Category Archives: environment

Seaweed fuelled fires!

I have been experimenting with local fuels, here in the Orkney Islands where trees are rare.

The obvious potential fuels include: Driftwood, peat, grass, animal dung, heather and seaweeds. Land sources of scrap wood are not discussed here.

Driftwood used to be plentiful with lots of shipwrecked sailing ships and the abundant native woods of the Americas floating over on the North Atlantic Drift. Nowadays we get plastics washed up on the shore.

Sporadic bits of wood can be found, especially in bays, but this is mostly fast burning pallets and rarely bits of boats. These can supplement and slow down the burn but are insufficient for a winter supply.

Animal dung is not easy to collect and dry for domestic use, so I’ll leave that for methane digesters.

Peat is effectively made up of dead but not rotted heather, grass and sphagnum mosses. When dried this has been a a major fuel in Scotland and Ireland, in the absence of wood (for the poorer folks).

Spagnum moss is protected, it’s environment being endangered.

Grass is hard to collect in large enough quantities, burns with an acrid smell and has to be tied into faggots to slow down the burn. Faggots are bundles of small fuel made up usually by poor people who were forced to scavenge on the woodland floors owned by their overlords.

Heather goes up like rocket fuel, giving a hot and rapid flame with a lot of sizzling and a beautiful smell. But it too is now scarce and it’s environment needed for wildlife habitat.

Seaweeds are often very wet. The thick Kelp used to be dried by being draped over stone walls until it had dried in wind and sun (like peat) and was much reduced in size and weight. If gathered at the right time of year, large quantities can be harvested from the strand line when sun dried and reasonably crisp.

Wrack seaweeds cover the inter-tidal zone here beside our house and are the main weed of the strandline, useful for improving soil fertility. When dry they burn well too.

When a few days of dry weather follow a storm it is possible to fork good quantities of relatively light seaweed up to the house, where it needs to be stored dry. The wracks don’t really shrink much, just forming near black tangles of crispy weed. (Tang or Tangles are the local names for the traditional kelp fuel).

Most precious find on the shore forage is white coils of birch bark, rich in oil and traditional fire lighting magic. The fewer the trees, the less there is of this great material. Reforest folks, please.

What are most other people burning to heat their houses and cook food? Imported coal, oil, gas and electricity dominate, with imported peat and wood also on the market. Some electricity is generated locally on the islands, so this is the bulk local fuel, coming from wind and wave / tide.

How to best use these meagre local fuels? They all burn differently, with their own characteristics, flame colours and smells (lovely).

On a bed of dry wrack set a tiny piece of birch bark and lay over this bundles of dry heather tops. Add to this the thicker stems of the heather. Around this place the blocks of peat, with smaller pieces on top of the heather so that as it burns this collapses slowly, avoiding it bridging.

More seaweed can be added above the peat, to help weigh down and also dry it in preparation for burning.

A lot of ash is produced, so keep a good airflow.

Oh, I should point out, the smells of these fires are wonderful, with peat, seaweed and wood being very distinctive. Imagine walking home in the dark, being guided by the familiar smell of your own hearth, different from your neighbours.




Power Off weekend, March 20-21st / Spring Equinox

Turn the power off for 48 hours and enjoy a mini holiday at home with friends, games and traditional entertainment, cooking over a fire maybe.

sausages cooking on the open fire

Prepare yourself for a sudden ‘crisis’ by enjoying one of these Power Off Weekends, be prepared, save money and reduce your carbon footprint, whilst having fun again.

You will love being free of the internet, electric gadgets, work, noise and chores and instead breath a sigh of relief. Some of it may be challenging but we love challenges, right? Especially when only for a weekend. Give it a go, this March 20-21st, which coincides with the Equinox, start of Spring.

Playing games by candle light - like being children again

See all the posts on our Touchwood Project blog about the Power Off weekends – the radio interview clips, photos, 101 things to do without electricity and some feedback from people who tried it. Click on the yellow Power Off logo:

48 hours without electricity - adventure in your own home!

To sign up for the event, see more pictures or just support us, even if you cannot do it this time around, it is best to go to the Facebook Events, Group and Page. Three separate places on Facebook, which confuses me but if you go to the Events page and RSPV to attend, your name will be counted and we will be able to include you in pre-weekend information, questionnaires and tips.

Power Off Event – Facebook

If you join the group on Facebook we will know you support the idea – as too if you become a ‘fan’ on the Power Off Weekends Page. Please do all three – and let us know you care.

Power Off Weekend Group – Facebook

Power Off Weekends Page – Facebook

One more picture, from the mid-winter Power Off weekend:

Reading by natural daylight, keeping warm, enjoying life - flow

How to make Scallop Shell oil lamps using only natural materials

Today, in the spirit of being frugal and eco-friendly, I am going to show you how to make your own lamp using only natural materials.

[Note from Rachel: These also make great presents, so this is Part 4 of my Frugal and Green Christmas Gift series, on the Touchwood Project website. You can find all the projects by clicking on this tag: Christmas.]

Decorating the fireplace for Christmas

Decorating the fireplace for Christmas

This I believe to be one of the earliest of human inventions and in all honesty, it is superior to the man-made, metal equivalent.

For one thing the parts are white and shiny, so reflect more light. For another there are many flutes thus allowing multiple wicks and thus variable brightness (the world’s first ‘dimmer switch’). Oh, and they are free, recyclable and beautiful.

Continue reading

101 Things to do without electricity / Malcolm’s Childhood :)

When I was a kid I was amazed how many people assumed you needed to buy the game to play it, not realising that often you just need pencil and paper. They’d rather buy some tacky plastic game or watch TV than make their own fun! I’m of the play-it-on-paper or build-your-own-game tribe.

Since the Power Off Weekend is just around the corner, 12-13 December, 2009, here are 101 things to do with your friends and loved ones — all without electricity: (This link takes you to my other blog and the full text).

Oh, and for me talking on BBC Radio Orkney about the Power Off Weekend, click here:

Give me pencil, paper, a ball and some friends, and I will be late for supper, no matter how old I am!

The Orkney Dream – DAY TWO – by Joanna Tinsley

It was 8oC and it was hammering it down. Yet here I was, fully gortexed-up, barefoot on a beach on Orkney and heading for the sea. After a lifetime of stomping about the countryside in hiking boots, walking barefoot is a strange, but bizarrely enjoyable, experience. “Walking barefoot is a metaphor for how we should treat our environment,” explained our guide for the day, Malcolm Handoll from Five Senses, who had just persuaded us to throw off our socks and shoes and head down to the rocky, seaweed-covered beach in the rain. “It teaches you to tread carefully and engage with nature rather than trample all over it.” It also teaches you that that’s no stranger sensation than feeling bubbles of bladderwrack between your toes and, more conclusively, that when you’re at a latitude parallel with St Petersburg, the sea is painfully cold.

Back in the house, our numb feet began to thaw as we wrapped our hands around a mug of hot tea and watched as Malcolm demonstrated how the Neolithic people of Orkney made fire. After a quick lesson, which was interrupted when a hen harrier hovered inches from the window (wildlife always finds you when you’re least expecting it), it was our turn to create nature’s more basic yet elusive element.

First we constructed a tinder nest by tying a tight knot of dried grass, thumbing it out into a cup-shape and lining it with cotton grass. We then crouched over a long, flat piece of wood with an indentation and a notch, while Malcolm wound a wooden spindle into a primitive bow made from a branch and a rope. I clamped the wood with my newly-thawed foot, steadied the spindle with my left hand (using two limpet shells as a bearing) and held the bow with my right, while my friend Rachel grasped the other end of the bow. The idea was to push and pull the bow, thus spinning the spindle and creating enough friction to generate heat. It was trickier than it looked, but after a few wobbly attempts we saw smoke – lovely thick curls of smoke as the charred dust fell onto a piece of goat skin under the notch. After letting this smoke happily away to itself for a few minutes we gingerly tipped the embers into our tinder nests. Cupping our hands around our nests we then blew gently until the smoke grew thicker and a orange glow appeared. “This is it,” whispered Malcolm, “now take one deep breath and blow gently at first, then harder…” We did as we were told and within seconds were holding our very own flaming ball of fire in our hands. It was a truly a magical moment, exhilarating but a little bit scary. After much whooping we dropped the flaming nest and extinguished our handiwork in one quick step. Strangely satisfied, we were left babbling and smiley and smelling nicely of campfires.

Visit or wait for the August issue of the magazine to find read more…

Sat, 02/05/2009 – 23:42

Submitted by Joanna Tinsley

Go to BBC Countryfile Blog for more of Joanna’s adventures in Orkney.

Orkney Trees in Winter

I took photographs of some of the trees growing on Mainland, the largest of the Orkney Islands, for two reasons: To show that trees do grow in Orkney and to show how they cope with the strong winds and shorter growing season (sunlight).

I have taken the opportunity of snow to contrast against the limbs, thus showing up the tree shape better – and making some cool patterns in the bargain. All pictures were taken on the 10th Feb 2009, with cold hands. I hope you enjoy!

Sycamores and St Magnus Cathedral

Sycamores and St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney

Sycamores and St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney

Windswept Sycamore near Maeshowe Chambered Cairn / Tomb

Windswept sycamore near Maeshowe, Orkney

Windswept sycamore near Maeshowe, Orkney

Sycamore sheltered in Finstown

Sycamore sheltered in Finstown, looking south

Sycamore sheltered in Finstown, looking south

Track through Binscarth – Orkney’s largest wood

track through Binscarth - Orkney's largest wood

track through Binscarth - Orkney's largest wood

Not only Willows and Sycamore

One of many palm trees in Kirkwall

One of many palm trees in Kirkwall

A bonus of exploring Orkney woodland

ice water hidden amidst the trees

ice water hidden amidst the trees

The sun came out at Redland

sun catching the plantation at Redland

sun catching the plantation at Redland

Five minutes later, brrr

Snow forces me to retreat into woods for shelter

Snow forces me to retreat into woods for shelter

Trees leaning towards the light in Binscarth

trees leaning towards the light in Binscarth

trees leaning towards the light in Binscarth

The sky above and branches outlined

Trees when viewed looking straight upwards

Trees when viewed looking straight upwards

Going home!

Binscarth - note the prevailing wind sculpted canopy

Binscarth - note the prevailing wind sculpted canopy

There you go. I’ll be out more, but the snow is melting, and in summer it will look quite different when all the leaves are out and the many willows are all bushy too.

So, don’t let anyone say again that trees do not grown in Orkney – here is the proof!

For pictures of the Standing Stones in snow, click here

We need some darkness in our lives

Tired? Try getting a little darkness back into your life! I believe we in the electric world need to recover the night and the soothing calm of darkness – and overcome fear at the same time.

Stars in the night sky

Stars in the night sky (not my pic - apologies to photographer)

I really believe we need to get back in touch with nature and the night sky, with the rhythms of the days and seasons – and most of all, we need to give our eyes a rest – and thus give our brains a rest!

When did you last spend time in the dark, other than sleeping? It is wonderful, soothing and beautiful – and rarely pitch black. There is in fact much to see, its just that it is never normally seen.

Last night I took Rachel outside, into the garden. To her surprise (there is no clue of it when inside the house) the sky was littered with bright stars. The plough and north star very prominent but to the south we were dazzled by the beam from the lighthouse. Around about the individual houses of neighbours shed light too and far off, over the hill, the glow of the Flotta gas flare and street lights gave an ominous orange throbbing from the ground upwards, reminiscent of burning towns during the blitz (I guess). It is far from dark. I can watch the darker grey of clouds shifting slowely across from the west. I can see the stone walls white, then mere shadows, depending upon if the lighthouse beam hits them. Off across the fields a neighbours diesel generator is the biggest intrusion. The air is chilly, the grass wet with dew. The sea laps gently upon the shingle beach. The air is clean and fresh, infusing my lungs with the coolness of moist air. Delightful!

“We”/ society, generally now live in perpetual light and brightness, extending the day with electric lights to the point where we fear the dark. We then bombard our visual senses still further with car headlights, televisions and computer screens! It is exhausting, and stressful.

Lets reclaim the night, turn down the lights, turn off the tv and feel the stress slip away into the dark. Let your eyes open once more, explore the subtle and the previously unseen, delight in the stars, the moon, clouds and aurora. Last night we watched shooting stars and the shimmering light of a ship out on the bay. The cattle were munching across the meadow, birds were hopping about the walls. The clouds tumbled effortlessly across the sky, shrouding the hills and sea.

Needless to say, but I will, my other senses delight in being allowed to operate once more, after the loud noises, strong smells and bright lights have diminished. The warm breeze caressed my arms making my hairs stand on end, the air tasted salty – I was delighted to be awake, alive and free!

Give yourself time to become sleepy, put out the lights, or return to the warmth and gentle glow of candles. Try it! Just 10 minutes each night – let the natural world flood back into your life, and feel the benefits. It will also reduce your energy bill and carbon emissions.


Just imagine the endless barage of stimuli your eyes and brain are getting – from first waking to last thing at night. No wonder we are exhausted! No wonder it is hard to enjoy the subtle beauty of nature. We have pollution overload! We are shielding our senses from the full onslaught of brightness and information to be processed. I say, take a break! Give your eyes a holiday, a well earned rest, and feed your brain gentle images to calm the wave patterns and still the mind.

Dare to walk at night, in garden or lane. Try it without a torch even and be amazed!

If you cannot escape the pollution of streetlights, cars and houses, I feel for you – but I suggest you try all the more to experience a little less eye stimulation. Begin by turning off the lights in your house. Go for a walk in nature, exposing yourself gradually to the gentle light of night time. Put your torch in a bag or pocket. Save it for later. Try candles, and try just letting your eyes relax. Most important of all, give the television and computer a rest!

I promise you – life will be better if you trust your other senses. Even a walk under the orange glare of street lights is preferable to the retina burning brightness of indoors, the dazzle of car headlights, the intrusion of security spotlights.

The best books about stars in the night sky and Natural Navigation