An afternoon cuppa, come hell or high water

Although carry on kayaking sounds very British, to do so at 4pm, simply wouldn’t do.

Tea is as British as some of our most famous exports including punk rock, queuing, fair play, football and hooliganism and, Octane being miles from civilisation is no reason to lower standards. Come hell or high water, the Scottish seas offering much of both, we stop for a cuppa at 4pm.

Boiling water

For its pure simplicity the Kelly Kettle is much loved means of boiling water the world over – it can be fuelled with small twigs and eliminates the need for transporting heavy fossil fuels or prolonged sessions gathering driftwood and boils water more quickly than any camping gas cooker on the market.

When in need of a cup of tea, with no wood fuel available as is often the case on Hebridean islands, the Kelly Kettle comes into its own. So efficient is its conduction of heat the process of making tea can be done with minimum fuel (such as dry sprigs of heather or small twigs) and with minimum time. I know of no other method of boiling water as quickly.

Sheltered flame

Furthermore, the fire heating the water within the kettle is sheltered from wind by the internal chimney shape of the kettle itself – a most useful feature on exposed wilderness Hebridean islands. Once the water is boiled the hot embers can be used to light a campfire which otherwise might be challenging in the wind or rain.

Avoiding dehydration

A 5% reduction in the body’s hydration levels can result in a 50% reduction in paddling performance. In summer months in Scotland an active sea kayaker should not only be drinking about two litres of water a day should also be eating well for dehydration is caused by the loss of water, sugar and salts combined.

Drinking little and often is the best method of avoiding dehydration and two or three litres is quite a few cuppas – not necessarily not a problem for the British who like to busy themselves drinking 60 bullion cups of tea a year.

It started with tea

Many other countries were as technologically advanced as Britain in the early nineteenth century yet the industrial revolution started here – why so?

The manning of industry’s factories required an urban density never achieved before elsewhere because plague and pestilence traditionally limited urban population growth. Accordingly, densely populated areas were often decimated by plague during population peaks. However, because the British started to boil their drinking water first to make new found Indian and Chinese teas, their water was purified killing all harmful bacteria and protozoa. Furthermore, as belt and braces, the tea leaf itself is a natural disinfectant.


Empire links with India gave Britain tea and trade links with the West Indies gave the same people sugar soon making a virtuous circle of tea lovers, sugar addicts and shopkeepers. This holy trinity enabled urban populations to increase to unprecedented levels thus supplying manpower to those dark satanic mills.

Food for thought

So, the discovery of a rather modest drink created a virtuous circle of trade, cleanliness and addiction fuelling the industrial machine to define the modern world in which we live today. Worth pondering next time you sip a cup of afternoon Rosy Lee.


Botanist’s field day

The remote and tranquil island of Ulva is best known for The Boathouse – a tearoom with food so good, thankfully few visitors venture far from its creamy coffees and sticky buns.

The small island has beautiful white beaches, azure clear waters and remains one of my favourite of all Hebridean islands for fishing, diving and wild camping.

With shallow waters over white sands along its wilderness shore and a sheltered  archipelago bay of skerries, kelp foredt and playful seals on its south side the island offers much to explore.

What’s more, after a three or four hour kayak, nothing quite compares to the relief of sitting in The Boathouse and succumbing to its baked temptations.

Flora diversity

Today, we dive over the sands at Tràigh Bhàn in search of scallops between the shore and Eilean na Craoibhe, a small island skerry thirty metres off Ulva.

Sitting on a rock between descents I meet a scientist from Edinburgh University studying the effects of grazing on Ulva’s flora diversity. He is creating areas fenced off from both livestock and deer to obtain comparative counts of flora diversity in areas with and without grazing.

Keen from the off to stamp this conversation with a scientist with my bluster of amateur observations — wild thyme set back from the dunes and an early purple orchid near to an abandoned black house.

Nodding quietly he pauses and tells me the same lightly grazed seaward slopes also include eyebright, stonecrop, centaury, sea plantain, Iceland purslane, purple saxifrage, mountain avens, slender St John’s wort, scarlet pimpernel, thrift, cotton grass, yellow iris, foxgloves, wild hyacinth, primrose, dog rose and common spotted orchids.


Realising I’m being outgunned in talk of open grassland and machair flora I try to outflank him with knowledge of Ulva’s small broad leafed decidious copses.

I tell him, in the cool shade of the twisted dwarf oaks, there is wood vetch and ransoms in abundance. He listens patiently to my sparring, politely humouring my churl and again nods all the while as if buying time to refill the magazine of his rare flora knowledge gun.

Botanist field day

With my pause and his gentle tap of the trigger he tells me of sea campion bobbing in the wind from ocean facing granite cliffs, of birds foot-trefoil, otherwise known as bacon and eggs for its garish red and yellow colouring, of the carnivorous habits of butterwort in dissolving the insects it catches In its bog soil home so lacking in nutients and of the heath spotted orchid and its Gaelic name Mogairlean Mòintich deriving from its two rounded root tubors resembling testicles.

I tell him it’s a delicately chosen name for such a bonnie flower and he chuckles. This friendly botanist is having a field day so I bow out and ask him how long he is here. He tells me he is staying on Ulva for three months to collect data and he walks three miles to the Ulva Ferry each Saturday to get to Mull whereupon he walks five miles on to Salen’s food store for his much needed provisions. At the end of the day, and carrying 40 pounds of shopping, he does the leg in reverse.

He tells me last week he forgot loo roll.

Vikings are coming

If you find yourself in Shetland and see men with horned helmets waving axes, there is perhaps plenty to fear — you are in Up Helly A, among a thousand Vikings running amok.

Norse explorers made much of Scotland their own in the late 800s and there are now signs of a Viking revival.

Moreover, historian David Starkey has recently confirmed the validity of a legal claim for the return of some Scottish islands to Norway and Denmark.

Hebridean past

Norse explorers and warriors made the Hebrides their own in the late 800s AD. When Vikings landed at Iona in 795, fuelled by the taste for previous sackings of ecclesiastical outposts such as Lindisfarne, they killed some 100 monks on what is now known on Iona as Martyr’s Bay. The event made distinct from other similar events on Britain’s coastlines by the sheer numbers involved.

The neighbouring island of Staffa takes its name from the Norse word ‘staiiive’ and it is apparent why at first sight of Fingal’s Cave, with its basalt column structure. The island of Gometra takes its name from the Norse for ‘Island of the God Man’ (possibly referring to a lone monk staying there from nearby monastic island of Iona) and Jura stems from Old Norse Dyrøy meaning ‘Beast Island’.

Indeed some living in the Shetland Isles feel more closely aligned to Norway than to Scotland and England doesn’t get a look in.

Viking DNA

The Scots were hard rulers and banned the use of the Norwegian language in an attempt to reduce ties with Norway but, despite the influx of workers from throughout Britain, 30% of Shetlanders and Orcadians are directly descended to Norse Vikings.

Indeed, in Lerwick, you will see streets named after King Erik, Saint Olaf, King Haakon, and King Harald. Even the Shetland accent is a hybrid of Scots and Norwegian. Norwegian monarchs and politicians visit regularly, not just as tourists but, importantly to note, in official capacity to engagements such as the opening of museums and cultural sites.

Scottish independence

This should be of no surprise – Lerwick, the Shetland capital, is closer to Oslo and Copenhagen than it is to London. It is the same distance from London as are the Pyrenees. There is 100 miles of sea between them and the Scottish mainland and 200 miles further to Edinburgh. As a result of this and their genetic ties, they see themselves as Shetlanders and Orcadians first. The majority is in favour of keeping the United Kingdom united but they do not see themselves as Scottish and, with the Scottish National Party on the loose, their future is a moot point.

Oil grab

Interestingly some say that, if Scotland does one day win independence, many in these northern isles will not want to be attached to a country they feel no natural connection with. Although there are only 50,000 inhabitants and the islands’ financial contribution to UK coffers is grossly disproportionate to its population due to ‘their’ North Sea oil. They are a powerful voice.

Of course others insist that to say the oil of the East Shetland Basin belongs to Shetlanders is like saying Yorkshire coal belongs to the people of Leeds.

Norwegian resistance

All this being said, it seems that WWII has played a pivotal role encouraging a Viking revival. Ties between Shetland and Norway were vital during the war and a Norwegian naval unit known as the ‘Shetland Bus’ was established to supply the Norwegian resistance with weapons and supplies.

Furthermore, the invasion of Norway by Germany resulted in the unearthing of legal documents, authenticated by historian David Starkey, claiming Britain only has the Shetlands and the Orkneys ‘on loan’.

Island pawned

In 1460, Christian I, ruler of Norway and Denmark, had a daughter Margaret betrothed to James III of Scotland. Lacking funds to pay the dowry he sold the Orkneys and Shetlands to the Scottish crown. However, Christian stipulated that future Norwegian kings were entitled to buy back the islands for 210 kilograms of gold or 2,310 kilograms of silver. Today, it is estimated that, with inflation, the sum could be $3.7 billion.

Scottish agents were believed to have destroyed the documents but one remaining copy has been unearthed in Russia. It is thought that the Nazis looted them during the 1939 invasion and, at the war’s end, the papers were taken from Berlin by victorious Russians. This of course begs the question – was Hitler planning to buy the Shetlands and the Orkneys?

Shetlands for sale

Norwegian Finance Minister Sigbjørn Jahnsen has now tabled a motion to use Norway’s Oil Fund revenue to make a purchase on behalf of the Norwegian and Danish governments. He said: “This could be one of the most lucrative and ethical investments we make with our Investment Fund monies.”

David Starkey said: “There is no doubting the wording of the laws contained in these ratified lawbooks. Should Denmark or Norway make the requisite dowry repayment, Scotland must return the sovereign territories – they have no right over the islands in any type of constitutional law. The only contentious issue appears to be just how much the 10,000 Kroner would be worth in today’s currency.”

Tight leash

Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs Fiona Hyslip said: “We are currently seeking alternative views on the legal implications of these laws. The Scottish government is sure they wouldn’t stand up to the rigours of modern international advocacy.”

Alister Ingster of the Shetland Islands independence campaign, said “things will be much better under Norway than under the Scots” and politicians in Norway are listening: “We must take Shetlanders saying that they feel a stronger connection to Norway than to Edinburgh seriously,” says Kristian Norheim, the foreign policy spokesman of the Norwegian Progress Party.


However, with stakes so high, no government will back down easily. Shetlanders have one of Europe’s largest reserves and will enjoy calling the shots for the foreseeable future. However, for so long as the islands remain part of the United Kingdom neither Norway nor Denmark has a legal case.

If Scotland gets independence, it is unlikely that Shetlanders and Orcadians will accept their new owners quietly – for all it may take a skilled legal team, a wee Sterheid Rammy and a suitcase of money for the Vikings to be landing on our shores again.

Staffa, 9 kt geological treasure

Barely half a mile long between its furthest corners, the global fame of this remote outcrop’s basalt column caves ensure this tiny island boxes well above its weight.

Staffa escaped the world’s attention for some time. Small and low lying, the remote island is unremarkable from a distance and sits quietly on the horizon three miles in the distance from Ulva off the Isle of Mull. Sometimes, on approaching Staffa and if the sea is coming from the right direction, Fingal’s Cave can be heard before it is seen. A distant booming from the hazy horizon sounding like naval guns in the distance.

Stafr Ey

Staffa has been named so since the Viking occupations of the west coast of Scotland starting in about 890AD and the name is derived from the Old Norse words Stafr meaning pillar or post and Ey meaning island. It is commonly understood Fingal’s Cave is named after the Irish mythical hero Finn (or Fingal in its Scottish form) but this is a Victorian romanticism historically accurate as the Arthurian Legends.


According to Barthélemy Faujas de Saint Fond, a French geologist developing his theory for the origins of volcanoes at the time of his visit to Staffa, the true name of the cave is An Uaimh Bhinn, which translates as the ‘Musical (or melodious) Cave’.

Sir Joseph Banks, the botanist and explorer, visited Staffa in 1772 and wrote ‘we asked the name of it. Said our guide The Cave of FiuhnWhat is Fiuhn? Said we. Fiuhn MacCoul, who the translator of Ossian’s works has called Fingal’.

Chinese whispers

Now, the pronunciation of Uamh Bhin sounds very much like Uamh Finn so, unfortunately, the guide, without conferring with his informant, may have assumed the wrong meaning which was possibly more familiar to his ears. So Sir Joseph assumed that its name was Fingal’s Cave. 

The booming noise is caused by powerful sea surges creating shock waves of compressed air escaping from the confines of the cave’s naturally arched vault roof. As sea conditions calm the cave’s size creates softer eerie echoing sounds produced by lapping waves, with many comparing the acoustics to that of a cathedral.

This ‘musical’ resonance inspired Mendelssohn to write Hebrides Overture (Fingal’s Cave) Opus 26 in 1830 although some believe it was already written before Mendelssohn saw the cave. Indeed Mendelssohn’s more visible reaction during his trip to the cave was that of being violently seasick in the swell. However, on his return to dry land on Mull Mendelssohn is said to have immediately requested the use of a piano where he worked to create some of the melodies conceived in his mind on sight of the cave. On the Sabbath and in the heart of Puritan Scotland he was reprimanded for such sinful behaviour.


Neighbouring inhabitants of Staffa, not knowing of the more mundane landscapes beyond their everyday, had not thought basalt columns particularly remarkable as similar columns are found on neighbouring Mull and Ulva, indeed also on neighbouring Irish coastlines around The Giant’s Causeway. This is simply how they thought rock was and it took the eyes of outsiders to note their extraordinary form.

Sir Walter Scott declared it to be ‘one of the most extraordinary places I ever beheld’ and Queen Victoria noted in her diary ‘when we turned the corner to go into the renowned Fingal’s Cave the effect was splendid, like a great entrance to a vaulted hall’.


Banks described the cave as ‘one of the greatest natural curiosities in the world’ and went on, ‘compared with this what are cathedrals and palaces built by man?’ Whilst it could be said Sir Joseph Banks might not carve his name in the knave of St Paul’s or any other of the great cathedrals and palaces built by man he did not hesitate to do so in the depths of the cave – leaving his initials “J.B.1772”.

Fingal’s Cave has since been visited by Dr Johnson, Walter Scott, Keats, Wordsworth, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Turner, Jules Verne, Queen Victoria and Robert Louis Stevenson. It has also been a site of academic and artistic study by volcanologists, geologists, cartographers, artists, writers and poets.

Piccadilly Circus

The impressive structural grandeur of Staffa was in tune with the romantic movement of the early nineteenth century and, in the 1820s, a Glasgow based shipping company made weekly voyages in a paddle steamer putting 300 passengers at a time on shore to marvel at the cave’s splendour where a lone piper played, adding theatre to such occasions. In 1835 a turbine steamer started landing 800 people, such was the popularity of the cave as part of The Grand Tour. Now a multitude of smaller and more mobile boats take visitors there from more local departure points such as the Ulva Ferry.

Thankfully a planning application for a hotel, pier and chalets was refused just a few years preceding the island’s transfer of ownership to The National Trust in 1986 and the island’s position as a wilderness nature reserve now looks secure. Apart from a couple of black house ruins slowly returning to nature there are no permanent human footprints visible on the exterior of Staffa.

There is however, in the heart of the World Heritage ancient site that is Fingal’s Cave, an orange plastic life ring screwed to the ancient basalt column wall reminding us all that, even in a deserted and uninhabited wilderness sanctuary far on the horizon, there’s no escape from central government’s jobs worth health and safety executive.


A storm cloud gathers

A philosophical clash of class, nationalism and tradition in Scotland might well shake up Europe’s last surviving feudal nation.

A seven-year ecological survey commissioned by Forestry Commission Scotland, the most detailed report ever on British woodland, has revealed a worrying picture of overgrazing, deer population explosion, tree disease, invasive non-natives and ongoing destruction of ancient woodland.

Meanwhile other groups insist grazing has decreased over generations with estates diligently managing their land, biodiversity and rights to roam.

Big ol’ barney

The consensus among campaigning ecological groups is overgrazing has become a problem in Scotland and commercial pressure on landowners to monetise estates through intense livestock farming and stalking is putting excessive pressure on flora and fauna. Some say deer populations are out of control.

Stairheid rammy*

A storm cloud is gathering for a clash between the Scottish ‘people’ and the 500 landowners owning more than half of the nation’s land – it’ll be a big ol’ barney or, as the Scotts will say, there’ll be a rammy at the stairheid.

Out of control

Recent population estimates by Scottish Parliament researchers suggest there are as many as 400,000 red deer, an increase of up to 80% since the 1960s. This increase dramatically and visually affects ecology and the landscape.

Dr Maggie Keegan, head of policy and planning at the Scottish Wildlife Trust, says —

“If you drive up and down Scotland looking for a natural tree line, looking for montane scrub, you just don’t see it pretty much anywhere apart from two kilometres close to the Cairngorms

Too much control

However, Jamie Williamson, of Scottish Land and Estates, says grazing has decreased over generations —

“200 years ago we had far more cattle, sheep, feral goats and horses on our hills”

“These have transformed to mainly sheep. In the last 10 years alone we’ve had 1.4 million sheep coming off our hills. The impact of that is we’ve gone from a situation in 1800 that you could regard as overgrazing to a situation now where you’re getting rank vegetation and wildfire problems”

The country is in danger of losing biodiversity, he admits —

“Though the sheep have come off by one and a quarter million in the last 10 years, that has been in no way replaced by deer. The deer numbers have been relatively static”

Two compelling, arguments at the stairheid.

Ecological desert

Looking at it in the round 77% of Scottish woodland is now made up of conifer plantations, virtual ecological deserts.

Native oak trees on the other hand, trees once a plenty in now rare Caledonian Foredtry, support an amazing 400+ different types of invertebrate species whereas the same cannot be said for conifers or spruce, which might support 10% of that diversity.

Money, money, money

However, the latter grow up to six times faster and are a superior cash crop for landowners who say they will otherwise find it hard to monetise their land.

Furthermore, a tree’s value for animal life does not end with the death of the tree. Rotting wood, a natural phenomena in natural woodland, hosts about 1,700 different kinds of invertebrates but is of no use to those managing plantations for timber.

Perfect storm

When contentious issues of class division, land, access, sports hunting, foreign land ownership and the legacy of highland clearances stir the pot this rammy is the perfect storm.

On the one stairwell, the ‘toff’ landed gentry, sporting estates and issues of class, land and access who consider recently introduced laws of land reform to be a Mugabe style land grab.

On the other, the burgeoning eco groups who have learned the game of political influence and long held the former group in low esteem.

They regard the estates as unnatural, interlopers in the management of national asset land resources and their objective is the wilding of the highlands in the name of biodiversity.

The philosophical clash means the issue may get very dirty, very quickly.


*For those unfamiliar with the Scottish lingo click here an insight to Glasgow tenement carry-ons and the dynamics of a stairheid rammy

Drinking dirty water

If the situation arises where un-purified water must be drunk to avoid dehydration basic precautions can be taken to avoid illness.

  1. Remove any suspended particles and organic matter
  2. Let the water stand for at least an hour
  3. Remove the clear water without disturbing the sediment
  4. Pour through a coffee filter
  5. Repeat the process
  6. Drink in small amounts at a time

If in a rural or third world area with shops a markedly more efficient and quicker method of purifying water is to buy readily available aluminium sulphate or alum (sometimes known as pickling powder).

Add ¼ tsp per gallon of water, wait for 5 minutes stirring occasionally. A floc will settle on the bottom and the clear water above should be decanted ready for drinking


A very common lobster

The European lobster, also known as the common lobster, has always been a king of foods in Britain. Elsewhere however he has much been sneered at.

Originally in the States lobster was so reviled as a food it was used only for fertiliser and fish bait. Later, the lobster was catapulted to stardom in menu America due to its wide availability as a canned food deemed only fit for slaves, servants and society’s lower classes.

Very common lobster

Servants even specified in employment contracts that they would not be forced to eat lobster more than twice in any given week and, much to the displeasure of prisoners, canned lobster was a staple diet for inmates in America’s penal system.

America’s more cosmopolitan east coasters of New York and Boston gradually adopted the lobster and it rose in popularity and value from the mid 1800s onwards. He has, ever since, been on a rocket to universal stardom.

However, the lobster in America still holds an extraordinarily inverse market position where, ironically, new-shell lobsters with delicate sweet meat are cheaper than tougher and more course flavour old-shell lobsters. Whoever suggested Yanks don’t do irony?

New shell lobster

The new-shell lobsters have recently moulted and are new in their delicate paper-thin shells. They also have less meat inside them, as this young lobster has not yet grown into its skin. They are so delicate they do not travel well and only command a smaller and more local market from the harbour towns where they are brought ashore. They are delicious.

Old shell lobster

Older, or hard-shell, lobsters better survive the journey inland to Boston and New York because their shells are firmer. They travel well in their battle hardened and aged armour, stacked high and often air freighted to other countries. Here they can be sold for more because, in true American style, bigger is of course better. But the meat has a courser taste, is not as tender and not as sweet. Economics dictate they can be sold for a greater sum.


Shabby shack chic

The adage to only eat fish if you can see the sea could never be more apt. They say the best place to eat lobster in the states is in a Maine fishing shack. The shabbier shack the better.

At Octane we like to eat ocean-fresh* lobster from the very shore it is caught, on the day it is caught.

* the term fresh is of course relative. On the high-street, at supermarkets and in city restaurants fresh fish means days old so, when patiently waiting for your number to be called at the fish-counter, be ready to ask where your fish is from and how many days ago your fish was likely caught. Supermarkets invent terms to suit their needs and, as a discerning consumer, it really is your right to challenge nonsense. At Octane we have therefore been forced to make a new, differentiated and entirely transparent definition – Ocean-fresh. Simply put, it means caught same-day.