THE LAND WHERE LICHENS GROW

IN SEARCH OF THE SCOTTISH PRIMROSE ON ORKNEY – WHILST DREAMING ABOUT THE STORY OF CITRUS IN ITALY

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Gatwick airport, Thursday 15th May 2014.  I check the weather forecast for the weekend ahead on my iPhone.  Forecast for London over the weekend: a scorcher, rising to 28ºC.  Edinburgh (where we will spend the night): not bad, quite sunny today at least, temperatures may reach 18ºC.  Stromness, Mainland, Orkney – three hundred miles further north, where we are heading the next day – maximum daytime temperature 8ºC. Rain.

the tough sea

Coastline on Mainland Orkney – Sunday 17 May 2014

We have a lovely evening in Edinburgh and stroll around tamely in our shirt sleeves munching tiny hand baked oat cakes unpasteurised Orkney Cheddar from specialist cheese shop I.J Mellis.mellis

We admire the elegant lifestyle of an Edinburgh dweller in his idyllic Mews house with the fragrant Syringa meyeri ‘Palibin’ exactly matching the faded raspberry paint of his front door:

edinburgh lilacAs we settle down in the small plane for a weekend on Orkney I ignore the fact that the temperature gauge outside must be plummeting and sink back into Helena Attlee’s wonderful sensual and sun-filled account of the citrus in Italy, ‘The Land Where Lemons Grow’.

It is a brilliant, constantly surprising history of the impact of Citrus on  communities across Italy at different times.  But is arguably a dangerous choice for this particular trip.  “You only have to fly into Catania airport in Sicily in late spring to appreciate the raw power of zagara (citrus blossom) for, as the doors open, the scent will bludgeon its way onto the plane … green buds form like a haze all over the sour orange tree, opening into pure white, five-petalled stars around a clutch of yellow stakes.  Zagara fills the air with an invasive, migrant scent ….”

When we arrive at our hotel in Kirkwall things are a little grey and treeless but we are glad to note that the our hotel offers one potential – does the name ‘Highland Park’ mean anything to you? – way to cheer us up:

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Before I put on my bobble hat and waterproof trousers for the first major expedition of the weekend I sneak in a few more dreamy lines from Ms Attlee:

“Silence, heat, a scent of wild fennnel and a view across the great bowl of the Conca d’Oro to the blank blue sea beyond … a common orange, like the Navel or Valencia has a sugary, one-dimensional taste.  Eating a Sicilian blood orange is a much more complex experience.  Take the Tarocco: its meltingly soft flesh also has a high sugar content, but its sweetness is balanced by high acidity.  The result is a complicated, multi-dimensional flavour that unfolds slowly, subtly, beguilingly … wafer-thin discs of its marble flesh are combined with fennel, good olive oil, salt, a sprinkiling of choopped fennel leaves and black pepper, or used in pale pink risotto, bright red jelly and dark pink ice cream …”

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Detail of Botticelli’s ‘Spring’ in the inside cover of ‘The Land where Lemons Grow’

I am riveted by the history of the the complex art of creating perfume from the essential oil of the bergamot. In 1708, when he was only 23,  Giovanni Marina Farina invented a bergamot based perfume named Eau de Cologne after the city where he lived.  In a letter to his brother he described his invention as “the scent of a spring morning in Italy, of mountain narcissus and citrus blossom after rain”.

I read on – it is as if I have been personally rumbled: “for his northern European customers the perfume conveyed the exotic essence of everything they yearned for in the sunny south”. Eau de Cologne “became the perfume of the great houses and royal courts of the eighteenth century Europe” … Voltaire described is as a “fragrance that inspired the spirit” and if you visitied Goethe “you would have found him writing beside a box of rags soaked in the stuff”

Enough! (I may or may not have ordered a bottle of the original Farina 1709 cologne using the hotel wifi before going out and join the others on the bus.)

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Farina 1709 Eau de Cologne

This afternoon, as the sky hangs thick and white-grey around us, we are in search of the Scottish Primrose.  It is a slightly crazy sight – forty or so conservation experts and environmentalists (plus the odd spouse)  spilling out onto an RSPB maritime heath reserve to search for this diminutive, scarce, plant.

2 blokes in search of a primrose

The heathland looks vast and unpromising but it is only here in Caithness and Sutherland – these days mostly in protected areas of wild habitat – and only in May and then again in July that we have a hope of finding this dark purple primrose, 4cm high and 8mm in diameter with five heart shaped petals ….

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Then at last!

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Non is on the case

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Primula Scotica – each flower less than a quarter of my finger nail

Tiny, rare, an incredible survivor. I am struck by how important it is for a jewel like this to get the chance to carry on.

By the next morning I am in a new phase and start falling for the incredible greens yellows and ochres that pervade Orkney.

I love the unstoppable ranks of flag iris that march onwards towards the shore:iphone flag iris

And the pale dancing leaves of Silverweed (Argentina anserina) amongst the turf:

silverweedSilverweed – Argentina anserina

I love the natural artfulness of  flag iris and marsh marigold planting itself deftly into the folds of a stream:

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Flag Iris (Iris pseudacorus) and Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris)

And then I get to see the lichen.  The walls of the sixteenth century St Magnus’ Church on the island of Birsay are enveloped in the most wonderful velvety camouflage of rich ochre. st magnus church

St Magnus’ Church, Birsay

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Lichen on dry stone walls surrounding St Magnus’ Church, Birsayst magnus gate post

Handsome rocket-shaped gate post, St Magnus’ Church, Birsay

st magnus dry stone stepsIngenious – lichen-laced – steps built into dry stone wall around St Magnus’ Church

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My particular favourite map-of-the-world lichen

The famous Ring of Brodgar – the beautiful neolithic henge and stone circle surrounded by sea, the cleanest air and wild flower meadows – provide even more addictive examples of lichen on stone.
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Three standing stones from the Ring of Brodgar


brognar stone 2A powerful standing stone piercing the sky – incredible lichen

brognar lichen 1 Close up of white-on-grey lichen on a stone from The Ring of Brodgar

brognar lichen 2 Close up of paint-splash lichen on a stone from The Ring of Brodgar

broganr lichen 2 Velvety lichen on a stone from the RIng of Brodgar

Elsewhere the cliffs are gorgeously stepped and lightly coated with the same rich yellow:
drystone cliffs 2

We are in this spot for a long while – entranced by the swooping lines of Kittiwakes and gannets. Shocking to learn that the numbers of Kittiwakes alone have diminished by 87% in the last five years.  Sweet lacy clumps of ribwort plantain and bobbing pink thrift edge the cliff.IMG_3514

Thrift and Ribwort Plantain

Even the world under the clearest seawater shares the same gold against grey palette:IMG_3500

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We walk past a beautifully restored house with handsome crow-stepped gables. The house is in the ultimate position with a dry-stone walled garden that wanders loosely down to the shore.  There was obviously only one colour to paint it:

dreamhouse iphotoOchre house on Birsay, Orkney

As we look out of the bus window on the way home I realise that in this raw land of outstanding natural beauty I have found something new to dream about:
dream house thru bus window















View from bus window of sea, sky and ochre house on Birsay, Orkney

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