Saturday, May 9, 2009

Day 10 Northwest Scotland, to Ullapool

Thursday 30 April. Nature provided our venue of the day. We departed St. Margaret's Hope on South Ronaldsay, Orkney on the 8:00 am ferry and pulled into Ullapool in the late afternoon. This drive across the North and the Northwest of Scotland is no ordinary journey. This is the least populated, remote and rugged and least visited are on the mainland. It is my favorite landscape in all of Scotland. Once past Thurso, it is mile after mile of rocks, beach, hills, water, heather, birds, grazing sheep, and finally a herd of Highland hairy coos to photograph.
The road often goes to one lane. Dunnet Head is where the North Sea meets the Atlantic Sea. We were blessed with morning sunshine that added to the richness of the color of the sea and stone. When Will, one of the consumate birders on the trip, wasn't looking through his binoculars, he was snapping photos.

Just outside of Durness, we visit Balnakeil Craft Village. Once a military base, it was taken over by hippies when the military left and now is inhabited by small shops and craft studios. I told the group that the reward for all this sitting and riding today was
a a stop at Cocoa Mountain for dessert. They specialize in truflles with unique flavours like strawberry, lemon pepper and decadent hot chocolate.
You can't miss this heavenly stop if you like chocolate. >

We stopped at Highland Stoneware Pottery shop in Lochinever. The driveway and garden of the shop proved very entertaining with large stones, an automobile, a gigantic concrete sofa, all covered with broken pottery.

Before heading on, make sure to drive into town and get a homemade pie from the Lochinever Larder. Their savory or sweet pies are in such demand, they post them around the country.

Once we reached Ullapool we settled into our B&B's. You see the view here from the backyard of the B&B. No one ever wants to leave this idyllic spot. A hearty thank you to Charlotte at Dromnan Guest House

Day 9 Mainland, Orkney

Wednesday, 29 April

You can't be in Orkney without spying old or new Orkney chairs. Locals made these chairs for hundreds of years with materials they had at hand. The chairs combine wood for the frame and oat straw coiled and stitched with sisal for the chair backs. We saw the chairs being made first hand at Fraser Anderson's workshop, Orkney Hand-Crafted Furniture, in Kirkwall.

Just as in chairs of old, he gathers driftwood between November and February. The driftwood, mainly pine or beech, cures for 2 years before he uses the lumber for chairs. The oatstraw is grown locally by his cousin and has to be cut with an old fashioned binder. It takes 4 sheaves for one chair back. Each stalk in the sheaf has to be stripped by hand. It takes up to 3 weeks to complete each chair and Fraser makes up to 30 chairs a year. He is one of 3 professional chair makers on Orkney. Fraser is honoring the tradition by repairing old chairs and designing new shapes and styles of chairs, rockers and stools.

The big island, or as Orcadians call “mainland” is home to numerous stone circles and structures dating back as far as 5000 years. Nowdays, the 17 of the 65 islands that are populated are home to 20,000 people, 100,000 beef cattle, 68,000 sheep and one fishing fleet, on Westray.

We traveled west to the heart of Neolithic Orkney. Modern technology has shown that the stone monuments above ground are just the tip of the iceberg of all the ancient stone sites under the earth in this heart of the island. There is currently a new archeological dig exploring a newly found site not far from the Standing Stones of Stenness.

Michael, our local guide while Andrew had a day off, told us tales and speculations about these sites. Stenness means “stone point” and indeed the tall stones still standing are pointed on top, but just 3100 years old. Also known as the Temple of Moon, couples came to perform a marriage ritual which would bind them together for one year and one day. After that period, they would have to come back to the stones to renew that ritual or to break the contract. Thus was their system of “marriage in installments.”

The Ring of Brodgar once had 60 stones standing. Brodgar means “farm by the bridge.” A ditch, 11 feet deep and 33 feet wide encases the stone ring. One story goes that giants came to this ground to dance. Hands joined, they danced around and around, forming the ditch. They were having so much fun, they didn’t notice the sun rising. When the sun’s rays touched them, they turned to stone, thus forming the stones in the ring. Each Dec 31, they come alive, rise up out of the ground, walk down to the lake and have a drink. Then they go back to the ring and become solid stone for another year. This sounds much more believable when Michael tells the story!
The 2500 year old ring is said to grant the gift of fertility to anyone who runs around it counter clockwise 3x without stopping. Considering the large circumference, this running ritual also meant you were in shape! As we walked the ring, many of us touching each stone, the wind blew us along, urging us to consider what ancient wisdom moved the people to build such impressive sites. What did they know, that we have long forgotten?

Stromness is the 2nd largest town on mainland Orkney with a population of 2000+. We enjoyed a lunch stop here, dining at Julia’s Bistro. This cafĂ© sits right off the waterfront and had one of the best desserts I ate the entire trip, raspberry almond cake. Several of us on the trip took pictures of our food, me because I like to cook, eat and remember. I also like to help erase the commonly held myth that Scottish food is boring and not tasty.

Maybe that was true in past decades, but these days, food is fresh, locally sourced when possible, and tasty. You don’t have to look for “hormone free” on the milk bottles, because all milk in the UK is hormone free. Orkney cheese is really nice. I purchased some Grimbister Farm cheese with caraway and mature Orkney red cheddar for the group. Combine with a Carr’s cheese cracker, and the tummy is quite satisfied.

Skara Brae was uncovered when a storm hit William Watt’s farm in 1850 and eroded the beachfront. The settlement wasn’t excavated however until 1928. This fine example of a stone-age community was quite advanced as they even had a sewage sytem and a stone trough area they filled with water and hot rocks to steam the sea life they ate.

Corrigall Farm Museum in Harray is a wonderful example of rural agricultural life on the island. Implements, tools and household furnishings from the 18th-20th century fill the buildings. Inside the buildings are all kinds of fascinating things like a simmon, rope that was made from twining grass, a spoon kaise, for holding cutlery, an ingenious mousetrap, an old Orkney chair, loom, and spinning tools and usually some North Ronaldsay sheep, the breed that eats seaweed! But they were not there today.

A tour of the Highland Park Distillery in Kirkwall lead us through the entire process of distilling single malt whiskey from the malting of the barley to the where the magic happens in the aging process. Highland Park single malt has a peaty taste and it light amber in colour. The taste comes from the malting process of roasting the barley with peat.

This is one of just 5 distilleries in Scotland that malts their own barley. The barley comes from mainland Scotland. The barley is soaked in water for two days, so it sprouts. Then it is spread out on a concrete floor for 5 days and turned to prevent it from sticking together. The kernels keep germinating on the malting floor. Then the green malt is placed on a mesh floor far above the fire kiln where it gets two firings of 18-20 hours each. The first four layers of peat are used in the first firing to give the barley a smokey flavor. Then it goes through a second firing fueled by coke, a form of coal. This second firing dries the malted barley.

After malting the grain is turned into a mash. The mash goes through 3 soakings. The distilling of the sugars into alcohol is a two-step process done in huge copper cookers. They age the whisky a minimum of 12 years in both Spanish sherry barrels. Nothing like a dram of whisky to settle the stomach before dinner!

Each Wednesday night, the Orkney Accordian and Fiddle Club practices at the Ayre Hotel in Kirkwall. Tonight, being the 4th Wednesday of the week, was “open night” which is a concert. They were joined by the Strathspey and Reel society and played for almost 3 hours. Where is that dance partner when I need him?

Music and bands abound in Orkney. They showcase Orkney and Scotland’s finest in the annual Orkney Folk Music Festival, May 21-24, 2009.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Day 8 Kirkwall, Orkney

Each tour includes a one-day workshop with a Scottish artist. This time we worked with Ingrid Tait. I first visited Tait and Style in 1997. In Ingrid’s studio I saw this amazing needle punching machine. That was my first exposure to machine needle felting. Now I own several home models that look like a sewing machine. Ingrid’s huge industrial machine with hundreds of needles makes things possible you could never do with a 7 needle Babylock. Imagine, her machine as an ocean liner and ones like mine, an inflatable kayak.

Ingrid started out showing us examples of work she has produced. For 17 years Ingrid has run this company that creates knitted and felted scarves, throws, pillows, and accessories for the high fashion market in London and New York. She discovered a needle-punching machine in Yorkshire that was used to make industrial materials. Sensing it could be retooled to work with wool fabric, she acquired the machine and has been felting her designs with fleece, yarn and fabric onto commercially woven wool.<

Student created designs and chose fleece, yarn, and a variety of fabrics to create the design elements. Then learned how to tack them onto a wool and angora scarf blank with needle and thread. By mid afternoon, the scarves were ready to be fed through the industrial needle felting machine. It has a conveyor belt not unlike the airport conveyor belt that carries your hand luggage through the xray machine. The bed of Ingrid’s machine is about 4 feet wide. The scarves are sewn together with cheesecloth type netting between them. The bed moves the scarves through the needle head unit which moves up and down. After the first pass, the tacking stitches are removed from the design elements, then the scarves are fed through the machine a second time.

After rolling the scarves through the pressing machine, the group is ready for a style show! Ingrid is a fabulous designer and a charming person to work with Everyone enjoyed a day to be creative instead of being a tourist.

Tait and Style is located in the Wine and Wool shop in the courtyard behind The Long Ship just across from St. Magnus Church. Ingrid and her husband Duncan run both these shops. The Long Ship sells jewelry designed by Ola Gorie, Ingrid’s mom. Although retired now, her popular jewelry designs are still available. When Duncan isn’t busy discovering the nextgreat wine to provide to the restaurants he supplies, you might hear him singing and playing guitar with the Lonestar Swing Band. This is the only westernswing band in Orkney, perhaps Scotland. I caught part of their rehearsaland wished I’d had a parter to 2 step with to the strainof “Roley Poley”

The post dinner walk in the brisk air and sunshine inspired me to shoot town scenes. Here are a few of my Kirkwall impressions.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Day 7 South Ronaldsay and Kirkwall, Orkney

Monday 27 April

We started the day at Tomb of the Eagles on South Ronaldsay. Ronnie Simison found a Bronze Age dwelling on his farm in 1958 at the edge of a field. His family runs the visitor center and gives you an excellent introduction to the artifacts and bones found in the dwelling and the Tomb before you walk out one mile to the edge of the sea for viewing. Here are Pam and Sandra on the windy trek. The Tomb of the Eagles is named so because the bones of 14 sea eagles were found in the tomb in addition to the bones of at least 340 people. The tomb dates back to the stone age, between 4000-5000 BC. The tomb was excavated in 1976. 2 archeologists working on site figured the tomb was used for 800 years. To see the inside of the tomb, you either crawl or pull yourself in on a little trolley cart, similar to a mechanic’s creeper. Will chose to crawl!

It’s easy to see why the blues in Leila Thomson’s tapestries are so stunning. Out the window of her Hoxa studio and gallery the water flashes a variety of shades of blue depending on the amount of clouds or sun. After graduating from art school in Edinburgh in 1980, Leila came back home and has been designing and weaving ever since. 13 years ago she opened her gallery and now visitors from around the world view her stunning work.

Leila weaves private commissions, working from her own charcoal sketches and full size cartoons. Working full scale from the initial sketch, she feels her woven work comes out more like a drawing. She interprets and chooses all the colors as she weaves blending a variety of fibers. This really gives the tapestries an energy and vitality often lacking in other pictorial textiles. Words and pile texture are also trademarks in her designs. Leila always weaves to music ranging from Metallic to the London Philharmonic, she likes the volume loud. As Leila readily admits “I work in a state of splendid isolation.” After the tourist season ends in September that is.
Orkney abounds in artists. One can pick up maps of the Orkney Craft Trail and visit many studios open from after Easter until the early autumn. When I asked one of the Orcadian artists we visited today why the islands are such magnets for creativity, she suggested that it was the influx of artists who came up here from England that got the movement started in the 60’s.

Driving from South Ronaldsay, you cross several of the Churchill Barriers. The British fleet was stationed here in WWII and the barriers were build using labor of POWs to protect the fleet from the Germans U boats. Before the large concrete barriers, salvage ships were lined up end to end and sunk to create the barriers. One German U-boat managed to penetrate those original barriers and sunk a the HMS Royal Oak, with the cost of over 800 lives. Today the area around the seven remaining WWI German sunken ships is one of the top dive sites in the world.

The Italian Chapel stands on the Island of Lamb Holm just over the fourth barrier. Italian prisoners of war who built the barriers and worked in agriculture, were given a Nissen hut to turn into a chapel. Domenico Chiochetti designed the chapel and the prisoners worked to decorate and furnish it over a period of 3 years with materials they could scrounge. When the prisoners were released at the end of the war, Chiochetti stayed onto finish the work on the chapel. The detailed painting and metal work is a testament to what can be created from nearly nothing when you have dedication and vision. In 1960 the BBC Italian service broadcast that they were looking for the men in charge of building the Italian chapel. Chiochetti responded and the islanders invited him back to refurbish the painting on the inside of the chapel. There continues to be strong ties between Italy and Orkney.

Sheila Fleet, is the sister of Leila Thompson. There is no shortage of artistic talent and vision in that family. In 15 years Sheila’s business has grown to 42 employees. Sheila is the chief designer, creating 3 new collections each year. She has done a total of 150 collections so far. We toured the workshop to understand the lost wax method used to produce her jewelry. I found two of the steps extremely interesting. The skill of the master pattern maker who takes each design and hand cuts the metal master has to be exacting. The enamelists also have a painstakingly detailed job, applying the enamel mixture (ground up glass and distilled water) to the jewelry, then curing each piece, one at a time in a tiny kiln on their worktable.
Sheila’s philosophy backs up her talent and work ethic to spell success. “ A measure of success is how you feel about what you are doing. I’m still enjoying myself. You have to look at keeping the balance. Find something you really like doing and you’ll never work again.” If you can't come to Orkney to meet Sheila, she has galleries in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Many of the group left Sheila's wearing a peice of jewelry to remind them of the pristine landscape that inspires Sheila's fabulous designs.

Just down the road lies Mine Howe. In 1999 farmer Douglas Paterson bought the land and excavated the site. 29 steps lead down to a room barely big enough for 3 people. What was this chamber used for? No one knows. This site is indicative of Orkney. Many ruins are still to be uncovered, or left to posterity, untouched, the mystery to remain a mystery.

Kirkwall, the largest town in the islands is our home base for exploring the main island. We stayed at the West End Hotel. Proprietor, Mr. Leslie and his staff offer excellent hospitality and comfortable rooms.

12 years ago as I walked off the ferry with a large pack on my back, I met the Mina and Arnie Flett. Arnie drove me around to visit artist studios in exchange for me helping him warp a loom he was given. A retired pipe major, Arnie still teaches piping to dedicated students, and he and Mina entertained us with piep tunes and poems after dinner tonight. Mina still glows as she listens to Arnie play a polka he wrote for her. Sitting just a few feet from Arnie as he played tunes he has composed, I discovered that he has the unique ability to circular breath as he is playing, a rare gift for a piper. Skillful artists, ancient stones, good food and conversation and sharing of music, was this not a fine day?