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

November’s Autumn Classics Challenge Prompt

November's AutumnI decided to do level 2 of this month’s prompt and I’m writing about the character Norna of Fitful-head. She appears in The Pirate by Walter Scott.

Level 2
How has the character changed? Has your opinion of them altered? Are there aspects of their character you aspire to? or hope never to be? What are their strengths and faults? Do you find them believable? If not, how could they have been molded so? Would you want to meet them?

Norna is a sort of prophetess/white witch of a character and as such she is held in high esteem by the inhabitants of the isles of Shetland, who also have a healthy fear of her because of her seemingly magical qualities. You can’t help but admire a woman who makes a good living by selling fair winds to sailors and anyone else who needs help. I suppose she’s a bit of a con woman really but there’s no real nastiness about her. She has just had to acquire her reputation as a way of surviving in a male dominated and harsh environment. I would have been quite happy to meet her.

She has had to put a lot of work into exploring the islands so that she knows all of the hiding places which were used by previous generations when Viking marauders came raiding, and she knows all of the short cuts, which means that the other islanders think she uses supernatural means of getting about as they don’t think she could possibly travel around so quickly otherwise.

At the beginning of the book Norna is living in a tower on a cliff, with a dwarf who is her servant, far away from anyone else.

Towards the end of the book we discover that as a young woman Norna had been an unmarried mother and her kinswomen had given her son to his father who had sailed away with him to Spain. She also believed that she had been the cause of her father’s death and the guilt had caused her to withdraw from normal life.

Years later Norna mistakes another young man for her son and her actions end up putting her real son in danger. When she discovers her mistake the shock changes her character completely. She refuses to answer to the name Norna which she had adopted and reverts to her real name Ulla Troil.

From the book:

“From that time Norna appeared to assume a different character. Her dress was changed to a simpler and less imposing appearance. Her dwarf was dismissed with ample provision for his future comfort. She showed no desire of resuming her erratic life; and directed her observatory, as it might be called, on Fitful-head to be dismantled. She refused the name of Norna and would only answer to the appellation of Ulla Troil. But the most important change remained behind. Formerly, from the dreadful dictates of spiritual despair, arising from the circumstances of her father’s death, she seemed to consider herself an outcast from divine grace; besides that, enveloped in the vain occult sciences which she pretended to practise, her study, like that of Chaucer’s physician, had been “but little in the Bible.” Now the sacred volume was seldom laid aside; and to the poor ignorant people who came as before to invoke her power over the elements, she only replied – ” The winds are in the hollow of His hand.”

I must admit I preferred the character of Norna but as The Pirate was first published in 1822 it probably wouldn’t have gone down very well with readers if Norna/Ulla didn’t have some sort of experience which caused her to become a good Christian woman again.

You can read my review of The Pirate here.

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!

Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe abridged!

I’ve just managed to plough my way through my very first book by Sir Walter Scott, I had tried before and failed miserably and I hardly ever give up on books – it was The Talisman which felled me. So I was interested to hear a Scottish academic speaking on the radio yesterday as he had recently abridged Scott’s Ivanhoe, you can read about it here. Apparently he has cut it down to 80,000 words so that it’s more manageable for the modern reader.

I don’t know if it’s a good idea really as I don’t think I would feel that I had actually read a book by Sir Walter Scott if it has been gutted. I read The Pirate and I chose that one because I thought it would be a hard subject to make boring. I have to admit though that there were times when it was like wading through thick porridge with not a morsel of sugar or syrup to sustain me along the way.

I read it for the November’s Autumn classic challenge so I’ll be reviewing it on the 4th of February, but I will say that I felt a real sense of achievment when I got to the last page with no skipping or dodging of the slow bits. However I am truly thankful that I didn’t have to read Scott when I was at school!