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/

Mysterious books

I love books. I buy many, perhaps too many. And I don’t read enough. A few pages at bedtime and in no time I am nodding off. I need to find a better time of day to spend reading.

Most of the books I buy come from charity shops and second-hand sales, and the fun is not just in the printed words. Each individual book comes with a history of its own, mostly unknowable, but, occasionally, some of its past shines through to the present day.

I can give you two splendid examples from recent purchases.

First, a book I bought at a book sale held in Quoyloo Old School, where Mrs Brown (Kathie Touin) and I are two of the Managers, ie committee members.

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My copy of Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot (image: Graham Brown)

It was a 1968 Faber paperback edition of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, not in particularly good condition, some stains here and there, possibly coffee spills in places.

The book was clearly given as a gift because inside, handwritten in pen, are the words:

To Adrian, with love
and thanks for
Colonsay, February-March 1972

Veronica

Underneath someone, presumably Veronica, has placed a circular sticker of a white dove carrying an olive branch flying across a rainbow. I assume this is a Christian symbol, and that Colonsay refers to the island of that name in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides.

When I found the book and the inscription at the Old School sale I showed it to a colleague – our esteemed village quizmaster John – who remarked: “We’ll always have Colonsay!”

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The mysterious inscription inside Four Quartets (image: Graham Brown)

So, what did happen in Colonsay in February and March 1972, who are Veronica and Adrian, are they still alive, still together, regretting they ever parted? Perhaps it was not a relationship in that sense. Perhaps the Four Quartets – a meditation on time – provide a clue. Who knows? Well, Adrian and Veronica do, or did.

The other book I want to tell you about was bought from the charity Cats Protection. They have a shop in Stromness – the Red Cross also have a charity shop in the town, and I am frequently found inside one or the other.

Each year Cats Protection’s volunteers take a stand at the annual West Mainland Show here in Orkney. They bring along a large amount of books which, I assume, come from storage in a bid to move them on to new owners, make space – and raise funds of course.

Experience shows it is a good stand to visit on the way back to the car because you can find yourself with a heavy load to carry. One year Kathie bought a complete five-volume set of Grove’s  Dictionary Of Music And Musicians in splendid condition.

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My copy of All Trivia by Logan Pearsall Smith (image: Graham Brown)

This year I bought just one book, a fascinating volume called All Trivia, by Logan Pearsall Smith, published by Constable. It is a 1942 edition of the book which brought together four of the author’s previous publications, originally issued between 1918 and 1933.

My interest was sparked when I read this piece entitled The Author at the beginning of the book: “These pieces of moral prose have been written, dear Reader, by a large Carnivorous Mammal, belonging to that sub-order of the Animal Kingdom which includes also the Orang-outang, the tusked Gorilla, the Baboon with his bright blue and scarlet bottom, and the gentle Chimpanzee.”

And to give you a flavour of the quirky, thought-provoking contents, here are two examples…

EDIFICATION

‘I must really improve my mind,’ I tell myself, and once more begin to patch and repair that crazy structure. So I toil and toil on at the vain task of edification, though the wind tears off the tiles, the floors give way, the ceilings fall, strange birds build untidy nests in the rafters, and owls hoot and laugh in the tumbling chimneys.

AT THE BANK

Entering the bank in a composed manner, I drew a cheque and handed it to the cashier through the grating. Then I eyed him narrowly. Would not that astute official see that I was posing as a Real Person? No; he calmly opened a little drawer, took out some real sovereigns, counted them carefully, and handed them to me in a brass shovel. I went away feeling I had perpetrated a delightful fraud. I had got some of the gold of the actual world!

Yet now and then, at the sight of my name on a visiting card, or of my face photographed in a group among other faces, or when I see a letter addressed in my hand, or catch the sound of my own voice, I grow shy in the presence of a mysterious Person who is myself, is known by my name, and who apparently does exist. Can it be possible that I am as real as any one, and that all of us – the cashier and banker at the Bank, the King on his throne – all feel ourselves ghosts and goblins in this authentic world?

==========

I have been enjoying the book for a couple of weeks, picking it up now and again, and then I made an unexpected discovery. A piece of folded paper between pages 84 and 85 fell out.

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The mysterious note that fell out of my book All Trivia (image: Graham Brown)

On the paper, written with a fountain pen in a rather old-fashioned, elegant style of handwriting you don’t see so much these days, it said:

To Sir Archie & Lady Rowlands from Betty with love & best Christmas wishes, & best thanks for Sir Archie’s action in the matter of Daddy’s fine. 22nd December 1942

Wow, what a story this could be. Who was Betty? Who was Daddy? What did Daddy do to be fined? A crime, a traffic offence, fiddling his ration cards? I am guessing that Sir Archie paid his fine but I could be wrong.

Due to the power of the internet we can find out something about Sir Archie…

According to Wikipedia he was a British civil servant who held high office during the Second World War. At the time he was gifted what is now my book he was Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Air Production. This presumably means he was working closely with, among others, Winston Churchill – at the time he was given the book now sitting on my desk!

The Wikipedia article refers to Sir Archibald, not Archie. Does this imply the writer of our note knew him well, to call him “Sir Archie”? Presumably so if he was involved “in the matter of Daddy’s fine”.

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Inscription in my copy of All Trivia (image: Graham Brown)

Sir Archibald died in 1953. He and Lady Rowlands (Constance May) had no children so there will be no direct descendants. However, further clues may, or may not, be provided by an inscription written in the front of the book, but in different handwriting to the note about Daddy’s fine. Is anyone out there good at deciphering code?

J.L.H..d.d.E.S L-G.
2 : vj : 70

“O Trivia, goddess, leave these low abodes..”

Finally, a question arises about both books – how did they come to be in Orkney, donated to Quoyloo Old School and Cats Protection respectively? Did they come direct from Adrian and Sir Archie? Did they take a circuitous route through a number of owners? Left by holiday makers? Brought to Orkney by new owners?

Who knows? I find it fascinating to speculate. Meanwhile, I must read more of those books I have.

Graham Brown

PS I have just re-read this blog entry prior to posting and I realise that, coincidentally, both of the books I have written about are in four parts, originally published separately. Perhaps four is the magic number?

To find out more

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

Wikipedia: Four Quartets – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Quartets

Colonsay website – http://www.colonsay.org.uk/

Wikipedia: Colonsay – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colonsay

Cats Protection, Orkney – https://www.cats.org.uk/orkney

Wikipedia: Logan Pearsall Smith – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Logan_Pearsall_Smith

Wikipedia: Archibald Rowlands – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archibald_Rowlands

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…

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/