Monday, 24 August 2015


"The essence of Orkney's magic is silence, loneliness, and the deep marvellous rhythms of sea and land, darkness and light." - George Mackay Brown

A friend and I finally made it to Orkney. We have been talking about visiting for the past three or four years, but life always got in the way, until now. Life did it's best to keep us out, however, but between interviews and trips to Mongolia we managed to squeeze in a wonderful four days of heaven. 

The islands were magical. Lots of sky, long horizons and an overwhelming feeling of history pressing down on us. These are the islands where the neolithic, the bronze age, the vikings and the moderns all interact and day to day life encompasses all of the human epochs. 

Stones of Stenness: massive, beautiful, I imagine the fire in the centre lit. People's faces shining in glorious tones of reds, oranges and yellows. The setting sun echoing those colours from the sky. I imagine drums beating, dancers moving with the rhythm of the earth and a higher state of mind being reached. 

Maeshowe: The ages press down on you here. The rocks hold the secrets that we can only dream of. From prehistoric times, to Viking graffiti, Maeshowe holds the tales of the people. An ancient cathedral, whose majesty feels almost empty with ropes and torches. Imagine light from bare flame, flickering and jumping into the reaches of the ceiling. Imagine entering, bent before the gods, through a nine metre long tunnel. Imagine lifting your skirts so you didn't trip. The setting midwinter sun, from the hills of Hoy, shining down the tunnel to reach the furthest cairn. Imagine how that would feel. The miracle of light in the darkness of the earth. 

The Ring of Brodgar: Huge, massive. And still mighty in its half collapsed state. Imagine (it's almost too difficult to imagine), but try to imagine people within the circle. The stones standing new and proud. Imagine the feelings coursing through the group and they celebrated...what? We do not and cannot know, but we can imagine and you will know, when you are there, what feelings behold you, if you let them and put down your camera and your mental tick box of places you have been and allow the earth to connect and to tell your soul what it wants from you. 

Skara Brae: No matter what the guide books say, I found it harder to imagine life in this underground than I did to imagine songs and celebrations of the standing stones and the chambered cairns. Maybe my imagination prefers to be unguided. But, no matter what I say, the potential for modern living within the walls of Skara Brae are immense. Fill those beds with heather and furs. Set that fire from within the hearth. Place your lobsters in the pools in the floor and furnish your dresser with your plates and knives. Put the precious items up high, out of reach of the bairns and light those tallow candles in those hollows. Your neighbours' doors are shut; it's just the family at home here now, and we can relax, and we can work on the things we've been working on. Yes, even though I find it hard to imagine the darkness of the passageways outside, I can imagine what it was like once the stone door was pushed closed, and once the fire was lit and the kids were asleep. For, we're all the same are we not? Although 5000 years and a language may separate us, if we were to meet today we would know one another as kin. 

Maybe that's the truth I seek. We are no different, so the graffiti we leave is as precious as theirs. We are all human, and we can think of us and them, but that's as wrong as doing the same for humans and animals. We are all the same. We sleep and dream, we wake and breathe. We fight, and tease, and love and hate. We eat, we have preferences, and we have good and bad in all of us. For we are all the same. 

When we left the evening tour of Maeshowe the sun sank beneath the horizon. We rose the following morning to see the same sun rise and we watched from the Ring of Brodgar. Five thousand years of tourists speaks volumes of the place's worth. Land with water on both sides, a thin peninsula. Once I was told that this is where the fairies live, for this is where the gap between their world and ours is thinnest. I keep this information, because one day it might be useful. The sun and the moon. I watched the sun set again from a beach on Sanday. A rainbow, the biggest I have ever seen, and a glorious sunset. 

I'm sitting here. The sun has just dropped below the horizon and the clouds are in every shade of yellow, orange, pink, purple, gold, blue imaginable. The buildings are silhouetted, but the land is still green for the light has not yet gone from the world. 

The peewit is calling, but not because of me, for I've been here a while, hidden in this grass, and it has only just started. Perhaps it too is mourning the day ending.

There's a rainbow behind me. It echoes itself several times over, reflected also in the sea and it is entire, which I've not often seen and it is a dreamlike rainbow. 

I'm thinking of crofters that would have lived here in a but 'n' ben and how they would have reacted to this night? Would nights like this be commonplace? No, never, every farmer is a romantic, though it may be buried deep inside. No man can work like farmers do without a certain quality and I doubt that quality would ever allow a beautiful sky to be ignored. 

The rain is decreasing, the peewit has stopped calling and the chill is returning. I feel like I'm being watched. Every stone seems to quiver at the edge of my eyes. Once fully looked at it stills and becomes stone once more. Shapeshifting. 

The colours of the clouds have deepened, intensified. The day here is over, but somewhere else it's just beginning. Arise, awake, return once more to this world. Leave Maeshowe, leave Quoyness, return once more to the here and now. 

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Shooting Stars

Last night I slept outside. Not for any particular reason, I'm off to Orkney tomorrow and I'll be sleeping under canvas (plastic) for the next five nights anyway, but the night felt so good and to be indoors seemed so wrong that I pitched my tent and slept out.

My tent (a Nordisk Svalbard 1 man, if you're interested) is my absolute dream of a tent. It's got a small footprint, but it's big enough for me and my big rucksack. I can sit up in it (no more trying to get dressed in a semirecumbent position!) and it has a wee porch just big enough for a pair of walking boots. I bought it from Tiso, if you're interested in the same one!

Anyway, so last night I was out in my tent, in my winter sleeping bag (yep, okay it's August, but it's Scotland and it was forecasted to get down to 6C last night (it actually went down to 2C, but I'll come to that!), and feeling cosy, when I was alerted to the fact that there was a meteor shower forecast, starting just after 11pm. So I opened up my tent. This is another wonderful thing about my tent, is that I can open the doors and lie looking out at the sky without having to contort myself into crazy positions to do so. In other words, the door opens at the head end.

So, I opened the door and in that same instance, a shooting star shot past. Huge, slow but fast and hugely dramatic. I lay there with the door open, watching for more. It was the Perseid shower, meteors from the comet Swift-Tuttle, and they always occur at around this time of year (how does that work? No idea, ask an astromoner, not a dreamer!) and although a wee haze formed in the sky, blotting out some of the paler stars, the main meteors could still be seen with ease. There were other wee shooting stars, frequently passing and they were great, but the real drama was created by the larger meteors which appeared every 5 to 10 minutes, and were glorious. One, so bright, looked orange, without a doubt the largest shooting star I have ever seen.

I left the door open and must have fallen asleep while looking out at the stars. I woke again, and felt the cold. Without bothering to check the time I started to shut the inner door when another meteor shot past, they must have been ongoing most of the night, and here I was, dreaming under the stardust. It turned out my cat had crept into my tent, and was sleeping beside me. I let her be, and left the outer door open, leaving a gap in the inner so that she could get out when she needed, and I slept again. The cold and the shooting stars went hand in hand, as the clear night was the reason I could see the stars, but the lack of clouds meant the heat of the earth was dissipating. Last night I was glad of the cold and of seeing the stars.

I woke up to sunshine and birds singing. Opening my tent again, the world was more familiar and there was a gorgeous dew glistening in the 6 o'clock sunshine. Another start to a beautiful day, but I feel a bit luckier than I did yesterday, a bit more part of the world, and a bit blessed. Shooting stars, eh? Definitely worth the cold night.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Notes from my BBS Square

I have been carrying out a Breeding Birds Survey for the British Trust for Ornithology in an area near where I live for the past four years. In that time I have noticed some habitat changes which I think may be echoed in the birds that are being observed.

The area is mainly farmland, with a mix of pasture and arable, and has some young (circa 15 years old) woodlands of mixed broadleaves and conifers. This mix of habitats should provide something for everything. Edge habitats often create more potential for species than others, and woodlands interspersed with other habitats are always good for birds, both with providing cover and aiding dispersal.

There is a wet willow woodland, which always has lots of breeding birds and is where I saw my first reed buntings (gorgeous, mustachioed birds) and always has lovely wood warblers singing. Water birds have vanished, probably due to the water becoming more and more overgrown. This I have noticed even in the past four years that I have been doing this survey, but the heron and the moorhen have not been seen in this area since 1999.

Another thing that I find interesting is that there were no wren heard/observed within the area for three years after 2010. Winter of 2009/2010 was the harshest winter I can remember, and in my garden the whole population of wrens perished. They are tiny birds, and they cannot withstand the cold temperatures that we had for that length of time. It was down to -26C, with a mean of probably around -15C for at least a month, with snow lying permanently between December and well into March. Wrens took a long time to re-establish themselves in my garden, and I believe last year or the year before was the first time I'd seen them here since 2010. In my BBS last year and this, I heard several wrens. Could it be that they also took a long time to return after a population crash?

Rook numbers fluctuate hugely. Over 100 for several years, and then drop right down to less than 40. Why? What changes in these seasons? Does the colony become too big for itself and cause the numbers to drop? Interesting though. Of the other corvids, magpies have increased in recent years, with more being seen in the past couple of years than has been seen before. In fact, the first magpie only appeared in 2010.

Linnet were observed this year for the first time since 2004, and this is the first year that I have seen that particular field not grazed down to the ground. The cattle are on it now, but when I did the survey there was a mass of wildflowers in the 10cm long sward. This makes me think that that habitat was better for the seed feeding linnet, and allowed them to breed (or not...there was no evidence of breeding, so I shouldn't really say that!) in the area for the first time in a long time.

The BBS takes place across the country every spring. There are many other surveys that BTO carry out, but if you have any interest in this at all I suggest that you sign up for BTO membership. To be part of this charity is to become part of something bigger than yourself. To be able to contribute to the research into changing populations of birds is huge. Imagine the limitations (costs, time...) of getting paid members of staff to do this work each year, and yet volunteers can do it without too much stress on themselves, and with plenty of pleasure.

It's a lovely thing to be up early and to be surveying. Bird watching is a lovely hobby, and you see a lot more than birds. There was that time that I startled four roe deer, who, quivering with fright, paused before leaping effortlessly away. Within the birds, there were those lovely wheatears, flying along the wall. The lapwings, pee-whiiiit, pee-wwhiiiit-ing their solemn call. The yellowhammers singing with joy for bread-and-cheese and many others. To have the experience of an early morning bird walk is to awaken your senses.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

A friend speaks

This is the first inspiration I have had to write for weeks and weeks and it came from a passing comment from a very good friend of mine.

A few months ago, while undertaking my Breeding Bird Survey for BTO, I had a sighting of a bird of prey folding in its wings and dropping. I made quick notes about what I could see and then, having no success finding the information in any books, left it. I'm now sitting here putting the information online, and have come across my original notes. I texted my friend, who is really very good on birds of prey, and asked her if it rung any bells. It didn't, but she did reply with a "sounds like a lovely wildlife sighting. That's what counts" and she is so right!

Sometimes it's easy to forget that it doesn't matter the name, the species, or what the sighting was of. Sometimes it is enough for the sighting to have happened, for you to be privileged enough to see a passing event. It's true of things beyond wildlife, a particular rainbow or moon, or even a raindrop bouncing off a leaf. Sometimes putting a name to it diminishes what you have seen and relegates it to "oh, I've seen one of them before". Not always, but it's good to be reminded not to fall into that trap.

We have become strangers in the world, and our connections to nature become ever more tenuous. The more we put a price on nature, or delimitate the value of wilderness, we lose a little more. Needing to put names to things is part of this, and I was guilty of this when all I was trying to do was match my sighting to a species, so that I could quantify it in my head. Now, it will go nameless, but it will serve as a reminder that to have witnessed is sometimes enough.