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’.