Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Archway of Brim's Castle

I have several posts cooking, but to give you something to look at while you wait, here's a photo of the eroded rocks in the archway of a dilapidated castle at Brims.

I happened to be there because we went to see the surfing competition. Yup, surfing in the North of Scotland. The waves are incredible but the climate is not like Hawaii or Brazil. Last year some of the surfers who came for the competition nearly froze solid, but they liked it enough to come back. Surfers must be sturdy souls.

So castles and surfers side by side.
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Monday, April 28, 2008

Muscari Don't Mind the Rain

Talking about the weather has been described as "the British disease." This was one of many social comments made in passing when I was getting acclimatized that I put away to think about. My understanding of it now is that the weather here is much akin to chronic illness: our days are guided by the comparative strength with which our symptoms manifest themselves. Yesterday was mild and sunny. Today is not.

And so we talked about it. Part complaint, part invocation, part evocation--talking about a sunny day may be the next best thing--albeit a distant second. I spent most of the days indoors. As I left town in a spit of cold rain I decided first that I did not want to walk the few blocks to the grocery store and then by the time I reached my car I had decided that I did not want to drive to the store either.

Of course I will go out in the rain for my cats. When Solomon came out of the garge into the rain, I pulled up my hood and collected his dinner from the cupboard and he and I hurried along the walk to his dining room in the dairymaid's cottage. Along the way, another tabby showed up; the others will be along soon, no doubt.

I don't know what made me turn left, shoulders hunched against the cold pervasive dampness, into the walled garden rather than into the shelter of the house. A vague sense of wanting to see the progress of the new plants led me moving quickly around the edge where I was greeted by a chorus of muscari. The grey light that mutes so many things gave their soft purple flowers a wonderfully rich purple. They stood up as regal as flowers less than a foot tall can be with their leaves like outstretched catwalk model arms. I smiled and walked slowly along the rest of the bed. The tulips are up and providing a range of colours and there, outpacing the nettles at least for now, the first flush of Mr. Fothergill's purple poppies.

The Ceanothus has settled in nicely, but nettles and now the dreaded Sticky Willie as well are trying to reclaim that part of the bed. I'll wage in on the side of the Ceanothus. Now that I have something to fight for, it is easier to take on the weeds.

The cat mint has settled in and even spread a bit, as I had hoped that it would, but the Bishop's Weed also is gearing up for a rebellion. The territorial battles in the walled garden promise to be even more fierce this year than last.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Opening Lines

I don't think I would have noticed the opening line except for a recent conversation in the back of my mind. A new found writer friend ( wonders about the power of opening lines either to draw a reader in or to become quotable-- she cites Jane Austen, but I am afraid to say that the only opening line I could conjure up was Dickens: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."

With that as preamble, I was re-reading Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and stopped and lingered over the first sentence. It is a jewel. It is a sentence* that somewhere else might be lost in a clutter of detail. If Stevenson wrote character sketches, it might have been his description of Mr. Utterson. As the opening sentence of this story, however, it does so many things that it should be paid over time.

It introduces Mr. Utterson, sets the stage for the duality of character that is the central theme of the story, and it gives us a credible narrator. All in one sentence.

In case you can't find your copy of Jekyll and Hyde or you read the Classic Comic book version, here is my much loved sentence:

"Mr. Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance, that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrased in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, dusty, dreary, and yet somehow lovable."

From The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Other Stories. 1968. Minster Classics, London, England.

I am reading a 1968 paperback of Jekyll and Hyde because James Robertson, "novelist poet and publisher" and keynote speaker as described on the schedule for the NALD literature development day included it in his list of 10 favourite books--of course with the usual disclaimer that "favourite" is a fickle title. Not that old ones fall off the list, but that new ones are showing up all the time. Like cats but longer lived.

I am re-reading this because despite the countless books I will never get a chance to read at all let alone a second time, I am old enough to appreciate that a book is not the same the second time around. Arguably, it is not the book that has changed but that intangible interrelationship between reader and book. The book will be better, or at least different, because I can now bring a different set of experiences to it, including James Robertson's recommendation and Caroline's question about opening sentences.

Now having finished it, I doubt if I would put it on my favourite's list, but it is still readable despite all the years that have passed since its writing, which is more than can be said for some books written closer to our own time. It is not likely to be a favourite because the Faustian bargain kinds of stories don't resonate with me and the structure of the story seems awkward. The introduction takes a long time and so the ending seems disproportionately hasty. Perhaps if I did not know that Jekyll and Hyde are one and the same from long years of exposure then the secret letter which reveals all might have seemed more startling.

Perhaps as an older reader trying to mellow into acceptance of my own foibles, I appreciate more the pain that led Jekyll to experiment in the first place. It was not a hunger for the unsavory side of life that led him to experiment, rather it was his frustration at not being good enough. He wanted to be purely good and thought that by removing the evil side, he would attain that. Alas, the experiment, as well all know, went sadly wrong because evil was seductive and had a mind of its own.

I enjoyed the re-read but I look forward to some others on the list, which includes:

Neil Gunn (Silver Darlings or Blood Hunt)
Ali Smith (The Accidental and Free Love)
Louis Grassic Gibbon (a trilogy of works published as Scot's Quair)
R.L. Stevenson (Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde and Bottle Imp)
Raymond Carver a collection of stories
Don DeLillo (Underworld and Libra)
Fran O'Brien (At Swim 2 Birds)
?? Healey (A Goat Song)
James Joyce (Ulysses)
P.G. Wodehouse (Code of Woosters and The Mating Season)

Friday, April 25, 2008

Unpacking an Acronym

I went all the way to Inverness on the faith that NALD's annual literature development day would be someplace where I belonged. There was a great deal of optimism in that since I am still trying to figure out who I am and what I am meant to be doing here. So I showed up the only American, non-committed, unpublished writer in the group and pinned a name badge on with the title, "writer." NALD--National Association for Literature development comprises librarians, writers, publishers, and people who support them and their interconnections.

Fortunately, it is a group that could accommodate cheeky interlopers with a fondness for words. I met them the evening before the workshops at a little tapas restaurant. After sharing a bottle of red wine and conversation over tapas, I knew I liked these folks and hoped that they would take me in, an orphan in a wordstorm looking for a safe haven.

It was the first non-academic workshop I had attended since leaving corporate America. I was relieved that it was much less self conscious and pretentious than much of the training I had endured when I lived in a cubicle. The workshop was a genuine conversation among people who had things to say. It was purposeful. They talked about their projects and their challenges and successes.

I learned what such organizations as the Scottish Book Trust really do and where to get resources to teach poetry to an after school group of girls in my local community assocation. I also learned about initiatives for mentoring young writers and getting writers into schools to work with teachers and librarians there.

I also learned about small publishers--a thread in my working life that got set aside because I needed to earn enough money to support myself and my daughter. Literature, small publishing, libraries are still not good ways to make money, but having heard from several people and organizations who are making it work, I came away energized and more committed to earning the title on my badge.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Reeling In Silk

The workshop was entitled simply, silk papermaking, but I had great expectations because the instructor is talented both as an artist and as a teacher I love the feel of silk and looked forward to working with it. This table heaped with silk greeted me as I walked into the Castle Hill heritage center where the workshop was held.

All 7 of us grabbed a cuppa and sat down to watch a short introduction to silk. Silk worm cocoons look like tightly wrapped cobwebs. Each contains about a kilometre of very fine silk thread. Silk moths--a pale white, unprepossesing in contrast to the beauty they create, are born without a moth. They mate, lay their eggs and die without ever eating. The fruits of their labor--the offpsring-- may be destroyed to get at the silk while still a continuous thread, or silk makers may patiently wait for the original occupant to emerge before unreeling the silk from the cocoon.

We combined layers of the silk and wrapped our creations in a kind of latter-day cocoon--net curtains in which we soaked the silk fibers with cellulose, wallpaper paste without the fungicide, to create a sturdy, flexible paper. Once dried--in the photo below the day's work is shown lying on the floor waiting to be taken home and dried on the line---the material is flexible, sturdy, can be ironed and retains the bright colours of the silk as well as the sheen.

I unwrapped the first of my pieces today and was mostly pleased with the result. I already know how I would do things differently and have even bigger ideas for my next projects.
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Monday, April 21, 2008

All in the Eye of the Beholder

The artist and the gardener have a lot in common, but the two that come to mind are faith and vision. I spent some time in my favorite local gallery today looking at an exhibit called Seeing Dragons in the Clouds. It is a wonderful dose of whimsy and a much needed reinforcer of my finishing school mentality. Between the vision of the artist, which is the first gift, and the achievement of the final work of art is great faith. Faith first that it can be done at all and secondly that the artist can do it. The "it" being the successful resolution of that first vision.

My friend, the gallery manager, is also in the creative writing class. We share our similar concerns about instilling ourselves with the resolve that these artists demonstrate in their works and their working. The exhibit includes notebooks and web pages that describe how the work came about and shows other works by the same artist.

"Wall of Lanterns" catches my eye first. It is a nylon mesh net woven in broad squares like a monochrome checkerboard. Suspended in some of those squares are the bare bones of the Physalis calyxes suspended like bells. When held out from the wall, the hollow cases of the Chinese lantern plant (one of Physalis's common names) cast a soft shadow on the wall that adds another dimension to the piece.

The artist, Kim Fok, found inspiration in her compost pile. I am dead chuffed to find earth worms and nicely rotted manure in my compost pile. I like looking at it and working with it, but I must confess for my all my affection for it, I had never looked there for inspiration. Thanks to the inspiration provided by Kim Fok, I picked up a dead branch of Chinese lantern plant that I found quietly composting itself in a bed in the walled garden and I saw how really beautiful it is. Instead of the compost pile, I'll bring it in and look at it with a new perspective for a few days at least.

Faith. Once having had the vision, the artist set to work and spent many hours, preparing the little lantern shells, researching the right materials for her weaving, and then putting it all together.

As a writer, I need to work on that faith-full part. I have been reading Bird by Bird, a guide to growing that faith-fullness to become a writer. Although I find the rhetoric of the book too flamboyant, the essential message is the same: take your inspiration and work with it to achieve your vision. The author offers her own experiences and insights as a guide. Mostly, it comes down to just doing it faithfully.

Now, how is an artist then, like a gardener? Finding inspiration in a compost pile is coincidental with gardening. The real similarities seem to me to be vision and faith. The walled garden and all the other beds around the house have been conversing with me over the years. In some places now I have a clear vision of how I would like them to look. That vision will take years to accomplish. I might not ever see it in my tenure here, but it is compelling enough to take me into the late afternoon sun and wrestle with resurgent Bishop's weed and bad tempered nettles. Even the young nettles pack a wallop, and the dock is not yet mature enough to have the slime at its base that is the balm for nettle stings.

With stinging hands, I open the packets of Purple coneflower. Beneath the bold cardboard images of Purple coneflower is a plastic bag of peat moss in which the trerasures are held waiting to be planted. I rummage through the peat to find the contents as different from the picture as all the toys I collected box tops for or the prizes in the bottom of the Cracker Jack boxes. Faith. I still believe that treasures exist in Cracker Jack boxes and that these little roots will, in time, grow into the bushy prairie plants with purple florets swept back from a cone like flower that will dance in the breezes among the purple poppies and baby's breath and lupins.

When I come back with watering can and 2-litre soda bottle full of water, I take a look at the other recent additions--a Ceanothus that may in time be taller than I am nestled still looking quite perky after his planting last week in the bare spot reclaimed from nettles last year. I water him in as another act of faith. In the next bed I look in on the three cat mints planted where the Bishop's weed ran rampant last year. It is still perky though not yet settled in to this spot. Perhaps the predation of the Bishop's weed around the edges causes it some anxiety. I pull the green shoots of Bishops weed that are poking out from under the cardboard intended to starve it out last year. The cardbaord has degraded nicely but branches of the trees above have not yet leafed out enough to keep the sun from tickling the wily toes of that verdant invader. Nonetheless, I have faith that the cat mint will grow into the same vibrant lavender-like plant that makes a welcome sight in my neighbour's yard.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

"Do You Come Here Often?"

Thursday I was scurrying around the house looking for a notebook for the first session of my creative writing class. It was a lot like my grad school days--in the morning I taught writing; in the afternoon, I was the student. In this case I had taught a little computer class in the morning and then that evening somewhere in the college I would be part of something that I had signed up for months ago and was finally coming into being. Caithness time.

I sidestepped my angst over blank notebooks by finding (finally) a notebook that had at least one page filled--the first notes for the sweater for my daughter that had actually been completed and fit the intended recipient. I take this as a good omen. Too many blank pages, the weight of so many things unfinished might have scunnered me from the very outset of this round of "I will finish these projects and they will see the light of day."

I must have single handedly funded many other people's organizational ambitions with the number of clost organizers that I have bought with great enthusiasm and big ideas only to sell them at a garage sale. Likewise, books on how to teach yourself mathematics. Somewhere along the line I also passed along all my self help books.

Discarding those things might be an act of emancipation or one of surrender. Sometimes it is hard to tell which, at least for me. So here I am in a class again with way too many people to be a genuine working group. Twenty people are crammed into an easy-clean, multipurpose, classroom with tables arranged in a convivial U-shape rather than rows of chairs. Somehow linoleum floors and wood-grain tables are not speaking conviviality to me as I sit hunched a bit closer than I would like to a stranger on one side and friend on the other. I am relieved that I know at least some of the people in the room.

Perhaps to compensate for too many people in an uninspiring room, the teacher bundles up all her enthusiasm for the two hours of presenting and listening and encouraging. She is capable and genuinely enthusiastic but she looks as if she feels as if she is pushing uphill.

A few ice breaker activities get people writing and laughing. The tension eases a bit, but the laughter does not linger in the room for very long after each outburst. The air feels heavy. For the last exercise she invites us to move around the room but there is really nowhere much to go so a couple people move to the window and try to look casual. Maybe they are at ease, but it seems a studied casualness.

I sit in my same stiff chair and write about my wedding ring. The exercise is to write a description in third prson, then second, and then first person. When my wedding ring got its own voice, it gave me quite a lecture about how I take it out to the cow muck and through the garden soil but fortunately it forgives me.

My brother, who could barely sit through a lecture let alone an entire class, used to tease me relentlessly about always being in school. It began to feel like that. I don't think I want to count up how many hours I have sat in classrooms very much like the one last night. Unlike the closet organizers and the self-help books, this time around I am going to use the class for my own ends.

The cheerier part of my free writing exercise that evening concluded with:

"Outside the sun lingers. It is the season of long twilight and short dark. This has become my new favorite season. The light sustains me and proffers hope for warmth to come. The light sustains; the warmth energizes."

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Serendipity in a B and B

I usually prefer the anonymity of hotels when I travel. I also do not like auctions of estates and other opportunites to view the little things that mark the lives of someone I don't know. It feels awkward to be thrown into such intimate contact with strangers. Thus, I would never on my own choose a bed and breakfast. As my brother once said, "It's like staying with an aunt that you don't know very well." He may have added "and don't want to, " but he has always been more cynical than I am.

I often wind up doing things I would not otherwise do because it was a gift or something that someone picked out for me. Having said all that, I wound up in a bed and breakfast Tuesday night after having spent the day in a hospital 30 miles from home to support the person awaiting an operation. I felt as if I were juggling at least three weighty responsibilities: keep him cheerful, avoid anything that might be construed as harassment of already harassed NHS staff, and get the necessary information from the right person about what was going on and how it might affect the scheduled surgery for the next day.

I'll never know if I managed juggling all those things but by the time he had a bed it was after 7pm and the drive home felt beyond me. The hotel across the street from the hospital was full we discovered as we had a late dinner waiting for the bed to be available. When the would-be patient came back to announce that there was a harbor-view room in a little B and B and he had booked it for me, I was, of course, obliged to be grateful.

So in the twilight in a city that gives me the creeps unless the sun is shining like a supernova, I find myself walking map in hand to find another place away from home. Because I had thought I would be home, I had no toothbrush or T shirt or change of clothes. The temperature was dropping as I wandered on streets that did not intersect. I know I no longer live in cities carved out like Cartesian grids, but I was tired and thought that by cutting through this street, I would get where I needed to be. I was wrong by about 3 blocks.

Once on the street where it should be, I find nothing that matches the name (the sign over the door does not match their new name) and the card had no street address. I did remember that the last clue was "right next to a hair dresser's shop."

I knocked on the most likely door and was welcomed in with genuine warmth. The owner and his wife were happy to see me and take me in from the cold. The room was lovely. Too big but quiet and with a lovely modern shower (Put real showers and big deciduous trees near the top of the list of things that I miss most).

I improvised around what I had and didn't have and fell into bed using the TV to fill in the empty spots. I slept off and on and arrived at breakfast not well rested and not looking forward to eating by myself or to making small talk. I was nearly done and ready to head back to the hospital when serendipity caught up with me.

Having heard about the delays at the hospital, the proprietor came out and said, "I have a feeling you may have a long day today, too, keep the key and come back here and sit in the lounge rather than waiting in the hospital." It was such a lovely gesture of hospitality that I nearly cried.

Serendipity round 2 came in the shape of a former pub owner and his wife who were also staying in the B and B. We had the usual conversational stuff at the breakfast table and I was beginning to look for graceful exit times when I got hooked by their great good humour. They have retired and have wanted for a long time to come to this part of Scotland. That was a good wake up call to me for starters. Yes, it is beautiful, so beautiful that even people from Scotland want to come here. I felt a knot somewhere in my middle section begin to loosen.

We talked some more--the usual travel talk about places and people--and then the coup de grace to my reticence about being there: This woman has had a brain hemorrhage. She nearly died and now she lives with a tube in her head. At any time it could clog. Having survived death once and living with its spectre every day, she lives each day as we are meant to: grateful and exuberant in celebration of the everyday things.

The last of the reservations hovering somewhere between my shoulder blades vanished. I smiled a big smile and promised that if we were ever in Arbroath we would surely visit. I told them where to find our farm. I don't know where Arbroath is, but it is nice to know I have friends there. I will also never look at B and Bs the same way again.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Whins and Beach Watching

As my friend said as she looked at this photo of whins (gorse), I don't like yellow, but... The hillsides now are full of this outrageous yellow bush. It makes a lovely respite from the greyness of a damp spring and seems to go with the dark beige-brown purple of the heather that usually is close by.

The best part of the whins in wild bloom like this is the lovely fragrance. From such a showy flower, you might expect an overpowering scent. Instead the fragrance is a soft-buttey coconut chardonnay that invites you to come closer for a deep smell. Do so very cautiously because the stems are full of prickly thorns.

The beach at Betty Hill is a long flat swath of sand that makes fascinating patterns as the tide comes in and out. Sunday the sun was warm but there was a slight breeze. I had coffee from the dining room of the hotel overlooking this piece and was intrigued by the giant S shape created by the two pools of water. The waves on the larger pool echoed the S pattern of the two watery bits. I watched with all the simple joy of a child until it was time to drive the rest of the way home.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Beach Party Without a Blanket

Yesterday I took part with the Brough Bay Association in their semi annual beach clean up and fix up. Despite some showers and the ever present gusts of wind, it was a lovely day.

New events are always a bit of a challenge for me because that part of me that is the shy child who could go all day at school without speaking is still there. New situations and new people bring her out. I had something to do, which helps, and I knew at least two people there, but in the idled moments as we took a break for some lunch, I began to feel awkward and wandered down to the beach with my camera.

The tide was out, so the beach was full of sea weed--wrack, is the more accurate term, I think. I love its shiny, tangled masses on the beach and recently enjoyed knitting a scarf that simulated the colour and movement of sea weed. Two dogs frolicked on the beach--one jumped in; the other acted like a lifeguard or coxswain barking instructions to the swimming dog.

I walked, camera in hand, preoccupied by the light on a particularly fine tangle of seaweed when I noticed I had been joined by a young man. We talked about sea weed and it seemed perfectly natural when we found a long stem to put this stem back in the water in the hopes that the sea weed might grow again. He was looking at shells, so I picked up a limpet shell for him and told him the name and how it lived. As we walked back to the cliffside where we were working, I met his father and discovered that they had been living for some time in Wisconsin. We talked of snowstorms and 40 degree below zero weather and all that land around us with the sound of the ocean acting like a Greek chorus, reminding us why we are here.
I could sit for hours watching the shapes and colours of the water and the rocks and the birds--if you can tear me away from the sea weed, that is, but this day I had a duty to the beach to perform, so I said goodbye to my little friend from Wisconsin and went back to work.

The sun came out unreservedly in the early afternoon as the last of the workers climbed up the hill taking tools and cookware and umbrellas with them. The birds reclaimed their space: a kestrel hovered above the cliff edge and the gulls flew over the slipway.

Friday, April 11, 2008

A Milestone

I passed the 200 post milestone without knowing it, which is usually best for me. As soon as I notice that I have accomplished something I tend to want to fiddle with it. I discovered that I had 209 posts because I was looking for some that might be publishable outside the virtual world.

In looking them over I noticed three things (not in the order of importance).

There were some posts that could probably be tidied up and sent out into the world to stand on their own. (It's late now and I'm tired. I'll verify this truth tomorrow in the cold light of day).

Although the quality of the posts varies considerably over the period since I started writing, there was a trend toward actually getting better as a writer. Because that was one of my goals when I started blogging, I am glad to be able to convince myself of that.

Some drafts were just placeholders and could be deleted. This tidying up dropped me down to 199 posts, so I get to celebrate the milestone of my 200th post after all. This one.

Instead of a smiley face emoticon, here is a cheerful motif from the inside of the dome in West Baden, Indiana.

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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

A Circle, An Oval, Some Flints, and a Post

I sleep later in the morning than my husband does. When I come downstairs, I can deduce from cabinet doors left open and silverware drawer askew that he has had a cup of tea and made some porridge. I can quickly confirm my hypothesis by feeling the relative warmth of the tea pot and opening the microwave to reveal the porridge left for me.

It is easy to reconstruct those minutes in the morning that I don't actually see because I am a few steps behind, I know my husband, and I can touch the teapot and eat the porridge.

Monday night we went to a lecture by an archaeologist excavating a henge near Strath Cool. I emphasize henge because up here the brochs (neolithic stone structures) have received more attention than any of the other archaeological bumps in the ground, of which there are many.

The professor spoke well and engagingly to a mixed audience: some members were extremely knowledgeable, some had a middling knoweldge, and some were just curious about the hole they dug on George McDonald's farm. The speaker first clarified the term henge and lamented how inappropriately it is used. Stonehenge conjures images of the great looming stones on the horizon, but henge actually refers to the ditch and the raised bed around the ditch--both of which appear to be lacking at stonehenge.

Once having estalished what a henge is, he was able to describe some other examples of henges along with some examples of how not to do a field excavation, which led logically to what they had found in a quick exploration of this particular henge.

The story will be revealed in more detail after they have some carbon dating results of the stump of a wooden post found in the opening of the circle. The date of the post will be their equivalent of touching the tea pot. The professor said that he estimates that it was placed there about 1500 BC. My guess is that his hunches are pretty good, but it was a crowd pleaser. You could almost hear an ooh from the audience.

Some time later--long enough that the porridge would not only have grown cold but also have vanished without any trace, probably about a thousand years later, people came back to the area of that circle and made from the original circle an oval. Perhaps the archaeologist managed to capture some pollen samples for testing, but the pollen specialist could not get to site because of weather delays down south, so the stalwarts in the dig in a snow storm were trying to collect pollen samples with directions over the phone.

The last intriguing detail of the excavation of this grass covered mound in the middle of nowhere is a scattering of flints. Some time in the mesolithic era, someone spent enough time working on what was the top of the mound at that time to leave behind 70 fragments of flint. The nearby Thurso river made the site throughout the millenia an attractive spot for hunting and fishing and gathering food. Perhaps in time excavations around this site will find more fragments of flint. Until then, they just fell into the dough like raisins in a Christmas cake and confounded the diggers by settling into the firmament of the previous millenium.

Two days after the lecture we went to visit the site as they were filling in the trenches they had dug. The professor was impeccably charming as he climbed back to the site with us to show the colors of the layers of soil and the place where the stump of the pole had been found. The weather has been too dreadful during their short excavation to say with certainty where the alignment of the poles directed the eyes but there are intriguing possibilities with other nearby sites. I look forward to hearing the rest of the story, but in the meantime since they were filling in the site, we were allowed to step on the soil that had last been stepped on about a thousand years ago.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Ask an Orcadian

An Orcadian is someone from the Orkney Islands. From Caithness we can see the closest in islands. In all there are 60 some islands, ranging from the largest, ironically called Mainland, to tichy little things that have never been inhabited. Many islands are struggling to hold on to sufficient population to keep things going like schools and stores and ferry lines. Stroma, now uninhabited, still hosts occasional birding outings and those who still have any connection to Stroma hold an annual reunion somewhere in Caithness.

Caithness and Orkney have a kind of sibling rivalry. They can be very close when someone from the outside threatens, but they very much like their own histories and resent being lumped together in a political hodgepodge known as " the Highlands and Islands." Caithness shares a post code with Kirkwall, the main city on the island of Mainland, so frequently southerners assume that we are not part of mainland Britain. Such distinctions annoy Caithnessians because it causes unnecessary delays in getting the things we need and also reminds us of just how isolated we are from everything.

Caithnessians love to talk about what's going on around them. That can be both the wildlife and the scenery and the personal-social goings on. In that regard, Caithness is an island where everyone else's business is subject to scrutiny or speculation or a mixture of both. Given this background about the norms of this place, I was surprised when a Caithnessian said as if it were unimpeachable truth, "If you ever want to know anything, ask an Orcadian."

Like many nuggets delivered to me, I tucked this one away to test out for myself. That test came in an unexpected turn of events. My husband (an Orcadian by birth though a long time Caithness resident) has been writing a seres of articles about his recollections of early farming. In one of his conversations he talked about mending nets. I asked if he could teach me how to do it and he said yes.

I think he thought it would get lost in the welter of other stringed activities I have--spinning, knitting, crocheting, and felting and braiding and combinations of them all as it strikes my fancy. I have tried traditional rope making at a workshop as well as rug making and have had a loom in the past, so it seemed only reasonable to add netmaking into the mix.

The sticking point for netmaking was to find the right tools. We went to Scrabster, the harbour in Thurso, but the chandler's store was no longer there. We stopped a man in a boiler suit. After a brief exchange, the matter of the tools came to the forefront. This man had lived next door to a "Stroma man" and so had great fondness for him and, by extension, all Orcadians. From this point, within a few sentences, we had our man--a former Stroma man himself.

We found him at the ice making plant, a four story galvanized box. We went in and hallooed up the long winding metal staircase. The sound of footsteps clanked along the stairs until a man dwarfed by the building appeared,"Och, Morris, why did you no just come up yerself?" he said recognizing a familiar face and another Orcadian. We smiled and talked and in time came to the matter of tools for netmaking. He had the needles--several of them--and would be glad to let me have a couple.

He went home to collect a couple needles and we went to the local harbour pub for lunch. By the time we finished lunch, he was back with the needles. He took the smaller of the two in his hand and showed me how to wind the thread on it. Even in the pantomime, I could feel the ease of a well-practiced hand. I laughed, "It looks as if you may have done that a few times." And he smiled back and nodded. His family was the last family off the island of Stroma he tells me with an undoubted trace of homesickness.

We wave goodbye and as he disappears back into the giant refrigerator, I notice three seals in the harbour watching me. I suspect they may also be from Stroma.