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St Lucia’s Day is 13th December and used to mark the winter solstice under the Julian calendar.  It is especially celebrated in Scandinavia.  Traditionally a young girl wears a crown of candles and a white dress with a red sash.  The festival predates Christianity and coincides with the ancient festival of Yule which celebrated the re-birth of the sun, with much eating, drinking and socialising.  It also marked the defeat of darkness by light.

Lucy was born around 283AD, probably in Sicily.  She was martyred for being a Christian in c.310AD.  The name “Lucia” comes from the Latin, Lux for light.  In Scandinavian folklore Lussi was a witch who flew through the air and visited people’s houses between Lussi Night and Yule, where she might commit evil deeds, such as make off with children.

In modern times the narratives have become conflated.  The current celebrations started in Sweden in 1927 and after WWII in Norway and Denmark.  Orkney is twinned with the western Norwegian area of Hordaland, which every year gives us a large Christmas tree.  On the first Saturday in December (6th this year) we celebrate our own St Lucy’s Festival.  Events start with the procession of St Lucy and […]

Visiting Maeshowe is a tradition for the Tait family.  My grandfather, Charles William Tait, wrote an article for the Orkney Herald in about 1925.  He took a great interest in all things antiquarian and archaeologists such as V Gordon Childe were frequent visitors to Buttquoy House.  The author fondly recalls many mid-winter visits to see the light in the chamber as a little boy, in a time when very few people were interested in such events.

I continued the habit with my two boys, visiting Maeshowe, the Watchstone and Brodgar around the winter solstice.  Then in autumn 1997 I had an interesting email from someone called Victor Reijs from the Netherlands.  He is very interested in what has come to be called “archaeoastronomy” and had been here the previous April when he took all sorts of measurements and compass bearings around Maeshowe.  This was the start of a collaboration to try to transmit images to a website from the monument.

At that time broadband, wifi, gigabyte Ethernet and the like were far in the future.  All we had was a rather unreliable dial up connection.  Victor is a computer networks engineer and was able to borrow a very expensive wireless system

Humpback Whales are very rarely sighted around Orkney, being generally a deep water species.  In September two were spotted breaching off Wick, while in August two were spotted in the Moray Firth.  The report of two off Papay this week is therefore not entirely surprising.  Like all large cetaceans which were formerly hunted, the Humpback has made a slow but steady comeback.

There may be about 20,000 in the North Atlantic.  Most spend the summer of eastern Canada and New England, wintering in the Caribbean as well as in the Bay of Biscay and off Spain.  They migrate up to 16,000 miles every year.  They nearest place to Orkney where they are commonly seen is southern Greenland and off western Iceland.

Humpbacks are occasionally seen off Shetland, being spotted most years.  The most recent was off Sumburgh Head in 2011 with others seen from Burravoe in Yell in February 2009.  I saw one breaching off Sumburgh Head in 1995.  Magnus Spence released one from fishing nets in Scapa Flow in May 2012.  Recently individuals have been sighted off Lincolnshire, Norfolk and the Isle of Skye. Thus it is possible that numbers of this magnificent whale may be on the rise in […]

When we first came to Orkney for a few days, about three years ago, we did not see the sun for  a single moment. But still,we both knew instantly that this was the place we had been dreaming about for ages and that we wanted to return for longer.

It then took us nearly two years to set up a house swap for six months.  We found a lovely flexible couple who agreed to come to Switzerland and loan us their house (thank you Facebook :o) and our employers agreed to let us go for six months.

Then, at last, on 28th December 2013 we arrived in Deerness: excited, nervous and very scared:

Would it be as wonderful as we were hoping? Would we be welcomed by the people of Deerness? How would the children cope at school?

And could we cope with all the darkness that everybody in Switzerland had warned us about?

Well, it is now October 2014, we have returned to Switzerland and we could not say a single thing we disliked! The people of Deerness are the most wonderful people and welcomed us with open arms, letting us join their parish cup football team and craft club, welcoming us

On Sunday 10th August, I was lucky enough to get a trip out on the pilot boat: John Rae, leading the Ruby Princess safely out of Kirkwall Bay.  My apologies if I don’t get all the nautical terminology correct but I wanted to put pen to paper (well actually typing to blog) in order to capture and share what (for me) was a real treat!

Sunday had been a great day in Orkney with visiting ships, the MSC Magnifica and the Ruby Princess, sailing to our shores – the town was buzzing and the sun was shining.  Having volunteered to help and welcome our visitors to Orkney throughout the day, I was delighted when I was asked whether I would like to sail out on the pilot boat to wave the Ruby Princess off.  I obviously said yes and although a little early (departure time 17:00hrs) was ready at to set sail 16:15hrs!

I knew the ship was large but had never got the impression of just how large when looking out across the bay – she is huge!

Upon reaching the ship the crew had to manoeuvre the pilot boat alongside – and the Pilot transferred to the Ruby Princess. 

Primula scotica  Orkney’s most famous plant is Primula scotica (the Scottish Primrose).  This species otherwise only exists in North Sutherland and Caithness, on maritime heath.  Orkney sites include Yesnaby, the west coasts of Rousay and Westray, Papay’s North Hill and in South Walls.  The plant is very small, yet sturdy to stand up to its exposed position.  There are between two and eight small flowers per head, with a purple colour which can vary.  The throat of the flower is bright yellow.

  The plants can live for up to 20 years, and may not flower until they are 10 years old.  There are two flowering periods, the first being in May, and the main period being in July.  P. scotica is very   sensitive to the use of fertiliser and several colonies have been lost because of this.  The plants do not seem to survive well in cultivation and even introductions in apparently suitable habitat have always failed.  However, a certain amount of grazing by cattle seems to benefit the species.

P. scotica is self-fertilizing like other primrose species in the north, which may confer advantage by making sure that at least some seed is set, but in very small