Friday, 5 September 2014

Kirkwall, the capital of the Orkney Islands - 'not bloody' anymore.

This quaint northern town is surely linked to the Ultima Thule fever in victorian era. The greek explorator's route must have passed nearby. The roman Agricola, who then ruled over Britain, sailed round the island and saw 'Thule'. The Faroese Islands? the Norwegian coast? Or the scottish northern islands ?

Under the governor Agricola, around the first century,

"It was then that a Roman fleet for the first time circumnavigated this coast of the remotest sea and established that Britain is in fact an island. Then too it discovered the islands, hitherto unknown, which are called the Orcades (Orkneys) (...) Thule, too, was sighted by our men, but no more; their orders took them no farther."

The Romans did place Ultima Thule in these parts - the hyperboreans of Thule were Picts - and Thule meant for them the end of the world and the beginning of the unknown, as for us is deep space beyond stars and galaxies, today.

Kirkwall (from the Old Norse Kirkjuvagr - meaning 'Church Inlet' ) is the biggest town and capital of Orkney Islands, off the coast of northern Scotland.

The town is first mentioned in Orkneyinga saga in the year 1046, as the residence of the Earl of Orkney.

Kirkwall is a port with ferry services to Aberdeen and Lerwick.

The colorful seafront and harbour.

Coordinates: 58.9° N, 2.9° W
Population  : ~ 8 500

The Town Hall, on Broad Street.

The stylish Broad Sreet.

Left of the Town Hall, the 'Orkney Island Knitwear' shop, a tourist's favourite.

The town centre is around  Bridge Street, Albert Street and Victoria Street.

Old houses on the left, with gable-end chimney over the street frontage.

Those were 17th and 18th century houses of wealthy merchants.

The music shop, Bridge Street.

The 'Little Island' gift shop, Albert Street

'Orkney Soap', Albert Street

'The Orcadian' bookshop, Albert Street

The Big Tree of Kirkwall

Much of Orkney is treeless. Trees are scarce at this latitude; but a capital town like Kirkwall couldn't do without one, so a single tree was left from an old garden to decorate Albert Street.

The Big Tree in Kirkwall was said to be the largest tree in Orkney. This lone sycamore is thought to be around 200 years old, and its condition is rather poor presently.

At the heart of the town, between Albert Street and Victoria Street, stands

St. Magnus Cathedral.

This is the one unmissable landmark in town.

It is the most northerly cathedral in the British Isles, a fine example of medieval Norman-Romanesque architecture, when the islands were ruled by the Norse Earls of Orkney

The Saint Magnus Cathedral  was founded in 1137 by the Viking Earl Rognvald, in memory of Saint Magnus Erlendsson.

This superb medieval cathedral is built of red and white sandstone.

The interior vaulting and the massive pillars are fine examples of Norman architecture.

Sandstone of different origins create a pattern giving a polychrome effect.

The church had Gothic later additions, like the rose windows from the 13th  and 15th centuries and some of the door arches.

South end rose window.

The transept window

West front main door, with a beautiful red-and-white pattern on the Gothic pointed arch.

South transept door.

The Orkney Museum

The Tankerness House Museum, in one of Scotland's best-preserved sixteenth century houses, is mainly visited for the Pictish and Viking collections. It opened as a museum in 1968.

The Orkney Museum, in Broad Street, tells the story of Orkney, from the Stone Age through the Picts and Vikings times to the present day.

Scar Dragon Plaque:
This exquisite Viking plaque is made of whalebone. Plaques like these were probably used for linen smoothing.

Pictish stone, in the Orkney Museum.

As for seating and having something warmly served, cafés or tea rooms are easy to find in downtown Kirkwall.

The Strynd tea room.

Scone with jam and cream.

The Café Lucano on Victoria street:

A touch of modern Kirkwall.

Of course, there are several pubs too, some in historic houses.


This bloody town's a bloody cuss —
No bloody trains, no bloody bus,
And no one cares for bloody us,
In bloody Orkney

The bloody roads are bloody bad,
The bloody folks are bloody mad,
They'd make the brightest bloody sad
In bloody Orkney.

Everything's so bloody dear,
A bloody bob for bloody beer,
And is it good, - no bloody fear,
In bloody Orkney. 

No bloody sport, no bloody games,
No bloody fun; the bloody dames
Won't even give their bloody names,
In bloody Orkney.

Best bloody place is bloody bed,
With bloody ice on bloody head,
You might as well be bloody dead,
In bloody Orkney.

Captain Hamish Blair, 1940

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Macquarie Island: subantarctic tundra and a research station lost in the Pacific Ocean

Macquarie Island is an australian sub-antarctic territory in the southwest Pacific Ocean, about half-way between New Zealand and Antarctica.

Discovered accidentally in 1810, it first became british posession and part of the New South Wales colony. Macquarie Island became a Tasmanian Reserve in 1978, and a World Heritage Site in 1997.

The small island is about 34 km long and  5 km wide, in two main pieces of plateau joined by a narrow isthmus close to sea level.

Tundra covers most of the island, there is also some exclusive grass vegetation on the coastal cliffs and sandy areas.

Mt. Fletcher, at 428 m, is the highest point.

View as arriving from north.

Coordinates: 54° 30′ S, 158° 57′ E
( ~ same as Ushuaia, or Grytviken )

Population: no native inhabitants; Macquarie Island Station is a permanent research base, home to about 40 over summer, with about 16 over winter.

'Macca' entrance gate.

The station, friendly known as Macca, opened in 1911 to establish radio contact from Antarctica to Hobart; from 1948, it was enlarged to allow for research under Australian administration.

It is built on a narrow isthmus at the northern end of the island, and consists of more than 30 separate buildings. The sleeping quarters, mess, surgery, stores and powerhouse buildings are located at the northern end of the isthmus.

Most of the scientific buildings, including geophysics, biology, upper atmosphere physics and meteorology, are housed on the isthmus. The station’s communications centre and garage are also in this vicinity.

The station's 'main square':
Cumpton's and Hasselborough houses in the foreground.

Accommodation buildings are located within the station compound at the northern end of the isthmus.

Cumpston's Cottage is a two storey timber house erected during the 1995-96 summer. It has four rooms, including the station governor's room and office as well as the doctor's rooms. It is the most modern building at the station.

Hasselborough House contains 11 rooms, laundry, drying room, toilets and showers. The windows that are fixed shut.

Winter snow at the isthmus, among cabins from Macca.

South of the Station.

The climate is mainly mild but windy and rainy, similar to the Faröe Islands in Europe; temperature has few oscillations from 0 (winter - May and June) to + 5 degrees (summer - December to January). Negative temperatures are uncommon. The sea, though, is often tempestuous and with violent swell.

Green Gorge and the Hut.

On the east coast, 15 km south of the station, Green Gorge is a large inlet that became a basin by the beach as the island rose, with a small lake and surrounded by mountains.

The Hut is a comfortable 1977 Canadian log cabin, improved with insulation and a veranda in 1995.

It is the favourite field hut for visitors and researchers as a sheltered place to enjoy an overnight break on a journey from one end of the island to the other.

Rough swell at Green Gorge.

Macquarie Island is right in the middle of a violent mass of weather and waves, a tiny speck of solid land directly in the path of fierce storms and some of the worst sea conditions anywhere on the planet.

Around the Island

Macquarie Island offers some fantastic landscapes in a number of spots - bays, caps, cliffs, hills, small lakes, waterfalls...

'Aurora Point', on the mid-western coast, about the other side across the island from Green Gorge.

'Caroline Cove', on the southwestern tip.

Tiobunga Lake, the water tank, on the inland plateau.

'Whisky Creek', a steep valley cutting through the eastern escarpment into the Waterfall Lake.

A garden park, Macquarie syle, on the plateau uplands.

Snow blowing from the top of Mt Elder
(~ 385 m).

Macquarie Island's Nature Reserve is now World Heritage Site, home to thousands of king penguins, royal penguins, elephant seals, fur seals, and several birds.

Azorella macquariensis (Macquarie Cushion) is endemic to Macquarie Island. The species is presently endangered from unknown causes, suffering a severe decline.