Saturday, 20 December 2014

Soft kitty, warm kitty....

Mum spots my approach and guards her children.
Peekaboo! Lilli prior to her troubles
Our new family members started life in the stables. We first saw them and photographed them in early August, but they must have been at least six weeks old, when we saw them step outside to eat the food we’d left for their mum. We continued to feed and water her and the two little bundles until things came to a turn. On the last day of the month, I noticed a veritable rabbit morgue on the stable yard. Shortly after, the dam seemed to begin to distance herself from her kindle. Was she leaving them with a full larder? In her absence, a fortnight later, we first noticed that one of the kittens had developed an eye infection. This prompted us to make contact with a Cats Protection rep on the island to arrange the use of a trap. Until it arrived, we gradually moved their food saucer closer and closer to the house until they were happy to come indoors, until we showed up, at which point they would leg it back to their stable roost. The eye was getting worse but our attempt to capture the patient in a zip-up carrier failed. Finally, the trap arrived and within minutes, Lilli was caught. We drove her up the road to the shelter and we left her in the good hands of Janet (the rep). I returned to the stable to reset the trap for Salvo. He ran off as I approached but had begun to slope back as I left it behind. I’d barely got half way home before I heard it snap shut. I will hesitate in calling him stupid. He could just have wanted to be reunited with Lilli. Janet took them both into town the following morning. That would be it as far as our involvement with them went for a while. Lilli, following her operations, was kept in Kirkwall and though Salvo came back to Sanday, he stayed at a pen at Janet’s while he got over a mild eye infection of his own.
Andy's cue for action!



During their time at either the shelter or in town at the clinic and foster home, we noticed the reason that the dam had walked out on them. She was in the family way again, but the days were getting short and the temperature was dropping off. The mission then was to trap her as quickly as possible. But one morning I found a dead kitten lying at the gate. It was already too late. Within days, she’d had the rest of her young in the shed. When I saw her going out hunting, looking slimmer, I had a look around and found four little bodies. Kelly calls kittens born late in the season “hearseys”, as they rarely survive. It was too late for her babies, but I was still determined to get her spayed. I don’t ever want to have to bury kittens again. The only view of the path up to the road is from the ‘goat rooms’, so it was by pure chance that I had seen her as she made her way back. Optimistically, I set the trap up on one of her popular routes. She’s no fool. She could smell the food I’d left as bait, but she tried everything short of telekinesis to get to the food without walking into the trap. In the end, though she had no choice. I quickly drove her around to Janet’s, but on her way to the vet, she escaped. After a few days, she made it back here and I continue to put food out for her until a trap is available. (I don’t have to leave water because half the garden is flooded!)

An early publicity shot of Salvo. What a poser.
Salvo came home first. For a feral cat, he is as soppy as anything and purrs at the drop of a hat. He loves being picked up and has a penchant for leaping vast distances to land on shoulders. In fact, he’s so clingy, it was impossible to leave him locked up alone at night. We took it in turns trying to sleep sitting in a Poang with him in his room. Hence my total surprise when, while letting him witness the great outdoors, he suddenly reverted to wild and ran away. Gail wouldn’t speak to me until I managed to coax him back. It was impossible and required the trap again. However, once indoors he was completely tame once again. Fortunately, Lilli came home soon after. Now it’s her job to keep him under control.

Lilli coming to terms with her new, hopefully safer, environment.
An impossible job. We felt so sorry for her, with her one eye, her spaying bald patch, her clipped ear and her weird short tail. (Gail and I disagree on whether it’s short or whether her brother’s is just freakishly long, or perhaps both). But she is quickly adapting to her disability and gives every bit as good as she gets. She hates being picked up though and is more shy. We suspect that she was fostered in a home with dogs, because she wags her tail like one when she’s happy or interested.

They still overnight in one of the goat rooms together. I’ve taken nearly all the plant pots off the window sill to stop them knocking them onto the floor. They make better use of my telescope than me, by using it as a bridge between a chair and the top of the stereo cabinet. Recently though, we’ve started to let them have the run of the rest of the house during the day. Of course, Smokey isn’t too happy about it. She’s been quite well restrained, resorting to hisses and spits rather than boxing them around the ears, despite the provocation. She seems to have a perpetual growl going on, even when she’s asleep. It could be a survival tactic. Gail has started to refer to Salvo and Lilli as velociraptors for the way that they spend a lot of time outflanking and stalking her.

Argh! Keep still for goodness sake!
Now we are finding out how distinctly not kitten-proof the house is. There’s rarely a moment when voices are not being raised, when one of us isn’t leaping across the floor in the hope of catching whatever it is they’ve knocked over (this time) or rushing to get the dustpan and brush to sweep up whatever it was we didn’t reach in time. They are fascinated by everything and we have too much stuff. We ‘presently’ have too much stuff I should say, as I can express with certitude that we’re sure to have considerably less soon. They tend to get ‘the rips’ at eleven o’clock at night, when all bets are off. They run behind the television, so that’s living on borrowed time. They walk all over the keyboards of the laptops, especially when my ‘Felix’ screen-saver pops up. And it goes without saying that any fabric item, whether it’s a sofa, a laptop case, a denimed leg or the clothes on the clothes horse, makes a jolly good scratching post. The clothes horse also doubles as a tree, as they climb to the top of it, displacing clean clothes onto the floor as they do so with gay abandon.

Who knows what the future holds. It's a big world out there.
There is some debate at home as to when and if they will be allowed out. I am of the thought that they were born wild animals, whereas Gail insists that they are domesticated, if a cat can ever be said to be. I’ve provisionally got Gail’s permission that I can let them go in April. When it comes to birthday presents I am very easily pleased. However, I can see the bond becoming even more established by then. It is fully understandable that one could be protective of Lilli, given her rough start in life, but surely the choice is her own. She sought us out once when she was in need. Wouldn’t it be nicer if she was here because she wanted to be rather than under duress? Well, not duress exactly. It’s not as if she’s scratching her way out through the door. I’m sure her reign of terror indoors has plenty more miles and mounds of broken glass ahead of it.  
The incumbent. Smokey surveys her estate, in calmer days.


In other news, guess who is the secretary of the newly formed Sanday Bowling Club? Well, I get my insurance from Saga these days so I suppose I’d have to learn how to play it sooner or later. The really annoying thing is that I seem to be quite good at it. There’s none more shocked than I. 

Friday, 19 December 2014

The anti-Christmas

The old bus went to the school. In earlier days, chances are it
would have been parked on the beach until the tide took it away.
The Sanday Bus company got their hands on a new vehicle in the Summer. We even had a ‘grand opening’, with champagne and an internationally renowned, record breaking athlete, who just so happens to also be a regular passenger, with some kind and encouraging words. It’s a brand spanking new seventeen-seat Transit with a motorised accessibility ramp in the back of it. It’s mahoosive! Even Richard Osman could stand up in the back of it it’s so tall and the weight of it pushes my driving licence D1 entitlement to the limit. The new features required that I attended a Midas course run by the Orkney Disability Forum in Kirkwall. As class began early, I even got an overnight stay in the big city. With four drive wheels back there too, there’s very little chance of me getting it stuck in my garden (like I did the old one!). It’s a fancy bit of kit and no mistake. It’s taking me a while to get used to the six forward gears though. With that many gates it’s a wonder that I can find any of them. It has to be said that it is also a colossal amount of real-estate to valet, too. With the amount of muck it picks up every day on the island’s agricultural roads, it’s a bit of a relentless exercise. Kelly has named it J-Lo on account of its generously proportioned rear end.

Either from Greece, New Zealand or the Imaginarium?
The most thumbed tome in the shed, (other than the dictionary on account of me one of the greatest illiterates of all time!), is our Collins guide to British wildlife. You just never know what is going to turn up next. Among the species new to this particular budding naturalist (they’re the ones that keep their clothes on, right?) are paper wasp, hen harrier, cormorant, shag, razorbill, marsh orchid, eyebright and grass of Parnassus. There are also some species that I am familiar with but never really expected to see all the way up here, like hedgehogs, owls and butterflies. I don’t go out and about much to find them. It’s more of a case that they kindly find their own way to me. Apart from the starlings, our most common visitors are lapwings, a family of barn swallows, blackbirds, a robin, a cute little wren and a skylark that I can perpetually hear but never actually see. Our primary protagonists remain the over-abundance of rabbits.

Germany winning the World Cup standing on one leg.
As a proud (part) boche, it’s hard not to love the World cup. Not that I watched every game. Fortunately the last group matches kicked off at the same time, so you have to make a choice, but it’s safe to say that if there was footie on the television then I was watching it. That was except, of course, when work interfered. Following a reasonably successful international side, it makes one quite sanguine about disappointment, unlike, say, following one that has only ever experienced success on its own doorstep with the help of dodgy officials. Qualifying for the knockout stages is the only real expectation. Anything else is a bonus. As usual, the tournament was a gallery of heroes and villains. The Dutch demolition of tiki-taka, James Rodriguez wonderful volley, Ronaldo crying and the host’s hysterical capitulation in the semi-finals were my highlights. Mario Götze’s winning goal in the final was more of a relief than a celebration, though the roof was lifted, I’ll not deny. The fact that that cannibalistic Uruguayan moron isn’t forced to play in a Hannibal Lecter mask continues to astonish me. That it is out of the English game is my only satisfaction.


The principle driver for the Sanday bus certainly enjoys her holidays. This is good for me as it provides some much needed income. Working fourteen days consecutively isn’t quite a cheery prospect but it’s uncanny how easy a habit it is to fall in to. They are only part-time days but you are obliged to be on call all day for taking bookings. The vehicle doesn’t clean itself either, so that takes a fair while, as I have already alluded to. There are other duties that I am not involved in that Kelly catches up with when she gets back, data-capturing the fare records, balancing the books and banking the takings. Even so, for those two weeks, I find it totally immersive. It’s a great way to meet the locals and see the sights. I also had a number of opportunities to drive the Sanday Experience tour as well over the Summer. More often than not, sometimes to my surprise given the oft inclement weather, visitors are absolutely chuffed with their visit. Rarely is it more of a pleasure than when the opportunity to show off a live archaeological dig presents itself halfway through a tour.
The Meur burnt mound, excavated and ready to go.
The burnt mound at Meur was in serious risk of being lost to tidal erosion and a team was sent to save what they could. After recording the site and taking organic samples for analysis, many of the stones were extracted and moved to a new home beside the new heritage centre where it was exhaustively reconstructed, far from the rigours of the tide. A lucky few got to see the process when we stopped the bus to give everybody an up-close-and-personal peek at the work. It’s gone now, so it was a very narrow window of opportunity. As is so often the case with digs, the archaeologist’s efforts uncovered an even earlier occupation phase which they are keen to explore in the near future. They’ll probably keep going until they find Doug McClure.

As the summer ended and the children went back to school, I was asked if I would mind supplementing my pool lifeguarding duty with attending their training as they prepared for an annual gala at the pool. It was a reward in itself to watch them develop their skills and confidence in the water. At the end of their training, I was asked back to be one of the lane timekeepers for the gala itself. The children of all ages were divided into three teams of equal ability to slug it out before the assembled parents. I also got involved with their Bikeability Scotland training and last week attended assembly where we handed the successful children their certificates and badges. The toughest part was amending my own riding to set a good example. Gone are the beanie and the i-pod. In are the reflective jacket and the helmet. I’m due to go into Kirkwall to get the proper training at some time over winter in order to be able to play a bigger part in the process next year and an application to register with Protecting Vulnerable Groups government scheme is pending. I still consider that I do not having a single paternal bone in my body, but I must have mellowed some with age. Mind you, I did have to put an immediate damper to any notion that I’d be willing to dress up as Santa. The suggestion has though made me think seriously about going on a diet in the new year.


Coos in the mist. What's out your window?
In an attempt to encourage me to blog more regularly and make me to take more photographs, I signed up to blipfoto and although I have long ago ceased to post every single day, it is, other than Facebook, the site that I most commonly submit to. If one was ‘inspired’ to keep an eye on my faltering steps toward retirement, they might want to join up and follow Turts99, perhaps sharing their own photographs with the world while they’re at it. It’s just a suggestion.  

Monday, 15 December 2014

Getting outdoors (at last)

March started with high spring tides. In fact I’ve never seen the wreck of the B98 so far away from the water. With the anniversary of the outbreak of WW1 looming, there’s been an increase in local interest of the island’s wartime history. It included the heritage centre borrowing of some of my recently acquired reference material, a piece of which has been donated to the centre for display.
Lopness farm through the wreckage of B98
When I heard that the ranger was in the process of purchasing a scale model of the B98, I assumed that he had managed to track down a better one than my 1:700 scale resin one, which given that the real thing was 98m long, even a modest ability in maths would tell you that the model measures a mere 14 centimetres. It turns out, however, that he’d bought exactly the same one. If it goes on display, I hope that they position it under a magnifying glass. At least it was constructed by an experienced modeller. I haven’t dared to try making mine. Whether the heritage committee has also managed to get hold of any of the supposed many ‘salvaged’ parts that have been collected by islanders, allegedly, over the years to complete the display awaits to be seen.

Not a popular holiday destination, I'll grant you.
With the tides being so revealing, I decided that it was an ideal opportunity to try to make a dash for the beacon at the tip of the Riv Skerry. I packed an emergency overnight kit just in case I managed to get out there to find that the returning tide had made the way back impossible. I was quite prepared to stay there, wrapped in a silver blanket and tucked up with a good book and a hot drink until the waters receded once more. As it turns out, the rocky path was untraversable and part of it was still actually submerged beneath the briny. I returned home a little disappointed but, admittedly, mightily relieved. Gail was pleased to see me too, primarily because I promised to cook dinner for us both if I made it back.


One of the problems facing bus drivers in remote locations is communication. Gail may have two mobile phones but they are hardly ever switched on as reception is so bad. In order to improve the accessibility of the Sanday service, the company has kindly fitted a signal booster here at the shed. Talk about making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear! Before it was fitted, if we had wanted to send or receive text messages, we had to attach a mobile (ein Handy) to our clothes-line pole and poke in out through an open window. With the booster turned on, the phone goes all the way from no bars at all, (not even a flicker), to a full five bars and ne’er wavers. It’s uncanny just how effective the kit is. Of course it has to go off in the evening. Try as we may to inform folk that we are not on duty twenty four hours a day, there’ll always be someone that decides, just before they go to bed, that they need a lift to the pier the morn.

Ice on the dunes. My definition of the word 'juxtaposition'.
It is still far too early in the year for the weather to be settled, if indeed it ever is. On driving to the North end the other day, I noticed that the dunes at Cata were an unusual colour. On closer inspection the culprit turned out to be a layer of hail. Yet again, it would have to be one of those days when I’d left home without a camera, so I had to get home, grab one and head back out again, much to the amusement of the lady of the house. It wasn’t thawing in any kind of a hurry so I managed to snap a few shots before the risk of exposure forced me back into the warm car. At low tide, it’s possible to drive over the shallow beach. I have been on the island long enough to hear of the plenty of tales of stranded vehicles and decided that a closer inspection was not necessary for the purpose of this narrative.

This handsome chap deserved better
One of our ranger’s responsibilities is to monitor sea pollution and to that end he conducts regular beached-bird surveys on the island. Toward the end of month, he advertised for some assistance in covering Bay of Lopness. It’s a long, gently sloping coast so the inter-tidal, or littoral, zone is rather wide for a single person to cover. In the end there were four of us, scanning the whole beach for washed up dead animals. Rod insists that the quality of the water has very much improved over the years of his residency, so he was very much hoping that we’d find nothing. He was to be disappointed however on this occasion. An animal washed ashore is often a free meal for someone else. By the time we find them, most of the remains are stripped bare, a couple of wings and assorted bones. In addition, a stiff breeze had been drifting the sand all day and I was ‘lucky’ to spy a feather tip poking up out of it all. I managed to dig up a whole, fresh gannet, most likely the injured one that Rod and I had tried to rescue a few days earlier. The remains are tossed up onto the dunes to ensure the bodies are not recorded again in the future.

Boloquoy Mill
Eventually, the longer days started to encourage the next generation of flora and fauna. In their hollows in the dunes, the seagulls laid their eggs and wild flowers exploded from the grasses. It was also an ideal time to be out and about. The days were long and warm, out of the wind, and nobody had bothered to tell those annoying flies that were to plague us during Summer and Autumn. Rod the ranger held a walk out from Mill Geo to Boloquoy, along a cliff-top path of rocky coastline to the West that is in stark contrast to the shallow, sandy bays of the Eastern side of the island. It offers a roost to a myriad of seabirds and some dramatic vistas. It ended at the old mill at Boloquoy, now redundant. Formerly a grinding (until the stones were sold to another island) and latterly a threshing mill, it is an icon of the island’s past. There is still a pond and evidence of a channel to bring the water to a large wheel on the outside of the Western wall. Inside, a rusting collection of old fittings continue to lamentably rot.


Never expected to see the pitons from Duncansby!
Far from your average Nissen hut.
June started with plan to get back onto the British mainland. A friend from the old gig was taking part in a charity bike ride all the way from Land’s End to John O’Groats. This mind-boggling accomplishment required some kind of welcoming committee and as the only guy within hundreds of miles, I wanted to be there. They had been on the road for the better part of a fortnight. I just had to set out the day before. I cycled from home to Loth Pier, got on the boat to Kirkwall, then cycled South. Before the wars I would have had to catch another three peedie boats to get to Burwick on South Ronaldsay. Now I just had to ride across the Churchill Barriers instead. I ran out of daylight at St. Margaret’s Hope, where I availed myself of a waiting room that remained unlocked overnight. Thankfully, the night was short as the bench seats were really uncomfortable. I set out early in the hope that the waiting room at Burwick for the John O’Groats ferry would be nicer. When I got there, though, it wasn’t even open. Cue me standing around and my body temperature dropping like a stone. The ferry was great, despite being really narrow and the Pentland Firth being is usual, choppy self. I had plenty of time to spare before Zara and Richard were due to arrive. Enough to get to see Duncansby Head, though it nearly killed me. The geography was up and down. Exhausting to pedal up and a white-knuckle freefall descent with the brakes screaming like a banshee. The views were spectacular, though. I rode back into John O’Groats with the hero pair, took pictures of them beneath the sign and introduced them to Orkney beer. My bad. I was very happy when they managed to cadge a lift on board a coach heading back to civilization. My return journey North involved Orca’s in the Pentland Firth, photos of and in the Italian Chapel and another night in a ferry waiting room, this time in Kirkwall. Hurrah for padded seats!

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

An observation from the edge

                Life on the dole is not quite the experience that I expected.

                I did not once in my whole career moan about folk on benefits. Fraudsters are a different matter, but people who are entitled to it, I have always advocated, should jolly well get it. My recent encounter with Jobcentre+ has done nothing to change my view. If anything, I am now as angry with DWP almost as much as those incompetent numpties at HMRC. I’m proud that I at least had the good fortune to work for an agency with credibility. Just as I’m sure that that’ll be the case until they sell it off.

                I haven’t signed on for the purpose of getting any money. As a man of leisure of three years standing, I haven’t, obviously, been credited with any National Insurance contributions in that time. On reflection, I perhaps should have signed on straight away but the thought of doing so when we had money coming out of the wazoo seemed to me unconscionable. Now the gelt is all but gone. I have a part-time job and a bit of money from my other gig as a private residential landlord. It’s just that with the taxman after me for big numbers and arrogant politicians claiming that the good times are back, I thought the time right to set the record straight.

                After signing on online, I got an appointment to attend the Jobcentre in Kirkwall. ‘Bert’ is an OK guy, helped me through the application and handed me the forms I’d need to complete to show that I was actively looking for employment. It’s a fair enough request. I don’t have a plan to return to servitude, but if the ideal position comes to up, I could do that for a few years. Basically though, who needs that shit?

                So for no benefit from the benefit system that I happily contributed to for thirty years, I’m at a loss how to proceed. If I continued to ‘claim’ to be out of full time employment, which I have to concede is the truth of the matter, I have to regularly post (at a minimum of fifty three pence a hit for the stamp) a declaration to DWP. Not only that, but every time I change my work days or anything else happens that changes my weekly earnings (which generally fluctuate with arrhythmiatic certitude) I am obliged to phone them on a premium rate number to keep them in the loop. 

                What sort of scam are DWP running here?

                It’s a shame that the truth is such an expensive commodity. Don’t believe jobless figures. Trust that there are a number of people who CAN’T AFFORD to be registered unemployed. Don’t believe that those on benefits don’t deserve it. In the last two weeks, I can’t remember ever having to work so hard. 

                And for what?


                From my experience, I haven’t a blinkin’ clue!

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Heading into Spring, 2014.

March is here already. I can’t say that I am too dismayed that the days are whizzing past. The sooner the season changes the better. The longer days can’t possible do any harm either. I picked up my first payslip in just under three years. There was a concern that they may have deducted tax and NI contributions even though I’m nowhere near earning the threshold. It has not stopped HMRC asking for three and a half grand though. Some interesting correspondence between us lies ahead. Looks as if I could become the poorest guy paying fifty percent tax in history!
Smokey picks her way between the puddles.


The volunteer lifeguards at the pool have to attend a training session every month to keep their skills honed. In February, a session was also arranged also for the key-holders, who’s responsibility it is to look after everything other than the pool itself,
to practice their role in an emergency situation. The lifeguards were simulating different aquatic mishaps in front of them and everybody was working together through each scenario in accordance with the Emergency Action Plan. Thankfully there were no casualties. Mind you, it wouldn’t have been the first time that I’ve become a genuine casualty in the course of training. I hadn’t even passed my RLSS exam when I had a nosebleed in the pool and then damaged a toe during a mock rescue. These mishaps are not helping to build confidence that I can be part of the solution instead of the problem.

The deep, blue B9069!
That very same day, the sea defences at Bay of Lopness were breached and flooded the road. A mountainous sea on top of an unusually high spring tide brought waves not so much over the top of the dunes, but through some of the access points to the beach, which are slightly lower. These are gaps that tractors have used/caused to get down onto the beach, probably to carry away driftwood and tangles. There is just such a narrow space opposite our neighbour’s driveway, where they keep their little dingy and, sure enough, debris was strewn across the road. The other side of us, toward Newark, there was about a foot of standing water for nearly a hundred yards. Again, the path of the water from the top of the dunes was evidenced by rubbish and pebbles leading down the landward side of it, just like glacial moraine. The Skoda made it through the deluge at a crawl to avoid a bow-wave. The fun and games started a couple of days later when the salt-water exposure seized the brakes. I’m used to the odd wheel slipping over the grass, but when you’re dragging tyres on dry tarmac then you know that you’re in trouble. I had to take a wheel off and apply liberal persuasion with a hammer to loosen things up. I’m sure that’s all that professional mechanics do.

Andy shows that he's a keen follower of fashion.
 There was profit and loss to be experienced only weeks later. I had ordered a nice, new high visibility shell jacket all the way back before Christmas, but being unable to get back to Mainland to collect it, it sat gathering dust in Kirkwall. Eventually, the good lady wife of our island councillor volunteered to bring it back to Sanday for me.  That joy was tempered however by the loss of my ‘pride and joy’ Columbia mountain boots. The stitching holding the uppers to the rubber sole and carcass had been eaten away. They were now useless, fit only for the bin. I did cry a little bit. Now all I’ve got left in the way of practical footwear are a tired pair of Merrells and my wellies.


Who let the sun-dogs out?
I very much enjoyed the Winter Olympics and it provided a great motivation to get up in the morning. The way that Elise Christie annihilated the completion in her first qualifying race promised much. It certainly did not prepare any of us for the evil, petty, vindictive persecution of her that was to follow. I would have loved to see her on the long track. I’m sure that she would have broken up the tedious orange domination of the event. Gail and I needed to tear ourselves away to do some shopping and also pop into the visiting mobile library. A spectacle awaited us on our return. When looking out of the window, there was a second bright spot in the sky. The big orange blob was to be expected, even this far to the North, but there was also a huge glare to the right of it. I had no idea what it was, but when a posted a picture online I was informed that I was watching a ‘sundog’. I looked it up on the internet. A parhelion is an atmospheric phenomenon that creates ‘false suns’. There are some excellent images available. Certainly knocks mine into a cocked hat and shows that I should have taken the time to look around for other bright spots.


Most oft deserted road to Loth peir at Spurness. 
The Sanday ranger had reported some damage to the access to the Doun Helzie arch which I went to check out for myself. The half mile of track leading to the top of the Stove links had also been through the wars. I had to stop the car a number of times to remove large stones out of the way and speculatively plan a route between the ruts and peaks. I don’t think I lost any bits from underneath, but it was quite scary. At the top of the hill, I left the car and walked toward the beach. Part of the route includes a dip beneath a strand or two of barbed wire. It’s not really what you could call visitor friendly. From the fence, where last year there was a gentle, sandy descent of about twenty feet, the whole slope had eroded away, leaving a precipitous vertical drop instead. It would have been possible to scramble down, but the ascent was likely to have been a little more arduous. I decided not to risk it. The nearest property is at least half a mile away so it is unlikely that a living soul would have been able to hear my piteous cries for help. A rope ladder is required for the future.


Within weeks we were treated to another amazing ‘light show’. In the two years we’ve been here, we’d witnessed a couple of half decent aurora. What the end February had for us was a whole new palette altogether. Looking back, we’d had a foretaste of it a week earlier, another green glow in the Northern sky. But this was a big one. It was right overhead, if anything slightly to the South of us. It arced all the way across the sky. You could even tell, quite clearly, where it was curving to the North toward both horizons as it encircled the pole. The cascades of green were punctuated by deep reds and the movement was like billowing curtains of light. The thing went on for ages. We stood out in the garden with all the house lights turned off for as long as we could, but we were turning blue with cold and had to go back indoors. Every now and again, I’d go to the door and look out at the continuing drama of the skies.  It was the most amazing sight and no words, certainly not mine, can do sufficient justice to them. Alas! You really do need to see it for yourself.


Half of the Orkney Ferries North Isles fleet.
From the Earl Sigurd, Earl Thorfinn right and Shapinsay left.
Then you have the kind of drama that you don’t need. Two weeks later, Gail had a scheduled hospital appointment in Kirkwall but had had a premonition that her attendance would be unlikely. I agreed with her that I was most likely to be responsible for the failure, especially as the car was running on fumes at the time. However, it was to be Orkney Ferries that would throw the spanner in the works. They phoned on the morning of departure to say that they were cancelling the morning boat. They lay on an additional sailing at midday, but Gail would miss her appointment and we would have only an hour on mainland before the afternoon return sailing. We were saved when the hospital re-arranged their timetable for us, we caught the lunchtime boat after all but decided to stay in Kirkwall overnight and come home the following afternoon. This is what qualifies as a holiday for us these days. After the hospital, we booked into the Peedie Hostel before going out to Lucano’s Italian restaurant for a ‘slap-up’ nosh. After a good night’s sleep, we went for an early morning dip at the Pickaquoy pool, had breakfast at Café Lolz before hitting the shops. I wonder how many other people end up spending nearly three hundred quid just on a visit to the doctor?  The treatment might be free, but the fiasco associated with it is something completely different. At least we didn’t have to pay for parking. Thank goodness for small mercies.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Playing catch-up

                I’ve just had my knuckles rapped for reneging upon my responsibilities. My sisters can be right bullies at times.

                October was pretty bonnie by the look of it. I took the opportunity to ride my mountain bike all the way down to the pier and back. Not on the same day, of course. I’m not a sadist. I left it at Loth
Ferry heads off to Kirkwall. I regret that I hadn't joined them
overnight. I didn’t need to lock it. It is part of the reason I’m here. I took the bus home for the night and then caught it back again in the morning. While all my fellow passengers boarded the ferry to Kirkwall, I climbed onto the saddle. The twelve mile ride commences with a long climb to the summit of Spurness. After that, other than Branch, it’s pretty much downhill all the way. It took a long time, but that’s the way it goes when you are silly enough to pack a camera. Also, eighteen months of salt air plays havoc with exposed metalwork, so it was hardly a surprise to me when the gear cable snapped. That was an extra ‘uphill’ however that I could have done without.

                To celebrate twenty three years of …… wearing a silly gold ring with a nose on it, Gail and I spent the night in Kirkwall. Actually, all we wanted to do was eat Italian, but when the restaurant is in Kirkwall and the last boat back to Sanday leaves in the afternoon, we are obliged to spend the night there as well. It adds an extra days pay onto an already expensive evening, so don’t be too hard on me when I tell you the room had bunk-beds. Lucano’s is a real treat though, so it’s just well it’s only once a year. The wine, a Prosecco from the Veneto region, was supplemented by a complimentary Limoncello, which only succeeded in making me even more lightheaded. My weakness to alcohol makes me so the black sheep of the family. The food was gorgeous and the service excellent. I couldn’t afford a tip, but they didn’t give me an excuse not to. I hate that.
               
Ain't nothing coming out of there that doesn't have gills.
It rained so much at the beginning of November that things got decidedly squelchy underfoot. It also submerged many of the vegetable beds, including the large foundation plot with all the spuds and onions in. I had to dig out all the potatoes that I could find and there weren’t many of those. Those that came up were still quite peedie (small). We would have had more to eat if we’d just eaten the seed potatoes themselves and not bothered with all the ‘sticking them in the ground’ nonsense at all. At various times I went in there with a bucket to bail it out but the water table soon brings more to the surface. I thought that I was finally making progress, with many plants at last able to come up for air, but the skies opened the next night and drowned them all again. I’m past caring now. It is an attitude that seems to work for carrots. The late ones that I haven’t finished picking are going great guns. Some proper monsters have been coming out just lately and I can confirm that the season of carrot cake plenty is very much on!

                I have been lifeguarding for a few sessions at the pool. I have a regular fortnightly gig on a Friday lunchtime and when a class of schoolchildren from Eday visit Sanday on Tuesday for swimming lessons, I
Toying with my waterproof camera. 
volunteered for that, too. My uniform arrived, a spangly new yellow t-shirt with red RLSS writing all over it and wristband with my own whistle. If I want the red shorts, which as a HSV fan I ought to already own but don’t, and red/yellow beanie to complete the ensemble then I will have to buy them for myself. The titfer I can do without and my Canadian maple-leaf shorts will suffice for the time being. My duty has certainly made me understand how working with kids can make even sensible people go all broody. If parenthood was just a ninety minute obligation before you can shove them off to somebody else for a week then I could see how it might catch on. Anyone who commits to such an imposition for 24/7 is still, in my humble opinion, a complete idiot. Present company excepted, naturally.

                Gail’s Open University languages course continues apace. It often necessitates a visit to Heilsa Fjold to avail ourselves of their non-pedestrian broadband to download material, but as they tend to put on a good spread at lunchtime it can hardly be termed an inconvenience. At home, Gail insists that she can concentrate better if there is something on the television, so at her request I am obliged to spend a number of hours playing Skyrim on the X-Box. It’s a horrible job but someone’s got to do it. Most of the heat in the house comes from the screen so it has other perks as well.   
                     
It was an early start whichever bus was in action.
  The Sanday bus is showing signs of fatigue. ‘Rodger’s’, which is Kelly’s name for him, is eight years old and has many, many miles under his belt. His tribulations, which I’m sure I may have covered in earlier posts, include alternator failure, breathing difficulties and being driven into the scenery by this inexperienced pilot. Lately, he has stubbornly refused to start in the morning. Our island mechanic has stripped down the fuel line and diagnosed serious health issues. As his workload has already been compromised by his efforts enough already, Rodger’s took the ferry to Kirkwall today for a thorough shakedown. There are doubts that we will see him return before next week. Fortunately, there is another minibus on the island to take up the slack. It is the same age but has done significantly fewer miles as a consequence of only being used once a week as the ‘Afternoon Club’ bus. I’ll probably be driving it tomorrow. I’ll try to keep it on the black stuff for them. It shouldn’t be too difficult. It weighs tons, more because of the chairlift in the back, so is a ponderous mass to get off the line and up hills. Consequently, I’ve had to factor an additional ten minutes to haul it down to the pier. Come back Rodger’s. I didn’t mean all those things I said about you.

At the dunes summit. Level with the top of our windows!
                The first snows arrived in the second half of November. We had a couple of flurries over a few days, most of it whizzing past the windows horizontally. Since then it has been really mild. The consequence of that though has been the conveyor belt of Atlantic storms that have been battering the whole country. The wild weather, spring tide and a tidal surge brought the North Sea to the very top of the dunes. I shudder when it occurs to me that the house is lower than that. When the tide went out again, it had left a mountain of ‘bruck’ (rubbish) up there. Over the Summer, I became quite proprietorial about the beautiful beach, so it is killing me that it hasn’t been calm enough to take a bin-bag up there to collect some of it. Hopefully I’ll get the chance before the tourists arrive. The neighbours and I will need plenty of time ‘cos there’s at least a skip load up there and the rest of the island is in a similar position.


                The poor weather has also not helped in our search for the elusive Aurorae. Even when Dr Brian Cox and Dara O’Briain all but promised us a dazzling display in early January, even though we did have a few, rare clear spells, there was not a sausage to be seen. All in all, other than the pleasure of watching them in Stargazing live, the only two positives arising from the programmes were the inspiration to finally assemble my 120mm refractor telescope and my first ever observation of a ‘moon-bow’. I didn’t need any fancy, expensive equipment for that either. I just looked out of the front door before going to bed and there it was. Then there’s a decision to be made: whether or not to wake up the good lady wife. Would she be angry more for being woken up or for not sharing what you’d seen with her. To date, my judgement has been good. Thank my lucky stars.


At the beginning of the New Year, I started the Blipfoto 365 challenge. It’s a kind of blog that encourages users to take and post a photograph every day.  As I’ve linked it to Facebook, I’ve been using that instead of updating this blog. Well, up until today I was. Oh well, at least it should be easier for me to draft these from now on.

Friday, 27 September 2013

Hi! Remember the time I used to keep a blog. No? Me neither.

                A month and a half, that’s abandonment that is. Anyway, how have you been? I certainly hope that this epistle finds you well.

Age begins to tell as author suffers first erectile dysfunction.
                Gail arrived home safely from her hospital visit last month. This was despite a very low cloud that nearly forced the pilot to turn around and go back to Kirkwall. He managed to get it down safely before he then had to head on the North Ronaldsay. They don’t pay those guys enough, I can tell you.


                Orkney has enjoyed a quiet summer. It’s the sort of thing to make you forget all about how long winter lasted.  The days got very long indeed. Anyone who has seen Al Pacino in ‘Insomnia’ will know exactly what went on in our heads. There are no black-out curtains thick enough to cut out such a plethora of sunlight and when you can’t sleep you also can’t help feeling guilty that you’re not doing something useful outside. It’s no use screaming that it’s only three o’clock in the morning when you can smell the grass growing, hear the birds singing and see the bunnies, equally as confused, hopping around looking for an early breakfast. The only reassuring thing is the knowledge that there isn’t a mad, bad Robin Williams around.

              
How did I manage a trip to 1960's Garsdale, Cumbria?
  I received an unexpected envelope from the Jury Summoning office, inviting me to attend court. If anything, I have been anticipating an appearance on the other side of the dock. It was not for the courts in Scotland, however, but for the Portsmouth circuit. I had to apologize for having the audacity to move away and request that I be excused, indefinitely. I don’t intend to be heading Sooth for a long while.

They say that cats have an extraordinary sense of hearing, but surely that cannot have been the explanation for why, within twenty four hours of me mentioning to Gail that a certain Siamese gentleman hadn’t paid us a visit for a while, a certain Siamese gentleman turned up on our doorstep. Then again, perhaps it is. He has demonstrated that he clearly possesses an acute ear, a profound understanding of the English language and an uncanny familiarity with my daily routine in order to ensure that our paths would cross at that precise moment. Either that or I somehow willed it and performed telekinesis but, if that was the case, I suspect that he would have been mightily aggrieved, which he did not seem to be judging by the way he polished off a small plate of tuna. He followed me about the garden for a while, critiquing my horticultural prowess, before sloping off when he realized that there were no more goodies in the offing. He may be an opportunist, freeloading bastard, but he’s our guest opportunist, freeloading bastard and we love him.

This is exactly what happens when you cast nasturtiums!
Talking of my horticultural prowess, I’ve actually had some success. Not all of it, obviously. The only beans that made an appearance were the ones that I kept indoors. The carrots, leeks, onions and potatoes have been going great guns outdoors though. The parsnips and spinach have been less keen, but I still have hope for them. I’ve even experimented a bit by planting a couple of beds of flax. They seem to be doing alright, so if I can turn a large plot over during the winter, I might try a field of it next year. I also have a little pet squash plant that is busy wending its way around the vegetable garden, flowering and fruiting at intervals along its path. I’ve been here before so I’m not going to get too excited. The fruits never developed into anything previously and when I did manage to get some courgettes going last year, the bunnies and the starlings munched their way through them. I have managed to ponce some tomato plants as well. Currently producing nothing more than little green bullets, they are a work in progress. Gail has managed to not murder her rosemary and basil plants. Just recently, my Woodland Trust order turned up. I’m not sure that they enjoyed spending a week in a box in the post and when they find out where they’ve been sent to it may turn out to be the final straw. I certainly don’t have the heart to stick them outside yet. I’ve set the plugs into pots to encourage the root systems and I’ll introduce them to the great outdoors in Spring. I hope they forgive me or else there’ll be a tiny gang of Dryads ganging up to kick lumps out of me.


If Andy's seeing mermaids, it must be the 'shrooms!
There have been a couple of really calm days. As if the fact that we would have had to pay to use electricity off the grid if we stayed indoors wasn’t enough of an incentive, one look over the dunes to the mirror smooth water in the bay is nothing short of an invitation. Dragging the kayaks down the garden and across the sand, we’d paddle around on the crystal clear, minty green sea. I’ve been out a couple of times on my own since, heading around the corner at Newark toward Elsness or over toward Whale Head. I remember paddling in Portsmouth and not being able to see squat beneath the boat. Here the water is a distraction. At times the sand below appears to be within touching distance, but it’s out of the reach with a six foot long paddle. Other times, I glide over kelp beds and the water goes really dark and I might as well be trying to paddle through treacle. Then, all of a sudden, a head appears and when the seal sees me, it plunges below with a mighty splash. It’s so quiet out there that you can hear them breathing when they think they’re being smart and swimming right behind you. In the evening, you can hear them singing from their roosts, or whatever the place that they hang out is called. Having just the selkies and the seabirds for company is just awesome.


My pool lifeguard training started recently. You may think that looking after a handful of folk in a postage stamp size pool would be a walk in the park, but the RLSS is a national standard. The difficulty I’m having is not the physical aspects of the gig, although the first aid will be difficult as I’ve never done any of that before, but simply trying to visualize doing this stuff anywhere bigger than a postage stamp pool. The handbook covers flumes, wave machines, movable floors, diving boards and a dizzying myriad hazards and complications that are so hard to imagine when you are standing in a hall with a foot spa in the middle of it. I exaggerate of course, but it is as far away from being a lido as the bandstand on Southsea Common is from the Royal Albert Hall.


Is there anything else? Oh yeah, there is. The kittens have moved out of the stables, moved back in and moved out again. Their mum has started to take them out hunting with her, but when the weather turns nasty she brings them back to shelter. Then she goes out on her own. It is honestly like a rabbit morgue out there. I feel sick just describing the heads with spines coming out of them with two furry back feet at the other end and absolutely nothing else in between. Loads of carcasses just like that spread all over the place.
Different degrees of success in concealment.

Sometimes the gulls and the crows pick the rest of the meat off the bones, other times it looks like it too horrible even for them. I’ve taken some of Smokey’s tuna over there, some small Pollock or a tin of cat food that Smokey would turn her nose up to and it all gets eaten, but mum keeps on bringing in more rabbits. Today we had a phone call from a neighbour who works with the Cats Protection League in Scotland. The kittens were seen in the road the other day and so would we help catch them so that they could be neutered and homed. We had to explain that they are much older than they look and are now as feral as it is possible to be. Neutering is a sensible and responsible thing to do though, so we promised to let her know when they were back. It’ll be nice to see them up close. Nice for us that is. I think they’ll probably hate us and chew our faces off given half a chance. Cats are so cute!