El Gran Grifon wrecked on Fair Isle, Shetland.
Welcome back to my blog. This is a real break from my norm. What I'm giving you today – with a certain amount of trepidation – is a children's book I wrote when I was on maternity leave a few years ago and it's based on the wreck of the El Gran Grifon. There are very few illustrations (because I can't draw!) so you'll have to use your imaginations until I can persuade someone to do the pictures. I'm posting here because I would really love your feedback on it. Please feel free to comment or click on the following link and send me a email.
Note to Adults:
The following is a little historical background to this tale...
This story, like most of its time, begins with a king. And like most kings of this time, he was obsessed with power and religion. This king, Philip II of Spain, was intent on overthrowing Queen Elizabeth I of England. The Queen, who had once refused to marry King Philip was a Protestant. This was seen as a threat to the Catholic Philip who decided the only way to solve the problem was to invade England.
Now, in order to defeat Queen Elizabeth, King Philip needed more ships. He had a great army which he was proud of, and his ‘Blackbeards’ were good soldiers, but his naval prowess was lacking. So, he and his well-groomed military men commandeered the nation’s merchant ships, including the El Gran Grifón. This 650-ton merchantman was fitted with 38 guns and brought into military service.
Philip II of Spain & Elizabeth I of England.
The Galleon Girls of the El Gran Grifón
This is the story of how two hens, after four months at sea, found solace in the most unlikely of places – somewhere in the middle of the North Sea, lying between Shetland and Orkney, in a small byre on the remote island of Fair Isle. The tale unfolded onboard the wide-bellied, clumsy hulk, El Gran Grifón in the year of 1588. El Gran Grifón was a merchantman in the ill-fated Spanish Armada fleet.
Fair Isle from the air. Photo: Ronda Hill.
These hens, sisters by birth, could not have been more different. One was mischievous and full-of-fun, and the other, well, she was prim, proper and toffee-nosed – to the point of almost cantankerous! Not your average sea-goers, these girls were often teased and called landlubbers. Nevertheless, small and plump, their beady hen-eyes missed nothing.
A traditional Shetland hen. Photo: Mary Isbister.
These two feathered beauties had been taken onboard as Captain Juan Gómez de Medina’s prized layers for he just loved a soft-boiled egg with his morning helping of wine and grog. Now, you might think it unusual to be drinking wine for breakfast? Well, on board this great 16th century ship, it was far safer to drink the wine than dare drink the water which would almost certainly have sent you running for the chamber-pots!
Wine, gin or grog?
When they were taken aboard, Captain Gómez had stowed his ‘ladies’ away in the hold. Tucked up in nest boxes, between crates of musket balls and teetering towers of cannonballs, he spoke to the two perplexed chickens, Carlota and Anna, and waving a bony finger, said, “You two must continue to lay eggs for me as this may be the only fresh food I get on this godforsaken voyage.”
Carlota and Anna looked at each other, eyes blinking in the darkness, gunpowder rising in clouds of dust around them.
“Well, this is an adventure,” Carlota said excitedly, puffing her feathers. Anna, who was prim and sensible scowled at her courageous sister.
“Settle down in your nest box, let’s see what tomorrow brings.” And under a setting Spanish sun, the two hens bedded down for the night, lulled to sleep by the hustle and bustle of sailors loading the ship for departure.
Next morning, Carlota and Anna were awoken with the warm fat hand of the cook, reaching in under their feathers to remove the perfectly formed porcelain-like green eggs which they had dutifully laid for their Captain. Out on deck there was a hush of excitement as the final checks were made and the great ship released the mooring ropes, groaning as she left the quay to join the assembled Armada who lay-in-waiting for the signal to depart.
The route the Spanish Armada took in 1588.
“Where do you think we’re going?” Carlota asked, her voice filled with anticipation. “I don’t know, but look at all those ships! We’re bound to have a collision if they don’t watch where they’re going,” tutted Anna in response. Carlota rose from her warm bed of straw, and fluttered onto a large bronze cannon gazed out the gun-port, and what a spectacle she saw!
Stretching across the horizon, as far as the eye could see, were the 130 ships which made up the great Armada. With sails billowing in the wind, they appeared majestic and graceful. The ornate carvings and figureheads of architectural wonder took Carlota’s breath away. The gold gilding shimmered in the sun, sending reflections across the bay. It truly was a sight to behold. Carlota stood, spellbound, watching as they left the safety of Lisbon harbour and ventured north towards the English Channel.
The Spanish Armada depart, 1588.
“Carlota will you get down!” came the shrill voice of her over-cautious sister. “You’re going to have me egg-bound at this rate! Come away before you fall, you can’t swim. Do you think you’re a duck?”
“Oh stop your fussing and flapping. I’m coming” she said petulantly, as she stumbled in a flurry of feathers down from her cannon-perch. “Let’s explore!” she said, rushing past Anna, gracelessly attempting to make her way up the ladder and on to the deck. Anna hurried after, scorning her sister’s careless attitude and thirst for adventure.
As they made their way along the decks, weaving in and out between sailors’ feet, they spotted their Captain, standing proud on the quarterdeck, gazing over his crew who were busy setting the sails. Carlota, unfazed by the hush of activity around her continued, fluttered onto the deck beside Captain Gómez, where she called for Anna to join her. Unamused, Anna followed her sister, who was now perched on a stanchion watching the fleet as they gathered speed under a favourable wind.
A 16th century ship.
Hearing a door creaking, the sisters turned, to see the chef carrying a silver platter and disappearing into the Captain’s cabin. From the open door, came a great sound of laughter and a plume of acrid tobacco-smoke almost knocked them off their perches. Before Anna had time to stop her, Carlota had disappeared, tail feathers and all, after the chef and into the Captain’s dimly-lit cabin.
Carlota entered, her eyes adjusting as a slither of light cut through the smoke, illuminating the great table. Draped in finery, the officers who ate here enjoyed the best linen, pewter and enough food to satisfy even the greediest among them. A little man, with piggy features, sat, hunched over a great platter, gnawing on a succulent chicken leg. Carlota took one look at this grotesque little man and froze. She turned on her spurs and left as quickly as she had arrived. Anna chastised her, “You know what they say - curiosity killed the chicken!” Carlota, flicking her comb to one side made her way back onto the quarterdeck and into the bright sunshine, ignoring her sister’s warnings.
A few days passed and they familiarised themselves with the ship, the crew, the smells and the constant rolling and pitching of the Grifón as they made their way North. Living conditions for the sailors were grim, the men cramped together below decks, packed like sardines and given only meagre rations to eat. Despite this, morale was good and the two hens enjoyed listening to the men singing and playing dice games on top of barrels of gunpowder and casks of wine.
16th century sailors.
A few days into the journey the fleet ran into bad weather. This hampered progress and the hens and crew alike, grew miserable. The smell of the sick and dying wafted through the decks, reminding everyone of their own mortality. Fresh supplies were dwindling and they still hadn’t reached England. Those who made up the great Armada simply had to ride out the storm, and wait.
Finally, two months after leaving Lisbon, and after an unscheduled month-long stopover to carry out repairs, the fleet were once again underway. They departed from Corunna and sailed out into the open waters of the Bay of Biscay. But, as they approached the English Channel, the mood on board changed again. The crew became graver, more serious and the singing and games stopped. Carlota appeared oblivious to this as she continued on her single-handed, one-hen crusade to explore every nook, crevice and cranny of the great ship. But Anna didn’t like it. The constant mutterings from the crew, that the English were laying-in-waiting, did nothing to calm her nerves or settle her feathers.
Carlota and Anna awoke one morning to an unfamiliar smell which was coming in through the gun-ports! With beaks sniffing the air, they hurried up on deck to investigate. Peering over the port-side they saw, all along the coast and on every headland, smoke pouring from beacons which had been lit to warn people of the Armada’s imminent arrival. They had reached England. And as the Channel narrowed, the Armada got into formation, a tight crescent-shape, with strong-hulls bearing down on the outnumbered English ships.
And then, the deafening cannon-fire assault began. The English, with their superior guns started the bombardment on the seven-mile-long line of Armada vessels. Carlota and Anna hunkered down below, heads tucked under their wings, deafened by the crashing and banging, wondering what on earth was going on. For days, no hand came to rummage under their feathers to collect their daily eggs, no sailors’ songs were heard, no laughter from the galley. Just the constant boom and the deafening cry of those wounded and dying.
The English were not going to give in easily and the Spaniards retreated to Calais. The English pursued, and this is where the El Gran Grifón took a hit, at Gravelines, that almost certainly sealed her fate. Just when all on board thought they had heard the last cannon fire – BANG –a gun-fire which shook the boat till even her stern-post shuddered. The explosion was felt throughout the ship and the hens heard the cry of “man the bilge-pumps!” echoing down from the deck.
Suddenly, a rush of sailor’s feet went flying past the hens, still hunkering in their nest boxes. The sound of water pouring in could be heard from the deck below. The sailors worked the pumps tirelessly, packing holes with hessian sacks and wooden plugs. Carlota felt her bed of straw turning cold and wet, and to her horror discovered a small hole, from a musket ball in the hull below her. “Anna,” she gasped, “we’re going to sink!” and suddenly, the fearless, brave Carlota, began to panic. Anna, stoic as ever, was quick to act. She flew from her nest, rolling a green egg before her, and plugged the hole, before settling back down.
The English had won the battle at Gravelines. Anna and Carlota only needed to look at the drawn expressions on the sailors’ faces to know this. The El Gran Grifón, with the remaining Armada, scattered, heading north into the open water of the North Sea – away from the confines of the English Channel where the enemy waited. The two hens listened as the crew discussed plans. It was said that they were going to head north around Scotland, passing the west coast of Ireland, back to Spain. The two hens were relieved at this news, they had endured quite enough of the seven-seas for one lifetime!
Unfortunately, the worst was yet to come. The El Gran Grifón faced storm, after storm, and was forced to sail back and forth between Shetland and the coast of Norway. And now, many hands came to rummage for eggs and with supplies dwindling, these two hens became the most important creatures onboard. Captain Gómez even made them nest boxes in his own cabin, just to ensure the hungry sailors in the decks below didn’t steal the eggs, or worse still, eat his prize hens! Things were becoming desperate. One evening the two hens were awoken by a group of men bursting into the cabin, waking them from sleep they said, “Captain, you must come immediately. The Barca de Amburgo has gone down. The Trinidad Valencera have taken half the crew but they need assistance!”
“Very well,” replied a groggy Gómez, “Turn her around and go fetch the men. I can’t think how we’re going to feed them though, we haven’t enough to eat as it is.” Carlota and Anna looked at each other nervously, they had heard the crew calling them “chicken broth” already and they hoped to avoid the cook’s cauldron!
With almost 300 men now, the Grifón lumbered along laboriously, still trapped in the North Sea. And three weeks after they rescued the men from the other ship they ran into trouble again off Fair Isle. Whilst trying to make repairs, anchored in Swartz Geo, the cumbersome vessel was driven ashore and wrecked on the rocks at Stroms Hellier. Carlota and Anna watched, dumbstruck, as the desperate men clambered the rigging in order to reach land. The wind whistled through the damaged rigging and the once great ship, lay broken and beat.
Shipwrecked. By Jean Baptiste Pillement.
“What on earth do we do now?” Carlota asked nervously.
“Well, we can’t go down with the ship! And the Captain has just left us here, after all we’ve done for that man,” tutted Anna.
“We’re going to have to fly!” Carlota said, her eyes sparkling into life again.
“What have I told you about flying,” Anna scorned “With that clipped wing, you’ll just go in circles!”
“Do you have a better idea?” asked Carlota, as she made her way to the porthole in the stern aftercastle.
The two hens could see the men gathered on the edge of the cliff, gazing down at the broken crang of their wrecked ship, the land beyond, desolate and empty. Anna and Carlota, glancing at each other, plucked up the courage and flew onto the cliff to join the others.
And as they took to the sky – flight for the very first time – they gazed at the world beneath their wings. A world of chaos and anger, of suffering and plight. The crashing waves below, tearing at the cliffs, removing great chunks of earth – earth which had been there for millenia. The churning seas, foaming and angry, ripping great chunks from the once strong and proud ship they had called home. The island, a storm-blasted, barren landscape, a few small houses tucked into the hillsides, braced against the prevailing wind.
The men, anxious and disoriented took no notice of the two hens who had landed and were picking at their feet, happy to be on terra firma once more.
A traditional Shetland "galleon hen". Photo: Mary Isbister.
And this, according to folk legends, is said to be how the ‘Galleon Hen’, with her distinctive ‘tappit’ head and porcelain-like green eggs, came to be in Shetland.
I really hope you enjoyed my tale...
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Welcoming the Spring Equinox at the Stanydale Temple.
Today I stepped back in time 4,000 years to the heart of Neolithic Shetland, to that moment as dawn arrives and the world stops, where just for a moment everything falls silent. The birds stop singing, the sheep grow quiet, the wind lulls and life is suspended while that first ray of sunlight makes contact with the earth.
The moment where the dawn met the day and came through the door at Stanydale temple.
March brings with it an urgency, an expectation of spring. I feel it coursing through my body like a raw energy which needs to be expended – somewhere, anywhere. The mornings are easier, I feel lighter and bursting with an all-consuming desire to get out and explore. The light is returning – a welcome sight after a long winter at 60 degrees north, and like me, the earth is awakening from its winter slumber.
As well as the bulbs and the lambs we have the spring equinox, and today, the equinox, there’s a full moon; the third and final supermoon of 2019.
The equinox is quite simply that time when the day and night are of equal length; there’s a balance in these days, but also a sense of polarisation. It feels as if we are hanging on a pendulum, in free-fall, suspended as the world is about to be set into motion. Like a rollercoaster, suspended just before the drop. The days and nights are equal; but the tides give their most extreme versions of themselves with the high ones licking the tops of piers and the low ones revealing all kinds of mysteries from the murky depths.
This year I chose to welcome the spring. I wanted to experience it and give thanks for its return.
I chose the Neolithic temple at Stanydale to view the equinox (or vernal) sunrise (If you are a regular reader of my blog then you may remember that I spent the winter solstice here too. You can read about that here). Stanydale is believed to have symbolic meaning, and as the sun lifts its head above the eastern horizon, it rises in almost perfect alignment with the temple’s narrow doorway and two carefully placed standing stones set a short distance from the door.
I wanted to see this for myself. I wanted to soak in the first rays of spring sunshine, I wanted to feel them kiss my cheeks, I wanted to smell the earthy dew rise from the cold moor and witness this incredible prehistoric alignment of man, stone and sun.
Morning coffee awaiting the sun at Stanydale on the Spring Equinox.
Our ancestors were carefully tuned into the cycles of the earth and land, carefully labouring, tilling and ploughing. Sowing the seeds and watching them grow. One eye skyward watching the weather, the other embedded in the soil willing growth. Hands ingrained with dirt. Sweat exchanged for growth. Just as our bodies, particularly us women, are governed by cycles, so too is the earth and the way we interact with it. Farmers are still tuned into this cyclical way of life but for the vast majority of us it bears little relevance to our day-to-day lives which are governed by the demands of 9-5 jobs.
Setting the alarm for 4.45am on a cold March morning might be a bit mad – and a few questioned my sanity – but I decided to step-off the merry-go-round and walk into the past with my eyes and senses open to the world around me. I wanted to stand – just for a moment – in the land of our ancestors 4,000 years ago. I wanted to hear the bird call in that suspended moment of quiet as the dawn meets the day.
Morning light at Stanydale.
Approaching the parking place for Stanydale at 5.30am the sky was still dark, except for a dim glow in the eastern sky. The drive west wasn’t looking promising for the mind-dazzling sunrise that I craved, with a squally shower reducing visibility to next to nothing. But, making the ascent up to the mysterious temple of our Neolithic fathers, and with boots sucking into the mossy bog, the clouds lifted and the sky cleared.
And as the magical moment approached and my senses deepened, I wondered what they were thinking – those hands that laid the stones – what filled their thoughts as they laid each stone in place? What did their lives look like? Did they wonder about the past too? Or even the future?
As I stood there awaiting the light, in the centre of that neolithic temple, and as the first rays flexed their golden arms above the hill, throwing light onto the cold earth that surrounded me I was mesmerised. For now – where fifteen minutes earlier it had been dark and unforgiving, allowing shadows to play in the corner of my eyes, amplifying my senses – it was dappled in that first soft light of fairy tales, tracing through my veins like a drug. And in a moment of purity, just as the earth gives way to the sea – the sun broke through the door, darkness gave way to light – penetrating the temple like a sword.
The sun passing through the door of the temple on the morning of the spring equinox.
As I went through the door, sun dazzled my eyes which were still tuned to the dark – my senses felt sharper. I made my way, feeling, around the temple. Using my hands to trace its shape, its curves, its alignments; touching every stone as I made my way around this megalithic marvel. Every feature accentuated. The grasses and floss danced golden and bright in the early morning, each blade standing tall and proud against the burning orange sky above me. The lichen that punctuated every stone shone in colours and patterns I had never seen before. Maybe it was the low morning light, or maybe I had simply opened my eyes to the world. Yet there was something in that morning. Something in even the call of the birds that was different; the whaaps expectant call more piercing, the shalder’s tone more urgent.
And as I drove back to Lerwick in the rush hour traffic, it was as if I had been violently thrust forward 4,000 years into a surreal parallel universe. The cars and the bustle of this spring morning were so far removed from where I had come from. As I rejoined the world and followed the road back to Lerwick – back to my time – where I had to put bairns to school, empty the dishwasher and get to work. A cruise liner was expected; how very 21st-century.
And as quickly as I had stepped out, I was brought back thousands of year with a jolt – the 8 o’clock news reporting on more Brexit and more bombings.
To write about the experience and how it felt to be stood there as the dawn met the day has been harder than I imagined – I think because the experience moved me in a way I hadn’t imagined possible. Something in that moment of calm reflection, as the sun rose, resonated deep inside me like a burning fire. I felt like the only person alive in that moment.
How do you put that into words? How do you describe the indescribable? How do you give thought and feeling to something that is so much greater than you are? How can I give words to the noise of the wind passing overhead, as the chamber of the temple remained still and suspended, or how the earth smelled as the sun warmed it, how its earthy tones rose like nectar around me. All I know is that I felt motionless – caught in the tides of time – somewhere between the here-and-now and the neolithic.
Welcoming the sun at Stanydale.
Who am I to say why those stones were placed in alignment to meet the sun of the spring equinox. Who am I to paint that picture? That picture of sunrises, and low morning sunlight kissing the walls of the temple’s passage. Of lichen, floss, birds and growth. I feel humbled to have borne witness, as those walls accepted the light and welcomed the spring. I am just one of many who have stood in that spot and soaked in the dawn of four-millennia, while the passage of time marches on regardless. One day my life will be history and I too will be a 4,000-year-old mystery.
To read more about Stanydale from an archaeological perspective check out this helpful and informative essay by Dr Esther Renwick from Archaeology Shetland here.
Dialect words meaning:
Whaap - curlew
Shalder - oystercatcher
The night was dark and the wind whistled around, screaming like a banshee as it forced an icy draft through every crack and crevice in the stonework of the small thatch clad house… This is the home of the storyteller.
Stories can evoke memories of childhood, of times past, and bring together people who have a sense of shared experience.
Have you ever become lost in the pages of a book and the threads of a story? I love this escape from the world. I need and crave it in equal measures, and lately I’ve been finding myself lost in old Shetland folk stories, enchanted by their magic, dipping in and out of their pages and wondering at their meanings. I keep returning to them and thinking about the storytellers behind the lore, the folk tales they tell us and the place of the storyteller in society today. It’s sad to think that so many of these stories - the very fabric of our society, the cloth that we are cut from - risk being lost to history forever. Should we grieve that the seasonal patterns of life that went hand-in-hand with the storyteller are under threat in our modern world. In a culture where everything is found at the click of a mouse, are we more disengaged than ever?
Locking people into their magic for millennia, folk tales were at one time an integral part of the lives of our ancestors here in Shetland (and beyond), passed down through generations from one-to-another, woven into the very heart of our culture with family lore, love and legend. It was cosy and intimate, warm and reassuring. It involved the meeting of eyes and the exchange of words. It was not an email trail, or a flurry of messages, likes and emojis on social media. It was real. It was tangible.
Shetland, as anyone who has been here between November and January will appreciate, endures a very long dark winter. In its slow and wintery depths, the sun will merely lift its head above the horizon, nod an acknowledgement - a reminder that it’s still here, still present - before sinking once more below the horizon, plunging the islands into a shadowy darkness. And it’s in this shadowy darkness that the tales of time are spun, stories webbed and mapped out as the storyteller nestles into his easy chair for the evening.
Hands at work, making horse hair fishing lines.
Winter here was characterised by hard work, but a different kind to that of summer, it was a time of preparation, of planning and making ready for the coming year. Of hope and anticipation, of waiting on weather and light. Yet, it was a sociable time, the bitter cold and incessant wind was softened, the sharp edges dulled by time spent in the company of friends and neighbours. So, as the fishing lines were made, the yarn spun, and the kishies formed, people chatted, whiling away the long dark hours in the company of friends.
And as legs tired, and the lamp dimmed, stories - the telling of a good yarn - was invariably the end result of these friendly nocturnal gatherings. It’s not surprising that many a good storyteller has come out of Shetland, equipped with tales able to challenge even the most highly acclaimed Booker prize winner. Stories which have been passed down through the generations and told around a glowing peat fire.
Lawrence Tulloch, one of Shetland’s most loved storytellers, wrote that “good stories did not have to be epic folk tales, it might be no more than someone telling of a trip to the shop.” But it was the way in which they could tell a story, spin-a-yarn and captivate the imagination of the audience, no matter how insignificant the event or topic might be.
I’m no storyteller. I’m happy writing, but I’m not sure I can tell a story, weave magic and drama, mystery and suspense, the way a storyteller might. My stories lack the drama, the mystery and the suspense that a storyteller might evoke. So, in this digital age, what and who are the new storytellers? Are they bloggers, social media users or writers, or are we on a path to losing this part of our heritage altogether?
When I began writing this (a while ago…) I was stuck on the freight boat (of all places!) outside Aberdeen thinking about this blog. I began talking to one of the other passengers, a lady, who told me she had been in Shetland researching storytelling. I turned my laptop around to show her what I was writing ‘What’s in a Story’.
Through the window. Shetland Crofthouse Museum.
And in that serendipitous moment, against the humming drone of the crippled engine, and under a fractured mackerel sky I realised that actually, as long as we still love a good story, as long as we still enjoy getting lost in the magic of the unreal – there will always be a place for the storyteller in whatever form that may take.
For anyone who would like to find out more about our storytellers, there are a few whose books and work I can recommend:
Lawrence Tulloch from Yell
Andrew Williamson from Mid Yell
Jessie M Saxby, originally from Unst
Jeemsie Laurenson from Fetlar
And for general folklore information and inspiration:
James R, Nicolson’s Shetland Folklore
John Spence’s Shetland Folklore
Ernest Marwick’s The Folklore of Orkney & Shetland
A winter sunrise in December.
As we approach the end of the year it’s a good time to reflect back and take stock. For me the year has been fast paced, busy - a period of discovery and growth and much in my life has changed immeasurably, for the better. I’ve started a business, got married, made friends, changed career and left behind what made me unhappy. Today (21st December) is the winter solstice, also known as midwinter, or traditionally, in the days of the Julian calendar, Yule. An astrological event, occurring twice a year – once in the northern hemisphere and once in the south – it is when the earth’s pole (in our case, the north pole) is tilted at its furthest reach from the sun giving the fewest daylight hours in any 24 hour period in the year.
What better place to spend the solstice?
Historically it was a significant milestone, marked with feast and fire, the return of the sun and the lengthening of the days celebrated. Meteorologically it's also significant, some say that the solstice marks the beginning of winter, although most meteorologists would concede that this in fact occurs on the 1st of December. Yet, anyone living this far north will know that the coldest days and the hardest frosts are still to come and that these will generally occur some time after the solstice. So perhaps not time to lay-aff the thermals yet.
Under the old Julian calendar the winter solstice occurred on the 25th December – present day Christmas but with the introduction of the Gregorian calendar, this changed meaning that today, the solstice occurs on the 21st.
The word solstice comes from the Latin, ‘sun stands still’, and today I took heed and also took a moment to stand still, listen and appreciate the wonder and magic of this - the shortest day of the year. It is a time which has been marked, celebrated and revered for millennia and today, I too stopped to take stock and what better place to do that than the ancient and sacred temple at Stanydale in Shetland’s west mainland.
Stanydale temple on the winter solstice.
Now I’m not some mad pagan hippy (yet) but standing among those ancient stones, at sundown - stones laid down by our ancestors, which have seen the trample of many generations of feet – was nothing other than magical. Every sense in my body was on red-alert, willing, in an Outlander-esque manner for something to come through those stones and strike into the 21st century - giving me an insight into a forgotten world. The one of our ancestors. A world of hard work and farming; short, stooped backs, bent to the ground, waiting on light and growth.
But there were more grounded reasons to visit on this day. Archaeologists Simon Clarke and Esther Renwick have noted that the temple may hold significance in regard to equinoxes (in March and September), and the movement of the sun through the sky, noting that from a pair of standing stones nearby, “the temple (when complete and roofed) would have been skylined against the setting sun, which would have been directly behind it at the equinox.” The temples curved facade “may have been the focus for activity taking place outside the doorway… most of the features along the route suggest the focus was the sunset at the equinox, sunrise at the equinox would also illuminate the back wall of the interior (as seen at the winter solstice in the case of Maeshowe in Orkney).” So it made sense really.
A largely empty landscape at Stanydale in all the beautiful shades of Shetland winter.
There is little archaeological evidence to indicate much farming and domestic life here and yet the pull remains present. A deep-seated desire to understand the past, our ancestors and where we come from is within us all. And as I stood in the temple against a darkening winter sky I too wondered about Stanydale's sense of place in our history. Was there a spiritual significance to its location? Or was it a sacred place of worship? Did our pagan ancestors dance around bonfires on these special calendar occasions as folklore would lead us to believe or did it have a much more practical, utilitarian purpose?
These are questions we will never answer and perhaps that is its greatest power. The catalyst which leads people to places like this and prompts us to ask such questions - safe in the knowledge that these age-old questions will remain unanswered for eternity. And in a time of technology, and information at the click of a mouse, this is a novel and comforting reality.
Some local friends made along the way. These ponies were such placid, friendly guys.
And at this time, I would like to extend my thanks and gratitude to all my readers – all over the world. I have been overwhelmed by the support and encouragement this blog has received over recent months and for all the kind comments. I wish each and every one of you a very happy Christmas and every good fortune for 2019, wherever you may be, and whatever it may bring.
Note: I highlighted my trip to Stanydale on my Instagram stories and for those not on the app, please feel free to get in touch and I will be happy to email a short video taken at sundown.
Good evening! If you follow me on Instagram then you will know where this blog post has come from - if not, let me explain.
This morning, I shared a photo of the cliffs at Eshaness (below) and explained that it was a stormy day here in Shetland, and that I was stuck at home with two snotty bairns so I planned on baking the Christmas oatcakes - we are massive cheese fans in this house, and Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without the bumper annual delivery from pong.com.
My lovely, engaging followers were quick to respond, and to message, asking that I share the recipe on my insta stories (which I did, and saved to my highlights here). As many of my followers are not from the UK, a lot of are unfamiliar with this classic Scottish/Shetland recipe, still a store cupboard staple today.
So, as promised - here it is:
~ Rub the margarine into the dry ingredients (I used my Kitchen Aid because I'm lazy).
~ Add the beaten egg, and a little milk (just a splash) until the mixture binds together into a dryish consistency.
~ Roll the mix out onto a floured surface to about 1/4" which (or however you personally like them).
~ Bake for 20 minutes in a moderately high oven.
(For AGA ovens: bake on rack in the foot of the top oven with the cooling tray above to prevent burning).
Allow to cool before enjoying with copious amounts of cheese and butter.
I'm going to run a little competition to see how far this recipe can travel. I will send the winner a peerie present from Shetland. To enter just tag your own oatcakes: #shetlandwithlaurie and I will send the winner a prize in the New Year.
You have till the end of the year to get baking and enter!
Ingredients all laid out with Granny Eliza's earthenware mixing bowl.
War had ravaged Europe and to keep up the morale of troops fighting for King and country, women sent parcels to those fighting on the front line. These parcels provided a taste of something from home, away from the endless tins of bully beef, Maconchies stew and dry biscuits - a staple of trench food throughout the war years.
Trench cake, a home-made fruit cake has its roots in the kitchens of the First World War. The recipe, released by the Ministry of Food used ingredients which were readily available.
In order to make a cake, you've got to break eggs... or not, in this case.
I was keen to find out how this cake, baked with love, and sent across the Channel actually tasted and how easy it was to make…
-Rub margarine into the flour.
- Add the dry ingredients.
- Mix well.
- Add the soda, dissolved in vinegar and milk.
- Beat well.
- Turn mixture into a tin.
- Bake in a moderate oven for approximately 2 hours.
(Note: The cake took 1 hour in my oven)
The process was simple enough, the ingredients today, also easy to get – everything it called for was in the cupboard so the whole operation could be done on Saturday morning, in my pyjamas, without having to leave the house - even better.
On doing my homework, I discovered that one complaint was that the cake could be a bit dry, however, I found the mix itself to be very wet – in fact I questioned whether it would ever cook! Yet the cake, once cooled was wonderfully moist and the texture and consistency was good. It was maybe not up to the standards of the Great British Bake Off but I do think that Mary Berry would have given it the seal of approval, and it may have perhaps earned a famous Hollywood handshake (...maybe)!
It is difficult not to become nostalgic when thinking about the past, and how our ancestors lived. Whilst mixing up the ingredients, I wondered whether Granny Eliza had made trench cake in this bowl and whether Grandmam had also licked the spoon clean as my daughter, Lena (2) did. Perhaps they too worked together in their busy kitchen in Voe, mixing up cakes as Lena and I did on that rainy Saturday morning in November.
Lena, scraping the last of the cake mix from her great-great-great grandmother's mixing bowl.
And as I write this, and reflect on the centenary of the First World War, I hope that you, the reader, will also stop for a moment and take a minute out of your busy lives to remember the lives lost, changed and affected by this war, and how our great-grandparents fought in the trenches, and in the kitchens to give us the freedoms we enjoy today.
Lest we forget.
Welcome back to everyone who has returned to my blog and thanks for all the encouraging words and messages. Also, just a 'hello' to any new followers, it’s so good to have you here.
We're now entering September, the time of year when the big jumpers are broken out, along with winter boots, and the hats and scarves which were hastily stuffed away in drawers and cupboards at the first whiff of Spring. At this time, Instagram is filled with beautiful, seasonal pictures of crisp, autumnal leaves and steaming mugs of tea. Autumn is a time of reflection (and at the risk of sounding like the minister again, I'll continue), the summer is winding down, the harvest is complete and the nights are drawing in as people begin to reflect on the year that's been and think forward to the year ahead (already filling in my 2019 diary and taking bookings I wonder where the year went, and I'm sure many of you feel the same).
Having recently launched the blog, I've done a lot of research into the kind of business I’d like to grow. It has also raised many questions about how others will perceive this and ultimately, me. This critique and soul-searching has been an invaluable (if painful) process. It has given me a clear purpose and has helped highlight the direction I'd like to take and the message I want to send out, and why.
Much of what has inspired me recently has come from the work of Kayte Ferris, a Creative Business Coach and Marketing Mentor over @simpleandseason. Her ethos of slow-living, sustainability and 'seeking simplicity' is incredibly refreshing. In a world filled with mass-marketing and quite frankly, bollocks, her approach is soulful, honest and real. This is what I aspire towards. I want Shetland with Laurie to be authentic, to be real, rather than batch-processed and impersonal.
Simplicity in nature.
In today’s fast paced society, we are bombarded with information, news, opinions, gossip and mindless nonsense. It’s a constant attack on the body’s emotional response system and it can leave us feeling jaded and frustrated with the world around us. Recently I've been trying to re-evaluate my own life and knock out what doesn't work or makes me unhappy and focus on the aspects which are true and bring joy. Everyone should do this, it should be mandatory, kinda like a Spring clean of the mind.
In order to avoid becoming totally caught up in the guff of everyday life I decided to make changes so that I could appreciate what was around me, to see clearly, to view the world through the eyes of a child again (or try to) and yes, I still spend 90% of my free time scrolling through Instagram but it’s creative, right? For me it’s about taking a moment to stop, and appreciate the now. It’s the bird call in summer, the seasonal changes in spring and autumn, the mackerel skies and most importantly, it's watching your children grow. It's about enjoying all of those things without work pressures playing on the mind and the mundane 9-5 invading your private thoughts, those things don't matter in the grand scheme of things. They shouldn't dictate our lives or govern how we live.
Taking a moment to enjoy the moment!
So we did, we had picnics, and they didn't have to take all day or involve much planning. A perfectly good picnic can be enjoyed in most places, even in your own back garden. All that matters is that you've made the time for the adventure, you don't have to trek for miles to find something amazing, it can be on your doorstep all along. And for parents, who face the nightly witching hour (that dreaded hour before bed) this is the perfect time to set off on an adventure because if they fall asleep on the way home then you've saved yourself another job! Other than a few boxsets and the odd '24 hours in A&E' (yup, sucker for a medical documentary), watched in the last hour before bed, we don't watch much tv, meaning that I get a good three hours extra time to work in the evening, when the house is (usually) quiet. This helps get a lot more work done. Oh, and I gave up Facebook in January which is something I haven't for one moment regretted (sorry Zuckerberg), in some ways that was the most positive change I made.
All these things have been really useful in making time management more manageable and in helping ensure that the work-life balance feels more, 'balanced'. The most important thing I've learnt in 'seeking simplicity' is that no matter how daunting, you have to be true to yourself, always and just take a moment to stop, and let your senses guide you.
Finding beauty in nature.
I've been a little preoccupied these last few weeks as we've been caught up in the midst of wedding madness. We got married last week, in a small ceremony in our back garden, here in Lerwick. The sun came out for the occasion and we had the most special day, together with family, celebrating. Our 'garden wedding', in the middle of town made me think of my favourite postcard from Lerwick (below) which shows a young couple, caught in a moment of passion, kissing on the 'banks broo', with the open sea in the background. I always imagine that in their story, he is preparing to go back to sea, leaving her lovesick for months, with no more than a letter to remind her that he is thinking of her, and is safe. This is a story which is familiar to many people living in Shetland, both in the past and present day, although today we have the internet keeping people 'connected', and it is this 'touching scene at Lerwick' which gave me the inspiration for this latest blog post.
Despite our best efforts to slow down the hands of time and cherish every moment, the old clock keeps on ticking and time marches forward regardless. As our wedding guests left handwritten messages of congratulations on the toilet wall underneath the stairs, it got me thinking about the history of our house and the people who called it 'home'. Built in 1880 by a local merchant, in its time it has only had a handful of owners, most of whom were shopkeepers in Lerwick, and who have all left their mark in some way or another on various parts of the house and garden. I find these glimpses into the past fascinating, and I try to imagine the people who lived here before us. I think about whether they would like the changes we've made, the colours we've chosen and the lives we lead, and sometimes, I wonder if I am actually going insane?
One of the photos which came back from (the world's best) photographer, Alexa Fitzgibbon from our wedding day looked as though it could easily have been taken in 1890 not 2018. One of my favourites from the day, it was shot in black and white with nothing but the chimney pots in the background. It transported my mind back in time and I wonder whether the owners of the house in 150 years will think about the past like we do? Will they consider, or even care who lived here? What will their thoughts be when they uncover photos and secret messages on the fabric of the building as we've done during the renovation? Will they cherish them as we do or simply plaster over the past? Has this digital revolution removed all future mystery from the equation? In the digital age of the future, will there still be unanswered questions or will the magic and wonder be removed by the simple click of a mouse?
We added to the story of our house when we married recently in the garden.
The history of our house and the history of the town made me think of and all the relationships which have been formed by people coming to live and work here in Lerwick. From the gutter women who followed the herring shoals north, and made their homes all along the towns North Road, to the incoming oil workers of the 1970s who came here when North Sea oil was discovered and the Sullom Voe Oil Terminal was built. Shetland has long been a seafaring island and the diaspora is spread far and wide, reaching all corners of the globe, yet many still return in search of their ancestors and even today, people come to Shetland to plant new roots and call this island, their home. Perhaps the romantic pull is not from the past but rather from Shetland itself, from what the past can show us and what the future can offer us.
...and on that note, goodnight!
We've just had the summer solstice here in Shetland. That time of the year when the long days of summer merge together in a haze of soft sunshine and warm breezes which are punctuated with the sweet smell of squill and thrift, a time when the laverock's (skylark) song never ceases and the sun only dips below the horizon momentarily. Or not. This past week has seen the worst weather of the summer so far. Today, Saturday, I stayed indoors most of the day with the fire on, watching from the window as my neighbours braved the wind and rain to have their annual midsummer BBQ (hats off to them, they did it)! The wind has decimated the garden and the few trees which do endure the elements here have been stripped bare of their new, spring leaves.
That said, the bad weather has meant that we've been confined to barracks and this has given me the opportunity to a). finish my website and b). write this blog post. I had planned to launch the website at the end of the season, with perfect content and no typos. However, I decided that if I aimed for a 'complete and finished' product, then I would never finish it, or be brave enough to publish it and it would simply stagnate somewhere in cyber-space. It should be fluid, right? So, that's why I decided to publish it, warts and all! And, wow! What a lot of feedback I've had, I can't thank everyone enough for all the kind comments and suggestions, thanks to every last one of you.
I was feeling very nervous about hitting the 'publish' button and putting myself out 'there' for scrutiny and judgement, so we watched a film about Winston Churchill to take my mind off it. During the film, Churchill's wife offered him up some sound advice and it felt very fitting as to how I was feeling about taking my own plunge into the unknown. She told him, "You are strong because you are imperfect, and you are wise because you have doubts". What better advice could you ask for? And how true it is. In fact, the whole film was full of inspiration, or maybe that was the wine? Whatever it was, it took my mind off my own misgivings.
So here's to the future!
"Success is not final, failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that matters"
Hello, and welcome to my blog. I hope that you find what you're looking for, whether you are planning that perfect holiday or maybe you're from Shetland and looking for some inspiration. Hopefully, there is something here for everyone.