Saturday, May 31, 2008

Forty five pubs in Wick (and Pulteneytown) the peak of the herring fishery. And 800 gallons of whisky consumed per week. Last night's Grand Prohibition Ball at the Old Pulteney distillery tried to revive that tradition...the songs went down well, especially the specially-written '45 Pubs in Wick'. And over £5000 was raised for the RNLI.

Forty five pubs in Wick
If you need a drink, you can get one quick
45 pubs in Wick

Sir John Sinclair built a pier
There's a brewery that brews up beer
And I'm considering moving here
Cause there's 45 pubs in Wick

TommyTelford's bridge'll not fall down
There's a distillery in Pulteneytown
Ebenezer Place is going round and round
And there's 45 pubs in Wick

The silver darlings are the boys for me
Cause I get my herring for free
And I even like the fish scales in my tea
Cause there's 45 pubs in Wick

Six thousand men all go to sea
Six thousand stay on land with me
we've go time to think and maybe have a wee drink
Cause there's 45 pubs in Wick

45 pubs in wick
45 pubs in Wick
If you need a drink you can get one quick
Cause there's 45 pubs in Wick

Friday, May 30, 2008

In Herringopolis

Wick Heritage Centre looks fairly innocuous from the outside, but once you open that plain black door you step into another world. It's virtually an entire terrace of Georgian houses (and outbuildings) and it is, without any doubt at all, the best 'amateur' museum I have ever seen. Run entirely by volunteers, its contents supplied by local people, it explains Wick. And Pulteneytown. Which are different, but the same.
Wick/Pulteneyown (henceforth referred to simply as Wick) is huge, and yet underpopulated and showing the signs of great times long gone. It also possesses some of the best Georgian architecture in the country, courtesy of Sir Thomas Telford and the British Fisheries Society, and all is explained the Heritage Centre. For this was once the greatest herring port in the world, a place so wealthy it attracted producers of luxury goods from a' the airts, and so thirsty there were 45 pubs and 800 gallons of whisky was consumed every week. Six thousand men fishing out of the port, another 6000 men (and women) land-based, and that's in addition to the normal population. This was in the 19th Century.
The heritage centre displays all this in extraordinary fashion. It has boats, nets, sails, an entire smokehouse, a cooperage, a (great big) lighthouse (!) a photography studio, whole houses recreated, some fantastic wartime memorabilia, stationary engines, lawnmowers and documents. I could have spent hours there. In fact, its layout reminded very much of the new Shetland museum, though that is obviously a very professional (and hugely impressive) endeavour. The fact is, though - there's more sheer stuff in the Wick Heritage Centre.
It gave me an insight into the sheer pride in Wick's past and present that fuels many locals. Many of whom I'll meet tonight at the Old Pulteney Prohibition Ball, which takes place at the distillery itself.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

To Caithness by sea!

A pretty lumpy crossing from Shetland to Orkney last night, but we arrived at 10.45pm, 15 minutes early. That gave the satnav plenty of time to thread me through Kirkwall and to the Murray Arms at St Margaret's Hope before it shut.
Up early to catch the 8.00am Pentland Ferries 'short sea crossing' to Gill's Bay in Caithness, on the old Claymore. The last time I was on this ferry she was under Calmac colours and plying the Oban to Barra route. Arriving at Castlebay in the gloaming is one of the great Scottish ferry experiences. Arriving at Gill's Bay in the mist was...not quite so romantic.
Anyway, to Wick, where I have just tried the Jane and Judith Glue recommended Bord De l'Eau restaurant (it's a pun. I think). Great omelette. Oh, and that's Ebenezer Place, officially the shortest street in the world (six foot nine inches)!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The long way down...via Wick...but not by camper van

The camper van has failed its MOT on three things: unaligned headlights, emissions (it's not got a catalyser) and worn ball joints. Minor, really, but enough to scupper my planned expedition south and provoke a flurry of ferry alterations and hotel bookings.

So tomorrow it's the Citroen that'll trundle off the Hrosseyland and onto Orcadian soil at (hopefully) just after 11.00pm. A few hours sleep in St Margaret's Hope and then onto the Pentland Ferries boat to Gill's Bay in Caithness. Believe it or not this is the easiest (and cheapest) way for me to get to Wick.

Where, amazingly, I've been asked to do a ten minute spot at the Grand Prohibition Ball, organised each year by Old Pulteney Whisky in aid of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. Amazing because Wick has for a decade or so featured in my columns and broadcasts as a (hopefully good natured) running gag. I am, just slightly, nervous of kidnapping. Anyway, the radio show is coming from Wick on Thursday and Friday, which should be interesting.

After that it's a convoluted journey to Glasgow and then back to Aberdeen and home. all of which will take a week or so. And by which time, the camper van should be fixed and MOT'd. Did I mention that it's a Ford Transit? Called Gloria. As in, wait for it, Sic Transit Gloria Mundi. Or just Sick Transit.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Skipwatch Day Four, drink, Scotland, some pipes and a mattress

There's a story over at the Sunday Herald, jumping the gun on figures due out tomorrow regarding drinking (of alcohol) in Scotland. I find myself in the peculiar position of being a semi-pro drinker (in that I get paid for writing about whisky) who is beginning to realise that enough is well and truly enough, both personally and....what's the right word? Collectively? Socially? Politically?
So...mine's a soda water and lime (or one of those rather delicious Cherry Diet Cokes). For the time being. For more see the Nippy Sweeties blog or, if you're on Facebook, the Aff It group.
Anyway, a fantastic weekend of weather in the Zetlandic Archipelago, featuring, for the first time in many years, North Atlantic sunburn. I write after a Sunday spent lazing about and then pedalling (stupidly not a road bike) 11 miles from Brae to Hillswick against a vicious and unexpected little wind. On the way I passed these pipes, which are hidden away in a quarry I've barely noticed in the car and which, by the presence of empty wine bottles and, uh, a mattress, seem to be a place of (how can I put this?) assignation.

And finally, Skipwatch Day Four: It's full! Everything including a chest freezer. The Cross of St George, alas, has gone.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Skipwatch: Day 2. Plus a horse and a camper van

The Hillswick skipsaga continues. Someone has removed the keyboards, the crash helmet and the computers (if they were ever there; I may have been imagining them) and left the English flag flying proudly over the rubbish. What is the message?

Meanwhile, I have been making my own contribution, courtesy of the Radiocroft's bathroom renovation. I used the camper for bruck-transportation, and wondered briefly about simply equipping it as a luxurious mobile bathroom. But no, I don't think so. It's in for an MOT on Monday, which is cutting it fine for my planned trip south on Wednesday. We shall see...

Meanwhile, the story continues. Oh, and that's a horse.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Among the strangest skip-diving moments I have known


I've just checked, and as of this afternoon, it's all still there: three keyboards, a crash helmet, two desktop computers (you can just see the towers) and an English flag (or Cross of St George if you prefer), complete with pole. This is how I found the skip last night, just along from the Radiocroft but with absolutely nothing to do with me. Who dumped the stuff? What story does it all tell? Rick Wakeman's great house-cleaning following his move to Shetland? You decide...
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Monday, May 19, 2008

Sunday, May 18, 2008

End of The Baroque Cycle (second time around)

It's not for everyone, but Neal Stephenson's three-volume (nine in some countries) 3000-odd page epic (Quicksilver, The Confusion, The System of the World) is a truly titanic achievement. I've just finished reading it for the second time, on this occasion in one great continuous and hugely indulgent splurge. I'm itching to re-read the prequel/sequel Cryptonomicon, which I remember as being stunningly good, but MUST RESIST! I have things to do.

The Baroque Cycle is set in the late 17th/early 18th centuries and concerns Sir Isaac Newton, Gottfried Leibniz, calculus, alchemy, mathematics and physics, and the establishment of systems of currency. It also deals with slavery, Jacobitism and Whigdom, the end of the Stuarts, puritanism, shipbuilding, surgery, plague, fire, smallpox, clocks,Louis XIV, the manufacture of phosphorus, considerable amounts of sex and loads of violence, laced with a very (post-) modern sense of humour.

It was even better on second reading. Normal life, or what passes for it, can now resume.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Failure of 52-year-old legs during pushbike odyssey

James (17 this month), whose infatuation with carbon-fibre-forked racing bicycles has lapsed of late, decided yesterday to take the Revolution Continental out for a spin. Foolishly, I agreed to accompany him on the trusty Orbit for the 15-mile thrash up to the Eshaness lighthouse and back.

The weather was fantastic (again; in the words of Alistair Reid's wondrous poem Scotland, we'll pay for it, we'll pay for it)and initially I was content to lead the way, my SPD cleats working, I thought, well, and James's computer-game-induced unfitness telling. Until he stood up on his pedals and effortlessly surged away from me on his much more limited racing ratios, grumbling that he couldn't actually ride this slowly.

And it got worse. I don't remember the last rise to the lighthouse being that steep. It reminded me of some of those dreadful hills on the Fife side of the River Tay, or on the Carradale road: heart breaking. Or in my case, leg-defeating. I had to get off and walk, cleats or no cleats. Oh, the shame of it!

Never mind. We stoked up on coffee and cake at the Breiwick Cafe and I made it home without further pedestrianisation. Back to the motorbike!

Saturday, May 10, 2008

For bikers everywhere, particularly BMW riders (but not if you're easily offended)

All I'll say is that the punchline involves a Harley Davidson...cheers to a senior traffic policeman for sending me this.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Leo Kottke, 12-string guitars, and a wonderful Paul Siebel song

In 1973 I bought, simply as a result of seeing a poster of the cover, Leo Kottke's live album My Feet Are Smiling. This led to hours, days, weeks, years of messing around with open tunings, bottlenecks (including a mild injury sustained while trying to cut the neck off a wine bottle). And the purchase, eventually of a Guild 12-string which I still regret selling. I've since had a Simon and Patrick 12-string and am currently in a kind of guitar-orientated fugue-state (having sold three recently on eBay) which will probably result in the purchase of another double-six. But not an Eko Ranger 12, which, as a 16-year-old, I considered the best guitar in the whole wide world...

As for the song....this is the incredibly poignant Louise, written by the hugely interesting but essentially tragic songwriter Paul Siebel . His excellent and only)albums Woodsmoke and Oranges and Jacknife Gypsy are available as a double pack - try eBay or Amazon.

Kottke, despite a host of trials including partial deafness and tendonitis, is still playing and touring. He is just fantastic. So much acoustic instrumentalism can be samey and tedious. Not Leo.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Party in Eshaness!

Another beautiful, calm night - just perfect for Linda and Christina's surprise birthday party at the excellent Braewick Cafe. The view from Braewick, over to the Hillswick Drongs and beyond, was exquisite. It was a splendid night all told - great food, music, chat AND weather.
Magnus and Christina have made a great success of the Braewick Cafe, which is also a camping and caravan site, and they're on the point of adding four wooden wigwams (very like Norwegian hutte) which look like being very popular.
I don't know why, but I always seem to specially enjoy social events in Eshaness...and visitors love the place too, not just for the phenomenal scenery. A couple of camper vans-full of tourists were at Braewick last night and fully welcomed into party proceedings...what great tales of Shetland hospitality they'll have to tell when they go back south.

Monday, May 05, 2008

The Mighty Torslanda!

Best buy from eBay so far, the old Volvo 240 Torslanda SAILED through its MOT and is now ready for James to learn to drive's a primitive old beast but the turning circle is smaller than anything else on the road and good grief, it's tough. According to Steve Woodward, formerly of Hampshire Police, it's also the best police traffic car ever.

£390. Now, all I've got to do is get him insured...

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Telephones, the folk festival and guitar madness

To the Hillswick Hall (just across the road from The Radiocroft) for the local outpouring of Shetland Folk Festival activity. A fine night too, bright and calm. The hall was absolutely packed - most events at the festival sell out quickly - and a good night was had by all. I was particularly impressed by Lissa Schneckenburger from Vermont and her band (featuring Crooked Still's Corey DiMario on bass) and by the astonishing, not say bonkers guitar playing of Andy McKee from Kansas (pictured). Corey's comments about 'people in Shetland not having phones' met with good natured forbearance at the sublime ignorance of visiting Americans. I could have shouted out something like: 'A national network radio programme is broadcast using digital telephony from that run-down cottage across the road, you idiot' but didn't. However, it does seem that British Telecom want to get rid of our remaining telephone boxes, as we're all so mobile-ridden these days. A shame. This is the one on the seafront at Hillswick. Pure 'Local Hero'.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Proper journalism

An extraordinary piece about the death of an American soldier in Iraq. Be warned, it's extremely long and harrowing, but this is what Pulitzer Prizes are provided for. It's from Esquire, so be prepared, in addition, for pictures of Posh Spice and various other women wearing hardly any clothes.
It's the incredibly detailed reporting that sticks in the mind, journalism which stems from a long American tradition and which avoids the very British temptations of glibness, cynicism and an undermining flippancy. Some may say it's a style which is too conscious of its own importance, but what could be more important than this story, so human and yet so politically charged?
The red lights on digital bugles played at funerals by trained military mime artistes; that empty white glove; the mother's cigarette kit; the world's biggest mortuary...extraordinary.
It's by someone called Chris Jones. He seems to be an all-round hack, too, tackling showbiz (Scarlett Johannson and Naomi Watts) and sport with equal aplomb. People trust him, I think, and talk to him. And he respects that.