Category Archives: survival

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

My Top 10 Charities / Non-profits

I have this compelling need to tell you, mythical reader of this blog, of my chosen charities – ones close to the ethos of this blog, so potentially of interest to you.

My top 10 charities are:

Have a look at them and be inspired.

The avenues for positive change are open – we need only walk them.

~ ~ ~

“Leave it a little better than you find it”

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”.

John Rae – Arctic Explorer Survival – on BBC

Thanks to BBC iplayer it is possible to watch Passage – a two part documentary about the amazing Arctic Explorer, Dr John Rae, from Clestrain, Orkney, in Scotland. A story of survival.

I have just watched part one with part two being shown on BBC 2 this Sunday 10th August, 2008. Both should be available on iplayer.

The 60 minute, ‘documentary style’, (part one) follows the team of film makers preparing to make a film about John Rae, based upon the book Fatal Passage, by Ken McGoogan (about the failed Franklyn Expedition to find the North West Passage). The film is being made by John Walker Productions.

John Rae should be well known for his own achievements – not just for being the barer of ‘bad news’ regarding the Franklyn expedition, whilst mapping for the Hudson Bay Company.

To read more about this unsung hero of 19th century British exploration, from Orkney, Scotland, go to:

For a good book about John Rae, read No ordinary journey : John Rae, Arctic explorer, 1813-1893

or see Amazon for Fatal Passage

Amazon – No Ordinary Journey

(I live next door to the Hall of Clestrain, Orkney, where John Rae grew up. His statue is in St Magnus Cathedral, in Kirkwall and a grave in the same graveyard is all that remains of this amazing guy, who unlike other officer gentlemen of the British navy (Scott, Franklyn), managed to live to old age, largely by learning from and respecting the indiginous people and their experience in cold climates. rather like Amundson, who was another impressive explorer!

For an interesting story of the rubber boat used (and on display in Stromness Museum, Orkney) see the “cloak boat”

The Halkett boat - cloak, used by John Rae

The Halkett boat - cloak, used by John Rae

Image sourced from the National Maritime Museum

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.

Water – another commodity – pay or go thirsty?

It will not be long before we in the affluent countries have to pay for water – and some day air no doubt. It will be illegal to get water for free, from the sky or river because someone will “own” it and you will have to buy it. We pay now for water supply – but this story will get much worse, gradually.

Is this man stealing water?

Is this man stealing water?

Long ago people could find food, water, shelter materials, tools , medicines and all sorts of things, in nature. This perfect time is described disparagingly as ‘hunter-gathering’. Some tribes still live this way, happily, until a logging company cuts down the forest or evicts them – make way for “progress”, for money making. See Survival International.

Such a period in pre-history may well be what is referred to by the story of the garden of Eden, in the Bible. Then came the “Neolithic Revolution” – farming and settling. Man was “cast out” from this idylic time of plenty and free time and became shackled to the land, a servant to food supply. The best soils would be highly prized. Soon after came the discovery of discrete pockets of special materials – metal ores. These became hugely desirable and thus began competition and fighting for land.

The powerful take control of the resources and control – then sell to the rest of humanity. Nowadays oil is a good example. Soon water too. We started to get money, slaves, capitalist economies, and now global corporations, wars, cities, global warming. Thanks. We are so used to it we take it as a fact of life.

So ordinary people began to lose access to foods but many still farmed and gathered and got on with their lives while the Kings feuded.

Then came a land grab – the Enclosures Act UK – people lost access to huge areas of previously open / common land. It was effectively stolen from them, by force. Huge estates were owned by a few and people were forced to pay taxes to their over lords and tithes to the church – another big land owner and power block.

Not only had they lost their access to enough land to live, they had to pay part of their production and be homeless if they couldn’t. So they might lose another basic human right – shelter.

In Scotland there is still ownership of massive land masses by private owners – the rump of the feudal system and tenants must pay rents and have far less security. The memory of the ruthless Highland Clearances is still vivid in many people’s minds – if in Scotland , visit Croick Church for a poignant look at how god fearing, literate folk were evicted, confused as to how their over lords could abuse them like this?

So, now that we have to pay for food, excepting a few who can produce some on the land they own – the majority are dependent upon markets – or starve. Those people “outside society” who travel and thus do not pay rent – again the Scottish travellers, gypsies, new age travellers – have been forced to settle down, vilified and become figures of hate or mistrust. Or we have the image of a tramp.

The Industrial Revolution, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, drove the population of first Britain, then Europe and soon the world into paid labour subsistence, causing major changes in agriculture, manufacturing, and transportation having a profound effect on the socioeconomic and cultural conditions in Britain. They had no choice.

We are starting to get a picture here – why we have to work – to pay the rent – to pay for food – essentials for life, not luxuries like tv’s or books. Some people do not have to work, though they might to relieve boredom or to satisfy an urge. These people either own land or so much money they do not need to do anything to pay for subsistence / living – they can charge you rent – they can buy your labour. And make a profit.

Next comes the further controlling of foodthe patenting of seeds – the use of our “laws” to enforce this and thus make it illegal to hold back some seed from your harvest for the following years planting – this which has been the very foundation of good farming right back to the Neolithic Revolution, over 8,000 years ago, in Mesopotamia and the Golden crescent. Thanks to Monsanto and other giant powers, you have to buy even the grain – and the pesticides they are genetically dependent upon to survive – you still have to sweat and harvest before you sell … you take all the risk of crop failure though.

So what is next? – after losing the basic human right to land, shelter, food, medicines – helped by eradicating those who held the knowledge about herbal lore – wise women, often better known as witches by the church-men who feared their knowledge and respect amongst a population needing controlling: Water of course!

Now they really have you by the throat. You see, you can go for months without food before you starve – you can get by without shelter – but without clean drinking water you die – quickly – in 2-3 days. You may not be in prison but you are like a zoo animal, trapped in an economic reality – a matrix.

It is coming – I refer you to this blog about water laws in Colorado State, New Mexico maybe too, where it is illegal to collect rain water falling on your land, your roof, and it is illegal to use washing water to water your plants – read the blog:

Before we get too bloated with injustice though – lets not forget that millions of people – fellow humans – die each year because of no access to clean drinking water. They walk miles – they drink contaminated water – they contract diarrhea and water born diseases – every day. They are not watering their lawns, washing clothes or flushing toilets with good clean drinkable water – like we do! They die quietly.

Nearly 2 million people die each year due to waterborne-related disease (90% of which are children under the age of 5). Some claim it is 2.2 million a year – SunWater.

Check out Water Aid – “help bring water to the 1.1 billion people worldwide who have no access to safe drinking water. – 13 March 2008

Global Missions say 25,000 people die every day – from lack of clean water.

UNICEF say 4000 children die every day, because they simply don’t have access to an adequate supply of clean water. Clean water is an inviolable right, not a privilege,” – UNICEF.

Water Supply Statistics and Facts

I should just repeat the statement – millions of people die each year- just because they cannot get clean water. That is sick. A million is 1,000,000. A lot of dead bodies – children with great brains, ideas, laughter and amazing muscles – works of art – the pinnacle of evolution.

For ‘us‘ the loss of water rights is gradual, over generations maybe, so you do not notice, do not care. We have access to water and we do not fear losing this so we do not fight for the erosion of our basic human rights – they just ebb away, bit by bit, like sand castle washed away by the tide – crumbling.

Does it seem ridiculous to you that anyone should expect free water, free food, free shelter? Then that shows how far humans have come – because once upon a time we used to have that and we lost it. It was taken away. (Free as in no monetary cost, though a lot of labour may be involved, usually is).

We can afford many things – massive military campaigns and weapons arsenals, exploration of space, sports-star wage bills, computers that last a year, new clothes every few months – enough calories to make us obese and then the gym machines to burn it off – or the complex technology to repair the damage, take out broken hearts, abused livers or just enlarge breasts, fatten lips, move fat.

We borrow the money then work to pay it off – or rather just stay afloat and service the debt – and it is making us miserable. What a life – work work work. Hell. The people living back in the Neolithic only needed to work 3 days a week. The rest they played, created, invented. Hence us being here.

That was before we over fished the seas, cut down all the forests, salted the lakes and dried up the aquifers. Melting the ice caps took talent though – we really should be proud of our latest folly. Changing the planet’s atmosphere – which we need to live – that is either brave or very stupid – a bit like a scientist experimenting on her own body. “Oh, so that is what a heart looks like? ….” or our final words cold be: “Oh, so that is what the atmosphere was for? …”

Where are we at? We work, to be paid, to buy stuff. We work to buy not just luxuries and all the rubbish that is polluting the planet – all the energy that is released to move it all around – all the carbon, the methane – we also have to work to live. To have a shelter, safety, food – and now water.

How long the air? Well much of that is already polluted, causing asthma, sickness, death. But when will we have to pay for the air we breathe? The odds are we will be well dead before it happens – but our children, if they can survive the heat, the drought and the disease – I bet some State or Federal Law will enforce some corporation’s insistence that we must pay – because it is purifying the air we need – they will sell bottles of air and our offices, homes and cars will be oxygenated capsules – whilst outside stinks. The pieces are in place – water coolers, bottled water, air conditioning. You watch how you become dependent upon those. A thirsty man will pay a fortune for a drink – with his freedom and his soul. Beware.

Fight laws banning you from accessing water. Fight, or lose it.

Clean water is an inviolable right, not a privilege,”UNICEF

Maybe these people will some day fall foul of a law saying you cannot gather rainwater?