My Life In Pianos

Standard
My new Blüthner grand piano

The day my new piano came home

The other day I cleaned my grand piano. I can’t begin to communicate what a monumental statement that is for me. It’s not that it was that dirty it’s just that for as long as I can remember, I’ve dreamed of owning a grand piano, but it never worked out for me.

That is until this September when my beautiful 1929 walnut finish six foot Blüthner grand was delivered and (eventually) coaxed into the house.

For years I suffered from terrible piano envy. I would watch TV programmes with people pontificating from an armchair with what was obviously a very expensive, often seemingly unused Steinway or other grand piano in the background. Usually the piano was being used to prop up various picture frames, or even worse, flower vases.

Now I just grimace a bit at the waste of a beautiful instrument and chuckle because I now have my own. And it is entirely free of picture frames, flowers vases or fringed throws.

My very first piano was an 1898 Köhler and Campbell full upright player piano, also called a pianola. It played like a normal piano, but would also play from a roll inserted in the front of the case. It worked by pumping a pair of foot pedals which controlled a pneumatic mechanism inside. The rolls had perforated holes that corresponded to the keys, so when a hole passed over the trackerboard the key would play.

My uncle's player piano

Me at 8 years old at my uncle’s player piano, similar to the one we owned.

I adored it. It had a strange grainy finish that we suspected was mahogany underneath, ivory keys that were chipped along the edges and sliced your thumb when you attempted glissandi, and the tone would change depending on the weather. It came with a huge selection of rolls. The bellows had a leak so it was a test of endurance to get through a roll. My parents would occasionally have parties and challenge someone to get all the way through Rhapsody In Blue without passing out.

I used to love digging through the really old antique rolls. They were songs I didn’t know, and the rolls were so old they were tattered around the edges so you would get the odd stray note sounding in the bass or very high treble.

When I was a teenager and decided I was going to be a rock star, I stupidly asked my parents to sell the lovely old piano so I could buy an electric one. What a mistake. I didn’t realise the difference it made practising on a ‘real’ piano, so when I got serious about going to music college and began practising six hours a day, we had to rent a small, ugly upright acoustic.

I picked this piano out of loads of more attractive ones because I liked the tone and the heavier action on it. The salesman tried to talk me into something prettier. I think I must have thought it made me a better pianist practising on a heavy action, but I think in the end all it did was injure me. This was a little Kawai and I really liked it. I had it in my bedroom so I could practise whenever I wanted to. I must have driven my parents mad.

During this time, in order to fit in enough practice hours, I was also using two different pianos at my high school. One was a darling old full upright that this lovely, slightly eccentric English teacher had in her classroom. She’d taken a liking to me and invited me to come in after school and play on it for an hour or so while she graded papers.

The band teacher already had a pianist in the school orchestra, but accepted me in the class so that I could spend the class time practising on the school’s prized Steinway grand, which lived in a cupboard in the cafeteria/auditorium. I used to wheel this big black instrument out, peel back the cover, and play furiously for the 50 minutes allocated to me. I never knew what the cafeteria staff made of this, as they were preparing for the lunch rush, but I did catch them watching me a few times.

For a long time after I left school, there were no significant pianos in my life. After high school I attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. The practice pianos there were so well-used that the action was terrible on them. This made it a challenge to go in and perform for an adjudication or exam on a proper grand piano in the piano department, where it felt to me like playing on a lead keyboard. When I returned to California, I flitted from place to place, and only ever had a (very nice) Roland digital to practice on, but it wasn’t the same.

After a few years, when I thought I’d found a place I’d like to stay for awhile, I bought an old battered upright off a friend. He was reluctant to part with it, but couldn’t keep it and I paid too much money for it, even though it still wasn’t very much. It sounded terrible, but at least it was an acoustic. I set about cleaning it, even taking the action out and apart and cleaning it thoroughly before piecing it all back together again. I was very proud of myself for actually getting it back in working order, until I made the mistake of trying to put the action back in without help and got it jammed inside the piano. This story still makes my mom laugh.

I sold that piano when I moved north to Washington State in the 1990s. Again I was piano-less for some time, but eventually came across one that someone was giving away to anyone who could take it away. It was another old upright, of similar age to the previous one. It didn’t sound much better but it had a beautiful old hand-carved cabinet. I loved the look of it.

Eventually, after I’d moved to Seattle, I got rid of that one (though I wanted to keep the music stand, it was so gorgeous). I was finally earning enough money teaching piano lessons to buy a ‘proper’ piano (e.g. one that wasn’t 100 years old and falling apart). I made the mistake of trusting the local used car salesman – sorry, piano dealer – who assured me the shiny black Kawai upright I was buying was not a grey market one. These were pianos that, at the time, had been manufactured for East Asian countries and were not designed for the Western U.S. climate but were still appearing on the U.S. market. When it started to have problems and I got a technician in, he said the glue was coming apart inside and its days were probably numbered without expensive restoration. I was devastated, as I really loved the instrument, and felt I’d been taken advantage of. I was so proud that I’d been able to buy a ‘good’ piano with my own money, and felt terribly cheated.

When I met my husband and knew I would be moving to London to a flat up two flights of twisty stairs, I realised I’d have to sell the Kawai. I was back to practising on a new digital, which was wonderful but still not the real thing. I discovered you could book the rehearsal rooms at Steinway Hall in Central London so I’d go there occasionally and indulge myself in playing a wonderful grand piano, hoping there wasn’t anyone famous next door.

Starling Recording Studio

The lower keyboard is the Roland I used to pracise on in our London flat. It’s now in my recording studio.

After seven years, we decided to move to Orkney. Out of the proceeds of the sale of the flat, I was going to buy myself a piano. I had dreams of a grand, even a baby grand if it had to be, and went shopping. I found exactly what I was looking for – a 1930s Bluthner six foot grand. It was beautiful, and sounded amazing. It was also £18,000. About £15,000 more than my budget.

I let myself be talked into a Weber 48” upright with a ridiculously shiny, high-gloss cherrywood finish. It is a gorgeous thing, though hard to keep fingerprints off the lacquer. It has a really good, strong tone and feels good to play. I was so happy to have it, though trying hard to stuff down the disappointment at still not being able to afford a grand piano. It was, up till then, the best piano I’d ever owned.

Weber W121

My beautiful shiny Weber upright.

Occasionally here in Orkney I would go to Stromness Town Hall and play their Steinway grand (since replaced by a Fazioli). I would come home in a foul mood, suffering from the green-eyed grand piano jealousy monster.

Then three months ago the most amazing email came into my inbox while I was on the Isle of Wight on holiday. Someone I knew was replacing her grand piano with a new one – with a Kawai, as it happened.

Her piano was my dream piano (well, the next one down from the Bosendorfer 7′ I knew I would never, ever be able to afford): a 1929 Blüthner six foot grand. I was stunned. I had no idea how we would afford it, but it just had to happen.

And it did. It sits in the hall across from my shiny, pretty Weber, which seems a bit forlorn now, and will probably be sold.

I stroke the Blüthner every time I walk past it. It speaks to me every time I play. I’m still learning its voices and moods, but it’s warm and kind and encourages me to delve deeper into the music.

I cleaned the case the other day – gently and carefully, and brought out the beautiful inner glow of its wood finish. It’s awaiting its first tuning, but has held surprisingly well after the move and sounds glorious.

I’m over the moon, and happily still surprised by its presence every time I come down the stairs and see it waiting for me.

Excuse me, I feel some Bach coming on that needs to be played…..

Wishing you a very happy Christmas,

Kathie Touin

Kate Bush and Me

Standard

 

Hounds Of Love

Kate Bush’s Hounds Of Love album

9:29 am. Hit refresh. Repeatedly.

9:30 am. I’m in! No, wait, I’m in some sort of queue. It’s counting down… 5 4 3 2 1 –

This is it! I’m in. I click furiously. Go! Go! C’mon, computer, hurry up!

Husband tries to speak to me, I shush him. Dog comes over, picking up on my stress, whining for a pat. I actually yell at him to go away.

My hands are sweating. That’s it – they’re selected, time to put in the credit card number. I can’t believe it – my hands are shaking so hard I can’t actually type. Finally, it’s in. I press ‘enter’.

Credit card declined’. I scream slightly. Try to get my hands to keep still. My heart feels like it’s going to explode. I type slowly and carefully. Hit ‘enter’ again.

And there it is. ‘Thank you for your purchase. Your order number is…. We hope you enjoy the event.’

I’ve got them. Two tickets to see Kate Bush live in concert in September. I weep with relief.

Extreme? Yes. It really took me by surprise just how much it meant to me to get tickets to see her. I thought it might be worth sharing why.

I decided to become a professional musician when I was 15. I had seen a concert video of the Canadian band Rush and suddenly knew that was what I wanted to do. I wanted to stand on stage, playing brilliantly, under swirling lights in a cloud of smoke effects.

As Rush aren’t exactly known for their keyboard playing skills, the next epiphany came when I stumbled onto a King Biscuit Flower Hour – a brilliant Sunday night concert programme on my favourite rock radio station – featuring Emerson, Lake & Palmer. When I heard Keith Emerson I realised there was a whole world of keyboard playing out there I needed to learn about.

Before I heard Kate Bush all of my musical heroes had been men. The only exceptions were Katia and Marielle Labèque, two sisters who are known for their classical piano performances together as a duo. I loved them because they didn’t act like typical classical concert performers – they wore velvet pantsuits (this was the ’80s) and appeared on TV chat shows. Best of all, I used to say, they played ‘like men’ – strong, powerful, passionate. It’s sadly telling that this was my frame of reference. They don’t ‘play like men’. They just play brilliantly, as you can see on this clip of them performing Leonard Bernstein’s ‘America’.

The only female keyboard player I knew of was Christine McVie in Fleetwod Mac. I have a lot of respect for her. She’s a very tasteful player and terribly underrated. She writes and plays parts that work perfectly within the structure of the band and has a soulful voice. She’s unique – no one plays or sounds like her. But you rarely hear her mentioned as a keyboard player, she is mostly referred to as a Fleetwood Mac vocalist.

When I was in high school, I subscribed to Keyboard Magazine. I would scan it eagerly when it arrived for some mention of the keyboard players I looked up to – Emerson, Rick Wakeman, Eddie Jobson, Patrick Moraz, Tony Banks…

I could be wrong about this, but for the entire time I had a subscription I don’t recall there being a woman on the cover. Or there being much mention of women inside it, either.

One day, not long after I graduated high school and was getting ready to depart for the Berklee College of Music in Boston, a new issue of Keyboard arrived. To my astonishment, there was a woman on the cover. A young woman, with huge hazel eyes and a mass of auburn hair, sitting on the floor in front of a keyboard that looked like it was set up in a flat. It was beneath a window, and low enough it could be played from where she sat in the photo. Which I thought was a bit strange. But she was captivating. The magazine said her name was Kate Bush. keyboard kate

I’d never heard of her. While she’d been an instant sensation in the UK, somehow her first four albums had completely passed me by. I started reading and was stunned. She worked with a Fairlight – one of the first samplers to come out; insanely expensive and even more complicated to operate – and she was using this on her recordings. Herself. She was writing and producing the albums herself. The songs sounded intriguing. I decided I’d have to look out for her. In the rush to leave for music school, she disappeared to the back of my mind.

Until one day I was sat in a Supercuts in Boston, having unspeakable things done to my hair, and a song came on the radio. It was like nothing I’d ever heard before – a pounding insistent drum machine beat, a weird repeating riff on an indescribable sound and then this voice. This amazing voice.

I asked the hairdresser if she knew who it was. “Some new artist. Kate Bush, I think.” Here’s a video of the song that started it all for me.

And that was how it started. Kate Bush’s album Hounds Of Love came out at a pivotal time for me as a musician. I was trying to find my own identity, and had spent far too long trying to be ‘one of the guys’ in order to fit in and be accepted by bandmates and colleagues. If you were a female musician and at all ‘girly’ they dismissed you as a joke. I worked so hard to be accepted in this way that one of the security guards at Berklee decided I was a lesbian.

If he only knew how it felt to be in a hive of musical activity made up of only 17% women – all those gorgeous, talented guys that I felt I couldn’t take an interest in sexually or they wouldn’t take me seriously as a musician. It was awful.

And suddenly here was this gorgeous, alluring, beautiful woman with a tiny, soft speaking voice who was a genius at writing, producing and recording her own incredible music. Kate Bush has an astonishing ear for arrangement and production. And thank goodness she chose to make Hounds Of Love as an album she was proud of, rather than worrying about how famous she was, as she said in an interview I listened to recently.

She looks tiny and delicate, but has a voice that could pin you to the wall when she wants to, or whisper in your ear and tell you stories. She showed me a whole world of possibility, of what can happen when you’re true to your own musical soul. So, yes, getting those tickets was a milestone for me.

I don’t sing like Kate Bush, write or play like her – I have too many other influences. But she’s woven into my songs and production. She’s the main reason I now have a recording studio and produce my own albums. And I’m profoundly grateful for her influence.

Kathie Touin

To learn more about Kate’s work visit her website: www.katebush.com

Visit: www.kathietouin.com for more about Starling Recording Studio and my own music (and to see if you can spot Kate’s influence)

For more on Katia and Marielle Labèque, visit their website: www.labeque.com

Stretching Boundaries

Standard
Simi Valley, CA 1969

Simi Valley, 1969. I’m the short one with the red trousers!

On 18 September of this year, I will be voting in the Independence Referendum which will decide if Scotland should be an independent country from the rest of the UK.

There is much heated discussion about this, as you can imagine. One of the comments that struck me was from a Scot living in London who was afraid that a ‘yes’ vote would make him an alien in what had been his own country.

This got me to thinking about the boundaries in our lives, and how they change as we grow older.

When I was little, growing up in Simi Valley in Southern California, there were many boundaries to my world. The biggest was the the hills that encircled the valley where we lived. Before Simi became so developed, to do clothes shopping we used to have to go ‘over the hill’ to the shopping mall in Topanga, an early example of the now ubiquitous mall. This was a big event.

My smallest boundary was probably the confines of my bedroom. This was the hub of my world, and I knew every inch of it intimately, every toy and piece of furniture, the plants that grew outside the window, the way the shadows from the trees would fling themselves across the walls when a car went past. I used to make up star constellations in the gold sparkles that decorated the acoustically-treated ceiling.

I had a deep love of my home, my patch, and was possessive and protective of it. There was a boy in our neighbourhood who I hated because he used to ride his bike around our circular driveway. He was trespassing and it made me furious. How dare he come on our property!

I remember waging a futile battle against a small dog that used to steal my cat’s food off the porch. We used to feed the cat in an unused margarine tub, and this dog would show up regularly and steal it. Not just the food – the whole tub! For weeks we couldn’t figure out what was happening to it, so one day I had a stakeout.

I was amazed to see this little terrier mix appear from nowhere, trot up onto the porch, grab the bowl and run off with it. I chased it on my bike and was even more amazed when it ran for nearly two whole blocks before disappearing under a gate, margarine tub still firmly clamped in its jaws. Its owners must have been very puzzled at their collection of margarine tubs in their back yard. I decided if it was that determined it was entitled to keep them.

Our backyard was enormous. My family was fortunate to live in a tract that had generous plots for each house and our yard seemed to stretch out forever. Near the house was familiar – the old tall English walnut tree we used to harvest nuts from each year, the honeysuckle tree where we used to suck the nectar from the blooms, the old, twisted black walnut tree… and that was where things started to change.

Just over halfway from the house to the back wall, that tree was a little strange. Beyond it were some nice friendly small fruit trees. Then there was the garden my dad fenced in, which was worked briefly and then left to run riot when everyone lost interest. Beyond that I didn’t like to venture.

Around the side of my dad’s workshop that he built himself, was an old camper shell up on sawhorses. Dad said my friends and I could use this to hang out. We did, but not often. It was too near the woodpile, which had black widow spiders in it. It was out of sight of the house. It was scary.

The neighbourhood boundaries grew as I got older. They were always fairly large, as I had a good walk to school when I was at elementary. I seem to remember this taking about 20 minutes but I could be wrong.

It, too, was scary, as there was a junior high school at the end of our road and we had to walk past these big kids on the way to school. We were frequently picked on and were terrified of them. But in those days parents didn’t drive their kids to school, so we walked in pairs and braved it.

So the boundaries of childhood weren’t very large. When I decided aged 18 to go to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, I knew it would be a huge step. A move clear across the country, 3,000 miles away from every thing I knew. I didn’t mind because I was so excited about being out of high school, and being able to devote myself entirely to music, that it didn’t really worry me about leaving home and family behind.

What I hadn’t counted on was the total difference culturally involved in a move like that. I didn’t understand the accents or place-names there. Coming from somewhere where all the street names were Spanish, I couldn’t get to grips with words like ‘Worcester’ or ‘Faneuil’. The sense of humour was far more cutting and teasing – much more like the humour here in the UK, I now realise. But I spent the first year being constantly bewildered and hurt by people who were only trying to be funny.

I knew I would be going back to Southern California, not far from Simi Valley, when I left Berklee. I wasn’t exactly excited by the prospect, and decided to stretch my boundaries further. I left Boston and spent a week in London, which I instantly fell in love with.

All too soon I was back in California and felt like my boundaries had closed up tight again. I had seen more of the world and wanted to see more.

It took another nine years, but eventually I was able to move north to Washington, living west of Seattle across Puget Sound. It wasn’t the happiest time in my life, but I loved where I lived. It was peaceful and beautiful and full of wildlife. It was here I met my husband Graham.

Graham, for anyone new to this blog, is English and was living and working in West London when I met him. He came on holiday to Washington, visiting a mutual friend, who introduced us. Only two months after we’d met and only spent two weeks together, he invited me to come stay with him for Christmas and New Year. My family and friends thought I was crazy but I could feel my boundaries stretching again.

I went and got to go a step further – he took me to Paris. It was the first time I’d been to the Continent and it was fabulous.

We got engaged, then married, and I left behind the country of my birth and moved to my adopted country of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Another culture shock and I’m afraid I wasn’t always gracious about the adjustment. Why do they have to do things this way? That’s ridiculous, why don’t they just do it the way we do it in the States? But over time I’ve adjusted and grown to love my adopted country passionately.

A few years ago I cemented this boundary permanently – I took British citizenship. A new frame of reference. I’m still an American, still a Southern Californian, but now I have that new viewpoint you only get if you move away from your home country. And while it’s not always a pleasant sight looking back, there are many times I’m pleased by what I see.

The strangest thing now is coming back to the States to visit family and feeling like it’s a slightly alien place to me. I’m different, I sound different, the country has changed drastically in the eleven years I’ve been away. Simi Valley is unrecognisable to me – there are streets where there were hills people used to hang-glide from, I got lost trying to find my favourite beach because there were too many new roads. There seem to be shopping malls everywhere.

The most recent expansion in the boundaries of my world has actually been a form of contraction. Four years ago Graham and I left the exciting but exhausting bustle of West London for this little island we live on here in Orkney. It’s the biggest of the Orkney Island archipelago, called Mainland, but still small compared to the bigger island of Britain.

It’s been another new place, another new culture. Learning about what it means to be Scottish, learning about the Orkney culture which has more historical ties to Norway than it does to Scotland. So an expansion, but a contraction in that our physical boundary is now the coastline that holds us here. A welcome distancing, but a challenge when we need to leave. The tides and wind can keep us here against our will and make the journey unpleasant.

But it also feels safe. It reminds me of my childhood home. That bedroom I knew intimately, the plants and trees that were familiar friends, the way I could explore the front and backyards and got to know them so well. And it felt secure behind the closed front door – it was our house, my family’s domain. Sometimes the Pentland Firth that separates us from mainland Scotland feels like that front door.

This hasn’t really said anything about the Scottish referendum. But it is forcing people in and from Scotland to define themselves, to consider new boundaries. The question seems to be do you define yourself as something or against something?

Do your boundaries define you? For that man living in London, is he less Scottish because he’s stretched his boundaries? He’s still technically living in his own country, at least for now. But will he be looked at as less Scottish by the folks back home? And as an interloper, a foreigner, if he stays in England?

As a non-native, it is interesting and fascinating to be a part of the discussion. I have a right to vote in this referendum because I’m a British citizen and I live in Scotland. But I’m also American, and my cultural history is different to the majority of the people who will be voting. Will my decision to stretch my boundaries give me a helpful slant on the process? Or will it muddy the waters, make me less likely to understand the deep-running feelings of others?

We still have seven months to go. Watch this space.

Kathie Touin

Invasion of cute, fluffy things

Standard
Grey seal pup

Ridiculously cute seal pup

Lately in Orkney we’ve been having a serious of storms and gales. They haven’t been dangerous or life-threatening, just coming in one after the other. Yesterday we had a break and a lovely day of chilly sunshine. Time for a trip out!

The change in the weather coincided with two things I’d been looking forward to: the Orkney Book Festival book sale and grey seal pupping season. A strange combination, you might think, but nowhere near as strange a combination as the pile of books I came home with from the sale.

If you must know: Douglas Adams, Margaret Atwood, two books of beginners’ violin pieces, a biography of Daniel Boone, a book about piano playing, a lovely old collection of Washington Irving’s writings, Konrad Lorenz’s study of greylag geese and, most embarrassing of all, Alan Partridge’s autobiography. Should get me through the winter.

As both events were happening on the island of South Ronaldsay, we ventured across the Churchill Barriers that connect the southernmost islands of Orkney. These causeways were built by Italian prisoners-of-war to protect the natural harbour of Scapa Flow following the sinking of HMS Royal Oak by German U-boat U47 in 1939.

We perused the book sale, got a very nice lunch from the women at the cafe in the Cromarty Hall, where the festival was being held, then headed further south to look for seal pups.

Excellent camouflage

Excellent camouflage

Britain has roughly 40% of the world’s population of breeding grey seals, and Orkney is the most important breeding centre for these lovely creatures in the UK. Females come ashore from October to December to give birth, and the fluffy white pups spend about three weeks nursing and putting on weight before heading out to sea.

Grey seal pup nursing

Grey seal pup nursing

The autumn after we’d moved to Orkney, the Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership Scheme put on a walk to see the seal pups at a particular bay in South Ronaldsay. There are many sites around Orkney where the seals pup, but as we knew this one we decided to head there. As you can see from the photos, the pups were at various stages of development, some obviously  older than others.

Mum and baby

Mum and baby

I want to point out that these photos were taken with a zoom lens from a safe distance, lying down on the cliffs above. Even with being quiet and careful not to disturb them, it’s obvious in the photos that we were spotted most times. We moved on quickly and quietly, to minimise disturbance.

Protective seals

We’ve been spotted!

They are ridiculously cute, and make the most mournful sound. Hope you enjoy the photos.

Kathie Touin

Bull seal

Bull seal

Lovely spotted female

Lovely spotted female

Uncomfortable baby

How does this baby make this look comfortable?

Nursing newborn

A very new pup nursing

Rocky nursery

Not very comfy for a nursery

Cute sleeping baby

This was taken through the grass on the cliff edge, but this baby looked so cute asleep…

You can find more information about grey seals here:

http://www.snh.org.uk/publications/on-line/naturallyscottish/seals/sealsinscotland.asp

http://www.orkney.com/seals

http://www.smru.st-andrews.ac.uk/documents/954.pdf

The Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership Scheme website:

http://www.scapaflow.co/

And information about the Churchill Barriers:

http://www.orkneytourism.com/barriers/churchillbarriers.htm

I see you!

I see you!

Summer Adventures, Part 1: Rousay

Standard

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

Isn’t this where we came in?

Standard
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

Standard
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