a flat place by Noreen Masud

a flat place by Noreen Masud was published in 2023 and it has been shortlisted for several prizes. It’s described as a memoir and Masud writes about her love of flat places, something which she first realised when she was being driven to school in Pakistan every morning by her mother. She longed for her first sight of a flat expanse of land which they passed by, it was something that her sisters didn’t even notice.

Later when family problems led her Scottish mother to leave Pakistan and take her daughters to live in Fife, where she had grown up, Masud went on to visit other flatlands such as Ely in Cambridgeshire, Orford Ness in Suffolk, Morecambe Bay, Newcastle Moor and Orkney, and here she writes of her experiences. Her love of stones, particularly hag stones, is something that I can understand, but where scenery is concerned I’m not so keen on flat vistas. In fact my definition of a good High Street is one where I can stand in it and look up and see soft, rolling green hills, which for me are comforting and enveloping. I remember reading somewhere years ago that the wide skies and flat scenery of Norfolk were thought to contribute to the higher than usual suicide rates in the county!

Masud can’t get away from her childhood traumas, she had grown up cloistered in one room with her mother and three sisters, except for when she went to school. She was in a strange position of not being part of the community that she is growing up in, not even being able to speak Urdu very fluently. Her father was a doctor and he wanted his daughters to grow up speaking English with no hint of a Pakistani accent.

Masud is still haunted by her upbringing, she was lucky in that her father regarded his four daughters as being his sons, and so was keen on them having a good education, but on the other hand he was still wedded to the more traditional morals of his own upbringing. It seems to have been a bit of a toxic mixture. In the end he cared more about what the neighbours/extended family thought than about his own family, luckily for the author and her mother.

I must admit that I learned quite a few things while reading this one, it’s so much more than a memoir. I’m sure it will win more prizes. I’m also sure that I read about this book on a blog, but of course I can’t remember whose it was. Thank you anyway.

There’s one flat land that I visited which I feel Noreen Masud would relish. When we visited Lindisfarne in Northumberland some years ago I watched several pilgrims walking across the the tidal mudflats to the Holy Island and the ruins of the monastery. Although not in the least bit religious I did think that it looked like it might be a good experience – if messy.

Noreen Masud is now a lecturer in 20th century literature at the University of Bristol.

Ring of Brodgar

Last week when I wrote a brief post about our fairly recent visit to Avebury in Wiltshire I wanted to link to my previous visit the The Ring of Brodgar on Orkney in 2022, for comparison. It was only then that I discovered that I had never got around to blogging about it, either in 2017 or 2022. Or if I did the posts have disappeared!

Ring of Brodgar, Orkney

So here are some photos that I took, the Ring of Brodgar in the distance.

Part of Ring of Brodgar

A bit closer.

Looking Towards Ring of Brodgar from Barnhouse Village

Looking across the Loch of Harray towards The Ring of Brodgar.

Ring of Brodgar, Part

And the standing stones from the other side of the ring.

Stones in Ring of Brodgar

The stone circle itself is large, as are the stones. Below is a photo of Jack beside one of them. They’re not as chunky and rough as the stones at Avebury.

Ring of Brodgar, Single Stone

You can read more about the stones here.


Cuween Chambered Cairn, Orkney, Scotland

Cuween Cairn, Orkney, Neolithic Chamber, burial

The Cuween Burial Chambered Cairn is accessed by the original doorway, which means that you have to crawl in. I was wary of getting my knees muddy though so I did a sort of elongated crawl, with my legs and arms stretched out.

Cuween Chambered Cairn, Orkney, Scotland, Neolithic

Cuween Chambered Cairn Board

Inside it’s quite roomy compared with some others.

Cuween, Inside cairn, Neolithic, Orkney

There’s plenty of space to stand up in once you get through the tunnel entrance.

Cuween, Inside cairn, Neolithic, Orkney

Cuween, Inside cairn , Neolithic, Orkney

The side chambers are much bigger, I suppose that’s where the people were placed, with animals. I crawled halfway into the one below to get a pohoto of inside it, the dark shadow is my phone! The roof in the side chamber was low, well the dead don’t need to stand up I suppose! I would not have liked to go any further, it felt very claustraphobic – and a wee bit spooky.

Cuween, Inside cairn 3 side chamber

Cuween Chambered Cairn is around 5,000 years old, but wasn’t excavated until 1901. It contained human and animal bones.

Inside cairn, Cuween, Neolithic, Orkney

I don’t think I would have gone into any of these burial cairns on my own, as you can see I had Jack with me. It was definitely worth visiting this one though and it was a plus to have it all to ourselves so we could take our time having a good look at it.

Cuween, Inside cairn, Orkney, Neolithic,

Wideford Hill Chambered Cairn, Orkney

While we were on Orkney we wanted to visit Wideford Hill Chambered Cairn, it took a bit of finding and when we did find a signpost it pointed up to what was a very stoney and bumpy twisty turny track for what seemed like ages, I feared for our new car! Eventually we reached a wee car park and the signpost there said the cairn was a half mile walk from there. Hmmm, it wasn’t. It might have been half a mile as the crow flies but as we didn’t have wings that was no help to us! It must have been at least two miles on a very dry springy peaty, but at times stoney track, up hill and down dale and all at a slant! I was very impressed that our octogenarian friend managed it all so well – so was she! It was a beautiful day though, it was just a bit worrying that we never seemed to be reaching our destination, but as you can see from the photo below the view was fine.

From Wideford Hill, Orkney

Below is the information board. Click to enlarge it if you need to.

Wideford Hill Chambered Cairn, Orkney, neolithic

As you can see there’s a metal cover protecting the tomb, it has to be pushed back to gain entrance. Originally, when this tomb was built over 5,000 years ago the entrance would have been at ground level and you would probably have had to crawl through it.

Wideford Cairn, Orkney, neolithic tomb,

Wideford Chambered Cairn, Orkney, neolithic

Then there’s a metal ladder leading down to the floor of the cairn/tomb. Getting over the edge was a bit scary for me as the gap seemed quite big, but Jack just stepped over onto it, I made sure I had something to hang onto until my feet were firmly on a rung!

Wideford Chambered Cairn Ladder

It’s really a very small chambered tomb, the middle of it anyway, there are three side chambers which are bigger. We took a torch with us and I crawled halfway into one, but I wouldn’t go right in, too scary with all those tons of stone above you! But the bones that used to be in the chambers are long gone, it had been robbed by the time it was excavated in the 1800s. Jack didn’t go in either. There is a torch available in a wee cupboard outside the cairn, if you haven’t brought your own.

Inside Wideford Cairn, Orkney

Inside Cairn , Wideford, Orkney

Inside  Wideford Cairn, Orkney

On the walk back to the car I took more photos of the surrounding scenery, below is a stitch of three of them. The water you can see is a branch of the North Sea called the Bay of Firth.

From Wideford stitch, Orkney

Kirbuster Museum, Orkney, Scotland

Kirbuster Farm Building, museum, Orkney, Scotland

Orkney isn’t all about Neolithic and Viking heritage, we visited the Kirbuster Museum which is about far more recent times, it was a farm in the 19th century and was occupied and farmed by two brothers up until the 1960s. It was opened up as a farm museum in 1986 and it’s the last un-restored ‘firehoose’ in Northern Europe, with the fire being in the centre of the room. It certainly smells very peat smoky.

The bedroom in the photo below has a Victorian cot at the foot of the bed, the quilt in it is exactly the same as two that I have!

Kirbuster Museum, Victorian bedroom, Orkney,Bed

Kirbuster Museum, bedroom, Orkney, farm museum

The living-room, or maybe they called it the parlour below is very typical of a Victorian one, complete with harmonium. I managed to capture a very sinister looking Jack in the mirror above the harmonium, complete with face mask on!

Kirbuster Museum, Orkney,Harmonium

Fireplace , Mantel, Kirbuster Museum, Orkney

Below is a box-bed in a bed-recess which is in the kitchen. I suppose that the children probably slept in those, or maybe a servant/farmhand. The walls don’t look that different from how the Neolithic dwellings would have looked in their heyday.

Bed Recess, box beds, Kirbuster Museum, Orkney

You can see a cruisie lamp hanging from the wall.

Kitchen Dresser, Kirbuster Museum, Orkney

And there’s a building full of old farm implements, we had fun trying to guess what some of them were for. We swithered about going to visit Kirbuster Museum but it turned out to be a very enjoyable visit, we had the whole place to ourselves, which was a shame really. I hope they get more visitors in the future. The guide was a lovely woman who was chatty and informative. I hope she had something to occupy her time as she was the only person there and it must be a lonely job!

Kirbuster Museum, Orkney, Farm Implements

Skara Brae, Skaill Bay, Orkney, Scotland

One place that I suspect everyone visiting Orkney makes for first is Skara Brae, a 5,000 year old neolithic settlement which was uncovered after a huge storm in 1850 displaced the sand that had been hiding it for thousands of years. It does look very like The Flintstones with the furniture being made of stone. I rather like the ‘sideboard’ which is situated opposite the front door, pride of place.

Skara Brae, Orkney, neolithic dwelling, Scotland

There are the remains of several different buildings, one of which seems to have been a workshop.

Skara Brae, neolithic dwelling, Scotland

There is a reconstruction of a house on the site too, but it’s dark and was full of people (quiet scary nowadays) so it wasn’t possible to take photos. But you can see some photos here.

Skara Brae, neolithic dwelling, Orkney, Scotland

Skara Brae, Orkney, neolithic dwelling, Scotland

Skara Brae, neolithis settlement, Orkney, Scotland

Skara Brae Map, Orkney, Scotland, plan

As the site is right on the edge of the sea it’s only a matter of time before it’s lost completely as the rough weather will eventually overcome the area and wash it all away, I wonder how much has already been lost.

Bay of Skaill, Orkney, Scotland

Brough of Birsay, Orkney, Scotland

Mainland Orkney from Birsay

While we were on Orkney on holiday recently we decided to revisit the island of Birsay as the last time we were there we had just stepped foot on it when the heavens opened and we were blasted with horizontal torrential rain – with not one bit of cover, so we just stood there and got soaked to the skin. It took three days for our clothes to dry out! The photo above is of mainland Orkney from Birsay, as you can see the landscape is unusual with no trees to be seen.

When I took the photo below I made sure that I was at least six feet from the edge of the cliff, thinking to myself that if I did trip I wouldn’t be likely to skid more than that, but the day after we left Orkney it was on the news that some poor soul did fall off one of the cliffs, no doubt as he was trying to get a good photo! He died of course as the cliffs in Orkney are among the highest in the UK – if not the highest.

Sea, cliffs on Birsay, Orkney, Scotland

The reason why we went to what is correctly called the Brough of Birsay was to see the Pictish, Norse and medieval remains there. It’s really just the outlines of the buildings that you can see but it’s all very picturesque with the drifts of Thrift flowers in bloom.

Brough of Birsay, Viking remains

It was incredibly busy this time. Birsay is a tidal island so you have to wait until the water has drained away before you can cross over on a causeway – by foot of course. At least the first time we went there we had the entire island to ourselves.

Viking remains , Brough of Birsay, Orkney, Scotland

Viking remains, Brough of Birsay, Orkney, Scotland

We walked up to the lighthouse which is where I took the photo of the cliffs and from there you can get a good view of the cliffs at Marwick Head – in the photo below.

Marwick Head from Birsay

I’m glad we managed to see the place in sunshine this time.

Marwick Head, Orkney, Scotland

We wanted to revisit the cliffs at Marwick Head, especially as it was such a stunningly clear and bright day weather-wise. The cliffs are full of nesting seabirds which you should be able to see if you click on the photo to enlarge.

Marwick Head

The photo below is of Marwick Bay with the island of Hoy in the background. Unfortunately we didn’t go to Hoy because the museum we wanted to visit was closed for refurbishment. Orkney was very busy during both World Wars as a strategic defence guarding access to the North Atlantic and the Home Fleet’s base in adjacent Scapa Flow.

Marwick Bay and Hoy ,Marwick Head

We were there at the right time for the Thrift flowers though. They bloom all around the cliffs.

Marwick Head, Thrift flowers, Orkney, Scotland

Marwick Head cliffs, Orkney

As you can see below there’s a massive tower at the top of the cliffs. It’s a memorial to Lord Kitchener, he drowned in the sea just off Marwick Head when the ship he was on – HMS Hampshire – hit a mine during World War 1, in 1916. You can read about it here. He was one of 737 who died when the ship went down. It does seem like some sort of payback for all the young men that he sent to their death via his ‘Your Country Needs You’ posters.

Marwick Head,Kitchener Memorial

Marwick Head , Orkney, Scotland

Apparently the next landfall from here is North America!

Marwick Head, Orkney, Scotland

I turned around and took the photo below from Marwick Head looking inland, just to let you see what the scenery is like. Orkney is definitely different from mainland Scotland, some people love the gentle looking hillocks, and certainly a lot of incomers have moved there from elsewhere but I don’t think I could ever live there for too long as I really miss trees. It’s a strange barren landscape that has no trees. There are a few dotted around in sheltered spots but they are almost all field maples/sycamores, they are probably the only ones that will survive the fierce winds.

Orkney, from Marwick Head

There are loads of rabbits in this area, with rabbit holes all over the place, which makes it qute dangerous as you certainly don’t want to catch your foot in one and take a header over the cliff! There are notices around telling you not to feed the rabbits as they are a menace, but there were dogs in the vicinity so they didn’t hang about for long when we were there – hence no bunny photos.

fromMarwick Head , Orkney, Scotland

Happy Winter Solstice!

Happy Winter Solstice, I always look forward to this day as I feel that we are at least on the way to the lovely long light summer nights that we enjoy here in Scotland, and that doesn’t half cheer me up.
You might find the video below interesting. We visited Maeshowe Chambered Cairn a few years ago when we had a holiday in Orkney, we enjoyed the islands so much we’re going again this coming summer – all going well! You can read about Maeshowe and the Winter Solstice here.

Orkneyinga Saga – The History of the Earls of Orkney

Orkneyinga Saga cover

Orkneyinga Saga – The History of the Earls of Orkney was written around the year 1200 by an Icelandic man and was translated by Hermann Palsson.

It’s a window into the life and times of those who lived in the most northerly area of what is now the British Isles, but was then a Viking culture. There’s a lot of fighting, feuding and feasting and also a lot of travelling about, sailing between all of the islands and as far down south as England, and back and forth to Norway.

This is an interesting read and I imagine that for people who have written historical novels set around this time then it would have been a rich source of tales to buff up, pad out and turn into entertaining tales for a more modern reader.

Again, I’m really glad that we went to the Orkney Islands last year and ran around for a week visiting all of the many places mentioned in these sagas. It was only comparatively recently that Orkney and Shetland became part of Scotland, until 1472 they were ruled by Norway and Denmark, but then became Scottish possessions as security for an unpaid dowry of Margaret of Denmark when she married King James III of Scotland.

If you’re interested in seeing the places we visited have a look at these previous blogposts.