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

 

 

A-hoy – we’re over here

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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

http://www.oldhallcottage.co.uk/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hoy

http://www.orkneyferries.co.uk/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dwarfie_Stane

https://en-gb.facebook.com/wildheathercrafts/

http://www.longhopelifeboat.org.uk/museum/

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

https://www.rspb.org.uk/

https://www.facebook.com/rspborkney

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…

Belonging

This past week two gatherings and a brief visit from a neighbour – small on a world scale but each very special to Mrs Brown and me – underlined the importance of belonging.

On Friday lunchtime it was the funeral of noted composer, and former Master of the Queen’s Music, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. He had made his home in Orkney for many years, first on the island of Hoy and then the island of Sanday.

His funeral was in Sanday. It is reported that the coffin was taken from his home behind a tractor and that the ceremony involved champagne and Shakespeare. Wonderful.

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Commemorating Max at St Magnus Cathedral (image: Graham Brown)

At the same time in Kirkwall, part of Orkney Mainland where Mrs Brown (Kathie Touin) and I live, a simple ceremony was held in St Magnus Cathedral.

A framed photograph of Max, as he was known, was on a small table just inside the cathedral along with some of his music and a vase of flowers.

The ceremony itself had no words. Cathedral organist Heather Rendall sat at the piano and played Max’s Farewell To Stromness and Lullaby For Lucy.

The music was recorded by BBC Radio Orkney…

https://soundcloud.com/radio-orkney/remembering-max-at-st-magnus-cathedral

Afterwards everyone sat and reflected for a few minutes, then slowly we drifted back to our own lives. It was beautiful.

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Spring Equinox ceremony at the Ring of Brodgar (image: Graham Brown)

On Sunday it was the Spring Equinox and we marked the occasion by joining Helen Woodsford-Dean’s ceremony next to the 5,000-year-old standing stones at the Ring of Brodgar.

While Kathie participated fully I stood at a distance so our dog, Roscoe, did not disrupt the ceremony in his enthusiasm to greet everyone. But what a view, and what a chance to clear the mind, think and reflect.

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Standing stone at the Ring of Brodgar (image: Graham Brown)

Kathie and I also received a visit this week from Edith who lives in Quoyloo, like us. She is a tireless organiser of village events, many of them held at the Old School which acts as a community centre.

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The Old School, Quoyloo (image: Graham Brown)

Edith asked us to join the Old School committee. We’re touched to have been asked and said yes. Nearly six years after moving to Orkney we truly feel we belong.

Graham Brown

Reflections on Edinburgh – and back to a busy Orkney

If you are a regular reader of this blog you will know I am a big admirer of Gretchen Peters’ music. So much so, that my wife Kathie Touin and I travelled 200 miles to Edinburgh to see her in concert at Easter.

Well, it was everything I hoped it would be, and much more. Gretchen’s songs, we already knew, are beautiful, inspirational and challenging. We found the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh to be a lovely venue – it was built in 1823 as Hope Park Chapel – and congratulations go to the sound guys for a superb job. Gretchen’s voice live was perhaps even better than on her recordings.

She had a small but superb band – husband Barry Walsh on piano and accordion, bass player Conor McCreanor and Christine Bougie, playing the unusual combination of lead guitar, lap steel and drums.

The concert was moving and thought-provoking and, yes, I cried a little.

An added bonus was meeting Gretchen and Barry in the foyer at their post-concert signing session. Touring must be a tiring business but they were open and gracious – and I was thrilled when I told Gretchen we had travelled from Orkney and she replied: “Are you my Twitter friend?”

I’ve said this before and I will probably say it again – if you do not know Gretchen Peters’ music, do seek some out – for example, her most recent albums Blackbirds and Hello Cruel World.

Here is the title track of Blackbirds, and an acoustic version of Five Minutes from Hello Cruel World…

Kathie and I throughly enjoyed our four-and-a-half days in Edinburgh. Previously I had only visited briefly as a young teenager and Kathie not at all – though we have driven many times around the Edinburgh ring road, across the Forth Road Bridge and once to Leith to see the Royal Yacht Britannia.

View from Edinburgh Castle (image: Graham Brown)
View from Edinburgh Castle (image: Graham Brown)

We explored the shops on Princes Street and the old buildings along the Royal Mile. We spent half-a-day admiring the paintings in the National Gallery of Scotland, appreciated the beauty of St Giles Cathedral, and spent a day at Edinburgh Castle – a beautiful sunny day, and the views of the city from the castle were stunning.

Kathie Touin says hello to Greyfriars Bobby (image: Graham Brown)
Kathie Touin says hello to Greyfriars Bobby (image: Graham Brown)

On the last day we went to the Scottish Parliament and, just across the road, the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Her Majesty The Queen’s official residence in Scotland. And, of course, we could not leave without saying hello to Greyfriars Bobby and leaving a stick from Roscoe on Bobby’s graveyard memorial stone.

We found Edinburgh’s buses and the new trams gave us prompt and easy transport options around the city.

Viva Mexico restaurant, Edinburgh (image: Graham Brown)
Viva Mexico restaurant, Edinburgh (image: Graham Brown)

All of the restaurants we visited were good, but I would particularly recommend Viva Mexico (Kathie, being from California with its strong Mexican influence, is particular about her Mexican food and loved this place) and a Nepalese establishment called Khukuri.

We stayed at the Tune Hotel, conveniently situated opposite a tram and bus interchange, and Haymarket railway station. It is run on the principle of a budget airline, you pay for a room and then pay extra for what you need, eg TV and towels. The staff were friendly and, instead of coffee and tea in the room, which never tastes great, we were able to buy decent hot drinks from reception whenever we wanted.

Since returning from Edinburgh I have been busy as you can tell – I really should have written this blog sooner – working at the RSPB office, volunteering for the RSPB, volunteering with the Kitchener & HMS Hampshire Memorial project, starting this year’s gardening, and going places.

Scanning my diary, I see that, among other events, I have twice been to Bag The Bruck (annual sessions to collect bruck, ie rubbish, from beaches), I went to the recording of BBC Radio Orkney’s General Election hustings programme (fascinating and lively), and Kathie and I went to St Magnus Kirk, Birsay for the annual St Magnus Day service. This is significant for us because St Magnus is the patron saint of Orkney and, by complete accident, we moved here on St Magnus Day in 2010.

RSPB events since Easter have included a fascinating talk about RSPB Forsinard Flows – just across the Pentland Firth from Orkney – a screening of some superb films of Orkney wildlife, shot by Raymond Besant, a cold but worthwhile morning viewing hen harriers and other raptors, and a sunny day on Hoy when Kathie and I went to watch the white-tailed eagles’ nest and talk to visitors.

These magnificent birds, also known as sea eagles, have an eight-foot wingspan and it is the first time they have attempted to breed in Orkney since 1873. Watching one of the pair lazily drift down to the nest with prey – possibly a hare – was a privilege.

Graham Brown

To find out more

Some of my photographs of Edinburgh, and Orkney, on my Instagram: https://instagram.com/grahambrownorkney/

Gretchen Peters: http://www.gretchenpeters.com/

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queen%27s_Hall,_Edinburgh

National Galleries Scotland: https://www.nationalgalleries.org/

St Giles Cathedral: http://www.stgilescathedral.org.uk/

Scottish Parliament: http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/

Palace of Holyroodhouse: http://www.royalcollection.org.uk/visit/palace-of-holyroodhouse

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

My favourite painting in the National Gallery of Scotland: Travelling Musicians (image: Graham Brown)
My favourite painting in the National Gallery of Scotland: Travelling Musicians (image: Graham Brown)