Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Day 7 South Ronaldsay and Kirkwall, Orkney

Monday 27 April

We started the day at Tomb of the Eagles on South Ronaldsay. Ronnie Simison found a Bronze Age dwelling on his farm in 1958 at the edge of a field. His family runs the visitor center and gives you an excellent introduction to the artifacts and bones found in the dwelling and the Tomb before you walk out one mile to the edge of the sea for viewing. Here are Pam and Sandra on the windy trek. The Tomb of the Eagles is named so because the bones of 14 sea eagles were found in the tomb in addition to the bones of at least 340 people. The tomb dates back to the stone age, between 4000-5000 BC. The tomb was excavated in 1976. 2 archeologists working on site figured the tomb was used for 800 years. To see the inside of the tomb, you either crawl or pull yourself in on a little trolley cart, similar to a mechanic’s creeper. Will chose to crawl! www.tomboftheeagles.co.uk

It’s easy to see why the blues in Leila Thomson’s tapestries are so stunning. Out the window of her Hoxa studio and gallery the water flashes a variety of shades of blue depending on the amount of clouds or sun. After graduating from art school in Edinburgh in 1980, Leila came back home and has been designing and weaving ever since. 13 years ago she opened her gallery and now visitors from around the world view her stunning work.

Leila weaves private commissions, working from her own charcoal sketches and full size cartoons. Working full scale from the initial sketch, she feels her woven work comes out more like a drawing. She interprets and chooses all the colors as she weaves blending a variety of fibers. This really gives the tapestries an energy and vitality often lacking in other pictorial textiles. Words and pile texture are also trademarks in her designs. Leila always weaves to music ranging from Metallic to the London Philharmonic, she likes the volume loud. As Leila readily admits “I work in a state of splendid isolation.” After the tourist season ends in September that is. http://www.hoxatapestrygallery.co.uk/
Orkney abounds in artists. One can pick up maps of the Orkney Craft Trail and visit many studios open from after Easter until the early autumn. When I asked one of the Orcadian artists we visited today why the islands are such magnets for creativity, she suggested that it was the influx of artists who came up here from England that got the movement started in the 60’s.

Driving from South Ronaldsay, you cross several of the Churchill Barriers. The British fleet was stationed here in WWII and the barriers were build using labor of POWs to protect the fleet from the Germans U boats. Before the large concrete barriers, salvage ships were lined up end to end and sunk to create the barriers. One German U-boat managed to penetrate those original barriers and sunk a the HMS Royal Oak, with the cost of over 800 lives. Today the area around the seven remaining WWI German sunken ships is one of the top dive sites in the world.

The Italian Chapel stands on the Island of Lamb Holm just over the fourth barrier. Italian prisoners of war who built the barriers and worked in agriculture, were given a Nissen hut to turn into a chapel. Domenico Chiochetti designed the chapel and the prisoners worked to decorate and furnish it over a period of 3 years with materials they could scrounge. When the prisoners were released at the end of the war, Chiochetti stayed onto finish the work on the chapel. The detailed painting and metal work is a testament to what can be created from nearly nothing when you have dedication and vision. In 1960 the BBC Italian service broadcast that they were looking for the men in charge of building the Italian chapel. Chiochetti responded and the islanders invited him back to refurbish the painting on the inside of the chapel. There continues to be strong ties between Italy and Orkney. http://www.scotsitalian.com/orkney_chapel.htm

Sheila Fleet, is the sister of Leila Thompson. There is no shortage of artistic talent and vision in that family. In 15 years Sheila’s business has grown to 42 employees. Sheila is the chief designer, creating 3 new collections each year. She has done a total of 150 collections so far. We toured the workshop to understand the lost wax method used to produce her jewelry. I found two of the steps extremely interesting. The skill of the master pattern maker who takes each design and hand cuts the metal master has to be exacting. The enamelists also have a painstakingly detailed job, applying the enamel mixture (ground up glass and distilled water) to the jewelry, then curing each piece, one at a time in a tiny kiln on their worktable.
Sheila’s philosophy backs up her talent and work ethic to spell success. “ A measure of success is how you feel about what you are doing. I’m still enjoying myself. You have to look at keeping the balance. Find something you really like doing and you’ll never work again.” If you can't come to Orkney to meet Sheila, she has galleries in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Many of the group left Sheila's wearing a peice of jewelry to remind them of the pristine landscape that inspires Sheila's fabulous designs. www.sheilafleet.co.uk/

Just down the road lies Mine Howe. In 1999 farmer Douglas Paterson bought the land and excavated the site. 29 steps lead down to a room barely big enough for 3 people. What was this chamber used for? No one knows. This site is indicative of Orkney. Many ruins are still to be uncovered, or left to posterity, untouched, the mystery to remain a mystery. www.web.ukonline.co.uk/minehoweweb.home.html

Kirkwall, the largest town in the islands is our home base for exploring the main island. We stayed at the West End Hotel. Proprietor, Mr. Leslie and his staff offer excellent hospitality and comfortable rooms. www.orkenyisles.co.uk/westendhotel/

12 years ago as I walked off the ferry with a large pack on my back, I met the Mina and Arnie Flett. Arnie drove me around to visit artist studios in exchange for me helping him warp a loom he was given. A retired pipe major, Arnie still teaches piping to dedicated students, and he and Mina entertained us with piep tunes and poems after dinner tonight. Mina still glows as she listens to Arnie play a polka he wrote for her. Sitting just a few feet from Arnie as he played tunes he has composed, I discovered that he has the unique ability to circular breath as he is playing, a rare gift for a piper. Skillful artists, ancient stones, good food and conversation and sharing of music, was this not a fine day?

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