VIDEO: Merry Kiwi Christmas

Tis the season for holiday-themed marketing videos, but this one is so charming, it’s already on heavy rotation in my household. Pauanesia, the wonderful Auckland shop featured in our New Zealand-made souvenirs story, has just released this “Night Before Christmas” video starring their stuffed kiwi birds. The adorable and colorful birds, retro-simple stop-motion animation, and jazzy ukelele soundtrack (from Kiwi band Wellington Ukelele Orchestra) make for a lovely short.

Merry kiwi Christmas from New Zealand!

Eynhallow: Visiting Orkney’s Haunted Isle

Eynhallow
Orkney is an ancient land where prehistoric monuments still dominate the landscape, along with the wide sky and surrounding sea. Plenty of strange stories have grown up about certain places. Some of the strangest have to do with a little island called Eynhallow.

Eynhallow has been deserted since 1851. Considering that it’s a little less than 200 acres of treeless grass and rocky cliffs surrounded by dangerously strong tides, it’s a testament to Orcadian toughness that it was ever inhabited at all.

For a long time, the stories say, it wasn’t inhabited by people, but by the Finfolk. The Finfolk were a race of magical beings who in the summer lived on the island, which was then called Hildaland. This island itself was magical and was usually invisible to mortal eyes.

The Finfolk were evil beings and sometimes abducted people, much like the elves of European folklore before fantasy writers turned them into metrosexuals. One day a Finman abducted the wife of the Goodman of Thorodale, an Orcadian farmer. Thorodale saw a tall, dark figure making off with his screaming wife in a boat. The brave farmer rowed after them and the Finman turned his boat invisible and escaped. Thorodale grieved for his wife until one day he heard her voice singing to him over the waves, telling him to visit a wise woman on the island of Hoy. This woman told him how to get his wife back and kick the Finfolk off Hildaland. The rest of the tale is told here.

Hildaland, after it was rid of its pesky Finfolk, became known as Eynhallow, a corruption of the Norse word for “Holy Island.” Fanciful folktales aside, there may have been a reason for this. Some believe that a monastery once operated on the island and this is why the Vikings called it a Holy Island.

%Gallery-161239%This seems to have been confirmed when a medieval church was discovered on the island. It had been lived in and built around by the last nineteenth-century residents until disease killed many of them and the rest fled. It was only after it was abandoned that scholars realized what it was. The church building may, or may not, have served a monastery. No excavations have yet taken place. But why would a sizable church and perhaps a monastic community have been built on such a small island, only to be ignored by medieval chroniclers and completely forgotten?

I visited on an annual trip hosted by the Orkney Archaeology Society, a friendly group of professional and amateur archaeologists who love the land and its past. They wanted to explore the mysterious church building. This wasn’t a simple outing to an uninhabited island. Two visitors supposedly disappeared on a trip there in 1990. Some say the ferrymen bringing the group there and back simply miscounted; others say it may have been vengeful Finfolk.

Orcadian folklore hints that the island is still magic. It’s said that if you cut grain there after sundown, it will bleed, and a horse tethered to the ground will always be found running loose after dark.

We set out across the chilly gray water at 7:30 p.m., which in the Orkney summer means it’s still bright enough to read outside. We passed between the islands of Mainland and Rousay and one of the group members pointed out several medieval brochs on either shore.

After about 20 minutes, Eynhallow appeared before us as a green hump in the sea. There’s no pier on Eynhallow, so the ferry ground to a halt on a rocky beach, upsetting hundreds of terns that flapped and squawked at us. Soon we were tromping down the beach. The ferry had some other runs to make so it pulled away with a scrape of steel on stone and chugged off. We were temporarily marooned on an island inhabited only by malevolent spirits. I love my job.

After we left the angry terns behind, all we could hear was the wind. We headed inland across thick grass and wildflowers to reach the mysterious church. It’s a strange building and I can see why the archaeologists are puzzled by it. Parts are skillfully made, while others looked slapped together, probably by the later farmers. A staircase leads up to nowhere and debris and lumps in the earth suggest a series of outbuilding that may have been the monastery. From what can be seen, it certainly looks like a planned community built at once, with the later farmers’ additions put on every which way.

It’s a lonely place now. Grass and nettles have overgrown the site and birds have built nests in holes in the walls. As we explored, one of the group, a singer at a local church, stood in the nave and sang in Latin in a deep, resonant voice. The effect was eerily beautiful.

After puzzling over the church, we headed out to circumnavigate the island. Now, it was about 9 but this far north it meant we had a good two hours of twilight left. The increasing gloom only enriched the colors – the deep green of the grass sparkled with lighter shades of wildflowers, the pale blue of the sky, the endless gray of the ocean. The shore had brighter hues. Red cliffs studded with tufts of wildflowers housed nests for raucous birds. Fulmars, cormorants and puffins were everywhere. Angry mothers guarded their chicks by flapping their wings and squawking at us. They must have been warned by the terns.

The natural beauty continued all around the island. Waves lashed against the jagged rocks and birds studied us from sheer cliffs. As we made our way around we came across several cairns. Some were guide markers for fishermen, while others may have been ancient. A flock of sheep came out of nowhere and passed on by with barely a look at us intruders. We rounded a bend and humped over a hill and there ahead of us shone the lights of the ferry. It had come back for us.

I almost felt sorry.

For more on Eynhallow, check out Orkneyjar’s excellent collection of Eynhallow pages.

Don’t miss the rest of my series “Exploring Orkney: Scotland’s Rugged Northern Isles.”

Coming up next: “Beauty In Wartime: The Italian Chapel In Orkney!”

Travel safety: are swans dangerous?


Mr. Asbo is not a nice swan.

He’s attacked numerous boaters on the River Cam at Cambridge, England, hissing and pecking at anyone who comes close. Back in 2009, he even attacked the Cambridge Rowing Team during their historic May Bumps race. The race had to appoint a special marshal to keep an eye on the naughty bird.

Swans are very territorial, especially when they have a nest full of cygnets (babies). Mr. Asbo and his lady friend have several cygnets a year and their nest is right on the main boating area of the river. This has led to numerous confrontations where Mr. Asbo hisses, snaps at oars, and tries to bat people with his wings. It’s even reported that he’s strong enough to capsize small boats.

His name refers to the Anti-Social Behavior Order, a punishment usually meted out to lager-soaked louts to ban them from playing loud music, being drunk in public, aggressively panhandling, or even stealing eggs. Now local residents have had enough and there are plans to move Mr. Asbo and his family to a rural area 50 miles away, where hopefully he won’t bother anyone.

Swans are one of the many attractions of the English countryside, especially at the popular riverside destinations of Cambridge and Oxford. They are strong, fast, wild animals and should be treated with caution. The Swan Sanctuary says they’re generally not a danger, but their peck can be painful and they can even break your arm or leg if they hit you with their wing.

Attacks are rare, however. Swans only get aggressive if you get near their young, enter their territory, or deliberately antagonize them, like the idiot in this video. Don’t be the idiot in this video.

Scotland tells collector: stop stealing our eggs!

Scotland
An obsessive collector of rare birds’ eggs has been banned from visiting Scotland during nesting season. The ban was slapped on Matthew Gonshaw, 49, and lasts from February 1 to August 31 of every year for the ten years. He’s also banned from visiting land owned by the Wildlife Trust and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

Gonshaw has been repeatedly arrested for stealing the eggs of rare birds and is currently serving his fourth prison term for the offense.

The ban came as an ASBO, an Anti-Social Behaviour Order. ASBOs ban individuals from certain activities that are annoying or potentially criminal. Public drunkenness, playing football in the street, and other minor offenses are often stopped through ASBOs. Some ASBOs are a bit odd, like banning a sixty year-old man from dressing as a schoolgirl, complete with plaid skirt. This guy was hanging around schools and making parents nervous. BBC has a list of some of the weirder ones here.

In Gonshaw’s case, the ASBO will hopefully keep him away from the rare bird’s eggs he’d rather stick on a shelf than let hatch. Scotland is one of the top destinations for bird watchers and if “collectors” like Gonshaw are allowed to steal eggs with impunity, Scotland’s wildlife could be seriously affected.

Photo courtesy Mr. T in DC via flickr.

Exploring the Welsh coast: Aberaeron and New Quay

Welsh coast, New Quay
Yesterday I mentioned that Aberystwyth is a good base from which to explore western Wales. On our second day in Wales my wife, son, and I hopped on a local bus and went south down the Welsh coast to the ports of Aberaeron and New Quay. Aberaeron is about 40 minutes from Aberystwyth and New Quay is only about 20 minutes further south from Aberaeron.

While we didn’t have long in Aberaeron, we liked this tidy little Welsh town with its brightly painted houses and fine view of the sea. There are plenty of shops, restaurants, and pubs and we got the impression that it might be a better place to stay than Aberystwyth. Like in Aberystwyth, we heard a lot of people speaking Welsh. Most signs are in both languages. It’s nice to know that the language is surviving in the age of globalized English.

At New Quay we stopped for lunch at a pub on a cliff overlooking a sandy beach and broad harbor. The view was nice but service was slow and the food substandard. Sadly, this was the case with all too many of our meals in Wales, even though we usually followed local advice as to where to eat.

%Gallery-129265%The famous writer Dylan Thomas lived here for a time and New Quay was the inspiration for his fictional town of Llareggub (“bugger all” spelled backwards). Visitors interested in literary tourism can follow the Dylan Thomas Trail.

We’d come to take a boat trip instead. My five-year-old had never been out to sea so we decided to remedy that by going on one of New Quay’s many dolphin tours. Dolphins are abundant in these waters; we’d seen several from the window of the Seabrin Guest House in Aberystwyth. We chose a tour run by the Cardigan Bay Marine Wildlife Centre, which uses its profits to fund research into the sea life on this part of the Welsh coast. The sea was calm and the sun shone fine so we weren’t worried as we stepped aboard an inflatable motorboat with a half dozen other people.

This good weather was our undoing. The calm conditions had made the fish move further out to sea, and the dolphins had followed them. As we made our way down the coast on our one-hour ride we saw exactly none. Oh well. It’s best to remember that nature isn’t there for our amusement.

This stretch of Welsh coastline is beautiful, with jagged rocks rising high out of the sea. The strata of the rocks is clearly visible, which allowed me to give the kid a lesson in geology, and the cliffs are dotted with numerous caves that smugglers (our boat captain called them “pirates”) used to elude the customs agents. My son was more disappointed about there being no pirates than he was about the lack of dolphins! All was made better when he got to sit in the captain’s chair.

One local told me that New Quay isn’t the most pleasant place to be at night in the summertime. A lot of rough people come into town to get drunk and start fights, and two of his friends got knifed in one incident. We saw a big fight in Aberystwyth too. This isn’t unusual in the UK. When I lived in London, I regularly saw fights on the street on Friday and Saturday nights. It’s just a sad fact of life in this part of the world.

Still, we had a nice day and the kid had a great time and got to experience something new, which is what really matters. Tomorrow I’ll be blogging about a steam train we took through some beautiful Welsh countryside. Unlike my last two posts on Wales, this one will be entirely positive!