Skaill House

Skaill House was the venue for a tribute to the remarkable Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron and pioneer of the principles upon which modern computing is based.

She was born 200 years ago this year, and lived only 37 years, but brought together mathematics with vision and understanding, and also some of the passion with which her father brought to his life and work.

”Forget this world and all its troubles and if possible its multitudinous Charlatans – ” declared her collaborator, the mathematician and inventor Charles Babbage, “ – everything in short but the Enchantress of Numbers.”

The story of Ada Lovelace – this year’s Dr John Cumming Memorial Lecture – was told in the upstairs drawing room at Skaill House, with Sarah Jane Gibbon giving the readings and singing Isaac Nathan’s setting of Byron’s poem ‘She Walks in Beauty’.

Then followed in the dining room downstairs a Georgian-themed afternoon tea, produced by Liz Ashworth and her team. There were Peedie Bread Baps with spiced potted Orkney Buffalo, Chicken Salmagundi with a hint of lemon, apricot scones with cream and raspberry conserve, apple custard tarts ‘lovelaced’ with a dram of Highland Park – and much more.

This year is also an anniversary for Skaill House. It is exactly 400 years since its builder, Bishop George Graham, came to Orkney.

Neolithic food by Sam Britten

Where did the Neolithic potters, whose fragments are found at various Orkney sites, get their clay? Andrew Appleby has combined his own expertise in pottery with a lifelong interest in understanding the ways of Orkney ancient inhabitants.

Could they have used local clay? That at first sight looks a challenge.

”This clay in its natural state is extremely difficult to make reasonable pots with,” he says. “It also collapses if built at angles slightly off vertical.”

He tried a series of experiments, finding that grass cuttings helped the clay to bind, while fine shell sand also helped but led to fissures, and the results were still coarse.

He needed a further additive, and the breakthrough came when he remembered how Leonardo da Vinci had mixed olive oil into his clay to get a finer texture. Could he find something in the world of Neolithic Orkney that would provide equivalent assistance?

He could and did – duck fat or goose fat provides the binding agent to turn unpromising Orkney clay into a quality raw material for Neolithic pots. He told the story to an audience in the Harray Community Centre – and then the Neolithic pottery that he has created was used by chef Sam Britten from the Lynnfield Hotel to serve up a meal of ingredients available to the Orcadians of 5000 years ago.

Ingredients included scallops and sea kelp – and then there was a dessert to follow with local berries. Every mouthful was a delight, with a blending of tastes and flavours that was simply unforgettable.