Nairn river swans

May 31, 2011

Nine cygnets for the Nairn river swans. Most of the town, I hope, is as enchanted by the development as I am. They are two weeks old,  as reported by JT in his blog ‘Simply Superb Swans‘ and they are still vulnerable to attack by predators and will be for the next few weeks.  I caught up with the family a couple of days ago, on the lower river close to where it enters the sea, to find both parents and cygnets feeding along the river wall.

During our visit to Orkney earlier in May, we noted a large number of mute swans nesting around the mainland, mostly on Loch of Stenness and Loch of Harray. The conditions for swans is perfect, with abundant food supplies and prime nesting sites.  One thing that was fairly surprising were the number of nests close to roads frequently used  by walkers and cyclists.

This particular nest with Pen in attendance was close to the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar – right on the ness between the two lochs and right beside the road between several ancient sites. Loch of Harray is to the right of this shot and is a fresh water loch. The Cob was about 100 feet away on the loch but paid no attention to my attempts at photography.

I have my eye on you!

On the opposite side of the narrow isthmus was located a second nest, only 50 yards away from the first. This is Loch Stenness which is linked to the sea, so is of near full salt water.

When fully grown cygnets are finally chased off by the parents, they eventually group together in large numbers. The picture above is of the Brough of Birsey where 27 young swans had gathered together in the bay where feeding is good (not all of them are in the picture). Similar groups of young swans could be found around Loch of Stenness and Harray too, a testament to last years’ successful breeding season. On one cycle ride around Loch of Stennes, I counted over 7 separate nesting sites. Clearly, swans find the ancient landscape of Orkney as attractive as I do!


Beremeal and Barony Mill, Orkney

May 24, 2011

The last working water powered mill on Orkney is in the north west corner of the mainland at Barony, near Birsey: a fascinating building where beremeal and oatmeal are produced. It is also a fine example of the use of alternative energy, something regarded as a modern need but this one dates back to 1873 when the mill was built. Today, as Orkney bere, wheat and oats are milled, no electricity is used in the process: water power is king here. Even the kiln room is fired with husks left over from the milling process. It burns hot, relatively smokeless and is readily available!

The top floor of the mill. Noteworthy is the hoist which lifts grain up to a fanner, of which there are two, the primary function being to blow the husks away from the kernel after the first grind to dehusk.

Three grind stones are located on the first floor – one to de-husk the grain, the second two to grind the kernels to meal. The final set of stones are quarried from Yesnaby on Orkney.

It takes a great deal of power to shift those stones and operate all the other equipment that makes up a fully functioning mill. A wheel measuring 4 metres in diameter turns at 12rpm to provide all the energy the mill needs. The following sequence of pictures shows the mill wheel filling with water as it starts up.

At their peak, there were 40 working mills on Orkney.  Once you get an eye for them, it’s possible to see old mill buildings dotted about as you drive around the mainland, most of which now have other purposes. A good example is Tormiston Mill which is now the Historic Scotland visitor reception for Maeshowe. The small museum shows parts of the former mill on the first floor. Back at Barony, adjacent to the main building, is evidence of two other water wheels.

Beremeal from Barony Mill is an old variety of barley, low in gluten and very suited to growing quickly in short seasons with long daylight hours. It is grown on Orkney as well as Shetland and the Western Isles. Buying beremeal is one good reason for visiting the mill, as if any were needed. I use it to make bere bannocks which are good, filling low GI food; great with cheese and Orkney beer. Speaking of beer, (which I do often) there is a bere beer brewed on Shetland.

Bere bannocks in the making in my own kitchen: 2 cups of bere meal, 1 cup of Orkney wheat flour, one tsp each of baking soda and cream of tartar and you are nearly there. Season with salt, mix and add goats milk to make a stiff dough. Roll out on a floured surface and cook on a dry griddle for a couple of minutes a side before wrapping in a clean tea towel to cool.

A done job – unassuming but very tasty – with cheese, honey, pickles etc. Try with onion marmalade and venison, for example. Fortunately, bere is making a comeback in the face of modern high yielding barley varieties and I will confess to the additional bags of beremeal tucked safely away in my freezer which will have to last until my next trip to Orkney.

Orkney’s wild places

May 18, 2011

Orkney is a terribly civilised place with many fantastic restaurants, superb food, many lovely shops in Kirkwall and a huge variety of crafting places dotted around the islands offering everything from natural wools for knitting, pottery and even bere meal locally milled. Cafe culture is strong and you can end up spending a fortune on a single trip. Orkney has a wild side too; very wild in fact, remote and incredibly beautiful.

We spent many hours walking along the west mainland west coast between the Brough of Birsay and Stromness to enjoy scenery such as the view taken (above) from the Brough of Bigging at Yesnaby. The island of Hoy is visible in the distance and the ‘Old Man of Hoy’ is also just in sight of the camera lens, to the right.

It’s possible to spend a whole day at Yesnaby: take a packed lunch, plenty of water and explore the coast path. Look at the various wild plants and seek out fossils in the fish beds.

Primula scotica is one of Scotland’s native plants, usually found in western Scotland and Orkney; a tiny flower which is easy to miss when viewing the fantastic cliff top panoramas. It can be found in the marine grass lands adjacent to the cliffs if you are really lucky. However, a note of caution. Globally, it is very rare and it is illegal to remove or pick wild flowers in Scotland. Take pictures by all means but please leave our native plants as you find them to spread their seed and survive.

There’s nothing between Orkney and the North American continent other than ocean. It shows with powerful waves, even on a calmish day in May. Imagine the waves on a stormy November night…

Looking north up the west coast towards Marwick Head and the Brough of Birsay. Wild places help restore inner balance; a break from modern life and technology. Going wild does much to put work and life pressures into perspective. Let’s not forget the healthy appetite for dinner and a lot of aching muscles after a day of clambering around the rocks in the fresh Atlantic air!

Orkney cannot be ‘done’ in a week!

May 15, 2011

Orkney is a very special place, made up of numerous small islands surrounding its mainland, located where the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea meet north of Scotland. It is a most fantastic place, with a magic of its own. Dotted with ancient sites dating back to Neolithic times, it is also very green with few or no trees. History is something you cannot fail to notice as a visitor: the rings and stones at the Ness of Brodgar; St. Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall and recent naval history when Scapa Flow was the anchorage for the British Home Fleet.  Powerful tides race between the islands as the Atlantic and North Sea do battle, making the islands and their deep channels a potential bonanza of renewable energy. There is no doubt that Orkney cannot be ‘done’ in a day or even a week, not if you want to get under the skin of the place.

Ferries are vital links between Scotland and Orkney and one of the fastest is the MV Pentalina, a twin hulled vessel which operates between Gills Bay and St. Margaret’s Hope ( The trip takes an hour or so in good sea conditions and the return fare for a car and two passengers was £112. So, on a windy and slightly grey late afternoon, we queued up at Gills Bay with around 30 other cars to board the MV Pentalina for the fast trip across to St. Margaret’s Hope on South Ronaldsay. Ferry trips are fun and make a holiday more interesting than doing the trip by fly and drive.

Leaving Scotland. An important point regarding geographical etiquette: Orcadians do not refer to Scotland as the ‘mainland’.

Some of the most powerful tidal races in Europe are to be found in the Pentland Firth between Scotland and Orkney along with Scapa Flow.

Approaching South Ronaldsay, one of several southern islands linked by causeways (the Churchill Barriers) built during WW2.

Arrival in St. Margaret’s Hope and the start of a new adventure.