Ten years in Orkney – now what?

Ten years ago Kathie and I moved to Orkney. By coincidence we arrived on 16 April which is St Magnus Day – he is the patron saint of Orkney.

And so each year we go to St Magnus Kirk in Birsay, not far from where we live, for the annual St Magnus service which also serves for us as a marker in our personal journey. But not this year.

Nothing much changed in our first ten years in Orkney and then, last month – everything changed for everyone in Orkney and beyond. Well, yes and no.

If I spend a little time reflecting I realise we have experienced more change since April 2010 than I imagined at first. Most of the change has been gradual, making it harder to notice, with an occasional sudden, often bad, impact.

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View from our house on St Magnus Day 2020 (image: Graham Brown)

We enjoy a wonderful view from the front of our house across the landscape of Orkney’s West Mainland – and now there are a few extra buildings in the view; our “field” (it’s an enclosure, really) next to the house now has a stone wall all the way around it; inside our home we have decorated and improved some rooms; and we have Roscoe, our rescue Border Collie, who joined us in 2012.

Some change has been less welcome – Kathie’s musical inspiration and friend Keith Emerson died suddenly in 2016, and before his funeral was held my father also passed away unexpectedly. Last year we lost my Uncle David and here in Orkney we have mourned people we knew in our community.

On the positive side, Kathie had a major operation in 2018 which massively improved her mobility and fitness, then in late 2019 released her first album of music in ten years, Facing The Falling Sky.

We both became RSPB volunteers soon after moving to Orkney, and I have ended up as a (very) part-time member of staff. I was privileged to help mark the centenary of the loss of HMS Hampshire, which sank in 1916 off Orkney. I am a member of Harray & Sandwick Community Council. And Kathie and I are both managers, ie committee members, at Quoyloo Old School which is our village hall.

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Kathie and me during the Sound Of Music coach tour in Austria (image: Graham Brown)

In between we have enjoyed several visits to Scotland’s Central Belt, getting to know Edinburgh and Glasgow, as well as visits to Orkney’s beautiful islands, to the in-laws in California and then, after they moved, to Northern Arizona. And Kathie and I spent marvellous holidays in Italy (Bologna) and Austria (Vienna and Salzburg).

All this now seems like another world, before coronavirus, or BC. Already I find myself at home saying something like “do you remember before coronavirus when …?”

Kathie has underlying health issues which mean we mostly avoid the shops. We are lucky that we can get deliveries from our excellent village shop, Isbister Brothers.

We are fortunate in a wider sense because we have my regular pension income. Kathie has managed to carry on teaching her piano students using Skype.

In some ways, for Kathie and me, and I am not making light of this crisis, life does not seem very different. We typically spend time at the house, Kathie working upstairs in her studio and me in my downstairs office. We live in the countryside so we can take Roscoe for his morning walk without meeting anyone.

But then the awfulness of this pandemic – the deaths, the sick, the brave and tired NHS and frontline workers, the closed businesses – will suddenly dawn on me, or Kathie. The radio, TV and online news, rightly, is full of Covid-19. It is important to be well-informed but we avoid watching the TV news just before bedtime to aid a better night’s sleep.

Her Majesty The Queen made a skilfully worded address to the people of the UK on Sunday 5 April, it was moving and reassuring. Later that evening we heard that the Prime Minister had been admitted to hospital with Covid-19 symptoms, then the next day he was moved to intensive care. It was shocking news whether you voted for him or not.

The virus is in Orkney, of course, and at the time of writing it has led to two deaths. We think of the families and friends who are grieving, and unable to hold the funeral they would wish, whatever the cause of their loved one’s passing.

There is a request show on BBC Radio Orkney each Friday evening, something of a local institution, each week for 50 minutes at 6.10pm. Since the lockdown the programme has expanded to fit in the greater number of requests being submitted, starting at 6.00pm and going on beyond 7.00pm.

And now, sadly, folk have started sending dedications to remember their relatives who have passed away – something I do not remember hearing on the programme before. In the absence of a public funeral it is a way to mark their loved one’s passing.

In comparison to the above it hardly seems to matter but like everyone our travel plans are on hold, particularly disappointing for Kathie who wants to visit her elderly parents.

Big events which many of us were looking forward to watching on TV, such as the Eurovision Song Contest, the Olympics and football’s Euro 2020, will not be there.

On a local scale, our monthly village quiz finished early before its summer break. We are not alone, of course, here in Orkney, like the rest of Scotland, the UK and much of the world, everything is off.

In fact, all the markers of a typical Orkney year are gradually being cancelled, such as Orkney Folk Festival, Orkney Nature Festival (along with all RSPB events), the St Magnus International Festival and Stromness Shopping Week. Who knows whether the Orkney County Show and our other agricultural shows, such as the West Mainland Show near us, will go ahead?

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One of my favourite pictures: Roscoe and me on the Brough of Birsay (image: Kathie Touin)

When we finally come out of this, whenever that will be, what will be different?

How many Orkney businesses, reliant on tourism, will survive this? There were more than 150 cruise ship visits to Orkney in 2019 – will we ever see so many visiting again? Do we want to?

The environment will have enjoyed some relief from humans, will we build on that to create a greener future? Or will we turbocharge oil, aircraft and cars as we rush to rebuild economies?

What about the NHS? Will it receive greater funding? Or will people – and I’m afraid this is particularly true of some English people – go back to their old ways of wanting great public services along with low taxes. Spoiler alert: you can’t have both.

Will we look again at our UK immigration policies? Seeing the tragic losses of NHS staff it is noticeable how many have backgrounds outside the UK.

Where will Scotland and the UK be politically after this? Will Brexit still seem like a good idea, assuming anyone gets time to organise it? What about Scottish independence? What other unexpected political movements might flow from this?

It is as if the ground is shifting under us, like some giant slow-motion earthquake. The aftershocks will go on for years to come and none of us know what they will throw up and where we will all be at the end of this.

Ten years in Orkney – much has changed. For all of us.

Thank you to everyone working for us at this time, whether in the NHS, the care sector, shops, the postal service, local councils, emergency services, wherever – thank you.

Stay safe if you can.

And let’s keep an eye on the future: let’s see if we can make it better than it might have been.

Graham Brown

To find out more

Covid-19 advice from the Scottish government – https://www.gov.scot/coronavirus-covid-19/

More information from Orkney Islands Council – https://www.orkney.gov.uk/

Please don’t come now but you would be very welcome if you wish to visit Orkney in the future – https://www.orkney.com/

Update (17 April 2020)

A few hours after I published this blog entry it was announced that all six of Orkney’s agricultural shows have been cancelled for 2020. Here is a report from The Orcadian – https://www.orcadian.co.uk/orkneys-six-agricultural-shows-cancelled-for-2020/

A late-night conversation with an old friend in a remote windswept house

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Facing The Falling Sky album cover (image: Kathie Touin)

So, here we are, my first blog for nearly six months. Any excuse? Not really.

Not only that but my headline is stolen – it’s all in a good cause, though.

On 1 November Kathie Touin (that is Mrs Brown) released a new album of her wonderful songs, Facing The Falling Sky. And it is a super creative collection.

As the person who looks after Kathie’s publicity I am supposed to come up with snappy phrases to promote her work but I cannot beat this quote…

DJ Steve Conway says: “It’s truly brilliant. It’s like a late-night conversation with an old friend in a remote windswept house.” Thank you Steve.

Steve is a great supporter of Kathie’s music. He presents a show on Ireland’s 8Radio.com called the A-Z Of Great Tracks and, to date, six of Kathie’s songs have featured – most recently her single, Waiting For The Silence…

Previously Steve was a DJ on Radio Caroline and was one of the crew rescued by RAF helicopter in November 1991 when the station’s radio ship, Ross Revenge, drifted onto the Goodwin Sands. His book ShipRocked: Life On The Waves With Radio Caroline is highly recommended.

It is great for Kathie to get such positive feedback for the album after all the work she has put into it. She wrote the songs, played most of the instruments, did technical wizardry in her own Starling Recording Studio that goes way above my head, mixed and produced the album – oh, and created the artwork.

We held a launch for the album at Orkney Brewery which is situated, conveniently, just beyond the end of the track to our house. In fact, you can see the brewery from our dining room window.

No jokes please – we did manage to organise a launch in a brewery. We invited friends and Kathie, in her Eeyore mode, thought perhaps 10 people might come. In the event there were nearly 60 folk there and the warmth and support feeding back to Kathie meant so much to her.

I was the MC, introducing some tracks played from the CD and some songs played live by Kathie – as well as quizzing Kathie about the songs and the album. Kathie had a string trio join her for one song, Between Heaven And The Sky – thank you Linda Hamilton, cello, and Elizabeth Sullivan and Lesley Macleod, violins, it was beautiful.

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Publicity shot for Facing The Falling Sky (image: Kathie Touin)

Kathie was interviewed by BBC Radio Orkney for their daily breakfast news programme. You can hear this on Kathie’s SoundCloud feed…

She also featured in our weekly newspaper, The Orcadian, and the online Orkney News reported from the launch.

How would I describe the album? Well, herein lies a problem. These days, of course, music is distributed digitally for download and streaming as well as in physical form (CD in the case of this album). And the digital sites like to have the music put into categories.

Here, I admit, Kathie struggles and her publicity person (me) is not much help either. It is not folk, though I see on Google that is how Kathie is labelled. It is not progressive. It is not electronic. But it does have elements of all three, and more. The closest we have come is folktronic, or folktronica. Answers on a postcard please!

The digital world is a two-edged sword for artists. Potentially it gets the music to anyone, anywhere in the world thanks to Kathie’s website and to digital distribution (Apple Music, Spotify, Google Music, Amazon Music and so on).

But the downside is the income, or should I say lack of it, particularly for streams. A single stream on Spotify, to give two examples from Kathie’s previous albums, could pay you $0.00030394 or perhaps $0.00235781. I don’t know why the figures vary, both were songs written and performed by Kathie. Either way, she is not going to get rich that way.

Recently a track from Kathie’s piano music album Soliloquy Deluxe – Valses Poeticos by Granados – was streamed 133 times on Google Music Store resulting in a total payment of $0.68815381. Hey-ho.

Anyway, back to the new album, Facing The Falling Sky. It has received airplay on BBC Radio Scotland, Radio Caroline, Vectis Radio, Deal Radio, Biggles FM and Glastonbury FM and, who knows, elsewhere in the UK and beyond?

I had hoped for airplay on BBC Radio 6 Music but despite sending eight copies to various people we have not achieved that particular breakthrough. Who knows whether anyone there ever got to listen to the album from the hundreds they must receive each week?

Whatever, I think the album is fantastic and well worthy of UK-wide, indeed, worldwide, airplay. To repeat Steve Conway’s quote once more: “It’s truly brilliant. It’s like a late-night conversation with an old friend in a remote windswept house.”

Here is some more feedback Kathie has received…

“I’ve listened to it several times and each time find something else I like… Your vocals are great, a lovely sound, smooth and warm.”

“Really enjoying your CD. How catchy some of the tunes are – Waiting For The Silence is a real ear-worm!”

“Just the answer to the dreich winter weather bringing into your home a warmth and seasonal feel.”

“Such a good album packed full of great tracks.”

So there.

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Poster for Kathie Touin’s new album (image: Kathie Touin)

You can buy the album from Kathie’s website – the CD comes with an attractive lyrics booklet – or from shops in Orkney including The Old Library and The Reel in Kirkwall, the Waterfront Gallery and JB Rosey in Stromness, and Castaway Crafts in Dounby.

If you are into downloads or streaming Facing The Falling Sky is on all the regular outlets including Apple Music, Google Music, Amazon Music, Spotify and CD Baby (Kathie’s digital distributor).

Go on, give it a listen. You could even email 6 Music and request a play!

Graham Brown

To find out more

Kathie’s website – http://www.kathietouin.com/

Kathie’s blog – https://kathietouin.wordpress.com/

Steve Conway on Twitter – https://twitter.com/steveconway

8Radio.com – http://8radio.com/

Radio Caroline – http://www.radiocaroline.co.uk/

Orkney Brewery – https://www.orkneybrewery.co.uk/

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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 – https://norqfromork.com/

HMS Hampshire – http://hmshampshire.org/

Stromness Lifeboat – http://www.stromnesslifeboat.org.uk/station-history.html

Longhope Lifeboat – http://www.longhopelifeboat.org.uk/

HMS Tern – http://hmstern.co.uk/

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 – https://www.facebook.com/rspborkney

Quoyloo Old School – https://en-gb.facebook.com/Old-School-Quoyloo-462982410411472/

Kathie Touin – http://www.kathietouin.com/

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…

Misconceptions about Orkney

The Ring of Brodgar, Orkney (photo: Kathie Touin)
The Ring of Brodgar, Orkney (photo: Kathie Touin)

Many of our friends had – and probably still have – some strange ideas about what it is like here. Well, why wouldn’t you if you have never visited?

So in this blog I would like to dispel a few of the misconceptions that some folk have about Orkney.

First, Orkney is in the Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland. Wrong.

It is said, I think with some truth, that until the Argentinians invaded the Falkland Islands many people imagined they were somewhere off Scotland. If you are still not clear, they are in the South Atlantic. But this illustrates how our grasp of geography can be hazy. Given a blank map of the world, how many of us could correctly place a large number of countries in the correct place? Or even a few?

A friend who volunteers for the RSPB here in Orkney did meet cruise liner passengers who thought they were in the Hebrides. And I think some of my former London work colleagues thought this was where I was heading.

In fact, Orkney is a group of 70 plus islands, about 10 of them inhabited, which are off the north-east coast of Scotland. To give you an idea, you can come on a passenger ferry day trip from John O’Groats.

And were are not Shetland. That is even further north, the last bit of the UK before the Arctic Circle or, on many maps, in a box.

Second, Orkney is an extremely cold place, with frequent snow. Wrong again.

Orkney is not always cold and it certainly is not a frozen wasteland. In fact, due to the Gulf Stream the winter climate here is relatively mild and warmer than, say, the Highlands of Scotland. Keep an eye on the temperatures on the TV weather forecast – you often find it as warm here as down south in England. And frequently we are warmer than, say, Aberdeen or Inverness.

This winter we have had perhaps one day of snow and a couple of days of light snow – in all cases gone the next day.

However, it is frequently windy in Orkney and sometimes the ferries are delayed or cancelled because of the winds and tides. Luckily, Kathie and I find the wild and woolly weather exciting.

The summer is usually pleasantly warm. But, if you are looking for hot weather, and no storms, Orkney is not for you.

Here I am next to our house in heavy snow in 2010 - but it's unusual (photo: Kathie Touin)
Here I am next to our house in heavy snow in 2010 – but it’s unusual (photo: Kathie Touin)

Third, Orkney is Gaelic speaking. Also wrong.

I had a polite argument on Twitter once with a keen Gaelic speaker who claimed the language was spoken throughout Scotland. Sorry, but it isn’t spoken in Orkney. In nearly four years I have only knowingly met one Gaelic speaker, who came from the Western Isles. The Gaelic Twitterer did not take kindly to my suggestion that schoolchildren in Orkney would do as well to learn Mandarin Chinese.

Bi-lingual Gaelic and English road signs are now common in Scotland and I understand, though I may be wrong on this, that there was a proposal to introduce them to Orkney. Given that Gaelic has never been spoken here this was not a popular suggestion.

Orkney proudly shows signs of its Viking past in its place names and its people. Only last week a study of Norse DNA in men in Britain and Ireland was published. Topping the list for direct descendants of the Vikings was Shetland (29.2 per cent), followed by Orkney (25.2 per cent). Incidentally, this study was part of the launch of series two of US TV show Viking, so keep an eye out for it if you are Stateside.

Remember Orkney was part of Norway, not Scotland, until 1468.

Misconception number four, Orkney is an old-fashioned religious community. Wrong.

You’ll be thinking of the Western Isles there. I am not an expert on the Western Isles so I don’t want to characterise them all in this way but I know some of the communities have many church-goers who do not like to see shops open or work taking place on Sunday.

There are folk in Orkney who go to church but I would say not the majority by any means. And plenty else goes on in Orkney on a Sunday.

So, how about number five, Orkney is all kilts and bagpipes, like the rest of Scotland? Wrong.

But then I don’t think the rest of Scotland is like that either. I can think of one shop in Kirkwall that sells what you might call the kilts-and-bagpipes souvenirs.

There are three pipe bands in Orkney – one in Stromness, one in Kirkwall and one in Rendall – and they always make a stirring sight and sound when I come across them at a local event.

And kilts? It is not unusual for the groom, best man and other men in a wedding party to wear kilts. Otherwise, apart from in the pipe bands, I’ve hardly seen them at all.

Because of Orkney’s Viking past – see misconception three above – we celebrate a mix of Scottish and Scandinavian culture. Burns Night suppers are popular here, a good excuse for a good dinner and some whisky, but we also celebrate Norwegian Constitution Day each year with a parade and service at St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall.

I should also say that the good folk of Norway send a Christmas tree each year which stands outside the cathedral – in the same way that Norway sends a Christmas tree to Trafalgar Square in London. Admittedly, Orkney’s is a little smaller.

A sixth misconception – two in one here. Does Orkney have any shops? Or, at the other end of the scale, one of my friends assumed we have all the big chains here.

The truth on this one is somewhere in the middle. We have a good range of local shops, from our village shop Isbister’s in Quoyloo, where we live, to newsagents, to gift shops, jewellers, to William Shearer (fancy foods, agricultural seeds, firearms, and more). In fact, to write about the full range of local shops, and the sometimes strange combinations of goods for sale, would be a blog in itself.

In terms of chains we have, next to each other on the outskirts of Kirkwall, a large Tesco, a Lidl and a Co-op. The Co-op has three further Orkney stores, in Kirkwall centre, Stromness and Dounby. And other chains are represented in Kirkwall, such as Boots, Dealz, Edinburgh Woollen Mills and M&Co.

There is no Starbucks! Or Costa Coffee! What do we do? Well, we have splendid individual, locally-owned cafes and tea shops.

Me on the beach at Birsay, Orkney. Who needs Starbucks? (photo: Kathie Touin)
Me on the beach at Birsay, Orkney. Who needs Starbucks? (photo: Kathie Touin)

Final misconception – when I told colleagues at work I was moving here one asked me, “Will you have electricity?”

Yes, we do. I wouldn’t say absolutely everyone does, I know of one man who does not have mains electricity at his house. But I would say he is pretty unusual.

Anyway, find out more about Orkney for yourself – please keep reading the blog, explore online, or why not come to visit. I’ll buy you a coffee and a cake in our of our cafes if you do!

To find out more

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

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

Kathie Touin – http://www.kathietouin.com/