Monday, July 28, 2008

Tom Turkey and the Crabs in the Sink

Tonight we have one of those rare and so all the more precious clear blue evenings. The sky is translucent tints of blue with a fringe of pink on the horizon; the sea is unabashed marine blue. The air is soft--just a hint of breeze to keep the midges away. On these evenings everyone gets outside. If they have to work in kitchens or hotel rooms, they linger over their breaks by the back door and smile back into the sky for as long as they can.

If they are lucky enough to work or play outside, they savour the sweet air, the long light, the gentle seas. And so rather than go in to town to see the opening of the Caithness art show, we are in the car heading west. The sun, in no hurry to set, is low in the sky, still fiercely bright as we roll over the hills and past the split stane--the traditional divider between Caithness and Sutherland. From open spaces of rolling green fields punctuated with rocks we pass into a rocky terrain punctuated with fields of sheep.

I have suggested we go to Portskerra and sit on the bench on the brae and watch the sea and the birds and the rocks below. I drive easily now over the familiar road. We pass our local, Halladale Inn, travel into the middle of a tiny village and without fretting, I turn off at the sign that says simply, Portskerra Harbour. It is another one of many candidates for understatement in signage here, but I have described the wonders of Portskerra in other posts, so I will say here that as we headed for the sea we saw many people out walking their dogs, talking with neighbours, or just lingering in their gardens.

As we neared the parking spot by the bench, instead of the quiet, we found several people enjoying the spot--two fishermen, three men and the young daughter of one of the men. I found a spot and nosed the Volvo out of the way of the boat slip and the other cars. In an instant we were in conversation with the fishermen and they had offered us their fresh-caught crabs. The best I could think to offer in return was a story. I told them the story of the man who boiled crabs for 24 hours and lamented that he still could not cut them with a knife. They listened intently--my accent is as hard for them to suss as theirs is for me--and laughed at the punch line, so I hope it was a fair trade.

The men with the young girl were playing the radio--Scottish dance music. Morris and I did a little dance step and they all looked and laughed. Morris swapped stories with one of the men; the little girl looked on, curious, smiling tentatively; and I watched the oyster catchers dancing on the waves breaking over the caramel coloured rocks below.

The people drifted off for dinner or other little knots of conversation and I settled into the bench to watch and listen. From the rocks below I heard the occasional bellow of a seal. The sea birds flew by, busy but with no urgency. Even the waves, which can be deadly in their fits of temper, were languid.

I wanted to linger for its own sake as well as the fact that I did not want to think about the next steps for the crabs in the bag in the boot of the car. It was a gift, so I felt obliged to honour it. Morris was eager to have them, so I wanted to be enthusiastic for his sake. Despite these best intentions, I remain the girl who cried when we coloured the tail feathers of the caricature Tom Turkey given to us schoolchildren before Thanksgiving. I lived for many years on dumplings and all the other trimmings of the turkey at the celebratory feast. I could not save Tom Turkey, but I could at least refrain from eating him.

Years and miles can change many things, but those crabs in the sink might as well have been Tom Turkey. My husband wisely did his best to keep me out of the kitchen and in the dark about the fate of those crabs. He has made me promise even now not to go into the kitchen.

As the sun slowly sets, the clear blue sky has been overtaken with a haar--the sea diffusing onto the land. It is akin to a fog but softer, more animate. Even the air through the bedroom window will have a sea-salty dampness until the early rising sun dispels it.

Friday, July 25, 2008

At the John O Groats Ferry

I have shingles again, so until I feel better here are some photos you might enjoy. These are shots from the John O Groats ferry landing.

These giant concrete cubes intrigued me. Apparently they are an improvement over boulders just plumped along the shore to help retain the wall--or at least someone thought so.

I also liked the softened lines of the planks on the pier.

John o Groat is named for Jan De Groot. This ferry runs only during summer hours. There are also ferries from Scrabster and from Gills Bay. They run more or less year round. Some days the firth is too rough to cross.

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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Looking for Vikings: Week 2

Last night we had the second public lecture in the ongoing series of the Looking for Vikings Project in Caithness. We got an update on what they have found so far and some background on pre-Viking archaeology. As you could well imagine, Caithness has been an active place for several thousands of years. Oddly, archaeologists were very active up here in the 1860-1910 time frame and then just sort of forgot about Caithness.

Caithness has more than 200 brochs--iron age towers made of stone. Now the proper term for them is either a simple Atlantic round house or a complex Atlantic round house. I would be willing to bet that despite that overwhelming number of brochs up here, if you Google "broch" you'll get an example from Orkney or Shetland and no mention of Caithness.

We also have several chambered cairns (neolithic), a couple hill forts, and probably the largest stone circle in Scotland--maybe in the UK, all of it waiting to be "discovered."

At the heart of the Vikings in Caithness project is a paradigm shift. The archaeologists are committed to doing good work and to training us-- the community-- to do good work on our own. Some sites here have been subject to what Andy Heald last night dubbed "garden party archaeology"--a landowner dug out the interesting bits, chukked all the other stuff into a heap and erected monuments to himself on top of the old site.

Partly in reaction to that kind of amateur digging, professional archaeologists went through a period of "Don't touch" during which members of the communtiy were not even allowed on site. A friend who suffered through that era is now having a hard time being convinced that the AOC folks and the Castle Hill Heritage Centre really really want us to be involved. In fact, hand in hand with sharing their information about the discoveries is training us to do good archaeology.

It is very very exciting. Check out their web site ( and look at the web diary about what we're doing and take a look at the map--of the nearly 40 sites they have marked, we already know anecdotally of many others. And maybe just maybe they have found the walls of a rectangular building. We'll find out more about that next weekend.

First you have to make a hole. This is the very first hole of many. The auger cuts through the grass in a field in Dunnet.

This tool results in a core of about 20 cms. Each core is looked at for colour and texture and any changes either within it (a boundary) or in its inclusions--shells, bones, pebbles, clay.

Check out the web diary on www. for descriptions of what they found in the coring last week.

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Saturday, July 19, 2008

Handwriting on the Wall

Posted by PicasaIn fixing the floorboards and merging the boiler room and the laundry room, a wall got knocked down. Underneath the comparatively modern drywall wall was an older lath and plaster wall. In carpenter's pencil but still perfectly legible and saved mostly intact from the pry bar are two signatures on little wooden laths.

That wall was plastered perhaps 200 years ago, so it will be a bit of an adventure to discover if I can anything about the men behind the signatures:

James Campbell

in small, precise cursive


John McKay

John' s handwriting is larger, and the tail of the Y in Reay rises like waves, loops back on itself and ends with a couple hatch marks on the curly tail. Quite elegant. I presume the name beneath his name is Reay--parts of it are missing.

A little online searching revealed a John McKay, farmer at Milton of Borlum, had a will in Wick Sheriff Court in 1875. Is that the same McKay? Up here, the surname McKay fills about a dozen pages in the phone book. A quick search of census records for Reay parish gave me 18 John McKays in 1841; 21 in the 1851 census; and 28 in the 1871 census. The actual records are not available online for free, so next time I'm in the library I'll see if I can get some more clues. The census includes occupation. I might get lucky enough to put it in the realm of probably the right one, but I would like to see a note written in his own same hand on an invoice or in his diary. I like that kind of certainty. I think I am whistling in the dark, but it is an interesting challenge.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Holes and More Holes

I am taking part in a great archaeological project up here. (see their web site:, the Viking and Norse project in Caithness.) As so often happens, the glamorous part will come after slogging through a lot of holes. In this case, they have 1500 places already where they want to dig cores. In each of those spots, they'll take several cores. How many is several? Well, it varies, but the first hole had had nine cores removed (about 20 cm each) by the time I left for lunch yesterday.

Today when my husband stopped by, they were in a nearby field and the hole in question was down to about 9 meters depth. Each core has to be described. If the second or third or so on is not different in colour or texture or inclusions, then you do not need to describe it, but with half a dozen newly trained people hovered around a clump of dirt, you'd be surprised how many different ideas you get on what the colour is and whether it is the same or different as the previous one, let alone texture.

The process of using GPS to find each of these 1500 locations, make a hole, collect cores, and note down the descriptions on a paper form as well as on a handheld computer device is what this first phase of the project is all about in a nutshell. Lots of holes in which we may or may not find anything interesting. The aocarchaeology web site for more information about the project and other aspects of the River of Stone project. I'll post photos and updates here, too, from time to time.

As if that weren't enough excitement. I came home to discover a great hole where the laundry room floor had been. Although it may not sound like it, that is great progress. I was even happier to see that hole than the first of the 1500.

Making a hole where the laundry room floor used to be is progress because the floor boards were rotting. Considerable moisture, since the house is within walking distance of the ocean, this is Scotland, and the house is more than 200 years old, has been swirling around the laundry room not only rotting floorboards but also freezing my poor feet all the way to my knee caps if I stood there for more than 2 minutes.

In defense of those poor floorboards: they did a yeoman's job with no help from any moisture barrier or damp course. Now that we have a hole --and a heap of rubbish--we can amend all that. On the way to the concrete and the damp course and the insulation and new floor boards, there is just the little matter of yanking out a wall.

Tomorrow I will be able to come home and find a hole where a wall used to be. As quirky as that sounds, that hole, also, will make very happy. The wall that is soon to be an ex wall divides the boiler and the airing cupboard from the laundry room for no apparent reason. The boiler room is warm; the laundry room is desperately cold. If the wall comes down, then just maybe some of that warmth will wend its way into the laundry room, and, with the floor all nicely insulated, may even linger there a while. That is my fondest hope.

OK. "Airing cupboard?" I can hear some of you--probably American readers-- saying to yourselves. An airing cupboard is a place around the boiler where you can put linens and towels so they get dry and sometimes can even come out with a lovely warmth to them. In case you have wondered, the stereotype about cold and damp in old Scottish houses is, sad to say, well earned. An airing cupboard is one of those lovely low tech ways of using so-called waste heat. Personally, I never waste any heat that I manage to find anywhere in the house.

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Monday, July 14, 2008

Bubble and Squeak

For years I have heard about Bubble and Squeak, tonight I had a chance to try it for the first time. Bubble and Squeak rarely shows up on menus because it is homey food--improvisations on leftovers. Having Bubble and Squeak meant not only eating comfort food but also being folded into the family part of the dining room table.

I had my feet under my friends' table eating Bubble and Squeak because tomorrow they are going to Inverness where she will be hospitalized for a major op and he will have the hard job of looking after her, which, while she is still in hospital means mostly waiting and being cheerful while he is away from home and the things that give them both comfort.

These last hours before they could do anything much but wait and perhaps begin to worry I chose to fill as best I could. They are good friends, so there is never a shortage of talking and laughing and eating. Their kitchen table has so many conversations soaked into its very fibre that it could talk for weeks even if we went silent.

Between coffee and cake and Bubble and Squeak and more coffee, we knitted and talked about this and that and nothing at all. Other friends called and stopped by. Only then did my friend notice a pattern and an intentionality. We were just there because it was the thing to do. Even that nagging voice in the back of my head with the litany of all the things undone--laundry, dishes, gardening, writing--was silenced with a single wheesht.

I left half a knitted square for Oxfam at their house. "I'll pick it up when you're back from your spa treatment," I joke. We hug and laugh, and each of us hurries to our respective spots--she to her sun room; me to my car--for a few tears of worry and gladness until we are together again. Bubble and Squeak: making the best of what you have and sharing it around.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Kittens and Calves

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Too many kittens; too few calves.

My hand-reared calf may not grow up to be a mother of champions. She is being given ample opportunity. She has already eluded the trip from here to "off" twice. I am steeling myself to the possibility that her luck might not hold.

The next to last night in creative writing class we wrote short descriptions based on sensory impressions as a little in-class exercise. I wrote one in which the character recalled an event from "the fragrance of the calf on her cardigan". My classmates gave me the good writerly advice to be more descriptive--what exactly did a calf smell like? It was good advice, but it stunned me at the time because I could no longer remember what it was like not to know what a calf smelled like. For those of you, who, like my classmates, have never had the opportunity to smell a calf, here is the fragrance as best I can describe it:

milk-damp warmth mingling with meadow grass and a touch of the earth warmed more by the heat of the calf than that of the pale sun

That fragrance wound up on my cardi because we had a lively little critter who suddenly got a belly ache. As it turned out, it was not serious, in part because we caught it in time. After the folks who knew what they were doing assessed him and dosed him, I was called in as surplus labour to provide nursing services. I didn't take the time to pull on my boiler suit (coveralls) because I felt an urgency about this little guy who had so recently been so lively. If he could get on his legs again, things would be better for us both.

He did not rise up as I approached the paddock where he was sequestered with his mother, so I leaned over him and tried first persuading him with a gentle nudge on the side on which he was lying. I am only strong enough to lift half a calf, so I next tried getting either half of his legs to raise him up. In this exchange, my cardigan picked up his fragrance--earth, grass, warm-milky breath. His mother spoke to him, and he rose looking much like a telescope unfolding itself with his disproportionately long legs.

Once on his legs he threatened to return to ground. I wrapped my arms around his mid section to persuade him to stay upright. His mother rumbled to him and he tottered to her. He quickly got better. Later that night through the window I saw him walking behind his mother. By the next day he was frisking again with the other calves.

All that came back to me in the whiff off the cardi as I prepared to load it into the washer. Not all stories of sudden illness end so happily, so it is important to cherish the successful ones.

Whoever coined the phrase as helpless as a kitten must not have known any barn cats. I worked patinetly with three generations of one family to get cats that I could pick up. It is a rare combination of personality and training to make them have enough faith to abandon their elusiveness as a defense. I had two cats that were trained to come when called--if, in the way of cats, it suited their schedules. They had their shots and they were respectively spayed and neutered. All seemed well in the tabby clan.

Another tabby of the same generation as my two was never tame enough for me to touch her. She came for food, but was always elusive--at least to humans. She managed to produce three kittens. Even when she was ill with a growth on her face that I suspect killed her, I could not touch her. Of her three kittens, only one of them, Button, has allowed me to touch her--and that is tentative.

Button had 4 kittens--three of whom have now been re-homed thanks to three wonderfully patient friends. The fourth kitten--you guessed it-- managed to avoid capture even in a small space with three catchers complete with nets. That elusiveness will probably shorten his/her life span considerably. Un-altered, un-immunized cats typically live less than 2 years.

Button, the hard working single mother, is canny enough to let me touch her kitttens to get them out of the attic after the gale passed (Don't ask me how she got them in..) and to let her kittens be captured, but not canny or faithful enough to let me get her in a box to take her to the vets--at least not on the first three tries. I have another box--the top loader that my friends used to capture the kittens. After she has settled down from my first ineffective attempts, I'll give it another go--with leather gloves also provided by my canny cat-catching friends.

Button would be better off not being fertile; Wee Calfie would be better off being fertile. I have lost some sleep over this conundrum and shed a few tears along the way to learning how to accept the irony of farm life. Monday I'll try again to get Button into the box and send up another prayer that Wee Calfie can become a mother of champions.

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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Dancing with a Wolf

Flannery O'Connor had lupus. She called it her wolf. As a writer, she made an extended metaphor of the illness that might otherwise have consumed her. Becoming a cancer patient or a cancer survivor or a person with an illness that cannot be cured with a course of antibiotics can consume us: our name, our career, our family or friends can all be lost within that label if we let it.

Instead, when we find ourselves living with a wolf, we and our wolf, and the people who live with and love us, can make room in our lives for the wolf. A wolf requires attention, vigilance, but it can be subordinated for periods of time even if in the end it will consume us. Flannery O'Connor was a good writer, so she picked a good metaphor. There is a whole body of literature about the metaphors of illness or a particular illness. That literature is part of one of my previous lives. I stumbled across one of those journals the other day as I was cleaning up some corner of this house. I set it aside. It still interests me, but today I want to talk about a few of the wolves that have settled into my life lately.

These are not my own personal wolves. These are the wolves of friends of mine, so like spouses or pets or houses or clothes, their choice is not necessarily mine. If the actual choice is not theirs either, at least how they care for it is. Getting a wolf is more like getting a stray cat or dog than going to the pet store or the rescue shelter and picking an animal. The choosing is the doing of the wolf or cat or dog; our response is our only choice. That may not seem much choice at all, but this post is not an existential exploration either.

This post is a celebration of the things I have learned from my friend's wolves. Celebration may seem an odd word for anything associated with illness and the travail of my friends, but I am schooling myself to watch things more closely and to remember better. One of the best dances I ever had was with a man whose name I never knew. He was a dancer. I don't mean that he looked like Fred Astaire on the dance floor or that he knew the requisite steps for a given piece of music or even that he danced well in the conventional sense. I mean that he danced for the joyfulness in his spirit. I noticed him dancing alone on the floor because people who could not see past his awkward halting movements on the dance floor began to cluck among themselves and to get that social distancing look on their faces that I have never much liked. Before I had even thought what I was doing, I was on the floor dancing with him. We had a good time. He smiled and at the end of the dance he leaned over and told me that he had Huntington's chorea and he was in remission. The wolf was away for awhile. He would dance til his wolf came back.

As too often happens with me, that spiritual lesson was nearly forgotten. One of my friends reminded me of it the other day. Her wolf had curled first around her eyes, nearly blinding her, and entwined itself around her feet and legs making it hard to walk. I won't tell you how brave I think she is. I am not that good a writer yet. With the help of some medicine which in itself contained a bit of wolfishness, she persuaded her wolf to get off her feet. As we sat in the kitchen of another friend whose wolf is never far away, she kicked off her shoes and wiggled her toes for us. I hope never to forget the joy of watching her celebrate the re-discovery of the muscles-nerves-joints that infinite complexity that makes us able to wriggle our toes for walking, dancing, or for the sheer joy of it.

Another friend has been living quietly with her wolf for years. Perhaps too quietly. In the early days with her wolf, people who could have or should have known better were instead like the clucking audience around the man dancing his remission. They could not see past her wolf and they were afraid of the wolf and set her aside with it. She kept her wolf hidden out of necessity so that she could go among people, but she was always painfully aware both of that wolf and of the urgency to keep it hidden. She has grown wary of people.

Now she has another wolf to contend with. This one is more acceptable in public but it means that her other, secret wolf may also peek out. This first, secret wolf frightens her even more than the one we see and know. She has come to grips with her wolf but not with letting him out. I think my job is to help her bring this wolf out into the open, but I could be mistaken. It is not my choice how she lives with either wolf. I must take my cues from her. After all, it is her wolf.

We all have wolves--not as profound or as straightforward as lupus or other chronic illness--but we can take lessons from those whose wolves make our own pale by comparison and be grateful and dance.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Just a Little Caithness Craic

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I have been a bit preoccupied lately, so I have not been writing blog posts. I have one in draft but til then I thought I'd share a little craic with you. If you come, you'll be most welcome, but folks--especially the auld folks--are sometimes a bit protective of this area. I loved this little story because it catches that flavour of protectiveness.

I was told this one tonight in one of our favorite restaurants:

"My grandfather had the contract for the road into Westerdale. One day he was speaking to Sir Archibald and he said, "Sir, I've made this road good enough, but not so good that folks will want to be coming up here."