Disconnected thoughts

For the first time in more than three months I am writing a blog entry. I have not written before now for a few reasons: not knowing what to say at this time of pandemic; expecting anything I do say to be overtaken by events almost at once; and, to be honest, not really feeling like writing.

Kathie (Touin, Mrs Brown) and I have not exactly been shielding during the lockdown but we have certainly kept ourselves to ourselves in the main, avoiding in particular big and busy supermarkets. In fact, Kathie avoided shops altogether until venturing into some smaller premises recently.

So while Scotland is easing restrictions more slowly than England, Kathie and I are deliberately taking it more slowly still.

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Roscoe our Border Collie on the Brough of Birsay (image: Graham Brown)

We have met one or two friends outside in the last few weeks; visited Happy Valley (a tree plantation), the Brough of Birsay (a tidal island) and the nearby coastline; and this week the piano tuner came to the house – our first outside worker.

We realise we are lucky to live in a rural part of Orkney, where we can get out and about to exercise with our dog without getting into crowds, where we have a little of our own land around us to enjoy sitting, weeding, mowing or just hanging out the washing.

Anyway, in no particular order, here are a few disconnected thoughts about the situation now.

Does petrol go off?

I’m joking, though I guess there might be a limit to how long it lasts before changing composition or losing efficacy? Efficacy, now there’s one of the words that has joined our regular vocabulary in this pandemic year. The reason I mention this is that my car, a red Audi, was reasonably full of fuel when the lockdown happened in March. And, as I write at the end of July, I am still using that same tank of fuel.

Remember money?

On Roscoe’s walk the other day I found a coin on the roadside. I puzzled for a few seconds as to what it was, then realised it was a 5p. I did not recognise it at first because I have handled so little money in the last four months or so.

When visiting big cities in the last year or two I was struck by how most people use contactless cards and credit cards to pay for everything. Now, with people reluctant to handle cash, the same applies to Orkney.

Since March I have spent virtually no actual cash and I have not been to a cashpoint machine. I still have £20 that was in my wallet four months ago.

But here is a potential, if minor, problem… Without spending notes in the shops and getting change how am I going to get the correct money for car parks now that the local council is charging for them again?

More seriously, as with all technology, there will be people left behind who for reasons such as age or poverty do not have access to bank accounts, credit cards and contactless cards.

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Kathie and friend walking in Orkney’s Happy Valley (image: Graham Brown)

Is the lockdown saving the environment?

The decrease in traffic and travel has helped our environment but I am not as optimistic about this as I was earlier in the year. I fear our governments will rush back to the old ways to try to get economies moving quickly.

And what about plastic waste? When hair salons re-opened a local hairdresser was interviewed on BBC Radio Orkney. She estimated she would be using more than 700 pieces of PPE (personal protective equipment) a week. I do not blame her, she has a business to run, but creating all this is not great for the environment.

And, as always, a few people are careless so there are already reports of discarded PPE washing up on beaches. BBC News reported that a peregrine falcon had been photographed with its talons caught in a facemask – a possible death sentence for the bird (see below).

Kathie and I, like everyone, have been wearing facemasks for our occasional shop visits. We have been able to buy washable ones and mine has dinosaurs on it (inside every grown man is a ten-year-old child trying to get out).

Like many people I find the mask a bit awkward with my specs but I have noticed something strange which seems to have crept up on me during lockdown. I wear my glasses for long-distance but now I find I can see nearly as well without them as with them – so, I wear my glasses to drive to the shop, then swap them for my facemask after I have parked the car.

When the local optician is open again for non-emergency appointments I will have to see them to find out what is going on. Barnard Castle is a bit far from here for an afternoon drive.

What about Orkney’s economy?

A large part of Orkney’s income, and many of its businesses and jobs, rely on tourism. One survey (see below) predicted that at worst there could be 3,000 jobs lost in Orkney (population approx 22,000) and the amount of money flowing through the economy halved.

Now that lockdown is easing we are seeing more visitors about the place which is great for struggling businesses but does make many of us feel a bit nervous of another outbreak.

A number of people here in Orkney favour the Isle of Man’s approach of closing the border (see two stories below) and thus allowing residents more open use of shops, cafes, restaurants and facilities – though I guess this would not help holiday accommodation providers.

But, even if this was agreed locally to be the right move to make, Orkney Islands Council does not have the same powers as the Manx Government.

I think for most people an even bigger worry is cruise ships. Orkney is a popular destination – more than 150 cruise ship visits in 2019 – but this year apart from one or two in early March we have not seen any. It seems unlikely there will be any calling for the rest of this year though if plans are announced for any visits I suspect there will be an uproar locally.

Isn’t nature wonderful?

As this year goes on more and more dates pass in my diary for events that would have been. The first week of August would have been agricultural show week in Orkney with our local event, the West Mainland or Dounby Show on Thursday 6th – it’s a great social occasion and we will miss it.

But without these events – and TV sporting tournaments such as Wimbledon, the Olympics and the Euro 2020 football – we have been able to spend more time outside in the garden.

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California poppies enjoying the Orkney sunshine outside our house (image: Graham Brown)

There is still much to do but we have made more progress this year than in the past.

And there has been more space to appreciate the smaller things, like the caterpillars, and the butterflies, as well as the birds. Incidentally, the swallows have fledged three or four young from their nest in our garage and now have a second brood in another garage nest on the way.

We have been helped in our outside work by generally favourable, even, whisper it, warm, weather. That is, until this week when one day in particular had heavy rain, dark skies and strong winds as if it was November.

Every time we step outside the front door we are greeted by a flock of birds who know we are an easy touch for food. Earlier in the lockdown it was starlings and sparrows, now the starlings are mostly gathering elsewhere and it is nearly all sparrows – plus the occasional lesser black-backed gull.

This and that

  • Kathie and I decided that we should start to catch up with our many DVDs so, once a week, we have a DVD evening. We started with an 11-part 1984 German TV drama called Heimat, written and directed by Edgar Reitz in an intriguing mixture of colour and black-and-white, and originally shown in the UK on BBC Two. It tells the story of a village from 1919 to 1982 and remains one of my favourite TV dramas of all time. If you get a chance please watch it. (NB: there is also a sequel and a prequel which I have yet to see).
  • We spent time clearing out the house. To be honest, there is still much to do. But we have got piles of stuff for the charity shops and, when I get motivated, for eBay. The charity shops are starting to come back to life here in Orkney and we have donated one bag of clothes. Meanwhile, it’s as well we can’t have visitors as the guest room is a bit crowded with more stuff on its way out.
  • If you live outside Orkney you might not have spotted that we had a flying visit from the Prime Minister on 23 July. His visit to Scotland was, partly, in reaction to an increase in support for Scottish independence. Despite his itinerary, and even the fact of his visit, being kept under wraps “for security reasons” there were some protesters who had discovered his plans through social media.
  • Two concerts Kathie and I were due to attend in May – Gretchen Peters in Glasgow, Rumer in Edinburgh – have been postponed to February and March respectively. Right now I am not sure whether they will go ahead even then and, if they do, whether Kathie and I will feel confident about going. I hope we can. But I expect the artists, not to mention their support staff and the theatres concerned, are also worried.

Meanwhile, Kathie and I are not planning to go anywhere outside Orkney anytime soon. I hope that, wherever you are, you are staying safe and healthy.

Graham Brown

To find out more

BBC News: Peregrine falcon talons tangled in discarded face mask…
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-humber-53530961

The Orcadian: Orkney businesses fear ‘massive crash’ in local economy…
https://www.orcadian.co.uk/orkney-businesses-fear-massive-crash-in-local-economy/

BBC News: Coronavirus: Isle of Man border reopens to residents…
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-isle-of-man-53450577

BBC News: Passengers ‘excited’ to travel on Isle of Man-Guernsey air bridge route…
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-isle-of-man-53501183

And to find out more about Orkney…
https://www.orkney.com/

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/

The first seven weeks…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roscoe in the snow (image: Graham Brown)
Roscoe in the snow (image: Graham Brown)

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

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

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

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

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

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

To go back some years…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Les Misérables logo
Les Misérables logo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Graham Brown

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

To find out more

BBC Radio – http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio

Wikipedia on Les Misérables – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Les_Mis%C3%A9rables_(musical)

The Orcadian on Orkney production of Les Miserables – https://www.orcadian.co.uk/first-for-orkney-production-of-les-miserables/

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

Kent & East Sussex Railway – https://www.kesr.org.uk/

And the trailer for The Darkest Hour…

RSPB Scotland: Orkney Local Group AGM

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

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

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

Also during 2017:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Graham Brown

To find out more

RSPB Orkney Facebook page

RSPB Orkney blog

RSPB website

 

 

Life On The Edge: The Birds Of Shetland

pete_office
The view from the RSPB office in Shetland (image: Pete Ellis)

Greetings. I am conscious that my target of one blog a month – to be increased to two if possible – has been missed. Badly. By a long way. Nowhere near. Anyway, I will not weary you with excuses.

This month I plan to write about my latest Arizona experiences but, first, an article I wrote for Orkney’s excellent local newspaper, The Orcadian. The article was published on Thursday 10 December under the headline “An evening focused on the birdlife on Shetland”.

For those not lucky enough to live in Orkney, or who somehow missed the article, I reproduce it here. It is about the annual general meeting of the RSPB Orkney Local Group. I should declare an interest – I am a committee member, and the Treasurer.

After the business part of the meeting we had a fascinating talk about Shetland, hence the headline on this blog.

RSPB Orkney Local Group annual general meeting

Volunteers’ efforts to support the RSPB were highlighted at the Orkney Local Group’s annual general meeting in the King Street Halls, Kirkwall.

Chairman Dick Matson, in his report, spoke of the volunteers’ work which includes fund-raising, meeting holidaymakers on the Hamnavoe ferry, recruiting new members, maintaining bird hides, reserves work parties, seabird monitoring, beached bird surveys and talking to visitors about Hoy’s nesting sea eagles.

Mr Matson said of the volunteers, who include RSPB staff helping in their own time: “Your contribution is highly valued. The work of the RSPB is more successful because of volunteers.”

The year’s fund-raising included a bag-packing day in Kirkwall’s Tesco, which made more than £650, and the sale of RSPB pin badges.

Among the events organised by the Local Group were boat trips to Deerness Gloup, and to view puffins around Copinsay, which had proved particularly popular.

The existing Local Group committee was nominated and re-elected at the meeting. They are: Dick Matson, Chairman; Pauline Wilson, Secretary; Graham Brown, Treasurer; Grace Currie; Kathie Brown; and Shirley Tolley.

The meeting, on Thursday 19 November, heard a report about the RSPB’s work in Orkney in the past year, read on behalf of Manager Sarah Sankey, who was unable to attend.

This included, through the Enjoy Wild Orkney project, the completion of new viewing structures at Cottascarth, Loons and Birsay Moors – “if you haven’t been, please do go” – as well as new brown signs to direct people to reserves, waymarkers, trail guides, new panels and internal interpretation.

There was also a new leaflet guide to RSPB Orkney reserves published, films made, new webcams – the red throated diver cam was really popular – and reserves projects including new pools at the Loons and work at Loch of Banks to give better control of water levels.

One of the key events during the year was the white-tailed eagle pair breeding on Hoy. The RSPB manned an eagle watch, with huge contributions from volunteers, and engaged with more than 1,000 people, many of them local. Although these were young birds that failed, it is hoped they will be successful next year.

After the AGM members heard a talk entitled Life On The Edge: The Birds Of Shetland by Pete Ellis, RSPB Northern Isles Manager, who is based at Sumburgh Head.

He said he had lived almost 32 years in Shetland, which has a mix of habitats but very little of it green. All land mammals have been introduced to Shetland by people. There are more than 430 bird species, of which about 70 breed in Shetland, and seven RSPB reserves – most of these managed but not owned by the RSPB.

A number of the Shetland bird species described in the talk have seen declining numbers in recent years, including great skua (bonxie), Arctic skua, Arctic tern, razorbill, kittiwake, redshank and lapwing, perhaps the fastest declining wader in Shetland.

Mr Ellis said the bird we should be most concerned about in population terms was the curlew and the RSPB was trying to create a project in Orkney and Shetland to help them before it is too late.

At Shetland’s Loch of Spiggie highlights include long-tailed duck roosting on the loch and massive wintering flocks of Scandinavian herring gull.

Shetland has had up to five pallid harriers during the autumn. During the 1960s and early 1970s there were breeding snowy owls until the adult male died. Otters are relatively easy to see in Shetland. But there are no voles – and no resident short-eared owls or hen harriers.

The islands have more than 90 per cent of the UK population of whimbrel, though they started to decline in numbers 10 years ago, and about one-third of the UK population of red-throated divers.

Mr Ellis said he was astonished the red-necked phalarope did not nest in Orkney, unlike Shetland. The RSPB works to help this extraordinary bird. The female is bigger and brighter, and does the courting, the males incubate the eggs and rear the chicks. It was assumed the Shetland population flew to the Arabian Sea in the autumn but research with small data logging devices attached to the birds has discovered they go to the Pacific Ocean.

The RSPB base in Shetland is at Sumburgh Head, where there is also a visitor centre. Mr Ellis said he had “the best office in the RSPB” with a “fantastic view” of the sea, rocks, birds and, sometimes, passing whales.

Most tourists want to see puffins and they are more accessible than in Orkney, although becoming more unpredictable. Puffins are difficult to monitor but Fair Isle has seen a 50% decline in the last 30 years.

Other birds to be seen in Shetland include the Shetland wren – there is also a Fair Isle wren – and the most common migrant on some days in the autumn can be the yellow-browed warbler which comes from East Siberia. From mid-September to mid-October Shetland can have 300 birders at a time looking for migrants.

To find out more

RSPB – http://www.rspb.org.uk/

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

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

 

Goodbye 2014, Hello 2015

Planet Earth (image: courtesy of NASA)
Planet Earth (image: courtesy of NASA)

And so that was Christmas, to mis-quote John Lennon – “And what have you done? Another year over, and a new one just begun” as he actually sang on Happy Christmas (War Is Over).

Well, we know one thing for sure, war and violence is not over. If anything, terrorism seems more unpredictable and brutal than before.

And, like any year, the world of 2014 was full of misery, poverty, illness and accidents – this year’s litany including, but by no means restricted to, Ebola, the Ukraine, lost airliners, the suicide of Robin Williams, desperate refugees in overcrowded boats, Syria, Palestine, more cases of historical abuse of the young in the UK coming to light, the list goes on.

Closer to home, and equally painful for those involved, many folk had personal tragedies. I know two women who unexpectedly lost their husbands this year at desperately young ages.

Sometimes I muse on the world, and human beings – is it essentially evil and hopeless, or essentially loving and positive? Your own answer might depend on your perspective, your beliefs, or on what happened to you in 2014.

I tend to think we are overwhelmingly loving and positive – perhaps I am kidding myself, perhaps I’m a hopeless optimist – but most people get through most days without inflicting violence on others, perhaps do a few good deeds, and at the same time appreciate the beauty of the natural world around them. At least I hope so.

Leaving aside the tragedies of 2014, it has been an interesting year politically – and if, like me, you live in Scotland it was fascinating and exciting. The referendum on Scottish independence ignited the political debate like nothing else has done for years.

What of next year? Well, only fools make firm predictions but it seems unlikely any one party will get an overall majority at the UK General Election on May 7. It also seems likely that the SNP – despite failing to gain Scottish independence – will make considerable gains at the expense of Labour. Meanwhile the Green Party and UKIP will probably get large numbers of votes but may struggle to translate them into seats at Westminster.

Will we have another coalition government? Perhaps, though the various parties concerned might not be so willing this time around. A minority government? Maybe more likely. Minority governments are, of course, more unstable so that could lead to another election in quick succession.

So having moved the Scottish Parliamentary elections back a year, to 2016, to avoid the General Election, we could still end up with both elections in the same year. We shall see.

One outcome of the Referendum was the resignation of Alex Salmond as Scotland’s First Minister, to be replaced by Nicola Sturgeon, the first woman to hold the post. And, like her predecessor, she is far more capable than most if not all Westminster politicians – someone you would want on your side, whatever your political beliefs.

Here in Orkney the reassuring rhythms of the year continue (see my blog: The Rhythms And Markers Of An Orcadian Year) but even in our sometimes apparently cosy world there have been losses, of individuals, of people’s jobs, of dreams and schemes.

During the year Orkney’s commercial so-called community radio station closed. Sadly, the Super Station Orkney was a missed opportunity, not really a community station, more a jukebox with adverts, something I wrote about in a 2011 blog (Where Is The Super Station In Orkney?). Not only that, the station’s management handed the licence back to Ofcom without giving local folk the chance to take it over and create a genuine community station.

Fortunately here in Orkney we have The Orcadian, a proper and detailed local newspaper, and excellent programmes from BBC Radio Orkney, an opt-out of BBC Radio Scotland which fulfils many of the functions of a community radio station.

Orkney in 2014 has also seen some exceptional weather. Despite what a few folk in the south of England believe, we are not in “the frozen north”. Yes, it is frequently wet and windy, and sometimes stormy, but rarely frozen. We have milder temperatures than the Highlands of Scotland, for example, because we are surrounded by water and because we benefit from the Gulf Stream.

However, towards the end of this year we had a large number of thunder storms, and numerous lightning strikes. Some people lost chimneys, and many folk lost telephone lines and their internet. In fact, on New Year’s Eve BBC Radio Orkney reported this: “BT say that more than 300 lightning-related faults remain outstanding in Orkney and it will be well into the New Year before the backlog is cleared. Additional engineers from Inverness, Glasgow and the English Midlands are being drafted in from next week.”

We had some lightning strikes in Orkney last year as well – and one family lost their home in a fire as a result – so we all hope this will not become an annual event.

What has happened on a personal level this year? My wife, Kathie Touin, has had some excellent musicians and artists pass through her Starling Recording Studio. And as the year ends she is working on her own recordings – listen out in 2015.

During 2014 Kathie acquired her first grand piano, so realising a lifetime ambition – see Kathie’s blog for more on that (My Life In Pianos).

We enjoyed trips to northern Arizona, where Kathie’s family now lives, and closer to home – but still two flights away – to the Isle of Wight and London. More about these trips in previous blogs as well (Arizona Dreamin’; London Calling, And The Isle Of Wight Too).

Our rescue Border Collie, Roscoe, continues to amuse and entertain us, and more than repay our time and vet’s bills.

We both continue to volunteer with the RSPB and I now find myself on another committee – this time working to restore Orkney’s Kitchener Memorial in a way that better remembers the more than 700 men who died when HMS Hampshire sank, a couple of miles from Orkney, in a terrible summer storm.

The centenary of this event is 5 June 2016, less than 18 months away. It will be a timely reminder of how fragile and precious life is.

I will close with the words I posted on my Twitter account in the early hours of 2015: Happy New Year, one and all. Keep relaxed, cherish your loved ones, be kind to those you know, smile at strangers.

Graham Brown

To find out more

Wikipedia on The Gulf Stream: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gulf_Stream

Kathie Touin

Starling Recording Studio

The Orcadian

BBC Radio Orkney on Facebook

Kitchener Memorial on Facebook

Kitchener Memorial on Twitter

RSPB Orkney Local Group AGM – celebrating the past and looking to the future

This is a reproduction of my article which appeared in The Orcadian of 4 December 2014. The Orcadian is Orkney’s weekly newspaper and a must-buy for residents. You can also subscribe online: http://www.orcadian.co.uk/

++++++++

The RSPB’s Orkney Local Group looked backwards and forwards when members met for their annual general meeting at St Magnus Centre, Kirkwall.

The group received written congratulations on its 30th anniversary from both Mike Clarke, Chief Executive of the RSPB, and Stuart Housden, Director, RSPB Scotland.

And the members heard a talk about the exciting developments for the charity in the county in 2015.

Mr Housden wrote: “Thank you for continuing to champion wildlife and the work of RSPB Scotland in Orkney. The local group has been inspiring support for some three decades now.”

His letter said the group had raised more than £14,000 in the past four years alone through activities including pin badges, supermarket bag-packing and collections.

Local Group Chairman Dick Matson told the AGM the group aims to assist RSPB staff by volunteering, as well as fund-raising for the charity, engaging with people, and organising events to allow visitors and residents to see wildlife.

Sarah Sankey, Manager of the RSPB in Orkney, spoke on “What’s New With RSPB Orkney” at the meeting on Tuesday 18 November.

She began by introducing recent additions to the Orkney staff of the RSPB: Alison Nimmo, Community Engagement Officer; Alison Phillip, Conservation Officer; and Kaye Thomas, Egilsay Warden. She also announced that Inga Seator, the 2014 Corncrake Officer, would return to work on proposals for a wader birds conservation project.

Sarah then outlined some of the work that has been possible because of the RSPB’s three-year Enjoy Wild Orkney (EWO) project, part-funded through the European Regional Development Fund and the Heritage Lottery Fund. EWO is managed by Julian Branscombe and concludes in March 2015.

Developments include opening up the pools at the Loons and lowering the water levels at Loch of Banks in order to improve the habitat for waders, and to protect hen harrier roosts. New signs and panels are being installed to help people find the RSPB’s reserves, and to explain what they can see, along with benches, way markers and donation cairns.

Eddie Balfour Hide, RSPB Cottascarth (image: Alan Leitch/RSPB)
Eddie Balfour Hide, RSPB Cottascarth (image: Alan Leitch/RSPB)

New structures being created thanks to EWO are the grass-roofed Eddie Balfour Hide at Cottascarth, which will also have an indoor teaching space, and improved car parking; a listening wall to amplify the natural sound for visitors to the Loons reserve; and a replacement hide at Burgar Hill.

Murals are being created by Anne Bignall for the Cottascarth, Loons and Burgar Hill hides.

Shortly a smartphone app will be available giving information on top wildlife-watching spots in Orkney and species to look out for.

Meanwhile webcams have proved popular – a seal cam on Copinsay allows folk to remotely watch the seal colony and the pups; and one at Hobbister in the summer gave views of the red-throated divers.

Sarah also discussed the species priorities for the RSPB in Orkney – waders, seabirds, hen harriers, corncrakes, Scottish primrose and the great yellow bumblebee.

Among the examples she gave of the importance of this work: Orkney has the highest recorded density of breeding curlew in the world; Orkney is a stronghold for hen harriers, which face persecution elsewhere in the UK; Orkney is a core area for corncrakes, despite our relatively small population of this elusive bird; and Orkney has seen a huge decline in seabird numbers.

+ The AGM re-elected the Local Group Committee: Dick Matson, Chairman; Pauline Wilson, Secretary; Graham Brown, Treasurer; Grace Currie; Kathie Touin Brown; and Shirley Tolley (replacing Julie Rickards who has stood down).

+ Keep up with the work of the RSPB in Orkney via www.facebook.com/rspborkney and find out more about the RSPB Orkney Local Group by contacting Chairman Dick Matson on 01856 751426.

Graham Brown

North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory

Here in Orkney we are fortunate to have a comprehensive, quality weekly newspaper – unlike many places in the UK. It is The Orcadian, published every Thursday, and required reading if you live here.

This week The Orcadian published, on 10 April 2014, a short article I had written reporting the RSPB Orkney Local Group spring meeting, a talk by Alison Duncan about the North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory.

North Ronaldsay is the most northerly of the Orkney islands, and I urge you to visit if you get the chance.

Bluethroat at North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory (photo: Kevin Woodbridge)
Bluethroat at North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory (photo: Kevin Woodbridge)

Here is my article:

The vital work of North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory in monitoring and recording bird movement was the subject of the Spring Meeting of the RSPB Orkney Local Group.

Introducing the event at the St Magnus Centre, Kirkwall, Local Group Chairman Dick Matson described the observatory as a “fantastic resource”.

He welcomed Alison Duncan, Warden at the observatory for more than 25 years, who took the audience through a wonderful, colourful and sometimes surprising year in the island’s birdlife. Typically, 200 species are recorded in a year.

North Ronaldsay is one of a network of observatories around the UK, and is also part of The Bird Observatories Council.

The island, four miles long and up to two miles wide, attracts many migrating birds looking to make landfall for rest and food.

Alison described how the observatory, established in 1987, counts all birds over the whole island, not just rarities, to build up a picture of long-term monitoring. The island is divided into six zones in order to collect data.

Birds are also caught in traps and nets to allow for ringing and further research.

North Ronaldsay’s habitat includes croft land, grassland and scattered homes with small gardens, each with one or two bushes which prove attractive to birds, and the laird’s house with its large garden which is a magnet for them.

Wild flower crop is planted to encourage birds – it is particularly good for twite – and other cover such as New Zealand flax is grown. Willow cuttings and even old wooden pallets are used to create more shelter.

There are several areas of wetland on North Ronaldsay which is great for wildfowl such as shoveler, pintail and gadwall.

The geese population is increasing, like elsewhere in Orkney. But Arctic terns, once one of the most common breeding birds on the island, are now in decline as are corncrakes. 

Another problem is feral cats which predate tystie (black guillemot) chicks.

The observatory also looks out for other wildlife including moths and butterflies, and sea life such as grey and common seals or basking sharks. Orcas are sometimes seen in large groups and, famously, a walrus visited the island in 2013.

Among the birds which might be seen on North Ronaldsay at different times of the year are white-tailed eagle, great tit, hawfinch, sparrowhawk, bluethroat, golden oriole, red-backed shrike, spoonbill, cuckoo, pied flycatcher, Arctic warbler, nightjar, yellow-browed warbler, lesser kestrel, great spotted woodpecker (which often work on fence posts), grey phalarope, firecrest, Iceland gull and, just recently, a glossy ibis.

Alison said everyone from bird experts to beginners comes to North Ronaldsay where they can take advantage of the accommodation provided at the observatory – guest house, hostel and camping. Many visitors come to see the North Ronaldsay sheep grazing on the seaweed on the foreshore.

At the end of the meeting a vote of thanks to Alison Duncan was proposed by Jim Williams.

North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory publishes its own bird report, and has a blog and Facebook and Twitter presence. For more information, go to the website: http://www.nrbo.co.uk.

+ The meeting was also told by RSPB Local Group Chairman Dick Matson that £460 had recently been donated to the work of the RSPB in Orkney. This money, from collections and raffles, was in addition to £1672.33 that the Local Group raised bag collecting last year at Tesco and Co-op in Kirkwall.

To find out more

North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory

Wikipedia: North Ronaldsay

The Bird Observatories Council

The Orcadian

Discover Orkney

How much are wheelie bins costing the people of Orkney?

oicLate on Sunday 6 January I emailed a letter to our excellent local weekly newspaper, The Orcadian, which I hoped might be published on the Postbag page. Since then four editions of The Orcadian have appeared but my letter has not. So I am publishing the letter here.

I would welcome any response from Orkney Islands Council – or, for that matter, from The Orcadian.

The letter…

“We are told by Orkney Islands Council that the alternate weekly refuse collection is going to save money. In The Orcadian of 3 January, a council officer suggests a figure of £90,000 per year.

“But we are never told how much it cost to set up this scheme. May I propose some figures which the council is welcome to correct in a future Postbag?

“There are about 10,000 households in Orkney and each is, in theory, to get three wheelie bins – so that’s 30,000 bins which the council needs to buy. A scan of the internet suggests these cost more than £60 each. The council presumably buys them in bulk so let’s say they got more than 50% off the price, and the bins cost £30 each.

“That comes to a £900,000 investment in bins alone, before any other costs such as re-training, publicity and administration. In all, it’s probably more than a million pounds.

“Is this really the most cost-effective way to increase recycling?”

orcadian_bannerWhy was this letter not published?

It seems to me there are four possible reasons why my letter did not appear in The Orcadian.

First, it did not arrive or was somehow lost in the system at The Orcadian.

Second, some sort of legal problem that prevented publication. I can’t see one.

Third, The Orcadian decided there had been enough comment and coverage of wheelie bins already and it did not have the space. The newspaper states on its Postbag page: “Due to space constraints, many letters have to be left out. Brief letters of debate, and commentary, will always take precedence.” However, I think my letter is a brief letter of debate, and, commentary, which is not true of many letters that have been published in January.

Fourth, I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but perhaps The Orcadian is embarrassed that it has not found out the cost of these bins itself?

For those outside Orkney

The introduction of wheelie bins into Orkney, along with alternate weekly collections – rubbish one week, recycling the next – is the subject of much discussion in Orkney. Orkney Islands Council is making these changes to increase the amount of recycling, which I wholeheartedly support, and, it says, to save money.

It is not just the cost of the bins that is a subject of concern.

Many folk living in the town of Stromness – which has attractive narrow streets, and houses with front doors directly next to the road – are worried about where they will keep their three wheelie bins. If they are left on the street, they will cause an obstruction and look unattractive. And how will those who are less physically able carry full wheelie bins through the house?

People in the country are concerned that the wheelie bins will simply blow away – Orkney is a windy spot – and questions have been asked as to who carries responsibility if one blows onto a road and causes an accident.

To find out more

Orkney Islands Council website: http://www.orkney.gov.uk/

The Orcadian website: http://www.orcadian.co.uk/

Update to blog: 6 February 2013

The headline of this blog was changed on 6 February after I heard, indirectly, from The Orcadian that my letter for publication had not been received. It has been re-sent to the newspaper. The new headline also better reflects the content of the blog as my main point is to ask how much Orkney Islands Council has spent on wheelie bins.

Update to blog: 7 February 2013

My letter, re-sent by email yesterday, 6 February, has now been received by The Orcadian and passed to the editor for consideration.

The Orcadian says this latest email was automatically diverted to their spam folder so perhaps this is what happened to my missing first email sent on 6 January.

Also The Orcadian is, rightly, keen for me to make it clear that I did not phone their office to ask if my first email had arrived before writing my blog. I should have called them. This was a regular practice when I worked at the BBC and it was silly of me not to do so.

So remember everyone: (1) keep an eye on spam mail; (2) follow-up important email communications with a phone call.

Update to blog: 14 February 2013

My letter is published in The Orcadian today. Thank you guys.

The newspaper invited Orkney Islands Council to comment, and the council issued a statement which is published in The Orcadian and reproduced here:

“Orkney Islands Council has agreed to fund the Alternate Weekly Waste Collection (AWC) throughout Orkney as a Spend-to-Save project, at a cost of up to £961,000. The roll out of the AWC is currently under way and at present the council anticipates spending considerably less than this.

“It is estimated that a further 800 tonnes of recyclable material will be gathered annually once the AWC is rolled out across Orkney – cutting around £60,000 from the cost of shipping refuse to Shetland for disposal. It will also generate other substantial savings.

“New Zero Waste Regulations will require all local authorities in Scotland to substantially increase recycling levels from this year onwards. Councils will also be expected to provide separate collections for refuses and recyclable materials.

“Wheelie bins cost between £17 and £21 each depending on size.”