Category Archives: orkney

Thank you, Sir George Martin

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Sir George Martin, Sir Paul McCartney and John Lennon in the studio (image © Rex Features)

Yesterday I was working on a string trio arrangement for one of the tracks on my new album. This morning I woke to the news that Sir George Martin had died. I would probably never have thought to use a string trio on this song without the influence of Sir George.

I became obsessed with the Beatles at the age of seven. When I was 10 I formed a group with three of my best friends – myself on piano, with all of us singing. We were going to perform Beatles songs. I called the group Sgt Pepper’s Mini Hearts Club Band. Apparently, as musical director; I was a bit of a tyrant, as everyone quit not long after. Clearly, I was already a musical genius, destined for greatness. If everyone else would just listen to me.

Pretty much everything I know and understand about production and arranging I learned from listening to Sir George’s work with The Beatles. I religiously worked out the vocal harmonies listening to their records (yes, records. I am that old). I was fascinated by how they all fit together. I listened avidly with headphones, working out the strange sounds of the Revolver album and was ecstatic when I heard the stories about randomly-assembled tape loops, microphones in buckets and other adventurous techniques they pioneered in the studio. Most likely to the horrors of the engineers.

I badgered my parents about buying me the Holy Grail of sheet music – the massive, Beatles Complete in its Bible-black cover with gold lettering. Badgered and badgered as only I could as a child, until my dad snapped one day and said, ‘You’re getting it for your birthday! Now shut up about it.’ Then I felt guilty for weeks because I’d spoiled their ‘surprise’.

My copy was literally falling apart before too long as I worked through the songs, learning the chords and being simply amazed by the perfection of the harmonies in If I Fell, and the heart-rending beauty of For No One. It still makes me cry. I was outraged to discover some of the songs had been transposed to make them easier to play. But that was probably the first time I truly understood how transposing worked, as I set myself the task of learning them in the correct key. I made notes in the margins, corrected incorrect chords or melody lines. I analysed it until I understood the bones of the songs.

And only then I began to understand how it was the cladding of those bones which made them more than well-crafted and unique. It was the production that made them stratospheric. Yes, the Beatles themselves contributed massively to the sounds of their albums and arrangements. McCartney’s insistence that the strings on Yesterday be played without vibrato for instance. But it was George Martin who gave them the means and the insight.

I never intended to get into production myself. It happened a bit like singing for me. I didn’t like the way others sang my songs, so I did them myself. Still the musical tyrant I was at 10, I like having control. I like taking my time, and getting it to sound like it does in my head.

So aged 18 I started with a slightly-defective Tascam four-track, multi-tracking vocals until the tape was so saturated there was more noise than signal. I moved on to ADAT, working with a partner then who taught me a lot about the basics of production. Several experiments with reel-to-reel tape of various widths followed, and then my ex bought a 16-track digital hard-disk recorder which I worked hard to understand.

When I married Graham and moved to London, our tiny spare bedroom became my studio and I was able to indulge in a then state-of-the-art 24-track hard-disk recorder and Roland Fantom S-88 workstation (both of which I still have). I did my Butterfly Bones and Dark Moons & Nightingales albums on that 24-track.

Then we moved to Orkney in 2010, and I set up Starling Recording Studio. I’m now fully immersed in the digital world, using Pro Tools, plug-ins, virtual instruments and strange sample libraries. I love my studio, and am never happier than when sat here messing around with sound. The songs are still the focus but, now more than ever, the production has become an amazing playground for me.

I fully credit Sir George Martin for my interest in all this. He made messing around with sound full of limitless possibility. He was the first person to make the production almost as important as the music, but always made it serve the song.

I started out devouring Beatles sheet music, and now find myself scouring Mark Lewisohn’s The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions for ideas and techniques. Even now, some 40 years after I first became obsessed with them, I still hear things in the new Beatles mixes Giles Martin has done with his dad that make me wonder ‘how did they do that?’.

 

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The author at the Steinway grand piano in Abbey Road Studios Studio Two

A few years ago I was lucky enough to visit the inner sanctum of Abbey Road Studios where The Beatles recorded most of their tracks. I stood on those stairs in Studio Two and played the Steinway grand that just possibly Sir Paul McCartney may have recorded on. It did indeed feel like a pilgrimage, and it was magic.

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The famous stairs of Studio Two

Thank you, Sir George, for making our world a more aurally fascinating place. You were amazing and brilliant, and I’m so grateful for everything you helped to create. And that means everything from Right Said Fred (as recorded by Bernard Cribbins) to A Day In The Life. There aren’t very many music professionals who have actually changed the world. But you certainly did. Thank you.

Kathie Touin

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Island Hopping Part One

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North Ronaldsay sheep and lighthouse

North Ronaldsay sheep, which eat seaweed, and the lighthouse

(Note: Since my last blog, Roscoe the rescue border collie has come to live with us. I’ll be telling his story soon in another blog).

My husband Graham and I have lived in the Orkney Islands – in the West Mainland – for nearly two-and-a-half years. There are around 80 islands in the archipelago, about 16 of which are inhabited. In all the time we’ve lived here we’ve only managed to get to two of these: Shapinsay, which is nearest to the capital of Kirkwall, and Hoy, the High Isle, the one that dominates the skyline and is more like the Highlands than the other islands in Orkney.

But all that changed in the last week when we had visitors from England, who gave us an excuse to do a bit of island hopping. Why it requires someone else to get us out there, I don’t know. We could go any time, it just feels as though there are always other things that need doing.

Two weeks ago we all piled onto the Earl Thorfinn ferry and headed north for a day trip to Orkney’s most northerly island, North Ronaldsay. It’s famous for its two lighthouses, the Old Beacon being an iconic image of Orkney that appears in all the tourist brochures.

North Ronaldsay lighthouse

The ‘new’ North Ronaldsay lighthouse, built in 1852

It was very exciting to head so far north – the furthest north I’ve been in my life. It was a beautiful sunny day, so we sat outside and enjoyed the views and watched for interesting birds. The ferry stopped at the islands of Sanday and Eday, between which I spotted several Arctic skuas and had a gorgeous view of a pomarine skua which, while seen in Orkney, aren’t that common.

On arrival at North Ronaldsay we watched in amazement as they lifted several cars off the ferry and onto the quayside using webbing under the tires and a crane on the ferry.

Car being lifted off the North Ronaldsay ferry

Car being lifted off the North Ronaldsay ferry

North Ronaldsay is a small island, less than three square miles, and quite flat. There is only a population of 60, with just one child in the school, which doesn’t bode well for the island. There isn’t enough work to entice young families in and so, although housing has been built, it could be faced with a dwindling population.

North Ronaldsay landscape

North Ronaldsay landscape

We had lunch at the North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory. The island is the first stop for migrant birds heading south so there are often unusual sightings, especially if storms blow the birds off course.

We were able to get a lift to the northern end of the island where the lighthouses are. As we approached I asked the driver about the scaffolding surrounding the Old Beacon. He said there had been funding granted for restoration but work only got as far as erecting the scaffolding before the money ran out. It’s apparently been there for nearly five years, rusting away and spoiling the appearance of this wonderful old building.

The Old Beacon, North Ronaldsay

The Old Beacon, North Ronaldsay

This is a topic that rose several times during our visitors’ stay in Orkney: there are many things in Orkney that rightly deserve preservation, but with resources stretched thin and a remote location with relatively few tourists, compared to places like Stirling Castle, it’s doubtful they ever will be preserved. It’s a shame, but understandable. Battles must be picked and with a country as rich in history as Scotland it can be a difficult choice.

Our other island visit was a three-night stay on Westray. We’ve often stood at the Brough of Birsay to the north of where we live, gazing out across the sea to Westray’s Noup Head lighthouse. Westray is bigger than North Ronaldsay, just under 20 square miles, with a population of somewhere around 500 (we’ve read anything between 300 and 600).

The landscape reminded me of West Mainland, where we live, albeit with more hills. We stayed in the main village of Pierowall, set on a lovely crescent-shaped bay, and had our dinners in the hotel there, the only restaurant on the island. There are three cafes, but the hotel is the only place to get evening meals since the second hotel on the island was bought and turned into a private residence.

Papay ferry from our cottage window

Papa Westray ferry coming into Pierowall from our cottage window

Roscoe came along on his first ever holiday. This was a good way of seeing how he’ll be when we go on our holiday sometime in October. He loved it and had a whale of a time!

On our first day we took the ferry over to the neighbouring island of Papa Westray, or Papay as it’s known locally. The name means ‘Islands of the Priests’, as there are several important religious sites there. There is an excellent website about the island: http://www.papawestray.co.uk/

According to this website, the next stop from North Hill on the island is the Arctic Circle, and the island lies roughly at the same latitude as Stavanger in Norway! It’s four miles long and only a mile wide. If you want to bring your car it has to be lifted off the ferry by crane, just as in North Ronaldsay. It’s a perfect island for bicycles, if it’s a nice day.

The ferry to Papa Westray

The ferry to Papa Westray

It certainly was nice the day we were there – warm, sunny, with hardly any wind. We had booked the Peedie Package Tour. The morning was spent touring the island, which has more than 60 archaelogical sites. Our guide, Tim, was formerly the RSPB warden for the island and has been there more than 20 years, so was full of information.

The Knap of Howar, the oldest dwelling-house in Western Europe, Papay

The Knap of Howar, the oldest dwelling-house in Western Europe, Papay

We visited the Knap of Howar, thought to be the oldest known dwelling-house in Western Europe, which dates back to around 3800 BC. The tour also took in the St Boniface Kirk and Holland Farm with its tiny museum of island life.

Roscoe guarding a Viking Earl's grave, St Boniface Kirk, Papay

Roscoe guarding a Viking Earl’s grave, St Boniface Kirk, Papay

Tim drove us back to the hostel at Beltane House, which provides accommodation on the island, where we were served a fantastic lunch of the best carrot and coriander soup I’ve ever tasted, homemade quiche with salads and excellent homebakes. Clearly people had been busy preparing all the food for us.

Because we had Roscoe with us, I sat outside in the sun with him, hoping to swap over with Graham at some point. One of the women spotted me, and brought my meal out to me! I felt very spoiled.

In the afternoon we were taken on a guided walk by Sarah, the RSPB warden for Papay. It was a brilliant walk, beginning on a pearly-white sandy beach, which Roscoe immediately began digging up with gusto. This attracted the attention of a group of grey seals, who came in quite close to shore to see what he was doing. I think some people weren’t thrilled to have a dog on their tour, but I believe this redeemed him a bit. I don’t think the seals would have come in so close without him making such a commotion, and people seemed generally to warm to him after that!

Seals coming in to watch Roscoe on the beach, Papay

Seals coming in to watch Roscoe on the beach, Papay

We had a brilliant walk along the cliffs and up over the maritime heath, seeing bits of the shipwreck of the Bella Vista, nesting shags and our first ever Primula Scotica, a diminutive pink primrose that only grows in special places in Orkney and Caithness. We also viewed The Bore, a distinct line in the sea where the Atlantic meets the North Sea.

Primula Scotica, Scottish Primrose, Papay

Primula Scotica, Scottish Primrose, Papay

Roscoe tackled his first stiles, and showed that he just might make an excellent agility dog!

Great auk commemorative statue, Papay

This statue and cairn commemorate one of the last Great Auks. A ‘victim’ of yarn-bombing!

All in all it was a great day, and we were really thankful to the people of Papay for making it such a nice experience. I can’t recommend the tour enough!

More about our time in Westray in Island Hopping part two.

Kathie Touin

Birding By Bus Around Orkney’s West Mainland

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Birding By Bus passengers at Skaill Loch on a wet day
Hello? Remember me? Sorry for the long silence after the Christmas blog. Between several illnesses and a trip to California I’m afraid it all went a bit quiet here for awhile.

As I write this, the sun is shining between bursts of heavy snow showers. Last week here in Orkney we had spectacular warm, sunny weather and spent a happy Sunday afternoon in short sleeves, planting trees.

But the most recent Sunday was altogether more cold and wet, and we spent it riding around in a minibus for the RSPB Birding By Bus annual outing. Despite the damp and chill, we had a very nice morning out and were lucky enough to see quite a lot of interesting birds.

We began at the Ring of Brodgar car park where lapwing, curlew and snipe were displaying. It was a bit too windy to hear the snipe drumming, a noise created when they dive and the air thrums through their outspread tail feathers.

Moving on from there we headed for Skaill Loch, near the neolithic site of Skara Brae, where we had some lovely views of wintering whooper swans, goldeneye and tufted ducks, a pair of Slavonian grebes and some rare visiting glaucous and Icelandic gulls (which actually breed in Greenland).

Whooper swans on Skaill Loch

Not much was visible further on at Skaill Beach, though I was delighted to see four long-tailed ducks, a species which I’d only seen come across once before. For some reason the sight of ducks on the sea still seems strange to me.

Graham and I had been at Skaill Beach two days before when we had a brisk, refreshing walk and, in the tangles of seaweed and wrack above the tideline, found a remarkable number of common skate egg cases – fourteen in all! It’s lovely to see so many as Orkney is one of the last remaining strongholds for this rare skate.

Common skate egg cases found on Skaill Beach
The minibus continued to head north and we piled out at Marwick Bay. Aside from some turnstone and a red-headed merganser that I managed to miss, there wasn’t much about. But someone in the group picked up a small skate egg case, which I later identified as a spotted skate from my egg case chart (yes, I do have such a thing).

Inland from Marwick we stopped at the Loons Hide, one of my favourite places to see birds. And what a selection awaited us! Examples of every species of dabbling duck (as opposed to diving ducks like the long-tails) that breed in Orkney were there – shoveler and teal with their dazzling colours, smart-looking wigeon, the pretty but slightly drab gadwall, and a few omnipresent mallards. But best of all, my favourite was there, the stunningly beautiful pintail. There were a pair, swimming with the other ducks.

A mixture of ducks – wigeon, pintail, mallard and gadwall

Mute swan, the Loons
Displaying lapwing

My favourite – the lovely drake pintail
 We sat and ate our lunch with the soundtrack of wildly displaying lapwings, squeaking and diving away outside, as we watched the ducks, greylag geese and a dabchick, or little grebe.
Short-eared owl hunting

Moving on we headed up over the Birsay Moors where a sharp-eyed tourist spotted a handful of hen harriers, and we were treated to five different sightings of short-eared owls! 

These owls are very easy to notice as they are diurnal, which means they hunt during the day. A pair of ravens made an appearance, with one of them doing its tumbling display.
 All in all, a good day out, despite the weather being less than perfect. 
I enjoyed trying out my new toy, bought with birthday money – a zoom lens for my Canon DSLR. Some of these photos might look a bit fuzzy but it’s because, even with the zoom, I still had to crop them to get the birds to where you could see them well. Perhaps someday I’ll have one of those enormous lenses you need a stand for but this one should suit me well, especially living in a place as picturesque as Orkney.

Thanks to Eric Meek, who was performing his last official duty before retiring as the RSPB’s main man in Orkney, and to Dick Matson, of the Orkney Field Club and RSPB Local Group Committee, for providing the excellent commentary. Looking forward to next year’s trip already!

To learn more skate egg case identification as well as the skates and rays that can be found around the shores of the UK, go to www.eggcase.org.

You can also visit the SharkTrust’s website at www.sharktrust.org 

or the Orkney Skate Trust, who are studying the Common Skate, at www.orkneyskatetrust.org.

Kathie Touin

New-fangled gizmo

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Christmas has come early for me this year – I have a new mobile phone! After a nail-biting few days when its delivery was delayed by gales, snow, sleet and ice (in other words, normal Orkney winter weather) it has arrived in its absurdly small cardboard box.

Is this a sudden extravagance on my part, I hear you ask? Not exactly. Is it the latest iPhone with apps or an Android with other things I know nothing about? No. It’s whatever I could get for free on my current arrangement with my mobile provider.

It’s a fluorescent pink, wafer-thin object with a QWERTY keyboard. I can’t vouch for whether or not I’m going to get on with this particular bit of technology. It’s main selling point seems to be the inverse of those VW Golf ads that are running at the moment – it’s like a Blackberry but it isn’t one.

Now I love a gadget as much as the next person, and will happily babble on for hours about the things I have in my recording studio and the things I’d like to have in it but don’t (yet).

But somehow having all the latest communication wonder-products doesn’t do it for me. It could be due to age.

I blame this for my first reaction to my new phone’s tiny keyboard, designed for someone with fingers the size of toothpicks. How am I supposed to use this? More to the point, if I’m wearing contacts, how am I supposed to see what I’m doing?

I mean I’ve only just got to grips with predictive text!

My main disappointment is that it doesn’t have as good a camera as my previous phone. I feel let down by this.

Yet I don’t feel the need for my phone to have a camera equivalent to my DSLR or to have it play my music collection at me. I just like the idea of being able to take silly photos of reasonable quality at will. And to have a reasonably interesting game to play when I’m bored. We’ll have to see what’s come with this one.

I can tell you’re desperately curious as to why I’ve suddenly felt the need to get this device. No insatiable urge to upgrade for me.

We have a beautiful floor in our upstairs bathroom made of smooth stone pebbles. Unfortunately it doesn’t agree with the display screen of mobile phones when they are dropped face-down on it. This has left my old phone with a beautifully artistic crazed look to the screen, but has sadly rendered it useless.

So I’m going to go plug in my new toy, get it fired up and see how long it takes before I start swearing at those tiny little keys… Wish me luck.

Kathie Touin

Been there? Done that? Now you can get the t-shirt!

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Last night I had the pleasure of playing the piano at the Lynnfield Hotel in Kirkwall, here in Orkney. It’s one of my favourite restaurants, so I naturally accepted when they asked if I’d play for a couple of hours on a Saturday night.

With a cosy welcoming fire, comfy antique furniture, a fine selection of single malts and excellent food, it’s a lovely place to while away an evening.

Looks like I’ll be playing there again as part of the schedule of Christmas delights they’re planning, so watch this space!

In other news, the Kathie Touin Shop is now open at Café Press. Come peer inside and see what we’ve put together for you.

Everything from t-shirts to teddy bears, mugs and wall plaques, hats and bags, badges and underpants! All featuring quotes from some of my lyrics.

And yes, now you, too, can own THE t-shirt made famous by the song, ‘T shirt’ on my CD Butterfly Bones. Go out and proudly show the world, “Yes, it is. Really.”

Visit www.cafepress.co.uk/kathietouin
 

See you there!

Kathie Touin

PS With only a matter of weeks until Christmas (sorry) my shop is also a great place to find presents!

International Fulmar Rescue rides again!

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In safe hands

Graham and I recently returned from a very nice holiday with his father in Devon, in the south of England. On the return we had a day’s rest at father-in-law’s house in Lincolnshire, before heading out on our two-day trek north back to Orkney. We spent one night in a lovely B&B in Lauder before continuing our drive north.

We’d been keeping an eye on the weather which, while most eyes were on the immense Hurricane Irene in the US, had turned decidedly nasty up over Northern Scotland. We weren’t surprised then to learn that our ferry back to Orkney had been cancelled. We spent a night in a hastily-booked hotel in Wick and made it home the next day on the lunchtime Pentland Ferry.

Bags were lugged in and dropped in the hall, and the all important cups of tea had just been made, when the phone rang. It was Jenny at the RSPB office. Would we be able to rescue a fulmar fledgling that construction workers on a site near our house had noticed was trapped in the burn and unable to fly? How could I say no?

It’s in here somewhere…
So back into the car we went and parked at the now deserted construction site. I soon spotted the poor bird’s wings flapping in the vegetation as it struggled to push itself clear. It very obviously wasn’t going to be able to get airborne on this bit of water. Fulmars are a type of petrel, a seabird with legs set so far back on their body that they can’t take off from dry land, but need a stretch of open water.

After a few minutes of wading up to my knees in freezing cold water, I managed to get hold of the poor bird, clutched it to my chest, hoping it wouldn’t use the fulmar’s defence of spitting a noxious fishy fluid at me, and sloshed my way back to Graham and the car. Graham was helpfully taking pictures of the whole thing. I admit I don’t look my best, as we’d just been travelling for three days, but it was worth it.

Wrapped in Graham’s shirt to keep it calm – and protect my fingers from nips!
Back in the car, with the bird giving me the occasional spirited nip, we drove down to the beach at Skaill Bay, put the fulmar at the water’s edge, and watched happily as it half-paddled, half-flapped its way out into the open water.

Nearly there!
It’s a tremendously satisfying feeling to be able to help a wild creature in trouble.

The water’s edge
Knowing how long-lived fulmars are, it felt good to give this youngster a helping hand, and I hope that it has a long, productive life.
Off it goes
As the RSPB warden Alan commented later, ‘Who ya gonna call?’ Probably us again!

Kathie Touin

Part 2 Of An Orkney Tall Story

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Tall ships in Stromness Harbour
Following on from Graham’s previous blog, we arrived early on Monday morning in Stromness so that we could park the car before the roads were shut for the day’s festivities. Graham headed off for the RSPB office and I wandered the sleepy streets of early morning Stromness.
I decided to have a coffee at the excellent Cafe Bar and sat outside in the sunshine. I noticed after awhile that the Stromness Lifeboat seemed to be giving people trips out into Hoy Sound and back. Intrigued, I went over and managed to get on the last trip before the Lifeboat was required to pick up the Shopping Week Queen and deliver her to the waiting crowds on the Pierhead.
On board the Stromness Lifeboat
It was an exhilarating ride, and gave a hint at the power these boats are capable of. Crossing back over its own wake provided some exciting bounces over the waves, which set kids and adults alike off squealing. It was great fun, capped off by coming in alongside the visiting tall ships, giving great views of these beautiful vessels.
Returning on the Lifeboat – tall ships with the ferry Hamnavoe on right
 Discovering that the tall ship Sørlandet was open for viewing, I decided to have a look around. I had a scary moment when I got a bit stuck trying to get down the gangway steps onto the boat. The steps angled backwards, and my injured ankle doesn’t bend that way. Thanks very much to the young couple who offered to help and made sure I got down okay, which I did eventually!
On board the Sørlandet
 It is indeed a beautiful ship, and the intricate rigging is fascinating. I watched a sailor climb up the mast and out onto a spar, balancing on the rope all the way out to the very end. Obviously a head for heights helps in this work.
Sailor working on the Sørlandet
The Shopping Week Queen and entourage arriving in Stromness by lifeboat
I watched the Shopping Week Queen and her entourage arrive by Lifeboat, speeches were made, and the 63rd Stromness Shopping Week began! It’s a week of activities and fun, mostly for the kids, culminating in a parade and fireworks.
Speech! Speech!
After lunch with friends, I met up with Graham and we headed home. For the first time since moving to Orkney, I was too hot and had got a bit too much sun, but it was a lovely morning. I hope the Tall Ships return next year.
Some of the tall ships visiting Orkney
Kathie Touin