Orkney, Oysters and Oysterplant

We had a ridiculously wonderful week’s holiday in Orkney.  Expecting windswept, wet and cold marginal land where nothing grows, but instead found fertile, weather-rich  (every kind in a day) and unique countryside, wrapped in glittering sea and sky, nice cheese, good beer, bere-barley bannocks, and Andrew, bless him, even found an apple tree with apples on within minutes of getting off the ferry (reported, doubtless with pictures, on his website www.appletreeman.co.uk) . There were plenty of seaweeds to choose from – bladder wrack, serrated wrack, sea lettuce, kelp (Laminaria digitata), sugarweed (Laminaria saccharina) and gutweed (Enteromorpha intestinalis) for starters! Most seaweeds are cookable when camping, even with our primitive trangia, because all they need is a wash and a rapid stir-fry. I do find the filmy ones easier, though, because you don’t need to cut them up. Wish we were nearer the coast at home, then I could experiment with different cooking methods.

Orkney is famed for its fish and seafood, and although we had to buy them, it was a wonderful near-neolithic experience picknicking on a beach by a prehistoric village on dived native oysters (Ostrea edulis) with Orkney oatcakes. Thanks to the oyster man for lending us his oyster knife!

We spent much time (between visiting prehistoric sites), botanising. Went in search of Scotland’s endemic primrose (Primula scotica) and found it, in abundance, on the spectacular cliffs at Yesnaby. We were in between flowering periods, so it was mostly seed heads, but an endemic in its native habitat is a wonderful find for a plant twitcher. However, we had the scary experience there of being dived on by bonxies, or great skuas, beastly great birds almost as aggressively territorial as Homo sapiens… Artcic skuas were about, too, and on the island of Eday (LOVELY place! LOVELY cake too, thanks Chris and Peter!) we watched red-throated divers on Mill Loch. Everywhere, the wild flowers were so abundant it was heavenly, the road verges providing the sort of floral display Perth Council pays good money to get; I can’t remember all we saw now, but three edible plants stand out:

Rose-root (Sedum roseum), clinging to the steep, deep edges of a GLOUP (basically a huge pit in the cliff due to the lower strata caving in). I have rose-root in the garden and sell it, but have never seen it in the wild before.

The same is true of Scots Lovage,, which I was thrilled to find sprouting freely on the shingle beach below the campsite. It was delicious – stronger in flavour than my garden specimen. Annoying how it obviously seeds itself merrily on a stony beach, but can I get the seeds from mine to germinate?

And on the same beach, one I’d only ever seen in books, the Oysterplant (Mertensia). With blue-grey, succulent leaves, and azure blue flowers, this member of the borage family is rare in the wild, and you wouldn’t dream of picking very much of it even though it was plentiful on this beach. It is absolutely beautiful. It is so named because the leaves are said to taste of oysters. I love oysters, as you’ve heard, and if you’ve never had one, imagine a taste that is the smell and lazy feel of dipping in rock pools on a clean coast on a warm, summer’s day. A plant that tastes like that?

Be assured, the Oysterplant really does!

The wildest thing I saw in Orkney was coming back from Eday to Kirkwall on the ferry. It was a hot, sunny evening, the sea calm and sparkling. I stood on deck and shut my eyes, just enjoying the sunshine and the peace and sea-smells. When I opened them, a minke whale surfaced and went down, up a few more times, then gone. I’d never seen a whale before. What can you say. It was magic.

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