Category Archives: five senses activities

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.




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

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.

Books about Natural Navigation – no map, compass, or gps – not even a signpost

Moon at dusk can guide navigation when you are lost

Moon at dusk can guide navigation when you are lost

I am passionate about the lost art and science of what is termed “Natural Navigation“, or ’emergency navigation’ – the skill or reading nature’s clues to find your way without map, compass, gps or signposts.

To start you off, here are my favourite books on the subject, which you can all find online. My favourite is Harold Gatty’s Finding Your Way – a classic.

You will understand why I call my business Five Senses, and why walking barefoot has great advantages to learning to read the landscape. Based as I am in the north of Scotland, I believe in teaching people to read and understand their local environment, so not all techniques are applicable in your area (sand dunes are not so common here, nor trees but what there is has been well sculpted by the prevailing winds!)

Have a look at the books:-

Gatty, HaroldFinding your way without map or compass

Aveni, AnthonyPeople and the sky

Burch, DavidEmergency Navigation

Wilson, NeilSAS Tracking and navigation handbook

Grylls, BearBorn survivor / Man v Wild – survival techniques  …

Thomas, StephenLast Navigator

Cunliffe, TomCelestial Navigation

It is all about using your senses, being aware and observing – skills that need to be taught and developed – technology has made us lazy. Just like my other passion, making fire. For courses and private info, you can email me.



Finding Your Way


“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)

One Man’s Journey -The Crieff Drovers Tryst

One Man’s Journey along
the Skye to Crieff Cattle Drovers Route

By Malcolm Handoll, published 2003

The last time I did anything this stupid in public – I fell out of an aeroplane for charity.

It all started with a phone call to Trail Magazine looking for publicity for the Crieff Tryst. In some daft attempt to grab the journalists attention I ended up promising ever more – which left me needing high-quality photographs of myself and various idiots in costumes with live(ly) Highland Cows (with horns!) within three days. A sinch. Oh, and I’d also stated I was walking from Skye to Crieff along the old Drovers routes, averaging 22-25 miles per day (so what, they said?), bivvying out under the stars ‘like the old Drovers’ (well?) … and … and living on a Drover’s diet of porridge oats for a week (interest at last!!) … no chocolate (I had a story!!!)

So that was the plan – walk for a week along vague routes, sleeping out and eating rabbit food. After 6 months of not leaving my computer and a bum moulded to the shape of my swivel chair, and a distinct feeling of public pressure – a fixed arrival date that wouldn’t allow for delays of the ‘I had a blister/got lost/bored/broke my neck’ sort. Damn, I had to do this, without a stove, no money for ‘snacks’ en-route or the bus and no idea if my tendons would play ball.

Oh, and the photographs. Poo! Lots of cow poo, actually, as we stood in a field with Highland Cows looking cute (them) and nervous (them) and stupid (us) in our kilts, gortex, and costumes down the ages. No Wellington boots. Cows don’t like being told what to do by a photographer so we had to casually ‘walk’ into a herd of cows (with sharp horns) and stand as they inevitably bolted between us. Yeh, walking would be a sinch – and it WAS. It was fantastic -the best long distance walk I’d ever done as it turned out. This walk deserves to be a classic. Do it – but read on first.

Terry from Dun Caan Hostel (Kyleakin) dropped us off at the KyleRea Ferry and ‘G’ and I sailed the rapids that once drowned panicked coos, over the pinched gap that keeps Skye an isle, to Glenelg. Omens made me nervous, and ‘G’ felt it, felt the straps dig into soft shoulders. Conversation was sparse as we gauged steps, counting the metres and calculated the distance each day would necessitate. The mountains ahead showed no way through to ‘G’ – who’d joined this 1st leg with me, knowing nothing of Scottish mountains, Drovers or me!!! (We’d only once spoken on the phone – after she’d read the Trail Magazine article).

The Brochs in Glenelg took our minds off the mundane walking and navigation and from then on I was in a world of past lives. I was connected to the endless movement of humans and livestock across these mountains: seeping with memories, revealing hidden valleys and paths unlocking a natural route. My heart had reason to beat – it was magical! To follow such a natural route, leaving man-made paths in favour of the obvious gentle gradient, the lush pasture remnants, where cattle were grazed at night, fattened on their way to market by these skilled herders – the farmer’s ‘long-distance lorry drivers’ and security (they kept their guns) too. It all made such sense, and within the first hours of this walk, I am leaping around the tussocks of grass, a child transformed into a Drover, the journey inside my imagination.

From that first day on I was a drover and it felt great – to not just do a walk, but to understand why and to feel part of this history. Telford planned to use this route for the main road but I’m so glad he didn’t – it’s far too beautiful for that. Let the cars sweep down Glen —–, and leave this journey back in time, when the crags echoed the mooing of cows, the thwack of sticks and the bark of excited cow-dogs with occasional manly shouts. Now I had the rutting deer and felt satisfied.

Each day was marked by the passing of the ‘high-point’, the psychological barrier of that day, which once crossed left a sunset amble metaphorically downhill to some soft patch of grass. Of course G didn’t quite see it that way. I cajoled us on in an anxious bid for a raised knoll where a breeze would ensure midges stayed grounded. A week earlier it would have been very different and a tent would be wise – but Drovers didn’t worry. Mind you, they had whisky, and midges prefer cattle blood, so I’m told. I’m no ‘wuss’, but seven nights sleep deprivation worried me. So we slept on high ground and it was perfect.

Every place I wanted to rest, I found the grass richer and the water clean, sheltered but well drained, dry and midge free – I also found the remains of an old shieling or enclosure. Someone had been here before, many times – and I sincerely hope many stay there again. This walk is always following the natural route, the way you’d go before maps existed, just follow your nose, head in a general direction, think like a drover, and walk on.

‘G’ left after day two, reluctantly to return to civilisation’s commitments – it grabs you so quickly this walk, carries you into a land of dreams, feeds your imagination, and gives reason for each step, like no other – except maybe the pilgrims walks. And my body tuned in too. Eating complex carbohydrates proved a real success, and my pace adapted to the day’s rhythms, yet the slower energy release gave me such stamina, I continue to eat oats, out of choice.

A note on my diet; one of the rules – was no cheating – but hospitality would be welcomed in much the same way as Drovers would have stopped at farmsteads on route, maybe collecting cattle, or just saying ‘hello’.

Obviously, route choices were influenced by familiar stopping places, good pasture, avoiding worn or recently grazed routes and steering clear of trouble or less hospitable folk en-route – and this lends to the argument for a Drovers Route being flexible not a path. The cattle hated the sharp stones of hard core and I am in awe of those who wrestled the beasts to the ground to shoe them for road sections.

I ate raw porridge oats, and much as I love black pudding (the modern equivalent of the bloodletting Drovers supplemented their meagre diet with) I had no fuel to boil even water. I tried soaking the oats over night in cold water – and this was a real culinary masterpiece, different and bland as cold wall paper paste. I ate like a child, forced by hunger, not by pleasure – and for that experience I am forever grateful.

Wise to the nutritional demands of a weeks walking, and to replace the salt, protein and minerals otherwise hidden in cows blood, I enhanced my oats with the vegan equivalent of seeds, nuts and dried fruit (sugar-free muesli). This seemed sensible, true to my PR goal, and made munching on route palatable. Every stream crossed I drank from, so not to carry the weight of water, and I left my watch at the first one, day one!! I was putting it away in my rucksack for the week but its absolute loss made me even more in tune with the Drovers – time from then on followed the day’s weather and setting sun. (If anyone finds a charcoal grey Marmot fleece – it’s mine! Fell off whilst slipping through peat hags in the failing light and on wobbly, end-of-day legs).

Not knowing anyone on route, the hospitality option was severely limited. I therefore treated myself to one night under cover in a bothy (South Spean Bridge) – and a tiny fire, enough to heat hot water – real porridge, and some cheese, bread and tinned fish. It was also a day for cleaning seeping wounds, burst blisters (I never felt a thing) and realising the walk was quite a long way without any preparation. It began to look serious that day and I began to temper my enthusiasm, knowing the media awaited my return. How could I do that? What if my tendons swelled? – They did. By Loch Rannoch I couldn’t get my boot off it was so swollen, and trench foot has a peculiar smell, suitable only for solo walks and open air bivvying.

My concerns about conflicting access and landowners shooting deer didn’t materialise – in fact it prompted me to a route that is far more enjoyable and diverse than had I stuck to the ‘shortest line between two places’. Of course I contacted gamekeepers before setting off, and ensured they were happy with the plan (they were) and after Loch Ossian Hostel (tea stop) my route ‘detoured’ via Loch Rannoch – and I’m so glad I did! This kept the scenery changing constantly; never getting dull like a drudge up the West Highland Way.

This walk is characterised by its ever changing countryside – from Kintail and Knoydart’s wild beauty, to idyllic broadleaf woods beside still lochs, long tracks ideal for mountain-bikes, meandering streams, woods and rich farmland – and best of all, the whole way uses existing ‘natural routes’. That’s one of the joys – to walk in the footsteps of our ancestors – our inheritance. This walk is a journey, at the end of which you are in tune with nature, humanity and the seasons. Sleeping out allows the ultimate luxury of simply sleeping any where you like – beside the path, a kind bed of moss, a turfed lochside, a roofless hovel, they are yours for the night! literally! It is a route that is in essence many various routes, there is no right or wrong as such. My only sadness is that the many old buildings along the way are not restored to a basic bothy – that would be my long term dream – for they are in the best possible spots – chosen by our wise ancestors – the sheltered, watered land – complete with sunrise and stunning view! Had Telford’s road gone through these would be luxury holiday homes now. For a night at least, they were mine, complete with stars and air conditioning.

My only other suggestion to walkers of this route is not to have set days – but instead let the journey unfold, as if you are herding cattle and sheep, let the weather and the mood guide you, choose to explore and let your imagination run wild. I got ahead of myself, had to wait half a day for the media to arrive at our rendevouz, and like a true drover managed to wile away some hours in the coach house bar, with rowdy farmers and crazy musicians. It felt ‘as they would have done’.

I swear by the end of it I just wanted to keep on going – or turn round and go back. Whichever direction you choose, this walk is a classic.

The original text can be viewed at The Scottish Mountaineer

The Mountaineering Council of Scotland

Issue 20 October 2003

The Crieff Tryst takes place yearly in October. Go to the website for more information.


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”.