Tuesday, 9 June 2009

An Early Taste of Orkney Weather

Having arrived in Orkney during the middle of January, we missed all the debauched revellery these viking descendents are famous for. first Orkney Christmas and Hogmanay, or New Year, whatever your preference, came and went in the twinkling of an eye. This is our first year at Lyrowall, our smallholding on the island of South Ronaldsay, Orkney.
Although Orkney's very different from Yorkshire, some things never change.
"Did you have too much to drink last night?" Sally's a bright lass and hardly ever misses a thing.
Having gorged myself until I resemble an out of condition Sumo wrestler, slooshed copious amounts of alcohol of varying strengths and colours combined with severe sleep-deprivation, I now have the complexion of Keith Richards' slighly more weathered elder brother. So, like millions of NewYear revellers the world over I make the sacred mid-day pilgrimage to the bathroom followed by several strong cups of coffee.
"Of course not!" I try to defend myself from Sal's totally unfair accusation. Unfortunately it comes out "Urghosno" , so donning wellies, raincoat and hat, I head for the relative peace of the beach with the dogs.
As I trudge seawards, I try to reflect on the previous evening's revellery. The whole island, it seemed, at one time or another, descended on our cottage for 'First Footin'. They come, like moths to a burning light to share a drink. Civil folk that they are, they bring their own in a carrier bag (they do, though, expect you to supply ice) – this way everyone's welcome and the host isn't constantly checking the drinks cupboard (or the overdraft) which would be required to fuel these happy travellers. If for some reason you don't feel in the mood to drink malt whisky at five o'clock in the morning, the trick is to turn off the lights to the house. This means "Leave us alone, we are trying to sleep" but which also may be interpreted as “We are boring English gits and have no intention of trying to keep up with ‘Sinks’ or Colin Sclater (in their personal quest to rid the planet of the evil malt - by drinking it all)”.
A deafening noise brings me back to the present as 2,000 greylag geese take to the air simulataneously.
"Happy New Year" I shout to the shelducks, curlews and golden plovers assembled along the foreshore. The dogs and I walk along the seacliffs, the waves create bright white foam against the dark grey rocks at the base of the cliffs. As we round a headland I glimpse a breathtaking sight – standing on the very edge of the clifftop is a Peregrine Falcon. It watches me for a second or two then turns and drops out of view, plummeting towards the sea. I'm so inspired by the bird and its surroundings I make straight for home and the studio. As I turn back up the winding path through the garden, my head starts to clear and a sense of anticipation hangs in the air.
"This fire is completely knackered!".
I'm often greeted in unusual ways by all members of the family; a small child's very effective rugby tackle, a screeching demand that I stop deleting stuff from SkyPlus until I'm given authority to do so, or merely a withering silence from ‘The Adult’ of the family, depending on time of day, or night, I happen to return. However a commentary on the condition of the stove was a new one.
One of the quaint features we fell in love with at Lyrowall was the ancient multi-fuel stove which also supplies the central heating. The trouble is, it's so quaint that it's warped and air gets in where it shouldn't, it also has no damper which, in turn, causes the fire to get extremely hot. This has caused the griddle bars (technical term I have learnt) to simply burn away, leaving us with a warped and mangled mess where the fire grate should be.
"Call the plumber, Sal!" I suggest. Of course not only is this New Year – this is Orkney. The plumber, I now recall, was slumped in one of the byres at about six o'clock this morning. I nip out to try and catch him, but like all good plumbers, he's gone. Probably to a better job, or a better party. The house is freezing, so sing the warped griddle bars we construct the semblance of a cage on which to place a fire. It looks like a game of 'Kerplunk' in the very latter stages, but it works and the fire roars into life.
With the kids and Grandma Mary settled in front of the inferno, Sal goes to attend to Tessa (Her Majesty) and I take a tour of the livestock. We came here for the chance to have our own animals on our own land. Yorkshire is a beautiful county and there's a lot I miss about being there, but for a Barnsley lad to have a four acre smallholding with its own cockle beach was just too good to pass by. So we're starting with something we already know a little about - hens.
A few months earlier we bought some hatching eggs from the internet and set the incubator up. Previously we'd had mixed results using the incubator (much better to use a broody hen if you've got one) still our expectations were high – new place, new start! We candled the eggs (by shining a light through the egg to check on the developing embryo) and we could see there was a good chance of getting a few chicks. The females (highly prized) would be egg layers, the males would be for the table, eventually. In the incubator the humidity level is critical and unfortunately a few of the chicks started to hatch and then dried out. The textbooks say there's nothing you can do in this situation. But Sally doesn't read textbooks. Very carefully and very patiently, using a cotton bud to moisten the membrane constricting the half-hatched chick, she pulls the hard skin from the tiny body. The chick on the operating table is a Marans, a traditional breed and one of our favourites, so we're delighted when, after a nervous overnight wait, the chick starts to peck at food. But there are two problems. First, it can't stand properly and second, it has a black spot on its head. This identifies it, if I remember the 'Gold Cockerel Guide' correctly, as 'dinner'. Anyhow, day after day the chick improves a little more. It's now the New Year, five months since this chick hatched and it is one of the most robust birds on the farm with no suggestion of a limp. Encouragingly it has also never shown any signs of its supposed masculinity; it has a tiny comb, is shaped like a hen, walks like a hen, in fact it is a hen and will have many happy seasons providing us with the freshest of eggs. Well, that's what I thought until this one morning. Whilst feeding the chickens, I notice a scuffle in the corner of the hut and I turn to see the Marans balancing on the back of a Light Sussex hen. After finishing this piece of nuptial gymnastics 'she' gave out the most enormous 'Cock-a-doodle-doo!' That really did give the game away. It's only yesterday afternoon that Sally was cuddling 'Lola' as I've now named 'her' and remarking how well 'she' had come on since those early days. I'm dreading telling her. . .
Well Sally took the whole Lola episode quite well really,
"We're not killing it, and that's that!" was her opinion. So we're not. He will have a batchelor pad in the main chicken paddock and, if he's very lucky, we'll breed from him. He seems to have a knack for that, anyway! On the plus side, Lola's a very statuesque bird and any offspring ought to be good eating if they fail to produce eggs as their father has so spectacularly done. Looking at him now, it's incredible how he's physically changed since he's 'come out' as a cockerel.

Sal and Lola

I would like to think our hens have a great little life, whether they are destined to provide us with eggs or meat. Henry the German Lop rabbit also benefits from this free-range lifestyle, although he has never laid an egg and would probably be a bit stringy if cooked. He lives with the hens for company since his mate died. They live a relaxed life – their shared hut is always open for them as there are no foxes, stoats or weasels here in Orkney – of course the odd marauding otter could get the eggs if left too long in the hut – so the paddock is rabbit-netted to prevent this. It ought to be otter-netted, but we can't buy that at Highland Industrial Supplies.
Henry the German Lop and his mates

It's mid January and, like the rest of Britain, we have a weather warning. Severe weather is no stranger to Orkney shores, but with predicted gusts of up to 85 miles per hour, this needs consideration. By lunchtime all ferries are tied up safely in port and we do our last checks round the property. BBC Radio 2, based 750 miles away in London, announces the Churchill Barriers are closing, meanwhile the Grammar School, 15 miles up the road, continues as normal, apparently oblivious to the weather forecast. By four o'clock, when the kids ought to be back in the village, word gets around that the barriers, those World War II constructions which link our Island via three others to Mainland Orkney, are closed and can't re-open until the storm ends. We go and take a look to see if we can get through to pick up Savannah from town. We crossed Churchill Barrier No. 4 quite easily, but as we approached Barriers 3 & 2 we could see the problem. No 2 Barrier was simply submerged by rolling swell. To attempt to cross in a car would have been absolute madness – a submarine would have been more use. Back home we telephone Sav who's still at school with the rest of the stranded island kids. The news isn't good, the barriers aren't able to open until late at night, such is the ferocity of the storm and preparations are being made to put them up in the hostel overnight. Fortunately, for once we had allowed Sav her pocket computer game to school, so she was ok for entertainment.
The Fourth Churchill Barrier with a bit of wind and water

Back at home, the first signs the storm was getting serious was the satellite signal disappeared. I went out to check the problem to find the dish at a crazy angle, apparently attempting to receive a signal from the dog's kennel. That'll have to wait, I reckon. What can't wait, of course, are the animals. With Sal and I battling through the horizontal rain I shout "Wind's gettin' up a bit", but the words are whipped from my mouth, never to be heard. A crash behind me indicates the garden swing seat has been uprooted and deposited over a fence. Then, as we cross the yard towards Tess's paddocks, a green and yellow children's slide cartwheels up the hill straight at us. We manage to avoid the collision and get the necessary supplies to the animals.
Rough weather is inconvenient wherever you live. Up here where the Atlantic Ocean meets the North Sea, it can cause real hardship. For instance, all the goods in the supermarket has to come in from south, via ferry. Any prolonged spell of stormy weather can soon see Orkney virtually food-less. This winter hasn't been too bad yet, however the main freight ferry service (where Sally works) has only managed 30% of its crossings and things look set to deteriorate. If this weather continues we'll have to forage for food. Up here you have to try and be as self-sufficient as possible, just to survive. This is one of the reasons for breeding the chickens. The next thing we must do is to start a productive kitchen garden, and at its centre will be The Polytunnel!
The polytunnel fund, just a mere seedling a couple of months ago, has finally fruited. Sally has been Ebaying away her fine shoes and boots, selling other 'luxury' items (our prized possession, the stuffed short-eared owl, winged its way across the bay to reside on a neighbour's sideboard) and re-directing her birthday money to the good cause. She even auctioned a painting I did for her birthday!
“That'll fetch a bit”, she commented when I gave her the present on the morning of her anniversary. A gift, which, incidentally, I had been up half the night completing.
“But that's art, food for the soul.”
“Well the polytunnel will give us food for the belly, and we've got no more wall space anyway.”
This woman's logic is spot-on., so the 'tunnel is on its way. I have read bits about gardening in this alien environment (the polytunnel, not Orkney!) and I always thought them a bit, well, pretentious. The greenhouse for the millennium. But having lived here a while now I've noticed friends and neighbours who appear, outwardly at least to be no more strange than your average treefull of monkeys, also have 'tunnels, I have had to reassess my position.
But here's the rub - I'm crap at gardening. I love it, the whole loamy, planty, diggy smell of it – it's great. Problem is I just don't have greenfingers. It'd get all over my paintings if I had, so that'd be no good. I did grow some stuff - I managed to grow swedes the size of potatoes and potatoes the size of peas so they were never going to win any prizes. Needless to say I need all the help I can get.
But, perhaps even more of a disability in the veg stakes than my ineptitude, is the fact that our growing season at this lattitude lasts approximately 12 days and 5 hours! It usually starts on June 25th at 1pm (if it can be bothered at all) and ends in a heap of frazzled brown leaves a fortnight later! Out trees are more along the lines of semi-hardy annuals than pioneering forest plants and pretty garden flowers put on a blazing show of colour until the next 'breeze' repositions them like confetti somewhere over Norway.
The polytunnel is our attempt to extend this short growing window of opportunity and it's been ordered. So the shortest day has been and gone and the days are, minute by minute, getting longer. Although still the middle of winter, our thoughts are turning to spring. We wait expectantly for the arrival of 'The Tunnel' and our first steps into gardening for the kitchen.

Hens in the barn - on of my paintings