Winter Coughs To Announce Her Presence

Officially it is not winter for five weeks or so, but the seasons sometimes blur the calendrical boundaries and fixed points that we like to attribute to them.

Yesterday was the first real cold morning of the year. Crisp and clear, a light frost covered everything, a promise maybe of what is to come. And, perhaps with a sense of the shift in things, it seemed that my Facebook feed was filled with photographs by people drawn to mark this liminal time.

An old school friend by the name of Dave Wright lives up in Inverness, in Scotland. He has two things up there that I don’t have: a decent camera and the northern lights.

He took this photograph as a cold dusk fell upon the land, he himself hunkered down for the night. The tree serves as a point of focus in an otherwise horizontal sweep.

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And then, as he quite aptly described it: the moment the sky danced. 

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Further south, across the English border (how we like to divide and designate, whether with land or time or people) another old school friend, Derek Bates, paused to take in the view from his works window. This was in Duckingfield, a town in Greater Manchester, with light struggling slowly over the bare hills, the low-lying land shrouded in mist.

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To the east of Duckingfield, in my hometown of Middleton, the temperature stubbornly refused to rise. The mist appeared hesitant beyond the trees.

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And then the school run beckoned, drawing us out of our heated home. Ignore that sun, it may as well have been a snowflake.

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“It’s cold,” my daughter exclaimed as we hurried along the main road. “I can’t feel my legs.”

“They’re still there,” I replied. “Keep going!” 

Orkney Odyssey 3: Time Tells

Feeling the need to return.

City Jackdaw

There is a romanticism and a melancholy to the islands.

An echo of times past. A hint of meaning that lies just beyond the wind. Meaning whose origin is adorned by labels: Norse, Pictish, Neolithic. A procession of markers that will outlive us all.

I wonder if living here day after day, year after year, causes you to be blasé about it all? Do the markers become invisible, blending in with the rest of the storm-shaped landscape?

I remember seeing a documentary a few years back about people living in the Scottish Highlands. Among all that natural beauty and dramatic vistas, the young ones were bored to death. They said that visitors would tell them how lucky they were to be living there. They would reply that there was never anything to do. They would amuse themselves by sending travelling tourists in the opposite direction of the landmarks that they…

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On This Day: The One-Armed Man

In a list of saints native to the British Isles, today is the day of Nathalan, (?-678), who legend says was a wealthy man who became a hermit near Aberdeen, in Scotland, supporting himself by cultivating his smallholding:

‘which work approaches nearest to divine contemplation.’

Couldnt have had cows, then.

Born into a noble Pictish family, he produced surplus food to help pilgrims and the needy of the area. So far so good. Saintly material.

But, when the crops failed one summer, Nathalan cursed God for the wet weather. (Seems like nothing has changed climate wise in those parts.) Full of remorse, he repented by having one arm chained to his side. The only key to the padlock he dispensed into the depths of the River Dee. He then set off on foot to do penance in Rome. At least he still had one arm free to thumb a lift in case he grew too weary.

Arriving in Rome months later, he bought a fish in the market. When he cut it open, guess what he found inside? Only the key to the padlock on his chained arm. How’s that for a divine sign of forgiveness?

On hearing of this miracle, the Pope had Nathalan made into a bishop (some say the Bishop of Aberdeen). The poor fish is never mentioned again though. Such is the fate of fish throughout history.

He returned to Scotland, (Nathalan, not the fish), establishing a second church at Coull, in the Howe of Cromar, and another at Cowie near Stonehaven.

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Cowie Kirk, originally dedicated to St. Nathalan.

 

An old Cowie rhyme states:

‘Atween the Kirk and the Kirk ford,

there lies St. Nathalan’s hoard’

His hoard or treasure is believed wrapped in a bull’s hide, tied with a rope which, according to folklore, will hang anyone uncovering it.

Think I’ll leave the spade in the shed then.

Who am I?

This is a relative of mine who is living at the very top of Scotland with his wife in a house they have built, looking to live self-sufficiently. He is new to WordPress and still finding his feet, so will you fine people give him a nice welcome. And maybe throw him a follow 🙂

Ivycroft

Sounds like a game. Maybe I’ve got a post-it note stuck to my head. 

It’s an excercise set by “blogging 101”, the WordPress course I’ve signed up for to help me get some blogging skills.

Most of the excercise has already been addressed on my “About” page. I’m a bloke in his late fifties who, for about the last ten years, has been building a house in the Far North of Scotland. With Hazel, long suffering wife of this parish, I’ve been experimenting with a more self- sufficient, greener lifestyle. Ten years into the project, we’re a lot closer to having a house, not much closer to self sufficiency.

Along the way, I’ve made many mistakes. The blog is going to be an attempt to share some of those mistakes so that other greenies can avoid them. I’m also going to try to share some of the successes, tips for…

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A Great Scottish Disturbance In The Force

Congratulations to the Scottish people from me and my wee bairns. Not being Scottish, I hadn’t looked too closely at all the different issues involved, but from a purely emotional and romantic perspective I wanted you to stay with us.

The result of the vote, the full, ahem, force, was felt throughout the galaxy, even Darth MacVader and his Imperial Dancers were celebrating this morning.

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What do Stormtroopers wear beneath their kilt?

“That’s no moon….”

Our United Kingdom remains a kingdom united.

 

On Top Of Ben Nevis

On Top Of Ben Nevis

Vacuous specks in cataract eyes.

Faceless wraiths haunt
low, lunar rocks,
blurring lines, still boundaries,

hungry edges
suddenly thwarted by fractious light
perforating the still sleeve.

These weary phantoms risk all
in a deadly swoon,
cold gnawing
at callused fingers,
laboured breath squeezing out,
in amorphous clouds,
the vaporous cry of the victor.


©AJM

Orkney Odyssey 3: Time Tells

There is a romanticism and a melancholy to the islands.

An echo of times past. A hint of meaning that lies just beyond the wind. Meaning whose origin is adorned by labels: Norse, Pictish, Neolithic. A procession of markers that will outlive us all.

I wonder if living here day after day, year after year, causes you to be blasé about it all? Do the markers become invisible, blending in with the rest of the storm-shaped landscape?

I remember seeing a documentary a few years back about people living in the Scottish Highlands. Among all that natural beauty and dramatic vistas, the young ones were bored to death. They said that visitors would tell them how lucky they were to be living there. They would reply that there was never anything to do. They would amuse themselves by sending travelling tourists in the opposite direction of the landmarks that they would pull over and ask directions for.

On my first trip to Orkney, an enthusiastic Historic Scotland warden told me that they had a saying there: scrape away a bit of soil and the land bleeds archaeology. I think that this is a generally held view.

On my second visit, in the winter months, I intended one morning to walk part of the coast, dressing accordingly. However, en route to the starting point, I recieved news that the mother of one of my best friends had just died. I felt so far away, so remote. I decided to change my plans and head for Kirkwall Cathedral to light a candle for the woman who I had known for twenty five years. On doing so, I got talking to a guy who worked at the visitor center next door, and he offered to put a documentary film on for me in a side room all about St.Magnus and the founding of the Cathedral. Of course I was still dressed for the coastal walk, and had to begin to shed my layers in that small, heated room.

He looked on with amusement as first my waterproof coat came off, followed by a fleece jacket, then a zip-up top. Then a jumper. A t-shirt. And a thermal vest.

“You’re not as big as ya look are ya?” he exclaimed with a twinkle in his eye.

I gestured to my legs:

“Beneath these waterproof trousers, I’ve got on jeans and longjohns. My legs are really like pipe cleaners.”

With a shake of his head he gave me a look that said ‘you southerners’ which being a native of North West England I have never considered myself before. But in relation to these islands, I suppose I am.

After watching the film I told him of the historic sites that I had visited up to then. In a similar line to that taken by the Historic Scotland warden, he said that the whole mainland, and the surrounding islands, were “infested with archaeology.”  He told of farmers that he knew of who had accidentally uncovered some kind of stone remains on their land, and then hurriedly covered them back up before anybody else spotted them, not wanting the inconvenience of conservationists and archaeologists (or tourists such as I) interrupting their work and calander year.

Later, on the bus journey back to Stromness, I looked over in the direction of the Maeshowe tomb, the Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar, and more. I thought of the secrets being revealed at the current dig at the Ness of Brodgar which is blowing all pre-conceived ideas out of the water. Of my visit the day before to Skara Brae, the Neolithic settlement that nobody knew was there until a great storm in 1850 stripped back the layers of sand covering it and exposed it to a sky it had not seen for 4,000 years.

All these tunnels and tombs, standing stones and runes.

How much more is there, hidden out there beneath those flat fields? My eye strayed unbidden to every mound and hint of uneven ground.

A landscape infested. A land that bleeds.

Eventually the earth will give up more of her secrets.

In the end time tells.

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Orkney Odyssey #2: From The Air

Two flights take me there: Manchester to Aberdeen and then Aberdeen to Kirkwall. From the Rainy City, to the Granite City, to Kirkjugavr (Norse meaning Church Bay).

This takes me back to the school bus, once more the backseat boy.

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A sudden flash of the sun catches me unawares.

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Didn’t last long, back to surfing the shadows of the north.

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Somewhere below lies the Orkney archipelago, a scattering of around seventy islands.

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“Beyond Britannia, where the endless ocean opens, lies Orkney.” Orosius,  5th Century.

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I have just started reading a book by Adam Nicholson called Sea Room. Aged just 21, Nicholson inherited three islands, the Shiants, five miles off Harris. He describes his book as a love letter to them. On the front cover it says ‘the story of one man, three islands and half a million puffins.’

I showed it to my wife. I cannot begin to tell you how excited she looked.

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Nicholson described his book as an attempt to tell the whole story in as many dimensions as possible:

geologically, spiritually, botanically, historically, culturally, aesthetically, ornithologically, etymologically, emotionally, politically, socially, archaeologically, and personally.

 

I can relate to all of this when I think of Orkney.

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And so we descend, as though through differing strata of time.

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In a great expanse of sea, the islands rear up, green, yellow, and moated.

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This is my core place-the place where, in my absence, I often return. Picking up a George Mackey Brown novel, I am transported back, walking again the besieged coast, reconnecting with the remnants of unknown lives. When I see the weather forecast, I see the tiny marks off the coast of Northern Scotland, and feel once again the wind on my face, hear the whisper of a long dead tongue.

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When I think of Orkney, there is a particular feel that goes with it. It is not a foreign country, with a strange culture or alien way of life. It is not that far away, in travel time.

But somehow, it is different.

For my first visit, I packed my thermals and my waterproofs, expecting to have to brave the elements to get the most out of my time there. I got sunburnt in the first few hours. Locals assured me that this was not the norm.

Returning to Kirkwall airport, after three days, to depart once again for home, an ominous bank of fog followed in our wake.

Blind to omens and portents, I did not know then that I would be returning later that year, in the depths of dark December.

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Of Shadows and Sagas: A Time to Remember and to Read

As I write this in the comfort of my lounge, outside tonight the wind is howling, furiously, as though angry at its inability to gain entry into my sheltered refuge.

The odd, hunched figure can from my window be seen hurrying past, assailed by the calvacade of leaves and torrential rain.

The barely noticeable shortening of days, accompanied by the imperceptible shift in temperature from late summer into mild autumn, has definitely given way to the unmissable crossover point of autumn and winter.

Above the wind I can barely hear the fireworks exploding.

Samhain/Halloween…All Saints’ Day…All Souls’ Day…Bonfire Night…Remembrance Sunday.

It feels like this is the time for remembering. As the nights grow deep and long, just as we light candles and bonfires to hold off the dark, so we turn within to shine a light upon our own shadows, far within the recesses of memory.  Examining and reacquainting ourselves with the inner cast of our lives. Acknowledging those who have slipped from sight. We bring them out to breathe.

This time of year is also a great time for reading-armed with the fortitude of caffeine and electric or candle light, removed from the outside assault of climate and enveloping darkness.

I have always turned to stories around this time, without really analysing why, that can be found in books such as The Táin and The Mabinogion. Legends and tales told over centuries, losing myself in the storytelling of people long gone. Connecting with the idea of a people gathered around the hearth, imaginations fired.

When people ask me where my favourite place is, my reply is ‘North’. Scotland-the Highlands and the Orkney Islands, Scandinavia. You are never likely to see me sporting a suntan.

There is something in the landscape, the myths, the culture, born from the tummult of land and sea, that speaks to me.

And this is my time of year. The cycle has come around again.

I was about to start the Icelandic Sagas, but instead I have turned to East of the Sun, West of the Moon-Old Tales From the North.

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This is a collection of Scandinavian fairy tales that have had many interpretations over the years, but this copy is a reproduction of the 1914 version which has some fantastic illustrations in it by Kay Nielsen.

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The attraction of this book, as opposed to the Sagas, is that I can share it with my children. There are fifteen tales in it, so that is one per storm struck night, for just over a fortnight.

Wind, rain, darkness, a father, children.

Reading.

Remembering.

Imaginations fired.

My favourite time.