Doors Open.

Nov. 4th, 2013 07:14 pm
rhythmaning: (sunset)
Ian Rankin's book "Doors Open" starts in an auction room, and that was where I started my exploration of buildings in Edinburgh's Doors Open weekend: Lyon & Turnbull. Their auction- and showroom is housed in an imposing Georgian former church not far from me: it is at the end of a short street, the building's columns drawing one down the road.

It was quite interesting inside, though adaptations for its current use means that its previous functions is somewhat obscured. I didn't take any photographs inside, for instance - though I did see some chairs that I went back and bid for the following week.

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I also went to the very similar, still-functioning church opposite my flat. Though they weren't in the Open Doors official list, they had decided to open their doors anyway. It was a very similar design to the now-auction house, and interesting to see it in use. The congregation was once measured in thousands - the church was built by statute to accommodate the families of the expanding New Town: for every so many new dwellings, the council required that there were so many churches, too. Now, it is probably measured in tens (although there are always lots of cars parked in the street on Sunday mornings - though that may be due to the evangelical chapel down the road, too).



I then headed west, via the James Clerk Maxwell Institute - in a rather fine four storey New Town house, where JCM was born (and without whom much of the modern world might not be possible - unless someone else had come along to make his discoveries in his place) - to two fascinating buildings in the west end. First was the Drumsheugh Baths, a Victorian swimming pool designed in a Turkish style with all sorts of strange poolside equipment - swings and trapezes instead of diving boards (and, since it is a functioning swimming pool in use, they ban photography). The second was Lynedoch House, home to the Edinburgh Society of Musicians, a building I have been in before - indeed, I played there several years ago. It is a bit of a warren, with a large room overlooking Dean Village and the Water of Leith. They had someone playing short piano pieces; I sat staring out of the window at the amazing view, listening to some lovely piano playing. It felt rather special.

I walked back along the Water of Leith, and popped into St Bernard's Well. I have been past many times, but never inside the well itself. It is a beautiful building, tiled in mosaic. The pump still works, but the council won't let you drink the water - 'elf and safety...

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The following day I went to more temples: curiosuly for the centre of the Enlightenment, Edinburgh has a large variety of faiths and places for them to worship. I first went to the (former) Glasite Meeting House. I had never heard of Glasites before. They have a history that could have been written by Iain Banks. The last Glasite elder died in 1999. It was a plain building, now used for meetings and events. It had a remarkable glass ceiling boss, the only source of natural light into the meeting room itself. Presumably to stop the congregation being overly distracted - the guide explained that their pews were especially spacious because worship in one form or another went on for hours.


Around the corner from the Glasite meeting house is the Edinburgh Baha'i centre. In a beautiful Georgian townhouse, a small congregation meet. It was a beautifully restored building, and a fitting end to Open Doors.
rhythmaning: (violin)
Back in September, I went across to Glasgow for the first time in over a year. It was "Doors Open" day (conveniently, they hold Doors Open days on different weekends for Glasgow and Edinburgh - a lot of people visit both cities, I think).

A friend had booked several tickets for the Tennents' Wellpark Brewery, and a group of us went across for it.

But we started off - after we'd left the first bar we visited, of course - at Barrowland. Or Barrowlands. Officially the former, but everybody adds an "S". Barrowlands is a dancehall, which nowadays means it's a rock venue. Possibly the most famous venue in Scotland. It is a standing - dancing, even - venue; a London equivalent might be the T&C, the Lyceum, or the Hammersmith Palais.

I have been several times - though not recently. I've seen Elvis Costello there, PJ Harvey, Tricky, and Portishead; maybe more. I'll be back there to see the Waterboys next month.

It is set in the east end of Glasgow, and houses "the Barras" market underneath the dancehall. It isn't a salubrious area. When I mentioned to (a Glaswegian friend) that I'd be going to Barrowlands in December, he told me not to take my car because it might not make it through the night... He is of course exaggerating. It is perfectly safe. As long as it's green.

Anyhow, Barrowlands is the major Scottish rock venue, and has been for decades. A place of legend.

We wandered around for Doors Open. It was a bit odd, frankly, being there and there not being any music. But I got to go backstage. Where I saw the stars.

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The dressing rooms are decorated with stars. A lot of stars take the stars off the wall, which is why there are blank patches of plaster.

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A little further east is the Wellpark Brewery, a large site near the Necropolis (itself a great place to visit) and cathedral. Wellpark is brewing on a truly industrial scale. It is huge. Vast tanks hold hundreds of thousands of gallons of beers; towering hoppers contains hundreds of tons of grain. During the week, it runs around the clock, with downtime at the weekend for repairs and maintenance. The whole site is computerised, and fewer than 100 people are needed to run it.

It was a fascinating tour.


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The tour ended in their sampling room. Free beer. Whoo hoo! Except that frankly the beer was tasteless. I don't wish to sound ungrateful - it was a great tour, a fascinating place - but I don't like the beer they make. We left to have supper (at another brewery) without finishing our pints.



Knife Edge.

Nov. 2nd, 2013 04:31 pm
rhythmaning: (sunset)


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Running along the north side of Glencoe, a deep glaciated valley with a long, sometimes barbourous history, is a long, steep-sided mountain ridge.I like ridge walking; I have climbed many of the ridges in the Scottish mountains - Liatach, An Teallach, and much of the Skye Cuillin - including the Inaccessible Pinnancle, an ill-named, very exposed blade of rock sticking out of (and a very little higher than) Sgurr Alasdair. To climb the Inn Pinn, you need ropes - it is the only one of the 283 Scottish mountains recognised as being over 3,000 feet ("Munros") for which you do need ropes.

But the Aonach Eagach comes close. And it is much, much harder than the rest of the Cuillin: once you have reached the ridge, an hour and a half's climb, there is only one way to go. And the scrambling is incessant for four or five hours, without a break.

It was foggy, as it was when I climbed the Inn Pinn, which I think was an advantage: it stops one thinking of the possible dangers when you can't see down.

It is a narrow path along the top of the ridge, and lots of ups and downs - pinnacles - that require scaling and scrambling. On Liatach and An Teallach, there are ways to avoid the more uncomfortable pinnacles; on the Cuillin, whilst the ridge is precipitous, there are lots of flat bits in between those that require scrambling. The Aonach Eagach lacks both alternative routes around the pinnacles and much space in between. Certainly nowhere to stop.

I quite enjoy scrambling, but the intensity of the Aonach Eagach is just wearing. And it is not an easy scramble - it is the most difficult route before it becomes real mountain climbing (what I do I usually describe as walking!). The guide I and two others hired - absolutely essential, I reckon, and I couldn't have done it without him - had to direct me a fair bit - where to put my hands and feet. There was a lot of stretching between hand- and footholds - my limbs ached for several days after. There were many times when I couldn't see what was below me; the was one moment when I had to stretch my leg down and down a bit more, and I could feel my hands losing their grip, and I couldn't see how far I would fall. It turned out to be about two inches. But timed stopped...

At other points, the path was barely a foot wide on the ridge, with sheer drops on each side. I happily surrendered my dignity and crawled along, one hand and one foot on each side of the ridge.

I am pleased to sat that I shall not be climbing the Aonach Eagach again. I may well climb the first (eastern) Munro again, from the north. The second, westerly Munro I have climbed before. It was actually the first Munro I ever climbed, before I knew any better. I was staying at the Clachaig, a pub at the west of the glen, in 1987 or '88. It was a glorious early summer day. I had had a pint and lunch, and I noticed a path going up the hillside opposite the pub. So I climbed up, right to the top. Several years later, I read "this route should be avoided... a hazard... Not recommended".



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(The cloudy photos were taken on this trip. These sunny photos were taken on a - sunnier - trip last year. I must have many old, black and white photos of Glencoe and the Aonach Eagach amongst my negatives. Another scanning project, perhaps...)
rhythmaning: (Saxophone)
September saw me migrating to Islay, like the geese, though I was only there for three days: the Lagavulin Islay Jazz Festival. I give it its full name because I love this festival, and I doubt it could happen without the sponsorship of Lagavulin, one of the distilleries on the island. Also, at each gig, they hand out drama of Lagavulin, one of my favourite whiskies, so that's even more reason to thank them! I think Lagavulin deserve a lot of praise for supporting jazz in a pretty remote part of Scotland, so in case you missed it, it's the Lagavulin Islay Jazz Festival. (I should point that I have no connection with Lagavulin whatsoever. But should they wish to thank me for my support, a bottle would always be welcome...)

It is a very special event. Because it is remote - a two hour ferry trip from the mainland - and the ferry port is itself three hours drive from Glasgow, you have to want to get there. There is little passing trade. The islanders welcome the festival, both for the music and for the tourism, one of the mainstays of the economy. (The other being whisky - which also brings a lot of tourists.)

The gigs are put on in small, unusual venues: distillery visitor centres, the RSPB reserve, village halls, the Gaelic centre. The audience, too, is relatively small, and one sees the same faces at different gigs - and different years. People go back year after year; I think this is the seventh time I have made the trip in twelve years.

The small venues and audience mean that each gig has an intimate feel; and the sponsorship means that one can see internationally renowned artists in circumstances that are hard to imagine anywhere else. It is a privilege to go to these gigs.

Over three days I caught five gigs by four bands, two of which were really the same. The festival kicked off with Trio Libero, an improvising band costing of Andy Sheppard on tenor and soprano sax, Michel Battina on bass and Seb Rochford on drums. I had seen Sheppard and Rochford play in a trio before; this outing was a much more rewarding experience. Sheppard's is necessarily the main voice, but both other players are central. Indeed, Rochford's minimalistic playing is key: at times it seemed as if he was barely playing, but he made every note, every space count. They moved from bebop tunes to free(ish) improvisation, a joy throughout.

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The artists on Islay frequently pay in a variety of ensembles, the programmers mixing them around in new settings. But this was the first time I saw something new: two different ensembles which comprised the same three people. Debuting first as the Callum Gourlay Trio and then playing the following day as the Kit Downes Trio, the tag team of Gourlay on bass, Downes on piano and James Madden on drums were a revelation. The first gig saw them playing mostly Gourlay's tunes with a couple of standards added in. Gourlay's writing showed real depth and maturity, with some beautiful tunes; his playing was excellent too - he played Charlie Haden's "Chairman Mao" as an exquisite solo.

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The mood changed a little under Downes' leadership, in a gig that featured mostly his tunes. I have seen him play several times in different bands, but I think this was the first time I had the opportunity to see him lead a trio. It was impressive.

Bassist Mario Caribe lead a trio with trumpeter Colin Steele and guitarist Graeme Stephen. Mario is the one musician - possibly the one person - who has been to every year's Islay jazz festival, in one guide or another. He played three trio gigs this year, and I caught the first. Featuring several of Steele's tunes, including excerpts of his Islay suite from his Stramash recording, a bunch of Mario's and some standards, this was a comfortable afternoon gig: it had a lovely relaxed feel about it. Stephen worked some guitar trickery with a bundle of pedals that balanced Caribe and Steele's unamplified instruments.

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The promoters had long wanted to get the Esbjorn Svennson Trio to Islay, and had discussed it several times with the band; Svennson's untimely death in 2007 stopped that from happening, but EST's drummer, Magnus Ostrom made the trip this year. Headlining two nights at different venues, the Magnus Ostrom Band were perhaps a curious choice for Islay. Their large amount of electronic equipment filled the two stages they played, and at times looked dangerously overloaded. A mixture of jazz, folk and prog-rock, they have quite a dark sound. Ostrom plays drums with a powerful intensity; he uses brushes unlike any other drummer. He looks pained as he plays, as if exorcising inner demons.

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Aside from Ostrom's insistent drumming, the major musical voice is that of guitarist Andreas Houdarkis. Bringing the main prog vibe, Houdarkis uses lots of pedals to create a rich sound, balanced by the jazz-oriented acoustic piano of Daniel Karlsson. It was a moving performance.

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rhythmaning: (Saxophone)
The first weekend of the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, back in July, featured two outdoor events. First was the Mardi Gras, in the Grassmarket, followed the next day by the Carnival in Princes Street. These were both unexpected fun - unexpected because they didn't really feature my kind of music. But fun they were, helped by exceptionally good weather.

The Mardi Gras had another advantage - beer, the pubs and restaurants that crowd along the Grassmarket doing great business. It was a lovely afternoon, wandering around in the crowd - the atmosphere was great.

There were a mixture of bands spread across four stages: blues musicians, New Orleans marching brass bands, tags bands - and (I think) a Taiwanese jazz band, played on traditional instruments - worth it just to hear the sound produced!

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The Carnival the next day was on a different scale: along the length of Princess Street, and throughout Princes St Gardens as well, a wealth of marching bands, street dancers and performers from all sorts of styles and traditions gathered and performed. The choice was startling - so much to see! And everyone looked like they were having the time of their lives.

In part this was only possible because Princes St was closed down because of the on-going tram works. There is something joyous about being able to walk unmolested through streets that are otherwise busy: a feeling of reclaiming the street from the traffic. I doubt this will be possible next year - the work is complete, and I can't imagine the council being willing to close the street down to enable it.

Which would be a real shame! Everyone seemed to have a great time. The mood was excellent, the dancers impressive, and the best infectious - and this is music I didn't expect to enjoy!

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rhythmaning: (Saxophone)
July's Jazz Festival was understandably busy. Ten gigs in ten days, with a couple of extra, excellent outdoor events, too. It was a fun time.

I tried to balance newer and old music, musicians I knew (and knew I liked) with people I'd not heard before; and a range of styles and groups. I won't cover every gig I went to, but I'd like to cover those that worked well, or didn't.

The festival opened fire with the Brian Kellock Copenhagen Trio. Kellock is a great pianist, with a chimeric skill in mixing genres and styles whilst presenting an engaging whole. His music twists and turns as he moves from stride to Monk and references more modern, keeping the bass and drums in their toes - and there was clearly a fair bit of joshing going on between the three of them.

Kellock filled some very big shoes when he took the place of Stan Tracey, who had pulled out of his quartet gig with Bobby Wellins due to illness. So it became the Wellins Quartet, with Clark Tracey on drums and Andrew Cleyndert on bass. This was a fun gig, but Kellock seemed subdued - at least compared to his form earlier in the festival - and it felt a bit as of the band were going through the motions. Good, but not outstanding.

The festival was beset with illness, losing the last night headliner Pharoah Sanders as well as Tracey. This was a big disappointment, since Sanders is one of the remaining firebrands from the 1960s avant garde, and not having seen him live for many years I had been looking forward to seeing how he had settled into life as an elder statesman.

The Italian/Sardinian-Scottish connection in Stone Islands had been forged at last year's festival, when Scots trumpet Colin Steele and pianist Dave Milligan teamed up with reedsman Enzo Favata. That was one of the surprise hits last year, and their return with an extended band this year was eagerly awaited. My expectations worked against them, since I thought they were excellent, but I was still disappointed! Tinged with a folk feel and featuring saxophonists Martin Kershaw and Konrad Wisniewzski, this ten piece had some of the anarchy of Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath. They made a great sound, but didn't quite capture the magic or excitement of last year's debut.

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Despite the familiarity of a band I had seen four or five times in the last year, the Neil Cowley Trio put on such a high energy show that they couldn't fail to excite. Very much a band, each member is integral to the sound, from Evan Jenkins' powerhouse drumming, through metronomic Rex Horan's bass playing to Cowley's passionate piano. Their tunes move from subtle to intense to loud, and they do it all very well. This was just a superb gig, the power of a rock band with the intricacy and emotion of - well, a jazz trio.

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They were just beaten as highlight of the festival by the Festival Orchestra's performance of Duke Ellington's Concert of Sacred Music. I had mixed feelings ahead of this gig. It was a must-see because it was a rare opportunity to here this music played live; but I was worried it would just be played note for note. And the involvement of a classical choir meant it might not sound like jazz at all. The Ellington recordings of his sacred music can feel like a missed opportunity, a little bit too sacred. This gig was, however, a joy from beginning to end. Directed by Clarke Tracey, the band and choir swung like the clappers, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra Chorus clearly enjoying the added freedom from their more usual classical constraints. Joined for several numbers by dancer Junior Laniyan, whose own percussive take added to the driving drums of Tom Gordon, the band were magnificent. The whole gig was like a hymn to Ellington and an earlier age. Absolutely wonderful.


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Sep. 8th, 2013 05:54 pm
rhythmaning: (sunset)
My journey from Unst back to Edinburgh started with a short ferry ride to Yell. I thought about visiting the hamlet of Gloup, where the drowned men came from, but instead decided to see if I could find otters. Despite looking, I hadn't seen otters on Unst. Yell has a lot of otters. When the BBC want to film otters, they go to Yell. Apparently it is otter-central for otters in Europe. (Interestingly, they were extinct in Yell and reintroduced. Though I can't remember where I read this.) So I went to a bit of the coast renowned for its otters. I went to Otter Wick. The clue is in the name.

It also had the White Lady, a figurehead from a sunken boat: she stands on the shore, looking toward the site of the wreck. She is crudely carved, painted white, and frankly spooky.

I didn't see any otters; more irritating, I bumped into a couple who told me they had seen otters on Unst the previous evening. I did see lots of seals in Yell, and had a good walk along the coast before heading to the next ferry, to Mainland.

It was cloudy on Mainland. Rather than head straight to Lerwick, where I was staying, I decided to go north. I drove right to the north, past hamlets and Nordic-looking towns, oil depots and large fjord-like voes.

I stopped and went for a walk. I walked from the east coast of Mainland to the west; from the North Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. It took me a minute or so: despite being a fair distance from the north of the island, at Mavis Grind the inlet - voe - to the east and that to the west almost meet, leaving a narrow isthmus barely wider than the road. The Vikings used to carry their long boats from one side to the other, to save the long sail north and then south around to top of Mainland. (The Scottish place name Tarbert - or Tarbet - indicates the same, which is why it is such a common place name around the coast.)

The road sign just south Mavis Grind warns of otters crossing the road. Not when I was there, there weren't.


I drove north, exploring the single track roads, going right to the north of the island, before heading back to Lerwick.

I had booked my b&b sometime before I left for Shetland, and I had been surprised how hard it had been. Most places were booked up - I think I tried six before finding a bed. Lerwick isn't a big place.

In some respects, I like Lerwick, but in others - well it is lacking somewhat. Despite all the b&bs being busy, the town felt pretty dead. I walked about, answering what to do with my evening - where to eat, where to drink. The streets were empty - this on a Saturday night. I decided on the fish and chip shop, eating in. Nowhere else grabbed me. The fish and chips were good, but I had hoped for more. None of the pubs I passed seemed very attractive either - not enough to entice me in. A couple of the bars are renowned for their music sessions, but there want a sound coming from any of them. Most of the bars were on the first floor, over shops at street level. Pushing past a gaggle of smokers deterred me.

The following evening was worse. I decided to eat at the Grand Hotel, a large place near the seafront. I went up the stairs and was directed to the bar, for bar food. The bar was an internal room, with no windows. And no atmosphere. There were two other tables, plus me: a couple at one, and three or four blokes at the other, perhaps guys off the rigs. No one was talking. The food was actually very good - I had some delicious scallops - but the place itself was awful.

I decided to go for a drink somewhere else, and settled on the Queens Hotel, on the water. The pub bit of the hotel was Obb the ground floor. I walked in. It was empty. I was the only pointer there. I walked to the bar; it had exactly the same beers as the Grand, and then I noticed the bar menu - it was owned by the same people as the Grand. The beer hadn't been great, there was no company, so I simply walked out again.

There was no one on the streets, either night. I once went to Iceland, where everybody had been making the most of the summer: it had a really busy feel, as if the locals were making up for lost time. It is possible that, like Reykjavik, Lerwick was at its liveliest late in the evening, but I saw absolutely no evidence of it. The place just seemed dead.

Mainland was fog-bound the two days I spent there, which was a pity. My first stop was Sumburgh Head, to look at the puffins. It was foggy, which shouldn't have surprised me. I saw a couple of puffins, but not the great many I had been expecting; I think I may just have been too early (which means next time I go to Shetland, it will have to be midsummer!).

There were however a lot of guillemots and fulmars.

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Whilst the higher land was in cloud, at the water level it was clear. I went for a walk around Boddam Voe (where I had read on the internet there had been lots of otters recently). Several seals - their faces in the water surprisingly otter-like in the distance (though binoculars sorted them out); eider bobbing on the surface; and waders flitting along the sea edge. No otters.

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I went back to Lerwick, stopping just outside the town at Clickminn. There I looked at the broch, a low (now), circular structure, moody in the mist; three thousand years old.




And then, just beyond the supermarket, I watched more seals lounging on the rocks, completely indifferent to the encroachment of commerce.



The next day - the last day - I drove across to the west coast, under and in the cloud. The museum at Scalloway was closed - it had been recommended, and I reckoned my refound affection for small community museums would have appreciated it - so I drove around some of the tiny roads and bridges connecting an archipelago of islands - Trondra, Burra, East Burra, Kettla. I went to Hamnavoe (there are several places called Hamnavoe, some pieces of water, some on land), I went to Bridge End (which, confusingly, is not at the end, but in the middle), and down to Houss (where there is a house), opposite the imposing cliffs of Clift on Mainland.

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I went back to Lerwick, and had another look around the museum, and then I queued for the ferry, and sailed, overnight, back to Aberdeen.




rhythmaning: (sunset)
I went on a couple of walks along the coast near where I was staying, on at dusk, the other, longer, during the day.

I went at dusk hoping to see otters, active around the turn of the tide (apparently). No otters, but a striking sky and a good walk along the shore.

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Haroldswick - "Harold's bay" (those Vikings again) - is a broad bay, bounded on the north east by cliffs leading to the Hill of Clibberswick, the Giant and the Horns of Hagmark. Clibberswick (a place rather than the hill) is home to a large deposit of mica schist, which is mined for use as talc (mica is derived from serpentine deposits).

Along the shore, the sea has cut into the cliffs forming deep geos; the sea has eroded the cliffs, leaving jagged stacks and natural arches.

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No otters, but lots of Shetland ponies - which are very cute. And their foals, which are even cuter. There were few birds, though.

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I could see the cottage I was staying in, in the distance.



Aug. 10th, 2013 06:58 pm
rhythmaning: (whisky)
There are two small, community museums on Unst, and I waited for the bad weather day to take advantage of them. It is two for the price of one: the same ticket gets you into both. They were both in easy walking distance for me; but it was pissing with rain, and I was buggered if I were going to get drenched again. I drove.

The boat haven is a large shed, full of boats. I wasn't certain; it didn't seem my kind of thing. I didn't think a collection of boats would be interesting.

I was completely, totally wrong. It was fascinating. Not really the boats themselves - though they were quite beautiful, some of them, crafted with great craft and love - but for the stories they told.

I may have mentioned that Unst is an island; archaeologists can trace its history back six thousand years. And it is only in the last hundred or so that roads have been important. Before that, it was boats. Or rather, the sea - and the sea made the boats important, too. People used boats for everything: it was how they lived.

At the boat haven, the history of each boat had been researched. Who built it, who bought it, who died in it - sometimes - who inherited it, who sold it. The social history of the people of Unst was told through the boats they used - to fish, to socialise, to run errands. Even after the coming of the internal combustion engine, people use their boats for food and sport: and the stories of each boat's success in the regattas were told. The boats were also rather splendid objects; all wooden, they had a lot of character - full of wear and tear, and grain.

The same names kept cropping up - the same family names, and often the same people. Sandison. Mouat. Isbister. Sinclair. These people had multiple roles: sailor, fisherman, boatbuilder. Squire. The main race in the regatta seems to have been for the Sandison Cup. And was frequently won by a Sandison, or so it seemed.

These stories were compelling.

There was also a lot about the history of the sea and Unst. Even after the Scottish takeover, Unst had strong links with Scandinavia: it was a major trading stop for merchants of the Hanseatic league, and Scots traders would come up to trade with the merchants.

Then when fishing became industrialised in the 19th century, Baltasound on Unst became one of the major herring ports in Europe, with tens of thousands of people working there during the season, travelling from all over Europe. One of the museum displays described the life of these itinerant workers. Many of the jobs were seen as women's work, allowing women to earn a living outside of service; but it sounded very hard work, gutting and filleting the fish, large quantities incredibly quickly. They used sharp, specially shaped knives and frequently cut themselves. They stayed in dorms, only socialising with men on Saturdays, when there might be dances. Sunday, the one day off, was for church.

The life of fishermen was no less alien. Before industrialisation of fishing, men would sail or row for many miles, following the shoals of herring or chasing a whale - forty or fifty miles into the Atlantic in large open boats holding several sailors. Many were lost, the boats not returning to port and their bodies never found.

It seemed a very rough life, stuck out in the north Atlantic. I could not imagine living on Unst now - let alone one hundred years ago. No electricity or gas; no roads. No vehicles. Ponies - Shetland ponies - did a lot of the work. The community museum also told a lot of stories, most of which were inconceivable.

It was another fascinating place. There was a lot about the geology; a lot about the archaeology; and a lot about crofting and fishing. It was a great place to spend a rainy afternoon.

The same names that had cropped up as boat builders, sailors, racers and fishermen were repeated here. Stories of disasters at sea and drownings; stories of families left destitute; stories of young men emigrating to New Zealand and Canada: while generations of men from specific hamlets. And men going off to war - the Shetland men were prized sailors, being press ganged into the Navy in the time of sail, and called up in the last century.

If life in the last century was unimaginable, what must it have barren life for the ancient Picts, facing the Vikings; or for the people who left the standing stones? Absolutely inconceivable, at least to me.

I loved both these museums; that seemed labours of love rather than a worthy institution. The somewhat amateurishness added to their charm - they reflected the people of the island, and I liked that.

* * *

The museum at Lerwick - on Mainland - was grander, much larger, and much more professional; but it was also a great place, and I could have spent much more time there. As it was, I went twice, because the weather was - well, foggy, and there wasn't much to see outside. It was an superbly designed building, beside the dock.

What I loved most were the displays of boats. Clearly I was now hooked. There were boats outside, moored at the dock; boats inside, hanging from the ceiling; even a boat shed, where you can watch people working on boats - the museum has a scheme to keep some of the old bodybuilders' skills alive. It was a wonderful place. And better lit than the boat haven - so I took some photos, this time.





Aug. 2nd, 2013 04:13 pm
rhythmaning: (whisky)
Unst is nearer to Bergen in Norway than it is to Edinburgh, and it was Norwegian before it was Scottish, the result of Viking invasions in the 8th century. Before that, it was inhabited by the Picts.

Nobody is really sure what happened, of course (unlike the transfer from Norwegian to Scottish power in the 14th century, the political shenanigans of which are well documented - needless to say, Norway might have a valid claim to Shetland, even today...).

There are three possibilities.
  1. the Vikings landed in Shetland and specifically Unst and peacefully coexisted with the Picts until the two cultures were completely integrated. Everyone knows how peaceful those Vikings were
  2. the Vikings landed and killed all the male Picts, taking the women for their own
  3. the Vikings landed and basically killed everyone, removing every last remnant of Pictish culture

One clue which archaeologists and anthropologists reckon is pretty telling involves the place names. Unst is full of place names derived, apparently, from Norse languages. No, not "full of"; it consists ENTIRELY of place names derived from Norse and Anglicised versions of them. The are no Pictish place names at all.

They believe that had any Picts survived the Viking invasions, their place names would have survived, too. The most likely scenario is (3), annihilation of the Picts by the peace-loving Vikings.

Unst's Viking history is revelled in today, despite its bloody nature. Viking costumes can be seen (though much more so in Lerwick, where Viking weapons and regalia decorated the walks of the B&B I stayed in). On Unst they apparently elect a Viking chief. Near where I stayed in Haroldswick is a replica longship, the Skidblader, and they are building a Viking longhouse.



There are archaeological remains of Viking settlements all over Unst. A large group of settlements north of Belmont at Snabrough appear as a series of mounds and ridges, stones poking through the soil, the outlines of large buildings and rooms, maybe farms.

There are remnants of Unst's prehistory: there are two large standing stones and, in the field next to where I was staying, were the unmistakable remains of a stone circle. Well I think they were unmistakable, but they do not appear on any map and i haven't been able to find any reference to them. Perhaps they are a more modern creation; perhaps I am just imagining it. But whilst I have looked for stone circles marked on maps many times before, all around Scotland (often fruitlessly), I have never ever found, or believed to have found, a stone circle not marked on a map. Except this once.



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Shetland became Scottish through marriage. Kind of. Margaret, the daughter of the King of Norway, was married to James lll of Scotland, and had a big dowry. Unfortunately, Norway was broke, so Scotland took Orkney and Shetland as security: the islands were pawned, basically. Apparently, when Norway later tried to pay, Scotland wouldn't accept, deciding to keep the security rather than the cash. Scotland then just annexed the islands.

They ruled the islands - whose people were basically Norse - via a series Earls, who generally behaved badly, leading to various revolts. So the Earls built castles, like Muness (across the road from one of the large standing stones), built by the people they were designed to oppress.





Aug. 1st, 2013 06:57 pm
rhythmaning: (sunset)
I still hadn't seen puffins. I went to the Hermaness reserve headquarters to see if the warden could point me in the right direction. The HQ is in the former shore house for Muckle Flugga, where lighthouse keepers would stay during their off periods, and where their families lived the whole time.

The warden want there, but there is very good display, including a map showing where different birds could be seen. Puffins should be - exactly where I had been walking.

So I went back there.

I walked the longer but faster path, west to the cliffs and then north. I met a woman and we chatted briefly; she was keen to see bonxies but hadn't realised that they were the large birds all around. I passed a tall guy carrying a large tripod and a load of camera equipment.

It was a fine day, though rain was forecast. The views, same as before but in reverse, and in different light, were good. I kept my eyes open, scanning the cliffs and the sky for puffins.

I saw several as walked back until I walked back until once more I was the most northerly person in Britain, opposite the lighthouse. On the step grass slopes down to cliffs were a while troop of puffins. Not a crowd, not the hordes that I had expected but quite a few.

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I spoke to many people about the lack of puffins. The consensus seems to be that it was just too early. It shouldn't have been. It should have been early but well into the breeding season, but the inclement weather in March and April seems to have kept the birds at sea. It was the same at Sumburgh, on Mainland, where I went before going back to Edinburgh - just one it two puffins. Out maybe they were all out at sea, fishing. Or maybe they were just hiding from me. There are certainly large numbers of birds around now, just as they are about to return to the sea. (The last time I was in Shetland, this time of year, one day we went back once more to watch the puffins and they had all flown away, overnight.)

Walking back to the car, it started drizzling. It had tried to rain once or twice in the afternoon as I walked north, but the rain had amounted to nothing, so I ignored it now, too. Suddenly it was bucketing down, and I was drenched, and my camera was drenched. By the time I realised how wet it and I were, it was too late; everything was wet.

When I got back to the house where I was staying, my camera had died. Completely. I took out the battery and the card, and left it to dry, hoping it would get better. It was still dead in the morning, leaving me to rely on my small, pocket camera; but by the evening it had fully recovered.

Which is nice.
rhythmaning: (Saxophone)
Its northerly position makes Unst militarily important: RAF Skaw was established during the war to monitor (potentially hostile) shipping traffic; and RAF Saxa Vord joined it and continued after the war as a radar tracking station, part of the cold war effort.

And cold it must have been. The tracking station itself is the top of the highest hill on the island; it is the site of the highest recorded wind speed in the UK - 197 mph. At which point the equipment was blown away. So it might have been even stronger. (Two people died in Hermaness in the storm when the hut in which they were sheltering was blown away.)

The radome apparently blew away with some frequency, turning up in different places down the hill. The station is now unmanned, the last personnel leaving in 2006. (Though many didn't leave, staying on as civilians.) The hill on which the radome stands is called Saxa Vord, as is the base which housed the personnel, which is basically in Haroldswick. The staff quarters were sold off (several being bought the ex RAF people, apparently) and the offices have been turned into a business park and "resort" (with bar and restaurant! Which opened the weekend I left!). You go in through the medical wing; there is a good cafe (though serving Nescafe!) where they make good chocolates, and an interesting display of the history of the base. There is a brewery next door, too - called Valhalla. One for all you Wagner fans. "Britain's most northerly..." etc. (Also, I would guess, Britain's most remote!) I enjoyed several of their beers during my stay...

The thing about the military is that they have infrastructure. And lorries. Which need roads. The main road on Unst is a decent width double-track, probably because of the lorries. And the road up the hill is still in pristine condition, presumably because the RAF patch it up.

And so I walked to the end of the road.

The north end of every British road, that is. Marginally further north than the road at Skaw. (No more "most northerly" after this, I think. Though I won't promise.)

The sign at the bottom of the road clearly states "No Entry", but everyone seemed to ignore that: despite only going up the hill, it was surprisingly busy. I saw three vehicles in two hours.

There were great views of Muckle Flugga, Burra Firth (the stretch of water) and Hermaness. There were scores of bonxies, and larks singing above me as I climbed.

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The hill is covered in peat, and piles of freshly cut peat lay beside the road.


The entrance to the radar station itself is secured, and I had no wish to set of any alarms (it being a very large observation post, it was hard to imagine that I wasn't being watched - albeit remotely); and beside the road went past the main station down to a remote weather station near the edge of the cliffs. I followed the cliff top around to the Noup and above Brei Wick before heading back.

Another great walk, with great views.

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But still no puffins.


Jul. 31st, 2013 08:03 pm
rhythmaning: (sunset)
There isn't a great deal to do on Unst. This didn't come as a surprise. I knew there were no restaurants (I was early in the holiday season: the two hotel restaurants opened the weekend I left), nor a pub I could get to without driving (the nearest bar to me is in the hotel which would be opening the weekend, etc).

What there was a lot of was walking. Which I did; on six out of the seven days I was there, I walked about ten miles out more. (On the other day, it rained, and I went too the two - excellent - community museums.)

Unst is an island, which means almost every walk - at least every walk I did - involves the coast. There was Hermaness, of course, its dramatic cliffs dropping precipitously; and the following day I went on another coast walk, this time on the west coast; and more cliffs.

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It was another great walk; blowy, with birds. Up the coast from the ferry terminal, with Yell to the west. The coast was full of inlets, as costs are; Shetland has many deep sea lochs, as if to emphasise its Scandinavian heritage. ("Voes" in Shetland - fjords in Scandinavia...) Lots of smaller cuts in the cliffs, too - "geos".

Shags (fnaar) and terns were the predominant birds - large gathering of shags sunning their wings on the cliffs. There were a lot of shore birds as well - waders, mainly. And some terns. A seal watched lazily from the sea as a followed the line of the beach.

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The walk took in several ruined buildings. Unst is full of ruins. Standing stones. Viking ruins. Medieval ruins. Abandoned crofts and cleared settlements. Ruins, and lost history, abound. (Later, in the Lerwick museum, I read of an excavation of a cleared settlement, which indicated that the inhabitants had left quickly and in a hurry - their pots and pans still over the fire, nothing packed away.) My amateur eyes could not discern one ruined settlement from another: I accepted what the guide book said were Viking ruins from Celtic ones and Christian settlements. (Ok, I could identify the standing stones...)

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History lurks within the soil: you can see the boundaries between ancient fields left by generations, the trees that weren't cut down (ok not in Shetland, no trees except those planted by Victorian landowners!). The whole of Britain has been shaped by man. The history of Unst is one of change. The Vikings replaced the Picts, the Scots replaced the Vikings, and landowners replaced the crofters. The ruins on the peat moors were very dramatic and evocative.

I walked by ancient and ruined chapels, one still used as a burial ground - a strange mix of ancient and modern (albeit dead).


I walked back past Belmont House, a fine Georgian building on the machair - it looked as if it were transplanted from Edinburgh.


* * *

There are a lot of northerly places on Unst: the most northerly Post Office in Britain, the most northerly road, the most northerly house... Which I walked by. I started from Norwick beach - a very fine, broad beach of golden sand; it looked Mediterranean, but for the breeze. The track to Skaw rises from the north of the beach and climbs the cliffs (imaginatively named "The Cliffs"). The gate was locked, a notice saying the track was closed because of the danger of landslips. Instead, I just head straight up the hill to meet the road, and walked - well, north, over Swartling to Skaw.


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I don't know what Swartling is, but it is marked on the map. Actually, there are many features shown on the OS map of Unst that I couldn't really work out what they were. I know I was there, but couldn't tell what the map referred to. For instance, I'm pretty sure that "Horns of Hagmark" are cliff stacks that I walked along; but "The Giant" - just south on the map of the Horns of Hagmark - what is it? I was looking for it - I mean, who wouldn't go looking for "The Giant"? But, well there wasn't anything very gigantic there. Still, I wasn't sure what I was actually looking for, so it could have been anything.

On the other hand, the map is full of great names. Like "The Horns of Hagmark".

At Skaw I said hello to the woman who was cleaning her stream (she had passed me in her LandRover and offered me a lift, and smiled when I said I wanted to walk) and walked on the beach. There is a farm at Skaw (the most northerly...), and a traditional "haa" - a hull-roofed dwelling. I climbed the cliffs to the south and followed them, undulating up and down and in and out, watching terns fish and fulmars somehow sitting in their nests on the cliff-face. And I saw a Great Northern Diver.




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The path leads out to the Garths (what? What?!) and Lamba Ness, the point which is almost cut off - the track fills the width of the isthmus. The Garths and the Ness are dotted with abandoned, derelict military buildings; there is a sketch map on the road identifying their different functions. It was the site of a large RAF radar installation in World War 2 - RAF Skaw - which kept watch over the route from the North Sea into the Atlantic. (Presumably the gap between Shetland and Orkney was patrolled by the Navy.) It has an odd feeling, this huge site returned to nature.

I walked back to Norwick, getting to the road where the closed track met it; there was a guy walking up the track, so I thought I'd risk it. After a couple of hundred yards, there was a large crack in the tarmac; a bit further on, the road had slipped about a foot. I could see more cracks in the track, too, the tarmac hanging onto the edge of the Cliffs. I decided to give it a miss, returning to the road and then back down the hill, the way I had come.

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rhythmaning: (sunset)
I was staying in Unst, the most northerly (inhabited) of the British Isles, in Haroldswick, the second-most northerly hamlet on Unst; Norwick, as the name suggests, is further north (and there is a house at Skaw which is Britain's most northerly habitation).

Pretty far north, then. So what I did on my first full day was go as far as I could. I walked to the end of the British Isles; at least, the end you can get to.

The most northerly point on Unst is Hermaness; a nature reserve. Just off Hermaness is Muckle Flugga, one of the lighthouse Stevenson's lights built on one the largest of a chain of skerries; the end of the series, the end of the line, is the literally named Out Stack. (The BBC can get permission to land on Muckle Flugga, but for most people it is prohibited. It also seems quite dangerous, so whilst one can get a boat around Muckle Flugga, I chose not to.)

I walked out across Hermaness Hill, climbing through the heather (avoiding the breeding area set aside for the birds) to the brow of the hill, when the lighthouse came in sight. It was a lovely morning with bright blue skies. The hill slipped steeply down to the sea, with tall cliffs dropping down to the water. There were large numbers of birds - Arctic Great Skuas ("bonxies") on the heath, gannets and fulmars on the cliffs. (And lots of little brown jobs - lbjs - on the heath too, but I could only recognise a few.)

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Walking along the cliffs was very bracing. Looking north, with nothing beyond the light and Out Stack, somewhat daunting. I was the most northerly person in Britain. Everyone was south of me. It did feel a bit special.


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I walked back along the cliffs, on the west coast. There were large colonies of gannets clinging to the steep sided cliffs and skerries. Gannets are vary beautiful - but the fulmars are the most graceful flyers. Both were a joy to watch. Their numbers were impressive, their flights hypnotic. I spent a long while just watching.

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What I didn't see were puffins. I had expected many: Hermaness is famous as being one of the largest puffin colonies in the world. Last time I visited Shetland, I saw large numbers of puffins at Sumburgh; they are captivating birds. They were so impressive when we visited in mid July, we went back the next day, and watched them flying - and clowning! We went back a third time; and there were none: overnight, they had flown away, not to return to dry land until the next spring.

But this time, at Hermaness, there were none. I met a group of six or seven walking the other direction - the only people I passed the whole day. I asked if they had seen puffins, keen to know where to look as I took the long walk back; they hadn't seen any either. At least this meant I wasn't just being thick! They were a group of geologists: Unst has an interesting geology, half of it derived from north America (the result of continental drift - the Highland fault that separates the ancient north American rocks in Scotland from younger European rocks runs through Unst), the rest from the Atlantic floor, including a large chunk of very rare serpentine soil. I have travelled half way around the world looking at plants growing on serpentine (namely, New Caledonia) - ironic that a large area of serpentine is found in old Caledonia, too.

It was, though, a glorious walk, following the cliffs; warm (not hot!), sunny, a bit breezy. The birds I did see were so impressive and beautiful.


rhythmaning: (Default)

June 2017



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