The giant structures rose like enormous fingers from the moorland, silhouetted against the setting sun, dwarfing me and my nine-month-old son, secure in the rucksack-carrier on my back.
Home to 200 known neolithic sites, and with on average three sites of archaeological interest per square mile, Orkney has become something of a byword for Ancient Britain, with at least three-quarters of the 193,000 annual visitors (pre-pandemic) coming to see the collection of relics of our ancestors.
Yet we weren’t actually gazing up at the Standing Stones of Stenness (circa 3100BC) or the stone circle of the Ring of Brodgar. We were at the foot of a more modern structure – the wind turbine on the isle of South Ronaldsay – watching its giant blades whirr and whoosh in the half-light.
That’s because, despite the earthworks that have been (and continue to be) discovered on this remote archipelago, 10 miles across the Pentland Firth from Scotland’s north-east coast, people on these 70 islands are passionate not only about preserving and showcasing an old way of life, but about pioneering a new one.
Harnessing the power of the wind and the waves, Orcadians now produce all the green energy they need and then some, supplying the population with renewable electricity via community-owned turbines, developing technology that can use the tides to power people’s homes, and – thanks to 40 charging points dotted across the islands – making the practicalities of owning and using electric vehicles easy.
This had led me to undertake my first trip with the baby, on a mission to set an example to him that holidays can be exciting and green. We would be touring the islands – exploring historic sites and rugged coast and spotting wildlife – in a fully electric campervan, charged from 100% renewable energy. But first we had to get there.
We embraced the minimal-carbon theme and travelled via Caledonian Sleeper from Euston, making the longest leg of the journey overnight. Travel cot wedged beside my bunk, my son slept well (to my relief), rocked gently by the motion of the train.
Twelve hours later, we arrived in Inverness to change to another train for the four-hour ride north to Thurso, and finally – after a taxi ride (the bus connection was impossible) to John o’Groats – took the passenger-only ferry to Burwick on the southern tip of Mainland. There we were greeted by hosts Jane and Paul and their converted Nissan Dalbury E campervan called Spoot (the world’s first all-electric model, and one of just two in theUK), our home and transport for the next few nights.
“We wanted as green an option as possible,” said Paul, who also runs island tours island in electric vehicles, as he showed me the quirks of the campervan – the swivelling front passenger seat, the plank behind the driver that forms a table, nifty coat hooks that double as device holders for watching TV, and hidden cupboards that contained a wealth of locally made jams, pickles, tablet (very sugary fudge) and beer.
“The limited range of electric vehicles can put people off,” said Paul. “But Orkney, with its proliferation of rapid-charge points that take a battery from empty to full in 40 minutes, coupled with the vehicle’s 120-mile range on an island that is only 26 miles across, is the perfect place to try them.”
He left me with a booklet of info, including where rapid-charge points were across the islands – though they are also all shown on the inbuilt GPS. I set off with a simple press on the accelerator and felt it smoothly pull away, virtually silent. It handled with the ease of a go-kart – electric cars are all automatic – and the lack of engine noise meant when the baby fell asleep, he stayed asleep.
My first stop was Wheems Farm Campsite on South Ronaldsay, one of four islands connected by road to Mainland via bridges and causeways. It’s a six-hectare smallholding owned by former landscape architect Mike Roberts who, with his late wife, oboist and artist Christina Sargent, brought organic farming to the island in the mid-1980s.
“The site is powered by those two wind turbines you’ve been looking at,” said Mike as he showed me the seasonal crops we were about to sample in the curry being cooked and sold to guests on site. “We make enough to power the business and give back to the grid.”
That evening I sat at the back of the van with the doors flung open, overlooking the North Sea, feeding my boy fresh vegetables from the soil we’d trod on earlier, feeling like I’d simultaneously stepped into the past and into the future.
Over the next couple of days we explored the island’s landmarks, continuing our oscillation between time periods. We strolled along the beach at the Churchill Barriers – causeways created in the second world war to stop U-boats from entering Scapa Flow. Snorkellers were exploring the rusting wrecks that poked out from the waves.
While the campervan was plugged into a handy rapid-charge station in the island’s capital, Kirkwall, (I only charged it once in three days, and that was just to play it safe rather than necessity), we wandered around town, taking in its old Viking cathedral – built in 1137 – and Orkney Distillery, where the hydrogen is harnessed to produce gin with no emissions other than water.
Heading to the island’s north-west, we explored neolithic sites, including the best-preserved prehistoric village in western Europe, Skara Brae, on the edge of Skaill Bay. A few miles up the coast near the ruined church of Saint Magnus in Birsay, we bought homemade treats made with locally sourced and seasonal ingredients. I even managed to schedule the baby’s nap time with the tides so that when he woke we could wander over to the Brough of Birsay via a causeway that is regularly hidden below the Atlantic. There we wandered amid Pictish, Norse and medieval remains, before I introduced him to his first puffins, whose colourful beaks caused him to squeal in delight.
That night he slept soundly as we wild-camped above the ocean, our little van swaying in the wind. The close quarters of a camper meant my nights were mainly, like his, early and subdued. I had to move all our luggage and repack it under the bed before I could turn in, and his lightweight travel cot just fitted on the shelf above the driver’s compartment when the flip-top roof was pushed up. Yet despite the minor faff, the simplicity of filling days with exploration and spending evenings doing nothing but gaze at the scenery meant I had time to contemplate the day we’d had and plan activities for the next, watching night falling and birds foraging.
The final day saw us drive a last leg to Stromness, in the south-west of Mainland, to catch the NorthLink ferry back to Thurso for our long train journey home.
But before that we made one last stop at the Ness of Brodgar, an extensive temple complex still being unearthed, said to predate and rival the Egyptian pyramids in size and sophistication – a fact not fully understood until less than 10 years ago. Back then, the man who discovered it, Nick Card, said: “London may be the cultural hub of Britain today, but 5,000 years ago, Orkney was the centre for innovation for the entire British Isles. Ideas spread from this place. This was the font for new thinking at the time.”
With renewable energy already powering the island, car and passenger ferries due to be run by emission-free hydrogen, and electric flights proposed to connect it with the rest of Scotland, it seems that here on Orkney history is starting to repeat itself.
And though I may not live to see these ideas fully trickled down to the rest of the country, my hope is that my son will, and can say, years from now, that he was there right at the beginning.
Travel Euston to Inverness was provided by Caledonian Sleeper, private rooms from £125 (under-4s free); the passenger-only twice-daily ferry from John o’Groats to Burwick costs from £16 one-way (under-5s free); the car-carrying NorthLink ferry between Stromness and Scrabster (Thurso) runs three times a day from £17.50 (under-4s free). The electric campervan (sleeps two adults) was provided through online sharing platform PaulCamper: the all-electric Spoot costs from £110 a night (3-night minimum)
A non-fungible token (NFT) marketplace has introduced policies to ban insider trading, after an executive at the company was discovered to be buying artworks shortly before they were promoted on the site’s front page.
OpenSea, one of the leading sites for trading the digital assets, will now prevent team members buying or selling from featured collections and from using confidential information to trade NFTs. Neither practice was previously banned.
“Yesterday we learned that one of our employees purchased items that they knew were set to display on our front page before they appeared there publicly,” said Devin Finzer, the co-founder and chief executive of the site.
“This is incredibly disappointing. We want to be clear that this behaviour does not represent our values as a team. We are taking this very seriously and are conducting an immediate and thorough third-party review of this incident so that we have a full understanding of the facts and additional steps we need to take.”
NFTs are digital assets whose ownership is recorded and traced using a bitcoin-style blockchain. The NFT market boomed earlier this year as celebrities including Grimes, Andy Murray and Sir Tim Berners-Lee sold collectibles and artworks using the format. But the underlying technology has questionable utility, with some dismissing the field as a purely speculative bubble.
The insider trading came to light thanks to the public nature of the Ethereum blockchain, on which most NFT trades occur. Crypto traders noticed that an anonymous user was regularly buying items from the public marketplace shortly before they were promoted on the site’s front page, a prestigious slot that often brings significant interest from would-be buyers. The anonymous user would then sell the assets on, making vast sums in a matter of hours.
One trade, for instance, saw an artwork called Spectrum of a Ramenification Theory bought for about £600. It was then advertised on the front page and sold on for $4,000 a few hours later.
One Twitter user, ZuwuTV, linked the transactions to the public wallet of Nate Chastain, OpenSea’s head of product, demonstrating, using public records, that the profits from the trades were sent back to a wallet owned by Chastain.
While some, including ZuwuTV, described the process as “insider trading”, the loosely regulated market for NFTs has few restrictions on what participants can do. Some critics argue that even that terminology demonstrates that the sector is more about speculation than creativity.
“The fact that people are responding to this as insider trading shows that this is securities trading (or just gambling), not something designed to support artists,” said Anil Dash, the chief executive of the software company Glitch. “There are no similar public statements when artists get ripped off on the platform.
“If Etsy employees bought featured products from creators on their platform (or Patreon or Kickstarter workers backed new creators etc) that’d be great! Nobody would balk. Because they’d be supporting their goal,” Dash added.
Sir Clive Sinclair died on Thursday at home in London after a long illness, his family said today. He was 81.
The British entrepreneur is perhaps best known for launching the ZX range of 8-bit microcomputers, which helped bring computing, games, and programming into UK homes in the 1980s, at least. This included the ZX80, said to be the UK’s first mass-market home computer for under £100, the ZX81, and the trusty ZX Spectrum. A whole generation grew up in Britain mastering coding on these kinds of systems in their bedrooms.
And before all that, Sir Clive founded Sinclair Radionics, which produced amplifiers, calculators, and watches, and was a forerunner to his Spectrum-making Sinclair Research. The tech pioneer, who eventually sold his computing biz to Amstrad, was knighted during his computing heyday, in 1983.
“He was a rather amazing person,” his daughter, Belinda Sinclair, 57, told The Guardian this evening. “Of course, he was so clever and he was always interested in everything. My daughter and her husband are engineers so he’d be chatting engineering with them.”
Sir Clive is survived by Belinda, his sons, Crispin and Bartholomew, aged 55 and 52 respectively, five grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. ®
‘AI tech can have negative, even catastrophic, effects if they are used without sufficient regard to how they affect people’s human rights.’
The UN’s human rights chief Michelle Bachelet called for a moratorium on the sale and use of artificial intelligence technology until safeguards are put in place to prevent potential human rights violations.
Bachelet made the appeal on Wednesday (15 September) to accompany a report released by the UN’s Human Rights Office, which analysed how AI systems affect people’s right to privacy. The violation of their privacy rights had knock-on impacts on other rights such as rights to health, education and freedom of movement, the report found.
“Artificial intelligence can be a force for good, helping societies overcome some of the great challenges of our times. But AI technologies can have negative, even catastrophic, effects if they are used without sufficient regard to how they affect people’s human rights,” Bachelet said.
“Artificial intelligence now reaches into almost every corner of our physical and mental lives and even emotional states,” Bachelet added.
The report was critical of justice systems which had made wrongful arrests because of flawed facial recognition tools. It appealed to countries to ban any AI tools which did not meet international human rights standards. A 2019 study from the UK found that 81pc of suspects flagged by the facial recognition technology used by London’s Metropolitan Police force were innocent.
Bachelet also highlighted the report’s concerns on the future use of data once it has been collected and stored, calling it “one of the most urgent human rights questions we face.”
The UN’s report echoes previous appeals made by European data protection regulators.
The European Data Protection Board (EDPB) and the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) called for a ban on facial recognition in public places in June. They urged EU lawmakers to consider banning the use of such technology in public spaces, after the European Commission released its proposed regulations on the matter.
The EU’s proposed regulations did not recommend an outright ban. The commission instead emphasised the importance of creating “trustworthy AI.”