Wednesday 28 July 2010


We arrived in the Orkney island of Westray for a daytrip, not intending to do it justice, but at least see some of its highlights. The inter-island games were on and the ferry stopped at another island on the way to Westray, filling up with schoolchildren. "Remember," said the teacher to her pupils, "you're representing your school and your island. Any bad behaviour and everyone will know where you are from. Pay attention up the back!"

Our first stop on Westray was to see the puffins, signposted off the main road by a hand-illustrated sign. Barely 100 yards from the bikes the first puffins were nesting on the turf in the cliffs below us. A woman who arrived at the same time as us clapped her hands in glee. Puffins must be Britain's cutest bird, not just for their colourful appearance, but for their comical gait and big dangling feet when coming in to land. Apparently they are a delicacy in Iceland!

Westray puffins:

Around the corner from the car park there were hundreds of puffins. Usually you have to travel to inaccessible offshore skerries to see puffins - it's incongruous to see them so close with cars and houses behind!

Westray from Fitty Hill:

It was hard to imagine that Westray had anything to top the puffins, but remember I mentioned in a previous post that there was more to Orkney than UNESCO heritage sites? No better illustration of this can be found than in the islands of Westray and Papa Westray. The latter has the Knap of Howar - the oldest house found in northern Europe, dating from roughly 3800BC. The former has two remarkable monuments in its tiny museum. One is the Westray Stone. This deeply carved neolithic lintel was found in a quarry on Westray, and spent years in the main Orkney museum in Kirkwall. Now it is back home:

The Westray Stone:

There's nothing like it found elsewhere in Britain: only the carvings at Newgrange in Ireland match it.

The other remarkable monument is tiny, a neolithic human figurine with a face and breasts. It is extremely rare, the oldest human figure found in Britain, and archaologists have called it the 'Orkney Venus'. In Westray museum I overheard a more affectionate local name for her: the 'Peedie Wifie'. This was found at an archaeological dig at the Links of Noltland, a beautiful sandy bay being eaten by the sea. The neolithic village that was uncovered at the Links of Noltland was as extensive and impressive as Skara Brae: but rather than making it publicly accessible, the archaeologists filled the site in after excavation to protect it. Such is the richness - and fragility - of archaeological remains in Orkney.

The Westray Wife:

It's remarkable that two pieces of such international importance like the Stone and the Wife are currently exhibited in a small, volunteer run museum. The Wife is only being exhibited in Westray until the end of October, before being returned to the national museum in Edinburgh. Take your chance now this summer to see it at home!

Sunday 25 July 2010

Consider Orkney

I knackered my knee recently and have been unable to do much in the way of walking or cycling - and definitely not hillwalking or other sweaty sports. Our two-week cycling holiday wasn't going to happen. Where could we go? I fancied somewhere quiet where I could still do some small bimbly walks, Colonsay, Coll, Eigg. But ten days of visiting the same beach might get boring. It had to be somewhere with things to do. Somewhere quiet, with things to do? The answer arrived in a blinding flash of inspiration. Orkney!

Typical Orkney landscape:

Spectacular historic ruins? Lots of wildlife? Quiet roads for cycling? Good beach and cliff walks? Great produce? Friendly locals? Orkney has everything you might want from a Scottish holiday except big hills: but carrying an injury, this hardly mattered. On the plus side - and if you have ever been affected badly by them it is a big plus - Orkney has no midges. And though it's windy, the rainfall is more east coast than west coast.

Old Man of Hoy:

We arrived on Orkney to be faced with a puzzle. The old Orkney flag, a red Nordic cross on a yellow background, had gone. Instead the flag of Norway appeared all over the place - but on closer inspection, this Norweigan flag had yellow instead of white surrounding the cross:

Flag of Orkney:

I asked someone about it. "It's the flag of Orkney," she said. What about the old flag, I asked, the yellow and red one? She'd never heard of such a flag. A miniature mystery.

Gastrophiles are well-catered for from Orkney produce. We ate local cheese and eggs, local beef, local salmon and scallops, North Ronaldsay lamb (raised on the diet of seaweed, the meat is gameyer than normal), drank local beer and fruit wine.

St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall - one of the best examples of a medieaval Norwegian church:

A large part of the Orkney mainland is a UNESCO world heritage site. This is centred on a well-preserved Stone Age tomb called Maes Howe, a recently uncovered Stone Age village called Skara Brae, and one of the best stone circles in Britain, the Ring of Brodgar.

Skara Brae:

Ring of Brodgar:

Stones of Stenness:

Tourists arrive on cruise liners and on tour buses from Inverness for daytrips around the 'big three' of Maes Howe, Skara Brae, and Ring of Brodgar, with the WWII Italian Chapel thrown in as a bonus. I must confess that we did not visit these sites on this holiday as there is so much more to Orkney than UNESCO: and I'll discuss that in the next post.

In the evenings, it was easy to forget how late it was with the long hours of daylight. I fancied a drive up Wideford Hill for a view of dawn, but settled for a stroll along the beach at 1am.

Simmer Dim:

Sunday 18 July 2010

The Water of Leith

A walk along the Water of Leith yesterday to have a look at the Anthony Gormley statues that have been placed in the river. There are six in total. Can you find them all? Apparently the one nearest the sea is particularly hard to spot.

We didn’t walk the whole of the river: rather its most scenic section, from Canonmills to the Roseburn Viaduct and back.

Statue at Gallery of Modern Art:

The Water of Leith is one of Edinburgh’s secret places: locals all know about it, but tourists, drawn to the more obvious attractions of the Castle and Calton Hill, are usually ignorant. Yet ask someone who lives in Edinburgh, and for pleasure they would swap the sweaty crowds of Princes St for the cool glades of the Water of Leith any time. When I lived in that part of Edinburgh, the commute along the riverside on a bicycle watching herons, ducks, even once an otter, was the highlight of the day.

Dean Village:

Halfway along our walk, the river passes through a gorge and in the bottom of this gorge, is the attractive Dean Village. This was home to a mill in the days when Edinburgh was several fields away, but the passage of time has swallowed Dean Village within the Edinburgh conurbation. It remains however, a well-preserved time-capsule.

In Dean Village:

As we arrived at Stockbridge, teams of black-and-yellow clad competitors were splashing in the water, trying to reach a tag on the Gormley statue in the middle of the river. They were taking part in the rat race, a two-day event all around the city. I have been put off taking part in this event in the past as I assumed you needed your own gear for all the events – your own bicycle, rock climbing gear, canoe, etc – and that the competitors might, like those on the Caledonian Challenge, take it all a bit too seriously. But the gear seemed to be standard issue, and nobody seemed to be trying too hard. It all looked like a bit of a laugh – maybe I should enter a team next year!

Gormley statue from Stockbridge:

The next day we cycled out to North Berwick via the River Esk to the east of Edinburgh, past butterfly-heavy embankments of nettle and blazing willow herb, trees trailing their greenery in the water. The Rat-racers were here too: jumping in the river to paddle downstream. On a hot day, it looked very inviting!

In a country known for grand echoing hills and sweeping bays, the gentler-flowing rivers of Lowland Scotland are largely neglected and even, by many outdoor enthusiasts, belittled. Yet for enjoyers of pastoral scenery, these unsung rivers deliver: in Edinburgh alone are three tree-lined rivers (the Almond, to the west of the city, is the third) that in other countries would be classed as national scenic areas.

Thursday 15 July 2010

Interesting Facts

Here are some interesting facts I have gathered on my travels. They may or may not be true, but it is too much bother to try to find out:
*Chinese people use chopsticks because an emperor decreed they couldn't use spoons any more, as they were all getting indigestion.

*St Andrew's bones were moved from Patras to Kinrymont in the 4th century.

*The first recorded sighting of Nessie was by St Columba.

*The only sound that doesn't echo is a duck's quack.

*A policeman can't arrest you if he isn't wearing his helmet.

*The Saltire became the Scottish flag after a victorious Pictish army saw it in the sky prior to a battle with the Angles.

*The thistle became the Scottish emblem after a maurading army of Danes attempted a night attack on the camp of the Scottish king, and their yells of "ooyah!" on running through a field of thistles woke the camp and saved the day.

*The French revolution started because Marie Antoinette said "let them eat cake!"

*A revolution in a South American banana republic began when an opposition team scored a goal against the national team at football.

*Haggis can't run backwards, that's how you catch them.

*The kilt was invented by an Englishman.

*Horses sleep standing up.

*A student at Glasgow University in the 1980s spent his grant money on a package holiday and ate nothing but cheap pasta for the rest of term, resulting in him getting scurvy.

*Should the traffic cone ever be knocked off the Duke of Wellington statue in Royal Exchange Square, Glasgow shall fail.
Does anyone else know any interesting facts that they aren't 100% sure of but can't be bothered verifying?

Sunday 11 July 2010

Poem: Auliston

A poem inspired by the clearance village of Auliston.

I came to the promised land
the difficult place
where a rickle of stones stuck in heart.
Land of hardship! Land of space!
Land of cowering, fear pinched race!
Green beauty pines for want of love.
We'll build again, though cold I troth
the wind that knifes this hearth.
In comfort had you better learn -
beware when history burns.

Friday 9 July 2010

Inniemore and Auliston - Clearance Villages

Another trip to the romantic-sounding North Atlantic Rainforest. This time I was in Morvern, and having badly damaged my knee playing sport over a month ago was only able to do a short walk. I chose a forest walk to see Inniemore, a village cleared of its tenants in 1824 by the Lowland-based landowner to make way for sheep. Once the tenants were thrown out of their houses by the estate factors, their homes were set on fire so as to become uninhabitable. The tenants, descendants of those who had lived in the village for generations, were left to the mercy of their own raw abilities, without their crops or any goods they could not carry on their backs. The elderly were particularly vulnerable. Those who could headed for the factories of Glasgow, or to become settlers in Britain's colonies.

Ruined foundations at Inniemore:

Long after the village was forcibly cleared, sheep themselves became unprofitable due to competition of cheap wool from Australia and New Zealand, and the land was planted with forestry. In 1994 the trees were felled and the forgotten village rediscovered. There is now a path and a car park in this quiet spot.

In the forest:

As I stepped out of the car there was utter silence, save for birdsong and the wind soughing in the trees and rippling the water. The deeper into the wood I went the deeper the silence, my steps slowing. There were butterflies, foxgloves, the smell of bog myrtle, washing-day whips of rain followed by spotlights of sun. At Inniemore itself there was peace, only a skylark calling the alarm. A curious crowd of cows watched my progress.

Cattle at Inniemore:

Forest light:

I was slightly disappointed at Inniemore. It is the best-known of the clearance villages in this area, but it is not the best. Previously I had been to Auliston - a further walk, in an even more remote spot right at the tip of Morvern - and it is more impressive, a street of houses with rounded walls still standing right up to the door lintels. A plantation of pines stands nearby. These ruined villages scatter the West Highlands, a part of the world that is, almost uniquely in Europe, less densely populated than it was in the past. These sheep-nibbled wildernesses are man-made. Standing amongst the ruins in the wind and rain, I came over all poetical.