’s name had other possible connotations. I signed up.

Then, to coincide with one of Nanci’s regular UK tours, someone suggested a get-together of NanciNet members at the London Barbican. It was agreed we would meet for a meal before the concert, in a Barbican restaurant. This was in 1998.

I went to the concert with my then girlfriend and my parents, who were visiting me in London. Being a group of four meant that when we tried to find a table at the get-together we had limited choices – and so fate, or accident, meant we chose a table where just a man and a woman were seated.

These turned out to be a Belgian guy, Frank, and his friend, Patti, from the United States. Numbers and emails were swapped, we kept in touch and we became friends.

I visited my new friends in Belgium and in the United States a number of times, there was even one trip where Frank and I visited Patti’s San Diego home together, a holiday which also took in Boston and New York.

Then my American friend and her family moved from San Diego to Washington. For UK readers, that’s not Washington DC but Washington state, in the north-west of the USA – the last stop going north up the west coast before Canada. Their move turned out to be crucial.

In October 2002 I visited them in Washington and Patti introduced me to her daughter’s piano teacher – who turned out to be Kathie, my wife-to-be.

We went on two dates, then when I was back home in the UK we emailed and talked on the phone everyday, then at Christmas Kathie came over to stay with me and in the New Year – in the freezing cold – we went to Paris together. Yes, I guess you could say it was a whirlwind. We were just made for each other.

In 2003 we had two marriage ceremonies. We had decided to live in the UK and we thought we might get permission for Kathie’s residency more easily if we were already married. So in March 2003, when I was on holiday in Washington, we went to see the judge, just us, plus Kathie’s parents as witnesses. He made what we thought would be an impersonal ceremony into a very cosy one. Afterwards Kathie, her parents and I went out for a meal.

Getting permission for Kathie to come to the UK proved to be fairly straightforward and so in June 2003 we had a second wedding ceremony, again in Washington. This time Kathie’s friends and wider family attended, and my father made the journey from England.

Though it had no legal standing, as we were already married, it was a lovely event. We had a pagan ceremony, a hand-fasting, in which we jumped the broomstick and had our hands tied together. Kathie’s friends William Pint and Felicia Dale sang. My new father-in-law forgot to bring the video camera which was just as well as I cried when I made my vows. And our celebrant Amy put a yellow rose on the ceremonial table to represent my late mother.

We made our home in my flat, our flat, in Ealing, West London. It soon became very crowded, particularly when Kathie set up a small recording studio in the spare room, but we enjoyed our lives in the big city.

London is great – exciting, vibrant, lots to do and see, the centre of so many important events, the home of great friends and work colleagues – but, in time, we felt we wanted a different type of life, led at a different pace. And, in truth, Kathie was never a big city girl at heart.

Our yearnings found an outlet when, almost by accident, we visited Orkney. We were on a two-week tour of Scotland with my father. He had suggested various places we might visit and Kathie made a selection from his list. Orkney ended up on the list.

And so we visited Orkney, for the first time, in summer 2008. We were only here for three nights, two days, but the islands got under our skin.

It would take another blog to tell you everything we liked, and like, about Orkney. This is a subject I will return to in future blogs. But the positives include a slower pace of life, low crime rate, fresh air, knowing your neighbours, wide open spaces to walk in, wildlife, history, the people, a sense of community, being able to park your car outside your front door…

Kathie captured this more lyrically in the song she wrote after this trip, “Orcadia (Wind, Sea and Sky)” which is on her album Dark Moons & Nightingales.

We came back to Orkney in February 2009, for two weeks, to see if we still liked it here during the winter. And we did. We even enjoyed the stormy night when the wind whistled around our self-catering cottage.

And so we decided I would take early retirement and we would move here. I handed my three-month notice in at work just before Christmas 2009. I told my colleagues at the Christmas office meal.

In January 2010 I took a week’s leave and we visited Orkney to go house-hunting – and found our new home.

I officially finished work at the end of March and in April 2010 we moved here. Just like that, as Tommy Cooper might say.

So, in summary, that is how we got here. What would have happened if I had sat at a different table at the Nanci Griffith concert get-together? If the event had never been arranged? If I hadn’t joined the NanciNet? Or if my friend had not moved to Washington? If her daughter had not wanted piano lessons? And so on.

Who knows? But it inclines me to believe in fate, or some guiding spirit in life. And I am very grateful, lucky, blessed, to be here in Orkney with Kathie.

Graham Brown

To find out more

Wikipedia on Orkney –
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orkney

Discover Orkney –
http://www.discover-orkney.co.uk/

Kathie Touin CD Dark Moons & Nightingales –
http://www.kathietouin.com/dark_moons.shtml

William Pint & Felicia Dale –
http://www.pintndale.com/

Nanci Griffith –
http://www.nancigriffith.com/

Some of my earlier blogs with Orkney content

Who Am I?
https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2011/11/08/who-am-i-2/

Brakes off, we’re speeding into 2013 and there’s no stopping…
https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2013/01/07/brakes-off-were-speeding-into-2013-and-theres-no-stopping/

Looking from a different perspective https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2013/11/08/perspective/

What, no badgers?https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2014/01/10/orkney_wildlife/

What, no badgers?

Hooded crow chicks in Rousay, Orkney
Hooded crow chicks in Rousay, Orkney (photo: Kathie Touin)

One of the big UK environmental controversies of 2013 was the badger cull in parts of England. But there was no fuss here in Orkney – we do not have badgers.

Orcadian wildlife is very different to what we experienced when we lived in England and many of our visitors, while delighted with what they see, are surprised to discover what is not here.

For new readers to this blog, Orkney is made up of about 70 islands situated off the north coast of Scotland – beyond Land’s End but before you get to the UK’s last outpost, Shetland. We are not in the Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland as some imagine.

I should also say that I am passionate about the natural world, and I work for the RSPB as a volunteer and occasional part-timer, but I am not an expert. So if you are an expert you might want to read a different blog to this one. And, for clarity, I do not write on behalf of the RSPB.

Orkney is rightly celebrated for its wildlife and visitors come here to see, amongst others, grey seals, harbour (or common) seals, puffins, great skuas, hen harriers and wide open scenery with no trees.

But what do we not have? As I said, no badgers. And no deer, or foxes. We don’t even have squirrels, grey or red.

Our biggest wild mammals on land are hedgehogs (a fairly recent introduction), rats (sorry), and various mice and voles. We also have some stoats, a very recent introduction, and because of the danger to Orkney’s ground-nesting birds they are trapped where possible.

Of these land mammals the most celebrated is the Orkney vole which, we are now told, originated in Belgium – though long before the land there was known as Belgium. These lovely little critters, found nowhere else in the UK, probably arrived with early farmers or traders more than 5,000 years ago.

If you move into the seas around Orkney there are some bigger, in fact, much bigger, mammals. As well as seals you might be lucky enough to see dolphins, porpoises, or, for the really lucky, whales – of which perhaps the most regularly seen are orcas, or killer whales.

When we lived in London we, of course, did not see whales. They were not common in Ealing.

But we regularly saw foxes, sometimes quite close by in the street as we staggered back from an evening in the pub and the Indian restaurant. Once I was woken in the early hours by a commotion outside – it was a group of fox cubs chasing a large empty plastic bottle down the street and under the parked cars.

One of the most familiar birds in England is the magpie. Despite the 21st century gloss that we wear, many people are still very superstitious of these birds. Folk also wrongly blame them for a decline in song birds. I always thought magpies stunning in appearance and very clever. I love them. But magpies are so rare in Orkney that if one is seen it is worthy of note. Now when we visit England it is exciting to see these sharp-suited black-and-white characters.

Another regular bird in Ealing, and gradually spreading out from south-east England, is the ring-necked parakeet. These Indian migrants have colonised large areas of London. My wife Kathie Touin and I loved to see them. In fact, when we were watching the Antiques Roadshow from Richmond Park on TV recently, Kathie realised the noises in the background were ring-necked parakeets.

Instead here in Orkney we regularly see, depending on the time of year, great skuas, hen harriers, lapwings, short-eared owls, hooded crows, curlew, eider ducks and fulmars, to name just a few. And there are many other beautiful, exciting species to be found if you have a little time and patience.

We have large numbers of greylag geese – in fact, Orkney now has so large a resident population of these birds that in the past two summers there has been a cull to reduce numbers because of the damage they can cause.

Our visitors are also surprised to discover there are trees in Orkney. We do not have large numbers of trees, certainly no forests, but there are some significant if small woods. I understand Orkney was once covered in trees but, once man had largely removed them, it was not easy for them to grow back.

In the small field we own next to our house we have a number of trees planted by the previous owners to which we have added more. Many are very small, the wind stops them growing quickly, and some varieties do better than others, but I guess we have perhaps 40 or 50 trees. I must count them.

Given good health I hope to see these trees grow to a reasonable size in my life-time but planting trees is very much a commitment to other people’s futures. I wonder if we can phrase our will in a way that will stop the field becoming a housing site, placed as it is between our house and a new one being built on the other side?

To find out more

RSPB Orkney Facebook –
https://www.facebook.com/RspbOrkney

RSPB Orkney blog –
http://www.rspb.org.uk/community/placestovisit/orkney/b/orkney-blog/default.aspx

RSPB: Birds by name –
http://www.rspb.org.uk/wildlife/birdguide/name/

BBC Radio 4 Tweet Of The Day: podcasts –
http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/totd

BBC Radio 4 Tweet Of The Day: Ring-necked parakeet –
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03mztpj

Orkney vole ‘came from Belgium with farmers 5,000 years ago’ –
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-north-east-orkney-shetland-23942934

Kathie Touin blog on seal spotting –
http://kathietouin.wordpress.com/2013/11/18/invasion-of-cute-fluffy-things/

Gloucestershire badger cull pilot fails to hit 70% target –
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-gloucestershire-25183258