10 July 2010

Desirable Edinburgh

In a poll, Edinburgh was voted the UK's "Most Desirable City" to live in. We have "atmosphere," "culture," "cuisine," and "shopping:"
The report said: "Not only does Edinburgh have lots to offer but the city is safe to visit, easy to get around and the local people are helpful and friendly.
"Aside from its entertainment and leisure offerings, it is also considered a city worth investing in."
See the full story here on the BBC:


09 July 2010

The Shorkneys: Orkney and Shetland in the Viking Age, and St. Magnus

(Note: "Shorkney" is not a real word. We're just using it to write about our recent trip to Aberdeen, Orkney, and Shetland.)

The Viking Age

After about 800 AD, the Vikings began to settle in Orkney and Shetland, though it's unclear whether they conquered the Picts who were already there or simply drove them back to the Scottish mainland.

Shetland and Orkney--but especially Orkney--were extremely important during the Viking Age. First, they lay at the geographical center of Viking maritime culture, situated at the crossroads of the North Sea, the Norwegian Sea, and the Atlantic Ocean.
Second, Orkney included some of the most fertile land in the region, and so developed into one of the richest of the Norse provinces. In fact, as I mentioned in our post on Maes Howe, Orkney is home to the largest collection of Norse runes outside Scandinavia, and the Orkneyinga saga is one of the most important surviving pieces of Viking literature. The bits of these documents I've read are really quite funny: Maes Howe, for instance, is covered with silly boasts about the carvers being the best carvers of runes in the world, and at least one note that seems to compare another Viking's woman to a rabid dog.

Norse culture remains strong in Orkney and Shetland to this day. Though debt forced the king of Norway to give Orkney to the Scottish in 1468, and the Scottish came to dominate Shetland culturally and economically at about the same time, many people in the Northern Isles consider themselves to be about as much Scandinavian as Scottish. There is definitely something Scandinavian about the Shetland dialect, and the modern flags of Orkney (top) and Shetland (bottom) were specifically designed to reflect this Norse heritage.

Compare this to the Norwegian Flag, below, which features the same off-center cross and a similar color scheme.

St. Magnus Cathedral

St. Magnus Cathedral, in Kirkwall, Orkney, is the greatest surviving monument to the Viking Age in the Northern Isles.

The cathedral is dedicated to St. Magnus, a local Viking ruler who was martyred in the 12th century for refusing to participate in a bloody raid in Wales. The oldest parts of the cathedral were built shortly thereafter, in the Romanesque style. This style is characterized by round arches, like upside-down U's, and darker interiors than the later Gothic style (think York Minster or Notre Dame).

The Romanesque style is the same used in Durham Cathedral in England, as well as on Lindisfarne

You can see the round arches on either side of the photo below.
You'll notice that the window at the back, however, is a pointed or "vaulted" arch, in the later Gothic style. The ceiling is also vaulted, as are all the windows in the towers. This is because construction on the cathedral continued until the early 1900s. In fact, there's a sign on the building across the street with a diagram of the exterior of the cathedral showing when each section was built:
As it turns out, some of the most "Gothic" features are actually Victorian, part of the Gothic Revival at the end of the 19th century that gave us college campuses like Yale's.

St. Magnus also has some typically Norse features, such as a longboat on the altar . . .

. . . and interlocking arches, which some have argued are an intermediate stage between rounded arches and vaulted arches.
Bonus: There's a Norwegian consulate in Orkney! It must be one of the smallest towns in the world to host a foreign consulate.

07 July 2010

The Shorkneys Food Update: Bannock Badges???

Thanks to my mom for this amazing heads up: apparently the Canadian Brownies used to offer a Girl Scout (Girl Guides, in Canada) badge in Bannock Making! Further evidence of the strong historical Canadian-Scottish connection?

Check out the badge! (Note: not my image, stolen from the web site cited below)

It is a cryptic image of a pan over a fire. This explains my mom's story, in which she could never get anybody to tell her what a bannock was (in those pre-internet times!), making it basically impossible to figure out how to earn the badge. Which is a shame, because according to this website, the badge stopped being offered 1995, which means I totally could have earned it. Now I know, but alas, too late!

Side note: Just visited the Girl Guides of Canada web site for my first stop to look for the badge. When did Brownie badges get so freaking hideous? Give me the classic gold-on-brown over those Nickelodeon nightmares any day!

06 July 2010

The Shorkneys: Delicious, Delicious Shorkneys

(Note: "Shorkney" is not a real word. We're just using it to write about our recent trip to Aberdeen, Orkney, and Shetland.)

The Orkney and Shetland Islands, I recall reading in the museums, cannot sustain themselves food-wise. Food has to be brought in on the same ferries that we took. While there, we went out of our way to try to get things that were local - not just for the hippy-dippy green food-mile value, but also for the fact that fresh things taste better, and also, heck, we went all the way to Orkney and Shetland. Let's not mess around eating French cheese.

Fortunately for your sake, we didn't photograph everything (between me and Justin, food often doesn't survive long enough to be photographed). But here are some culinary highlights.

First breakfast in Orkney: hotel B&B. I had amazing smoked salmon scrambled eggs (yes, the salmon was mixed into the eggs) and Justin had haddock covered in cheese and a poached egg:


Due to its location on the North Sea and its jagged coastline, Scotland is prime fishing territory. Fish isn't, however, widely eaten here in Edinburgh. I've heard various reasons for it, the most common being that fish has traditionally been so lucrative to tin and sell south that the Scots never kept much back for themselves, but this might not be correct. For whatever reason, despite its prime location, Edinburgh is not a fishy part of Scotland. The Shorkneys, however, are. And God bless 'em for it.

Shetland is even more fish-eating than Orkney because of its lower percentage of arable land. Our Orkney guide articulated the difference as "Orcadians are farmers with fishing boats. Shetlanders are fishermen with farms."

Later in Kirkwall, Orkney: Helgi's

You will notice that Justin couldn't get me to stop eating long enough to take the shot.

Helgi's is delicious and reasonably priced, which our guide (who recommended it) said made it a welcome addition to Kirkwall's waterfront. If you go to the islands, I hear sometimes it can be hard to find a place to eat if you don't make a reservation ("booking" in UK-speak). So you may want to either call or drop into the restaurant earlier in the day or the day before to make sure you get seated.

We were kind of hankering for something green, so on the left, you have a salad with Orkney cheese and candied pear. Top is smoked haddock with beets and horseradish, and lower right is frighteningly delicious mackerel pate. We ordered all of these off the appetizer menu to allow us to try more stuff.

When we weren't quite full, we went for dessert:

Rhubarb and cream. Rhubarb is a hardy little plant that grows extremely well in Orkney, and cream is another famous Orcadian product (if it comes from a cow, Orkney's famous for it). I found the rhubarb completely delicious but thought the ratio was off - the cream got a bit rich because there wasn't enough rhubarb to balance it. On the whole, I would have liked this better on a pie crust so it would have a little more substance.

We had had some rhubarb and ginger jam at lunch earlier that day, which was delicious when spread on Orkney oatcakes (quite possibly my mother-in-law's favorite food in the world). I don't have any pictures; I'm just doing this as an excuse to say "rhubarb" some more. Rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb.

On to Shetland! (Rhubarb).

My friend Sarah, from Lerwick, suggested we get what she considers the world's best fish and chips at the Fort Cafe. Far be it from us to pass up what turned out to be the world's most fried dinner:

Fried haddock, french fries, and onion rings. Fresh vegetables are a bit slim in Shetland. If we lived in Shetland, I'm guessing we'd be the opposite of slim.

We had a fabulous dinner at our hotel but it was kind of a nice place so we didn't want to whip out the camera. We ordered from the appetizer menu again to get more variety. I think it ultimately included a bowl of smoked haddock/paprika chowder, pan fried scallops, and smoked salmon, with a cheese plate for dessert. The cheese was fabulous. The grapes looked a bit limp, but who can blame them? That's certainly how I felt after the ferry ride, and I only came from Kirkwall. Heaven knows where the grapes started out.

We timed our visit to Shetland to coincide with the Flavour of Shetland festival on the Lerwick Waterfront. This gave us the chance to try some local delicacies at the various booths. Here, Justin is eating a seafood gumbo:

Really good. This was actually the first time I'd seen scallops with the bright orange part attached (see here for example). I assumed it was a foot, but I just looked it up for this blog post and discovered that it's actually roe, or eggs. It was lovely. Not quite as rich or as textured as lobster roe - it actually tasted a bit like the small sweet part of a crab claw. Highly recommended!

Also from the Flavours of Shetland pier: bannocks!

(That's the buttery bread things served here with stew which, if I remember correctly, was mutton and potato).

Bannocks are a type of biscuit - "biscuit" in the American sense, not the British sense of "cookie." They are quite delicious, having a doughy, baking soda flavor. You can find some recipes here on the Shetlopedia (of COURSE Shetland has its own pedia.) I think the best are beremeal. No, I don't know what beremeal is. I just know it comes out more brown, and richer and sweeter. Here I am watching the Shetland Cooking demonstration lady make bannocks:

The butter, from a local Shetland dairy, was incredibly sweet, creamy, and smooth. And guess what kind of jam is in that bowl! Yes, RHUBARB. RHUBARB RHUBARB RHUBARB.

Last but not least, our lunch on our final day in Shetland: lamb burgers (lamburgers?). Shetland and Orkney are both known for their lamb, as sheep do well on the windy hills. A fine end to our culinary tourism!

04 July 2010

More Wolfy Goodness

Our beloved Edinburgh Wolves won again today, defeating the Clyde Valley Blackhawks 7-0 on a defensive touchdown - Clyde Valley fumbled near their own 1 yard line, and Edinburgh recovered for the touchdown and the win. Not exactly an offensive struggle, but I think our QB is injured, and win is a win! At 5-2, the Wolves are on top of their division and on pace to make the playoffs. Their final home game is next Sunday. Will Justin and I be there? Do you even have to ask? Besides, we've developed a bit of a reputation with the announcer guys. We couldn't let them down!

More amusing notes about today's game: we met some Scottish guys who had brought an American flag to the game to take a picture, part of a scavenger hunt for their Fourth of July party tomorrow. (Why are they having a Fourth of July party? No clue. Perhaps it involves sticking it to England.) They apparently have to find/photograph something to represent each of the 50 states as part of the hunt. Some are easy, like nutmeg for Connecticut. Others are slightly harder - like, say, North Dakota.

We pitched in, of course. We had met a girl from Missouri who let them photograph her driver's license, and I offered a ticket stub from a screening of the X-Files movie from when I visited my sister in Georgia, and we did an O-H-I-O cheer for my beloved home state (v. appropriate for a football game!)

Some hot photographs of today's game action (photographs shamelessly stolen from friend Grant's Facebook album):

A pretty good crowd, considering the game was up against the Germany-Argentina World Cup Semifinal:

What's that? A mascot?

Heck yeah!

If you're in town, join us next week! And as always, LET'S GO WOLVES!