Celebration and thanksgiving

Well, the Harvest Home has been once again and in a few weeks it will be Yule. This celebration is an occasion that would surely be missed if it were to come to an end. If nothing else, there is the gathering together of residents, with friends, relations and invited guests coming to the island for the event.

Some come from as far afield as London, Derbyshire, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Elgin, and our many connections from the Orkney Mainland make a significant contribution. For one night in the year, over many a year, the island has managed this old-time get-together.

Probably, very shortly there will be no old fashioned harvest to save and no sheaves from which to make our decorations. And, as the years pass, hardly anyone in Orkney, or further afield, will know anything about the traditional harvest. The sheaves, simmans, and straw decorations will seem like some forgotten relics from the past, no longer having the same meaning or significance.

Already, the particular straw decorations that we make, to remind us of what the hairst used to be about, are only symbols, although they represent the very different produce of today’s farming. And the creel rope’s coloured buoy heads, which adorn the hall’s rafters, are also becoming symbols of the island fishing that used to be. Today, like the golden sheaves that have almost disappeared, the lobster, through general over-fishing, appears to be heading down the same inevitable road.


The Harvest Home was traditionally a rural celebration among farming folk. It cannot mean quite as much for those who are not connected with the land or the sea. Possibly for that reason, and the fact that agricultural methods have changed dramatically, some parishes in Orkney no longer hold this event.

Perhaps, as in the USA where they have ‘Thanksgiving Day’ we should, as they do, look at a thanksgiving for the year’s work – whatever the work happens to be, and a thanksgiving for families and friends and the good things of life.

This celebration, I believe, stems from the first settlers to the New World who also initially depended on the land’s produce. They respected and worked with the indigenous inhabitants who were the American Indians. As time went by, the growing numbers of incoming settlers became selfish and greedy, and set about getting rid of their once welcoming hosts and stealing their land. Interestingly, those same Indian communities regarded the land as an inheritance to be passed on to future generations with all its rights, privileges and responsibilities. Maybe we might learn something from those much maligned peoples.

Readers of The Orcadian will know about our sheep dyke damage. Well, a few of us have been rebuilding at least part of the structure. Now, as another ‘south-easter’ pounds our shoreline, things are at a standstill until the weather improves. It is fairly possible, so early in the winter, that what we have already re-built will go down again, and the thought of this happening is not a lightsome one.

Lifeboat fund

The North Ronaldsay Lifeboat Guild has held their annual fund raising function when just over £900 was spent by islanders. The local guild president, Isobel Muir, opened proceedings, and along with members of her committee, got the many fund raising schemes under way. A good turnout of folk enjoyed this very successful affair, giving very generously as they always do.

Tea, sandwiches and home bakes followed when the raffle prizes and other prizes were presented. And just recently Dr Jeff Stone from Aberdeen University gave a talk on ‘Scottish maps and mapmakers’. Discussion followed with tea and biscuits available for refreshment.

Mr Jockie Wood who was the guest speaker at the Harvest Home. (Picture: James Thomson)

But I have digressed a bit from talking about the Harvest Home. The association’s guests this year were the speaker, Jockie Wood and his wife Fiona; Christine Allan, along with her husband Pat, representing Loganair, and Captain Alastair Wylie, with his wife Lillian, was the representative from Orkney Ferries.

In the Memorial Hall on a wild, wet and windy night, with a draught or two of north wind here and a drop of rain there, proceedings got under way. Many heaters warmed up the old hall for the supper, and at about 8 o’clock the association’s president, Peter Donnelly, welcomed everybody to the Harvest Home. He went on to acknowledge all the workers who had in any way contributed towards the celebration.

Patricia Thomson said Grace and the traditional supper was served. At the end of the meal Peter spoke briefly about the changes he had seen in North Ronaldsay since moving to the island in 1988 and also talked about rural customs in Banbury – his home town – and the differences in farm machinery etc compared with working methods in North Ronaldsay at that time. Then Jockie Wood was invited to deliver his Harvest Home speech.

As with his Burns’ address of two years ago, this night’s gathering of around 80 folk enjoyed a speech which touched on all aspects of a traditional harvest. This was work, as he said, with which he had been familiar in his young days. Interspersed here and there were some highly amusing tales which he told with consummate artistry.

Jockie Wood began by thanking the association for inviting him and his wife to the ‘Muckle Supper’, as he described it later. He said how the sheaves, simmans and straw decorations in the hall reminded him of the hairsts of his youth and even reminding him of the work in the barn and byre which follows the gathering in of the harvest.

Golden days

He painted a picture of hairsts which were carried out in golden days when everything was easy and pleasurable – the sort of times that we like to remember. The sun shone every day, the sheaves were perfect, stooking was a pleasure and fun was the order of the day. There were welcome breaks throughout the work when tea and pancakes, queen cakes and Sun-joy for the bairns, were served in the field. But then he painted a contrasting picture when crops were flat and scythes had to be used; when it rained from day to day; when the stooks, blown down by high winds, were re-stooked by workers (often in oilskins) who might very well have had to repeat the process; the building of disses, if the weather was bad which, when they were sufficiently dry, still had to be built into a stack. And sometimes the odd stack, if it had taken heat, had to be taken down and rebuilt. But in between those two extremes were the times when memories of the hairst were good: the unforgettable memories that come from neighbours working together with even the old folk wanting to help and doing what they could; the great gatherings of people old and young; and the real feeling of achievement and satisfaction that came after either a good or bad season.

Jockie quoted, from time to time, from the works of three great Orcadians: Ernest Marwick, George Mackay Brown, and Robert Rendall – men who knew about the value of tradition and the importance of our Orcadian history. He went on to mention old traditions connected with the last sheaf to be brought into the stack yard, one of which for example, was when the unfortunate person who was last off the field, had his breeks removed and his posterior well brushed with a sheaf covered in treacle.


Finally, Jockie referred to the changes that had come about in farming. Today it was mostly silage and barley harvested by modern machinery with hardly any neeps or oats being grown. The work is easier but the feeling of relief after days of hard and often uncomfortable work, experienced in the old days, had gone.

Nevertheless, he still thought it was good to have a celebration for the year’s bounties. He hoped that North Ronaldsay would flourish and that the Harvest Home on the island would continue into the future. With that closing statement the speaker asked everyone to be upstanding and to toast the harvest.

Dancing in the isles! There was music from accordions, recorder and Highland bagpipes, (Picture: Peter Donnelly)

Then the evening unfolded in a jiffy. Out went the long tables and the trestles into the fierce, wet and windy night. Helpers soon swept through the washing-up, and shortly the dance began with music from accordions, recorder, and the Highland bagpipes, played respectively by the musicians, Lottie, Ann, Howie and Sinclair. During the evening, raffle tickets were sold for the second year running in aid of funds for new windows for the Memorial Hall. Many splendid gifts had been donated for the raffle and a very gratifying sum of over £355 was raised. In addition, the Scott family from South Gravity had very generously donated £300. And Mike Pascoe, one of the original team of divers, who had lodged in the Memorial Hall in the mid-1970s, indicated that a number of the team were very happy to contribute towards the window project. This team, under the leadership of Rex Cowan, had been exploring the wreck of the Svecia, lost on the Reef Dyke in 1740.

Dancing continued in grand style until around three in the morning with a total of some 18 dances being enjoyed before the last waltz. After Auld Lang Syne was sung, soup, native mutton, home bakes and sandwiches were served to round off another great Harvest Home.

The next day saw a brief respite from the inclement weather when it was dry and the northerly wind was down. The Fair Isle was especially clear with Foula visible on the horizon – an event which usually heralds southeast wind and rain. In the late afternoon the hall clearing got under way.

This year’s Service of Remembrance on North Ronaldsay. (Picture: Kevin Woodbridge)

That was fun, with an eightsome reel being danced before the helpers finally left. Then a second little celebration got under way at Verracott with the Tullochs from Stromness as hosts. Howie Firth was in cracking form among a lively company who finally broke up well past the ‘heuld’ of the night. As I left, an almost full moon shone in the western sky and the sea below was bright in the cold moonlight.

The next day was Sunday and, along with our Harvest Home visitors, we gathered at the War Memorial for a short Service of Remembrance.

Heavy seas

Since then the wind has gone into the southeast with considerable force and there it continues to be. The east side of the island is being swept by heavy seas that are riding high and breaking all over Linklet Bay and to the ‘suthard’. The outlying Reef Dyke and the ‘Shaald o’ Dennis Taing’ are mostly a line of white breakers and a salt spray fills the air along with driving rain. One consolation, I suppose, is that the spring tides of this south-easter are less high than the onslaught that recently demolished extensive areas of the sheep dyke. Certainly the winter has come upon us early, and with a vengeance. The long warm summer we all enjoyed seems far away tonight as I listen to the sound of the southeast wind rattling the roof slates, and whistling in under our front door. ‘Tomorrow is another day’ as they say; and as is often said in North Ronaldsay ‘anither year we niver saa’.

Off colour in the summer

I have a little book of Chinese poems which I’ve mentioned before. A number were written some hundred years BC, others early AD. Titles are as varied as one can imagine. Here are a few examples: ‘Summer Song’, ‘Winter Night’. ‘On Being Sixty’, ‘Realizing the Futility of Life’, ‘Rain’. In this book there is more than one poem on illness with which I had an unwanted bit of a brush earlier in the summer, and about which I venture to base my letter. Here is one. It is a short poem written c. AD 842 by Po Chu-I, when he was paralysed.

“Dear friends there is no cause for so much sympathy.
I shall certainly manage from time to time to take my walks abroad.
All that matters is an active mind, what is the use of feet?
By land one can ride in a carrying chair; by water, be rowed in a boat.”

Well, no, I had not reached the stage of having to be carried, or rowed around, but for a short spell I was ‘off colour’, as they say or ‘aff o’ me feet’, or ‘oot o’ tøn’, (meaning out of tune which is rather a good definition I think). I’m happy to say that I am back to normal but for a few days, early in July, I confined myself very thoroughly to bed.

It’s a curious feeling to lie in bed all day long when the sun is shining and the birds singing, with passing cars and tractors sounding in the background, and the knowledge that others folk are working at their daily tasks. In fact, there are many things that one notices or thinks about, under such circumstances, that would not otherwise be considered in quite the same light. For instance, it is only when a person experiences such an unwanted change in day to day living that we appreciate the ill- health of others – whatever form it may take. Then there is the confinement to one room for almost all day long. That’s a bit of a trial. Yet there are many folk who spend much, or even most of their whole lives in similar circumstances – or indeed in a more distressing state altogether.

Because my bedroom faces more or less west, the morning sun leaves that side of the house in shadow. But slowly, by degrees, one watches the sunlight begin to lighten up the wall of a building just opposite my window. As the day spends, that wall is bathed in light until the sun moves further west. Then again everything is in shadow. At times I would study the handling of stone in the building, and all day long I could hear, and see sparrows as they popped in and out of the stonework where, here and there, they had adapted a crevice for a sheltered nest. The fact that the binding agent is clay makes this use of the stone wall possible for our feathered friends. When I am finished studying all of this and seeing the activity of the little sparrows, I can watch the changing sky. The passing clouds shift ever so slowly on certain days or fly across the windowpanes on a windier day, and although one has not been outside, the direction of the wind can be generally surmised. As sunset comes round, the sky and cloud colours change imperceptibly. The blue of the sky becomes ever paler and the clouds can take on all sorts of hues: sometimes yellow and orange, then red and pink, and finally a fading purple as the twilight unfolds. And, for a night or two during my time cut off from normal reality, the last of a waning moon’s light came stealing in to illuminate part of my north wall well past the ‘heuld’ (høld) of the night.

All the day long the sound of birds calling could be heard through my partly opened window. A little wren might sing piercingly while hundreds of terns in the distance kept up a continuous chorus of sound. In among all of this a curlew or some other familiar bird would call as they passed by, and all the time the ‘swaa’ of sea would be ever present. Not unusually, there were a couple of days (and nights) when it was obvious from the sound that a ‘land sea’ had materialised – most likely as a consequence of an Atlantic low far out to sea. It would send its long swells in the island’s direction alerting us to a change of weather. Every now and again, sudden explosions of sound would rise above the continuous background hammering of the sea, when a particularly heavy wave broke savagely against the un-yielding rocks. Then again, I knew when the sea was set for there would be, instead, a never ending whispering and sighing, and one could easily imagine the peacefulness of the scene.

Another day, when I was dosing away and dreaming a dream now forgotten, there came a bang on my windowpane. I assumed that a bird had somehow misjudged its flight and hit the glass by mistake – but no – there were another two or three bangs, which this time I could actually see happening. Well, I saw the reason for the collisions. Dancing up and down inside the window, with long bent legs, was a ‘Willylong-legs’. Obviously the bird was able to spot this tempting morsel and was making vain, and somewhat uncomfortable, attempts to catch the imprisoned crane fly. Eventually the message got through for despite the continuing dancing movements of this object of desire the bird stopped its futile attempts. Another morning a tiny wren actually came in to my room and flew about for some time before finding its way back to freedom. What delicate, neat and busy little birds they are.

Those are a few of the sights and sounds that can be seen from such a confined existence. Otherwise, my thoughts would fly from one subject to another; one memory to another. Within the confines of my room are many things. There are books that I know well – though some still remain to be read. I remember a friend who described books as ‘tools’ which is very true for often one refers back to them. Maybe an old painting (there are a few on my walls) would remind me of an exhibition once held, or of a painting excursion somewhere or other. Then there are a couple of ornaments given as ‘keepsakes’ that reminded me of acquaintances long since gone. I would recall again some of my many visits – even visualise the interiors of their homes where I would have sat at a comfortable coal fire talking over a cup of tea or maybe a New Year dram. Also on view in my bedroom are one or two photographs that take me back well over 40 years. On a partition are the number plates, K 52, of the North Ronaldsay praam, Ruth, in which I once worked for a few years in the sixties. Detached boat numberplates are unorthodox, but that particular year we never got round to painting the numbers on the boat before going to sea, and instead carried them on board when fishing. Their presence reminds me of those far away days and are about the only relics that I have of such times apart from a few early lobster returns, a book of daily creel sets, tide details, lobster catches, and one or two old tarry minilla creel ropes, corked as they were in the early days with net corks. Once they floated on the sometimes turbulent waters on the north side of the island with the main of the creel rope several fathoms deep. At the rope’s end would be the creel, hidden away among the swaying seaweed where, among crooks and crannies, the formidable lobster takes up his hidden abode.

Apart from all that there are maps and charts; a little compass with a mother of pearl calibrated card; paint brushes and a box or two of watercolour paints; a slide projector; arch lever files; my camera; drawing books dating back to research trips made to Shetland and Iceland in 1969 and 1970, when I was studying rock and lava formations with pieces of sculpture in mind; some experimental bronze miniature sculptures, and a plaster cast of my portrait of George Mackay Brown. In fact, this very dis-organised and, as you can now imagine, cluttered room, reminds me of an illustration in Dickens’s book, ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’. Can you remember it? There sat, as I recall, an old, somewhat grizzled looking shopkeeper amidst a great paraphernalia of items – books included, and a small boy was looking wistfully at some object or another. Perhaps (I’ve forgotten the details of the story), he was eyeing a drum which featured in the illustration. Funnily enough, in my room there is also a similar looking drum, an old pipe band drum, which happens to be out of sight in a curtained area. It has the original early rope tension system with white leather tighteners, and its wooden rims are decorated in nationalistic, wavy lines of red, white and blue. My father bought the drum for me – must have been in the late forties – and I remember being at concert practices tapping out some untutored beat to the music of accordions and fiddle. In those days, concerts, which featured sketches, singing, and musical selections were quite common, with nights of practice being normal procedure before the final concert performance.

So now you can see how almost a lifetime’s bits and pieces accumulate in one’s home – even in a bedroom and how difficult it becomes to throw things away. In such surroundings it’s possible to re-live the passing years simply by looking at, and considering, those varied objects. In fact, many of the items could easily be the bases for a short history of their own. All of that work would keep me occupied for months on end.

Last night I was thinking, why not write about my short, enforced confinement. It would be something, as they say, completely different. And tonight, since it looked like a night of rain (and so it has become), I sat down at my computer and got cracking. It’s now almost two in the morning and I can hear the pitter-patter of a heavy shower on Antabreck’s roof, and the rain running down on the window panes, with their undrawn curtains, is sparkling like countless little falling jewels.

A ‘hairst’ moon on North Ronaldsay

This is a ‘peedie’ letter from North Ronaldsay just to let you know that we are still to the fore – I have a longer one up my sleeve ready to present one of these days: it was written much earlier in the summer.

Not so long ago, the ‘merry dancers’ lit up the northern sky for a night or two, and earlier in the week – this is Friday September 13 – an orange coloured, crescent moon shone just above the horizon for a short time. On September 21 she will be full, and a day or two later it will be the autumnal equinox. That is the time of the Harvest Moon.

I should think that in Orkney, there will not be many ‘hairst’ fields with the old fashioned sheaves, stooks and stacks to be seen.

In North Ronaldsay we are down to just one field of oats. Forty years ago, give or take a few either way, at this time of year there would have been many fields of stooks on the island, and folk would be beginning the real ‘hairst’ work. It seems to me that there is a great miss of those days, and although the work was not always that easy, it was lightsome and the sense of achievement was very much a feature of our island existence.

The part that I really enjoyed was when folk got together to help – that was fun, as was the celebrations afterwards.

Recently, at a good turnout in the community centre, Dr June Morris gave a fascinating talk on the North Ronaldsay native sheep, which included diagrams and photographs. This was a preview of her presentation at the Orkney Science Festival. A lively and lengthy question and answer session followed before tea and biscuits were served. And still on the subject of the native sheep, over the last two days a few ‘punds’ have been organised when some good animals were selected for sale. This communal ‘punding’ and the necessary repair of the sheep dyke, from time to time, is very interesting to think about. It is an activity, and indeed a commitment, which goes back many years into the past, and I suppose, even with our much reduced work force, some form of communal management procedures will continue for as long as the sheep remain.

Well that’s about it. The weather is still fine and exceptionally mild with the last couple of days being fairly misty. There is a grand scent from the honeysuckle and the fuchia trees are still festooned with scarlet bells. Another flower in bloom at this time of year is the colourful montbretia. Here and there in fields, or along the road sides, there are displays of the tall sow thistles. They look rather dignified, I always think, with their long stalks and bold yellow faces, I can almost imagine them saying, “Why are you looking at us? Hurry along, don’t dilly-dally”. However, time shortly to stop this as I see it is almost one o’ clock in the morning.

Before I do finish though, as I listen to the foghorn, it occurs to me on one hand, that advanced technology ended the profession of lighthouse keeper: automation replaced the men and their families thereby reducing the island population. Yet, on the other hand, this very same advance in technology (computers etc.), with additional assistance and a more flexible employers’ attitude, could make it possible for young folk to work from North Ronaldsay.

Captain Robbie Sutherland from Stromness, mentioned this idea at one of our Harvest Homes. With a more frequent plane service, there is no reason why workers could not spend at least some of the week operating from the island. Is there really a need to be at one’s ‘desk’ at nine every morning? Provided extra houses were available and with a sort of multi-purpose building as a base, a number of young folk would still be part of the North Ronaldsay community. In terms of population and age, that would make the greatest difference to the island.

It’s now well after one and this will not do at all! I wonder if it will be a brighter day tomorrow? For the present, I know that it is still misty, as every minute that comes and goes I can hear the foghorn sounding mournfully in the damp darkness of the night.


Since I wrote the above letter, time has passed. This is now September 28 and the weather is still reasonably fine. The field of oats I mentioned was built into stacks on fresh ‘hairst’ day, and tattie work has commenced with at least one croft having completed their gathering. Both jobs were easily accomplished for, as it happened and as they say, ‘many hands make light work’.

But autumn is definitely in the air, and today, when I was out and about, two great ‘V’ formations of wild geese flew over the island, calling loudly. I tried to roughly count their number and I should think there would have been at least two or three hundred, and their ‘honking’ could be heard even when they had become a thin, dark line in the southern sky.

When I began this letter, the moon was in its first quarter; now she is in her last, and tonight she is still shining with sufficient brightness to cast a silvery sheen on the eastern sea.

Well, there we are, but for the moment it will be goodbye to September and goodbye to the old ‘hairst moon’.

Favourite birds and favourite colours

In one of Robert Burns’s letters written to a Mrs Dunlop on New Year’s Day, 1789, Burns speculates on matters spiritual: “We know nothing or next to nothing of the substance or structure of our souls”, and he says later that he is a sincere believer in the Bible. He goes on to talk about his favourite flowers in spring, and the sounds of nature, and wonders why those sights and sounds elevate the soul, and why, as he says, “Minds of a different cast” may not be equally impressed with such pleasurable things.

Well, I agree that we can never know exactly what the soul is, and each individual has different degrees of appreciation, their own favourite flowers, colours, etc. I’m not sure that the feelings we might have about nature have anything to do with spiritual matters, but there are wonderful visual effects to be seen in the universe that greatly impress the mind. Somehow they capture certain feelings that are difficult to explain; sometimes simple, little things like the daisy, quite apart from the great vistas of sea and sky that do make one stop and consider. Just think about the dark expanse of the heavens on a winter’s night when the stars are ablaze, or when the ‘merry dancers’ sweep across the sky.

So, like Burns, and everybody else, I too have some favourite sights, and sounds, or colours for that matter. One colour, for instance, that never ceases to give me a special pleasure, is the pinkish red that tips the white petals of the daisy – Burns, too talks about the “crimson-tipped” daisy as being one of his favourite flowers. Why I particularly like this colour I do not know. Perhaps it has something to do with its purity. It has a freshness and cleanness that is particularly pleasing to the eye. Maybe it links up with some pleasant, forgotten memory from the past.

Then, there is that wonderful pale, powder blue colour of the starling’s egg that just pleases me greatly. Would one call it a calm colour or a peaceful colour? Does it maybe extend away back to one of those beautiful windless days of summers long ago? Certainly, in that respect, colours can create a link with memorable events. For example, I remember one day at the fishing some years ago when the sea was like silk and it was this same blue colour. So smooth and flat was the sea that the ripple of the ‘praam’ stretched undisturbed in two long lines far behind the moving boat. I remember it was in the evening, and earlier in the day there had been the ‘punding’ of the native sheep for clipping.

The third colour is the yellow of the birdsfoot trefoil – or as it is more commonly known – ‘cocks and hens’. It is a colour of such intensity and brilliance that one simply cannot but stop and enjoy it. On a shallow and mossy part of the roadside as one travels to the West Beach, at this time of year (early June), there is a display of this flower. When we were young we used to like to imagine that the fairies would play there in the moonlight or secretly in the warmth of a summer’s day when dull mortals were elsewhere.

With regard to the sounds of nature, Burns singles out two birds which he never hears without, as he says, ‘an elevation of the soul’. They were the curlew and the grey plover. If I were to choose the cry or song of only three birds which are special favourites they would be the curlew, blackbird and the lapwing. Mostly they have some connection with days of long ago, quite apart from the continuing pleasure of hearing them sing or call. For instance, the blackbird’s song takes me back to childhood times and makes me think of summer nights and the setting sun. For, at the age of five or six when it was bedtime around eight in the evening, often a blackbird would be singing outside the bedroom window. Everybody will agree his song is a delight to the ear. There he perches, frequently on a chimney, dressed in black with his yellowish beak, singing away, and just when one is beginning to enjoy the performance, away he flies skimming the roofs and dykes.

And then there is the call of the curlew as he pipes away. Sometimes a long single or double note, sometimes a series of warbling, bubbling notes. You will hear the call through the season, in the early morning, day or night, and without this rather dignified, carefully alert bird North Ronaldsay would lose a little of its magic.

The curlew also reminds me of Iceland which I visited about this time of year in 1970. When I was in the north of that spectacular country, all of a sudden the wind came blowing from the North Pole. It was very cold and some snow fell. Yet, the next day the wind changed direction and blew from the south and it became very warm. The change was so sudden, and I recall especially the vivid emerald green of a grassy field nearby, where a curlew was calling. No doubt the bird was as pleased as I was at the change of weather. One day it was summer, then winter, and then next day back to summer.

But possibly the saddest, and the most nostalgic, is the cry of the lapwing or the ‘teewup’ as we say locally. The cry of this attractive bird with its little head plume takes me back to early schooldays and reminds me of a piece of land shining with marsh marigolds at this time of year. ‘Teeweep, Teeweep’, goes the call as the spring and summer pass. Sometimes a flock of lapwings goes ‘wup, wup, wupping’ away, but it is the solitary individual that I think of mostly and associate with memories of the passing years. When walking past a field, in the summer twilight or a winter’s night, up will fly this bird of the plover family with a surprised cry. The thought of its lonely unseen presence in some dark field is a little sad. Maybe the moon is up casting the lapwing’s little shadow across the damp ground, or maybe just the cold starlight flickers upon the bird’s iridescent plumage as I pass by. But I always think – though I cannot explain the feeling – that its cry, as it fades away in the night, seems to remind me of old times, and folk that have long since gone.

Well, those are my three favourite colours and the bird sounds that I especially like to hear. But there are others: the sharp penetrating voice of the little wren with its musical singing; the skylark with its song of the sky; the sound of that gentle bird, the kittiwake, in the summer time, when clouds of them would fly up crying from Seal Skerry, Summer Ayre, or the Green Skerry; the whirring of the snipe, or the loud calling of the black-headed gull as great numbers of this smart looking bird would follow the plough on a spring day. By the way, the little wren never, as far as I remember, used to nest on the island though now they do so in fairly large numbers, and their singing is a familiar part of our lives. But the sound of the kittiwake’s call takes me back to early days at the lobster fishing where, in Garso Wick, on the north side of the island, on a summer’s day when we were hauling creels, the sight and sound of hundreds of wheeling birds will not be forgotten. And the black-headed gull will remind me of spring and the smell of the petrol-paraffin tractor’s exhaust on a windy day; the sight of tractors ploughing or harrowing here and there and the general busyness of the island at that time of year. I’m thinking of course of 40 to 50 or more years ago. Almost all those ploughmen that I remember now lie west of Holland where cold granite head stones mark their final resting-places.

Here I am sitting outside, for the fun of it, finishing this letter. It’s a splendid, windy, sunny, and inspiring sort of day and as fresh as fresh can be. Our large fuchsia tree is beginning to display its crimson and purple flowers, and little sparrows are flitting here and there among the branches, chirping and chattering as they always do. I can hear an oystercatcher or ‘sheldar’ far away, and a single tern has just flown past uttering an angry ‘skraek’ – despite the graceful elegance of this bird it’s my opinion that they are rather impudent and short of temper.

Before me, in our rather tousled, somewhat neglected, garden, there is a profusion of sweet rocket which is a delight to the senses. A few years ago, I remember an invasion of red admiral butterflies that were greatly taken with this flower. They are such spectacular creatures. So far this year I have seen one or two and also the odd painted lady – do you not think they are rather aptly named? Well, that’s about it. The skylarks are singing and the ‘Wast Sea’ is sounding bravely in the background and I’ve just heard the curlew, or the ‘whaap’ (as we know them), calling somewhere in the distance. I must say I do like that bird.

The sounds of summer

Well, this is a Sunday. It’s a day I like to have to myself – in as much as that desire is possible – and I try to put the thought of ‘one hundred and one’ jobs, which are waiting to be done, into the background. You know, that as the folk on the island become fewer and fewer, and as we get a little older, it’s becoming clear that majority of those jobs will simply never get done. The very thought of them is enough to haunt, and trouble the mind – at least with me that is the case. Interestingly, only today I heard that North Ronaldsay could do with at least one incoming family who could take on some of the extra chores. Such a thought had also occurred to me and I’m sure they would find numerous requests for help that would keep them in work. Mind you, they would have to be quite versatile – almost jacks of all trades.

In the old days, and not even that long ago, each house had a fairly large family living together. One has just to look at the six censuses (beginning 1841) that have recently been published. For example, families of six, eight, 12 or more sharing a home was not at all unusual. In fact at one particular house on the island it was said that 21 folk lived together for a time. In each home there were folk to look after the older or younger members of the household, folk to share the work of the croft, to help neighbours, and to organise this and that. It’s difficult to imagine an island with a population of three or four hundred or more, as it would have been in those days.

But back to the present. The spring and early summer work is over: a little ploughing, sowing, rolling of land for silage and hay – a process which helps to avoid damage to machinery, spreading artificial fertiliser and so on. And on matters more social, as part of their term’s project studies, the North Ronaldsay school pupils have been in Rousay for a few days looking at the fish-farm, seashore, archaeological sites, etc. Here on the island, on Saturday June 1, celebrations for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee were combined with communal work which provided a constructive focus for the day.

Of course communal activity is an integral part of North Ronaldsay’s history. Such work has always been very much related to, and is still practised with the management of the native sheep. In the spring the five ‘toonships’ would be busy maintaining their allocated portions of the twelve to thirteen mile long sheep dyke. That work has lapsed today with the much-reduced work force but nevertheless areas requiring immediate attention are repaired – it has to be, otherwise the island would be over-run with sheep. Then the various chores connected with sheep management would follow: bringing in ewes from the foreshore for lambing, the punding (gatherings) of sheep for clipping, removable, etc.

A few years ago, readers may remember my account of the rebuilding of the sheep dyke when large areas were devastated by storms. At that time islanders turned out to work day after day. And so it goes. In the old days folk who were roofing parts of their steading with heavy flagstone usually had a team of helpers – in fact many homes were built that way. The two Kirks, dating back to about the mid 19th century, would have been erected mainly by communal labour. And when Captain Fresson was pioneering the first air service to the northern isles in the 1930s the whole island turned out to clear the proposed runway. So, when the time, opportunity and circumstances all connect, much can be achieved. Differences are put aside and aims are accomplished.

This little account brings me back to the island’s celebrations for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee and goes some way to explain the background to the work undertaken on June 1. At a recent meeting of the North Ronaldsay Community Association, the committee decided to combine the repair of the Session House roof of the New Kirk with their various celebration activities. This was one of the aims of the North Ronaldsay Trust, who now own the building and who hold it in trust for the island. So on Saturday, June 1 at 10am work began.

One team set about removing the welsh slates, others conveyed them to another group who busied themselves chipping away the cement/lime adhesions and the broken rusted nails. Yet others weighed, graded and put those slates saved into appropriate piles. Throughout the day refreshments provided by the Association were served. Then back to operations until everything was ready for ‘sarking’. Hammers tapped away on the roof as boards were nailed to the couples. On the ground others finished their tasks and tided away this and that. By about 6.30pm the sarking was complete and one side had been felted. A total of 38 folk, which included former islanders back home for the celebrations, and a few visitors, had helped in one way or another to accomplish quite a surprising feat of work.

A few years ago a similar effort was made when the storm damaged roof of the Memorial Hall was repaired. Both are special buildings which hold a great part of the islands history in their very fabric. Within the walls of both, the lives of many islanders have been influenced and shaped in one way or another: Sunday school days, marriages and all the other activities that were once prevalent in the life of the Kirk, concerts, weddings, dances, children’s ‘treats’, and the many memorable events that took place in the Community hall.

North Ronaldsay’s most senior man, John Tulloch, Sennes, lights the huge bonfire as part of the island’s celebrations to mark the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. (Picture: Kevin Woodbridge)

But to return to the Golden Jubilee celebrations, the next venue very soon after the Session House repairs was the bonfire site at Dennis Ness. Patricia Thomson organised various fun events for children and adults – egg and spoon race, three-legged race, sack race etc. The island’s most senior man, John Tulloch, Sennes, was invited to light the huge bonfire. The blaze was spectacular, and it burned away long after the last game had been played and the last spectator had left.

A little later, folk collected at the New Community Centre, which had been decorated with yards of brightly coloured bunting, flags, and bunches of red, white, and blue balloons. In addition the school pupils had made suitable decorations including large gold painted figures of 1952-2002 to signify the Jubilee. After a time folk arrived at the Centre, and shortly they began to partake of a magnificent and beautifully presented buffet mostly prepared by Anne Ogilvie. Shortly afterwards, Peter Donnelly, president of the NRCA, welcomed everybody and began the proceedings. He thanked his committee and all helpers who had been involved in any way with the day’s events. Peter then presented John Tulloch, Sennes, with the specially minted, and boxed, silver five-pound coin. The school pupils and other young folk also received this commemorative Jubilee momento. Peter and Ian Deyell followed the presentations with the raffle, which comprised a bottle of Highland Park whisky, kindly donated by Bruce’s Stores, and a commemorative £5 coin and a box of chocolates donated by the NRCA. Tea and homebakes were served and for a very pleasant little spell folk simply sat around and talked. Eventually, in the very colourful surroundings, the dance got under way to the litesome music of accordions and by one thirty in the morning, some fifteen and a half non-stop working hours after the first welsh slate had been removed from the roof of the Session House, a memorable day indeed came to an end.

Well, that’s the island news, or as much as I can remember at the moment, but today, especially, I’m thinking of less joyful events. Not so long ago the island attended the funeral of a new islander, Vera Osmonde, who died on the first of April aged 78. And yesterday, Monday 3rd my brother Walter, aged 54, passed away. Only on Saturday he had sat in a car watching the repair work at the New Kirk.

So here I am sitting at our front window finishing this letter early in the morning and looking out across green fields to the east sea. So far, it is a beautiful day. High cloud is moving slowly in the south-easterly breeze and the sea is sparkling in the bright morning sun. The sound of summer is all around. A little wren is singing from a hidden stance nearby, and my favourite songster, the elegant blackbird is whistling as only he can whistle. In the air there is the smell and sound of the restless sea. It’s almost always to be heard, and many a memory it can bring back to those of us who live on this island of North Ronaldsay. Its dominating presence is with us through every day of our existence, the days of our youth and adulthood, days of fun and days of sorrow. But this day, despite the music of the island that comes stealing in through a half open door, there is sadness in the air.

Islands apart: change and community

Waves of the receding tide,
That return again to shore-
The sense of your noise ever
Is that day does not last.

Micheál O Guiheen (1904-1974)

Jeremy Godwin’s letter to The Orcadian, dated January 24, in which he refers to my Yule letter from North Ronaldsay, set me thinking. He talks about the “true feel of island life” which he believes I manage to convey in my letters. He hopes, too, that I am “not yet wearing out at 61” and thinks that, “turning night into day can be one of the signs”. My readers may remember that in my ‘Yule’ letter I mentioned that it was 3am as I was finishing off writing”. The above verse from a poem by Micheál O Guiheen, and one or two other pieces which I will quote, show that I am, of course, aware that time marches on. As another writer from the Great Blasket Island says when referring to how youth passes:

“Isn’t Youth fine! – but alas! She cannot be held always! She slips away as the water slips away from the sand of the shore. A person falls into old age unknown to himself. I think there are no two jewels more valuable than Youth and Health.”

From: An Old Woman’s Reflections, Peig Sayers. (1873-1958)

Anyhow, what the heck, I ask, is wrong with sitting up well past the ‘heuld’ of the night writing until 3am, or later as it has been sometimes. That’s when I’m in full flight with my ‘Letters’ which are mostly about the ‘entertainment’ side of island life. I’m beginning to think, though, that possibly Jeremy Godwin is not so far wrong after all. You know, when a person is young there seems time for everything, and even a bit later in life, time is still to be borrowed. But Wow! (as Burns says in Tam o’ Shanter) the day comes when one’s elders and their contemporaries are gone, and we have become that generation, upon whom we depended for advice, information and support.

It’s true, though, that this business of advancing years does come to mind from time to time. On Linkletstoon, there lived a man who refused to accept, or even think, that he was old and maybe that is really the best way to go through life. But isn’t it rather an interesting subject altogether with so many variables? I remember asking once, in one of my letters, what if we never looked old? And you know there are those who age but slowly, and still look, and are, quite ‘swak’ in their twilight years, not only that but they talk and think like younger folk. All of this got me reading again some of the work of the Great Blasket Island writers who were writing down recollections of their lives around the mid 1930s and earlier. Writers such as Thomás O Crohan, Peig Sayers, Micheál O Guiheen and Maurice O’Sullivan, all of whom had been born around the turn of the century, and as long ago as 1873 in the case of Peig Sayers. I have mentioned before the wonderful series of books that were written: Twenty Years A-Growing, Island Cross Talk, A Pity Youth Does Not Last, An Old Woman’s Reflections etc. I was looking particularly at what some of them say about the life in the Great Blasket Island (three miles out into the stormy Atlantic to the west of county Kerry), and of how youth passes so quickly.

Peig Sayers, says in her book, An Old Woman’s Reflections:

“Very often I’d throw myself back on the green heather, resting. It wasn’t for bone-laziness I’d do it, but for the beauty of the hills and the rumble of the waves that would be grieving down from me, in dark caves where the seals of the sea lived . . .”

I remember once doing something quite similar when, one fine summer’s day some years ago, I lay down in our meadow area and fell asleep for spell. When I awoke, I felt for a moment like Rip Van Winkle. All the while in the background the sound of tractors hammering away at some land work came haunting the peace of the day. How often in our lifetime have we done such things? Maybe when we were young we frequently might have – but not often since I suspect. To be seen behaving in such a way would be looked upon as “bone-laziness” by some, but as Peig Sayers says above it wasn’t. Only the other day when I had gone for a walk along the rocky shore to the west, while I was waiting for the strength of ebb to run off a heavy west sea, so as the OIC’s ferry could dock, I stretched out for a short spell on a sheltered flat rock. Round the corner of my rocky abode the wind came whistling and moaning, while above me some curious gulls, crying sharply, banked and balanced briefly in the turbulent air. All the while the heavy west sea thundered not far from where I lay with white froth like snow flying here and there.

Micheál O Guiheen in his book, A Pity Youth Does Not Last, writes:

“A person’s life races on in the exact same way that a wind lifts the mist from the shoulder of a mountain . . . We are greatly mistaken that we do not make use of the loan of this life for the short time we are there, despite the best we can do”.

“Well, well”, as my Faroese friend would say. Now, let me think about Jeremy Godwin’s belief that I convey the “true feel of island life” in my letters from North Ronaldsay. Yes, I have described our enjoyable, social life in some detail over the years. I’ve also, more briefly, mentioned other things that happen from time to time, work on the land and sea, a bit of history, and a little about tradition. But it would be very misleading to believe that everything always flows as smoothly as the sea on a summer’s day.

“‘It’s hard to be growing old,’ said Peig when I (W. R. Rodgers) said good-bye to her in Dingle, ‘but’, she added with a grin, ‘I’ll be talking after my death, my good gentleman.’ So she will, for as the proverb says:

‘A tune is more lasting than the song of the birds, and a word more lasting than the wealth of the world’.”

Peig Sayers - 1873-1958 - as she appears on the cover of her book, An Old Woman’s Reflections, The Life of a Blasket Island Storyteller.

Here I am then, reading the words of Peig Sayers written around 50 years ago, and I’m wondering who might bother to cast an eye over my North Ronaldsay chronicles as far into the future. Perhaps by then the island could be like the Great Blasket Island, (evacuated in 1953), “abandoned to sheep, seagulls and silence”. If change for the better doesn’t come soon it probably will. It seems, therefore, that I should say that life on North Ronaldsay, like the sea, has its share of smooth and stormy times, just like, I’m sure, many other small communities have. I suppose too, that over the years, such communities can have various individuals who, like the secondary tides (tides which run up on the main tides of Flood and Ebb), become very wild and tricky when the wind blows in their face. Sometimes, maybe, among other ambitions, those tides fancy being in command, others busily keep the wind blowing. They turn and twist, rise up in menacing postures, and can be very troublesome, but it is possible to pick a way through them just as the versatile North Ronaldsay praam does many a time. If that is not an option then one has to be judicious and wait a little. Eventually they fade away and become absorbed into the main flow. But even on a fine day one has to be vigilant for, although everything appears smooth and normal, the tide is still there moving as fast and as purposefully as ever. And sometimes when boats built elsewhere attempt to work in waters of a different complexity, such as North Ronaldsay experience, they can find it difficult – particularly if they are not prepared to understand the complicated tidal currents – or at least listen to those that do. Those boats come and go. Some lose interest and leave, or simply remove themselves from the lifestyle of the tumbling tides, but many of those who stay do contribute constructively to community life which, in many isolated communities, becomes more and more vulnerable as the number of working boats becomes less. Those are the ones, as Sheila Gear, from Foula (mentioned below) who says: “came and stayed because they had a real affection for the place”. In addition she thinks that: “an island needs its own islanders . . . it’s his home and he has a strong attachment to it”.

Recently, I read about a small village community in New England in the USA. There a bitter dispute raged about making a hard-topping over a piece of an old hill-road, which bordered the village green and had existed for generations. Eventually the time came for a public meeting to decide on a course of action. Opinions and hard held views were exchanged with unabated fury. The writer of this account (who also held passionate views on the subject) learned one thing that day, and that, as she said, was the fairness and finality of a democratic vote which resolved the matter. This account reminded me of similar occurrences in North Ronaldsay’s past when the population was well over 100, and democracy played its part. One involved a dispute about the use of certain island monies for financing a particular road. A fairly stormy debate took place in the Memorial Hall when those against the motion won the day, but as time went by, circumstances changed altogether and the road was built. And once, in the 1960s, when the island was working hundreds of tons of tangles, island workers threatened strike action for more pay during shipping operations, I remember a formidable delegation striding boldly down to the pier to demand satisfaction from an Alginate Industries manager. On another occasion when agreement couldn’t be reached about a right of way, the Land Court decisively settled the argument. Over the years there have been disputes about this and that, and differences of opinion. They come and go, some are resolved, some are not, and occasionally, despite a public vote, repercussions and ill feeling can last for a long time.

A problem can arise, however, when the population of any small community falls too far. One often hears and reads about this sort of scenario, and it’s easy to imagine various consequences. Issues and disputes tend to become exaggerated, and in addition, the so-called democratic vote may easily no longer operate as it should. Some folk simply do not vote at all – they are not interested, or abstain. Others will not vote as they think, because of one influence or another, or more seriously, because they might be beholden to the promoter of a particular concept or idea within the community. Such a vote, or abstention, could then adversely affect the lives and future of the people living in the locality. To use my analogy about the sea – perhaps there are too few boats of the calibre of the NR praam left to deal with the troublesome tides.

The challenge, as the American writer, May Sarton, from New England says, “is the ruling of a small community with wisdom and justice”. She also mentions the great importance of their Moderator – a man of principle, skill, and independent vision who presided at meetings. Yes, that’s what small communities with problems might consider. It would require someone who could see through the sometimes ingrained prejudice and even self-interest which can exist and does – even in the great corridors of power. Could such a person be found? But, if so, would he or she be acceptable to a community or regarded instead as a meddler, and a danger to those who have their own agendas? In any case such an arbitrator maybe could provide the vital solution to seemingly intractable problems.

The re-reading of Peig Sayers’s book and others has given me much pleasure and often amusement. Peig’s stories, proverbs, insight and knowledge of life in the Great Blasket Island are very special. Here is one of the other proverbs she quotes: “It’s for ever said that the three things that run swiftest are a stream of water, a stream of fire, and a stream of falsehood”, and describing an incident in island life, she adds, “and a lot of falsehood was being mixed with the whisper-lisper that was going on”. There’s no doubt that we all are perhaps a little bit guilty, and even enjoy a spot of the whisper-lispers, but certainly Peig did not approve of such behaviour.

Well, Jeremy Godwin, I hope this letter says enough – but I think you know it all. Once, I remember, you wrote a letter of support in The Orcadian when I was being less than diplomatic about our little ups and downs and had been criticised for it. I hope this letter, which is the view of one individual, avoids offence this time, but there is more to life in North Ronaldsay than Harvest Homes, decorations, candles and oil-lamps, and those of us of an older generation who were born and bred here know it.

There are ambitious plans for the future of the island presently being pursued with dedication and effort by numerous folk: young and old, islanders and new islanders, and folk from outwith the community. And assistance is being sought from various outside bodies. But in addition I still believe, much can be learned from those Great Blasket Island writers and their like in such communities. For instance, another islander, Sheila Gear, a Foula inhabitant, writing in the 1980s in her book Foula Island West of the Sun, makes some interesting observations in her last chapter about Foula’s future: “The care for an island must come from within . . . the young people, both living on and having left the island, are the ones who should be asked what they want for the future of their island . . . the so-called isolation is not the problem – rather it is the lack of housing and employment”. Sheila Gear believes that “an island, or any community, is viable because it itself believes it is”.

The Great Blasket Island’s poets and writers understood what their island life meant. They had, after all, lived there for generations and knew their history and folklore. Theirs was a continual struggle for survival in the face of poverty but always, “the hardship is countered by the strength of the community spirit”. And those who saw the inevitable end of life on the Great Blasket wrote with sadness at the passing of their community. That end came, as Tim Enright, the translator of A Pity Youth Does Not Last, said, when the islanders could no longer compete with the “giants of capital”.

The following quotation from Peig Sayers probably sums up one of the great aims of any community. One which, I think, along with a rich culture, respected and fiercely held, sustained a remarkable group of people for hundreds of years:

“But I have this much to say, that I had good neighbours. We helped each other and lived in the shelter of each other. Everything that was coming dark upon us, we could disclose it to each other, and that would give us consolation of mind. Friendship was the fastest root in our heart…”

It’s good to remind ourselves of those qualities to which we islanders are no strangers, and which, when folk were, arguably, more dependant on each other, also sustained the long established community of North Ronaldsay.

Before I finish, I’m remembering Alfie Swanney, North Gravity. We attended his funeral on the island recently. Alfie used to keep everybody on their toes with his quick wit and levelling remarks. His building work is to be seen round the island. Once when I was gingerly trying to paint one of Antabreck’s chimney blocks (I have no great head for heights) Alfie, who was at the house on some errand and in his seventies at the time, hopped swiftly up on to the roof, and from there to the chimney head where he calmly walked around its edge. With the passing of our older generations, who knew what island life was all about, North Ronaldsay dies a little. The Blasket islanders knew it and I often think when I’m daydreaming that I, like Maurice O’Sullivan and Micheál O Guiheen, if given the choice between the old world and the new, would choose the old. But, seriously, the great challenge is how do we bring the island forward functioning into the new millennium, and yet still retain the best of the old values. If this is possible then North Ronaldsay, along with its history, will continue far into the future.

I close with two verses from Micheál O Guiheen’s poem, ‘The Great Blasket’

Often when night’s coming I am found
Where the sea-gull sinks in settled sleep;
The black clouds mass above me
The evening star, polished, shines bright.

True, last night I sat down
A full, fitting company beside me;
Our talk was the traits of our forebears,
Praising their deeds on the Great Blasket.

Burns’ Suppers past and present

This letter, which I am beginning to write on Saturday, January 26, is to be one of contrasts I think. Yesterday was, of course, Robert Burns’ birthday, and the great difference, weather-wise, between yesterday and today sets me thinking about change and comparisons.

This is the time of year when Robert Burns comes to mind and yesterday’s weather certainly could not have been more appropriate for celebrating his birthday. The frozen ground and sprinklings of snow were fairly in keeping with his descriptions of January.

When Januar’ wind was blawing cauld,
As to the north I took my way.


Our monarch’s hindmost year but ane
Was five- and- twenty days begun,
‘Twas then a blast o’ Jan’war’ win’
Blew hansel in on Robin.

Hansel, by the way, means a gift to express good wishes at the beginning of a New Year. Today, with the frost completely gone, sheets of water lie here and there across the island after a night of incessant rain and strong south-easterly winds. In the morning, a sudden ominous calmness had replaced the upheaval of the night, and across the east end of the island a misty spray bore inland, rising from a heavy sea. Even the sun gave noticeable warmth to one’s face – in fact everything had changed dramatically.

Well, here I am at Burns again. Yes, once more, in a small adjoining room in the New Centre, we managed to have a little get-together in memory of the poet. Despite unpleasant weather, colds and other ups and downs, everybody who was able to attend agreed, that we had done justice to a man whose life is celebrated the world over. Yet, curiously, despite this recognition, there are those who will continue to dismiss the man and his work.

O ye, wha are sae guid yoursel,
Sae pious and sae holy,
Ye’ve nought to do but mark and tell
Your Neebour’s fauts and folly!
‘Address to the Unco Guid’

So, on Burns’ Night, with tartan rugs, illustrations from his poems, red roses, candles and lamps, and a few folk from across the Firth to add to our number, the ‘e’enin’ got underway. Peter Donnelly, the NRCA president, welcomed the company and acknowledged the work of all those who had made the evening possible. Guests this year were the speaker Archie Bevan, accompanied by his wife Elizabeth, and musicians, Susan and Chris Webb. The haggis, carried by Winnie Scott, our hard working cook, was piped in by Chris Webb. Martin Gray, with his eye on the ‘Great Chieftan o’ the Puddin-race’ followed with a spirited address. Jimmie Thomson recited ‘The Selkirk Grace’ before Winnie’s splendid supper was consumed:

Till a’ their weel-swall’d kytes belyve
Are bent like drums;

Cider was the accompanying drink, with John Barleycorn for the toasts.

Archie Bevan from Stromness, who gave The Immortal Memory at this year's North Ronaldsay Burns Supper.

Archie Bevan then rose to give The Immortal Memory. For many years Archie had been head of the English department at the Stromness Academy and had also served as depute rector. Recently, his work for the St Magnus Festival, of which he was a founder member, was recognised with an MBE. He gave a fine tribute to Robert Burns, touching on many aspects of the poet’s work frequently using quotations from his poetry. He stated his great contribution to Scotland’s heritage as a collector of songs: a labour of years for which he neither asked for nor received any remuneration; his understanding of human nature; his fearless exposure of hypocrisy; his preparedness to admit to his faults and to bear responsibility where necessary. He mentioned Burns’ life of unremitting toil, which probably was the cause of the debilitating illness over the last years of his short life. Archie referred to the Bard’s recognition in countries all over the world which, even over the two hundred years that have passed since his death, was still as strong as ever. He also remarked that four of Orkney’s writers and poets, George Mackay Brown, Robert Rendall, Edwin Muir and Eric Linklater, all had paid tribute to Robert Burns’ genius. The speaker concluded his address by asking the company to toast the Immortal Memory.

Sydney Ogilvie proposed an original, ‘Toast to the Lasses’ in verse with his wife Anne replying in similar vein. This was followed by Susan Webb on fiddle when she played a selection of music from Scotland, Ireland, and Shetland, finishing with some familiar Burns tunes. Susan plays with the Orkney Reel and Strathspey Society, and also teaches young people attending the Orkney Traditional Music Project to play the fiddle.

I followed the fiddle music by reading an account, originally printed in The Orcadian (2/2/1933), of North Ronaldsay’s first ever Burns Supper. It makes an interesting comparison with our own efforts, and with some of the differences between the island of almost 70 years ago and today. I will shortly return to this article which had been researched and sent to me by Beatrice Thomson who lives in Finstown, (formerly Neven, North Ronaldsay)

Susan Webb once more took up her fiddle to accompany the communal singing of three of Burns’ songs. Although we sang without practice we nevertheless had some fun with our efforts. Isobel followed with an eloquent reading of part of one of Burns’ letters to a friend, Captain Francis Grose, in which he relates three witch stories about the Kirk o’ Alloway. Isobel read the particular story which mainly inspired ‘Tam o’ Shanter’. Archie Bevan then went on to give a fine rendition of this well-known poem.

She tauld thee weel thou was a skellum,
A blethering, blustering, drunken blellum; … …
She prophesied that late or soon.
Thou would be found deep drown’d in Doon;
Or catch’d wi’ warlocks in the mirk,
By Alloway’s auld haunted kirk.

We then enjoyed a solo sung by Sydney Ogilvie called, ‘John Barleycorn’. Three more Burns songs followed with the final song, ‘The Star o’ Robbie Burns’. I took advantage of a short interlude to unveil one of my larger seascapes, which I gifted to the NRCA. The painting was in acknowledgement of my own presentations, received at the end of the year event, which I had felt were much too generous. Peter Donnelly accepted the oil painting on behalf of the association and the island, expressing admiration and thanks.

Very shortly, the ‘peedie’ dance got under way and we jigged, waltzed and swirled to the best of our ability. One Eightsome Reel was managed with two sets on the floor; for a time Susan Webb playing her fiddle, fairly made us dance like fiends with her fast reel times.

The dancers quick and quicker flew;
They reel’d, they set, they cross’d, they cleekit,

Then the accordions took over to give us a little respite and finish the dance a little more sedately. Chris Webb had a go on his small pipes for the second last dance, and finally our own two very faithful players, who have provided music for many years, ended the evening with a waltz and ‘Auld Lang Syne’. Hip, hip, hurrahs resounded through the room to complete our Burns night.

I said I would come back to the account of North Ronaldsay’s first Burns Supper and make some comparisons. The 1933 Burns’ Supper, held on January 27, was conceived and managed by Mr and Mrs Flett – “aided by an able and willing committee, (The Memorial Hall Committee) chosen from the youth and beauty of the island”. Mr Robert Flett was the head teacher at the school from 1933-1940 and the event was held in the school rather than the Memorial Hall. This was because of the availability of a large coal-fired boiler in which three haggis were cooked. Mary Tulloch, Burray (a member of the committee and one of the haggis makers) tells me that they were made from the island’s own ground oat-meal, grated fat, onion, seasoning, and the chopped up heart, liver, and the kidneys of our native sheep.

In order to give sufficient space in the school, a movable partition that used to divide the Little End (primary) from the Big-End (senior) was folded back. Trestle tables, along with forms for seating, dishes etc. had to be carried up by hand from the Memorial Hall

The school was described as being, “transformed into a veritable pleasure palace. The tables were artistically set with all the delicacies appropriate to the occasion, and even the time honoured haggis proved a tempting dish – certainly a master hand had been at its preparation . . . An eloquent address on Burns was given by Mr Robert Flett, and Mr James Swanney, Trebb, occupied the chair as no other could. His humorous comments, no less than his well chosen ‘Selections from Burns’ brought the house down with laughter”.

Accompaniment for the singing – eight solos, two duets and one quartet was provided by: Miss Benna Sandison, assistant teacher, lodging at Cruesbreck, Miss Margaret Tulloch, Kirbest, and Miss Bethia Tulloch, Cruesbreck. In contrast to our own efforts, those songs would have been well practised in advance. The performers all those years ago were:- Mrs Sutherland, Lighthouse, Mrs Flett, Schoolhouse, Mrs May Cutt, Gerbo, Mr Sydney Scott, North Manse, Miss Benna Sandison, Cruesbreck, Mr Robert Thomson, Sr., Millhouse/Peckhole, Miss Margaret Tulloch, Kirbest, Mr Robert Flett, Schoolhouse, and Miss Bethia Tulloch, Cruesbreck. Musicians for the dance, which carried on until 2am, were Mr Sydney Scott, Mr Robert Thomson Sr., Mr Robert Flett, (all on Fiddles) and Mr John Swanney (Trebb) Melodeon. MCs – Mr Robert Flett and Mr Sydney Scott.

Toasts etc.: ‘Is there for honest poverty’, (recitation) Mr James Swanney, Trebb; Toast, ‘The King’, Mr James Swanney, Trebb; ‘Address to Burns’, Mr Robert Flett; Toast, ‘The Lasses’, Mr Sydney Scott, North Manse; ‘Reply’, Dr Garvie; Toast, ‘The Chairman’, Mr R. Flett; ‘Reply’, Mr James Swanney, Trebb; Toast, ‘Kindred gatherings’, Mr Roy Scott, Antabreck; Toast, ‘The Island’, (those two latter toasts we resurrected at our function) Mr R. Flett; ‘Reply’, Mr John Scott, Sr., North Manse.

Of the ten familiar songs sung in 1933 such as; ‘Ye Banks and Braes’, ‘A Highland Lad’, and ‘Afton Water’, we had in fact chosen six that were the same. The population in 1933 was around 283 whereas today the population is barely over 60. The attendance at that first Burns Supper was, I’m told, between 90 and 100. Our event had about 40, but eight came from the Mainland. Looking at these figures it is surprising that less than 100 were at the function, but in those days the children were not allowed at Burns Suppers (at least not this first one), and older members of the population tended to stay at home. This was maybe because they were getting on in years, or had to look after the young children or be with those who were too old and frail. Another consideration was, that people would not have had motor conveyance and roads would have been very much rougher than today’s modern surfaces.

In the 1933 The Orcadian account it also lists the committee. They were: Miss Mabel Thomson, Howatoft, Miss Mary Seatter, Howar, Miss Betsy Thomson, Millhouse/Peckhole, Miss Mabel Thomson, Cursiter, Mr William Swanney, Cott, Mr John Swanney, Trebb, Mr Allan Tulloch, Upper Linnay, Mr Tom Thomson, Howatoft, and Mr John Tulloch, Ancum. Of all those committee members, and all others already named – who were involved with that Burns Supper, only two are alive today. One lives far across the seas in Sydney, Australia. She is Mrs Mabel Hay (nee Thomson, Cursiter). The other is Mrs Mary Tulloch (nee Seatter, Howar), living here in North Ronaldsay.

They, along with the few members of the general audience still alive, wherever they may be, will surely recall memories of great days in North Ronaldsay almost 70 years ago.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot?
And auld lang syne?
For auld lang syne, my Jo,
For auld lang syne,
We’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.

Yule in North Ronaldsay

Yesterday, January 1, 2002, to the music of a fiddle played by Kelvin Scott, over 30 revellers danced round the old Standing Stone. Shortly before, with a bottle of the Famous Grouse whisky, we had toasted in the New Year, and watched the winter sun set behind the hills of Eday.

North Ronaldsay under snow, December 2001. (Picture: David Scott)

Can anybody think of a grander way to bring in the New Year than by wishing one another good luck, success; and watch the setting sun together, remembering for a moment those folk who, many thousands of years before, had erected the stone. As we left the scene, followed by a group of young cattle who had eyed our performance with considerable curiosity, sweeping clouds in the south west glowed in spectacular colours of orange and red.

At Neven, shortly afterwards, we ‘discoorsed’, ate cake, and sang songs to the accompaniment of fiddle, accordion and mouth organ. Liz Forgan and Rex Cowan, our hosts, proposed another two entertaining toasts. So, you see that even that old Standing Stone can bring folks together in harmony and enjoyment. Do you know I think we could do with some more stones dotted here and there round the island and elsewhere.

Well, I’ve made an early start to my end of the year letter. Outside the wind is blowing very freshly from the south, and the moon, just beginning to wane a little and encircled in rainbow colours, is riding high in a cloudy sky. I think that for tonight I will close down my writing machine and aim at an earlier start tomorrow.

Today, when I came in from my outside chores, I heard a curlew cry. The sky was beautiful as the sun began to rise. Clouds, coloured orange and pink, changed into gold and yellow as the sun climbed clear of the horizon and gained height above a ruffled sea. Yes, it is a fine ‘drouthy’ type of day, and a welcome change from snow and ice and the very wet conditions of recent weeks. It would be grand to have a few days of such uplifting weather. We could arrive more easily at some New Year resolutions I think, and march forward with renewed determination.

How quickly Christmas comes and goes and the New Year celebrations likewise. In the old days there would still be some good bottles of North Ronaldsay ale in most houses to welcome New Year visitors. Shortly, I shall have to be stepping forth in order to get my own visits completed before Old New Year’s Day on January 13. Remembering old customs for a moment, it’s pleasant to think that the folk in Foula still actually have a special celebration for January 13 – one which goes back far into their history. And talking about that very isolated island I have just got a book called The Isle of Foula by Ian B. Stoughton Holbourn, first published in 1938. Professor Ian Holbourn bought the island about 100 years ago. When he died in 1935, he left vast amounts of unpublished writing on a very wide range of subjects. After his death, his wife, Marion, put together the book using her husband’s notes on Foula more or less as he had written them. On certain clear days this Ultima Thule, which lies some fifty or so miles distant to the north, can be seen from North Ronaldsay. Not many years ago a few islanders from here visited the island by plane. Maybe we could arrange such a visit again to see how such an isolated community manages its affairs, and how life has changed since the 1930s.

Going back just a step or two into last year to remember community events. A whist drive raised over £100 for the children’s Christmas Eve party. On December 19, the pupils of the North Ronaldsay School presented a fine programme of carol singing and readings. And then, at the grandly festive Christmas dinner, cooked by Winnie Scott, head of the school kitchen, folk were entertained once again by the children. Much work had gone into a production of a short sketch entitled ‘Mr Howard Carter’s Discovery’. Mr Carter was a British archaeologist who discovered the tomb of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun. This very professional production involved all the pupils – Joni Craigie, Richenda and Thomas Brookman, Heather Woodbridge, Duncan Gray, including the two pre-school children Cameron Gray and Gavin Woodbridge. It also involved sterling work from head teacher, Patricia Thomson, support teacher Jackie Milner, drama advisor Chris Giles (both from Kirkwall) Anne Ogilivie, pre-school assistant, Edith Craigie, auxiliary, and Isobel Muir coming back from retirement to act the part of Mr Carter. After each function folk enjoyed suitable refreshments. On Christmas Eve there was the traditional and entertaining children’s party which in the old days was referred to as the “bairns’ Christmas treat”.

Then came Christmas, with snow and ice and a bitingly cold wind from the northwest. At the Memorial Hall on December 30, about 30 folk somehow got seated on old forms set up on the curtained stage. Heaters made the confined area cosy as we watched an innovative puppet show organised by Helga Tulloch for the children on the island. The show was loosely based on the activities of Ragna of North Ronaldsay -a ‘great lady’ of Viking times. Helga and Georgette Herd brought the puppets alive, with Chris Sutcliffe, narrator, and Scott Tulloch, stage assistant. Lemonade, biscuits and festive drams were served at the finish of the performance. By Saturday the icy condition of the roads forced a postponement of the island’s traditional end of the year event until Hogmanay. On this night quite a number of visitors to the island ensured a good attendance at the last dance of 2001. The Community Association’s new president, Peter Donnelly welcomed everybody and set the proceedings in motion. Two short films were shown as a video but projected on to a large screen by special equipment kindly lent from the Kirkwall Community Centre. The films which had been made in 1934/35 were entitled, ‘The Rugged Island’, a Shetland Lyric, and ‘Eriskay’, a Poem of Remote Lives. The films, whilst conveying the romantic side of island existence, also very beautifully depicted the way of life on those islands almost seventy years ago. Rex Cowan then gave a short talk, illustrated by a video, in which he explained the changes in underwater archaeological exploration. In the early seventies his team of divers had discovered and explored, the wreck of the Svecia owned by the Swedish East Company and lost on the Reef Dyke in 1740. At that time, as Rex said, exploration methods were much less advanced.

The dance which followed, with upwards of 70 folk participating with enthusiasm, proved a special success with a great Eightsome Reel taking us near to the midnight hour – Sinclair’s pipes fairly swept us on. Then at a little ceremony just before the turn of the old year, Peter Donnelly, presented me with a beautiful Seiko watch and a leather hand-bound illustrated edition of the complete works of Robert Burns. Those two very fine gifts, both inscribed, were given on behalf of the island by the North Ronaldsay Community Association. He went on to mention my 12 years as president of the association and the work I had done in that time. Although I felt that this recognition was far beyond my contribution, I could only graciously accept the two very splendid gifts being able only to say thankyou, but my thoughts were away back through those years. Remembering the little ups and downs, the special events that we had conceived together and the fun that we’d had. But especially I remembered the work and support of so many others – during my time and long before – whose help and commitment often goes unmentioned and unrecognised, but whose contribution makes collective efforts possible and ensures success. Tea, sandwiches, and all sorts of homebakes were then served as the old year slipped away.

Ian Deyell counted down the last seconds of 2001. Then at twelve midnight the hall hummed with all sorts of good wishes as folk moved around to shake hands with one another. Shortly, the dance swung back into action with Ann and Lottie’s accordions going at it, and also in fine form was Kelvin with his fiddle. I played along with them adding to the volume of the music and so on went the dancers merrily indeed with the second last dance being the favourite Strip the Willow. As the music increased in tempo, arms and legs flew in all directions with ‘yoochs’ and ‘skreeks’ sounding more and more frantic. That was the way to bring in the New Year before the last waltz with the sadder music of the old Scots tunes – The Rowan Tree, The Four Marys and Loch Lomond, reminding us of other times. Robert Burns’s universal song was then sung to bring a great night to a close.

Well, I’ve almost come to the end of my letter. Today has been another dry and fine winter’s day with a very fresh, southerly wind – I say today – but I see with a shock that it is now almost 3 o’clock in the morning. What in the world is to become of me if I continue like this I can hear people say – I shall certainly have to nip 40 winks or more through the day. You know at 61 who cares. I’m about to have a look outside – as I have a chore or two to do. Then I’ll tell you how the night is.

The night is fine with that fresh wind still blowing from the south, and the moon, now half spent, is hiding and peeping from among dark clouds that come and go against a hazy sky. Only a very bright star or two shines palely through the mistiness of the night. As I looked round the island at such a late hour, the one light to be seen was that of the Lighthouse as its long beams swept slowly round, and round, in an anti-clockwise direction – why does it turn anti-clockwise I wonder? I thought for a moment about our recent activities and the passing days. There were many memories to turn over in the mind. All those events described above, the white Christmas as it had transpired to be, with the sharp brilliance of a full moon lighting up a spectacular snowy landscape; magnificent sunsets behind islands sometimes purple or blue, and at other times partly covered with snow; the sight and sound of heavy northerly seas hammering past to the west, and east of the island with the white of the waves luminous and a little frightening in the night. The thunder of such seas could easily be heard even within the confines of one’s home. Then there were the sometimes marathon and very lively parties at various houses, one or two of which I managed to attend. There was the inevitable gossip; the differing opinions and versions of events both past and present; and often the intense talk and speculation about North Ronaldsay and what its future might be.

Well, what indeed will it be, or rather what can it be? That is the question! Ragna, mentioned above and described in The Orkneyinga Saga as a wise and self-assured woman, once had a verbal exchange with Earl Rognvald, which resulted in an error of judgement on his part.

Ragna said: “Now the proverb comes true that ‘few are so wise as to be able to see everything as it is’. . .”

Perhaps, if we were all as wise as Ragna we might arrive at solutions to some of the problems that beset many small communities – especially those like ourselves that live at the periphery of society.