Category Archives: fire making

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.



Scallop shell oil lamps

I teach people how to make these oil lamps on my survival courses – but I thought this picture too beautiful to not share, so here it is:

Scallop shell oil lamps from Orkney clams

If you want to know how to make them, see the next couple of blogs.

If you want to join in the Power Off weekend, go to this link

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.

Top 10 Survival Bushcraft Books

What are the best books to buy about survival and bushcraft? The best 10 books on the subject from my library, are listed below:

Fire by friction - a helping hand from the survival instructor

Fire by friction - a helping hand from the survival instructor

Mears, RayOutdoor Survival Handbook

Brown, TomTom Brown’s Field Guide to Wilderness Survival

Kochanski, MorsBushcraft: Outdoor Skills and wilderness survival

Gatty, HaroldFinding your way without map or compass

Akkermans, AnthonioBushcraft Skills and how to survive in the wild

Mabey, RichardFood for Free

Wiseman, JohnSAS Survival Handbook

Grylls, BearBorn Survivor – Survival techniques from the most dangerous …

Montgomery, DavidMountainman Crafts and Skills

Wescott, DavidPrimitive Technology: A book of earth skills

These books are easily accessible, cheap and well written with clear diagrams and instruction. Not one is perfect and in the end you still have to put the work in and get your hands dirty – but these have been well tested. The authors often have other books but I like these as being down to earth and not of the “coffee table” type. Comments or suggestions are welcome, if you have other books you woud strongly argue for, I’d like to hear.

Follow the links for more info on the books – links to or write to me for advice.

I live in the Orkney Islands in Northern Scotland and specialise in natural navigation, survival in hostile environments, wild foods, shelters without wood and practical problem solving (ie, when it is not written in a book).

“Fire-Maker” by Jacqui Woodward-Smith


Published – Goddess Pages – Spring 2008
by Jacqui Woodward-Smith

(for Malcolm Handoll)

Heather-bound, barefoot and dancing,
Soul fire held in dreaming tension,
Smiles the sky and sings the hollows,
Combs the beach and walks its beauty.
All potential held within him,
lintel stone and sea-soft tinder,
Connection found and joy uncovered,
Fire-maker, the land has called you.

Pulled by tides and scoured by sea spray,
Cradled by the sandstone hills,
Strata formed from life’s deep journey,
Weathered by the winter storm.
Prays the flame and nurtures brightness,
Fire sparks from the bow that sings you,
Cotton grass brushes your fingers,
Fire-maker, the land has found you.

©Jacqui Woodward-Smith (7th – 9th June 2007)

What they are saying about Five Senses in Orkney, Scotland

Following yesterday’s post about attention to detail, here are some quotes from testimonials, feedback and letters of thanks, posted to me at Five Senses, here in Orkney, Scotland. I was preparing to put them up on the website but they also seem appropriate for the current blog theme, so excuse the praise and read the detail – it is all about the detail. [Italics and bold added by me].

Malcolm of Five Senses with Stinging Nettles

Malcolm of Five Senses with Stinging Nettles

What is being said about Five Senses:

(See also The Scotsman Newspaper article)

Guests write:

“We cannot say enough about Malcolm and Rachel of Five Senses Tours. We had a great tour of the Highlands and Orkney and saw and experienced so much more than we would have on our own. Tailored to our needs and flexible, educational and fun! I can still taste the local food and drink!


“I want to thank you for the day my daughter and I spent with you. Your tour was quite remarkable.

The Five Senses Tour experience certainly engaged all our sense, as promised, but it did more. It engaged our minds. As a guide you presented us with the tactile, olfactory, aural (I shall never forget the acoustics at the Stones of Stenness), and visual feasts, along with a terrific lunch. But you also asked us to consider what we saw, not to take it on face value. Too often a tour will tell you what the experts say and leave it at that. With Five Senses, you offered us competing theories and then you asked us what we thought, what we saw. I left enriched and excited…and my brain was wonderfully full.

Would that all tours were that wonderful.”


“‘Twas the most memorable experience of my two weeks holiday in Ireland and Scotland…”


“Just spent three amazing days in the Orkney Islands with the wonderful couple from Five Senses of Scotland. Learnt firelighting with a handmade wooden bowdrill, explored ancient sites – including singing and drumming inside a stone tomb until we found a pitch that caught its natural frequency and amplified our quietest voices many fold – hiked and camped through the lush island of Hoy, drinking delicious fresh water from a rippling stream, while learning to navigate with a compass, and sharing an old stone bothy with passing hikers and a roaring fire (and much more).

If you want to immerse yourself in the land and culture of the Orkney Islands, I would highly recommend this group. Both Malcolm and Rachel are deeply friendly and caring about the people they work with and the land and work it self.”


“Thank you very much for giving us such a fantastic time, so much information, new skills and much food for thought, so, in a way it was an intellectual experience too!”


“Just want to say how fantastic the new Orkney Experience was. You are both such an inspiration.

Malcolm you are a talented person with such a special gift to see the world in all its wonder and be amazed. Thanks for sharing it.

Rachel, thanks too, for sharing your smile, warmth and sincerity.”


“Thank you again for such a memorable day!”


“I have arrived home from my wonderful vacation to Scotland and Ireland. What an amazing adventure it was! I wanted to thank you for hosting such a wonderful day in Kirkwall. It was so nice to be shown around by someone who truly loves their country and enjoys sharing this joy with others. I will be posting your contact information on the Cruise Critic web site. Perhaps a few cruise tours here and there may be helpful to you. Please stay in touch and let me know how your business plans are going. If there is anything I can do to promote All Five Senses on my end please let me know.

Again, thank you for a wonderful day.”


“Thank you for an absolutely brilliant evening yesterdayEllie hasn’t stopped talking about it since. We have tonight made fire at Birsay and even demonstrated
it to someone else.

Thanks again.”

Making fire by friction - using your senses

Making fire by friction - using your senses

“What an outstanding, thoughtful, insightful and unusual introduction to Orkney. Including tea on your fabulous sun porch was an added bonus!!

Thanks so much for a wonderful day.”


“We cannot thank Five Senses enough for our trip to Orkney and beyond, we saw and learned far more than we thought we would and ten times what we would have it we had done it on our own. Our only regret is not having more time. What probably sums it up the best is what happened at the Inverness airport, as we were leaving and they asked how many of us where flying we answered “six”, to which the seven year-old replied “yeah, six, we’re short one now”.”


“Well, I’m home now and looking back, the day spent with you in Orkney was the highlight of my trip. Thank you so much for sharing your stories, the fire-making and the special magic of Orkney.

It was such a blessing to meet you and to feel welcomed by your spirit to these ancient sacred places. I will always look back on that day with gratitude.”

Burnside cottage, Rackwick, Island of Hoy, Orkney

Burnside cottage, Rackwick, Island of Hoy, Orkney

And there is more …

“It’s an amazing place; however, this can only really be appreciated if you do it with Five Senses. Out of all of the experiences that we had on our trip to the UK, meeting Malcolm and his wife Rachel and going to all of these ancient places and learning so much was the highlight of the trip. Not to mention actually being able to touch a part of the past.”


“We had a picnic with Malcolm on the last day in this field of heather. I still to this day remember what the food tasted like. It was incredible — we can definitely say that we experienced Orkney with all five senses. Not to mention we now know a lot of survival techniques that we learned from Malcolm while visiting Orkney.”


“Touring the island with Malcolm was truly a five sense experience. He not only introduced us to the topographical, geological and spiritual aspects of the environment, he and his lovely wife, Rachel, made us feel like family – one well worth a return trip.”


“Having used Five Senses I have to say that the quality of interaction with the children, the content of the experience, and the high motivation factor were all really impressive.

So much was this the case that I have booked a half day for my own school to launch our Fuel and Power Topic with a spark! Several other of the commonly used cross-curricular, science- or history-based Topics in Primary would be greatly augmented by such an experience as we had, especially several involving past civilisations or prehistory, or those considering materials and their properties.

The level was right, the risk assessment and health and safety issues were addressed, the personnel were SO enthusiastic and engaged the children without exception and for the whole duration of the afternoon. The children worked as a team eagerly, each having hands-on experience and all gaining so much knowledge, in theory and in practice, about materials, past times, the creation and maintenance of fire, its significance to various times, cultures and peoples, its dangers and safe management.

I have no hesitation in recommending colleagues to take a look at what these people have to offer.”

Limpets are survival food

Limpets are survival food


“Planting a naked foot on a board, Malcolm used a bow and hazel ‘drill’ to create flame. Even in these hi-tech days fire still has a magical power to thrill.

These are experiences the children will never forget. Science is all about seeing, enjoying, discovering, trying things out – and, sometimes, being so enthralled by a moment that it changes the way someone thinks for ever.”

Fire Making Class with Malcolm

Fire Making Class with Malcolm


“Five Senses showed our family of 4 plus my sister and her husband around for a week. It was incredible. The highlight of 3 weeks in the UK – and we plan to return. We could not have seen 1/3 of what we saw without Malcolm. It was not a “okay so look at this for 20 seconds” type event. Malcolm asked us all kinds of questions for weeks before we arrived. Once there, he learned more about us — and surprised us with a stop off at a rare breed sheep farm, as well as a combination wool shop / bookstore, to satisfy all 6 of us. I would highly recommend Malcolm and Five Senses to anyone. It is not costly when you realize how much you end up doing, seeing and experiencing.

We shall be back”.


“The rest of our trip was nice but we really feel the highlight was the week we spent with you and can’t stop talking about it. Kudos to you Malcolm”.

Miracle Thread: Bog Cotton – July Harvest

The annual gathering of Cotton Grass / Bog Cotton took place today – a day late but no great disaster.

Cotton Grass / Bog Cotton

Cotton Grass / Bog Cotton

I went up the hill this morning for my annual gathering of bog cotton or cotton grass, as it is also known. last year I had delayed going out to gather it, waiting until it was perfectly dry and just ready to drift on the wind (the fluffy seeds) when in the night I was awoken by sudden storm – wet and windy! I knew then that it would scatter the white cotton everywhere making it impossible to harvest. Sure enough, the next morning I marched up the hill to find it white, like there had been a frost or light falling of snow – but it was the bog cotton seeds, released by the plant or pulled away by the wind, scattered! That day I trudged back down and set my sights upon the later thistle and rosebay willowherb harvest, which are easier to find, being lowland plants.

This summer I have been paying close attention to the condition of the bog cotton and the weather, waiting. Last night was perfect: It had been dry for days, the wind was light but a new front was due, so the seeds were ripe for picking – still bunched on the plant so easy to gather but ready to release and dry! I should have gone. It had been a busy day and the forecast was for the winds to remain light, so I slept.

With a groan I again awoke to the sound of wind and rain. Surely not?! I set off up the fields, soon soaked by the wet grasses and made my way to a good, healthy patch of white tufts. There were still there. Some were gone, strewn across the ground, seeds that have escaped. The rest were there still, hanging on but soaking wet.

I got a bag full in 10 minutes and returned home, relieved and happy, my nose clear and scenting the distant cattle, the odd smells of things unseen. The cotton is now in a pillow case over the solid fuel stove, slowly drying so I can keep it dry and use all year, until this time next year. There is no supermarket for this sort of stuff -just like the old days, the weather and season matter greatly. Be lazy and stay in bed and you miss it for at least a year!

Bog cotton actually had many uses, one of which was as a stuffing for pillows, so my harvest over the fire looks appropriate! Of course, it has also been used like commercial cotton to make thread and cloth, described in the Great Exhibition of 1851 as “garments woven by crofting women … much admired for their beauty and fine texture” (the fabric, not the women, alas).

Bog cotton is also reputed to have miracle healing powers for the sheep that eat it, though I do not know how accurate this observation from the 19th century is.

There are a number of traditional Scottish stories that refer to shirts made of this plant, known locally as canach or caineachan. I’ll quote from Flora Celtica:

“such as the tale in which a girl refuses to marry her suitor unless he procures a gown of canach down.”

“In another story a prince is bewitched and becomes a creature, neither man or beast. His distressed father calls on the local maidens to weave 3 shirts from canach down but only one girl sees it through to the finish. When the prince receives his 3 shirts he turns back into his handsome old self and marries the lass, and they all live happily ever after.” (p159 Flora Celtica, Milliken and Bridgewater).

So what do I want with the downy, white seed heads? I have not the patience to weave a shirt, though I will try spinning some thread from it. I do not believe it shall make me more handsome – though I suspect the stories demonstrate just how hugely labour intensive making garments from this lovely, soft material would have been. It is hard enough to gather it, let alone clean it, spin it and then weave it. I sit here in my cotton t-shirt bought pre-made and I am grateful.

What I want the bog cotton for is making fire – as a very fine, fibrous plant material it is perfect for helping the most stubborn ember to glow bigger and grow into a ball of heat! A dry bag of it in my pack weighs next to nothing and it also makes fantastic down-like insulation, which could just save a hand from freezing – and in the outdoors that is the sort of advantage that might save my life – just being able to open a karabiner or a rucksack for precious food. I’ve been there so I speak from experience.

It is interesting to note how many plants associated with wet ground are helpful in making fire – how these are our friends and not weeds. Today we stick close to the land, rarely venturing out in a boat, be it on sea or a lake, so it is hard for us to imagine how our ancestors lived close to and on water. They had no roads, no metal tools – so they thrived at the water margins. Land we have either built cities on or drained for farming – little remains, to our loss.

Bog cotton is my friend!

Note: I only gather small quantities from any one location allowing natural processes of seed germination to carry on unhindered. To take too much from any one plant or area breaks to rules of aesthetics and nature (one and the same).

Bog Cotton is the common name of Eriophorium vaginatum.