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’.

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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.