|Summer 2010 part 1: From
the North - Orcadian visions
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my parents' 50th wedding anniversary passed and to mark it the Mason
clan arranged to rendezvous at Stromness on Orkney on June 12th
for a week's holiday - the furthest I have been from HQ in a very long
time! So this post is dedicated entirely to that trip, in which a
healthy combination of walking, fishing, birdwatching, botanising,
drinking, eating and photography (in no particular order) was indulged
in. What a fantastic place! I just wish it was a little nearer to
0330 on the 11th saw me leaving the valley at first light, the aim
being to get past the busiest section of the M6 before the busiest time
of day - always a good plan - and the journey went so smoothly that by
lunchtime I was past Inverness. With the ferry booked from Scrabster at
1900 the following day I had plenty of time to play with, so I struck
NW and headed for Ullapool, a place I was familiar with from my
voluntary work with the Geological Survey 20 years previously.
The motivation to head NW was the spectacular landscape, as shown in
the above image taken in 1990, when some free time had coincided with
fantastic clear weather. The shot was taken from the summit ridge of
Stac Pollaidh, looking across to Suilven and Canisp. These mountains
clearly appear dark against the lower-lying hummocky landscape. That's
because they are made of different rocks: the low-lying areas are
composed of Lewisian basement - ancient crystalline rocks over two
billion years old, whilst the darker rocks forming the mountains are
Torridonian sandstones, which were deposited as alluvial sediments
about a billion years ago on the eroded Lewisian surface. Thus, they
record the oldest environmental changes preserved anywhere in the UK!
Arrival at Ullapool on this occasion gave little incentive to climb any
mountains and plenty to head for the town's pubs.....
A few pints
later and with the tastiest fish and chips I've had in years filling
any remaining gaps, an early night was had in anticipation of the
improving forecast for the 12th.....
However, the improvement was slow to
materialise as this shot of a drizzle-bound Loch Assynt shows! I hung
around for a couple of hours and then struck off north towards
Assynt, the conditions did improve and the sun was making an appearance
by the time I reached the spectacular bridge at Kylesku...
The road to Scourie and on past Loch
Laxford reveals spectacular exposures of the Lewisian Basement, such as
this one, in numerous road-cuttings. There's a lot going on here: the
banded grey gneiss contains dark pods of mafic rock and both are cut by
pinkish granitic sheets. It is fair to say that unravelling their
highly complex geological history is an ongoing process!
The journey north continued: this was near
As the road
turned east towards Caithness, Ben Loyal's multiple peaks gave a
superbly dramatic backdrop...
In places, the road wound inland for miles
around sea-lochs, whilst in others, such as the Kyle of Tongue,
pictured here, it crossed the tidal inlet via a stone block causeway.
The drizzle set in once again as I passed into Caithness but at
Scrabster it dried up enough to spend an hour fishing on the rocks
under the lighthouse, resulting in enough plump dabs for supper the
following evening. The crossing of the Pentland Firth was marked by
quite a swell, but once closer to the islands this eased off and I
spent the time out on the deck astern, taking in the views, despite the
awful light for photography....
The Old Man of
Hoy, a 137-metre high sea-stack, is one of the highlights of the
crossing. Geomorphologists reckon it to be only a few hundred years
old, connected originally to the cliffs. The march of erosion will
eventually see it collapse into the sea, but in time new stacks will
form in the same way....
An hour and a
half after leaving Scrabster, the ferry docked in Stromness and after a
meal I went into the back garden to take in the view! This was about as
dark as it would get this far north in mid-June....
And so to the island. Orkney is a living landscape and has been for a
very long time. There is an immensely powerful sense of permanence
here. The fertile soils, sheltered anchorages and fish-rich waters must
all have been important factors: organised settlements go back to 5500
years ago - the late Stone Age or Neolithic era. On the West Coast,
is Skara Brae - a Neolithic village buried beneath sand-dunes until in
1850 a great storm and high tides revealed part of it. The rest was
Just one of the buildings revealed from beneath the drifting sands....
In addition to the superbly-preserved buildings, a wide variety of
artifacts were unearthed, including some whose purpose remains a source
In this part of Orkney, there are features left behind by the Neolithic
people almost everywhere you look: standing stones, circles, burial
mounds. The largest circle is the Ring of Brodgar which proved a
challenging photographic subject with the prevailing light conditions -
a stratocumulus deck with the sun breaking through enough to
underexpose the scene...
This worked OK - I used
an ultrawide 12-24mm lens, got down on the ground so that the sun was
mostly behind the stone and waited for people to get out of the frame!
The site also offers something of weather-related interest:
Hoping for better light, I got up early one morning and headed out of
Stromness as the rising sun lit up the hills on the neighbouring island
of Hoy. The car-ferry I travelled on can also be seen in the harbour...
This time I made for the Stones of Stenness, just a few hundred metres
away from the Ring of Brodgar, to try for some shots facing east into
the rising sun:
This one worked quite well with the sun lighting up the low, rolling
fog-banks. Such a stunning foreground is deserving of many repeat
visits to get that eventual special shot, though!
Other days were spent exploring the spectacular coast - with or without
my fishing-gear! This is the Brough of Birsay - a small island
off the NW corner of Mainland and only accessible a few hours either
side of low water via a causeway:
The clifftops were ablaze with thrift, kidney vetch, devil's bit
scabious and squills:
The area is a mecca for birdwatchers and
along the clifftops embarrassingly long lenses were pointing seawards
as skuas and gannets flew by or down to the ledges where puffins,
fulmars and a host of other species were lurking. Not being
weighted-down with such a gadget, I made do with this oystercatcher
stood on the remains of a Viking wall:
One thing that is an almost constant
feature of the western coastline of Orkney is the Atlantic swell, that
surges up the slabby sandstone ledges. Another is the superb water
clarity and the ice-blues where breaking waves fill the water with
We tarried long here, hoping that we might see some Orcas - they are
quite frequently seen here - but not on this occasion! These Bottlenose
Dolphins obliged instead.....
Orkney is known as a windy place but this scene, further down the coast
at Yesnaby, was amazing. The soil erosion extends from the edges of
these cliffs for up to 50m inland, and is caused by wind-driven
spray from breaking waves. This unusual type of erosion only affects
cliffs. I'd love to come back here with the camera during a force 11
wind at high tide!
I'll finish off
with some general shots of the Orcadian landscape....
This is to the west of Stromness, looking southwards to Hoy across a
patchwork of fields. This is extremely fertile country, especially
compared to the NW of Scotland with its acres of rock and peat! Beef
and lamb and feed crops are the typical produce, along with bere - a
form of barley. The beef and lamb are especially tasty! There is a very
high emphasis on using local produce here, something the rest of us
will have to get used to in due course as the easily-recoverable oil
deposits become scarcer. There's also a very powerful sense of
community strength up here: it is said that without this, the smaller
communities on the outlying islands simply would not be viable. It is a
vision we should aspire to everywhere!
This is looking
across the Sound of Hoy from near Ness Point one evening, with an
obliging seal in the foreground! With maritime activity being such a
major part of Orcadian life, lighthouses and navigational buoys are a
frequent sight, especially in the vicinity of the major ports.
string of small islands off the southern coast of Mainland are the
Churchill Barriers. These blockwork structures carry road causeways and
along with the nearby,
deliberately-sunken Blockships, they were created in World War 2 in
order to prevent U-boat access via the narrow but deep sounds between
the islands into the sheltered anchorage of Scapa Flow, where U-47
torpedoed the battleship HMS Royal Oak on 14th October 1939 with the
loss of 833 lives. This image shows Barrier 2, a blockship and one of
the many wind turbines situated around the island. Renewables are
pretty mainstream up here - if you've got it, why not make use of it?
This was taken on the final evening from Maes Howe burial mound looking
westwards, and shows the Stones of Stenness and the adjacent lochs. The
mound has been excavated and is open for guided tours. Abandoned by its
Neolithic builders, it was later entered by the Vikings - who carved
runes into the huge stone slabs that line the chamber. All amazing
stuff, but the light outside was what blew me away completely!
The following morning I was away on the 0630 ferry, and twelve hours or
so later was back in the sun-scorched beer garden of my local here in
Machynlleth after 577 miles of driving. I was sorry to have to leave
these beautiful and fascinating islands so soon. A week just isnt long
enough - neither is a lifetime! It was a drizzly start to the day with
a cold Nor-westerly wind chasing the ferry back to the Scottish
mainland, as the cliffs of Hoy gradually receded into the distance,
leaving just memories. I'll be back!
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