Summer Adventures, Part 1: Rousay

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Autumn has arrived in Orkney already. So it’s a good time to re-visit some of the events of this past summer.

First, I’ll tell you about our trip to the nearby island of Rousay, known as ‘The Egypt of the North’ for its wealth of archaeological sites. Rousay is only a short 20-minute ferry ride away across the mysterious Eynhallow Sound, a stretch of water known for its spectacular tidal race called the Burgar Rõst, or Roost. Rousay’s name means Rolf’s Isle in Old Norse where many of Orkney’s names come from.

The view from Rousay across Eynhallow Sound to West Mainland

The view from Rousay across Eynhallow Sound to West Mainland


The owners of
the pretty one-bedroom self-catering barn conversion we stayed in were away in Canada, but had told me over the phone to just come in and get settled. Someone would be overseeing work on the farm in their absence so would be able to help if we needed anything.

Essentially Rousay has one main road encircling the island. The interior of the island is high, rough moorland, with terracing on the hillsides that looks man-made but was etched by glaciers.

We missed the turn to the farm the first time, gave up and went back to the newly-opened Craft Hub near the pier to ask for directions. There was much consultation between the three people in there and it was agreed that we needed to look for where the road began its curve around the island to the left, and take the turn just before the post box on the bend.

We got to the curve and nearly missed the post box because we were distracted by some spectacular home-made sculptures decorating a front garden. There was a highland ‘coo’ made out of rope, a huge, plunging whale’s tail disappearing into the ground, a dolphin leaping out of the grass and too many other things to take in as we passed. Directly opposite this was our turn.

We had Roscoe with us and he had a wonderful time playing Explorer Dog, Neolithic Dog, Bronze Age Dog and Forest Dog. He did have a painful run-in with the farmer’s electric fence (curiously mounted on the outside of a field wall), but other than that enjoyed himself thoroughly.

Roscoe takes in the view

Roscoe takes in the view

The Westness Walk

The Westness Walk

One of the highlights of our stay was the incredible Westness Walk, a path down a sloping hill and then along the coastline through so many time periods it was dizzying. We began at the Midhowe Broch, a well-preserved Iron Age fort. There were two nearly-grown hooded crow chicks sat on a nest in the wall of the Broch, watching the tourists wandering in and out.

 Midhowe Broch

Midhowe Broch

Hooded crow chicks watching the tourists

Hooded crow chicks watching the tourists

Just a few metres away is the Midhowe Cairn, enclosed in a barn-like structure to protect it from the Orkney weather. It was dazzling inside – a huge stalled cairn, around 5,000 years old. The remains of 25 people were found in it when it was excavated. Similar to other stalled tombs in Orkney, it is the longest. I couldn’t help wondering what the Bronze Age people living next door in their broch must have made of it.

Midhowe Chambered Cairn

Midhowe Chambered Cairn

We then passed Brough Farm, dating from probably the 18th century, along to The Wirk, the remains of a grand ceremonial hall from the 13th or 14th century. There isn’t much to see there now, just a ‘ruckle of stanes’ as they’d say here, but it must have been impressive in its day.

Brough Farm

Brough Farm

We didn’t do the complete walk – my ankle isn’t up to such things – but we got as far as St Mary’s Church, which was abandoned in 1820. Although there was an earlier Medieval church on the site, the remains here are thought to date from the 16th or 17th century.

St Mary's Church

St Marys Church

Struggling to get my head around the vast span of time we’d just traversed in less than half a mile, we made the long slow climb back up to our waiting car.

The next day we explored the other chambered tombs that are open to the public. First was Taversoe Tuick, an unusual tomb in that it has two entrances, one ‘upstairs’ facing the hill, and the other ‘downstairs’ facing out to sea. You can now only enter by the upper entrance, but  Graham was brave and climbed down the rickety-looking ladder to explore the lower level from the inside.

Taversoe Tuick chambered cairn

Taversoe Tuick chambered cairn

We were walking around the outside, Roscoe in his ‘Neolithic Dog’ guise on his long-lead, when he promptly disappeared from view over the side of the cairn. We rushed over to see that he’d managed to fall into the lower entrance! He bounced back up and carried on exploring, undaunted by his rather graceless tumble.

The lower entrance to Taversoe Tuick chambered cairn - the bit Roscoe fell into

The lower entrance to Taversoe Tuick chambered cairn – the bit Roscoe fell into

Next we went to the fabulously named Blackhammer tomb. This required stepping down a few steps on a vertical ladder to get into. I was determined to do it and, after a bit of hesitation, managed to get inside the tomb.

Blackhammer chambered cairn

Blackhammer chambered cairn

I’m always struck in these tombs in Orkney that they never seem unpleasant, or gruesome or scary. They don’t really seem to feel of anything. This one, however, did have just a little bit of a darker air about it. Might just have been the name. I got my pictures, climbed up the ladder – and promptly got stuck.

With my problem ankle, my balance is very bad. So I couldn’t step up out of the tomb onto my bad foot, in case I unbalanced and it wouldn’t support me, and I couldn’t stay on my bad foot and step up with my good foot for exactly the same reason. I was convinced if I moved, I’d fall straight over backwards into the tomb, whacking my head on the stone lintel as I went. After a few minutes’ panic and much encouragement from Graham I was finally able to make myself take the step, and emerged perfectly easily.

Our last day was wet and unpromising. We chose to go to Trumland House Gardens, risking getting soaked because I didn’t want to miss it. Once up the long curving drive and past the house, which must have been very grand in its day, we entered the walled gardens and I was very excited to see lots of plants that I can’t possibly grow in the exposed location where we live.

Roscoe and Graham and friend at Trumland House

Roscoe and Graham and friend at Trumland House

But even better was when we got into the forest, along the stream. It didn’t feel like being in Orkney at all! It felt like a dark, damp forest in the South of England, full of huge trees, lush ferns and plants, rhododendrons and all sorts of amazing things. I was so delighted to find this place – it’s so good to know that if I need a forest fix (and I sometimes do) I can just nip over to Rousay without going very far at all!

The Birdcage in Trumland Woods

The Birdcage in Trumland Woods

 

Roscoe in the woods at Trumland Gardens

Roscoe in the woods at Trumland Gardens

 Lastly we did a lovely long walk up over the moorland towards the interior of the island to a large loch called Muckle Water. It was a nice steady path, with magnificent views back over to Mainland Orkney. We saw several groups of breeding bonxies (great skua) and the highlight, a common sandpiper – something I assumed you only found on beaches. I was also pleased to find a clump of the carnivorous sundew plant, something which I’ve always wanted to see in the wild.

The walk back from Muckle Water

The walk back from Muckle Water

Muckle Water

Muckle Water  

 

Sundew

Sundew

Each night we had dinner at the excellent Taversoe Hotel. I would definitely recommend the Taversoe – excellent food, lovely staff and very reasonably priced. On the second night we had dinner with a friend of mine, who lives in Rousay, and her husband, who is the engineer on the ferry. She’d sent a text that they might be delayed as the ferry was late getting in. This puzzled me as it’s not the kind of ferry that usually suffers from delay. It turned out that a pod of orca whales had been travelling through Eynhallow Sound and the boat followed them so the passengers could have a look. My friend’s husband had marvellous pictures on his phone of the whales just feet away from the side of the ferry. It’s things like this that really make me love living in Orkney – that a ferry can be late because it’s showing people wild orca in the sea. Brilliant.

Saying goodbye to Rousay

Saying goodbye to Rousay

It was a lovely long weekend and there were still many things we didn’t get to. But it’s nice to know Rousay is so close by and we’ll be back to visit.

Kathie Touin

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Isn’t this where we came in?

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Ellen Grieve, Tom Ashman, Hannah Bown, Kathie Touin, Fiona Driver

Kathie Touin (top) with fellow UHI students before Celtic Connections gig
(photo: Gemma Hahn)

Now then. Where were we? Ah, yes, I was just about to embark on life as an adult student at the University of the Highlands and Islands through Orkney College on the Applied Music BA degree. A journey which I was going to detail and follow in my blog as it progressed.

Only it took far more time then I expected, even though I was part-time, and the blog fell by the wayside in my effort just to keep up.

It was fascinating and I learned more from it than I expected, though not always through the coursework. It was more a case of realising what I really want from music at this point in my life.

And sadly being a student again was not what I wanted after all. This felt a bit strange as I’ve spent the years since I attended the Berklee College of Music secretly wishing I could go back and complete the degree I left half-finished. I still regularly have dreams that I have gone back, usually involving the scary elevator we had to use to get to the dorm rooms.

I think the idea of a music degree consisting almost entirely of practical skills that presumes a certain level of musical knowledge is a good one and I wish everyone I was on the course with the best of luck with it. If I was only just starting out it would be great.

But the amount of time I spent on the work showed me that I should be spending that time on my own writing and recording and developing my new business, Starling Recording Studio.

I opened my home studio to the public last month and am enjoying working with local artists. Between sessions I’ve at last started on my own next recording which I’m finding very satisfying, especially with all the new gear I have.

It was stimulating working with other musicians on the course and the residentials I attended in Inverness and Glasgow were challenging and helped me understand aspects of my own musicianship that need work.

Being at Celtic Connections in Glasgow in January was a wonderful opportunity and I’m grateful for the chance to have been a part of it.

So, the blog is back and I have some catching up to do. Husband Graham, Roscoe the Rescue Dog and I have been on some brilliant adventures lately here in Orkney, so I’ll be reporting on those, as well as keeping you up to date on the new album’s progress and any developments at the Starling Recording Studio. You can also follow the studio on Twitter @StarlingOrkney as well as on Facebook at facebook.com/StarlingRecordingStudio.

See you soon!

Kathie Touin

Island Hopping Part Two

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Sea stack, Westray

Sea stack, Westray

The next two days of our mini-holiday in Orkney were spent exploring the island of Westray. We walked between two pastures to a path along the cliffs to see the strange rock formations there.

Cliff formations, Westray

Cliff formations, Westray

We had a sticky moment at a stile that just had a small flat top, and two pieces of board nailed flat against the posts for steps. I had a hard time getting over it, and we quickly discovered it was too high for Roscoe to jump.

He doesn’t like being picked up yet and snapped at me the one time I tried it. But there was nothing for it, and he was desperate to get over to where I was, so Graham bravely scooped him up and deposited him on top, where he jumped down. He seemed quite proud of himself, and we were relieved that he might learn that being picked up isn’t a bad thing.

Kathie and Roscoe, Noup Head, Westray

Kathie and Roscoe, Noup Head, Westray

Then my favourite part of our trip – visiting the Noup Head lighthouse and cliffs. It’s a bumpy road out to the lighthouse, not recommended for vehicles that sit low, but we made it eventually.

Gannets on cliffs, Noup Head, Westray

Gannets on cliffs, Noup Head, Westray

We walked along the cliffs, with Roscoe sticking his head in the now-empty puffin burrows. While most species of seabird have gone by this time in the summer, there were still hundreds of gannets nesting on the cliffs, with chicks at all stages of development. Bonxies, or great skuas, cruised around looking for opportunities for an easy meal.

Roscoe looking for a puffin

Roscoe looking for a puffin

On the way back to Pierowall we stopped to explore Noltland Castle, originally built to house Mary Queen of Scots if she managed to escape from imprisonment in Loch Leven Castle. This wasn’t to be, and the castle was never finished, though much of it is intact.

Roscoe and Graham, Noltland Castle, Westray

Roscoe and Graham, Noltland Castle, Westray

Roscoe was clearly delighted by his newly-discovered ability to climb, and had a great time romping through the castle, climbing the stairs and jumping up on windowsills.

Roscoe in the window of Noltland Castle, Westray

Roscoe in a window of Noltland Castle, Westray

I liked the creepy vaulted kitchen in the lower storey, which was dark and damp and had the most amazing acoustics. I sang a bit and it rang for ages.

Roscoe on the stairs in Noltland Castle, Westray

Roscoe on the stairs in Noltland Castle, Westray

On our last morning we visited the Westray Heritage Centre, which has an excellent exhibition about the astonishing finds from the Links of Noltland archaeological dig nearby. This is where they found the diminutive Westray Wife, thought to be the oldest object representing a human ever found in Scotland. There is more information here: http://www.westrayheritage.co.uk/

Afterwards, we drove out to the Links to see the actual site. People aren’t allowed on the site as it’s a very fragile area of dunes, but we could see through the fence the beautifully-built stone walls.

Archaeological dig at the Links of Noltland, Westray

Archaeological dig at the Links of Noltland, Westray

Roscoe then had fun digging in the sand, while we soaked up the sun and watched the seals that had swum in close to keep an eye on three boys who were body-boarding in the sea with their dad.

Graham and Roscoe on Grobust Beach

Graham and Roscoe on Grobust Beach

Later we visited the Castle of Burrian, a large sea stack very near the shore that, earlier in the summer, would have been covered in puffins. But even at this time of year there were many fulmars cruising along the cliff edge to have a look at us.

The Castle of Burrian, Westray

The Castle of Burrian, Westray

The Varagen

The Varagen

We drove to the furthest point south on the island, visited another beach, then got on the ferry, the Varagen, and headed back to Kirkwall. It really was an enjoyable few days, and we will definitely be back.

A very tired dog, home at last

A very tired dog, home at last

Kathie Touin

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

It’s officially Christmas

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St Magnus Cathedral

 It’s officially Christmas. At least it finally felt that way on Sunday night when I was lucky enough to sing with the Festival Chorus in St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, Orkney’s largest town. Along with the Orkney Camerata orchestra we performed Parts I and II from JS Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.

With its lovely warm red sandstone walls, the cathedral is a very special place to perform. And from my perch in the back row of the alto section I had a perfect view of the attentive audience with a very tall Christmas tree in the background.

The soloists, who had come up from the south for the performance, were wonderful. I especially enjoyed mezzo Judy Brown’s aria ‘Slumber in Blissful Repose’, her soaring vocal chiming beautifully with Gemma McGregor’s flute.

Between the sections of the Oratorio, Catriona Price and Tabea Sitte played Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins with the Camerata. I thoroughly enjoyed this, as the young women clearly relished the challenge of the music.

I have sung with choirs before, including once for HM The Queen at the Royal Festival Hall in London with the Voicelab project.

But I must admit I’ve never been a big fan of classical voices. I don’t enjoy opera, which I’m sure makes me a musical philistine. But I find the singing style too mannered and unnatural.

The cathedral, with its soaring ceiling, arches and oddly-shaped roof spaces, pulls and twists musical sound around inside it. Notes reverberate for ages amongst all these nooks and crannies, and the return of the sound happens at different times in different places.

Some of our singers were complaining about the acoustics, that it made it difficult for them to hear themselves. I tend not to worry about this, especially in a choir – I figure if you just sing the right notes with the right amount of enthusiasm the sound will sort itself out just by dint of the sheer number of voices!

But that night, as we sang with nary a microphone or amplifier in sight, I suddenly understood why classical singing has developed the way it has. Obviously in the early days, music was written mostly for religious services, so it would have been heard in big, echoing stone barns of buildings. Anyone singing in a ‘normal’ chest or head voice would never be heard.

But hearing the voices of tenor soloist Joseph Doody and bass soloist Jerome Knox cleaving softly through the air made me realise this is why classical singers sing as they do. It carried magnificently throughout this enormous, weirdly echoing space and sounded beautiful and pure.

I learned something else that is borne out of the acoustical nature of the cathedral.

The organist, Heather Rendall, explained to me that if she is playing in this sort of situation, where the soloists and orchestra are a fair distance from where she sits at the organ keyboard, she has to anticipate the music and actually play just slightly ahead of when it will be heard.

I’d come across a similar phenomenon playing keyboards in bands using a slow strings patch, which has a very slow attack, so I would have to play the chord ahead of when I wanted it to actually sound. But I can hardly imagine doing this with something as complicated as Bach.

So Sunday was an evening filled with glorious music and voices, and I had an unexpected lesson in classical voice and acoustics.

Thanks to Glenys Hughes for leading us so ably. I appreciate the opportunity to sing such wonderful music in such a beautiful setting.

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