Orkney PuffinOccasional writings from former Diamond Harbour resident Carole Atkins… now domiciled in Orkney.

Readers of the Diamond Harbour Herald will remember Carole’s fascinating Story for Life column… now morphed into her monthly Postcard from Orkney.

Please feel free to leave a comment at the end of the blog… Carole would love to hear from you.


Casing the Beach

Life in Orkney, much like in our beautiful harbour, is full of the simple pleasures that nature never fails to provide and which can cheer even the darkest of winter days.

Meandering through the narrow cobbled streets of Stromness, it is easy to spot nature’s treasures proudly displayed on windowsills or attached to walls in vintage printers trays in the stone-built homes lining Victoria Street.

Jars filled with groatie buckies, the tiny Northern Cowrie shells which are rumoured to bestow good fortune on any lucky enough to find them sit companionably alongside delicately striped sea urchins and frilly oyster shells. Frosted sea glass, in all manner of twisted shapes and hues sets off that mother-lode of all finds, a mermaid’s purse.

For the last fourteen years, the Shark Trust has led an ambitious citizen-science initiative, which encourages residents to comb the tangled strandlines of their local beaches for these legendary mermaid accessories.

Made from a strong, yet flexible collagen-keratin compound, similar to our own hair and fingernails, the purses are the tough leathery egg-cases of sharks, skates and rays. Laid in seafloor nurseries, they form a protective cradle for several months before the embryo makes its way into the world through a miniscule slit in the seam.

Having struck gold on the groatie buckie front on previous trips to Orkney, I have never been lucky enough to find a mermaid’s purse partly because I have never had the faintest clue where or when to begin the hunt.

Tuning in to Radio Orkney on a stormy morning in the New Year turned my luck around as Penny Martin, from the Orkney Skate Trust, listed the locations where record numbers of mermaid’s purses had already been found and encouraged residents to head on to the beaches and get involved in the count.

Sloshing and sliding through knee-deep accumulations of rotting seaweed, two hours before dark on a Sunday at low tide was a far cry from my romantic notions of The Great Egg-case Hunt. Mercifully, the fierce aroma of decomposing kelp which can hang over Birsay for days was diluted by the stiff breezes coming in to the bay from the sea.

Accompanied by a champion egg-case spotter, I spied a tiny iodine tinted pod with dinky horns and sealed seams along the high tide line. An encouraging nod verified that this
strange looking thing was a genuine mermaid’s purse, my first.

In our day-to-day lives, it is so easy to overlook the innovations that nature has crafted into every facet of life on Earth. This humble egg-case was stunning in its simplicity, the intricate ribbing of its ruffled apron and its frothy tendrils, nature’s perfect haute couture.

As the grey fingers of sundown began to slowly erase the light, one mermaid’s purse swiftly became many as a family of four enthusiastically joined the search, gracefully surrendering their own finds for the greater good of the Shark Trust.

With my shower out of bounds for twenty-four hours so the egg-cases could slowly re-hydrate for accurate identification, my lounge room took on a briny pong as the egg-cases posed in neat rows for their beauty shots which were duly sent to the Shark Trust for verification.

There are more than 400 species of shark and over 600 species of skates and rays around the world, only some of which lay eggs. 59 species of shark and 16 species of skates and rays call New Zealand home.

10 of the 21 species of skate and ray and 3 of the 35 species of shark living around the British coastline produce egg-cases. Identifying which of these had taken up temporary residence on the floor of my peedie chalet was an addictive joy.

Recognising the 23 large Flapper Skate cases with their tatty bark-like seams was a simple affair, nailing the 4 smaller ray cases was more time consuming as their vital statistics needed to be matched with mugshots of likely contenders. Email correspondence with Cat Gordon, Conservation Officer at the Shark Trust provided reassurance that our final haul did in fact include 2 Spotted Ray and 2 Thornback Ray cases.

Over 100,000 egg-cases have been reported in the British Isles since the hunt started in 2003 unfortunately 50 percent of the shark species in Great Britain are listed as threatened with populations continuing to decline. Identifying the locations of shark, skate and ray nurseries is vital to their long-term conservation and provides the Shark Trust with the ammunition they need to propose and support sustainable marine practices in these critical zones.

The Great Egg-case Hunt has brought some exciting news for Orkney as the records show that the Flapper Skate population, which has been on the critically endangered list for some time, appears to have found a safe haven in Orkney’s stormy waters.

No longer an egg-case rookie, the thrill of the chase has not faded, if anything it has intensified after finding 46 skate and ray egg-cases this season. The delight in unearthing two surfboard shaped egg-cases resplendent with their springy spiral ‘leg ropes’ at Scapa Beach last week has spurred me on even further following their verification as those of a Small Spotted Catshark.

Ever hopeful of adding a wider range of mermaid’s purses to my burgeoning windowsill collection, I am eagerly awaiting delivery of some serious high-top wellies with accompanying fleecy-lined socks so I may continue to slither in comfort as the hunt goes on.

Carole Atkins


Burning for Robbie

A classic night out in Orkney almost always involves a community hall brought to life with the distinctive sound of fiddles, accordions, a sprinkling of pipes and the odd guitar or two as local musicians pull out the stops to rapt attention and thunderous applause.

A supper of legendary proportions follows, where second helpings are expected and third and even fourth are cheerfully proffered to anyone up for the challenge.

As helpers move in to stack and pack the trestles away, the audience jostles with good natured speed, teacups and drams precariously in hand, towards the comfy seats which begin to line the walls. The long awaited raffle is diligently drawn and the dancing begins.

The Rendall Burns Night supper did not disappoint, following the familiar formula with zeal whilst enthusiastically embracing all of the trimmings expected during Scotland’s annual night of homage to the nation’s bard, Robert Burns.

A pungent reek filled the Rendall hall as what looked, to an untrained vegetarian’s eye, like a grotesquely overweight sausage, marched its way to the front, solemnly accompanied by the haunting strains of a lone piper.

All eyes on the haggis as Robbie’s colourful words flowed over and around it, the lilting To A Haggis being delivered with as much gusto and solemn hilarity to our own haggis as Robbie would have given to his own.

Drams at the ready, the audience toasted our haggis’ health with a fine whisky before it retired with dignity to the kitchen.

Plates overflowed with haggis, mince and clapshot, the Orcadian version of tatties and neeps. The vegetarian haggis was crunchy, spicy and overwhelmingly salty but the clapshot, a fluffy mash of boiled potatoes and turnips seasoned with onion, salt, pepper and lashings of butter was pure heaven.

Creamy bowls of tipsy laird, a trifle laced with whisky and fresh raspberries, made their merry way around the assembled throng. Tea, coffee and conversations flowed, weaving between friends and neighbours to the tune of the more formal toasts and speeches.

The Rendall Pipe Band for whom Burns Night is such an essential fundraiser strutted their stuff, the mood shifted and in a vibrant whirl of tartan, the dancing began.

Carole Atkins

You can view a video of the Rendall Pipe band playing at Burns Night or watch them in all their glory in this short video on YouTube…


Raising the Ba’

On Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, Orkney is divided, the tension building as two teams of her finest men face off in the shadow of St Magnus Cathedral. The Uppies and the Doonies slowly advance towards each other, moving with that same assured strength displayed at the start of any All Blacks game.

Silence descends as the cathedral bells chime 1pm and the 300 assembled players halt in their ranks at the Mercat Cross. Restless anticipation ripples through the crowd, time slows and all eyes swivel towards Alan Rorie, the 1992 winner, as he tosses the ba’ into the scrum and the 2017 Kirkwall New Year Ba’ is all on.

The origins of the Ba’, the Orcadian word for ball, remain unknown with speculation rife as to whether it is a grisly reminder of a Viking battle involving severed heads or an ancient ritual symbolising the yearly conflict between the spirits of summer and winter. What is known is that this 700 year old event is the last of the mass Yuletide football games which were once common throughout the Orkney Isles.

In the week before Christmas, shopkeepers and home owners in central Kirkwall were spied putting up the toon’s ‘unofficial’ Christmas decorations, the wooden barricades slotted across their doors and windows in readiness for the Ba’.

In days gone by, whether you were an Uppie or a Doonie depended upon your place of
birth. Those born to the north of the cathedral were Doonies with the Uppies being born to the south. Anyone born off island was designated an Uppie if they first flew into Kirkwall or a Doonie if they sailed into the port. In recent years, these rules have relaxed somewhat to allow family loyalty to take precedence, giving generations of men the opportunity to play for the same side as their fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers regardless of where they themselves were born.

Following the toss up, the aim of the game is for one of the teams to score a goal and claim the ba’. This is easier said than done as the Uppies have an uphill battle to touch the ba’ against a wall in the south end of the town whilst the Doonies have to run the ba’ down through the winding CBD and into the chilly waters of Kirkwall Bay to the north.

With no rules, the battle for the 2017 New Year Ba’ begins with an earnest scrum around the black and brown panelled leather ball which is filled with cork dust so that it will float. Spectators perch precariously on roof-tops, hang out of windows and cram onto the cathedral steps, ignoring the drizzle and the icy wind as steam gathers above the heaving throng of men.

With the teams evenly matched, the ba’ moves only 50 metres or so up or down the street in the first 90 minutes, until the Doonies take control with a false smuggle, forcing the Uppies to give chase whilst the ba’ makes a run for the winding streets of the CBD.

The Doonies victory seems assured as the fracas coverges on a tiny cobbled lane deep in Doonie territory where every millimetre of ground is furiously contested for the next hour and a half.

In the seething mass of pushing and pulling, a small group of Uppie players including previous Ba’ winners, Andrew Mulraine and Roy Foubister, quietly smuggle the ball from the pack and take off up the toon before they are discovered by Doonie watchers patrolling the lanes on route to their goal. Despite Doonie resistance, the ba’ is eventually raised to the south wall by Derek Robb and the New Year Ba’ is declared an Uppie win at 5.17pm.

Anyone interested in watching the Ba’ in action can view this short video on Vimeo.

Carole Atkins