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.