Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Animals of Lewis, Scotland

To be sure the Outer Hebrides islands have a wide variety of animal life, both domestic and wild.  The Scottish Highland Cattle are strange sights as one drives the back roads of this island.  I suppose I have actually eaten one of these when I had the hamburger purchased from the local country store.  I probably wouldn't have had I encountered this gentle beast beforehand.

But of course cattle are not as ubiquitous as sheep.  When the croft farmers were evicted from the island in the great "Clearance" of the 1800's, farming was replaced with sheep farming and on our trip I saw many, many more sheep than people.
Management of the herds is different than anywhere else I've seen.  They roam in vast fenced acreage and are marked with paint according to the owner.  Sometimes the markings show several colors and I imagine color combinations and marking location indicate the owner.  They are not all sheared at once as I've seen in Wales and happens in New Zealand for example.  There are no itinerant shearers that travel in to do the work all at once, so the farmer must shear his own sheep.  By all appearances they never completely shear each sheep.  Perhaps a belly on this one, the neck on another, and  the sides on still another.  This makes for an awfully raggedy-looking flock.  They mostly leave their backs unshorn.

There are deer on the island and lots and lots of rabbits.  It must be heaven for rabbits with all the green grass one could want.  Another animal we didn't see was mink.  It seems that mink fur was farmed on the island and escapees from these farms, and some say, deliberate releasing during the clearance period posed dire habitat destruction for water birds.  Ongoing trapping of mink have resulted in the return of populations of birds at serious risk; arctic tern, common tern, little tern, black throated diver, red throated diver, corncrake, dunlin and ringed plover.

Hedgehogs are also present on the island and they too eat ground nesting bird eggs, but they are not in such numbers to seriously threaten habitat.
There seemed to be hundreds of bird species, but it is difficult to tell when thousands of birds are swooping, diving and floating on the water.  These cormorants were curious as our boat entered a sea cave near Gallen Head.

Sea life is abundant here too with many kinds of fish, lobster, muscles, of course Scottish salmon.  Of the many otters and several dolphin species, one of the most interesting sea animals is the basking shark common in these waters.  It can grow to 25 or 30 feet long and the mouth can open wide for plankton filter feeding that a person could stand inside.  We did not happen to see any on this trip so I pulled this photo off the internet.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Lewis Chess Pieces

The most famous chess sets in the world were found on the island of Lewis, Scotland in 1831.  The nature of the find  is somewhat controversial and among the speculations most favored is that a young boy stole away from a ship in a rowboat in the wee hours of the morning bringing with him the chess pieces in a stone carrying case.   Most likely he was escaping the difficult working conditions on the ship and took the pieces as a way to buy his way to a new future. He was observed by a crofter's employee hiding something in a cave among the sand dunes of Uig beach located just over the green sands in this picture.  The story gets more disjointed at this point with the farm hand killing the boy and stealing the pieces for his own.

Of the 93 pieces found, odd pieces from 5 different complete sets, 11 are in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh and the rest are in the British Museum in London.  I was fortunate to view about 30 of the walrus tusk carved animated figures while they were on loan to Edinburgh.  Some pieces had evidence of red dye indicating the two sides were red and white instead of black and white.  These historic relics are the earliest known example the present day configuration of chess in this area of the world.  Earlier versions of chess-like games existed in India, Persia, Portugal, and Spain.

Carved in Norway over 800 years ago is further proof that the Norse Vikings were plying the waters of the Western Isles, as the Outer Hebrides is also known, in the eighth to twelfth centuries in their longboats on their way to Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland.  I am amazed to think that  sophisticated carving and sea navigation was happening that early in history.  The pieces have been dated to between 1150 and 1200.

Some have recently challenged that the piece's origins are actually Icelandic, but it seems clear these pieces are true to life of church and military dress and armor of the day that did not exist in Iceland.

The Harry Potter movies used replicas in the filming of chess playing sequences.