Arizona: take three

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The open road in Arizona driving from Tucson to Phoenix – wide carriageways, big skies, big trucks and big trains (image: Graham Brown)
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This isn’t Orkney – roadside cactii as we drive from Phoenix to Cottonwood (image: Graham Brown)

By The Time I Get to Phoenix (I will be quite tired)

Earlier this year, before the better weather came to the UK, Mrs Brown (Kathie Touin) and I jetted across the Atlantic for our third visit to Arizona.

Kathie’s family lives in Northern Arizona so that is where we spent most of our February visit, but we also spent a few days in the warmer south of the state in and around Phoenix and Tucson.

This is not a big complaint, I know we are lucky to travel to such an interesting part of the world, but it is a tiring journey – from getting up at 5am to catch an early flight from Orkney’s Kirkwall Airport to Aberdeen, then travelling on to London Heathrow, followed by a third flight to Phoenix, then getting through customs and immigration, finding the mini-bus to the hotel and eating dinner, well in all that’s 24 hours gone.

Mind you, coming back against the seven-hour time difference was worse, particularly as there were stressful delays transferring from Heathrow Terminal 3 to Terminal 5, and more delays at Heathrow passport control – lucky our Heathrow to Edinburgh flight was delayed, otherwise we might have missed it and our connection to Orkney.

It’s not always hot, you know

Some folk have an image of Arizona as entirely made up of blistering desert. Phoenix can certainly get incredibly hot, there have been occasions when airliners could not take off from the city’s Sky Harbor Airport because the warm air was too thin.

However, when we were in Phoenix and Tucson it was pleasantly warm in the daytime, though cool at night.

At Kathie’s parents’ home, in Cottonwood, Northern Arizona – elevation 3,300 feet – it was not so warm. To be fair, it was cooler than expected for the time of year. We experienced a mixture of sun, rain and light snow.

We came across some tourists who had come dressed in shorts thinking Arizona equals very hot. Well, not always, particularly further north in the state.

On the day we were due to leave Arizona we had an evening flight from Phoenix. We planned to drive down from Cottonwood during the afternoon, it is only about 100 miles but… a big snowstorm was forecast.

So it was decided we would have to leave Cottonwood 24 hours early in our rental car (Nissan Sentra, a saloon, or sedan in US terms) and drive south of the predicted snow line. It was a good move.

There is not much between Cottonwood and Phoenix but we found an old-fashioned-style motel in Black Canyon City – the Mountain Breeze Motel – you know, the kind where you drive your car up to your chalet accommodation.

Black Canyon City is said to have a population of more than 2,500 but it did not feel like that, it seemed to be a series of businesses strung along what would have been the main road at one time before it was by-passed.

But we found a friendly local store, an excellent restaurant and – the following morning – a jewellery and souvenir shop where Mrs Brown spent some time (and money).

The “city” is at 2,000 feet but it was out of the way of the heavy snow which duly fell further north overnight, closing roads we had used the day before.

And even further north in Flagstaff (6,900 feet elevation), where Kathie’s niece lives, there was a huge snowfall which completely covered over her parked car so the roof was just a small bump in a snowdrift.

We watched some of the local TV coverage of the storm – on Arizona’s Family 3TV CBS 5 – and, as you might imagine, they were having a field day* with reporters out and about describing the falling snow in excited terms.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles – and musical instruments

We visited some fantastic museums in Arizona. Well, I thought so, though I guess it depends on your interests.

First, the Martin Auto Museum in Phoenix, a collection of beautifully restored cars, including Ford Mustang, Shelby AC Cobra, Ford Model T, Chevrolet Corvette Stingray – and a Duesenberg Boattail previously owned by gangster Jake the Barber, this car cost $25,000 when new in 1930, about $380,000 in today’s money. It is a fabulous collection – a picture is worth a thousand words, so here are some…

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Duesenberg Boattail at Martin Auto Museum (image: Graham Brown)
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The Duesenberg’s engine (image: Graham Brown)
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I found a British car in the museum – me and an MGB GT (image: Graham Brown)
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DeSoto in the Martin Auto Museum (image: Graham Brown)

I could say the same for the Pima Air & Space Museum near Tucson, which boasts 150 historic planes indoors and many more sat outside. They include a selection of Harrier jump-jets, a TWA Lockheed Constellation, a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress (complete with a veteran of bombing runs to Berlin telling his stories), a Douglas Liftmaster used by President Kennedy, a Lockheed Electra (similar to that flown by Amelia Earhart when she disappeared with her navigator Fred Noonan). We were under instructions to take lots of photographs for Kathie’s father, an aircraft enthusiast who flew in B-17s when he was serving his country. So we did, here are a couple…

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Lockheed Constellation airliner at Pima Air & Space Museum (image: Graham Brown)
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Kathie Touin with a TWA tractor and trailer – Twa is Kathie’s family name (image: Graham Brown)
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Me and a Douglas aircraft used by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson (image: Graham Brown)
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Boeing Superfortress at Pima Air & Space Museum (image: Graham Brown)
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Consolidated Liberator at Pima Air & Space Museum – donated by the government of India (image: Graham Brown)
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Boeing Flying Fortress – the man in the red hat is a veteran of bombing runs to Berlin (image: Graham Brown)

Trains? Well, we did not go to a railway museum as such but the strangely-named Clemenceau Museum in Cottonwood has a fantastic model railway.

The museum is named after France’s First World War Prime Minister because of his friendship with James Douglas who founded the company town of Verde, later re-named Clemenceau to avoid confusion with other towns called Verde, and eventually incorporated into Cottonwood.

The museum, in addition to the marvellous model railway, is full of local history in photographs and artefacts.

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The enormous Musical Instrument Museum – here is the Lesser Antilles display (image: Graham Brown)

Back in Phoenix we explored two other museums, first of all the Musical Instrument Museum. We arrived late one morning expecting to spend a couple of hours before moving on somewhere else. By 5pm we were exhausted and we still had not explored all of this fantastic collection.

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The piano on which John Lennon wrote Imagine (image: Graham Brown)

It has displays of musical instruments and costumes from every country in the world, pretty much, as well as displays of instruments and clothes belonging to the famous – John Lennon’s piano on which he wrote Imagine, one of Johnny Cash’s black stage suits, one of Hal Blaine’s drum kits, and so on – plus a room in which anyone can try out instruments for themselves. There was also a fascinating temporary exhibition about the history of the electric guitar.

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One of Roy Orbison’s guitars (image: Graham Brown)

Finally, in Phoenix, we went to the Hall of Flame Fire Museum – yes, a museum of fire-fighting. This might not immediately appeal but it was well worth a visit and there was a fantastic display of restored fire engines. The older examples, some originally horse-drawn, more recent ones motorised, were beautifully painted and lined.

Another nice mess

While we were in Arizona we went with Kathie’s mom to the cinema to see Stan & Ollie. It is a funny, moving and nostalgic tale of friendship.

Just in case you do not know of Stan & Ollie, it is about the comedy film actors Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, and one of Ollie’s catchphrases was: “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.”

In the film (US: movie) they are played with love and uncanny precision by Steve Coogan and John C Reilly. A word also for Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson who played their wives beautifully. Here is the US trailer for the film…

Speaking of a nice mess, we ate some pizzas and got gooey fingers in a most unusual restaurant. It is in Phoenix and is called Organ Stop Pizza. But nice as the food is, that is not the main point of being there…

The venue boasts the largest Wurlitzer organ in the world, originally installed in the Denver Theatre in 1927 and much added to over the years. The organ, and the organist, appear through the floor – just like they did in cinemas years ago – and disappear back again at the end of the set.

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The largest Wurlitzer in the world – with instruments and pipes suspended above and spread from left to right – at Organ Stop Pizza (fuzzy image: Graham Brown)

If you are not familiar with a Wurlitzer organ, it has pipes, something like a church organ, but the organist is also responsible for playing, through the organ’s numerous keys and controls, a wide array of percussion and other instruments – all are live, not electronic.

It was a feelgood venue, in which the audience – many in family groups of all ages – sit with their food on benches at long tables. Kathie and I got into discussion with the guy sat next to us who was visiting with his wife, daughter and grandson.

Wasting – and admiring – the Earth’s resources

The United States is big – I mean, really big – and it is not all alike. The scenery, the people, the attitudes, the beliefs, vary widely – often, but not always, according to geographical location.

We noticed in Arizona that newer ideas about plastic waste are yet to take hold (though I suspect they have done so in neighbouring California). It was almost impossible to shop at a supermarket without being given numerous plastic bags – because the staff usually pack for the customer using plastic bags from a carousel next to their till.

But worse was our breakfast experience staying at Holiday Inn Express in Oro Valley, near Tucson. It was a pleasant hotel with a self-service breakfast area. But all the breakfast cutlery (US: silverware) was plastic, as were all the plates and bowls. It created large bins full of non-recyclable waste every day. And, as Kathie said: “I feel I am back in kindergarten eating with plastic.”

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Our Nissan hire car with a light covering of snow (image: Graham Brown)

Of course, fuel (US: gas) for your car is much cheaper in the States. We filled up our hire car and were amazed to discover it cost less than $25, in other words less than £20. At home to fill up our cars, neither of which is large, costs around £50 for mine and £60 for Kathie’s.

But walking is available. A popular spot on the edge of Cottonwood, where Kathie’s father likes to walk, is the wonderfully-named Dead Horse Ranch, a state park with lakes, walking trails and camping.

A number of the Arizona birds we spotted were seen at Dead Horse including red-tailed hawk, ring-necked duck, great blue heron, American coot and pied-billed grebe.

Our bird list for the whole holiday included the spectacular vermilion flycatcher (in a supermarket car park), white-crowned sparrow, various hummingbirds, and vultures, Brewer’s blackbird, ladder-backed woodpecker, dark-eyed junco, cardinal, (US) robin and – perhaps our favourite – the great-tailed grackle which we saw in large numbers in the Cottonwood Walmart car park, squawking, cackling and generally showing off.

We’re S-H-O-P-P-I-N-G

Ah yes, Walmart. We made a number of visits to this enormous store which sells pretty much everything. Kathie’s parents know someone who likes daily exercise and, if the weather is not good, walks up and down Walmart instead. My purchases included jeans and an MP3 player. And some pants! (Pants is a family joke).

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We did not buy everything we saw – these are in Food City, a chain selling Mexican food (image: Graham Brown)

Kathie is always on the look-out for Native American and Mexican-style crafts and decorations – as well as Mexican foodstuffs – and there was plenty in our suitcases from various shops when we came home to Orkney.

We made our traditional visit to Larry’s Antiques in Cottonwood, which is full of treasures, at reasonable prices in the main. Good to see the skeleton is still there in the rusty car by the entrance.

And we visited some of Cottonwood’s thrift stores (UK: charity shops). I picked up some CDs (inevitably) and a teddy bear who was looking at us out of the window of one shop as we arrived. We have named him Good Will (the shop is the Goodwill store) and back in Orkney he sits on a small wooden stool at the bottom of our stairs.

Not everything is new

It is easy to dismiss the USA as being short on history as the country is less than 250 years old. But there is older history.

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Exploring the Sunset Crater lava flow (image: Graham Brown)

With Kathie’s sister and her family we visited two National Monuments – Wupatki and Sunset Crater Volcano – north-east of Flagstaff.

Sunset Crater erupted some time between 1040 and 1100. Today it is possible to walk in the strange landscape created by the dried lava flow and the trees that have grown in it.

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the 12th century Wupatki pueblo village (image: Graham Brown)

And nearby we visited the remains of two pueblo villages – Wukoki and Wupatki – created in stone and mud in the 12th century, around the same time that St Magnus Cathedral was being built in Kirkwall, Orkney. Wupatki had more than 100 rooms in its day and a large ceremonial ball-court. The people grew corn, beans and squash.

Today the uninhabited pueblos are atmospheric and boast great views of the rugged landscape. But the Hopi tribe believe those who lived and died there remain as spiritual guardians. A nice thought.

Back home

When we returned to Orkney after our trip I experienced a strange feeling. Kathie, of course, had to tell her parents back in Arizona that we were home safely. But I realised I did not need to tell anyone. As you may remember, my father died in March 2016 and my mother way back in August 2001.

Since then Kathie and I visited Italy in June 2017 and perhaps I got this feeling at the end of that trip, but I do not remember it.

Do not worry, I am not depressed by this. What happened has happened and I look back on happy memories of my parents. In fact, there was something strangely liberating about this feeling – now I am grown-up (finally) and do not need to tell anyone what I am doing. Except Kathie of course.

“Yes, dear, just coming…”

* Field-day: according to my 1913 edition of “Dictionary of Phrase & Fable”…
Day of business. Thus, a clergyman loosely calls a “kept festival” his field-day. A military term, meaning a day when a regiment is taken to the fields for practice.

Graham Brown

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One of the beautiful fire engines at the Hall of Flame Fire Museum (image: Graham Brown)

My previous Arizona (and Italy) blogs

https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2016/01/09/its-2016/

https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2014/05/22/arizona/

https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2017/07/30/12-days-in-northern-italy/

To find out more

Cottonwood (Wikipedia) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cottonwood,_Arizona

Black Canyon City (Wikipedia) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Canyon_City,_Arizona

Martin Auto Museum (website) – https://www.martinautomuseum.com/

Jake the Barber (Wikipedia) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Factor

Pima Air & Space Museum (website) – http://www.pimaair.org/

Clemenceau Museum – http://clemenceaumuseum.com/

Hall of Flame (website) – http://www.hallofflame.org/

Organ Stop Pizza (website) – https://www.organstoppizza.com/

Dead Horse Ranch (website) – https://azstateparks.com/dead-horse/

Great-tailed grackle (Wikipedia) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great-tailed_grackle

Wupatki National Monument (website) – https://www.nps.gov/wupa/index.htm

Sunset Crater National Monument (website) – https://www.nps.gov/sucr/index.htm

St Magnus Cathedral, Orkney (Wikipedia) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Magnus_Cathedral

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

The rhythms and markers of an Orcadian year

Well, here we are with just a fortnight until December 21st, the shortest day of the year – a strange description really, we mean of course the shortest daylight of the year. All being well, December 21st will be 24-hours in duration like all other days.

Here in Orkney our hours of daylight do get pretty short, especially in gloomy weather such as we have experienced here latterly. I recently read the autobiography of the late Jo Grimond, former Orkney and Shetland MP, and Leader of the then Liberal Party. He accurately described our overcast days being as if the sky is on the roof of the house.

Such days remind me of the title of an atmospheric play I saw many years ago in King’s Lynn – a town I left in 1982. Called Days Here So Dark, the play was about a Scottish island community in the dark days of winter. A quick bit of internet research tells me it was actually set in the Hebrides, and written by Terry Johnson.

Currently in Orkney it is only just getting light enough to take our dog Roscoe for his morning walk after eight o’clock. And his afternoon run in the field needs to be completed by four o’clock.

But come the 21st and we know the Orkney days will start to stretch out again, perhaps slowly at first but soon quickly – because by the summer we will get to a point where it doesn’t get properly dark at night. So our Orkney daylight is like a concertina being smartly squeezed in and out again.

This is one of the rhythms of life which I notice much more living here than I did in London. Yes, of course, I would spot markers such as Christmas Day or New Year’s Day, and, depending on your interest, the beginning of the football season or the start of the BBC Proms.

But there seem to be more rhythms and markers here in Orkney. Perhaps being semi-retired gives me more time to notice, and living in a rural environment also helps.

When we moved to Orkney we arrived, without realising it at the time, on St Magnus Day, April 16th. This is a key point in the local calendar. St Magnus is Orkney’s patron saint and our cathedral in Kirkwall is dedicated to him, as is the much smaller St Magnus Kirk in Birsay, just a short drive from our house. People here still feel an attachment to Magnus, 900 years after he died.

St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall
St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall (image: Graham Brown)

My wife, Kathie Touin, and I are thrilled that we accidentally arrived on St Magnus Day, it feels like a good omen. We like to go to the St Magnus Day service at the kirk, though this year we missed it due to visiting family in Arizona.

Orkney retains strong links with our Scandinavian neighbours. Remember, Orkney was ruled by Norway until the 15th century. Hence, another marker in our local calendar is Norway Constitution Day, celebrated on May 17th with a parade in Kirkwall and a service in the cathedral.

There are many natural rhythms in Orkney. Recently the farmers have been putting the cattle into their winter quarters. Sometimes we can hear them in the nearby barn – our Orcadian neighbour describes it as the kye (cattle) bogling, a wonderful word. Come the spring, the cattle will be outside again – and sometimes staring from the field through our kitchen window. I wonder what they think of us?

Orkney – being a group of about 70 islands off the north coast of Scotland, placed between the Atlantic and the North Sea – is also a good place to see migrant birds, particularly in the more northerly of our islands which can be the first landfall they reach.

And it’s not just birds. Recently one lucky person in a boat, off the Orkney island of Papa Westray, saw two humpback whales on migration…

https://www.facebook.com/video.php?v=763651183671139

But even near our home, in West Mainland, Orkney, we get to see different birds come and go, if not rarities – and certainly not whales.

For example, in the summer we watch great skuas, or bonxies as they are known locally, cruising past, with their white wing-markings looking like insignia on fighter aircraft – very appropriate for such an aggressive bird. Now they are wintering in Africa.

In the spring we see curlew, lapwing and oyster catchers gathering to nest. Down at the nearby coast we can watch Arctic terns, which have the longest migration of all birds – in the winter they can be found in the Antarctic, not the Arctic.

In the autumn many migrant geese come to Orkney and they are joined by groups of men with guns – not my favourite aspect of Orkney, to be honest, nor for Roscoe who dislikes the gun noise. Roscoe also dislikes the fireworks that mark November the 5th – and nowadays the surrounding weekends – here as elsewhere in Britain.

Orkney Nature Festival outing to uninhabited island of Switha (image: Graham Brown)
Orkney Nature Festival outing to uninhabited island of Switha (image: Graham Brown)

But I’ve jumped ahead – winding backwards, Orkney is fortunate to have a series of festivals through the summer months to cater for most, if not all, tastes. These include the Orkney Folk Festival, Orkney Nature Festival, the St Magnus International Festival (arts), Orkney International Science Festival and Orkney Blues Festival. All markers through our year.

In July comes Stromness Shopping Week, with games, music and events in Orkney’s second town Stromness – though residents would argue it is the first town, Kirkwall being a city and somehow not so good anyway. The week finishes with the Shopping Week Parade, which sees large floats, sometimes in tandem, towed through the narrow streets of the town by tractors. The float themes are sometimes in questionable taste but always funny. I wrote about the 2011 parade on Kathie’s blog, before I launched my own…

https://kathietouin.wordpress.com/category/stromness-shopping-week/

Every August on a Saturday is one of the biggest events in the calendar – the Orkney County Show. This is a big social occasion, as well as a chance to view the livestock, the newest agricultural equipment, the trade stands and the fantastic local crafts and produce on sale.

In fact, we have several agricultural shows around Orkney leading up to the County. Here in our patch we have the West Mainland Show in Dounby, always held on the Thursday before the County. I think I prefer this – it is our local event (we can see the showground from our house) and this year we had glorious sunny weather.

Orkney Vintage Rally 2014 (image: Graham Brown)
Orkney Vintage Rally 2014 (image: Graham Brown)

Then on the day after the County Show it is the Orkney Vintage Club’s Rally, held at the Auction Mart site in Kirkwall. You are guaranteed a wonderful line-up of old cars and vehicles – and if that’s not your sort of thing, there’s always the car boot sale, the refreshments and the friendly folk.

Recently, November 8th in fact, Kathie and I went to the old school here in Quoyloo – a kind of village hall – to join in the annual celebration of Harvest Home. I don’t know how far back these events go but they are a great opportunity to meet neighbours and make new friends over a meal, some drinks and some dancing to live music. Full credit to the voluntary committee members who make it happen. Sadly, many villages no longer have a harvest home event due to lack of support.

The author on RSPB Orkney Local Group stand at the Charities Bazaar (image: Pauline Wilson)
The author on RSPB Orkney Local Group stand at the Charities Bazaar (image: Pauline Wilson)

For the last couple of years our village’s harvest home has fallen on the same day as the Christmas Charities Bazaar, held in Kirkwall Town Hall and organised by Voluntary Action Orkney. This is also becoming a marker in our calendar as both Kathie and I are involved with the RSPB stall through being committee members of the charity’s Orkney Local Group.

Soon Christmas itself will have arrived. But wait, before that we – being a part-American family – have to fit in Thanksgiving. It falls on the fourth Thursday of November. We cook a large turkey and, naturally, eat variations on turkey meals for several days. So does the dog.

After Christmas the year is rounded off, and the new year begun, back at the old school in Quoyloo with a Hogmanay party.

The Northern Lights - from our house! (photo: Kathie Touin)
The Northern Lights – from our house! (image: Kathie Touin)

Finally I should say that it is not always overcast here during the winter. When the skies are clear we get beautiful sunny days and at night spectacular displays of stars, just by stepping out of our front door. We look at the planets, the Milky Way, we’ve seen shooting stars, satellites, the International Space Station – it’s fabulous. Sometimes we can see the Northern Lights.

And it’s odd to think that in the long summer days, when it doesn’t get dark here at night, the celestial rhythms and patterns are still all out there – it’s just that we can’t see them.

Graham Brown

To find out more

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

St Magnus Cathedral – http://www.stmagnus.org/

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

Wikipedia on St Magnus Cathedral – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Magnus_Cathedral

RSPB bird guide – http://www.rspb.org.uk/discoverandenjoynature/discoverandlearn/birdguide/

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

Orkney Nature Festival on Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/OrkneyNatureFestival

Orkney Nature Festival – http://www.orkneynaturefestival.org/

Orkney Blues Festival – http://www.orkneyblues.co.uk/

Orkney Folk Festival – http://www.orkneyfolkfestival.com/

Orkney International Science Festival – http://oisf.org/

St Magnus International Festival – http://www.stmagnusfestival.com/

Orkney Vintage Club – http://www.orkneycommunities.co.uk/ORKNEYVINTAGECLUB/

Voluntary Action Orkney – http://www.vaorkney.org.uk/

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/