At an Orkney Harvest Home

This is November 23, and I’m sitting once more at my computer. Today has been as mild as a summer’s day, and even tonight the temperature outside is a surprising 50 degrees F. Yet only a few days ago the wind blew fiercely from the Northwest carrying flurries of short-lived snow and sharp hail that rattled the windows. And almost every other day it seems the rain comes ‘tuimin doon’. Such sudden, unseasonable fluctuations in weather surely do tell a story of climate change. Certainly winters are no longer like they used to be but then very little is.

I’ve just come in from having a look at the night – it’s mild as I mentioned, with a warmish wind blowing from the Southwest, and the moon is lighting up a cloudy sky. Sometimes she peeps briefly from behind busy clouds, and out to sea two well-lit ships are passing by. For some reason this night the appearance of the moonlit sky and sea reminded me of a picture we used to have hanging in our living room long ago. The thought of it takes me back at least 50 years and to the North Ronaldsay of those far off days.

The glass on the painting got broken many years ago and I was remembering that the picture has lain unseen in a curious little cupboard situated near the ceiling in my bedroom. Over the years its memory has haunted me a little for I have a vision of it in my mind. So I went straight from the cool of the night to my bedroom and now I have the picture at my side. It is more or less as I remember. The painting depicts a moonlight night at sea. The moon is partly hidden behind silvery cloud but still illuminates a bright path across the water. And in the near foreground two sailing ships, which look like fishing smacks, are outward bound. Their sails are dark against the sky, and near the bow of one an orange light sparkles warmly. How wonderful it would have been out at sea on such a night. Maybe one of the fishermen was playing a sea-shanty on his fiddle as the boat made passage to the fishing grounds of 100 or more years ago. The sound of the music would have travelled from ship to ship and far across the moonlit waves.

Before I tell you about our Harvest Home I must mention briefly a day or two I had on the Orkney Mainland. One day in Kirkwall I met two senior men in their seventies and eighties. One was a South Ronaldsay man and the other came originally from Stronsay. So there we were – three island men in their sixties, seventies and eighties, We had a great crack for a time about life in Orkney in times gone by and comparing it with today. I think the three of us agreed that old-fashioned neighbourliness –- when folk on the farms helped one another has almost gone. Machines do it all. And there you have it. Sadly, we also agreed that the Orcadian dialect is fast dying out as are the traditional crafts such as the work of the old blacksmiths, and all those diverse crafts practised on the farms of 60 or more years ago.

Thinking for a moment of old farming methods, one dark and rainy day I managed to visit the Corrigall Farm Museum just before it closed for the winter. There one travels back in time. I had a grand ‘discoorse’ with the custodian – in wreaths of blue smoke from a peat fire as we talked about this and that. Among many interesting old farming items in the building, I saw on the walls a picture of the Gospel Ship and a portrait of Burns. When summer comes again I must retrace my steps there for a proper visit.

And talking about the change from old to new, dare I say that virtually within feet of this award-winning, historical link with the past, rows of black plastic silage bales two-tier high stretch the length of the building and more. Stepping out from the front door the view of the Orcadian landscape is completely ruined. What, I wonder, would the ghosts of those who once farmed this old homestead think some early morning, when they rose out of their box-beds to look across the familiar lands of Harray with the hills of Hoy in the background?

Another day in Kirkwall – a Sunday in fact – my wandering footsteps took me along the sea-front as I walked to town from Craigiefield. The Cathedral bells were ringing their familiar notes that are forever stored in my memory – for many a day I have heard their music. By happy coincidence when I reached the front of the Cathedral it transpired that this particular Sunday was BB Enrolment Sunday which meant that the Boys’ Brigade and the Anchor Boys were on parade. Out of the Cathedral they all came and shortly formed up on Broad Street. Soon, with banners flying and led by their pipe-band, they marched away down the street and into Albert Street, and so on to their new hall up at Papdale. Well, I marched along with the company just as I had done in the Fifties when I was a member. I would have liked though, to have seen more discipline in the marching. But how very fine this all was, listening to the band, and seeing those young fellows following the pipes and drums with the same pride, I think and hope, that we old members used to feel. Before I came back to North Ronaldsay I once again, as I often do, made a visit to the splendid and majestic St Magnus Cathedral – the Cathedral of the people of Orkney.

The floor is full as an Eightsome Reel gets into full swing at the North Ronaldsay Harvest Home. (Picture: Peter Donnelly)

Now then to our Harvest Home. On Friday, November 16, 82 folk comfortably filled the Memorial Hall. This, in fact, would be the 12th consecutive year that the old hall had seen again the celebration of the harvest. Once more, Loganair brought out to the island our many friends, relations, and guests, with some coming especially from far away. Captain Ian Potten was this year’s Loganair representative with vice-convener Jim Sinclair as the Harvest Home speaker. Unfortunately, Jim Sinclair’s wife was unable to attend, as were representatives approached from Orkney Ferries. After a delayed appearance one of our great Harvest Home supporters, and indeed of North Ronaldsay, finally arrived. This was Howie Firth, now living in Elgin, who made an apologetic entrance to handclaps, cheers and the stamping of feet.

Thereafter, proceedings quickly got under way. John Cutt gave the grace with the traditional supper following. Later, before the ‘toast’, I said a few words and announced my retirement as president of the community association and from the committee. After 12 years I felt, and said, that it was time for new blood and new ideas. I acknowledged the great support that I always received from each succeeding committee over the years – many of whose members had served much longer than I had. As a relative latecomer to association affairs, I had held the banner for a few years. Others, over the long history of firstly, the Old Hall Committee (1920-1948), and then the Community Association, had served just as conscientiously as I had attempted to do. I promised to help with future functions, and then proposed a vote of thanks to my colleagues and all others who help, and for those who were involved in any way with this year’s Harvest Home.

Guest speaker at the North Ronaldsay Harvest Home this year was OIC vice convener Jim Sinclair. (Picture: James Thomson)

Jim Sinclair was then invited to address the company. He had grown up with, as he said, the more old fashioned harvest work during the Forties and Fifties – work which is now almost a thing of the past in Orkney. He went on to reminisce about those days and during World War Two when several hundred servicemen were stationed in Shapinsay. Some-times, their genuine attempts at helping with the farming activities were not always successful. When binders arrived in Shapinsay as long ago as 1912-13 his farm was among the first to acquire one. The sheaves were then, of course, mechanically tied. Occasionally, though, he remembered flattened crop being cut by the reaper, forerunner of the binder, which left the cut swathes to be bound into sheaves by hand. He described how on fresh, sunny days it was wonderful to see the binder sheaves fall, one by one, into long lines lying ready to be stooked. Often nearby, he would watch gannets dive with spectacular effect into the sea as they fished for food. But he mentioned other more unpleasant days – tangled crop, cold, wet days and so on, which were also to be endured. These combinations of images, along with memories of cups of tea and grand spreads of food being served in the hairst fields, the satisfaction of working together, of neighbours helping, made those times of the past great memories to treasure. Today machines have replaced all the old ways, and thereby we have lost an age when real human values were part of everyday existence. Jim then proposed the toast to the harvest. Fine drams of whisky sparkled briefly in the light of candles and barn-lanterns before disappearing rather neatly and bringing this most pleasant part of the Harvest Home to a close.

In an instant candles were ‘slocked’; the beautiful displays of carnations (created once again by D. & H. Glue) and the lanterns were deposited safely in the ‘little end’. Then outside we went with the long tables, dishes clattered in a cleaning ritual, slipperene got dusted on the old hall floor, and shortly the accordions were in business as the standard first dance, Strip the Willow, filled the space from the south to the north end of the hall. And so one of our best Harvest Home dances began and continued through the evening until the draw for the raffle took place. This raffle was organised in aid of substantial funds required for window replacements in the Memorial Hall. Ian Deyell supervised the raffle for which people had kindly donated numerous bottles of whisky, wine etc. Those items, along with one of my watercolours, which I had contributed, raised a sum of £273. Further donations brought this figure to a grand total of £300.

On went the dance as energetically as ever (no time for tea) as the night swept on to the music of accordions and Howie Firth’s recorder. During a brief interlude Howie entertained the company with an amusingly topical Harvest Home composition, (including a chorus) which he sang to quite an original tune. And then before we had time to think, between three and four in the morning, the second last dance was announced. Another Eightsome Reel was the choice, which shook the hall with (again) four sets dancing madly to the skirl of the pipes. Finally, the last waltz and Auld Lang Syne brought the 2001 Harvest Home almost to a close but not before Jim Sinclair was carried shoulder high round the silvery floor of the hall. Then I was also raised to the realms of the simman garlands and coloured buoyheads before hot soup, sandwiches etc was served to round off an unforgettable night. A little later the old key of the hall finally clicked in the darkness of the night.

“This is the land whereon our fathers wrought
Year after year, feeling scant need to clutch
For distant gains, since, with little or much,
They tilled their scattered fields as they’d been taught,
Or tried the sea to find what might be caught
Of fish or crab. This was their land, and such
Their joy therein, and seeing the sunlight touch
Its evening hills, no other land they saught.”

First verse of the poem, ‘Orkney’, by Robert Rendall (1898 – 1976)

Hay, planes, and carbide lamps

When the fuchsia tree begins to display its scarlet flowers and the honey-suckle also comes into bloom, then one realises that the main of the summer has passed.

Another sign of the advancing season is the ragged robin. It’s a flower that favours damp ground and it makes sweeps of pink along some of our few loch edges. And then there are the purple blue vetches that are a pleasure to the eye at this time of year. They are to be seen here and there, but mainly along parts of the road sides where they mingle with the many flowering grasses, butter-cups, silverweed, curly doddies etc.

On July 8 a new extension to the North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory was officially opened by Jim Wallace QC MSP – an event to be reported shortly in The Orcadian.

On August 11, a slide show and dance took place in the new community centre. James Thomson very kindly showed an interesting selection chosen from the thousands of transparencies which he has taken over a period of more than 40 years.

He called the show ‘Orkney Faces and Places’, and his presentation got the evening under way.

A few Friends of the North Ronaldsay Trust were there to raise more money for the North Ronaldsay Trust. They ran a very successful raffle, which realised a sum of £104.

Over 70 folk, including a number of visitors to the island, enjoyed the social get together.

Apart from such entertainments the island’s native sheep punding and clipping – which, among other things, can also be entertaining – has once again been completed.

By the end of next month the remaining jobs of the season – some oats cutting, barley to be plastic wrapped, and tattie picking, will all be done.

Going away back to June when the main of the summer’s work had begun, silage activity was in full swing, and some hay cutting was getting under way. Then we had two weeks of misty, wet weather and all such activity came to a stop.

When conditions improved there was a flurry of work, cut grass was plastic-wrapped, and hay got turned and baled. Now-a-days hay baling is almost becoming a thing of the past in North Ronaldsay, and this alternative, rather clever, method of wrapping grass (or grain crops) in plastic sheeting is taking over – what would the old folk say if they could come back and see things today I wonder?

In the 1960s hay was still being cut by quite a few farmers using the old horse drawn reaper but pulled instead by tractor. Then the cut swathes of grass had to be turned by fork for curing. It was surprising how quickly this work was accomplished when there were a few folk going at it – besides it was fun – well, if there were a few helpers it was.

Making hay on North Ronaldsay in the 1960s

Some hay-turners were very fast just as there were turnip singlers that could out-strip fellow ‘hoers’. Next, the hay, when sufficiently dry, was forked into coles (small gatherings of hay about four feet or so high) and once they were considered to be cured, the coles were built into stacks – usually in the ‘yard’ – an enclosed area near to the farm steading.

Although some stacks were built in the fields it was more convenient to have them near the byres for ease of feeding. The hay, mostly made into ‘windlins’, was then fed to the animals that were tied up during the winter in the relative comfort, warmth, and shelter of their byres.

A ‘windlin’, by the way, was made by getting hold of a fair amount of hay (or thrashed straw from oats or corn sheaves) in ones ‘skirt’ (lap), then by fixing a longish wisp of the material from either side with a few turns, it becomes held together in a sort of oblong shaped bundle. A wonderful twisting and turning movement of the arms and hands accomplished this task quite neatly. Well, well, as my Faroese friend would say.

The last letter I wrote – about my childhood war-time memories (Twinkling with the stars of memory), was written away back in December of last year when I took a ‘gee’ (O. N. – a turn of mind, a fancy) for writing on this computer at which I sit tapping at the moment. In fact I have not been working (if one can call it work) at this machine for a while – apart from brief coverage of island events.

Now that some local folk have had time to read that ‘1940s’ letter and make comment on this and that, there are some statements to put right for the record.

I think it might be interesting as well to expand a little on one or two aspects when I have the chance. It’s surprising though how sometimes a lapse of concentration or a misconception can lead to inaccuracies. One should try and get one’s facts correct even if sometimes its difficult when different people have different versions and conflicting memories of certain events.

In fact it’s interesting to think how some folk will remember certain things which others will not, or that one person will be absolutely adamant that he or she is correct. I’m thinking for instance about favourite films seen again some years later. Surprisingly one often gets the sequence of events mixed up, and even we can be quite wrong about certain things which happened or indeed never happened – the memory does plays tricks.

I’m thinking too about certain inaccuracies contained in my Boy’s Brigade memories (part of my ‘Red Diary’ letter) which go back to more than 40 years ago. David Partner, in his excellent and most informative article, printed in The Orcadian recently, which I really enjoyed, corrects two. One, the white shoulder haversack was not worn on weekly parade nights as I thought – rather it was kept for special occasions. And two, the Kirkwall BB Pipe Band did not lead the Armistice Sunday Parade but, as David says, the band did head the Parade on Empire Youth Day.

I certainly remember other occasions when the Pipe Band marched through the streets of Kirkwall – couldn’t someone organise another meeting of the old band members when they could march once more through familiar streets with the pipes skirling and the drums tapping? That would be very grand. Anyhow, on matters that appear questionable it’s said that in order to get as near to the truth as possible, at least three versions of a particular event, and from three individuals, should agree.

Fresson's plane with some North Ronaldsay folk going aboard with produce from the island – eggs, lobsters, etc., from left: Mrs Cutt of Garbo, Bella Swanney of Sanger, Mary Robertson of Holland, Annie Swanney of Trebb, Tommy Thomson of Nether Linnay and Ronnie Swannay of Trebb.

When I was writing about Captain Fresson’s air service to the North Isles (begun in 1934), I had that it was about 20 years between the time this provision officially ceased (at the outbreak of World War Two) and its subsequent restoration by Loganair in 1967. Well of course it was nearer 30 years – but isn’t it amazing to think that Fresson’s passenger service to the North Isle began almost 67 years ago.

Then, for example, he and his pilots provided two flights per day and for three days in the week between Kirkwall and North Ronaldsay. In 1939 Fresson was also able to begin an airmail delivery and collection to the island for a short time. It almost spelled the end of the Royal Mail contract run by Post-boat between the islands of Sanday and North Ronaldsay.

However, the start of the war ended that venture, so in fact the Post-boat continued to carry the mails until Loganair took over the contract some 28 years later. Incidentally, the change from plane to boat was not achieved without some controversy, since some islanders were for the retention of the Post-boat connection and others for the air service.

The issue was finally settled at a public meeting held at the island school, chaired by the head teacher at that time, Robert Flett. Anyhow, the adjustment to my earlier calculations has, as you can see, allowed a little expansion on Fresson’s history, plus my intention to include an interesting photograph from the time. But those who want to learn more about this period in Orkney’s history should read Captain Fresson’s memoirs contained in his book Air Road to the Isles published in 1967.

On Seal Skerry a rusting ship’s boiler continues to draw ones attention as it has done for 86 years. It belongs to the Scotfus – a Norwegian ship that grounded in 1915 (her 16-man crew were taken off safely by three island boats) – Peter Tulloch in his book A Window on North Ronaldsay mentions this wreck (and others). There is another boiler visible, when it is ebb-tide, nearer the shore upon which the odd seal often sits resting or sunning himself.

This was the one identified in my war-time letter – the Alice Doods boiler – (o (in Doods) as in ‘doh’, – ray – me). It’s possible that the RAF planes that I mentioned as using this relic for target practice did so, but it was the other boiler, still very prominent, that was the main target. To mix up the names can only be explained as a curious lack of concentration – not at all uncommon for me.

My next door neighbour, who knows the surrounding fishing area well, thought that the old lobster fishing men – or at least one of them would have been tempted to take his staff across my back for making such an inexcusable mistake.

Many a creel have I been involved in setting and hauling in its proximity – in fact for fun I have actually stood on the blessed thing more than once – Alice Doods boiler indeed! Mind you, only a local person would be any the wiser but this correction gives me an opportunity to relate a little more about the wreck.

The Scotfus was loaded with carbide, wood pulp, and timber, and as Peter explains this cargo took fire. Eventually, as he says, a few local fishermen from the north-end bought the wreck and they were able to retrieve, among other things, most of the ship’s cargo of carbide.

For some years this element provided another source of light in many homes – but not all as the oil lamp was the more common lighting provision. The carbide lamp worked on the principle that water was allowed to mix with carbide in a controlled proportion which then gave off an inflammable gas. In later times carbide could be bought locally at one of the island shops, so that the carbide lamps were still in use in the 1950s. And even I remember one still working in the early 1960s – it burned with an intense white light, and I seem to recall a sort of sulphurous smell.

I’m also reminded that there were carbide bicycle lamps in use in my school days, but somehow I cannot remember much about them apart from the little red and green glass that lit up on either side of the lamp – I wonder why this was so on a ordinary bicycle lamp, was it a sales gimmick or was it like the direction indicators used on aeroplanes and ships – red for port green for starboard? Or were those bicycle lamps, as someone suggested, adapted from some other use?

My Sanday informant tells me that the carbide bicycle lights were also used on that island but doesn’t remember the inside house lamps.

With regard to the Spitfire or a Hurricane that I mentioned as having possibly been the plane which made a forced landing in a field of Antabreck early in the last war. It was neither. The plane was in fact a Blackburn Skua, described as a fighter-bomber or dive-bomber. Those planes were single-engined with a Max Speed of 225 mph; fuel tank 163 imperial gallons, giving a maximum range of some 760 miles (an indurance of over four hours); they were designed mainly to operate from an aircraft carrier; and carried two of a crew – the pilot and a navigator/rear gunner.

The rear gunner operated a Lewis machine gun, with four Browning .303 machine guns mounted in the wings being fired by the pilot. The plane carried one 250 lb. general purpose bomb recessed under the fuselage, which was aimed and released by the pilot. Peter Thomson, formerly Greenspot then Neven, now living in Finstown, informed me as to the type of plane, and Rognvald Scott (then aged around eight or nine) who, as I said in my letter, lived at Antabreck at that time, confirms it. I suppose the event added to Rognvald’s fascination with the war-time planes, as he went on to become a pilot and subsequently a Squadron Leader in the RAF during the 1950s

My two informants further tell me that the wings of the plane folded up which of course would have been the case since the plane was designed primarily to operate from an aircraft carrier. Rognvald remembers his father Roy, with his tractor, and assisted by other islanders, taking the plane up to Antabreck where it was partly housed in a shed until the appropriate authorities were able to fit a replacement propeller. This would have been done, I imagine, in an attempt to hide the plane from enemy identification and attack from the air. It was a foggy day when the plane made its forced landing on North Ronaldsay – said to be the cause of the accident. It was also said that the plane had run out of fuel, which is also a possibility if you read on.

In W. S. Hewison’s splendid and authoritative book This Great Harbour Scapa Flow, the writer says that the Skuas were operating at their extreme range when flying offensive missions near the Norwegian coast, and many in fact often had to ‘ditch’ short of their base.

The metal fuselage of the Skua was, by the way, designed to be watertight in the event of ditching, and the plane also carried an inflatable life-raft. Hewison goes on to say that 16 Skuas, each armed with one 500 lb semi-armour piercing bomb, made naval history on April 10,1940.

On that day they flew from the wartime aerodrome at Hatston (just outside of Kirkwall) to Norway, where they attacked and sank the 5,600-ton German cruiser Konigsberg in the harbour at Bergen. Fifteen of the planes returned safely to Orkney. The 16th went into a spin (seemingly a weakness in the Skuas) and crashed, killing the two crew members. The Konigsberg, as Hewison says, was the first major warship to be sunk in battle by aircraft alone.

As I finish this letter, the night is fast drawing in and I’m putting all those old stories and thoughts away again.

My computer, by the way, also has a CD player, which I’ve just put on for a change and I’m listening to a recording of the Scottish tenor, Robert Wilson. I’m waiting particularly for his fine rendering of ‘Land of Hearts Desire’. That other fine Scottish singer Kenneth Mckeller also sings this song so beautifully. It’s a wonderful song of the Hebrides; of days of sun, sand and dreams, and far cloudless skies and starry nights. It’s evocative of all islands I suppose, and it especially reminds me of a North Ronaldsay I once knew. But still the island and the sea and the sky remain, and the stars still shine.

Twinkling with the stars of memory

When a display of wartime model planes was held at the Memorial Hall, Ian remembers: “I was most impressed by those planes – most likely Spitfires, Hurricanes, Lancaster bombers, Swordfish torpedo-bombers, etc.”
(Picture: Dave Stewart)

In my bedroom I have an alarm system that remains switched on during the night. It has two small fixed lights, one red and one green, and when my bedside lamp is turned off those two colours, glowing side by side in the darkness, frequently remind me of the war years and when I was living at Cruesbreck.

I was born there in 1940 and lived there until 1948 when the family moved to the present home at Antabreck. Although quite young during the last years of the 1939-1945 war there are nevertheless some memories which remain especially clear from those far away days.

The two lights, which provide the inspiration for this letter, are similar to the direction identification system used on ships and aeroplanes – red for port and green for starboard. From 1940 until almost the end of 1945 Norway, a country closely connected in many ways with Orkney with its Norse history, was occupied by German forces. Shetland, of course, has the same historical links but probably more so because of their closer proximity.

During the conflict in Norway there was the famous ‘Shetland Bus’ link when many Norwegians escaped mainly by fishing boat across the North Sea to Shetland. A few years ago I bought a book with the title of The Waves are Free by James W. Irvine (a Shetlander) which is a comprehensive history of the war time Shetland/Norway links – there is also of course David Howarth’s definitive book The Shetland Bus.

One of the very impressionable memories I have of those last years of the war is of the dark starry skies, when frequently the sound of aeroplanes would tempt me outside to see what was happening. Then one would see those little green and red lights, that I’ve mentioned, seemingly among the stars, tracing their way across the blackness of the sky. The sound of the passing war-planes brought a feeling of some excitement and speculation – what sort of mission were they flying; would they survive and come south again – or would they be shot down over Norway or the North Sea.

Though I cannot recollect the heavy raids that went over to Norway that my late father used to talk about, when the sound of the droning engines were heard for some time, there is no doubt that those occasions must have been exciting, and also unforgettable, from the distinctive noise of so many planes flying thousands of feet above North Ronaldsay.

During those war years there were stationed on the island, RAF personnel who were billeted at Holland House. The house, which belonged to the Laird of the island, was unoccupied during the war, and it was about the only place of sufficient size to accommodate a number of men – at one time there was as many as 12 on duty there. Also, the building is fairly highly situated on the island, and it has a tower from which a good lookout could be maintained.

The purpose of their occupation was to keep watch for enemy planes that might be on their way to bomb the Scapa Flow Naval base, or report on passing war ships or whatever. They had a radio operator who relayed such information to the relevant authorities.

When those RAF men were here I was too young to know much about their presence, or how they took part in the life of the community and so on. But what I do remember especially, though, was an exhibition of war-time model planes which they organised. The Memorial Hall was the place where the models were displayed, and the planes were laid out on one of those long wooden tables, supported on trestles, which were used for catering. I was most impressed by those planes – most likely Spitfires, Hurricanes, Lancaster bombers, Swordfish torpedo-bombers, etc. I remember the detail of one of the models very well because a school contemporary of mine had received a present of one, and on occasion we would play with the plane. It was a fairly large model (probably a Lancaster bomber) 20in or more wing span I should think with the distinctive red, white, and blue identification markings. It was painted in a khaki hue, dark green, and black I seem to recall, and in a wavy design. It also had the little green and red navigation wing-tip lights, which actually worked, perspex (I think) cockpit, and similarly made revolving gun turrets.

There was, by the way, a rear-gunner on a bomber who came from North Ronaldsay – Flight Sergeant John Thomson, from Howatoft – and that of course made the model even more fascinating. Marion Chester (nee Tulloch, Kirbest) was the owner of this present – I wonder if she still has it? Apart from those rather sophisticated and substantial models from Holland House, there were also a number of small metal ones manufactured by ‘Dinky’ which some of us as individuals had – I suppose they would have been cast in white metal or aluminium, and we would probably have received such toys in our Santa Claus stockings.

They were very neat little models, silver coloured and accurately made. I seem to remember one in particular as it had a twin body with the cockpit section situated in the middle, two joined tail sections, and three-bladed propellers, painted red, that turned easily when one blew on the blades Ð I think it was an American plane (a Lockheed Lightening (P38)) Alastair Henderson (recently retired Lighthouse keeper in North Ronaldsay) and his wife Dorothy, now living in Stromness, tell me.

As well as the ‘Dinky’ planes there were also a range of model naval ships made by the same company, and when we eventually came to live at Antabreck in 1948, I remember finding one of those toys – a destroyer, that had been left forgotten on the ledge above the door in my then new bedroom. I imagine the little model belonged to my cousin Rognvald Scott when he and the rest of the family stayed at Antabreck when it was their home.

You might think that somebody only aged five and less, living in a place so remote from the momentous events that were taking place, would hardly recall much about those war years. Yet there were many things that happened, and many connections that impressed young minds. There was, for instance, the National Geographic magazines which my father used to get from his sister, Mary. She was a teacher in Aberdeen at the time and subsequently taught there for many years. Those magazines had graphic and impressive illustrations of the war activity – encounters on the sea and in the air – apart from pages of photographs.

I’ve just had a look at some which we still have -they take me away back to those times. I remember too, Mary’s sister Bella, who was a nurse working not that far from Aberdeen in the wartime. She used to tell us, in later years, about the ‘poor RAF boys’, as she described them, that were brought into a special hospital dealing with the terrible burns and other injuries that many of them suffered in combat, or when their planes crashed. Then there was always the talk about the great things that were happening. There was the wireless with the latest news, and I remember Sir Harry Lauder singing World War One songs that were still favourites, songs like “It’s a Long way to Tipperary” or “Pack up your Troubles”. Those songs would probably have been recordings since by that time he would have been in his mid-seventies – dying in 1950 aged 80 – but maybe, on the other hand, he still continued to broadcast.

Then there was Lord Haw-Haw, the Nazi broadcaster from Germany, whose voice came over the airwaves with his propaganda. I can’t recall much of him except the talk about his treachery and the ridicule piled upon him by the folk at Cruesbreck. My uncle Bill was particularly incensed with his broadcasts. Anyhow, Lord Haw-Haw (William Joyce) was born in the USA of Irish parents. He was captured at the end of the war, subsequently tried, and executed as a traitor in 1946.

Once a sea-plane landed in Nouster Bay which appeared very big and unusual looking, I thought, as it floated high in the water. And earlier in the war a RAF plane -possibly a Hurricane or Spitfire, made a forced landing in a field north of Antabreck. It was brought to a stop by running into some fencing wire.

I certainly remember the accident being talked about, but at that time Antabreck was not yet our new home. In any case I was too young to remember the actual event. However, the pilot was unhurt and the plane had only suffered a damaged propeller. A spare was sent out and the plane flew back to its base and so lived to fight another day.

When we were at Cruesbreck where our family were living during the war years. I was just thinking that there would have been nine of us actually staying together at the time – my father and mother, brother and sister (another two brothers and a sister were born later) my grandparents, and my two uncles and myself.

One day is especially clear in my mind, as on that day a German plane flew very low over Cruesbreck. We must have heard the plane approaching in time to be able to get outside, and see the huge black coloured bomber roar over the house, and head south in the direction of Sanday, and no doubt on towards Scapa Flow on a raid.

In Sanday one could see the towering, early-warning radar pylons that were so prominent against the skyline, and a relative of mine living there, Mary Anne Fotheringham, tells me that one of the civilians working at this station was killed by a bomb dropped during an enemy raid. Mary Anne also mentioned that in addition to the RAF, the Army had a substantial presence, and the island had its own Home Guard unit made up of upwards of 70 men. In North Ronaldsay, by comparison, there was no Home Guard. There were, however, a number of men who acted as ARPs, and there was a Special Constable, John Tulloch, Hooking, a World War One ex-RNR, who was in charge. There was also a Coastguard unit to keep an eye along the beaches for war-debris, mines, and so on.

A number of mines landed and exploded, or were defused. Such work was carried out by army disposal officers, one of whom had been in North Ronaldsay, was killed while working in another location. And, still on this subject, I also remember hearing about John Tulloch, Purtabreck, another First World War RNR(T), veteran, who had served on the mine-sweeping trawlers of the Northern Patrols. He had actually defused a mine – the rusting remains of which is still in existence at the old home. Those mines that did go off caused windows to break here and there, apart from other damage done close-by. It must have been quite frightening with shrapnel falling well inland – though I do not actually recall hearing the explosions. (Some of my age do.) Pieces of shrapnel were examined, talked about, and regarded with some awe by myself and my school contemporaries.

Another connection with the planes was the target practice carried out by the RAF when they would frequently make mock-attacks round and near the Seal Skerry. Their pilots were shooting mainly at the remains of an old ship’s boiler (Alice Doods, pronounced “Dods” locally, ship-wrecked in 1911) which was prominent on the skerry. It’s still there, but slowly settling as salt, rust, and time takes its toll. A German plane that passed over very early in the war, fired on the wreck of the Hansi (Norwegian cargo boat loaded with wood-pulp) thinking it to be a worthwhile target. At that time the Hansi had not been long ashore below Scottigar, where she had drifted after having been holed on the Reef Dyke in 1939.

In later creeling years, when we were working from the Noust of Sandbank in the sixties, we used to occasionally lay up our ‘Sea-Gull’ outboards for protection in one of the wheel-house sections that had come ashore by that time. One could see the impressive damage of the German’s attack, and British plane’s target practice, evident by the many holes torn savagely into the iron. But one of the results of the sweeping practice-raids by the British planes was the dropping of spent cartridges (and clips) – mostly at the north end of the island. Empty cartridges such as the 20mm cannon shells falling from a height would have been fairly dangerous – for example, one landed in a fishing boat on shore and went through the bottom of the boat, I’m told. Many of the discarded brass cartridges were collected and polished, and there were very few houses that did not have them as ornaments on their mantelpieces.

Even after the war I remember finding odd cartridges round Antabreck, and some are still to be seen in an island home or two. In fact I’m looking at two different sized ones at the moment. They have the dates 1941 and 1942 stamped on the bottom, and also the calibre information .50 and 20 mm. There was a smaller cartridge, a .303, – the smaller calibre were machine-gun ammunition, with the 20mm being a cannon shell fired on the same principle.

Added to those mixed recollections are many others like: the compulsory black-out blinds for windows, which prevented any light from being seen from the air by enemy planes at night. The fixing for the rollers remains in some houses – for instance, they are still to be seen in almost every room in Antabreck; ration books for clothing, food etc. – maybe not such a hardship in an island context, since North Ronaldsay, at that time, would have been almost self-sufficient. I do remember though our folk receiving fruit, dates, very rich cakes full of currants, etc. from relations in Canada; then there was the bottles of cod-liver oil and concentrated orange juice -spoonfuls of which we young folk had to take – one after the other with the unpleasant one being taken first; gas-masks which we were supposed to carry to school every day, and the special much larger, and quite sophisticated ones, which I think young babies could actually be enclosed within. They had a form of air-pump to supply air; felt blinds being put up in the Memorial Hall when evening functions were on – they are still to the fore and used for slide or film shows on occasion. And such chores as byre work at night had to be carried out with the minimum of light – indeed flashlights were forbidden and those responsible for this law were on the look-out. John Tulloch, who was, as I mentioned earlier, a Special Constable, acting under strict orders, was said to have been particularly vigilant in this respect having been known to knock the flashlight from out of the hands of more than one offender.

Well, those are some of my few war-time memories with bits and pieces added for interest. They are the recollections of a four or five-year-old living in a fairly isolated island, with a population at that time in the region of upwards of 270, and with a school attendance at the end of the war of around 36. Today the school role is 30 less and the population is at least minus 200.

During the time that I have been writing and cross checking this relatively short account, many stories and other interesting information have come to light. For instance, Jimmy Thomson, formerly of Nether Linnay, aged seven at the time, tells me that he actually saw the helmeted face of a gunner seemingly looking at him from a German plane. This was during the attack on the Hansi mentioned above when the plane concerned flew very low over his home as it approached its target. Or salvage work on the Hansi and the grounding and total loss of another Norwegian ship called the Mim about a week earlier etc. But such additional material is too long for this particular letter.

I should perhaps mention though – thinking about ‘isolation’ referred to above – that during those times there was a passenger plane-service which had operated twice a day, three times a week, from 1934/35 until 1939, but then reduced to only intermittent, mostly emergency flights, during the war. This service was operated by Captain E. E. Fresson OBE – one of the pioneers of British Airways. He had, in addition to establishing the North of Scotland and North Isles air-service, just begun carrying the Royal Mail to the North Isles in 1939, but this was discontinued at the outbreak of hostilities. It would be nearly twenty years later, in 1967, before Loganair restored that combined service.

An island boat with an inboard engine, known as the Post-boat, made the Royal Mail and passenger connection to Sanday – a six-mile, hour or more long, open-boat journey, and the main steamer sailing’s between Kirkwall and the island would have been once every two weeks – though often it was much longer between. Such connections were dependant on weather, and in those earlier years there is no doubt that the winters were more severe. Snow with huge drifts was not uncommon when we were going to school in the forties, and often, even if the steamer reached North Ronaldsay, the pier could not be berthed. Incidentally, I also remember a tarpaulin covered gun up for’ard on either the Sigurd or the Thorfinn – maybe on both.

Here I am at last bringing this letter to a close and thinking back to the two little coloured lights in my bedroom with which I began this letter. Sometimes, but very seldom nowadays, I might hear the sound at night of one of those older type propeller-driven planes. If such an occasion arises I’m up and outside in an instant searching the dark skies for the little red and green lights – looking just a ‘peedie’ bit ahead of the far-away droning of the engines. I have heard them a few times but less and less as the years pass. And when I do, and when I identify those magic lights among the stars, that trace once again the war-time paths of long gone airmen, and light up the navigation buttons of the mind – there seems to be a feeling of lost times that pervades ones thoughts – a certain nostalgia – a kind of sadness maybe, that comes and goes like the Northern Lights. The old Eskimos used to believe that this phenomenon of the shimmering lights was the souls of their dead dancing in the sky. Perhaps they do, and perhaps once in a while the lost aircrews will join with them to dance in skies still twinkling with the stars of memory.

Red diary stirs schoolday memories

In one of our attics, which is full of 101 items of as wide a range of subject matter as one could ever imagine, and covering many years of accumulation, one day, some time ago, I came across a little red Boys’ Brigade Diary for 1954. The Boys’ Brigade was an organisation with which I was involved for a time – but more of this later. The contents of my diary, which include entries for Christmas Day 1953 and that year’s Hogmanay, are short and simple, but nevertheless they give a brief account of those times when I was mainly living in Kirkwall – plus bits and pieces related to North Ronaldsay and like diaries do, they stimulate the memory and take one back in time.

Well, I always planned to try and put something together which uses the diary as a sort of memory stepping stone. So here at last I am sitting down at my computer intending to tell you a little about those times.

I suppose I should begin at the beginning and go back to the year of 1952 when I, and some others of my generation, first left North Ronaldsay to attend the Kirkwall Grammar School. A few, a bit older, were already there, or in Sanday and Finstown, and yet others were further afield – at Universities, Colleges, and so on – they usually left for their venues later than the standard school-time. However, that year, at the end of the summer holidays, we left the island by Post Boat, being rowed out in a small praam to this boat. During good weather in the summer time, the Post Boat was sometimes moored out at sea a little distance from the land at Bridesness – an area from which island fishing-boats worked. This was the only time we sailed from that location that I remember – all other times were from the pier. When leaving for a new school term or coming home on holiday, we had to frequently embark or disembark in swells which rose and fell by many feet. And sometimes when we arrived at the pier, home on holiday, we had to help ‘wap’ the boat up by hand-operated crane from the sea on to the pier, and then on to a cradle to be again ‘wapped’ to the safety of the boat-noust.

In the early days there were no cars to take us home; generally, to keep our clothes clean,we sat on old sacks, which would be spread on a ‘bogie’, linkbox, or maybe a little cart, drawn by tractor. In those days Johnny o’ North Ness (John Tulloch) was the boatman in charge. He was indeed a man of the sea, aged at that time 55, and responsible for carrying the Royal Mail between Sanday and North Ronaldsay. Earlier, in 1939, during a difficult and dangerous rescue of a number of the crew of the Mim (a Norwegian cargo vessel) which had struck the reef dyke – a submerged reef lying about a mile distant from the island, the captain of the ship, seeing the rescue at first hand, was said to have described John Tulloch as “a boatman in a thousand”. A Naval Prize crew, who were on board the Mim, were also highly impressed by his seamanship – but this is another story.

Let me depart here for a moment from my first Post Boat trip to give you some idea of what travellers had to frequently endure when communications depended entirely on the sea connection. It was not unusual to wait for a day or two in Kirkwall for suitable weather conditions when we were on our way home at the end of each school term. There were numerous rough trips from Kirkwall when sometimes the ship had to turn back well into her passage – even on occasion from the very pier in North Ronaldsay, without landing passengers or cargo and having then to return to Kirkwall – a journey which could take four hours or more in adverse conditions; of being weather-bound in Sanday and waiting for the weather to ‘tak-aff’ so as to allow the Post Boat to make its six mile or so crossing to our native isle.

Every morning as we waited we would look anxiously seawards to see if conditions had improved sufficiently to allow a passage. If so, it was down to the Black Rock – that landing and departure point to North Ronaldsay so familiar to generations of islanders, and from there homewards across the North Ronaldsay Firth. But even with those many delayed sailings only once during the festive season did we not get home before Christmas Eve. I particularly remember that occasion, and the unforgettable Christmas morning when we eventually did get home.

As we approached the Start Point Lighthouse, Sanday, on board the SS Earl Sigurd, the rising sun appeared spectacularly above a sea which on that day was calm and settled. Funnily enough, we never seemed to have problems with leaving North Ronaldsay, and many a night when I hear the restless wind sounding loudly outside my bedroom window, I remember so well the feeling I had, and I suppose all of us had, when we were about to leave our homes, families, and friends, for another long term away. We hoped it would not be weather to leave in the morning – but it always was.

Thinking back, it was a considerable sacrifice for our parents to make, and a loss in many ways for all of us – emotionally and otherwise – in those early and formative years of our lives. Many islanders left North Ronaldsay with different aims in mind, and all, in one way or another, experienced those emotional upheavals, which apart from anything else, often meant financial hardship for the parents. Yet, very many of those who left went on to gain distinction in a diversity of careers and occupations which extended to the far corners of the Commonwealth. In previous letters I have written a little about those boat journeys and told of the outstanding achievements of many native North Ronaldsay men and women. Any expansion on those aspects of communication and history would require a separate letter.

But to get back to my story, once on board the Post Boat, we motored from Bridesness to Sanday (a journey of just over six miles and taking an hour or more to complete) where Moodie’s car hire service took us to the Kettletoft pier. We then boarded the SS Earl Thorfinn and sailed to Kirkwall from where I continued my travels on to the West School in Holm which I attended for a year, before moving to the Grammar School in Kirkwall.

In a way, the schoolhouse in Holm was like home from home, for my aunt, Winnie Brown, (née Tulloch, born at Cruesbreck) was a primary teacher in the Holm School. Her husband, George, from Aberdeen, a first World War RAMC veteran, was the headmaster. I have good memories of that year in Holm. In this letter I will only mention a few things which will give a flavour of my life there. Well, there was the ‘singing telephone wires’ of those days that made music in the wind – and particularly on sharp, calm, frosty nights; collecting milk from the farm of the Mosses down the road, and cheese from Sarah Gaudie nearby; primroses in spring at the Millford bridge; then there was the war-time connections and recent relics – coastal and AA gun defence emplacement sites; the radar station at Netherbutton with its towering pylons; the famous Italian prisoner-of-war Chapel in Lamb Holm and so on. One has to remember that in 1952, only seven years had passed since the war ended. Then there were the many Nissen and wooden service-huts seen everywhere. One was situated near the school – I think it was part of the adjacent war-time service’s hospital. It had a wonderful series of Nativity figures modelled by the Italian prisoners of war stored away in a corner. Those beautiful little models which impressed me greatly, were I think displayed in the school at Christmas for a time.

When I was staying with my aunt and uncle, I recall that our folks in North Ronaldsay used to send in eggs and maybe a little home-made butter, from time to time, which we had to collect from the pier on steamer days. In the Fifties North Ronaldsay only had one sailing every two weeks – weather permitting. My year in Holm passed with its many associations, which included the 1953 Coronation celebrations, held one bitterly cold day, on June 2, at Graemeshall. But quite often for the next few years I and other relatives, when we were at the KGS, went back to the Holm School house for weekends. We really used to have so much fun during those visits. On Monday mornings we, along with other parish pupils, had to catch the early school bus to Kirkwall as it stopped at various pick-up points.

Once established in Kirkwall (where we islanders mostly had to stay in ‘digs’ – girls from the islands, and any distance outwith the town, lodged in the Girls Hostel) life changed again for me after my year in Holm. Our digs were situated above what used to be Lipton’s shop at 1 Broad Street, and William Hay (undertaker and cabinet-maker) was our landlord.

Staying there were three of us from North Ronaldsay – Frank Thomson, from South Ness, my brother Sinclair, and myself, Ralph and Peter Work from Stronsay, and sometimes one or two extra lodgers that changed from time to time. Others staying in the digs were Jimmie Macrae, manager of Lipton’s, and Victor Hay, son of our landlord.

Mr Hay was married to a lady from the south who had been a NAAFI cook during the war, working in service camps that were situated near Scapa as I recall. As well as cooking for us, she also provided meals for the public in the same premises. Looking back over the years, Mrs Hay was a good landlady, when one considers the responsibility she and her husband had for their young lodgers.

Mr Hay, on the other hand, was more stern and more remote, and we were, I suppose, a little frightened of him. Once during a fairly noisy and energetic pillow fight, when electric-light bulbs were broken, and feathers were flying all over the place, he came up unawares, to our fourth storey attic-bedrooms and gave us all the most terrible lecture.

But there are so many stories to tell about those days – if only about the way we lived throughout the seasons in that lodgings – I shall confine myself in this letter to a few, colourful recollections such as, summer days when we would go for walks – often out to the Scapa beach, swimming in the sea there and also elsewhere; football, athletics and sports days at the Bignold Park; the long chiming of the St Magnus Cathedral bells on a Sunday, or their daily ringing of the hours, quarters, and halves; attending the Paterson Kirk; Victor’s involvement with the Kirkwall Amateur Operatic Society – he was an enthusiastic singer – we often tried on his costumes – sailor’s and soldier’s uniforms, with swords, guns, helmets, and so on; sitting round a sometimes not too warm fire at night in the winter term, or on long tiresome, cold Sundays; going for walks to keep warm – even going to bed on Sundays during the day time for the same purpose; school revision and attending very, very many film shows – first at the old Temperance cinema, and later on at the new Phoenix picture-house. The list is long with many expansions possible under each heading, but for this letter I will confine myself to mentioning a few items of interest, and other subjects which come to mind as I look over my diary.

This brings me then, to my Boys’ Brigade diary. Maybe I should say a little about this organisation before I continue. In a short dictionary description this boys’ movement, founded in 1883, by a Thurso man, Sir William Alexander Smith, is referred to as – “An Organisation for boys to develop self-discipline and team spirit”. It is also, one should add, a Christian movement with its well-known guiding Hymn ‘Will Your Anchor Hold’ which we sung at the beginning of the Parade night held every Thursday. To illustrate this connection, here is an entry in my diary, Sunday January 17 – “Went to Bible Class (Boys’ Brigade) then church, and then Bible Class”.

We were expected to attend the church, receive religious instruction, and participate in other related activities. I suppose that other organisations such as the Scouts and the Girl Guides are similar, in that they aimed at character development, practical skills, and in giving a grounding in principles of life and behaviour based on Christian ideals. There is no doubt that many of us, who were members of such organisations, enjoyed the feeling of community, learning, and playing together, in those early impressionable years of our lives.

One summer a fairly large contingent of our company went to Edinburgh for a camping holiday, but we actually stayed in a church hall in Gilmerton. I remember being in Portobello, visiting the Edinburgh Zoo, The Scotsman’s printing establishment, Dobbie’s flower gardens, etc., and interestingly I found a photograph of our company marching to a church service one Sunday led by our captain at that time, Robert Tullock.

The memories of our activities connected with the BBs generally remain as pleasant, constructive, and lasting ones, though there are some in the public at large who take the view that such organisations were designed to prepare young minds for unquestioned obedience – such as, for example, in war-time. Interestingly, listening to documentary programmes about the Hitler Youth Movement in Germany – particularly during the Thirties, one hears former members talk with the same nostalgia about times which they, in their turn, obviously enjoyed. Yet many of those young people went on to participate in the final horrors of Nazi Germany, and in a war that caused so much suffering and destruction. I find, as I write, my mind jumping in different directions – thinking for instance about what has happened in so many countries since the end of the Second World War – and still happening almost 56 years later. And what about the recently reported behaviour of primary school pupils in the south attacking their teachers – so severely indeed that in some cases teachers have actually resigned? Well, those are issues for consideration as I think back to our own school days and before, and how we, and our parents’ generation, generally behaved.

From the opening ‘Personal Memorandum’ page of my 1954 diary I see that in 1953, on October 8, I became a member of the 1st Kirkwall Company of the Boys’ Brigade – Rank Private. Further details state – Paterson Kirk (the Kirkwall BB Kirk); Bible class on Sunday; Band practice – Friday. Thursday, as I said, was parade night when we turned out wearing the pillbox hat, belt with the polished brass ‘anchor’ emblem, and white starched haversack – which seemed to be symbolic of the soldier’s standard one rather than being functional. In addition we used to compete with one another in the ‘digs’, where we were all members of the Brigade, in having the most highly polished black shoes. This generally much sought-after attainment was achieved by hours spent working at the military ‘spit and polish’ method. In fact, the feel of the Kirkwall Company in the Fifties was of an almost semi-military style organisation – one has to remember that in those days some of the officers in charge had recently been in the services during the war. Discipline, with great attention paid to proper marching, drill etc., was very much a part of the routine, and on public parade days we were expected to wear a dark suit if possible. I have to say that our marching was very professional, and we all took some pride in this. Particularly, for example, on public parade days, such as Armistice Sunday, when we were led by our pipe-band. Today, and in recent years, when photographs appear in The Orcadian of the Boys’ Brigade and some other groups where they are seen marching, everybody is at sixes and sevens. Obviously marching is no longer of much importance.

The first entry in my diary is one written on New Year’s Day, Friday, January 1, 1954. It says “Out of bed late, went to Cruesbreck, then went round about the houses, after that the dance, lovely dance”. On Sunday 3 it says, “Up first, Uncle Bill (steamer agent at that time) came to tell us about the steamer . . . everybody in bed except myself. Packed our cases for Monday.” Then next day I say, “Up about half-past 7, went off with Post (Post-Boat) at half-past 8, caught the steamer in Sanday, left about 12 noon – Stronsay – arrived in Kirkwall about 2.30. Lovely trip wasn’t sick, marvellous.”

I’m looking over my entries as the year passes and I think it will be interesting to continue quoting a few more and expanding where necessary. My entry for Thursday, January 7, mentions snow and Parade Night, “School as usual (two periods art) snowball fighting, etc., Boys’ Brigade tonight, learned 1st and 2nd part of 6-8 time . . .” The 6-8 time was a drum ‘beating’ – a particular arrangement of drumstick music – if you like – that kept the time for any piece of pipe band music written in 6-8 time. One had to learn other arrangements for tunes written in 2-4, 3-4, slow-march, and strathspey time, and so on. Apart from drumming there were classes in Piping, Bugling, First Aid, Signalling, Camping, etc. and after an examination, badges were awarded to successful pupils. Those badges, which were substantial silver-looking solid pieces, were worn with pride. Once, not many years ago, I saw a young BB recruit of more recent times. He was wearing one or two similar badges, but they seemed less impressive, I thought, by comparison with those of the Fifties. Also, the general impression of other accoutrements which he was wearing and with which I was not exactly acquaint, was that they were almost flamboyant – designed, it seemed, to attract or impress for the sort of superficial reasons one sees more so nowadays – but then again I’m probably out of touch and too old-fashioned – “Move with the times,” they say. “Go with the flow” – I’m not sure I agree with either – “Give an inch and lose a mile”!

The entry for the next day says: “Slept in today, fire broke out at P. C. Flett’s, gutted, boxes of cartridges exploded . . . fire in Deerness 9.15 pm.” On Saturday following I went to see the film, ‘There’s a Rainbow Round my Shoulders’. Through the diary there are the names of the numerous films that generally all of us in the digs went to see, films like ‘Ivanhoe’, ‘The Cruel Sea’, ‘Botany Bay’, ‘Singing in the Rain’, ‘The Road to Bali’ and so on. I suppose they were enjoyable diversions from the routine and the home sickness from which we suffered from time to time.

My diary mentions many other snippets of information about school, digs, weekends in Holm, going home, etc. Here are a few chosen to give a feeling of those times: “Miss Hourston (English teacher) in a bad mood today”, MacKerron, (Head of the KGS) gave us Biology . . .”, “Went to Mr Scott’s (Art teacher) exhibition today – very good”. Then pertaining to life in our digs – “Mrs Hay (our landlady) in a good mood today for a change”. A Friday – “The alarm bell did not go off today as Pat (Peter Work from Stronsay) forgot to pull up the knob”. Then one day in February the entry says, “Up early again, Mrs Hay mad about us going to the bathroom too early and coming down at twenty-past (must be 8) the time she told us herself . . .”. And on a Saturday, “Up late went round a lot of shops to get paints. After that I went out to Holm in the car. Miserable day. Painted a picture . . . and had great fun as Netta and Catherine (cousins of mine) were there”. Then here’s an interesting entry for Saturday, April 24, “. . . Started to buy my clothes after breakfast, pyjamas 26/6, shirt 16/6, pullover 16/6 . . .”

I’m coming to the end of this letter, and I think I’ll finish with three appropriate entries, two of which I had made a few days before New Year’s Day 1954. They take me home again to North Ronaldsay – that island which exerts a hypnotic and abiding influence upon those of us with the ties of generations, and history, instilled into our very souls.

March, Wednesday 31st (coming home for Easter) “Up at half-past five, had our breakfast, then left Kirkwall at half-past six, went to Eday first, then Sanday. Nice passage . . . Post-Boat (to North Ronaldsay) nice passage”. A day or so later at home, “Up very late today, (we) took up a load of neeps, thrashed a load of sheaves, had our tea, a gale of wind . . . went to bed”. Then going back to a few days before my diary began I had written more lengthy accounts of Christmas Day 1953 and Hogmanay (written at the back of my diary on some spare pages) “. . . when we rose up and came by, the table was covered with presents. We had our breakfast first and then opened our presents. Mummy showed us all her first ‘iced’ (Christmas) cake. It was very nice, then Mrs Dawson came over with her cake (a present) . . . (Mrs Dawson was the wife of Walter who was the doctor on the island at that time. He was in practice from 1946 until 1954 . . . had a lovely dinner of roast chicken, fruit, followed by tea and cake . . . went to the concert and dance in the evening . . .”

Finally, Hogmanay, 1953. “We did not do much in the morning but in the evening the fun started. Sinclair and I went to Greenspot with a present . . , then by half-past eight all the crowd (the Linklet’s toon crowd) had gathered in Arnold’s, (he also lived at Greenspot – both houses shared a single dividing gable), had a good laugh there over Barrenha’s dog. Went to Greenspot, then to the doctor’s (Dr and Mrs Dawson always invited the Linklet’s toon men for a visit) . . . with big rubber boots on . . . in the sitting room covered with a grand mat. After that we went to Barrenha, after that Phisligar then Antabreck – stayed an extra long time . . . good fun. I did not go round after that but stayed at home and went to bed . . . in bed about five past three”.

“God gives all men all earth to love,
But since man’s heart is small,
Ordains for each one spot shall prove,
Beloved over all.”
Rudyard Kipling

Where the Old Folks Bide

This is the morning of Sunday, January 28, and a fine day it surely is. It’s one of those winter days when, if one didn’t know the time of year, it might be mistaken for a spring day. I suppose that for one thing the mild south-westerly wind creates this feeling; also a few little snow-drops are already in sight and the dark green leaves of the bluebells are giving a sign of life in the ground again, as the days slowly lengthen. But especially impressive is the sky which appears different from so many views as I cast my eye round the island. The southerly aspect has one spectacular darkish cloud which seems to explode upwards in colours of brown, ochre, greys, and pale yellows, behind which the sun is partly hidden, yet he throws one or two long beams earthwards and tips brightly the edges of cloud. Above me the sky is blue with white clouds here and there, and in the south west the high hills of other islands are blue and purple with Westray and Papa Westray positioned further west.

As I turn my gaze to the north and then on east, there is a green tinge in the sky above the horizon – usually a sign of rain – and coloured clouds climb and fall in all sorts of interesting ways. On I look past the new and old lighthouses, the Fair Isle and from east to south, where the sky colours change again above the deep blue of the surrounding sea.

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face and a grey dawn breaking.
John Masefield

I suppose islanders are always on the look-out for a passing ship, and today I can see two that are far away. One with a high, white superstructure, with the rest of the vessel hidden below the horizon, caught the bright morning sun and looked almost like a sailing ship. The initial illusion set me briefly day-dreaming. How wonderful it would be, I thought, to voyage as a passenger on one of those great wind-driven ships of the past: to listen every day to the humming or roaring of the wind in the high rigging; to see the tall masts with their white acres of sail swing mightily against sunny skies; or to see them like great billowing ghosts in the light of the moon. How she would go pitching and flying majestically along in the Roaring Forties, or maybe up north to where the Northern Lights dance among the stars.

Well, here I am writing a second letter in January – I wanted to ‘tap the keys’ before this month of Burns had gone and when recent events were not too far away. At this time of year when George Mackay Brown was penning his weekly letter to The Orcadian, he frequently had something to say about Burns: “One always likes to honour that truly great man”, he says in one of his letters. John Firth, writing in the 1800s, in his book, Reminiscences of an Orkney Parish, quotes from Burns, as does Edith Holden in her book, Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady. I was also looking through, An Orkney Anthology – Selected Works, of Ernest W. Marwick, (died 1977) edited by John D. M. Robertson, and published 1990, to see if he happened to mention the poet – nothing in this book, but in any case I know that Ernest’s views about Burns were the same as GMB’s. I expect though that in the second, planned volume of this distinguished Orcadian’s work (Ernest) “Essays and Comment”, for which I and many others have been patiently waiting these past years, he might.

However, when I was having a look through this magnificent first anthology, there is a comprehensive account of games that used to be played in Orkney which includes singing games, riddles and rhymes. Picko and Lee-Lo-Ley were two I remember that were great fun and played on the extensive, grassy, school playground – most of which is now a car park. In my last letter I mentioned games that are more universal – ones which I thought were possibly no longer being played at Christmas. In fact a few still are as I discovered, and others I named are played but more so at birthday parties.

Here are the ones that are maybe not so familiar – plus one or two extra that Ella remembers when she lived in North Ronaldsay before and after the Second World War (1939-1945): Here we come gathering Nuts and May, There were three knights came out of Spain, Looby Loo, I sent a letter to my Love, and Bobby Bingo (not Bingo as I said in my last letter). Others that have been mentioned are surely still played: games like Tail on the Donkey, Blind man’s Buff, Dropping the Hankie, Oranges and Lemons, London Bridge is falling Down, and of course, The Grand old Duke of York. I was just thinking that possibly the lack of children on the island would make some of those games unplayable here, but then all the old fogeys like myself (no, I really think that we are not all old fogeys at all) will just have to ‘fetch way’ and have a go next time round – why not indeed! Suppose for a moment that we don’t look that much older as time goes by – what then? Anyway, I’ve always thought it would be so much fun for all of us, of all ages, to have a real old fashioned Hallowe’en party or whatever. Actually I’ve just remembered that last year I was dooking for apples by the light of neepy lanterns – that was fun, and the bairns there were greatly allured with the whole affair. We forgot though, the paper-wrapped coins in clapshot that we always used to have at our parties, threepenny bits and silver sixpences.

Upon that night, when Fairies light.
On Cassilis Downans dance.
Or owre the lays, in splendid blaze,
On sprightly coursers prance;

My mention of Hallowe’en brings me, quite neatly I think, to Robert Burns – the above verse begins his poem “Halloween”. The poem explains in some detail how the Eve of All Saints Day (October 31) was celebrated in all its glory in his day. There are, by the way, interesting parallels with this work and his acknowledged masterpiece, “Tam o’ Shanter” – even in the above verse one can see a similar turn of phrase. Now it’s time, high time, as Sarah o’ Lochend often said when she thought folk should be getting a move on, to tell you about our Burns Supper which was held on Friday, January 26.

This celebration turned out to be a memorable event. The haggis was carried in once again by the chief cook Winnie Scott with Sinclair Scott playing the pipes – a grand and proper beginning to a Burns supper. The piper’s dram was ready and taken, and we all then enjoyed a very admirable presentation of the ‘Address to the Haggis’ by the first of our guests, John Sinclair. John is building inspector with the OIC and North Ronaldsay is one of his favourite areas for visits. Jimmie Thomson recited the Selkirk Grace to be followed by the wonderful clapshot and haggis supper. Cider was the accompanying drink, and was added to a little later by respectable drams served ready for the toast of the evening.

John Barleycorn was a hero bold,
Of noble enterprise,
For if ye do but taste his blood,
‘Twill make your courage rise.
From “John Barleycorn” by Burns

I always think that atmosphere plays an important part at any function, if not a noticeable part then without doubt it does psychologically – as Johnny o’ Holland might have said, and for a Burns night it’s certainly worth the effort if one can manage this. A few of us got together, including some ex-pats (as they say), to decorate a small room in the community centre. It’s funny, but when I mentioned ex-pats somehow the Scots song “Sailing up the Clyde” comes to mind – and these are the words I’m remembering,

Sailing up the Clyde, sailing up the Clyde,
Back to bonny Scotland where the old folks bide.

One has just to change Clyde to Firth and Scotland to Rinansay. We used to have the song on an old 78 rpm record away back in the forties — without our islanders and other friends from across the water I sometimes wonder where we would be. Well, between candles and oil lamps, maybe 20 tartan rugs, a ceiling of red paper-roses, pictorial scenes from some of Burns well known poems with the Bard’s portrait prominently displayed, we managed to create the desired effect.

In this atmosphere then, our guest speaker Jocky Wood, who was accompanied by his wife Fiona, rose to give The Immortal Memory. Jocky, deputy head teacher at Stromness Academy and a teacher of English, delivered the sort of speech that remains so firmly lodged in the mind. His combination of special Orcadian humour expressed in a couple of classic stories that connected with North Ronaldsay, Finstown and Burns, and his sometimes moving references to Robert Burns and his life, were beautifully judged and perfectly timed. Highlighted was the poet’s concern for the fellow creatures that share our lives – expressed so finely in, “To a Mouse” and for humanity itself, as Jocky said, in, “For a’ that and a’ that”. At this point he suggested that possibly Burns is more widely read than the Bible itself, illustrated by the fact that the poet is celebrated in Russia and Japan, and throughout the world – a world though, he continued, in which even over the 240 years since Burns was born, is full of trouble, wars, cruelty and starvation. Jocky Wood ended his tribute by quoting those desirable and visionary words from the last poem mentioned above,

That man to man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that!

He then asked everyone to be upstanding and drink the toast to Robert Burns.
The “Toast to the Lasses” was proposed by Sinclair (our piper) and replied to by Jenny Mainland. Both had been approached at the eleventh hour, due to a technical hitch, with no time for the prerequisite consultation. No matter, all was managed very adequately.

Our fourth guest, Fionn McArthur, then took up a position in the light of the oil-lamps with his fiddle at the ready. Fionn, who works for Radio Orkney, comes from a musical family. He developed his gift in playing the instrument under the tutorship, firstly of his music-teacher grandmother, and later amongst others, the well known fiddler, Angus Grant, from the North West coast of Scotland. Fionn chose, appropriately, a selection of tunes by the famous Scottish composer, Neil Gow – a contemporary and friend of Burns. With a few words of explanation now and again, he proceeded to entertain the company with some very fine fiddle playing indeed. Especially beautiful was his interpretation of “Neil Gow’s Lament written on the death of his second wife”, played in the flickering light of lamp and candle.

The programme continued with the communal singing of six Burns songs with the addition of “The Star o’ Robbie Burns”. Fionn accompanied the singing on his fiddle. Interspersed between the songs two poems were read with inspiration by two sisters. Firstly Bessie Muir read, “To a Mouse”, and then Jenny Mainland followed later with, “The Death and Dying Words of Poor Mailie, the Author’s only Pet Yowe” To complete our short programme Sydney Ogilvie, singing unaccompanied, gave a fine rendering of a Burns’ song, with an Irish slant, called “Kellyburn braes”.

Lively dancing followed with accordions, fiddle and pipes providing the music. Prior to tea, Westray shortbread and festive, current bun being served, the raffle-draw was managed by Ian Deyell. The organisation of the raffle was carried out by Friends of the North Ronaldsay Trust – a newly formed group on the Orkney Mainland conceived by and composed mainly of our island folk that live there. They have the very worthy aim of raising money for the Trust and focusing attention on the needs and problems of North Ronaldsay. Four of the members had come specially from Kirkwall for the Burns Supper. A magnificent sum of £125 was raised from the raffle to help with the starting-up costs of this supportive group. Generous prizes were donated by the Friends with additional prizes from Jocky and Fiona Wood and John Sinclair.

Incidentally the first real get together of the North Ronaldsay Trust had taken place on the morning of our planned celebrations. Attending the successful meeting as the Trust’s finance director was Douglas Gorman who is also the director of finance of the Northern Lighthouse Board. Mr Gorman’s presence was much appreciated and he was also the island’s guest at the Burns Supper.

At around 2am in the morning this little company of islanders, guests, friends and visiting islanders joined hands to sing Auld Lang Syne – that almost universal parting song which ends all such gatherings. After the cleaning-up session the following day a few of us, including our four islanders from the Mainland, had an extra ‘peedie’ impromptu dance, sing-song, and much fun, just to give Rabbie Burns an extra nod until January comes round once again.

I’m finishing this letter on Thursday, February 1 – well no, I see that it is coming on for two in the morning of Friday, Candlemas Day – a week since our Burns supper (does that boy o’ Antabreck have nothing better to do I know’ll be said when this is known).

Never mind, outside the wind is blowing strongly from the south’ard and not a star did I see when I was out just a minute ago, only a flying drizzle lit up brightly every ten seconds by the long, sweeping beams of the New Lighthouse’s electric- powered lantern. For almost three years since automation the building has lain silent and empty and it’s sad to think that the days of the lighthouse keepers are in the past and that, that once great institution has become part of history.

Are the ghosts of those who have passed on still going to be looking out to the stormy sea when their watch comes up again tonight I wonder, or will they disappear in sadness, like the long-gone old lobster fishermen I mentioned in my summer letter? Perhaps this lighthouse may yet provide a symbolic ‘light’ for the future – as is envisaged by the North Ronaldsay Trust. But like the words of the song I remember once being sung under the gleam of the stars on a Hogmanay almost 50 years ago, as the Linklet’s toon men were out together on their visiting rounds,

Whatever will be, will be,
The future’s not ours to see,
Que Sera Sera.

Just to please the old Norsemen

A few days ago I took down Antabreck’s Christmas decorations.

Some say that January 5 is the day for this to happen, but I waited until the 6th, since by my estimate this date is the twelfth day of Christmas. In any case, 5 or 6, the taking down of the decorations ends the Christmas part of the festive season, and the previously decorated rooms look bare, and a little sad maybe, for a time.

There are, however, a few days left in which to complete the New Year or Yule visits – January 13 being the last day. As I’ve mentioned previously Ernest Marwick says that in the north (Orkney, Shetland and Caithness) Yule was always spoken of, never Christmas. Yule he says began at Thomas-mass (December 21) and ended on January 13, which we know as Aald New Year’s day.(I wonder if young Orcadians, or even some older, are familiar with this date, and do they still speak of Yule ?). In any case last year, between one thing and another – colds and such like – I fell short of this old tradition I’ve just mentioned – when I try to make a round of the houses that I’ve been in the habit of visiting before the end of the 13th. It is one custom I still like to try and follow, and when I used to visit Johnny o’ Barrenha, when he was alive, he would always remind me about Aald New Year’s day and its significance. He would also mention that by this date there was at least an extra hour of daylight. Looking at the calendar I see that it is January 10, and I fear that unless I make a sweeping round of visits in a day or two – a bit like those we used to make on Hogmanay and New Year days of old, I’m going to be in the same boat as last year.

In my last letter we were all getting ready for the traditional end of the year events. They went by quite successfully, though by comparison with our almost day-by-day millennium celebrations held last year, community activities were much reduced, and less than half the number of people were on the island for the holiday period. Still, it’s clear that enjoyable affairs do not always depend on large numbers being present. To begin with, over £100 was collected for the children’s Christmas Eve party at a whist drive arranged for the purpose. The school’s Island Christmas dinner, which came a bit later, was grand, as was the children’s presentation of Jack and the Beanstalk, which followed the meal. School pupils, Louis and Joni Craigie, Richenda and Thomas Brookman and Heather Duncan, performed extremely well as singers and actors – despite the deafening noise in the hall caused by the ferocious weather outside. Head teacher, Patricia Thomson, ably directed the proceedings, while her assistant. Isobel Muir (transformed by wig and cushion-stuffed) made a wonderful giant.

On the evening of December 18 there was a Carol service held in the New Church. The Rev Colin Day conducted the service which, as it transpired, was intended to be the last official religious gathering in the building. Carols and readings were well performed by the school pupils under the direction of Patricia Thomson, who also accompanied the singing on the keyboard. Richenda Brookman sang ‘Silent Night’, with Louis and Joni Craigie reading from the scriptures. Next came the children’s Christmas Eve party which was as well enjoyed as ever. This event stretches away back in time in my minding to the forties, and I suppose much further back, since I’ve heard my late father talk about the bairns’ Christmas treat which was organised for many years by the Traills (Lairds and one time owners of the island). That would have been mainly between the wars that he was referring to, but I must ask someone who was in his class in those the far-off days of the early twenties, also she may remember how those parties were conducted.

Even today they are different as Helen o’ Trebb reminded me. I had forgotten some of the games we used to play, games like, as Helen mentioned, The Farmer in his Den, Here we come gathering Nuts and May, The Good ship sails through the Elley Alley O, and so on. My cousin Ella, who was in the same class as Helen, tells me that during the war years (1939/40) when they were at school, about the end of the Traill era, she remembers other games such as, There were three Knights came out of Spain, In and out of the Dusty Bluebells, Bingo and others. (Sheila o’ Vincoin, the post-lady, has just come in – I’m, as it happens, reviewing my letter. She mentions one other game – it is of course, Here we go round the Mulberry Bush). And Santa, who now comes to distribute presents at the Christmas party, only ever had such gifts placed under the Christmas tree in those earlier days – leaving his appearance to the imagination.

To end the year we had a peedie slide show made up of a small selection of last year’s extensive presentation which had shown all aspects of North Ronaldsay’s history available in photographic form. The dance which followed took off very well and continued most enjoyably with great participation by everybody.

Outside the community centre the night was cold with icy roads and scatterings of snow lying over the island. But before the little company parted, servings of hot soup fortified everyone against the sharpness of the night.

A couple of days later Hogmanay was celebrated, with many first-footers still very active late in the night – or rather early in the morning. I’m just remembering Hogmanays of old on our toonship some 40 years ago,when the famous North Ronaldsay home brew was the proper and main drink for Yule. It was not uncommon for one of our close neighbours to be making his way home from our house when the morning sky of the New Year was well established. In fact this neighbour was a great visitor – particularly at this time of year. On one marathon visit to the house of an acquaintance with whom he had many a session, he arrived on a Saturday night, stayed ‘discoorsing’ as the long night passed, and on through a visit the next day from a great story teller who had previously been asked to come for dinner. All of Sunday the ‘discoorse’ continued, and all through the night until the next morning when at last this epic visit came to an end. During all of that time, no doubt, one of the main topics of conversation would have been the ‘redding’ up of kindred, with its many twisting tangents and island history combined, and when the ‘story teller’ was there, she also would have been in her very element.

Well, those were the days, but to get back to the present and to my account. The next day the Stan-Stane dance went ahead, though with far less participants than last year when over 50 dancers took part. Neven’s entertaining visit followed to round-off the event. Later in the evening, at Vincoin, a goodly and merry company brought in the New Year in style.

So there is my report on recent festive events – and one or two other things besides. For most of the time we have had surprisingly good weather – even the flurry of snow which began on Boxing Day was pleasant enough, with hardly any wind, and long icicles hung from roofs and high rock-geo faces. Then there have been some wonderful sunsets and startling skies, and what’s more I’ve been wielding my water-colour brushes from time to time. Today a few of us tackled a couple of punds, with the native sheep flying along the sea-shore to eventually, but reluctantly, become prisoners for a time in the stone built enclosures.

At nights (in bed I have to admit) I’ve been reading, with much pleasure, one of the Great Blasket Island books, ‘Island Cross Talk’ by Thomás O’Crohan – one which I have not seen before. I have all the others (of which there are six). Tam McPhail, from Stromness Books and Prints, tells me that they have all been re-printed recently.

By the way (I’m away again I hear you say), before a brother of mine (Norman) left North Ronaldsay to eventually live in Australia, he recorded all the old 78 rpm records in my late father’s collection. He had many, though he always reminded the family of how we, at least some of us, when we were young, had broken ones that he had a special keeping on. They were played, of course, on the old wind-up gramophone, with steel playing-needles which were supposed to be changed frequently, but even so, favourite records developed a distinct hiss as time went by. As I sit and type I’m listening to some of them on tape – one just being played is of Willie Kemp singing, ‘There’s nothing but Smiles in the Orkney Isles’.

But to get back to the ‘Blasket books’ The Great Blasket Islands lie three miles off Ireland’s Dingle Peninsula. Until their evacuation just after the Second World War, the lives of the 150 or so Blasket Islanders had remained unchanged for centuries, with their rich oral tradition of story-telling, poetry and folktales keeping alive the legends and history of the islands. The seven books (and extensive amounts of archive material) contain memories and reminiscences of a way of life vanished and long forgotten – forgotten that is until one reads the rather remarkable works of those few native islanders who were encouraged to put down their memories on paper.

Island Cross Talk (pages from a diary) makes the most entertaining reading, reminding me often of what I know North Ronaldsay used to be like – even though the book was written in the early 1900s. The diary goes from April 1919 to before Christmas 1922, with titles like, for example, Shearing the Sheep, The Lobster Boat, Seal Meat or Pig Meat, The Woman at the Well, New Year’s Eve, and so on. In a way North Ronaldsay is becoming a bit like the Blaskets in that it is loosing much of the old way of life, which, even going back only as far as the sixties (when the population would have been over 120) was far more in evidence than it is today. Hopefully it will not become depopulated like the Blaskets, but along with the loss of the old ways, partly also goes history, stories, customs and dialect – to name but a few. One good illustration of this change is to think about the ‘epic’ visit described above which took place in the sixties. Not many islanders left today would have the interest, let alone the knowledge, to speak on relationships and the extensive island history that inevitably went along with such a subject – and to be able to continue for two nights and a day – non-stop.

In the Blasket Island diary it mentions many things which connect closely with North Ronaldsay.

Seal-skin waistcoats are referred to – a man in the Blaskets was thought not to be dressed unless he wore one. When we were living at our first home, and before the fifties, I can remember a sealskin mat which used to lie in my Grandmother’s bedroom. We always thought it to be attractive but somehow mysterious, and I remember talk of the waistcoats.

Seal oil was of course an important commodity for light in both islands, and indeed all over, though that form of illumination here I never actually saw. The use of sand is also mentioned – interestingly in the Blaskets – for drying up floors. I just can remember seeing sand scattered on a floor in the forties, though others of my generation also remember this custom. It was certainly practised extensively in earlier days. It helped to keep floors clean, since when they were swept it removed gutter etc. brought in on work boots. New dry white sand freshened everything once more and even lightened the appearance of the particular room.

Another custom mentioned was the respect shown when an islander died. No work was done on the day of the funeral until after the burial. I think I can say that this practice is still generally respected here by those who can, and those who remember its significance. Incidentally, one other tradition connected with a funeral which North Ronaldsay folk have always carried out, and that is the stepping up to the open grave, after the committal, to look for the last time on the coffin and the name and age of the deceased.

There is also an interesting comment about sheep which still applies here now that, for the moment at least, the sea-weed eating sheep have become widely known and attractive as an organic food.

“Isn’t it powerful money sheep are fetching now,” says an islander, and “They cost nothing to keep and will always bring in a penny – one to shear one to sell and one to eat.” And isn’t this observation true – and not only on islands. “On days when some of us meet together, everyone voices his own opinion. There are those with something worthwhile to say and those who rattle on but say nothing”.

I could go on with many other examples of similarities, but will finish the island comparisons with a couple of statements by the author of the diary, Thomás O’Crohan, which particularly took my eye. He’s referring to the island’s lobster fishing in the first statement, and probably mackerel in the second, though both fit very well North Ronaldsay’s situation with lobster fishing almost 80 years later than when O’Crohan was writing – the difference being that the boats in question are not from France.

“‘The French fishing boats are causing havoc. They are there off shore at all hours with lobster pots set among our own pots. The women do not like to see them here for they take all and bring them nothing”, and (written on a Sunday), “When I turn to gaze north I could see boats fishing like any other day of the week, but they were not from here. These are causing great harm and they will cause more, and not in one way only. Besides carrying off the fish, they are weakening the Faith too, for the poor island fishermen is watching them catching the share of fish that should be his, on a Sunday, which should be a day of rest”.

Well, there we are, time to bring this letter to a close I think. Uppermost in our minds, some of us anyway, is our forthcoming little Burns night. Plans have been made and January 25 is not so very far away. Anyway, I’m looking at Thomás O’Crohan’s diary again – I had a number of pages marked for interest. I think I like particularly his entry for February 1921. His title is ‘A Man with the Seven Cares of the Mountain on his Shoulders’. It concerns a fellow islander who stops to speak to O’Crohan and tells him about ‘the seven cares of the mountain’ with which he is concerned, and as he says, with no end of things to do and not making a start on any of them.

He complains, ‘There are people gathering seaweed. I need turf. I have sheep to dip. I need flour. I have a wall to repair. I have a shed to rebuild. I have a trawl-line to see and a net to repair. I left the house now to have a day away from it all, for I couldn’t decide which should be tackled first.

Thomás O’Crohan gives him this advice. ‘Any man ever who has all his tasks staring him in the face must own a good share of that to his own neglect. Don’t ever follow the example of the man who is not ahead of his work with everything put safely behind him. Go home now and finish one of them, and then it won’t be facing you tomorrow’.

* * *

Postscript: I managed all my planned old time visits before the 13th had passed away except one (the folk were out). When I do go to that house I shall have to pour a little libation of whisky on the doorstep before I enter – just to please the old Norsemen, Johnny O’ Barrenha, and myself.