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.