Thursday, 27 August 2009

History of Scotland Part X - The First King of Scotland

I have a book called "Monarchs of Scotland" giving a thumbnail sketch of every Scottish monarch there ever was until Scotland ceased to be a separate kingdom in - we know the answer to that, don't we boys and girls? - that's right, 1707. (The Queen of Scotland - and of England! I hear you all shouting out - in 1707 was Queen Anne, better known for her antique furniture. Strangely enough, Idi Amin doesn't get a mention.)

The first king in the book is Kenneth I, better known as Kenneth MacAlpin. He was King of Dalriada, the Gaelic Scottish kingdom centred on modern day Argyll. In about 843AD he became the king of Pictland as well and thus was born a "United Kingdom of Scots and Picts" called Alba. This was the nucleus of what was to develop into the kingdom of Scotland.

The exact process by which Kenneth achieved this union is not well understood by historians but it's not as simple as that he married an heiress and/or won a decisive battle of conquest. It was more likely the culmination of a drawn out process over decades (doubtless involving battles and marriages) but what we do know is that Pictish culture and language was replaced by Gaelic in a remarkably short space of time in the late 9th century.

Though Kenneth MacAlpin is listed as "the First King of Scotland", it's important to remember the limits of his kingdom of Alba: its southern boundary was the Forth-Clyde line rather than Solway-Tweed which eventually came to mark the south boundary of Scotland. The north boundary of Alba is uncertain but in the east it's likely to have been the Mounth - the watershed between the Rivers Tay and the Dee. To the north was a huge slab of territory south of the Norwegians (Vikings) in Caithness-Sutherland which historians call Moray. Its political relationship to Alba in the latter centuries of the first millenium AD is obscure even by the standards of the Dark Ages but I think I'm right in saying that Moray became "gaelicised" at around the same time as southern Pictland so take from that what you will.

Sorry about the crude graphics. Remember also that the Western Isles (Hebrides) were probably equally divided between the Scots and the Vikings in the mid-9th century.

What's most significant about the takeover of southern Pictland by the Scots of Dalriada in the mid-9th century is that it was the first in a series of "building blocks" by which the eventual kingdom of Scotland crystallised out of a series of smaller principalities. The same process was going on to the south in what would eventually become England but in the mid-9th century was still Wessex and Northumbria and sundry other -ssexes and -ias (and Vikings, Norwegian and Danish).

More of all that anon. but I leave you with a quiz question - Who was the last King of Scotland?

A. George VI
B. William III
C. James VI
D. James VIII

Fastest finger first!

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Hásta la Revolúcion Sempre!

A few months ago, there started popping up all over the place rather ugly hoardings advertising various achievements of the Câmara Municipal (local authority) of Lajes das Flores.

Reminding me a lot of ones we saw in Cuba with images of Che Guevara next to a tractor factory under the slogan Hásta la Revolúcion Sempre!, the hoarding pictured above brags of the re-surfacing of the side streets of Faja Grande (the main street, being a "regional road", falls within the bailliwick of the Azorean Regional Government).

The Câmara also publishes a monthly Boletim Municipal which is distributed free to every letterbox. The core of this is the minutes of the meetings of the Câmara (which I imagine to be not unlike meetings of the parish council in Vicar of Dibley) and I think distribution of such minutes is a statutory requirement in Portugal. However, Lajes' BM has expanded with the addition of a dozen or so extra pages of colour photos illustrating recent achievements of the Câmara. There's also always an editorial by the Presidente in which he talks about recent achievements of the Câmara and, in this month's edition, there's also the text of a recent speech by the Presidente in which he expatiates at length on, er, recent achievements of the Câmara: no fewer than 21 are enumerated, I kid you not.

Anyway, what caught my attention in the Boletim a month or two back was that, amongst the recent achievements of the Câmara pictured, was the putting up of hoardings advertising - you've got it - recent achievements of the Câmara.

How self serving is that? I'm surprised there wasn't an advert on the back for a Kitchen Gizmo (mit simplistico accion pumpo) - you have to be an afficionado of The Fast Show to get that gag.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Election Fever

A memorable moment of the Regency series of Blackadder is when he says to Mrs Miggins "After the chaos of the general election, we can return to normal". To which Mrs M (being a woman so not having a vote in Regency Britain) replies "Has there been a general election then Mr Blackadder?" That's a bit like how it feels on Flores.

For an island of 4,000 people, there are - incredibly - TWO local authorities here. The conselhos of Santa Cruz and Lajes are respectively the third and second smallest conselhos in Portugal. (Can you guess which is the smallest?) Below is the camara municipal of Lajes:-

SC and Lajes even have a long running territorial dispute. In the 18th century a party of worthies was called in to adjudicate the boundary. They fixed it at a straight line running from the mouth of a river on the east coast to the mouth of a river on the west. Which was worse than useless in the era before Google Earth because they then fell out over that line's course through Flores' lumpy topography between its two termini.

It's still going on in the 21st century. Lajes has recently accused SC of extracting sand from land in Lajes territory. The claim's been reported to higher authority which has adjudicated in favour of Lajes and condemned SC in reparations to the value of the sand taken (6 figures). SC hasn't paid yet and the bad blood continues.

Into this maelstrom steps Luis Maciel to run for presidente of Lajes under the slogan Juntos Conseguimos - "Together we can do it".

Together with whom, I ask? I know Luis quite well as he is the island's veterinario. One of our cats gets regular bouts of a chesty cough and has to be whistled over to Luis' surgery in Lajes for periodic prescriptions of anti-biotics so often he must be the best travelled cat on the island (in terms of distance covered if not variety of journey).

So Carol and I were having a smirk that the cat is Luis' biggest campaign donor in terms of vets' bills paid. But in reality, Luis doesn't charge a consultation fee and only charges you for the drugs prescribed at prices which are sweeties compared with UK standards - if our British vet had ever run for office, she would have been a shoe-in to the White House with a few billion to spare.

Anyway, the thing is no-one else has any election posters up yet. Is it a one party state or are all the other candidates too amanhã to bother campaigning? Not that it matters as we'll be voting for Luis anyway. So will the cat. If he can stir himself.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Parcel Shelf

As today is a second Friday (in the sense of "every second Friday") and the day after the fortnightly ship arrives, we went over to Santa Cruz as the shops will have been re-stocked.

We're parking outside Supermercado Braga when Carol says "Don't park here" and I ask why not. "Because it's in the shade." Gah! I'd forgotten that I'm not driving a car but a moving tomato drier. Once re-parked in the sun, I took this picture:-

You have to look closely to see the tomatoes sun-drying on the back parcel shelf (is that the right word? Cars in the 60s had "parcel shelves" although they were usually in the front as hatchbacks hadn't been invented yet. You kept your AA Book of British Birds there (the AA Book simpliciter was in the glove box above) along with a forgotten packet of fruit polos which had rolled into a corner and decayed into an irremoveable glutinous glob (which, in fact, Ford made standard on the Mark 2 Cortina). You had to be jolly careful that the AA BoBB didn't come into contact with it or else the back cover and a goodly chunk of "Fresh Water Margins and Marshes" would be rent asunder and sucked into the maw of the polo blob never to be seen again if the BoBB ever had to be deployed in a hurry to identify a passing bar tailed godwit ...

But I digress. Where was I? Oh yes - the photo of the SDTs is rather indistinct because just at that moment the sun went behind a cloud. But as there was an element of embarrassment about (a) being seen in public with trays of SDTs on one's parcel shelf; and (b) taking photos of them, we didn't tarry ...

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Palm Tree

If you thought Larry the laranjeira was a sad case, then spare a thought for Percy the palmeira (palm tree).

Palm trees don't grow naturally on Flores and there are just a few of them, mostly in gardens and public parks, but Percy was planted back in March outside the casa do povo.

Casa do Povo translates literally as "house of the people" but it's sort of a cross between village hall and community centre. Most Azorean villages bar the smallest have one. In Britain, they would have some humourlessly politically correct name like "local authority service point" but in Portugal (or on Flores anyway) they all have rather nice, low key bars in them. The one in Faja Grande is a bit like a hotel residents' lounge - there's a comfy leather sofa and a big plasma telly on the wall and you serve yourself from a sort of mini-bar in the corner. The presidente of the junta da freguesia (parish council) opens it up at the back of eight and then puts the lights off and shuts up shop once the football match (or whatever) is over - all very laid back.

This wouldn't be allowed in British "local authority service points" because in Britain alcohol is regarded as a bad thing. Especially in the People's Republic of Scotland (for my non-British readers, Scotland has autonomy from the UK so stands in the same relation to the UK as the Azores and Madeira do to Portugal). Recently, the People's Commissar for Health and Banning Anything That's Remotely Fun, Nicola Sturgeon (doesn't the name even give you the creeps?), announced in tones of horror you could buy your recommended weekly intake of alcohol in Scotland for less than £3.00 - Am I the only person who thinks that's a good thing?

That's what Nicola looks like. She'd obviously already had about £2.75 of her weekly intake in one go and is trying to snog the fat bloke on the left but has missed his mouth. I think Nicola needs to come on a fact finding mission to Flores as the casa do povo in Faja Grande strikes me as the very model of responsible drinking. After a small glass of port (when in Rome), I'm sure the junta would be happy to lay on a cock fight for her entertainment (only joking, of course, but it would be a great wind up of someone as humourless as NS).

Anyway, I've digressed again as this post wasn't meant to be a rave against the SNP Scottish soi disant "Government", it was about - what? - oh yes! Percy the palm tree. Now at this stage parental guidance is advised (La Sturgeon would approve) because the following picture contains images that some may find upsetting:-

He's not looking too clever is poor old Percy. Apart from having lost most of his foliage, he seems to be sagging at a kind of tired of life angle. However if you look closely, there's still a hint of greenery in the middle and all may not be lost. I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Sun Dried Tomatoes

A while back, I was speaking to someone on the phone and they said "So, what are you doing this afternoon?" and I replied "Planting an orange tree". As you do.

I didn't mean it sound that way but, in retrospect, how impossibly bucolicly (is that a word?) southern European "Year in Provence" does the prospect of an orange tree planting afternoon sound?

But alas the reality was more disappointing than the idyllic image suggests. We bought an orange tree shrub for €50 in what passes for Flores' closest equivalent to Homebase - bloody racket as orange trees are growing rampant all over this island and you squish oranges that have dropped on the road as you drive by. So why didn't we graft a stem from a native tree? - yeah, well, whatever ...

So the orange shrub was planted in our garden amidst great ceremony. Carol even insisted on giving it a name. Larry was the obvious choice given that the Portuguese word for an orange tree is laranjeira. But the results were - as Professor Denzil Dexter so memorably put it - disappointing.

That's Larry in the middle of Graham (the grass) looking distinctly peaky ...

How did I get on to this? Oh yes - another southern European activity par excellence - sun drying tomatoes. People ask us "how do you sun dry tomatoes?" The answer could not be simpler - you cut them into quarters and leave them out in the sun to dry. Really. That's what you do. Which bit of sun-dried tomato drying don't you understand exactly?

Except there's been another problem. Tony and Terry the tomato plants have obliged with oodles of fruit BUT NO FLIPPING SUN!

Seriously - you need some major-league ray-gun sunshine to dry a tomato before it goes mouldy. You can probably take that sort of sun for granted in Tuscany but not on Flores, an island in the middle of the ocean where it's prone to be cloudy from time to time. It worked last year when the BBC's sun-drying quotient was as high as the pollen count but this year has been a wash out. I blame global warming.

It's a reflection on island life that, as it was sunny this morning (and with satellite prognostications looking good), Carol tentatively put out a tray of Tony and Terry's finest. Then, off we went to Lajes for the shops. On the way back, we stopped to cut some hydrangeas. I was about 100 metres from the car plucking the finest blooms when I became aware of Carol shouting at me - I hasten back towards the car - whatever's the problem? "It's beginning to rain - we have to get home to rescue my tomatoes before they re-hydrate!".

Long, short - Plan B - put them on the dashboard of the car where it's always effing hot (and dry) even when a bit cloudy:-

Mental note - on reflection muslin cloth not necessary in car as no flies. Learning curve. Nobody said country life was easy. Hugh Fearnley-Whatsname please take note.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

A87 Tomdoun

I did something today I haven't done for 25 years - draw a roadsign.

Let me explain. People ask me now we're retired to Flores "What do you do all day?" Today, as it happens, was quite an interesting day because it was the first time we've had a turnround of guests in our self catering studio apartment on the same day. As it happened, there was bags of time and the outgoers had left the place so spotless there really wasn't much for us to do apart from change the bed etc. But it was a new experience.

The arrival of guests is always "an event" for us and I feel the glass of Malaquias Branco at the cocktail hour seems to wash down sweeter when guests have been welcomed and seem to be pleased with it. So after dinner I settled down to a particularly mellow spot of uploading to my Flickr photostream when I see new uploads by one of my Flickr contacts - a few clicks and links from there takes me to a website called dedicated to British road numbers and road signs.

Now I don't know what "cbrd" stands for yet because I was being too much of a kid in a sweetie shop clicking all the links - in particular in the search for the answer to the vexing question of whether, now those few miles between the north end of the M6 at Carlisle and the south end of the A74(M) have been closed by a motorway (known as the "Cumberland Gap" to UK road cognoscenti), will the M6 be extended all the way to Glasgow? Or will we be leapfrogging unsatisfactorily from the M6 to the A74(M) to the M74 all on the same now uninterrupted 100 miles of three lane blacktop? I bet the bloody SNP Scottish soi disant "Government" - with the enthusiastic backing of the Scotsman "love to be offended" brigade - will block it and thus deny right thinking people the unadulterated pleasure of being able to swish across the border all the way to Glasgow on the M6 as God had intended in His plan for the world on the eighth day had He not been distracted by a day of rest on the seventh ...

I digress. Did I mention I'm absolutely fascinated by road numbers and the related science of road signs?

I'm obviously not completely alone in this because, bizarrely enough, the pic above is my 5th most popular one on my Flickr photostream: we're talking 3 figures of hits. (You really don't want to see the top four if you're not interested in Scottish coastal shipping.)

Anyway, when I was wee (and even when I was quite big), I used to draw road signs. Yes, draw road signs. Not imaginary ones but improvements on actual ones. I could never understand the obsession with signs pointing to Crianlarich and Wetherby: you were actually going to Oban or Fort William or Sheffield or London but you never knew it until you had passed through the "filters" of Crianlarich and Wetherby. Scotch Corner and Brough are other examples of what I call "Crianlarich syndrome". So is Ledmore in the picture above: if you think Crianlarich is a non-event, wait till you get to Ledmore.

Not an accusation you could level at Kyle of Lochalsh with it's unique selling point of a bridge to Skye but where was I? Oh yes - I used to draw road signs (indicating Fort William where the A82 leaves the M8 at Charing Cross in Glasgow instead of Dumbarton) and what do I find on this website but a page with the fonts road signs are written in. Which you can download as a zip.file. Now I'm not entirely sure what a zip.file is or how you download one but the discovery that road sign fonts are available online was a Nirvana moment of the order of the most fanciable girl in the year asking you to dance with her at the school disco - we can work out how to download her zip.file at leisure in coming weeks.

Anyway, due to being inexperienced, I did it the clunky way for now - much like the school disco - and simply printed the page with the font off and traced it.

And thus - here I get back to the point of this post - I drew a roadsign for the first time in 30 years. And it was bloody brilliant: this is what I do now I'm retired and it works for me. This is it:-

In a future post, I will discuss where this is. The junction no longer exists. You have been warned.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

History of Scotland Part IX - The Vikings

AD795 (might have been 793) is the year in which a monastic annal laconically records "this was the year in which the black gentiles from the east first came". This sort of understatement makes vikings sound like nothing more egregious than German tourists bagging the deck chairs by the pool until one learns of the rape and pillage they perpetrated - much more like English tourists, really.

The pic above is what comes out at the top of a Google image search of "English tourist" - try it yourself if you don't believe me. Scarier than "viking" but not as scary (believe me) as "German tourist". Alarming in anyone's language, though.

Anyway, there are a lot of misunderstandings about vikings. The first is that there was a never a race of people called "vikings". It is simply a Scandinavian word meaning "robber" or "pirate" equally applicable whether Norwegian, Danish or Swedish. As it happened, it was mainly Norwegians who infested Scotland (and Ireland) whereas Danes plagued England (sounds a bit like the 1992 European Championships). The Swedes concentrated on Russia (as in Euro 96).

The third misunderstanding about vikings - hang on, what happened to the second misunderstanding? Ah, here it is now! - the second misunderstanding about vikings is that, after a brief phase of harmless plundering, they "quickly settled down to become peaceful farmers and traders" (to quote standard history text books). I've always felt that sounded a bit unlikely as if a bunch of yobs from Trondheim who had raped and pillaged the entire population of North Ronaldsay had been sentenced by some lefty liberal judge (like Harriet Harpersonsdottir) to 20 hours of peaceful farming and trading community service.

It's true that Norwegians did "settle down to peaceful farming and trading" in Orkney, Shetland and - to a lesser extent - the west coasts and islands of Scotland in the early 9th century (once they'd politely invited the locals to step aside) but they never gave up the viking habit: right up until the 12th century, your typical Norwegian "peacefully farmed and traded" in Muckle Flugga or wherever for nine months of the year but in high summer went off a-plundering: a bit like following their team to the quarter finals of the UEFA Cup.

The really interesting thing is that the Norwegians plundered each other. In fact, they'd no sooner taken over Orkney than they were raiding back east in Norway - just how incorrigible were these people? This particularly irritated a King of Norway in about AD 850 called Harald Fine-Hair who sent a fleet of longships to bring his unruly subjects in the west to heel. He established one of his chaps (I forget his name now) as jarl - the first Earl of Orkney.

At this point, am I allowed a digression into viking names? The likes of Thorfinn Skull-Splitter and Erik Blood-Axe are pretty cool but is Harald Fine-Hair not a bit gay? I've got mental pictures of Harald Fine-Hair and Magnus Purple-Nipple hanging out together at the Horned Helmet Bar in Stavanger ...

Anyway, the Earldom of Orkney became one of the polities of what was much later to become Scotland. It's influence beyond Orkney and Shetland into the mainland of Scotland - and it's loyalty to the kings of Norway - waxed and waned with the strength of particular earls but, at its peak, the Earldom extended as far south as Sutherland (which is simply the Norwegian for "South Land" as viewed from the northern perspective of Orkney).

Place names are very interesting in this context. How similar does Thurso (a dreary little town on the north coast of Scotland) sound to Tromso, a town (the dreariness of which I can't comment on) in Norway? It's no coincidence - it's the common Norwegian heritage. My favourite is Loch Laxford in Sutherland - Lax being Norwegian for salmon (as in gravad lax) and ford being, of course, fjord.