Monday 29 June 2009

History of Scotland Part V - Geography

Before we proceed to the next chapter, I think it's important to get some Scottish geography basics straight. My Scottish readers (both of them) will already know this but my Portuguese, Finnish and Argentinian readers (yes!) may appreciate this primer.

Scotland's geography is dominated by six important firths (river estuaries), these being the Firths of Forth and Tay and the Moray Firth on the east coast and the Firths of Lorne and Clyde and the Solway Firth on the west coast. We've already met two of these firths - the Forth and Clyde - which cut deep inland so that Scotland's east and west coasts come to within about 30 miles (50km) of each other at this "waist" of the country: you'll recall that, north of the Forth-Clyde was where the P-Celtic Picts lived and that the Romans (yawn) built the Antonine Wall from Forth to Clyde (roughly from modern day Glasgow to a bit west of modern day Edinburgh).

The line from the head of the Firth of Lorne (which in its innermost reaches is called Loch Linnhe - pronounced "Linnie") on the west coast to the head of the Moray (pron. "Murray" as in Andy) Firth on the east coast is called the Great Glen. Loch Ness (of monster fame) occupies about a quarter of the Great Glen which is a geological fault.

Note also the islands - Orkney and Shetland to the north-east (they are collectively known as the Northern Isles) and the Hebrides (pron. "HEB-rid-eez") to the west, also known as the Western Isles.

All of the above is well known to all Scotsmen (and even the odd Scotswoman when she's holding the map the right way up) but what is less well known are the features I've marked in green - Drum Alban (Gaelic for "ridge of Scotland") and The Mounth. These are the watersheds in the mountains marking the dividing line between where the rivers flow north and west to the Moray Firth, Great Glen and Firth of Lorne and south and east to the Firths of Clyde, Forth & Tay. Drum Alban and The Mounth are not names known to the average Scot nowadays but they were very significant in the formation of the medieval Kingdom of Scotland.

OK, that's enough to take in for now. I'm going to finish with an old photo of a village called Tyndrum which sits on Drum Alban. In the foreground and to the left, the river flows east to the Firth of Tay while the river in the glen in the right background flows west to the Firth of Lorne.

Friday 26 June 2009

When the boat comes in - Part III

I have a cup of instant coffee every morning but coffee doesn't grow on this island so it has to be imported. Depressingly few daily staples are produced on Flores except for bread (although the flour is imported), cheese, yoghurt and a tiny percentage of the vegetables you can buy (in season of course).

The same is true of most places: coffee doesn't grow in Scotland either but I can buy Nescafé in Tesco in Edinburgh because it's imported there too. How does it get to Edinburgh? In trucks which thunder up and down motorways 24 hours a day. We all slag truck drivers off for their driving and - ahem - supposed other habits, but we'd be lost without them: no truck drivers, no Nescafé.

Incidentally, why don't train drivers and airline pilots get the same stick as truckers? Airline pilots deserve a lot of stick in my book for being crashingly boring conversationalists: have you ever heard one talk about anything other than the weather? Can you imagine the chat at a British Airways staff party: "It was 21 degrees with a brisk easterly wind in Paris yesterday." "Funny you should mention that because there were spots of rain at Bucharest ..." But I digress.

No motorways to Flores so the Nescafé - and everything else not on the short list mentioned above - has to come on a container ship. This one:-

It arrives every second Thursday. Towards the end of each two week cycle, the fresh veg on offer in the shops is looking "tired" at best and non-existent at worst. We go shopping in Santa Cruz every second Friday for obvious reasons. But it's not to be taken for granted that the ship will have arrived on the Thursday - quite often it's delayed by weather. In winter sometimes it has to stand offshore to await suitable conditions to berth as Lajes das Flores (above) is not the most sheltered of harbours. Occasionally, it turns around without making the call at all: in March 2006, supplies of some commodities were running very low with the threat of bottled gas having to be rationed due to the ship not being able to berth for about 4 weeks due to a run of bad weather. Although if you think that's bad, it was only in 1993 that Flores got a pier the ship could berth at. Before then, it waited offshore and small open boats went out to collect the supplies, an operation infinitely more at risk of weather interruption so there was often the risk of key supplies getting critically short in winter. So much so that a successful call by the ship was known as Dia de São Vapor - literally "Saint Steamer's Day"

So, every other Thursday, Carol asks "Is the boat in?" I can tell the answer to this in one of two ways: if it's early doors, I can tell by the boxes of fresh fruit and veg (etc.) in the village shop when I've been down to get the bread. Otherwise, you can look at the webcam over the harbour at Lajes (library picture below).

The ship is only in for a few hours while the containers full of goodies are off-loaded. The next part of the process is opening the containers after the ship has gone and delivering the contents round the island. This goes in the order (a) perishable (e.g. fruit and veg) distributed on the Thursday the ship arrives; (b) not perishable but essential (e.g. bottled gas) distributed within a day or so of the ship; (c) not perishable and non-essential (e.g. that strimmer i ordered off eBay) - can wait for quite a long time for class (a) and (b) items to be cleared before it gets delivered.

So I hope that explains why, when you ask for something in a shop here, you often get the answer pode ser no proximo barco - maybe on the next ship. But even if it is on the next ship, you never quite know when it will be available: that's living on an island for you!

The weather, incidentally, is 21 degrees with a light north westerly wind.

When the boat comes in - Part II

First of all, let me reassure you that Part II is the last part of "When the boat comes in".

Just before we leave the car ferry, though, the good ship Express Santorini (that's the one on charter from the Aegean - the clue's in the name) paid its first visit to Flores this summer on Monday night. I know that from having looked at the Lajes webcam.

In that screengrab from the webcam, you're going to have to take my word that the very bright lights is the ferry at the pier.

The ferry came on Monday to bring revellers to the São João festival and came back again yesterday (Thursday) to take them away again. São João is one of the two major festivals on this island (indeed it's big throughout Portugal). The whole island closes down (including schools shut) for three days. I don't know what happens during the day to justify this but, at night, there are what the Portuguese call "raves" - I think that means what we would call a disco but they're in a tent.

However I believe there are also live bands. Or perhaps I mean "a live band" singular but, whichever, our friend Harald - who saw the Rolling Stones in Nuremberg in 1979 in the same arena as where Hitler did Ein Volk! Ein Reich! in 1936 and has a ZZ-Top beard and is quite particular where rock music is concerned - was impressed. Which was nice.

São João only takes place in Santa Cruz which is a 25 minute drive from us. As I couldn't possibly imagine going to such a do without having a drink, and as taxis are as scarce as hen's teeth on this island, that means in practice we don't go: we're much too old now to spend nights on park benches or strangers' floors.

I seem to have digressed a long way from coastal shipping. So there will, after all, be a third episode of "When the boat comes in". (So I lied - dry your eyes, as we say in Scotland.) I leave you with a picture of Mick Jagger warming the audience up for "Brown Sugar":-

Tuesday 23 June 2009

When the boat comes in

Last time I explained (in unecessary detail) about getting to this island on aeroplanes. This time, I'm going to tell you about the ships that come to Flores. If you're not getting a Windows "Your computer may be at risk" warning by now, then you should review your firewall settings - make sure you've checked "parental guidance advised" and "coastal shipping anorak".

OK. Three of the Grupo Central islands of the Azores (Faial, Pico & São Jorge) are linked by passenger ferries year round. In summer, the frequency increases to include Terceira and fast catamarans are also employed. Below is on the ferry from Faial (Horta) to Pico:

As for the ferries between the rest of the islands, these are in summer only when ships link all the islands in a leisurely cruise. Atlanticoline is wholly owned by the Azorean Regional Government (ARG) and their services have been a bit of a farce recently because they were supposed to be getting two brand new ships this year but the ARG refused to take delivery of them as they were not up to contract specification. Net upshot is Atlanticoline are continuing to operate with a chartered grotty ex-Channel car ferry long since pensioned off to the Aegean.

If I were an Azorean tax-payer I would say - hang on, I am an Azorean tax-payer, so I do say - I don't know why they bother with the inter-island car ferry services. People go on the plane. We went on the ferry from Flores to Faial (nearest island) for my birthday jolly in 2007 and there were about a dozen cars (max) and about 20 pax.

However I was speaking to a taxi driver recently and he said (in the way that taxi drivers do) that he stores all the problems with his car up until the summer and the car ferry when he can take it to São Miguel to get fixed.

And when we went on the ferry, there was a couple flitting to Terceira - it was Carol's hairdresser as it goes, whom she was very sorry to see leaving. There was discussion as to whether it would be OK to get Fatima to do a final cut on the ocean wave. Note to self to do blog entry about how all hairdressers on this island are called Fatima. Apart from the one called Dora. I digress. This sort of trade is not enough to sustain a car ferry service out here to Flores.

Oh dear, this is getting too long and boring. In another post I will tell you about the important ships that come to Flores - the fortnightly container ship that brings the stuff we take for granted on the shelves of the shops.

Monday 22 June 2009


The first riddle I was ever taught - in 1968, when I was 5 - was in a Dr Seuss book borrowed from Morningside library in Edinburgh. It remains from that day to this the best riddle I've ever heard and goes like this:-

Q. - What's big and red and eats rocks?

A. - A big red rock eater.

Well there's a big red rock eater living on Flores because I drove past its lunch today:-

Thursday 18 June 2009


When we told people back in Edinburgh that we were moving to the Azores, the almost universal reaction was "the whats?". Once we'd explained that the Azores were nowhere near the Falkland Islands or Brazil and were much further north and west than Madeira or the Canaries, the most frequently asked question was "How do you get there?"

I think they imagined us hanging around the docks of Lisbon looking for the captain of a rusty tramp steamer down on his luck who could be bribed with strong liquor into dropping us in an open boat a few miles off the coast of the Azores at dead of night while his craft went about its nefarious ways.

Well I'm afraid the answer to how you get to the Azores is a bit more prosaic: you go on an Airbus - just the same as Majorca, Tenerife, Madeira et al.

In fairness, if you ask most Brits about getting to an island, they will think about going to the Isle of Wight or the Isle of Man or the Hebrides etc. and will think of going on a car ferry. But there is no car ferry from mainland Portugal to the Azores - at around 48+ hours sail, it's too long for a ferry.

So you come on an aeroplane. There are two airlines - the Portuguese national airline, TAP Portugal and the Azorean airline, SATA.

Between them, they maintain several flights a day from Lisbon to the three biggest islands in the Azores - Sao Miguel, Terceira and Faial (2 hour flight). In summer, SATA fly once a week from Sao Miguel to major European capitals such as London (Gatwick), Paris and Amsterdam (3.5-4 hours). Importantly, in view of the emigre connection, SATA also flies from Sao Miguel directly to North America - Boston, Toronto, Montreal and Oakland (California). Only a few flights a week and I can't remember now if these are summer only.

So, if you're coming to Flores, what do you do once you've disembarked from your Airbus at one of the bigger islands? You get on a smaller aeroplane operated by SATA Air Açores. In winter, there is one flight a day except Sunday. These are mostly to Sao Miguel via Faial (50 mins each leg) but there are also some flights to Terceira (1 hour). In summer, the frequency increases to include Sundays and, on some days, there are as many as three flights a day. Below is a picture of the aeroplane that comes out to Flores:-

And as I can already hear the yawns of boredom, I'll tell you about the ships that come out to Flores in another posting.

Monday 15 June 2009

History of Scotland Part IV - the Romans

I've been putting this next chapter off because it involves a topic that bores me rigid: the Romans. Can't be doing with them. I wish this were the history of Ireland because I'd be able to say "the Romans never came here" but that's not quite true for Scotland. So, dirty job, has to be done, let's just get on with it.

To remind you where we'd got to last time, the Romans landed in Britain in 55BC (might have been AD) to find it peopled by a race of Celts called P-Celts by linguists. They are also known as Britons (except those living in Scotland north of the Forth-Clyde line who are always known as Picts). Perhaps the most famous P-Celtic Briton was Queen Boadicea (or Bouddicca if you prefer the more authentic spelling. I don't.) The Britons spoke a language which is the ancestor of modern Welsh, Cornish and Breton. Across the water in Ireland (and the Isle of Man) lived the Q-Celts who are also known as Gaels. They spoke a language which is the ancestor of modern Gaelic (Irish & Scottish) and Manx.

Let me get this quickly off my chest: Gael rhymes with "gale" but the language Gaelic rhymes with "Gallic". It is not - repeat NOT - pronounced "gay-lick".

You can tell I'm putting off getting round to the Romans, can't you? Now that I think about it, I think it was 55BC that they landed in Britain first. As I recall, this was an army led by Julius Caesar which landed and fought the odd battle against the Britons but was not followed up by any attempt at conquest. I think this was when JC memorably said Veni, Vidi, Vici - We came, we saw, we conquered - although I could be totally wrong about that because, as I've said, no attempt at full blown conquest was made in 55BC and I think the whole thing had a lot to do with JC proving a point to someone back in Rome (Brutus? Mark Antony?) that he could have conquered Britain if he'd wanted to.

In 43AD (I think it was), the Emperor ...

... Claudius (Derek Jacobi) needed to prove a point to someone (I forget who, Nero or Caligula or someone like that) and decided to go one better and launch the actual conquest of Britain. Being the neat, symmetrical sort of people that they were (just look at how straight their roads were), the Romans would have loved the neat symmetry of being able to conquer the whole of Great Britain. And having conquered Asia Minor and seen off Hannibal and Carthage and so forth, you'd have thought GB would have been a dawdle but not so. Net upshot was the Romans whacked up villas, forums, temples, baths, hypocausts and all the other paraphernalia of Pax Romana in the south and east of GB but the veneer of Roman civilisation thinned the further and north and west you went until you get to Scotland where there is not a villa, bath or hypocaust to be found - only Roman forts. Which shows that all they ever did here was fight rather indecisive campaigns. In the 1st century AD, Scotland was to Rome what Afghanistan is in the 21st to the USA - i.e. a God awful place nobody would voluntarily want to have anything to do with but to which a certain amount of time and effort has to be paid because the natives can be tiresome if left to their own devices.

That's a picture of the remains of a Roman fort at Newstead near Melrose - not exactly Petra, is it?

The Romans did, however, provide Scotland with its first recorded battle and, indeed, its first recorded Scotsman: he was called Calgacus and was the chief of a tribe called Caledonians - as I understand it, the Caledonians were not so much a tribe as perhaps a confederation of Pictish tribes got together for the purpose of opposing a particular Roman campaign. The battle was at a place called Mons Graupius and was in 84AD I think (could be wrong about that exact date - as I've said before this is history without looking it up). Nobody's exactly sure where Mons Graupius was but mons being Latin for hill, and noting the similarity between Graupius and Grampians (a mountain range in north east Scotland), somewhere in the NE Highlands of Scotland is suspected (western Aberdeenshire, perhaps).

Calgacus/the Caledonians lost the Battle of Mons Graupius but not entirely in vain because Calgacus also left behind Scotland's first memorable quotation: "They make a desert and call it peace." Referring to the Romans, he's supposed to have said this in a speech to his troops before the battle (a la Mel Gibson in Braveheart except in a more authentically Caledonian accent one would hope). He almost certainly said no such thing but a Roman writer - Tacitus, I think, but might be Pliny the Elder or someone else - claimed that he did.

Quick word about Hadrian's Wall. It's commonly assumed this was the Romans shutting the door on Caledonia. Not quite true because, if that were so, it would have all its defences pointing north. But archaeologists will tell you it is equally defended on both sides so its function was rather to monitor the movement of people north and south. An example of history never being quite as simple as it appears at first sight. There was also a less well known Roman wall further north between the Forth-Clyde line called Antonine's Wall - I can't remember the chronology of that: I think Hadrian's Wall was built in the 3rd cent. AD.

That's a picture of a bit of the Antonine Wall. It's a bit of a broken pot as Roman remains go: it's not exactly the Colosseum. So in general terms, as a Scotsman, you can safely answer the question "What have the Romans ever done for us?" as "Nothing".

Apart from the first Scotsman ...

OK apart from the first Scotsman, what have the Romans ever done for us?

The first battle ...?

OK apart from the first Scotsman and the first battle, what have the Romans ever done for us?

The first memorable quote ...?

OK apart from the first Scotsman, the first battle and the first memorable quote, what have the Romans ever done for us?

Hadrian's Wall ...?

Sunday 14 June 2009

Altman's Ring

About 15 years ago now, we were watching Mastermind (back in the days when it was still Magnus Magnusson on BBC1) and a contestant took the chair, gave his name and occupation and announced his specialist subject: The life and works of Richard Wagner. Two minutes starting now - first question "In which city was the Festspielhaus which Wagner built to host the Ring Cycle?" Contestant looks blank - Pass. Second question "In which city, then in the Russian Empire, did Wagner become musical director of the Opera in 1837?" Again, contestant looks blank - Pass.

It was developing into one of those cringe-making TV moments until we dissolved into mirth at the prospect that there had been a ghastly mistake - the specialist subject he'd boned up on was Robert Wagner, not Richard! So the boy's sitting there, bewildered, thinking "When's he going to ask me what the name of the dog was in Hart to Hart or what his character's name was in Colditz ... ?"

This didn't start out as another lookalike post but now that I look at it, how similar is that jawline? You can see how confusion could arise.

Anyway, we had a "Wagner moment" of our own whilst watching Eastenders earlier (for my non-British readers, Eastenders is the UK's most popular soap opera which we get about two weeks out of date by satellite) and, rather deliciously, it involved another Robert. God knows why, but we got involved in the question of the name of the actor who plays "Nasty Nick" Cotton. I said it's Robert Altman. To which Carol replied that RA is the director of MASH and Gosford Park (amongst others) and that Nasty Nick is played by John Altman. So just as well I didn't select "Villains of Albert Square" when I went on Mastermind or I could have ended up facing awkward questions about the Korean War.

That's Nick Altman on the left and John Cotton on the right.

PS. - the answers to the Robert Wagner questions are Bayreuth and Riga (but you knew that anyway) and the answers to the Richard Wagner questions are Freeway and Major Phil Carrington. I wouldn't have got any of them but as a follow up (which I would have got), who played the Kommandant of Colditz?


Am I the only one to have noticed the extraordary resemblance between Spanish sex goddess Penelope Cruz and Eastenders' Syed Masood?

Can you see it? If Penelope were to lose the stubble and Syed were to lose the lipstick, they could be twins.

Saturday 13 June 2009

Church update

We happened to be in town yesterday so I can update you on what seems like quite quick progress on the church:-

Note that the gable has now been replastered and painted. Also the roof has been taken off the annex to the right and, if you look closely, the chap with the jeans and white shirt and the tab in his left hand is Soo-Lucino. Below is a close up (tab now in right hand):-

On the left is the chap from Cape Verde who, with his daughter, stole the show at the Noite dos Sabores Internacionais. I've since found out he's known to everyone as Tio although there's some doubt as to whether that's his real name as tio is just Portuguese for "uncle" (although I believe it has a wider connotation - on this island, anyway - of an older person held in high esteem).

Anyway, there's Soo-Lucino up on the roof doing what he does best - smoking. And, looking at the picture again, I feel a caption competition coming on and I'm going to start with "Which one of you plonkers accepted this contract without ascertaining whether or not the church could pay for it - what is a colcha em lã anyway?"

Thursday 11 June 2009

Santa Cruz Church - my stake in its future

... 2 Euros as a result of having bought a couple of raffle tickets this afternoon. Let me explain.

The renovation of the church in Santa Cruz, the main (indeed only) town on this island, is the obrasprazotory to end all OPs. I've been meaning to add a post on the subject but now I have a personal stake in it, this gives it added urgency.

The church is a huge landmark in SC. I believe it has the third largest church façade in the Azores (a rather big fish/small pond claim to fame) and I gather they started work on it in 1783 but didn't finish it until 1859 due to the project keeping running out of money. Anyway, despite all that provenance, it's been looking decidedly scruffy recently.

So I was very pleased to see when we were in town a couple of weeks back that a comprehensive renovation of the church (inside and out) had begun with signs of quite quick progress. Let the pictures do the talking:-

Above is that third largest facade and you can see how tatty it's looking although note the right hand tower dome for a sign of things to come.

Above, you can see the back of that tower all freshly painted and also how all the plaster has been taken off the gable pending reapplication.

It was also rather piquant for us that the local building firm doing the work on the church is the same firm who did our palheiro - i.e. our little studio apartment in our garden (see So it was funny seeing the same guys who'd been round our house for four months in 2007 involved in a rather larger project.

Allow me a quick digression into Senhor Lucino Lima's building company. We'd heard he was the best on the island but difficult to get hold of due to being so much in demand. We bearded him in his den a couple of times where he expressed a willingness in principle to do the job but when it came to the fatal "w-question" (when?), there was much sucking of teeth, lighting of cigarettes, shuffling of paper, scratching of foreheads and the utterance of that phrase which should really be Flores' motto: em atras (delayed).

Long short, we eventually managed to coax Senhor Lucino round to a site visit and a few weeks and phone calls (made on our behalf by the ever kind Jose Antonio and Linda down at the shop) later, we even got an estimate for the works. That led to a meeting in Senhor Lucino's office. (I should say "Senhor" is pronounced "Soo" on this island and people like Soo-Lucino call me Soo-Neil and vice versa). It was an epic encounter involving Linda the Shop along as translator and led to two memorable conclusions (1) Linda saying "Soo-Lucino wants to say he has learnt his first words of English which are "which option is cheaper?""; and (2) we asked the W-question and try to get me pregnant (an uphill struggle, I can tell you) if Soo-Lucino didn't suck his teeth, light a cigarette (the 15th of the encounter - particularly vexing as we'd just recently given up), shuffle some papers and say "Next Tuesday".

And next Tuesday, at an ungodly hour of the morning, Soo-Lucino's boys duly appeared, lugging in bricks and cement and stuff and promptly got to work.

When I think back on this two years ago now, it was almost surreal because - due to the language barrier - I had no real idea as to whether these guys truly understood what it was we wanted: did we know ourselves? But much as it would be amusing to do a "Year in Provence" type rave against the horrors of southern European builders, I'm going to have to disappoint you and report that Soo-Lucino's guys were just amazing. They almost seemed to be able to read our minds as to what we wanted communicating by a combination of gestures and thumbs ups. Never once did we have any of the problems traditionally associated with builders like leaving a mess or not doing what we asked or going off the job or charging too much etc. OK, it took a month longer than expected but the final bill was actually less than the original quote. And the quality of the craftsmanship was superb. This is the guys putting the velux window in the roof of the palheiro:

At the end we were almost sorry to see them go. In the last few days of the job, Cesar the painter was around a lot, not because there was painting to be done but because he spoke immaculate English and he'd been sent by Soo-Lucino to co-ordinate the last jobs and be sure that we were happy to sign the job off.

The only picture I have of Soo-Lucino is this one of him pirhouetting (sp) at the top of a ladder by our palheiro. Like the good boss of a construction company that he is, he came round to the job every now and again to get his own hands dirty. I can't remember what exactly he was doing at ours this day but I do remember when I took this picture he was asking down, not for a screwdriver or similar but for a cigarette lighter!

I've digressed a long way from where I started this post - buying two 1€ raffle tickets in aid of the restoration of Santa Cruz church. It's a cause I'm happy to support whether or not I win the top prize of a Colcha em Lã, whatever that is (I just hope it's not a piglet or something like that).

But I couldn't help thinking about Soo-Lucino - does he know the church hasn't yet raised the money to pay him for the job? Will the Colcha em Lã, whatever it is, be enough to raise the wind to pay his bill? Having bought two 1€ raffle tickets, does that make me almost like a debenture holder? I feel another meeting with Soo-Lucino coming on ...

Monday 8 June 2009

Don't mention the War

I undertook to keep you updated on the external redecoration of the village shop-cum-bar.

As obrasprazotories (OPs) go, it's proving to be a bit of a frustrating one for the reason that it's proceeding very slowly - agony for those of us who suffer from premature obrasprazoturation.

It's not because of sloth or indolence on the part of the workmen - I'll rephrase that - the workman for it's just one guy doing this. Quite the contrary. The apparent lack of progress is because the job's being done so thoroughly. In particular, not only is the old paint being taken off with a blow torch but also large chunks of the plaster as well. I believe the position we're at just now is waiting for the new plaster to dry thoroughly before any new paint can be applied. Anyway, this is what it presently looks like with the all the old paint off (on the left).

In the foreground, you'll note a phalanx of German tourists (is that the right collective noun for German tourists? Perhaps it should be a "korps" or a "bunker") striding with teutonic discipline through the village: they'll be at the gates of Krakow before you can say "Baden-Württemberg" (and they'd have advanced to the Urals by the time you could spell it). That chap on the right is clearly still smarting over the Sudetenland.

Anyway, as if to make up for lack of anything much to report on the shop/bar, I'm able to report the commencement of a new OP in the village. It's the external redecoration of a nice house down the road between us and the shop which has been looking decidedly scruffy for a while. This time it's a complete removal of all plaster job:-

And by the following day:-

And at this point, all work has stopped on this house. It may be that the stonework beneath the plaster has to breathe and dry out again but, whatever the reason, it's an excruciating case of obrasprazotorus interruptus.

Friday 5 June 2009


That's me and Carol but this pic calls for an explanation which is very distinctively Flores.

We were down at the village shop-cum-bar for our usual beer and glass of wine at the back of five yesterday but it was the fortnightly Thursday when the ship has come in and Big Joe, the landlord, had been over to the harbour at Lajes to pick up the fresh fruit and veg. They were carting the boxes into the shop and they included rare treats like strawberries and cherries. So BJ's wife, Linda (who was grew up in California, daughter of Azorean emigrants) comes through with these forbidden fruits and insists we do a mutual strawberry eat. I got her to take a pic but I forgot to set it to flash so it came out all blurry. We also slittered strawberry juice all over each other.

Awww ...

Thursday 4 June 2009

History of Scotland Part III - A big map and a regular pope please

I'm going to whizz past most of the first two millenia BC during which humans living in Scotland transited from using stone to bronze to iron - rather in the way you upgrade from Windows 2000 to Windows XP to Windows Vista except (a) slightly longer time frame; but (b) not quite as painful because IT consultants hadn't been invented back then (although imagine the scenario "Residents of Skara Brae are reminded that the use of iron axes is forbidden until you have attended mandatory training. Bronze axes will continue to be supported meantime subject to appropriate risk assessment...")

Anyway, in 55BC (although it might have been 55AD, I can never remember) the Romans landed in Britain to find it peopled by a race called Celts. Which ought not to have come as too much of a surprise to them because a lot of western Europe was as well: France (Gauls - Asterix et al) but also what's now Spain and Portugal was Celtic then too.

But in the British Isles, the Romans found two distinct types of Celts: "P-Celts" and "Q-Celts". The former lived in Great Britain and the latter in Ireland (although the Romans never attempted to conquer Ireland).

The distinction was linguistic. Apparently P-Celts could not pronounce a hard "c" and replaced it with a "p" whereas Q-Celts could do a hard "c" - as the actress said to the bishop. Anyway, while an Irish Q-Celt would have no bother ordering a Big Mac and a regular Coke, a benighted British P-Celt would be asking for a "Big Map and a regular Pope". Thus, Welsh princes (P-Celts par excellence) had names like Rhodri ap Llewyllyn whereas Q-C Irish princes had names like Fergus mac Erc (ap and mac both meaning "son of" in their related Celtic dialects)

Here I was hoping to be able illustrate this post with a picture of Rhodri ap Llewyllin but - possibly due to not being able to spell Lou-Ellen (can anybody?) - all I got from a Google search was this:

That's Rhodri Morgan, the leader of the Welsh parliament but am I the only one who thinks he looks suspiciously like that Serbian bloke who's about to be had up before the International Court in the Hague - not Mladic, the other one? Would you vote for him in a Euro election? I wouldn't.

Anyway, back in pre-Roman Britain, my mouth may have gone off-line and the backup aperture I sometimes speak out of may have tripped in because, as I type this, I realise that place names such as Carlisle, Cardiff and Lanark are quintessentially P-Celtic despite being loaded with hard c's. If you think about it, how similar does Lanark sound to Llanerch which could be in Wales or - that other hotbed of P-Celticism - Brittany? It's not a coincidence. So it's maybe not as simple as P-C's not being able to pronounce a hard c to save themselves. But I do know that the ap/mac was a shibboleth between the two races of Celt. It maybe changed over the odd millenium or so - I would remind you, I'm not looking any of this up.

Now, at the risk of confusing things even further, it used to be believed that there was a third race in Great Britain at the time of the Roman invasion - the Picts living in Scotland north of the Forth-Clyde line. We don't know how they ordered their fast food but historians used to judge their enigmatic symbols carved on stones to be aboriginal pre-Celtic. More modern scholarship, however, deems the Picts to be definitely P-Celtic - albeit maybe with stronger elements of earlier races still influencing their culture compared with other Celts.

Which is a relief because we can sum up this episode by saying 55BC (maybe AD) P-Celts in GB and Q-Celts in Ireland. Next time, I'll explain how Q-C's and macs came to Scotland and how we were spared being Welsh. Meanwhile, here's a nice picture of a Pictish symbol stone:-

Wednesday 3 June 2009

Honi soit qui mal y pense

If there’s one thing that gets on my wick – I’ll rephrase that – of the dozens of things that get on my wick, one of them is people who say things like “I’m no lawyer but ...” and then proceed to launch upon a very complicated legal argument and make a plonker of themselves.

That’s the equivalent of me saying “I’m no brain surgeon but I've watched enough episodes of Holby City and one thing I do know is you should never cut the cranial nerve before you’ve sutured the ...”

The latest offender to pass under my radar is a chap called Stuart Hill. He has declared an island the size of a tablecloth in Shetland (in the channel between Papa Stour and the Mainland of Shetland to be exact) called Forewick Holm the independent “Crown Dependency of Forvik”. This is what it looks like on Google Earth:-

And this is the flag of the Crown Dependency:-

As I understand it, Stuart, an Englishman (i.e. not a native Shetlander) with a beard you could lose a badger in, professes loyalty to the Queen but not to the UK. This was all given a huge draught of the oxygen of publicity on that rather nice programme on the tellybox with Martin Clunes (for my non-British readers, a TV actor) going round British islands which involved such pranks as Martin having his passport stamped as he disembarked on Forewick Holm/Forvik from a rowing boat etc. Stuart also attempts to defy the pretensions of British sovereignty in Shetland by such stunts as not sending in his UK Tax returns (for which he’s been fined by HMRC) and putting an old Landrover on the road on the neighbouring Mainland of Shetland with a Forvik number plate and tax-disc (although, importantly, he has not attempted to drive said vehicle and all that’s happened is the thing got towed away as constituting an eyesore). He’s attempting to goad the British authorities into crushing Forvik’s pretended independence and, quite sensibly, they’re not rising to the bait.

You can read all about it on It’s all harmless fun and it seems that the authorities in Shetland have responded with the good humour these eccentricities call for but Stuart Hill genuinely believes that Shetland (and Orkney as well, I think) are not part of the UK due to quirks of history 500 years ago.

He’s seizing on – and trying to make too much of – the fact that, in the mid-15th century, Orkney and Shetland were still part of Norway. In 1469, the King of Scots, James III, was getting married to a daughter of the King of Denmark who also happened to be the King of Norway. That called for a dowry but as the King of Denmark/Norway couldn’t actually lay his hands on the stipulated number of gold florins or whatever, he pawned Orkney and Shetland to Scotland pending being able to raise the readies. As it happened, Norway never coughed up to redeem the pawn and Orkney and Shetland have been Scottish (British from 1707) ever since.

As Stuart says on his website: “My research over the past 6 years or so into Shetland's unique history leads me to the inescapable conclusion that it [i.e. Shetland becoming part of Scotland/The UK] never happened - and that it could never have happened. If I am right (and so far, nobody has proved me wrong), the implications are simply huge.” Well allow me to be the person who proves you wrong. The following is a text of a message I left in the Guestbook of


"We’re all entitled to our lifestyle choices and “English Eccentrics” stamping Martin Clunes’ passport makes for great television but as for your legal arguments on UK sovereignty over Shetland I have to say this:-

"It’s one thing to take a political standpoint that Shetland should be independent of the UK (or Scotland). I have no view on that personally but if the people of Shetland were to vote unequivocally for independence, then I expect the politicians in London and Edinburgh would take due account of that as a political bridge to be crossed when they come to it. I do not dispute your right to advocate Shetland’s independence meantime.

But your “legal” arguments that Shetland has never have been part of Scotland or the UK are – apart from being politically irrelevant – bunkum, not to put too fine a point on it.

"I’m always amused when people say “I’m no lawyer but ...” and then go on to advance esoteric legal arguments. Well I am a lawyer (retired now) and I what I would say is this:-

"Your three letters – CCT – conquest, cession, terra nullius – omit a fourth letter: P for Prescription. This is the legal principle that, irrespective of how dubious a claim to sovereignty may have been to begin with (the pledge for the dowry in 1469, the Act of Annexation in 1472 etc. etc.), this all becomes totally irrelevant with the passage of time if Scotland/the UK asserts its sovereignty and Norway/Denmark doesn’t lift a finger to object. I think you would have to agree that’s been the state of affairs for 200+ years, no?

"So, given that the UK undoubtedly has a sovereignty over Shetland which is not disputed (or disputable) by any other country (inc. Norway/Denmark), what is the situation as between the UK Crown and its subjects within its territory which includes Shetland? I hear all your arguments about the applicability of feudal or udal law in the Northern Isles - “I say feudal, you say udal, let’s call the whole thing off” - but what you seem to be overlooking is the legal principle called the “sovereignty of Parliament”. This is the legal concept that, as the UK has no written constitution to limit what Parliament can do, it (i.e. in practice the government of the day) can legislate anything it wants. That includes abrogating udal law in Shetland. If you need any clearer example, just look at how the Scottish Parliament (which derives its powers from the UK Parliament) abolished feudal law in Scotland in 2003. So the UK Parliament is quite within its rights to declare a state monopoly over oil under the sea-bed as far out as will not get the UK into trouble with other countries.

"In the absence of clear legislative provision, of course you can get into grey areas over the niceties of udal/feudal on the foreshore and a fish farm etc. but let’s not imagine that King James III’s dowry has anything to do with the UK’s right to licence oil exploration within its territorial waters around Scotland because that has been declared by legislation by Parliament. (I can’t name you the exact Act but I’m sure you will know it.). And as far as udalling or feudalling (calling the whole thing off) the foreshore is concerned, any debate about that can be settled by parliament if the political will exists (Was there not some Task Force into the Crown Estate recently to make recommendations to the Scottish Parliament?)

"Happy to debate this with you here or in any other forum.


So put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Monday 1 June 2009

Azores Low

That's tonight's Atlantic weather chart from the BBC.

For anyone not familiar with the black art of synoptic weather forecasting, in the most general terms a series of tight concentric circles with "LOW" in the middle and lines radiating out with blue triangles and red circles on them such as you see near the bottom of the chart is a bad thing weatherwise whereas areas with fewer and more relaxed lines with "HIGH" in the middle like you see up near Iceland is a good thing. The infra-red satellite picture from the Portuguese Meteorological Institute ( shows it more graphically. That's us in the Azores right in the middle of the swirly bit:-

The point of posting this is that tonight's chart/sat. pic. is upside down. Normally, the High Pressure and the good weather is down here and the Low Pressure (swirly, spidery bit) and bad weather is up over Iceland. So much so, that there's a semi-permanent weather feature called "the Azores High". You hear it mentioned by TV weather forecasters and it's one of the few reasons 95% of people have ever heard of the Azores.

Anyway, the fact that the weather chart has gone upside down is explaining why we've had such bogging weather the last few days and why it was looking like this out the back door yesterday:-

and like this down at the sea:-

It's not supposed to look like that when tomorrow's the first day of June, I can tell you. Now, as for the forecast, Carol asked me earlier today "Go and get the weather forecast up on the computer, will you?" So I cued up the BBC Atlantic Chart with the Portuguese Meteo Institute's satellite pic standing helpfully by in a subsidiary window for corroboration and added information - what more could someone interested in weather prediction ask for? But the response was (as it always is) "No, not that shit, I want the one with the pictures, you know - with the suns and the raindrops and clouds and things ..." Gah! Philistine!

Carol's pictorial weather website of choice also includes a predicted percentage chance of rain. Every time it predicts, say, a 75% chance and it doesn't rain, the following conversation ensues: C - "They got it wrong, it didn't rain." Me - "Au contraire, they got it absolutely right. They said there was a 25% chance it wouldn't rain and that's what happened." C - "You know what I mean ..."

I wonder what the respective percentage chances of rain on Venus and Mars are tonight ...