Sunday, January 27, 2008

Notes from Small Islands*

I have been in Scotland for three weeks now, and have spent the better part of that time up in the far north of Scotland in the Orkney Islands. I cannot explain exactly what it is about the islands that has me so completely charmed – perhaps friendly people willing to pull over and offer a ride to a bedraggled stranger or the millennia of history nestled among fields of grazing sheep or the gorgeous views from the sea cliffs

– but I am strongly tempted to get myself a few sheep and a creel boat and just stay.

The Orkneys are mainly an agricultural community, particularly once you leave the mainland – after Adam and I made it all the way to the north of Scotland from London, we kept on going to Westray, an island to the north of Orkney’s mainland which the walking guide brochure calls “just one big working farm.” And indeed, most of the island seemed to be farmland. We stayed at a gorgeous restored crofthouse (now turned hostel and rental cottage) at a place called Bisgeos two miles from the main town of Pierowall overlooking the cliffs, next door to a working farm and surrounded by fields of sheep.

Looking up the hill from the cliffs, Bisgeos is to the right and the farm next door is to the left.

The view from Bisgeos at sunset (you can see why I wanted to stay):

And a better view of the neighboring farm:

And here are our other neighbors – the sheep.

We saw sheep in the fields everywhere, whether out the window or on the way to town for groceries or walking to town for groceries, but to most of the rest of the farm animals were inside of the winter. On our way back from a walk along the cliffs, we met a very precocious fourth grader at the farm next to us who came out to yell at the dogs who seemed intent on protecting the farm from us and in between telling us all about what he had gotten from Santa for Christmas and how he wants to become an American cowboy gave us a tour of everything on the farm you can’t see from walking past the field of sheep – the long-haired horses, the dairy cows, the pig, turkeys and chickens and even peacocks. Although not unusual at all to him, I was surprised at how much this boy knew about animals and farming (he told us with authority that everyone on Westray thinks John Deere tractors are the best), but also about Playstation and DVDs and other things I’m used to kids being interested in. And, like any good Scot, he had strong football preferences (the Celtics, he told us, are “the best in the whole wide world”) and even though he seemed to like mostly American country music, he also told us he liked the Proclaimers too (probably Scotland’s most famous modern band, best known for the song Five Hundred Miles).

Even Orcadians (as the Orkney residents call themselves) who don’t work in farming can’t help but learn about it from living here – I met a woman on the mainland who moved from south England eleven years ago and works in a store in Kirwall, and even with no farming roots she knew how the weather over the past few years had affected the health of the fields and could say how the forecast of snow (as of yet unrealized) would soon have the farmers out spreading manure on the fields so the snow can help the nutrients be slowly absorbed into the soil. At the little bed and breakfast I stayed at in Kirkwall, the table in the downstairs hall is covered in ribbons from agricultural shows.

Fishing, though not so predominant as agriculture, is also a major resource for islands at the western edge of the North Sea. In the past, cod and other whitefish were easy to catch close to shore – an analysis of the middens at Skara Brae, a 5000-year-old Neolithic farming settlement found on the mainland of Orkney, revealed the bones of a 90-pound cod,

and even in more recent history, Orkney capitalized on its local fishing grounds by providing cod for the English during the Napoleonic wars, with 40 cod boats at the height of Orkney’s cod fishery in 1833. Into the twentieth century, both full- and part-time fishermen would catch cod, haddock and ling using handlines in small boats near shore. Today, though, the remaining whitefish fleet in the Orkneys goes farther afield – north to the Shetlands, east into the North Sea, or south to the Hebrides. There is no fish processing in the Orkneys, so local boats also have to land their fish elsewhere. When I bought fresh locally-caught haddock fillets in Westray, it had been shipped north from Aberdeen, even though it had been caught by a Westray boat – perhaps even the same one that the Bisgeos manager’s husband fishes on.

Most Scottish whitefish boats will tell you they are mostly interested in haddock, which is more popular in Scotland than cod (although with cod’s high prices, most boats want to catch some also, using a combination of fish to round out the catch as in most mixed fisheries). According to the head of the Orkney Fisheries Association in Kirkwall (an office lined with maps not just of fishing grounds but also of EU management zones and diagrams of quota allocations), the extremely low cod quotas in the North Sea have made cod largely a nuisance for fishing boats because they have to pick fishing locations to avoid the cod. Scottish fishermen have come up with a few strategies to try to avoid catching cod, including trying special nets designed to catch haddock while letting cod escape (they site the Eliminator Trawl designed in Rhode Island as the basis, also the basis for similar nets I saw in the flume tank in Hirtshals). Scotland has also instituted a real-time closure policy where fishing grounds will be closed if boats are catching too high a proportion of cod or too many juveniles – a regulation that the Fisheries Association in Orkney says grew out of the fishermen’s informal habit of telling others in the area to avoid those grounds to avoid overfishing the cod (possibly the only instance of giving accurate fishing advice, since fishermen are notorious for lying about their catches to try to protect good spots from competition).

Inshore fishing, though, is mostly for crab and lobster – partly because whitefish are mostly found farther offshore but also because there are no processing plants for whitefish in the Orkneys. Crab and lobster are caught in baited traps called creels (the same type of trap as the Maine lobster pots), and since it’s a largely unregulated fishery, many people here set creels part-time or to catch enough to eat at home in addition to four hundred or so full-time fishermen.

The crab and lobster fisheries have remained strong in the Orkneys largely thanks to the Orkney Fishermen’s Society, founded in 1953 as a co-operative marketing venture to help the fishermen of Stromness, half an hour south of Kirkwall on the Mainland, get the best possible prices for their lobster. In addition to successful marketing of live lobsters, the society also founded a crab-processing plant in Stromness in 1967, which was followed a year later by a crab processing plant at the fishing pier in Westray founded by a similar co-operative venture on the island. Both the plants in Stromnes and Westray are still in operation today. I didn’t get a chance to actually go through the plants, but I did find a video of the processing in the Westray plant, which is small and informal enough that both locals and tourists are encouraged to go to the plant to buy some of the day’s catch. Despite being small, though, they are highly successful, making Orkney crab has become a well-known product across Britain.

The Orkneys are indeed small islands: the phone book in Westray is only three and a half pages long and includes the mobile phone numbers and email addresses of everyone on the island, a newspaper write-up of a primary school play on one of the neighboring islands revealed that the students came from only four families, and to attend senior high school all the students from off the Mainland have to leave home and board in Kirkwall for the week. But the smallness and isolation creates something special about the place – perhaps that everyone feels a connection to the land through the farming and fishing, or that there are millennia of history preserved all around, or just that (as I was told by a man who had moved to Kirkwall from Yorkshire after 20 years of regular visits) everyone here is here because they want to be.


*This is indeed a take-off on Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island, which I read while in Westray, providing a highly-entertaining introduction to British culture and what not to do while traveling. While mentioning books, I will also take the time here to answer the question that you have undoubtedly been asking since reading the books I’ve added to the list of books from places I’ve been…“did you actually stop over in Hogwarts?” Sadly, no – Harry Potter is now on the list because not only did I read it this year (in Iceland, since that’s where I was when it was released), but I have now been both to Edinburgh, the city where J.K. Rowling began writing the series (I thought the coolest part about the city was the castle right in the center of downtown, though Adam seems less impressed)
and taken the train from Fort William to Mallaig (also a pretty seaside location with lots of sheep),

purportedly the most scenic train line in Britain and the location where the Hogwarts Express scenes were filmed for the movie adaptations.

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