Friday, 26 August 2011

Badryrie- A lost crofting village in Caithness, Scotland

Are you drawn to remote places where people used to live in what appeared to be idyllic settings. At Badryrie you can still smell the peat smoke from the fire that burned in the hearth all the time and imagine the wind carrying the voices of children playing with the sheepdog round the end of the barn. Badryrie will delight your sense of place. The photographs here show the upper and lower parts of the abandoned settlement that sits in about four hundred hectares of mainly hill ground, of which sixteen acres were in crop rotation and twenty in grass for winter hay. The settlement lies several miles from the nearest road, along a track that has been largely reclaimed by the bog, protecting it from the vandalism that might otherwise accelerate the natural decay of the strucures. The local place names are evocative-we pass Achavanich, The field of the Monks and turn at the  ruined farmstead of Achkinlochbeg, The small field at the head of the Loch.  The land was divided into three tenancies, although the 1831 census records that eleven families lived there, some probably squatter refugees from the highland clearances. The lower complex of ruins is the more interesting as it was effectively a small distillery. The water mill race for the threshing mill and the grain drying kiln can still be seen. A still hole between two gables, seen below, was an effective hiding place for the means of distillation, although it is rumoured that the main still was concealed in an underground chamber and never found.  It is thought that the inns in the rapidly growing herring fishing village of Lybster, on the coast provided a ready market for the liquid product.The economics were simple. Living was mainly off the land augmented by sales of a few cattle and sheep. The diet would have consisted of oatmeal, potatoes, mutton,pork,milk, cheese, eggs and hares. Children walked to school every day and got a good education, including Latin and Greek and folk worshiped every Sunday at Halsary Church. Decline accelerated after the First World War and crofting ended there in the nineteen thirties, succumbing to the relentless forces of progress.
You can read more about Badryrie at

The Stuart Agenda by Alan Calder at and and .com

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Riots and Puffins

What are we to make of the riots in England as the dust appears to be settling and an impressive criminal justice system is dealing out punishments? We can all imagine the stereotypical individual apparently at the heart of the rioting and looting. They are already known to the police as muggers and minor criminals. The terrifying thing was the exponential loss of inhibition and increase in savagery when they acted together as a group, in fact the classic mob albeit coordinated on social networking sites. The second apalling reality was the way that hitherto law abiding citizens, many gainfully employed, got caught up in the drama and set aside whatever moral principles they possessed in the name of lawless materialism, hoovering up the TV's and trainers that appeared in front of them.
     On the positive side, the dignity and calm of the berieved Muslim father and the forgiveness of the mugged Indonesian student added to the determination of the clean-up army, rescued something for humanity.
     Looking forward beyond the hand wringing of the careless politicians who have let the soil be prepared for this, what is to be done? In the short term, I'm sure that the police won't let things get so far out of hand again, even without advice from hot shot American cops. The other short term answer is to have enough prison places.
    In the longer term how do we change social conditions to prevent more generations of feral children growing up to be hooligans. This is one of the most complex questions facing society. On the left, the answer is to alleviate poverty, but poverty is relative and I do believe the Bible where it says 'the poor will always be with us.' From the right there are any number of propositions, few of which would get through the strictures of the Human Rights Act, so I'm not optimistic. It does look like poor/no parenting has a lot to answer for. Looking across at America, there are models which work, but behind that they do have a very large prison population and a 'three strikes and you're out' policy. In the Times yesterday, the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks called for a moral revival, along the lines of what happened in the 1820's, amen to that.

As an antidote to the above lets have a look at one of nature's most endearing creatures, the puffin. I've know them since childhood as nesting residents on some of the wild rock stacks off the Caithness coast. As my photographic ambitons have grown, I realised that Caithness puffins would always be too distant to photograph without a camera designed by NASA. You have to get reasonably close to capture the clownish features and garish beak colour and above all that iconic shot of them returning from the sea to their nesting burrows with a beaks full of sand eels. Flying in the air is not exactly their strong point. They steer with their feet, which are about the same size as their wings.

  I got this shot on the Farne Islands in early June when the puffins were feeding their young in their burrows. Flying in from the sea they had to survive the attention of groups of black headed gulls intent on relieving them of their catches. The bird life on Farne is amazing and a photographers paradise because the birds seem so tame and easy to approach, a bit like The Galapagos without the good weather. Take the boat from Seahouses on the Northumberland coast. In the Times yesterday Simon Barnes helpfully told us that the best place to see puffins without having to get on a boat is on the Bempton Cliffs, an RSPB reserve in Yorkshire near Bridlington. One for next year and more about the Farne Islands in a later post.

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Monday, 8 August 2011

Poetry and Polar Bears

I started writing poetry a few years ago in response to a challenge. Our writing group was asked to submit entries for a local college competition. While I enjoyed many of the classics, I already had a rather jaundiced view of most modern poetry that I had read. It seemed to have followed a lot of modern art in being inaccessible and meaning little to anyone other than the artist. There are of course many notable exceptions. The best example is the current poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy who writes wonderful accessible stuff.
      I found myself turning to writing poetry in the lulls when the novel inspiration dried up, almost as a means of recharging the wordsmith batteries in the immediacy of verse. As usual, I set off without reading the rules and wrote about whatever inspired me or caught my attention. I subsequently found out from poetry teachers that the best poetry should explore human emotion. To corral poetry in that straightjacket with all that’s going on in the world seems to be unnecessarily limiting, but you can imagine an unworldly poetry priesthood being threatened by their lack of knowledge of many of the important issues that inform the universe we live in today.
      I eventually did try to absorb some formal poetry training and in trepidation went on an Arvon course at the Ted Hughes centre at Hebden Bridge. The attendees were a mixed bunch. Some had already published work but most were somewhere on the learning curve. The tutors were excellent and good critics, whose guidance I readily accepted. After the course I deleted the first half of my poetry oeuvre and heavily revised the rest. I had set off  determined to base some of my poems on up to date science and genetics. I am finding that most people don’t seem to like that, so perhaps I’m simply creating another kind of inaccessibility by going down that road.
    There was one particularly interesting man on the course. He seemed to be a bit of a loner and drank red wine at breakfast, but he was very interested in the North of Scotland in general and Shetland in particular. Since one of my grandmothers came from there and I had actually visited the place, we were able to have a meaningful conversation and it became clear that he had been there himself a few times. He was very evasive about his reason for having been there and I privately speculated on everything from bird watching to selling fertiliser. On the last night of the course he finally confessed. He was a professional Spanker and claimed to have a client on the island of Unst, the most northerly of the Shetland Islands. The details of his modus operandi and snippets from his client list provided a fascinating insight into a murky corner of human sexuality. Even without super-injunctions my lips are sealed.

The Polar Bear, Ursus Maritimus
It is something of a coincidence that I'm reading a book about polar bears at the same time as the dreadful attack on British Schoolboys on the Norwegian Island of Svalbard, resulting in the tragic death of one of them. Our hearts go out to the berieved parents.
'On Thin Ice' by Richard Ellis, covers most aspects of the life of the polar bear and the threats to its existence posed by the retreat of the sea ice, a major symptom of global warming. In that sense the polar bear has become something of an environmental icon. My abiding memory from the book will be the long list of reports of indiscriminate slaughter of bears by Victorian explorers and fishermen. However the situation is not as simple as it looks.

Ursus  Gambler 

The great white bear, Ursus Maritimus,
Cuddly as Bambi or Thumper, environmental icon
robbed of his seal ice, climate change victim
prodding our consciences; we must do something.

But what is a polar bear? He’s a brown bear in drag
who bleached his dress to stay in the north,
translucent white fur and black skin,
to catch the sun in a new disguise,
to exploit a niche of ice bound seals.
a geological blink ago, the last time it turned cold
a highly risky strategy, an evolutionary trap.

We can’t do much to stop that niche melting away;
we could set up seal diners in swimming pools at the shore,
but what would the ethics committee have to say about that?

Some whites will survive; most will go back to brown,
as the frozen land greens the bears will sort it out.
We’ve already seen hybrids, Ursus Maritimus with
brown fur patches; let’s leave the bears alone
at least for Ursus Maritimus, evolution is reversible,
and then again if the cold and the seals return.

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Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Up In Caithness 4

My fisherman forefathers would have been blushing in their graves yesterday as my lack of sea legs quickly finished a fishing trip onto the grounds off Wick. There didn't seem to be many fish about anyway so no big loss. Beach cricket on the magnificent sands at Reiss, north of Wick got us through until rain stopped play at 4.00pm. Highlight this morning was seeing HRH the Prince of Wales (called the Duke of Rothesay), beautifully kilted abaove. He was calling on Caithness General Hospital in Wick. He is always in the county at this time of year, staying in his late Grandmother's Castle at Mey. He always attends the Mey Highland Games next Saturday. Apparently it always rains then!
     Tomorrow we're off back to Huddersfield

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