Saturday, 28 July 2012

Achanarras revisited

In one of my June posts I mentioned another visit to the famous Devonian fossil site at Achanarras Quarry in Caithness. I had earlier found a fossil of Dipterus, a four hundred million year old fish. Having been in the dark for all that time it is now fully exposed as the centre piece of an occasional table. Caithness Stone Industries, based at Spittal were able to cut out the fossil bearing stone and insert it into a polished piece of hard blue Caithness sandstone, creating a unique and very pleasing resting place for the fish.

On the same visit, although there are now very few stones left unsplit, I was surprised to find something that I though was a plant fossil because of the multi-branching tree like form. A quick e-mail to Prof Nigel Trewin at Aberdeen University confirmed that it wasn't a fossil, it was a dendrite. These are chemical deposits that crystallise in a dendritic habit from mineral containing fluids that seep between the sandstone planes. My sample, from the brassy colour is probably composed of iron sulphide, rather than the more common manganese based dendrites, which are black. The area around St Catherine's monastery in Sinai is famous for manganese based dendritic pyrolusites.

The Stuart Agenda by Alan Calder published by Willow Moon. e-Book and paperback at all amazon sites. Reviews at

Monday, 23 July 2012

Groatie Buckie

John o'Groats in the North East corner of Caithness sits on the Pentland Firth facing the uninhabited Isle of Stroma and Orkney. There is usually something to see. In this picture, Wick fishing boat, the Boy Andrew, is passing the east end of Stroma on its way to the fishing grounds.
..However, my main boyhood memory of 'Groats as we called it was hunting for the elusive Groatie Buckie, a tiny cowrie shell, Cyraea Europaea, said to exist nowhere else on this earth. Gradually that boyhood myth has been dispelled by finding the shell on other Caithness beaches and more recently on Westray in Orkney, albeit in much smaller numbers. But the biggest challenge was finding them  on a beach in France. The French ones might even have been bigger! Such was the rarity of the little shell that finding just one was said to confer good luck.
Remarkably, there seem to be a lot more of them around at John O' Groats these days (can we thank global warming?). On a nostalgic hunt a few weeks ago we gathered several hundred, out of sight of the Last House. The sandy beaches near the village have disappeared so you have to walk about a mile east along the coast to find suitable ground, preferably at low tide.
Back in John O' Groats village there are welcome signs of new development. The hotel is being rebuilt as apartments and chalets are being erected for letting. You can still buy crabs from the fishermen at the harbour and the pottery and other shops do their best to keep the tourists supplied with souvenirs. 

The Stuart Agenda by Alan Calder, published by Willow Moon. e-book and paperback on all amazon sites. See reviews at

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Orkney Saga- Papa Westray

The island of Papa Westray, known locally as Papay lies just off the east coast of its larger neighbour, Westray. We ducked the opportunity of taking the world's shortest flight across the sound and opted for the ferry from Pierowall. From the pier in the bay of Moclett we walked west round the bay and Vestness to tackle the west coast against a stiff north wind . Enormous flights of sea ducks greeted us. We didn't recognise the species until our bird book mentioned hybrids- ducks! The island looks very green and fertile and I'm sure that cattle will greatly outnumber the seventy inhabitants who operate as a community to keep island life going. A shop and visitors hostel are owned and run by the community. Half way along the west coast we came to Knap of Howar, northern Europe's earliest house dating from over 5000 years ago. It was thrilling to sit there and imagine the life of the early settlers cultivating the island for the first time.

     Not much further along the west coast we find St Boniface's Church, one of the oldest Christian sites in the North of Scotland. Some of the stonework dates from the 12th century. St Boniface was an important figure in the development of the early church, especially in Germany so it isn't quite clear why Papay claimed him. The building has two doors, one leading to the ground floor and a second up an external staircase to the gallery, where the laird would have sat with his family, well insulated from his tenants below. The restoration of the church is celebrated in a ceramic of the Saint arriving by ship on Papay. It was made by local school children. At this point we turned east to cross the island along the top of the airfield, hitting the east coast near the old pier where the steamer from Kirkwall used to call once a week, before the current new pier was built in 1970.

Below the pier we find the shell of an ancient watermill, last used to mill oats and bere 100 years ago. The mill stones and the bones of the undershot wheel are still there.

     On the land curlews abound and the coast is constantly patrolled by marauding artic skuas. They are aerial pirates who bully mainy terns into disgorging the fish they have just swallowed. We came across a fulmar nesting behind a wall on the footpath. After a little coaxing the chick emerged from under its mother to be photographed. We stopped on the beach in the Bay of Burland, to gather sea shells, a childish habit that still afflicts us. In particular we were looking for the small cowrie 'Groatie Buckie.' We found a few but that's another story. Round the last headland we find ourselves back at the pier waiting for the ferry and anticipating a fish dinner at the Pierowall Hotel back on Westray.

The Stuart Agenda by Alan Calder, published by Willow Moon. e-Book and paperback on all Amazon sites. Reviews at 

Friday, 13 July 2012

Orkney Saga - Westray

The one and a half hour sea voyage north from Kirkwall takes a route between Egilsay and Eday, then past Faray to Rapness, the main car ferry terminal in the south of Westray. The most striking feature is how green all the islands are and the vast numbers of cattle being reared on the rich grass. A seven mile drive up the spine of Westray takes us to Pierowall, the main village with shops, a hotel, several B&B's and a crab processing factory.
     Westray is a walkers paradise, packed with historic sites and teeming with bird life. From our excellent B&B at The Old Manse in Pierowall we did a circular walk to Notland Castle and links. The castle was built by the tyrannical Gilbert Balfour, a minister to Mary Queen of Scots. The nearby links are gradually yielding from the sand a neolithic settlement, contemporary with or even earlier than Skara Brae.
The 'not to be missed site' is Noup Head to the north west. There the land rises and turns to heath populated by sheep and of course birds. The headland is a new gannet nesting site. For the last ten years the colony has grown to several hundred nesting birds who share the cliffs with the usual mix of guillemots, razorbills and kittiwakes under the evil eyes of patrolling great and arctic skuas. At this time of year the chicks are growing quickly on a diet of fish provided by the parents.
The other popular nesting site is on the Castle o' Burrian stack in the south east corner of the island. This provides a nesting site for the largest puffin colony on the island and good viewing opportunities in the early morning and evening.
The Westray Heritage centre next to the Pierowall Hotel (excellent fish) has a permanent display on the history, flora and fauna of Westray including the famous Westray stone, a carved neolithic door lintel found during excavations in the village. The find of the 'Westray Wifie', a very rare female  neolithic stone figurine, is also told. Outside, a whale skeleton and a collection of anchors reminds us that in former times Orcadians sailed the seven seas in search of a living and adventure. Papa Westray tomorrow.

The Stuart Agenda by Alan Calder, published by Willow Moon. e-Book and paperback at all amazon sites. Reviews at

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Orkney Saga- South Ronaldsay

We've been to Orkney many times, usually showing visitors the great mainland sights accessible on the day bus tour that connects to the John o'Groats ferry.That takes in the unique neolithic sites at Scara Brae and the Ring of Brogdar as well as free time in Kirkwall. This time we wanted to see something of the outer islands so the main objective was spend four days on Westray.
     On the way however we wanted to spend a little time on South Ronaldsay and an evening at the famous Creel restuarant in St Margaret's Hope, the Orkney port for the Gills car ferry.  Before that we had time to visit the Iron Age excavations at Windwick and the Tomb of the Eagles at Burwick. The Windwick site is large and complex covering almost a thousand years of occupation. The Tomb looks like many others but the artifacts found in it, especially the sea eagle talons and the likelihood that the dead were picked clean by those magnificent birds before burial of the skeleton, added a macabre yet somehow fitting primeval element to the story.

     Later we had dinner at the Creel. Starters of crab with apple mayo and avocado salsa on pickled cucumber and mackerel fillet with toasted oatmeal on a bed of wilted rocket with warm rhubarb chutney. Main courses were, tusk, a deep sea fish which tasted like a cross between cod and monkfish then scallops with megrams. Cheese was accompanied by home made bere bannocks. Quality and presentation were excellent as befits its Good Food Guide rating and the relaxed ambiance was an added bonus. Breakfast next morning was also a culinary treat with secials of warm fruit compote and smoked salmon fishcake served with spinach.
     Before catching the Westray ferry from Kirkwall we had time to walk from St Margaret's Hope to Hoxa Head. WW11 screams out from the empty gun emplacements that guarded the entrance to Scapa Flow, a major navy base. Below the guns, black guillemots are found in large numbers, although with their red legs they are much rarer than their normal guillemot cousins.
     On Westray tomorrow.

The Stuart Agenda by Alan Calder published by Willow Moon. e-Book and paperback available on all Amazon sites and Kindle. Reviews at

Monday, 2 July 2012

Scottish Independence through Irish Eyes

In The Times recently Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole looked at the question of Scottish independence through Irish eyes. He was reminiscing about taking a play about the Easter Rising of 1916 on tour to Glasgow in 1991. He could see that many in the audience were moved to tears and assumed that they were √©migr√© Irish. It turned out however that they were Scots who somehow felt jealous of the heroic path taken by Irish nationalism in the 20th century. However even then in the cold light of day it seemed clear that Scotland had followed a more profitable path within the union as measured by various social and economic statistics and the reality that lots of Irish had migrated to Scotland but few Scots went the other way.

It reminded me of a visit to the museum in Kinsale and understanding for the first time the plight of the Irish following the battle of Kinsale and later after the defeat of James II at the Battle of the Boyne. Ireland was sorely brutalised, much more so than the Highlands of Scotland after the Jacobite rebellion of 1745-6. The Irish certainly had a stronger case that the Scots to be rid of their arrogant colonial masters.

 Coming to the present, the Celtic Tiger model that put wind in Alex Salmond’s sails has bit its own tail as the property bubble burst. Worse still the Irish are facing a major loss in sovereignty as their budgets are scrutinised in Berlin and Brussels, the fate of all weak members of the currency union that is the Euro. The position of an independent Scotland in the Euro or indeed in an extended currency union in Sterling with England would not be so different. Total independence would require a return to the Pound Scots, a currency that has disappeared completely from the debate.

It seems clear that Scotland has to make its own detailed case for independence, learning from the mistakes of the Irish and others. With the benefit of a little hindsight, the overwhelming case for the union in the first place was the opportunity to benefit fully from the Industrial Revolution and the vast potential of the British Empire. Scots and Scotland benefitted greatly from both, but that was long in the past. As a relatively small country Scotland could focus on its strengths and sort out the social problems that are a direct hangover from the Industrial Revolution.

 Independence is no guarantor of good government, but at least there will be nobody else to blame. Daft policies are already with us in the current Scottish Government’s plan that the country could be run 100% on renewable electricity. Not being able to trust them to keep the lights on is hardly a good start. And inflicting the current monarchy on us without constitutional consultation is high handed and patronising. My novel, The Stuart Agenda, is a metaphor for the choice that should be given to the Scottish people. This makes the point that nationalist politics are completely stunted by having only one nationalist party. We need other nationalist parties giving us competing visions for Scotland.

The final message to the Scots would be from the only Irishman in the world who would vote to re-join the union with Britain, if you could find him.

The Stuart Agenda by Alan Calder, published by Willow Moon. e-book and paperback at all Amazon sites. See for reviews.