Tag Archives: kathie touin

Moving to the pink room

Ready to record vocals at Starling Recording Studio

Ready to record vocals at Starling Recording Studio (Image: Kathie Touin)

Surprise! Yes, I’m actually posting a blog. Try not to be too shocked. It’s said that if you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything. For me it’s more a case of if I haven’t got anything to say – then I don’t write any blogs!

As I’ve mentioned before, there are only so many times you can say ‘I’m still working on my new album…’

I’m happy to say that real progress has been made here at Starling Recording Studio, and all the main instrument tracking has been completed (feel free to applaud, or to mutter ‘it’s about time!’).

Next, because I’m engineering for myself, I am decamping from the studio control room into the ‘live’ room (otherwise known as the pink room due to the former occupant’s vibrant choice of colour). There I’ll put down the vocals and some acoustic guitar tracks which need to be recorded with microphones.

This is exciting but also scary. Exciting because it means I’m a step closer to mixing and finally finishing the album.

But scary because vocals are probably the most important thing on the recording. I can spend ages getting just exactly the right EQ and reverb settings and carefully recording the best sound on an instrument that I can get, but if the singing sounds bad no one will want to listen to it. Least of all me.

I have the fun of an added challenge. When I came to sing on my previous album, Dark Moons & Nightingales, I seemed to be struggling with my voice. I got through the recording, but as time went on the problems got worse.

Then after I moved to Orkney I was sent to the Voice Clinic at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary. They discovered that during a surgery I had in 2006, in London, a breathing tube that was put down my throat dislocated an important bit of cartilage in my larynx.

Over the past few years I’ve had wonderful help from speech therapists and a singing coach and they’ve got me going again, but my voice is still a bit unreliable.

Recording the vocals for this album will be its first big test.

Wish me luck!

Kathie Touin


Happy New Year?


Late winter sunrise in Orkney, from our house

At last 2016 has ground to a halt, and we can look forward to a bright, shiny new year. Of course I know that our delineation of time is nothing more than a device we created, but after this past year I think many of us are grasping for a bit of hope.

There is a sort of comfort in hearing so many people saying they felt 2016 was particularly difficult. I’m sure there is a statistical explanation for why we seemed to lose so many famous or well-known people, though the list of names lost in 2016 does feel quite staggering. And with the proliferation of social media, I was more conscious of the number of people who lost parents, in particular, this year.

For myself, I lost two people who loomed large in my life. As I wrote in my previous blog posting, the death of musician Keith Emerson hit me very hard.

And, not long after Keith died, my father-in-law passed away from complications following a difficult surgery for cancer. While I always suspected he was secretly horrified that his only son married an American, he was always a part of our lives. I have memories of holiday excursions with him as he got older, and his stoical suffering through my early attempts at an English Christmas dinner. He quickly learned to keep his head down when his daughter-in-law was having hysterics in the kitchen. But I am grateful to him for accepting me into the family, and most of all, for providing me with Graham.

I won’t get into politics here, but 2016 was the year for overturned expectations. While I’m desperately fearful for what may become of the USA, my country of birth, I’m clinging to the hope that there are many good people out there who will fight for what it originally stood for. For now, I feel I can only watch and wait. And wonder what our next trip to visit my family will be like.

But there were good things for me in 2016. A year ago I started the slow recovery from undiagnosed Pernicious Anaemia which had meant I’d had to sit out most of 2015. I watched proudly as Graham’s involvement in the HMS Hampshire memorial project played out (links below). We had a restorative holiday in North Wales where I got to fulfill a dream by spending a night in the village of Portmeirion. And we had a ‘family’ holiday to the island of Sanday, where our rescue collie got to be ‘explorer dog’ and dig up some of the most exquisite beaches in Orkney.

This year I found myself really embracing the cosiness of Christmas. Everything was decorated, and I hung lights everywhere. The promise of the light returning at the Winter Solstice was keenly felt. It felt good to be home, tucked up safely, despite the winter storms we had raging outside. I felt it was one I would remember for a long time, because at least for the moment, we’d made it safely through the darkness.

I’ve never been a big believer in New Year resolutions. Aside from the obvious goal of getting my new album finished this year (no, really!), I have decided that I will choose to be brave in the face of what may come. I spent far too much time in 2016 dreading and fearing what might happen next. Now I am going to wait for things to happen before I get afraid – but then I will deal with them with as much quiet strength as I can muster. Bad things will happen. But good things happen, too.

I remember very clearly the morning after I heard the news that Keith Emerson had taken his own life. I was in the car with Graham and I just remember looking around at the cars and people moving through the landscape, and saying ‘Everything looks so normal.’ My world had shattered – but everything was carrying on just the same.

So all being well, the sun will rise again, however changed the world it illuminates, and I will carry on.

And get that album finished.

Kathie Touin

January 2017

Kitchener & HMS Hampshire Memorial blog

Graham Brown’s blog

Portmeirion, North Wales

Isle of Sanday visitor information


Goodbye and Farewell, Keith Emerson

Keith Emerson and Kathie Touin

Keith and the author at the Wiltern Theater, Los Angeles, in 1993 after an Emerson, Lake & Palmer concert (photo: © Kathie Touin)

Last night I was stunned to hear the news that Keith Emerson had died. This morning it seems that he killed himself. I’m heartbroken and devastated beyond words, but I feel I need to say something about what he has meant to me.

Keith’s music crashed into my life 34 years ago and turned everything upside down. He is the reason I became a professional musician and have spent my life trying to live up to the standard he set for rock keyboardists. His work has kept me going through some of the darkest days of my life, and helped me celebrate some of the brightest.

I met Keith 21 years ago and we became friends. He was funny, kind, generous, silly, occasionally thorny and never anything less than supportive of my music.

Kathie Touin, Keith Emerson and Charlie 1993

Myself with Keith wearing a t-shirt bearing my cockatiel’s namesake, Charlie Parker (photo: © Kathie Touin)

I haven’t seen him often over the past few years, though we’ve stayed in touch. I was delighted to be able to attend his concert at the Barbican in London last July and give him a long-overdue hug.

His was an immense talent, and I’m struggling to accept that his voice is now silent. It’s unthinkable that I won’t get a ridiculous email in my inbox, or be able to pick up the phone and listen to his wild tales of life during ELP’s heyday.

I was recording the string part on a song for my new album yesterday, probably at the time this awful event was playing out halfway across the world in Santa Monica, California. Though I’d written the song about someone else, the lyrics seem almost eerily appropriate now. But then Keith and I always had an uncanny connection.

I thought I’d post the lyrics here as a tribute to Keith, though the song won’t be completed for a little while yet.

Thank you, Doctor Emo. I will miss you terribly. But we will still connect every time I sit at the piano and play your music.

Lotsa luv,

Kathie Touin


The leaves were drifting down
when I heard the lonely sound
a barren fruit tree in the wind
that lost its voice that once could sing

And underneath a rosy moon
I knew that you’d be leaving very soon
but you were never meant for me
You were far too rare a thing

You always moved through the world
like a ghost
Darker than ocean
and paler than sky
Like a cup that has broken
you fill me but I lose you
somewhere amongst all the stars
where you shine

I never thought you’d come to stay
an errant star that rainy day
but how was I to ever know
How deep your footprints on my soul

You always moved through the world
like a ghost
Darker than ocean
and paler than sky
Like a cup that has broken
you fill me but I lose you
somewhere amongst all the stars
where you shine

Somewhere between heaven and the sky
I hope you have found the answers why
You dog-eared the pages of my past
I hope you’ve found calmness and peace at least

And now I wander here alone
beneath a sky so wildly blown
but I can hear you calling me
that cloudy voice I’ll always know

You always moved through the world
like a ghost
Darker than ocean
and paler than sky
Like a cup that has broken
you fill me but I lose you
somewhere amongst all the stars
where you shine

© K. Touin 2014/2016 (BMI)

Thank you, Sir George Martin


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?’.



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.


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

Kate Bush and Me



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

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

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:




The Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership Scheme website:


And information about the Churchill Barriers:


I see you!

I see you!