Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Broccoli and the art of skiving

"Do you like broccoli?"

Nine times out of ten it's not a question any of us would struggle with. In my case it's: "Fresh purple sprouting yes, big green lumps from the supermarket no."

But considering I'm talking to my neighbour June and she's standing in her veg garden with a knife, I go for an unconditional and enthusiastic "YES!". OK, I didn't shout, but I was maybe a little quicker off the mark that absolutely necessary.

The veg gardeners among you will be used to making careful plans to stagger the sowing and planting at just the right intervals and then watching as everything arrives at exactly the same bloody time.

This is about six of your five a day
Having spent a couple of minutes discussing the day and the carrot fly, June lops the top off a particularly impressive broccoli plant and I'm off back to Stoneyhall with at least one part of the night's tea. The florets took only three or four minutes to steam and I saved the stalk to cut into matchsticks for a stir-fry (Malc's handy household hints No.327). Trust me, it's great. Sweet, bright green and tender, it's nothing like the rubbish you'll get in the supermarket and I can't believe I've never grown it myself.

It proved to be an added bonus on what was already a cracking morning. We've not had the best of weather for nearly 18 months now, but October - despite some stiff winds and a few bits of squally rain - is a vast improvement.

So the other morning I decided to take doctor's advice (given to me by Karl about three years ago) and go out for a walk in straight lines on a flat surface. It's good for the knees, apparently.

I take Owen with me, telling the terriers Spike and Mij I'll give them a tour of the rabbit holes later and we set off down the road to complete the a modest square, heading down to the shore, along a bit and then back up to home - a mile and a half perhaps.

In reasonably warm sunshine, the pair of us set a fair pace and - as is usually the case with our dogs when they are out on their own - Owen is as good as gold.

He's particularly delighted, and a bit surprised for some reason, when we reach the shore. He dives in and we go through the old stone-skimming routine until my arm aches and I stop to admire the view.

And if that's not worth taking the morning off for, I don't know what is.

Yeah. . . I can't believe I took a picture of broccoli either

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Radio Ga-ga

"Are you OK to do the piece right now?" said Robbie from Radio Orkney.

"Err. . . I suppose I am," said a suddenly uncertain small-time pig farmer.

And so it was shown to the wider public in Orkney just why I spent the best part of 30 years working for newspapers.

I was on the air to plug the new community heritage project Westray's Living Heritage of which I am - apparently - project manager. In other words, I gather in photographs and video of current events in the island and upload them to the website. It keeps me out of mischief and the few bob it earns me means the pigs don't go hungry.

The plan had been to twist the Heritage Trust's chairman to go on the radio, but with one thing or another, time was running out and Robbie from the BBC gave me a call on Thursday afternoon.

It was - to put it mildly - bloody horrible. My stomach started to churn, I tried desperately not to mumble, I punctuated every fourth word with "um", my head filled with cotton wool about halfway through. It was poor stuff and the only saving grace was that it wasn't live.

That gave the team in Kirkwall the chance to knock the interview into shape and by the time it went on air (right at the end of the morning bulletin), "ums" had been kept to a minimum and I sounded like I had some vague idea what I was talking about. It's not something I'm in a hurry to repeat though.

And now back to the Radio Scotland studio in Glasgow for the phone-in - Alec Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, is something fishy going on with the SNP?

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Up a bit, left a bit. . . right there!

The masseur pressed his thumbs into the small of the back, working out the knots in the muscles and bringing a grateful sigh of appreciation from the. . . err. . . patient? customer? client? massee? (Fill in your own word)

In the warm, early autumn, Westray sunshine, the aforementioned receiver of the massage stretched his back legs out and grunted happily.

Alfie, our pedigree boar, has spent too much time on his own this summer. Having decided not to keep young pigs on the "farm" over winter, I've made sure Alf has been kept well away from Molly, Little Kim and Ruby. The boy has had a couple of "visits" to attend to the needs of other sows on the island, but apart from that he's been left to his own devices.

It's a bit lonely for the lad, but there are compensations. He has about half an acre to call his own, half-a-bucket of feed twice a day and the weekly visit from Malc and his magic fingers.

Now, I know there will be those of you tittering away and preparing a series of entendre-packed comments, but its far more a half-time, physio, where-does-it-hurt, see how that is for the next 45 minutes my son, kind of thing, rather than one man and his pig wandering off hand-in-trotter into the setting sun.

Mind you, I can't imagine Fergie gives Wayne Rooney a scratch behind his ear before sending him out for a second half against Stoke. Vidic possibly, but Rooney definitely not.

I digress.

Alf has a wee hut that I screwed together from old timber, plywood and pallets. It looks awful and it bulges here and there, but even in the recent heavy rain it has remained dry inside. Alf has pimped his hut too. The original arrangement was a couple of heavy duty pallets with plenty of straw on top, but Alf has dragged in as much turf and vegetation as he can get hold of and the result is he has a lair with his bed a good two feet off the ground, a nice curved pedigree British Saddleback boar shape. Every pig knows the value of a good night's kip.

With autumn now well upon us and winter probably only days away (my experience is that autumn and spring can last as little as 25 minutes in Orkney) Alf will be moving back in with everyone else pretty soon, once the porkers have gone to fulfil their destiny, and he'll be allowed to get reacquainted with Little Kim and Ruby.

But it's not enough work for the lad and, if I'm honest with myself, a waste of a very good animal. So Alfie is up for sale. I feel a bit the way I might if I was selling one of the dogs. Actually, it's worse. Alfie doesn't wake me up at 3.20, 3.45 and 4.10 in the morning, barking at "something outside".

Seriously though - if you or anyone you know has use for a terrific boar and thoroughly nice guy, give me a shout. I won't be too sorry if I don't hear anything.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Good vibrations

Summer is staggering to an end here in Westray with the nights drawing in quickly and weather that is as unsettled as the average stomach after a night of Tennents lager.

In the rush to "get stuff done" before the winter it's easy to spread yourself too thin and forget to kick back and relax. There was the ideal opportunity for that last weekend when the island played host to a series of music sessions under the banner Westray Connections.

Music plays a big part in Orkney life and it's hard not to be impressed by the level of competance and involvement of so many folk here, particularly the young. Getting up on stage and playing a fiddle or accordian here is not nerdy or embarrassing, it's something people are admired for.

That's due in no small part to the enlightened attitude towards music tuition. Every child in Orkney is entitled to free music lessons and when the islands council suggested that economic circumstances might force it to discontinue the policy, all hell was let loose and council officials wisely had another think, which just goes to show there's more to life than the bottom line.

So, to get back to the point, Westray Connections pulled in musicians from the island as well as those with a "Westray connection" - friends, relatives and so on. The music varied from classical through the varying shades of folk to a group of pipers and to something approaching prog. There was no gangsta rap, but, hey, you can't have everything. There was no room on the programme for a small-time pig farmer with grade three trumpet, but maybe next year.

Kicking off in the living room of Jerry's B&B at No. 1 Broughton, sessions continued at the old folk's home, the annual industrial show, a converted mill, an art gallery, the island hotel and a concert at the school hall.

It was great stuff, well supported and left me with a warm, happy feeling. . . or maybe that was the second large glass of Jamesons, I don't know.

Anyhoo. . . if you're wanting to see more, go to  or, if you're on Facebook, go to The Hall of Einar, where David Bailey (not THAT David Bailey) has a couple of hundred superb photographs of the weekend, one of which I've shamelessly pinched here. I assume I owe Dave a pint.

Friday, 17 August 2012

It's a shit job. . .

I have a part-time job at the island's heritage centre where, among other things, I man the till and smile nicely at the tourists who stagger in out of the Orkney wind and rain to see some of the relics excavated by archaeologists from the 5,000-year-old-plus settlement buried under the dunes at the north beach.

A couple of weeks ago Hazel, one of the aforementioned spade enthusiasts, turned up with some new stuff to put in the posh new cabinet the Heritage Trust spent a bloody fortune on this summer.

Among the artefacts was this. . .

. . . and if you can't quite make out the print, it's Coprolite or fossilised crap (they've called it 'poo', but this blog is in danger of being quite twee enough, thank you). Found on the midden by one of the buildings, it's probably dog crap and, no, I've no idea how they know that, although I can't help wishing it was something more exotic - baboon shit perhaps?

So, don't forget, come to the Westray Heritage Centre and have a really shit time.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

How to volunteer for the sausage factory

You try and do something nice for someone and are they grateful? Like hell they are.

No sooner do I take the decision to keep Molly in retirement rather than send her off for bratwurst, than she makes me look a right chump - again.

I strolled out into a dreich Westray morning with feed bucket in hand and the alarm bells went off straight away. No sign of herself.

I rattled the sow nuts in the bucket and watched in dismay as Molly came squeezing back into her paddock under the fence from the vegetable garden. My stomach lurched as I dumped some food on the ground to keep her occupied and went to have a look at the damage.

Almost the entire main crop of (about 70) cabbages was in bits, about three rows of carrots were dug up and there were onions all over the place. Although the beetroot had hardly been touched and the peas, beans, leeks and lettuce were still OK, 'Gutted' doesn't begin to describe my feelings.

Back in Molly's paddock, I firmly ushered the old girl back into the pigshed and shut her in to have a good think about her behaviour and went to have a look at the fence where she had removed a beam wired on at ground level to the fence posts in a effort to stop her digging (yeah, I know), not to mention three fair-sized flagstones dug into the ground, dug a steaming great hole under the fence and trashed the wire mesh in the process of squeezing herself under it.

I decided to leave her indoors for the day and set about replanting onions and sorting out whether there were any cabbages worth saving (there were ten and I promoted another 30 from the nursery rows - mercifully untouched), while trying to resist the temptation to book Molly in for "processing".

I may have said this before. . . bloody pig.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

The loneliness of the long distance neep singler

I'm procrastinating, prevaricating, delaying, watching the diving at the Olympics. . . I'm sitting on my fat backside when I should be working.

The trouble is that the job waiting for me is dealing with these fellas. . . .

Neeps, turnips or - in England - swedes. I've no idea what they're called in Sweden. They're great food for pigs and not at all bad for humans. I like them roast in big chunks next to the joint or mashed with tatties to make clapshot. They're also good in Orkney patties - leftover mince, tatties and neeps made into patties, battered and deep fried.

Still, before we get to that stage, we have to grow the things. My neighbour Jimmy kindly brought up his old seed drill and sowed the best part of 40 rows, each one about 50m long.

Sadly it's not a case of sitting back and letting them grow. The field was occupied by pigs last year and the rows have become choked with docks which need to be cleared and the neeps have to be singled - or thinned out. The picture above shows a thinned out row next to some overgrown rows.

There's no mechanical way of doing it, so it's out with the hoe and get stuck in. It's a time-consuming job and I'm lucky that Jim is prepared to muck in and help. Actually he's done more than that. A lifetime's farming experience sometimes comes in handy and Jim (below) is a demon with a hoe, clearing weeds and flicking away unwanted seedlings with ease.

It's not so easy for mere farming mortals like myself and I've been nursing a sore back and the odd blister for a week or so now. It's also not good for the ego as Jim clears three rows in the time it takes me to do one.

Anyroadup, we're nearly there with only three-and-a-half rows left to do and I'm going to make the effort to do them myself. I hope the pigs appreciate my efforts. Time to get my fat backside moving.