Monday, 29 June 2009


The Old Man of Hoy - the Orkneys

Seascape: The Camera at the Shore
In the rockpool a child dips (shrilling)
Fingers, toes.
Below the widest ebb it opens,
The lost sea rose.
Then, drowning rose and reef and rockpool
The west inflows ...
The Atlantic pulse beats twice a day
In cold gray throes.
Shy in a rock-caught crumb of earth
One seapink shows.
Scotland, scattered saw-teeth, melts like petals
In the thin haze.
Lucent as a prism for days, this shore, until
A westerly blows.
Then stones slither and shift, they rattle and cry,
They break and bruise.
Shells are scattered. Caves like organs peal
Threnody, praise.
Tangles lie heaped in thousands, thrust and thrown
From the thunder and blaze!
Silence again. Along the tidemark wavelets
Work thin white lace.
Among that hoard and squander, with her lens
Gunnie goes.
George Mackay Brown (1921-1996)
George Mackay Brown was born in Stromness in the Orkney Islands where he spent much of his life. Before his death in 1996 he published, to great acclaim, over fifty works, including poetry, plays, novels, short stories, essays, children's books and his autobiography.
Last week I travelled to Orkney by ferry in the early morning mist, by midday the mainland island was bathed in crystal clear light. I bought my copy of The Collected Poems of George Mackay Brown from the Stromness Book shop at 1 Graham Place, Stromness. The owner of the shop sat quietly with an aura of stillness about him - I was struck by the similarity in appearance he had to my dear friend Michael who died in late 2006. Strangely, the bookseller was also American and shared the name Campbell, he showed me a photo of a beautiful Swedish woman who had been his wife until she died just over two years ago. Our conversation lasted only minutes before I had to rush off but the encounter stayed with me.
This post is for Ian and his wife Pen ... happy beachcombing!

Sunday, 28 June 2009

The mist lifted ....

At last I see a puffin close up - at Sumburgh Head on the Shetlands

Seabirds on the cliffs - Sumburgh Head

Common seals with pups - Mainland, Shetlands

Looking down on the beach with seals

The Ring of Brodgar on Orkney - looking towards the nearby mound

The Ring of Brodgar looking towards the loch
Over the past week I have fulfilled a long held desire to visit the Orkneys and Shetland Isles; the long journey up to Caithness was made over two days through spectacular scenery and an overnight stay in Stirling, arriving at the northern most tip of Scotland only to find everything concealed by dense mist. The plan was to stay a couple of days in the small coastal town of Thurso to relax after the journey and then to catch a ferry over to Stromness on Orkney, continuing on to the Shetlands.
On the first full day in Thurso the mist lifted and a few wonderful hours were spent walking along the cliffs which were covered by a myriad of wild flowers, including orchids.
The Orkney day finally dawned. Although misty and chilly for the ferry journey across, it quickly became bright, blue-green and beautiful. The first place to visit was Skara Brae, which was everything I imagined set against the backdrop of a sparkling sea. Then back to Stromness where I was directed to the local bookshop in my search for a compilation of poetry by Orkney poet, George Mackay Brown. My brief encounter with the owner of the shop turned out to be a strange and compelling few minutes - a story I will save for another time.
Back with the people I travelled with, there was still so much to see, the Stones of Stenness, Maes Howe, and finally the stunning Ring of Brodgar. I was not prepared for the elation I would feel when walking around this remote heather covered henge by the sea, surrounded by the distant hills of neighbouring islands. In many ways it seemed to mirror the Avebury henge back in Wiltshire (and home) - Orkney was definitely the highlight of the trip. The Shetlands were still to come, however, and the time spent there was sunny, warm with the bluest of seascapes, seals basking on the sands, wonderful puffins, gulls, cormorants, and shags flying in mesmerising profusion around sheer cliffs. Then on to the fascinating archaeological site of Jarlshof. I cannot do Skara Brae or Jarlshof justice here but will come back to them later.
Perhaps the most memorable aspect was the daylight. I did not experience the darkness of night for the duration of my trip though had no trouble sleeping - travelling from Orkney to Shetland on an overnight ferry it was a little weird to be looking out at the sea at midnight, while still light.
(music of the Shetlands)

Friday, 12 June 2009

A bat by twilight

This evening I experienced a 'first' in awareness of the natural world that is all around us. Almost midsummer, at 10.00pm this evening it was still light when I went into my little back garden. I had been wondering where Sam the cat was as hadn't see him for a few hours; he was of course fine, sitting in his usual meditative position on an upstairs window ledge.

As I looked up I spotted a tiny pipistrelle bat flying around in a circle just above my head, it flew into the branches of a nearby lime tree which stands in the old cemetery behind my house, then out again and around again. A twilight ballet went on for several minutes as I stood transfixed ..... just quietly watching and listening to the almost indiscernible swish of the tiny bat in flight. A magical few moments which made the minor irritations of the day fade into triviality. I have seen flitting bats before but have never had such a close up encounter as this evening ..... and in my own back garden.

There are many excellent educational web-sites about bats; at I found this evocative poem.
Summer Bats
Leatherwing fluttering, cut-outs in black ink
Against the fading fluorescent sunset sky;
Leaf-spiraling with purpose and hunger,
Cries shrilled out of hearing, sketching their world.
Replacing the swallows, the night-shift pours forth
From crevice and eave. The host of shy hunters
Fills the middle air with their dance.This show
Is unseen for the most part, yet the insect-seekers
Are not invisible. It is our lapse of attention:
How few of us look up for quiet wings at twilight!
(by Hugh Eckert)

Friday, 5 June 2009

Kingfisher- Fisherking

The elusive kingfisher. I have only seen it once some years ago; ironically while walking along the Barnet Open Space by a brook, near Whetstone in north London. A flash of blue, then gone .... I have been haunting watery places ever since in hope of another sighting. A quest for the allusive, the fleeting, the dancing harlequin of life.
The legend of the FisherKing is in some ways symbolic of this quest. It concerns the legend of the 'Holy Grail', a mythical concept; some think it is the lost chalice that is associated with the life and death of Jesus. For myself, I think it is the quest for something allusive, just out of reach. It is the coming of spring with its blaze of light, blossom and birdsong. It is the kingfisher swooping across a stream; the call of the swallows when they return in May; wild swans in flight; my one and only sighting of a pair of goldcrests (the tiniest of all birds). It is so often hidden in the ordinary .....
And a man stood there, as still as moss,
A lichen form that stared;
With an old blind hound that, at a loss,
Forever around him fared,
With a snarling fang half bared.
I looked at the man; I saw him plain;
Like a dead weed, gray and wan,
Or a breath of dust. I looked again--
And man and dog were gone,
Like wisps of the graying dawn...
"Wasteland" Madison Cawein
The Myth ofThe Fisher King is one of the many 'Holy Grail' legends.
The Fisher King is the guardian of the Grail, which, in medieval legends, is the cup used by Jesus at the last supper and which was used to collect drops of his blood at the crucifixion.
The Fisher King is dying, his kingdom is dying around him, he's a man who's probably seen too much of life - he's experienced betrayal and tragedy. His life is slowly crumbling, and his kingdom goes barren. He has also lost the Grail. It's the one thing that can save him, but he's lost the ability to see it and experience it.
A fool comes along and finds the Grail right next to his bed and restores (it to) the king; the fool, a pure and innocent soul, demonstrates the kind of compassion that can free the king from mortal anguish.
The Kingfisher Hide at Slimbridge, though sadly no sightings on this visit, the search continues .....
Note: the photo image of the kingfisher is courtesy of the internet (BBC site).