Orkney Houses

One thing that I really like about going to visit new places is the different types of houses that have been built there. Most places have their own distinctive style, or they did have before the 1960-s anyway.

The wee house below is at Skara Brae and is used as a teeny exhibition centre. It is obviously well maintained which is just as well as it is more or less right on the beach and the weather is often wild.
a house a Skara Brae

Sadly the Orkney islanders have mainly opted for warmth and comfort in recent years, not that I blame them as I have recently done that too. But a lot of traditional houses on Orkney have just been abandoned and are now ruins. Every since I was a wee girl I’ve had an urge to bring any derelict houses I see back to life, it seems such a shame to me to leave a house standing empty, especially nowadays when there are so many homeless people around, but that doesn’t apply in Orkney I hope. The ruin below is just above the beach near Skara Brae.

ruin  near Skara Brae
Even I have to admit that it’s probably a wee bit too far gone, the location is great though.
a ruin

It looks like most of the local buildings have been built from stones taken off the beaches, there are certainly plenty of them where you can just pick up perfectly flat straight stones. Some houses that aren’t that far gone in dereliction still have their stone roof more or less intact.

In some ways the old buildings are quite similar to newbuilds now as small windows were preferred, presumably to keep the cold and wind out as much as possible. I was very taken by the house below which I managed to snap while Jack was driving past it. If I had a flagpole I’d be very tempted to fly a Jolly Roger/pirate flag from it too! That house has been harled/cement rendered to try to keep the weather out and preserve the stone underneath.

Pirate flag

I think it might be possible to rebuild these old homes, using a modern house structure as a sort of lining, all well insulated of course. Then you could have the best of both worlds – a lovely quaint building with character and the warmth of a modern home. I’d be tempted to give it a go – if Orkney wasn’t so far away.

The house in the photo below is now used for storage I think.

an old house in Stromness

The building below may have been just for storage or animals, on the other hand, if there are a few wee windows on the other side, it might have been a house at some point in the past. It has a slate roof though, not stone.

Orkney buildings
People in Orkney are very friendly, well the ones we met were anyway. One windy evening we were walking along the back road, struggling with a small map we had been given, and a motorist stopped to ask if he could help us. We told him we were looking for the location of Norna of the Fitful Head‘s home. She was a character in Sir Walter Scott’s The Pirate. As it happened the friendly gentleman had built his house right at what had been Norna’s gate, but of course her house was no longer standing. It was probably just by the escallonia bush on the right below.

Bitsy Miller

Sir Walter Scott had based his character Norna on Betty Miller (the motorist called her Bitsy) who was a sort of white witch who made her living selling ‘fair winds’ to sailors, apparently at sixpence a wind, a lot of money in those days. With sailors being superstitious and fearful of rough weather, she did a good trade in fair winds which I think she sold to the sailors in a piece of cloth. It was an ingenious way of making a living, even better than the snake oil merchants of America’s wild west. As you can see from the photo below, the motorist has named his house Fairwinds, in memory of her.

Bitsy Miller

There are ruins all over the place, often with a modern-ish house very close by, they have just built the new home in the garden of the old one. It’s quite difficult to take photos of places on Orkney though as often there is no suitable stopping place and the roads are very narrow with passing places, so stopping would cause a traffic jam.

The photo below is of Stromness from the south. If you’re interested in Polar exploration – this is the harbour that Captain Cook’s ships Discovery and Resolution called in at to replenish their stores of fresh water and food.

Stromness from south

The well they used was sealed up in 1931 and as you can see they now have it covered to protect it.

Well for sailors

Back to the Classics Challenge 2017

As I’ve already completed my reading for the Classics Club I decided to get stuck into Back to the Classics Challenge 2017 which is run by Karen @Books and Chocolate (what a fab blog name).
My book list consists of:

1. Redgauntlet by Sir Walter Scott
2. On the Beach by Nevil Shute
3. Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier
4. Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos
5. Montaigne Essays
6. The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson
7. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving
8. Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
9. Doctor Dolittle and the Green Canary by Hugh Lofting
10. Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
11. I, Claudius – Claudius, the God by Robert Graves
12. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Have you read any of these ones? I’ve had most of these book waiting in a queue to be read for years now and this will encourage me to get around to them at last!

Read Scotland 2014

It’s time for a Read Scotland 2014 update, in fact it’s way past time as I’ve just realised that I’ve read 15 Scottish books this year, so I’ve gone beyond Ben Nevis as I knew I would. I don’t know what the next level could be called – do you?

I haven’t been very good at linking to the challenge so here’s what I’ve read so far.

1. Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott
2. Lanark by Alasdair Gray
3. Rockets Galore by Compton Mackenzie
4. A Double Death on the Black Isle by A.D. Scott
5. The Comforters by Muriel Spark
6. Secrets of the Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford
7. The Cabinetmaker by Alan Jones
8. The Daffodil Affair by Michael Innes
9. The Four Graces by D.E. Stevenson
10. The First Book of the McFlannels by Helen W. Pryde
11. The McFlannels See It Through by Helen W. Pryde
12. Sleeping Tiger by Rosamund Pilcher
13. The Clydesiders by Margaret Thomson Davis
14. The Kellys of Kelvingrove by Margaret Thomson Davis
15. Standing in Another Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin – which I have yet to blog about but I really enjoyed it.

A few of these authors have been new to me and of those I think Compton Mackenzie has been the most surprising and entertaining, followed closely by Helen W. Pryde, I must get around to tracking down the rest in her series.

The most disappointing has been Secrets of the Sea House which was just not my cup of tea and was full of cultural mistakes, it isn’t authentically Scottish at all.

I haven’t read any Scottish non-fiction at all but I intend to remedy that soon, so stand by (Lorraine in particular) for a non fiction blogpost – when I’ve rounded up the ones I hope to read this year – which is almost half-way through already. How did that happen?!

Ivanhoe – chapters 41 – 44 the end

So at last I got to the end of Ivanhoe, slower than planned as life in general got in the way, mainly in the shape of looking for a new home, not as easy as I thought it would be, maybe I’m too fussy.

Poor Rebecca has been carried off by Brian de Bois Guilbert who is very much enamoured of her. Malvoisin his superior is disgusted by this as Rebecca is a Jew and he has decided that Rebecca must have used witchcraft on de Bois Guilbert, all trumped up nonsense of course, which would end up with Rebecca being burnt at the stake. She is being accused of having unnatural power of healing!

If Rebecca can find a champion to take her side and fight for her against de Bois Guilbert and win then she’ll be saved. Guilbert tries to get her to run off with him but Rebecca decides that she would rather be dead than be tied to him for life, sensible woman!

Eventually after a skirmish in the forest involving Robin Hood and King John’s supporters, the Black Knight (Richard) and Ivanhoe make their way to Torquilstone where Rebecca is being held.

When they get there Rebecca doesn’t want Ivanhoe to fight for her as he is so weak but in the end de Bois Guilbert falls over after one blow, he is dead, presumably having had some sort of brain seizure brought on by his passions.

Rebecca and her father decide that they must leave the country and try their luck in Granada where they hope that they won’t meet with the same sort of bigotry they have had to deal with in England.

I did enjoy Ivanhoe although I think that Scott uses too many words – that reminds me that someone said of Mozart that he used too many notes! I think we’ve just got used to more succinct story telling nowadays, maybe in Scott’s days they didn’t feel that they were getting their money’s worth if books were shorter.

Scott was hugely popular in his day, below is a photo which I took a while ago in Edinburgh and the large gothic, pointy building on the left hand side is the Scott monument in Princes Street.

A bagpiper

Sir Walter Scott was quite a character himself, he was obviously very fair-minded and in Ivanhoe he was doing his best against anti-semitism which was quite common at the time, although not so much in the UK as elsewhere in Europe, essentially he was trying to get Jews the vote, but even Roman Catholics didn’t have the vote at the time that Ivanhoe was published. The Templars who feature in Ivanhoe would of course all have been RCs.

Scott played a big part in King George IV’s visit to Scotland, we have Scott to blame for all the highland dress frippery which is on view at just about any wedding that you go to. No Highlander would have worn a kilt as we know it, they had a length of tartan fabric which they wrapped around their body and it doubled as a blanket too. I believe that George IV was thrilled to bits with his Highland costume, he added the pink tights himself I think! You can see what Georgie Porgie looked like here.

The most amazing fact about Scott is that he was given the task of finding the Scottish crown jewels and found them! They had been put away somewhere in Edinburgh Castle for safe keeping after King James VI went down to England when he succeeded to the throne on the death of Queen Elizabeth I of England. Scott found the jewels in a padlocked chest in the castle, just imagine what it must have been like when he got it opened and found them all in there.

You can see images of them here.

Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott – chapters 20 to 30

Continuing the adventures of Ivanhoe, last time we left them Cedric and his company, including his daughter Rowena and Isaac the Jewish moneylender and his daughter Rebecca had all been taken prisoner by the Norman lord, Front de Boeuf.

Front de Boeuf has split up his prisoners and poor Isaac is taking the brunt of the bad treatment with his Norman captives threatening him with being placed on an iron grid suspended above a fire, if he doesn’t pay over a huge amount of silver coins, which he doesn’t have. Rebecca and Rowena are both under siege by the Norman lords, but just in time the men in green (Robin Hood/Locksley and his Merry Men) besiege the castle and Front de Boeuf is mortally wounded in the fight.

Ivanhoe, who is wounded and being nursed by Rebecca has been able to witness some of the action and has been impressed by the sight of a mysterious knight dressed in black armour.

So it’s all go at the moment and I can see why Ivanhoe was so popular when it was first published, I think that at times the language is a bit archaic which is what puts people off from reading Scott’s books now but it doesn’t take long to get used to it. So I hope to be writing about chapters 31 to 40 soonish.

Ivanhoe – to chapter 20

I’m just going to give a sketchy summary of the story so far. It should be from chapter 11 to chapter 20 but due to my confusion, and a lack of an actual book to leaf through as my own book is already packed away in one of my many boxes of books, I’m unsure about the length that the story gets to by chapter 10.

Wilfred (Ivanhoe) is the son of Cedric the Saxon and has just returned from a crusade. Soon after his return he saves Isaac the Jew from being robbed and probably murdered, so when Ivanhoe is wounded in the jousting it is Isaac’s daughter Rebecca who nurses him back to strength.

Meanwhile the upper class Norman hooligans who are sucking up to Prince John, have been hatching plans of their own and ambush Cedric and his companions, including Rebecca and Isaac. Front de Beouf imprisons them all in his castle. One of Cedric’s household manages to escape into the forest and luckily stumbles across the ‘men in green’ who are not at all happy about what Front de Boeuf and company have done. Obviously it’s Robin Hood and his merry men.

So far so good, I’m still enjoying Scott’s writing, it doesn’t take long to settle into his long sentences, I thought I would just say a bit about Scott’s choice of subject.

I believe that until he wrote this book he had been writing mainly about Scotland and although those books were very popular he was beginning to worry that people would eventually get fed up with Scotland so he decided to branch out and chose the tensions between the Normans and the Saxons which must have been around in England in the years after the Normans had invaded England. When you think that when Jane Austen was writing Pride and Prejudice she chose a French Norman name for her most fabulously wealthy character, Darcy – just imagine how French names and language of course must have rubbed the native Saxons up the wrong way. In fact there are still a lot of French names around in the UK and I can’t help thinking – hoity toity when I hear them. No doubt it was the same in Imperial Russia as the white Russians were speaking French while only the serfs and peasants spoke Russian. Anyway I’ve meandered from the subject as usual.

I’m wondering if Scott got the whole idea for the book because of the situation in Scotland. He was born in 1771 just 26 years after the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion which of course failed. But the upshot of that failure was that the English and certain Lowland Scots tried to stamp out Highland traditions, the way of life, language and the clothing that was worn was banned. People couldn’t teach their children Gaelic because if they wee ones spoke it in front of anyone in a position of power then it was a death sentence for the whole family. Nowadays everybody thinks of Scotland when they see tartan fabric but at this time tartan was proscribed/outlawed. It was only in 1782 that tartan was decriminalised, so Scott would probably have been 11 years old before he saw anyone wearing tartan. If you want to read about Walter Scott and George IV’s visit to Scotland have a look here. Scott pulled out all the stops for this visit and it’s his designs that we have to thank or maybe blame for all the frou frou lace and velvet that is worn now by Scotsmen, mainly at weddings, in fact it seems that there is an unwritten law that there must be at least one man in a kilt at every wedding. Gordon was at a wedding last year and the bride especially asked him to wear his kilt. However Gordon did not wear his kilt with pink tights, which George IV apparently did.

Anyway, that’s my theory about Scott’s choice of subject matter, as he was growing up he must have felt the tensions in Scotland where there were garrisons full of English soldiers and probably Lowland Scots, just to make sure that they could squash out a rebellion at the merest whiff of one. It isn’t a big leap in the imagination to think what it would have been like for the native Saxon English to be treated like low life in their own land.

Now for the next 10 chapters, for next Thursday I hope! I am of course reading Ivanhoe for Peggy’s Read Scotland 2014 challenge, as is Judith Reader in the Wilderness.

What do you think Judith – have I taken this too far?!

Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe – to chapter 10

Well I say to chapter 10 but numbers never were my strong point and I’ve just checked the original comments between myself and Judith and realise that although we had agreed on chapter 10, I’ve read on to chapter 14 – silly me.

Anyway, so far Ivanhoe is turning out to be a breeze to read, people do moan that Scott is too wordy for the modern reader, and he is of the variety of author who writes 50 words when 20 might have done the job, but then you would miss out on all the lovely detailed description of people’s clothing and the settings and scenery.

Ivanhoe is set in the 12th century, the Normans had successfully invaded England in 1066 of course and since then they have been taking over from the Saxons, most of the so-called nobility are Normans and very much look down on the Saxons, even those who have managed to hang on to their land. So the Saxons are abused and mocked in their own country, for the clothes they wear, their manners and the way they speak and the Normans are very much the top dogs.

Prince John is behaving badly (did you know that the name John is still avoided by the royal family?) and is obviously hoping that his brother King Richard (Lionheart) will never make it back to England, he has been taken captive on his way back from a crusade.

The prince has been borrowing money from Isaac the Jewish money lender, I say borrowing but it is really demanding gold with menaces and Isaac has no option but to hand the coins over. Isaac’s complaints are similar to those of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice and it’s easy to see whose side Scott is on.

Ivanhoe was written in 1820 and this was a time when pressure was being put on parliament to allow Jews to become M.P.s but it was to be another 38 years before the first Jew took his seat at Westminster. If you want to read more about the Emancipation of Jews in Britain have a look here.

So I’m looking forward to getting on with more of Ivanhoe, reading to chapter 20 for around about this time next week. What are your thoughts on it, Judith, or anyone else?

I’m reading Ivanhoe as part of the Read Scotland 2014 challenge.

The Talisman by Sir Walter Scott

Sir Walter Scott’s The Talisman came up for me in The Classics Club Spin, and I must admit that my heart sank as I know that it’s one of the few books which I’ve given up on. On the plus side that was way back when I was about 12 years old and Christy at A Good Stopping Point commented that she had enjoyed it, so I lived in hope.

I read it on my Kindle because my copy of this book is already packed away in anticipation of a house move which is just not happening at the moment. I couldn’t remember anything about The Talisman as it is over 40 years since I first had a go at it but it wasn’t long before I knew why it was I had given up on it. At the beginning there is a really unappealing bit about cooked severed heads being served up to the people who had come to try to secure the freedom of the owners of the heads – nasty but I struggled on this time.

Scott’s writing style does take some getting used to, this one is written in a particularly archaic way and I could have been doing with less in the way of thee-ing and thou-ing. At around about the 20% mark I was just about losing the will to live. At 50% I was beginning to appreciate it a bit more, there are quite a few humorous moments to brighten the way. By the time I got to 70% I realised that I was really quite enjoying it! The experience was good for the soul, I think. Mind you, I don’t know why it’s War and Peace that people always think of as being a tough nut to crack, it’s an absolute promenade de gateau compared with The Talisman – in my humble opinion.

First published in 1825 this is a story which is set in the Third Crusade. Richard the Lionheart is very ill and it looks like he isn’t going to recover, but help comes in the shape of Sir Kenneth, a Scottish knight who after some conflict ended up striking up a friendship with a Saracen who uses a talisman to heal Richard. The Saracen is none other than Saladin of course.

Apparently there was a BBC mini-series of The Talisman in 1980 but I don’t recall ever seeing it. It’s the 1970s Ivanhoe series which I remember loving. And speaking of Ivanhoe, I’ll be reading that throughout January for Read Scotland 2014 challenge. You’re welcome to join in too – if you feel brave enough!

The Classics Club Spin

Well The Classics Club Spin number has been announced and it’s 10 – so that means that I will be reading The Talsiman by Sir Walter Scott before January 1st.

I had been hoping for A Tramp Abroad by Mark Twain which was number 9 but I plan to read that one soon anyway. The only thing that worries me is that I have a vague memory of trying to read The Talisman when I was about 12 or 13 and giving up on it, and I was very loathe to give up on books even way back then.

On the other hand Christy @ A Good Stopping Point commented that she found The Talisman to be a fun read, so I live in hope!

The Pirate by Sir Walter Scott

November's Autumn

I read The Pirate as part of the November’s Autumn classic challenge.
All the nice girls love a sailor, so THEY say – but what sort of girls like a pirate? My sort of course, I’ve always had a bit of a yen for the pirate type, in fiction anyway, which is why I opted to read this book. I can’t even read the word pirate without saying – aarrr Jim lad to myself, that’s Long John Silver of Treasure Island fame of course.

As I said previously this book was a very slow starter and I kept wondering when there would ever be some pirate action. It didn’t come until about two thirds of the way through the book. I was reminded of a heart monitor because The Pirate is very wordy and Scott does quite a lot of rambling for no good reason really, so it sort of flatlines and then there’s the odd spike of interest or excitement. But those bits are good and in the end I was glad that I hadn’t given up on it.

The action is set on Zetland, which is what we call Shetland nowadays, a group of islands off the north coast of Scotland. Mordaunt Mertoun is a young man who has never known his mother and has been brought up by a very cold and unloving father. When Mordaunt sees a ship being wrecked on the rocks near his home he has to save a sailor who is in danger of drowning, despite the fact that the Zetlanders don’t approve of such actions. In a harsh landscape where scavenging for goods from wrecked ships helps the islanders to survive, so they don’t want the complications which shipwreck survivors bring.

The survivor is a young man called Clement Cleveland and as predicted by the Zetlanders he brings no good to Mordaunt, in fact Cleveland turns Mordaunt’s friends and neighbours against him, particularly the sisters Brenda and Minna.

It’s a long book and I’m not going to say much more about the storyline but I have to say that although it dragged along slowly at times I did enjoy the atmosphere and descriptions of Shetland and later Orkney. The story is set not all that long after Shetland became part of Scotland, you might not know that up until the 15th century Shetland was part of Norway but it was given to Scotland as part of a dowry payment from King Christian of Norway on his daughter’s marriage. So there was a big Scandinavian influence and at the time The Pirate is set the islanders see the Scots as foreigners.

Walter Scott has woven Norse mythological tales into the storyline with the result that I want to read more about them, so that’s a plus point I think. I especially liked the character of Norna of Fitful Head who is a sort of white witch/soothsayer and makes a good living selling fair winds to fishermen and sailors, what a great idea! The population is generally wary of her and wants to keep in her good books.

Fitful Head is an actual place and you can see some wonderful images of it here and here.

So as I said before, reading The Pirate was a bit like wading through porridge at times, without the benefit of sugar or syrup but on balance it was worth it, if only to find out about Fitful Head, it might be added to our places to visit list!