Friday, May 20, 2011

Day 11 South Ronaldsay & East Mainland, Orkney

We start the day at Tomb of the Eagles on South Ronaldsay. Ronnie Simison found a Bronze Age dwelling on his farm in 1957 at the edge of a field. Because his efforts to get archeologists interested in his site failed, he excavated the site himself in 1973-74. In 1958 he discovered the tomb and excavated that in 1976. That is why today here and at no other sites,  you can touch the artifacts and bones because they are still owned by his family. Ronnie, now 89, has turned the running of the visitor center and sites over to his family.
 Daughter Freda gave us an excellent introduction to the artifacts and bones found in the dwelling and the Tomb.
 These people were very skillful at making their own tools and using what was at hand. They carved and drilled into stone, made Unstunware pottery, used antlers, shale, animal teeth and eagle claws for everyday household items and adornment. The people lived to be no older than 45 and girls ages 11-13 gave birth
Bronze age site
Along the one mile walk from the visitor centre/croft you first come to the Bronze age site.

The Tomb of the Eagles sits right on the edge of the sea
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 100 people. The White tailed sea eagle went extinct here in 1918. The eagle claws were a status symbol for the ancient people.
Weathervane at the site
 The tomb dates back to the Stone Age, between 4000-5000 BC. Two archeologists who have worked on site figured the tomb was used for 800 years. Currently an archeologist is studying the human bones to learn what the people ate, how they worked, and what they died from. 
Tomb entrance

 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 through the ground level entrance. 
John W. entering on the trolley
 Once inside, it is big enough for several people to stand. The tomb has 3 side cells. Parts of the tomb have never been excavated. The currant archeological inquiries are being carried out by the Orkney Research Centre for Archeology.
Eveyln S. and Linda Ru. inside the tomb

It’s easy to see why the blues in Leila Thomson’s tapestries are so stunning. Water surrounds her Hoxa studio and gallery and  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. 15 years ago she opened her gallery and now visitors from around the world view her stunning work.
Leila Thomson, tapestry artist
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's tapestry at the Kirkwall Public Library
 Leila always weaves to music ranging from Metallica to the London Philharmonic. She likes the volume loud. As Leila readily admits “I work in a state of splendid isolation.”
Leila and son Andrew
She is thrilled to have her son Andrew join the business this year. He is running the gallery and updating her website so that Leila can work on approximately 4 commissions she weaves each year.

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
One of the Churchill Barriers
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.

Italian Chapel created by POW's from a Nissan hut
 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.
Light fixture made from tin cans and scrap metal
 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.
Interior, Italian Chapel
Sheila Fleet, is the sister of Leila Thomson. There is no shortage of artistic talent and vision in that family. In 15 years Sheila’s business has grown to 50 employees. Sheila is the chief designer, creating 3 new collections each year. She has done a total of 150 collections so far.
Sheila Fleet explaining a process to our group
 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 enamelers 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.
Applying enamel
 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 purchased a piece of Sheila's jewelry to remind them of the pristine Orkney landscape that inspires Sheila's fabulous designs. When I teach weavers, I encourage them to use what surrounds them in their everyday life to inspire their work and send them to Sheila's website for the finest examples. See her latest  collections, ‘Tidal’, ‘Rowan’, and ‘Pebbles’.
Fourteen years ago as I walked off the ferry  with a large backpack, 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. So many people play pipes on the island that the award winning Kirkwall Pipe Band has 3 bands. Stromness also has a winning pipe band. Arnie says there are more than 200 pipers on the islands. Considering only 20,000 people live on the islands, 10% are playing the pipes, and many additional playing accordians, fiddles, guitars, banjos, mandolins, piano, and singing.  Surely there is something in water and the air that nourishes this musical fever.
Arnie and Mina Flett
 Arnie  entertained us with tunes on his chanter and Mina sang 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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