Islanders remember the fallen

Keep Right on to the End of the Road

Ev’ry road thro’ life is a long, long road,
Fill’d with joys and sorrows too,
As you journey on how your heart will yearn
For the things most dear to you.

With wealth and love ’tis so,
But onward we must go.
With a big stout heart to a long steep hill,
We may get there with a smile,
With a good kind thought and an end in view,
We may cut short many a mile.
So let courage ev’ry day
Be your guiding star alway.

This is St Andrew’s night (November 30). I had forgotten about the anniversary until I heard one or two Scottish songs being sung on the radio. One was of Sir Harry Lauder (1870 – 1950), singing rather inspiringly, Keep Right on to the End of the Road – a song, I understand, written sometime after his only son was killed in action in 1916 during World War 1. Well, I suppose most folk would not have paid too much attention to this recording, and I imagine that very few of the younger generation will even have heard of Harry Lauder.

Ian Scott’s evocative painting of the
North Ronaldsay War Memorial by moonlight

Still, the words of the song, though sounding a little sentimental to modern ears, are not entirely inappropriate today. I shall finish my letter with the chorus which is sung after each verse. Before we know where we are, Christmas will be upon us, so I thought I should bring our latest activities up to date – hence this in-between letter.

I hear that a ‘sketch’ (the title of which remains, so far, “hush, hush”) is being practised for the association’s end-of-the-year dance. That should be fun. By the way, yes, Jeremy Godwin (in a letter to The Orcadian), is correct with his date for the wreck of the Svecia (mentioned in my Harvest Home letter) – it was 1740, not as I mistakenly said, 1741.

At the time of Remembrance each year in November, I frequently find myself looking through poetry or writings about the First World War.

One of the books that I have been dipping into again is Lyn Macdonald’s To the Last Man – I think I have mentioned the book previously. It deals with the last great German offensive in 1918, and often makes disturbing reading, made all the more powerful by the inclusion of accounts and recollections of some of the participants themselves.

One account, for instance, described how a German soldier, overrunning a British position, finds and plans to retrieve a pair of good leather boots. On closer inspection he finds the severed feet of the former owner still in the boots.

A week after Remembrance Sunday a good turnout of folk gathered at the North Ronaldsay War Memorial. John Tulloch, Senness, laid the wreath. Sinclair Scott played The Flowers of the Forest. The two minutes silence followed, after which John Cutt, Gerbo, recited the familiar verse of Binyon’s poem, For the Fallen.

Patricia Thomson read a prayer and John Cutt completed the ceremony by reciting the words of In Memoriam, a poem written by his late uncle, William Swanney, Viggie.

More recently, the North Ronaldsay Ladies Lifeboat Guild held their annual fundraising event. As usual, a good attendance of folk supported and enjoyed the evening, which included many raffle items etc.

Guild president, Isobel Muir, opened the proceedings. The draw for the various donated prizes took place after tea, sandwiches and home bakes. Total monies spent, including donations, amounted to a really splendid sum of £766.

Another event, organised as part of Aberdeen University’s key learning opportunities, took place on November 25 in the new centre, when Norman Newton gave an illustrated talk entitled Muckle Flugga to the Mull of Kintyre. I missed this event which, by all accounts, was most interesting. A good turnout later enjoyed tea, homebakes etc.

Patricia Thomson, head teacher, hosts the lectures as part of the OIC education committee’s extra mural activities.

And still in the new centre, a few days later, the association ran their yearly whist drive in order to raise funds for the children’s Christmas Eve party. Very generous donations amounted to £150. Other than those events there have been various meetings: association, housing, creating a web site for North Ronaldsay, and shortly there will be the AGM of the North Ronaldsay Trust.

Around the Harvest Home time and later, there have been spectacular sightings of the Northern Lights – or the Merry Dancers as we call them. Such sights in the night sky always convey a feeling of mystery and wonder despite the scientific explanations.

It’s sometimes the magnitude of the display as it sweeps across the sky that can be so impressive, and the landscape is lit up in a way quite different from the effect of moonlight. One has to be outside for a time as everything changes from minute to minute, and the most wonderful and sometimes stunning effects can easily remain unseen.

One of these recent sightings was not to be missed: I was lucky enough to be out watching on this occasion. In the west, the shimmering lights were of a beautiful red hue and from that direction they seemed to sometimes fly across the heavens in brilliant colours of white and green; the southern sky was quite taken over by the ghostly dancers – for ghostly they seem.

When the Merry Dancers are predominately in the southern sky, it is said to be sign of impending bad weather. As I was watching this great spectacle of changing colour and form, stretching as it did from west to east, there seemed to be a sudden intensifying of white light in the very centre of the sky. It radiated in waves of brightness that rippled across the stars with such speed that it quite mesmerised the senses.

Last night was such a night of relentless, heavy rain that it made a ‘buthy’ glad to be under a roof and lying comfortable and warm in bed. (Imagine being in the First World War trenches at this time of year and in such conditions.)

Yet, today has been relatively mild with sunshine bravely cheering up the landscape. And the sunset, as November draws to a close, was worth seeing – brilliantly yellow and gold with purple and violet cloud stretching across the evening sky.

As the ‘mirking’ or twilight crept over the island a growing crescent moon began to brighten ever so slowly, and the sea, which has been very nearly ‘aff o’ the ‘boddam’ at times this last few days, is settling down nicely.

I’ve just been out to view the night before finishing this letter. The sky is absolutely clear and the glittering stars make a fine sight.

In the northeast the Plough is standing on its stilts and a little to the west of south, the constellation of Orion twinkles far away.

Keep right on to the end of the road,
Keep right on to the end.
Tho’ the way be long, let your heart be strong,
Keep right on round the bend.
Tho’ your tired and weary still journey on,
Till you come to your happy abode,
Where all you love, you’ve been dreaming of
Will be there at the end of the road.

Harvest Home brings back memories and familiar faces

Harvey Johnston, front left, who gave the North Ronaldsay Harvest Home address, makes sure his poem on the history of the isle is quite up to date during supper. (Picture: Alasdair Henderson)

As I begin this letter, writing in the evening, the moon is not far from being full.

It shines a little hazily through high, almost gossamer thin, cloud, and in the east a few crofts are silhouetted against the moonlit sea.

There is a sort of constant hushing sound in the night air which, in the old Orkney dialect, would be described as the ‘swaa o’ the sea’.

In fact this whole day has been absolutely magnificent. It has been as warm as a summer’s day, with a light southerly wind and at times high, rippling, white clouds scattering across the pale blue of the early November sky.

This morning, when flying to Kirkwall in a Loganair plane, I was watching the changing colours of the landscape below. The different islands set against the blue sea, with white shifting surf here and there, looked quite beautiful in the early morning sunshine.

As we began to cross over Sanday I could see the little jetty that had been built at the ‘black rock’. In the old days that was the point on Sanday where the North Ronaldsay mail boat landed passengers and carried the Royal mail to and from the island.

In fact, when it was built, in the 60s, it was too late for the convenience of passengers; for, by then, Loganair was up and running, and shortly both mail and passengers would cross the sometimes turbulent North Ronaldsay Firth by aeroplane.

As we passed by, I could not help but reflect on the days when generations of travellers, to and from North Ronaldsay (when it was weather), slithered and slipped across that old seaweed-covered ‘black rock’.

Further across Sanday, at the south end, as we passed by, I could see the much larger jetty at Kettletoft – the main contact point for the North Isles boats before the days of ro-ro. It has now become almost a ghost jetty as the ro-ro ferries dock at the opposite end of the island.

Many a time, as young folk of school age in the 50s, travelling from Kirkwall, we would stop in past the Kettletoft Hotel for a pot o’ tea and a bite.

Most of us were on our way home for holidays to North Ronaldsay at either Christmas, Easter or summer. I suppose we were all a little excited and generally looking forward to getting home after months of being isolated in Kirkwall.

In the dining room of the hotel I particularly remember the wonderful brown cookies that were baked locally, and in my mind’s eye I can still see two fine watercolours that always took my fancy and which hung on the walls of the room.

Davie Sinclair, How, Sanday, tells me that they were painted by a Marjorie Begg. Her father was the Procurator Fiscal in Orkney for a time, I believe, before the last war.

The watercolours depicted scenes on the Orkney Mainland – not in Sanday as I always imagined. I wonder where those paintings are today?

Later, as we came in over the Grimsetter airport, more history could be seen for, here and there, a bomb shelter or some other small wartime building still remains in the vicinity.

During the Second World War, this aerodrome would have hummed with activity as fighter planes landed or took off, and men and women in uniform would have been busy with their various duties.

You know, it’s funny how things relate: for, while briefly visiting a shop in town, I heard a 40s recording playing, of Major Glen Miller’s band – probably that same war-time tune would have been very familiar at Grimsetter all those years ago.

And on this November day Kirkwall looked grand in the sunshine – even some wasps, bees and other insects were having a last fling, bamfoozled as they no doubt were with the late warmth.

Saint Magnus Cathedral was magnificent in the sunlight with a background of faraway cloud speckling the sky.Nearby, at the war memorial, some men were cleaning the red granite monument in preparation for Sunday’s Remembrance Day service.

All of a sudden a jet plane thundered past. I just managed to pick up the aeroplane in my vision as it disappeared behind the Cathedral’s high roof, flying west. For an instant its size against a tall roof pinnacle looked like some large diving bird.

Well, North Ronaldsay’s harvest home is already behind us.

Great were the preparations: punding for sheep; decoration work; days (and nights) of activity; ‘aaps an doons’ – such as cancellations at the last minute, re-bookings, and so forth.

It was all as good as ever – so everybody says.

But such a day and night as the event took place on! The north easterly wind and rain was a repeat performance of last year’s inclement weather.

Plenty of heating kept the interior of the Memorial Hall comfortable. Among a goodly company of 80 or so were three infants recently born and all having a North Ronaldsay parent.

What a pity the three families were not living in the island. One family does though – Martin and Evelyn who now have a little girl in addition to three boys.

The other two families – Graeme and Gina, living in Stirling, have a boy. And David and Wendy, with their home on the Orkney Mainland, have a daughter.

You know, I often think that if all our Harvest Home visitors, relations, and friends, who come almost every year, were to be resident, how much more satisfying and encouraging island life would be.

The association’s guest speaker this year was Harvey Johnston, who is a lecturer at the Orkney College.

He is a familiar figure at many Orkney Mainland events as speaker or compere. His wife Helen was also present. Alasdair Henderson, manager of Orkney Ferries was another welcome guest. Our third guest, Rob Crichton (manager of the Orkney Auction Mart) and his wife, Pam, were, unfortunately, unable to attend.

The usual introductions were made which included a short poem written by Howie Firth (who did not manage to come north for the event).

After the supper, Harvey Johnston rose to deliver his Harvest Home address. That took the form of a poem, read, of course, in the Orkney dialect.

This poem, which Harvey was periodically still calmly up-dating during supper, covered North Ronaldsay’s long history from its earliest times up to the present day.

Many of his rhymes caused laughter from time to time. His closing lines advocated, that as well as rounding up the native sheep, we should in fact be rounding up as many peedie bairns as we could.

The toast to the harvest, with ample glasses of the Famous Grouse or sherry glowing in the light of candle and lantern, was then proposed by Harvey and echoed by the company.

Soon the dance got under way with Ann and Lottie Tulloch on accordion, and from time to time Kelvin Scott (specially over from the USA) played his very own fiddle.

Kelvin’s teaching career has changed into that of a professional violin maker.

Sinclair Scott played the pipes for a lively Eightsome reel. Dancing, music and lightsome talk blended grandly throughout the night.

After the dance had been under way for a spell, John Cutt recited a poem, written long before the days of silage and plastic wrapped bales, by his late uncle, William Swanney, Viggie.

The title of the poem was, The Hairst O’ Thirty-Eight – actually an account of a particularly bad hairst in 1938 when oats and bere were the main crops.

During a teabreak Ian Deyell conducted a draw for the raffle. Among many kind donations was a generous prize in the form of a painting of a North Ronaldsay sheep’s head by Louise Scott. I myself donated an original painting of the island’s war memorial which was auctioned later by Captain Willie Tulloch.

The total money raised was over £600.

This splendid sum adds to previous successful raffles and includes some very gratifying donations received recently.

Those donations came from a number of members of a diving team (from the south) who explored the wreck of the Swedish East Indiaman, Svecia.

She was wrecked on the nearby reefdyke in 1741.

During a few trips to the island in the 1970s and 80s, when the site was extensively investigated, the divers billeted in the Memorial Hall.

The purpose of our money-raising campaign is to replace windows in this (old, First World War) Memorial Hall.

Next year, some of those same divers plan a nostalgic return visit to the island – a real excuse for a fling and a dance.

Too soon it was time to bring the Harvest Home to a close for another year, and, after one or two more amusing tales told in rhyme by Harvey, the last waltz finally brought the celebrations to an end. Hot soup and sandwiches made the rounds. By about three in the morning most folk had disappeared into the night leaving the old hall dark and silent against a windy, cold Hallowe’en sky. The following day was absolutely beautiful and the cleaning up of the ‘aald hut’ was as enjoyable as ever.

I’ve almost managed this letter in one sitting but I notice, not surprisingly, that it is almost two in the morning. Might as well finish my letter now I think. I had a peep outside, and I see that during the hours I have been writing the moon is now much further west and is seemingly suspended just above Antabreck’s roof. The slates are reflecting its less intense light – for flying cloud continually speeds past the moon. The wind has in fact shifted a little into the southeast and strengthened, and the earlier unrest heard in the sea is more pronounced. Well, it’s good night to the moon, good night to the sea, and goodbye to the old Harvest Home.

A peedie hairst diary inspired by the light of a Harvest moon

Old and new . . . oat stacks and silage bales in the moonlight,
from a line drawing by Ian Scott

Yes, this is ‘hairst’ again – not like the hairsts of old, but, nevertheless, a little oats is ready to be cut and the old binder will shortly be going ‘clickity clack’.

I was thinking the other day, as my crop of oats was ripening and getting ready to shear, it would be fun to keep a little diary of events before the old ‘hairst’ work passes finally into history. So here I go once again with another island letter.

Today is Sunday August 24. The day is very fine, warm, with a light northerly wind. I thought that the occasion had come to bring out our old Albion binder from her winter quarters.

“On a Sunday?” the old folks would say.

“The better the day, the better the deed,” I say.

It takes a little time to manage this operation, as the machine has to be pulled out of a shed and then changed over from transport rig into cutting mode. It entails removing transport wheels; adding a platform wheel; checking on this and that as best I can; re-greasing working parts; buckling on three canvas sheets (that keep the cut oats moving up into the sheaf-making mechanism), re-sharpening the long cutting knife and so on.

But all this is too complicated to even begin to describe to someone who knows little about binders, sheaves and harvest work.

Suffice it to say that by late afternoon everything was ready to begin.

My ever-helpful neighbour from next door shortly came up with his tractor and soon we were cutting the oats.

Clickity, clickity, clack went the old binder up and down the field, opening up the possibilities of shearing until eventually the main cutting direction, one way and diamond-wise, was achieved.

By 8.30pm, with the dew beginning to fall, and having made a good start, we stopped, ready to cut in earnest the next morning.

Monday August 25. Awoke at six, got up, set the table for breakfast for two visitors who had arrived yesterday for a short stay.

Went out into a beautiful morning and stooked up a line of stooks, thereby clearing a working area for easier manoeuvrability for the tractor and binder. By 10am we were out ready for action. Again the day was warm, with a light wind from the north, and the Fair Isle, in the east, was up clear and blue.

As we worked across the field, to suit the lay of the crop, the sun faced our cutting direction, bright, and comfortably warm.

Back we drove into the cool north wind, and back into the sunshine we came cutting an ever-lessening area.

Hardly a ‘stick’ was there as the sheaves fell rhythmically in long lines. By about one in the afternoon, just before dinner, the remaining stalks of oats fell onto the moving sheet, and, with a clickity clack, and a whirring of packers and needle, the last tied sheaf – “The last of all” as Mary o’ ‘Girnavald’ used to say, fell on to the shorn field.

Tuesday August 26. This is a really fine day. The wind is still in the north and despite the now paler blue of the sky – as it becomes at the back end of the year – the sea is a dark ultramarine and the sun is well up. I’ve had a lazy morning and I can imagine the sun saying: “Time to stop this dilly dallying, snap out of it and get the stooking done.”

Yesterday, when we were bindering, two helpers made a start to the stooking. Today is a great day to stook up the remainder, and had North Ronaldsay enjoyed such a fine season in the old days all their ‘hairst’ work would have been relatively easy.

You know, even when there was field upon field to cut; when the rain and wind came; when the oats or corn was flat or tangled; when the binder sheets tore under un-righteous strain and there were continual stoppages; when hands and body (sitting on tractor and binder) often became uncomfortably cold; when sheaves were in a bit of a mess and every other one required trimming, and when finally everything was safely built into stacks in the yard or the field, there was, even still, a feeling of the greatest satisfaction.

Well, today was absolutely grand. The cooling light north wind gave a tingle to the face and my bare legs (I had bretted – turned up – my trousers to the knee for ease), and yet the morning sunshine was very pleasant and warm.

Hardly a sheaf did I have to trim. Up with two sheaves, and two to either side; next stook; then a line, then another; stop, have a casual look to the east, to the north and round about; take in a breath of the north wind, begin again. Crinkle, crinkle went the stubble underfoot.

Three pieces of broken crockery I found, one with a blue pattern. Once upon a time Antabreck folk I never knew or saw sat round a table with the original dishes before them.

One day they broke, bits found their way into the midden, and thence out into the field with the ‘dung’. It’s strange, though a little sad, to think that those pieces of broken crockery, some old photographs, a family bible and gravestones, are about all, apart from a little history, that really remains of that generation.

So, here I was, feeling fine, and very leisurely stooking up my sheaves. Every now and again a curlew would whistle or some other familiar bird would fly past.

Once a great airliner passed overhead flying into the northwest leaving behind two long, white vapour trails and the sound of her engines. Imagine the contrast between that technology and the rather primitive – some would say – goings-on in the hairst field below.

Well, well! as my Faroese friend, Sofus Olsen, might have said. Before very long the swishing, rustling sound of sheaves being ‘clapped’ together came to an end, and across the yellow stubbled field row upon row of stooks looked bonny, echoing in the mind this once very familiar sight that covered so much of the island.

Thursday August 28 together with the next day saw the binder cleaned, greased, and back into the old shed. I still should, before too long, sharpen the two five-foot cutting knives, check on the canvas sheets etc before the job is properly done and everything is ready for another time.

Four days have passed with sun and drying winds. This is Monday the first day of September.

Away back on May 4 (another Sunday), I see in my diary, I was out sowing this very field of oats by hand like an ‘aald-fashioned fermer’ – as I now have become.

The field was ley, ploughed on the first day of May (helped again by my neighbour). Normally, ley would have been sown long before, but the gods have smiled favourably upon me and my middling ways this season.

Today is looking a bit like drizzle or light rain with a southwesterly wind blowing – it’s the Orkney forecast. I’ve been to Trebb (the island shop) for lemonade, chocolate and biscuits ready for leading – which means building my stacks.

I saw Foula up in the north – a sign of rain. The day is cloudy and the sky a silvery grey, with faraway blues and pale greens here and there. In the early afternoon leading began, with a few helpers bringing in sheaves and pitching them into stacks.

After two stacks were built, light drizzle, which had begun to fall as we worked on the second stack, got too persistent and put an end to operations.

Wednesday September 3. A dull damp day has passed but this new day is wonderful. It’s warm with a light south-westerly wind – a grand leading day. Eighty-six or so stooks remain to be built – a smallish stack of some 344 sheaves. A few folk helped for the fun of it all and by the late afternoon the last stack was finished.

As we refreshed ourselves with lemonade and biscuits the late afternoon sun turned the stacks golden.

Across the now bare stubble field, to the east, the New Lighthouse was singled out by isolated rays from the sun for a moment or two, and further out to sea an oilrig broke the horizon. How very splendid this all is, I thought to myself.

Yet, as they say: “The writing is on the wall.” Time moves on with its changes and no one knows what another year will bring. I’m ending my hairst diary here but will have to think of a suitable closing paragraph or two.

I have to confess that I have been putting all this together on a most beautiful day, and this very minute, I am going to take a chair outside to the front of the house so as to think about, and write, my final paragraphs.

I’m now sitting on a chair with a cup o’ tea at my side. I have it perched on the web of an old creel where once maybe, from the inside, a bold blue-black lobster eyed me with fury and snapped his formidable claws.

There is hardly a breath of air and the sun is absolutely brilliant and warm and there flutters a Red Admiral. I can hear the drone of a faraway plane in the east flying to Shetland maybe, and bees are busy in a great spread of still colourful montbretia.

Blue bottles are humming and flying all over the place. A starling is chuckling, and mimicking away on my chimney, and a little wren is singing.

Honestly, this is a magnificent day – as good, if not better, than any of this long special summer. I know that at the back of my mind many undone chores are tapping away, but today I simply won’t give up my freedom and leisure (it’s too hot to work at the moment anyway).

I’m beginning, though, to wonder if some of those jobs will ever get done. Now I can hear a dog barking next door and an occasional ‘bogle’ comes over the air from some very comfortable and lazy cows.

In the evening, when it is clear, Mars is the talk of the town, and a couple of nights ago I saw a waxing moon glowing, lantern-like, and orange coloured in the southern sky.

She was beautiful, sliding seemingly from time to time behind some low cloud. She is, as most will know, the Harvest moon.

The very thought of this moon sets alive the treasure house of memory, and brings back pleasantly, for a ‘peedie’ while, the days of yore and the lightsome ‘hairst’ time of year.

Island portraits from the past

I do not think Orkney could have had a better summer even if we had asked for it.

Now it is August, when in the old days, with the nights drawing in noticeably, we would be thinking of ‘hairst’, but for most of us those days are far away.

In this letter I’m planning something completely different, but before getting under way I will briefly refer to our latest doings.

Almost all of the usual summer’s work is complete and one day, earlier in the summer, the Memorial Hall got tarred, and on Friday, August 15, the association planned a light-hearted golf tournament, slide show and dance which was held in the Memorial Hall.

North Ronaldsay actually boasts a nine hole golf course first created by the laird of the island, William H. Traill and his brother John in the late 1890s.

A reasonable turnout made their way round the course. Many were playing their first game of golf while others participated with varying handicaps. Later, the slide show and dance got under way.

Rosemary Robertson, introduced by Peter Donnelly, proceeded to show some magnificent slides taken recently over an extensive area in the Indian province of Gujarat.

The colours depicted – dress, jewellery, markets, architecture and so on – as might be expected, were quite stunning, and as one of the audience remarked, the photographs were, in many instances, superior to work seen in the National Geographic magazine.

After tea, shortbread etc a lively dance got under way. A large number of visitors were present and although dance steps were often somewhat unorthodox at times, the dance was a great success.

Peter Donnelly presented the North Ronaldsay golf trophy to John Price (a visitor) during a welcome pause – it remains on the island with the winner’s name engraved on a little plate.

Three accordions provided toe-tapping music. Musicians were Lottie, Ann, and Roddy Watt. Roddy, a visitor from the south, was back on the island after a few years of absence renewing his musical collaboration with our two local players. Around two in the morning this rather splendid evening came to a close.

Ian's grandmother Catherine - a great knitter.

Well, in my last letter to The Orcadian, part of a portrait of my grandmother was seen. This time I would like to include the full portrait – a three-quarter study. In addition, I also include three other portraits.

You see I thought it would be interesting to do a little piece called Island Portraits, or some such title, along with a brief ‘portrait’ in words – so to speak – of each islander.

The portraits, by the way, are firstly modelled in clay. Then a two piece plaster of Paris mould is taken from each sculpture.

Those moulds are filled with plaster, though not as solid casts – a laminate in other words.

The mould is then chipped away, leaving an exact plaster copy of the original clay model.

Plaster is at least much more enduring than clay, but nevertheless fragile. Of course, the ideal copy would be bronze, but for that presentation we are talking about some £500 to £600 for a head-only portrait.

In my last letter I told you a little about my grandmother – her golden wedding and her almost epic trip to Chicago in 1895 to bring back a child whose mother had died.

My grandmother, Catherine, was 95 when she died in 1965. She and her husband, William Tulloch, Cruesbreck, brought up a family of six.

Those were the early days of the 20th century when North Ronaldsay’s population would have been well over 400, when horses or oxen were used for much of the land work: ploughing, cultivating, pulling, firstly reapers then binders, bringing in the stacks of corn and oats, carting ‘ware’ (seaweed) as an organic fertiliser, transporting turnips, stones for dykes and houses, flag stones for roofs; driving the early mills for thrashing the seed for the land and for the making of meal – bere and oat meal.

The meal was ground at a watermill and a windmill and eventually by an engine-powered mill.

Then there was the killing of a pig with its pork shared with neighbours; fish from the sea; mutton from the native sheep; cows to milk – cheese and butter made; wool to spin for blankets, underwear, gloves and stockings. During those times there was no piped water, no water closets, no electricity, no cars, planes, or outboard motors for the fishing, no interior heating, no television or for that matter radio, until I suppose the early 30s – a way of life very far removed from today’s relatively easy existence.

My grandmother was a great knitter and she and a sister, when they were young, evolved a knitting pattern which featured the letters of the alphabet, woven, in bright contrasting colours.

They also knitted an X and 0 design as well as the Fair Isle patterns. This work was sold in Kirkwall for a time.

Towards the end of her long life she continued to knit the alphabet stockings with, as I remember, the Member of Parliament for Orkney and Shetland, Jo Grimond, commissioning a pair. All of this gives a flavour of Catherine’s life and that of her contemporaries of those days and times.

Bethia Fotheringhame, brought back from the USA to become a teacher and farmer's wife

My next portrait is Bethia Fotheringhame, who happens to be the young child brought back from Chicago by my grandmother.

My grandfather would have been her uncle and she was brought up at his farm of Cruesbreck. She left the island in 1910 to attend the grammar school in Kirkwall coming back for holidays only at the end of each term. Bethia went on to train as a teacher, teaching, firstly in Wyre and subsequently in Sanday where she married Charles Fotheringhame from Templehall in 1930.

Their daughter, Mary Anne, is my very knowledgeable informant from Sanday that I have mentioned from time-to-time. She further tells me (when checking dates) that one of her parents’ wedding presents was a wireless (a Mullard) which was operated with two batteries – one dry and the other a lead acid battery.

After her marriage Bethia gave up teaching and became a farmer’s wife. She was, for many years, a church organist in Sanday.

Numerous North Ronaldsay folk on their way to the island on holiday by mail-boat as they sailed across the ‘Firt’ (the Firth between Sanday and North Ronaldsay) received homely accommodation at Templehall – sometimes for days (as I remember well in my time) when the weather was bad.

She continued to often come back for holidays and to help at the old home. Bethia had an excellent memory and, therefore, a great knowledge of the island and in particular of kindred – relationships was always a great topic of conversation indulged in with much interest by many islanders of that time. It was on one of those many visits that I had her sit for her portrait.

Alec Swanney, an early emigrant from North Ronaldsay to Canada.

The third portrait is of Alec Swanney, of Sangar, modelled not long before he died in 1967, when he was 91.

Alec was a real character and left in the early 1900s to farm in the Canadian prairie.

A number of islanders went to that country, others chose to try their luck mainly in the USA or Australia.

In Canada, in the wintertime, conditions in some areas could be severe, with temperatures dropping as low as 51 degrees below zero with snow sometimes as high as telegraph poles.

Imagine the hardship of those old pioneering homesteaders living without proper heating in such conditions. Water left overnight in a pail, for example, in their wood shacks would have ice at least half an inch thick on top in the morning.

In fact, Alec lost a toe through frostbite with also some damage, it is said, to the points of his fingers.

Certainly those early wheat farmers, living some 50 miles south east of Moosejaw, Saskatchewan, working with horse and oxen, harvesting the wheat and so on, had a hard life initially.

Alec worked a ‘quarter’ section which I am told amounted to 160 acres. The wheat had to be hauled by wagon, or on sleigh in the wintertime to a town some 25 miles distant – a day’s haul to get there and another to get back home.

Most of this information I have read in an account of those early days written by an uncle of mine, Hughie, who also went to Canada as a young man in the late 1920s.

He writes at length, mentioning the dangers of falling asleep outside in those extreme temperatures; of dust storms, grasshoppers, army worms, no money in the Hungry Thirties, evictions, foreclosures and so on.

Shortly after Alec’s brother died in 1934 he returned to the island to work, along with his sister Bella, the home croft of Sangar.

Ox and pony was his power source. I wonder what he thought of a neighbour, such as myself, modelling his likeness in clay?

Annie Thomson, whose reputation was as a storyteller

My fourth portrait is that of Annie Thomson of Bewan. She was born in 1881 and died in 1965.

Her portrait, as were the other three, was modelled in the early 1960s and not long before she died. Annie had a great reputation as a storyteller. She also had command of an extensive store of old Orkney words.

In the late 1950s, Professor Jim Mather, who carried out research work for the Linguistic Survey, Edinburgh, made recordings capturing her dialect and as many of the old words as possible.

Those words are relics of the older language of Orkney – the Orkney Norn – a dialect of Norwegian.

Bewan, to which Annie moved on marrying, is not far from the sea and at one of the main sheep punding areas.

Many a cup of tea was given to those folk busy in the spring, bringing the native sheep in by for lambing or at the summer clipping punds – a pund is a stone built sheep trap.

Annie, apart from her household chores, was not frightened to tackle any type of men’s work and often would be at sea with her husband Hughie fishing for crab and lobster.

In those days of the early 1960s I would frequently stop past Bewan for a cup o’ tea as I passed by, maybe on a painting expedition.

Annie’s stories were great entertainment and I regret my inability to retain them in much degree as I do other exchanges with islanders of around that generation.

Well, I have come almost to the end of my letter. A closing paragraph came to mind when I was out cutting weeds again – it happened that I retraced old paths and relived past times.

The day had been exceptionally warm and even in the late evening it was hot work wielding a scythe.

I took a sudden whim, threw my scythe and honing stone aside, and set off along the ‘west banks’ to the north to visit the ‘Gray Stane Pow’ – a natural and smallish bathing pool five feet or so deep at its deepest.

Being situated relatively far down among the rocks, during high tides, with sea motion on, it gets a clean out from time to time.

In the 1960s we, my two sisters and two younger brothers, were down at this pool many a day and many a summer’s evening.

Into its darkening waters I plunged and swam a few lengths in water as warm as I knew it would be. That was fun as the years flew away.

A little later, while taking an easier inland route on my way home, an almost full, orange coloured moon was rising just above Nether Linnay. The scene, though quite beautiful, was sad since this house now stands dark and empty.

Briefly, I stood at the door through which frequently in the past I had entered its lightsome interior.

As I continued on my way home, the moon, gaining height, threw an almost golden path across the East Sea. Then I passed by Burray, another lightsome house, and so on past Longar, and Ancum with its memories, and then Sangar. Although this is now a new house incorporating the original building I could see in my mind’s eye the old farmhouse as it used to be. Almost 40 years ago I had spent a number of evenings working on Alec’s portrait. There he would sit, with his sister Bella most likely seated close by the fire knitting. Above, and a little in front of his head was a Tilley lamp, its light diffused by an opaque polythene screen which I had constructed to ensure an effect as near to a natural top light as possible.

It’s strange to cast one’s mind back to those times, and I wonder if Alec, as he sat for me, was dreaming of his days as a youthful homesteader on the far away and wild Canadian prairie.

Island weddings and an incredible journey

A sculpted portrait of Ian's grandmother which he made in 1964. She often told the tale of a tragic accident when a girl was caught up by her hair in a horse driven mill.

From day-to-day lately I have been out with my scythe cutting weeds. This is the time of year to set about the nettles, dockens and creeping thistles.

A relative of mine in Sanday tells me that when she came on holiday in summers of the 1940s, she and others were given special hoe-like tools with which they had to remove thistles and suchlike weeds from fields growing with oats or bere.

One day when I was at war with the weeds, I saw, in an area of miry ground, where I know I have a creeping thistle or two, that the ragged robin and lady’s smock are beginning to come into bloom, where earlier in the summer the marsh marigold held sway.

A few purple marsh orchids are also to be seen. They are simply a pleasure to the eye, and being so few in number are all the more to be enjoyed. Cloth of this striking purple colour was, and still is, worn as a symbol of royalty or high office.

I think this was so in early times because the colour was particularly difficult to obtain – was it originally (I seem to recall) made from a certain species of snail that were not too common?

The Roman emperors certainly wore robes of purple, as did others of high rank in other civilisations. It is also a familiar colour in the apparel of bishops, cardinals and others of such standing.

Well, well, in my last letter I briefly mentioned the island wedding which occupied folk’s minds for a spell.

No, it wasn’t really a traditional wedding, but maybe it was as near to it as generally can be managed today.

Remember, in my letter, I mentioned a barn wedding that I was at in 1947 – Bobbie Thomson (Peckhole), now living in Rendall, tells me that he played the pipes as the bridal party and guests walked from the kirk to the bride’s home all those years ago.

I also quoted from Ernest Marwick’s account of weddings in Orkney around the early 1800s.

Interestingly, in her book Island Saga, Mary A. Scott gives a good account of a wedding in North Ronaldsay in past times: there were the pre-wedding traditions and weeks of brewing ale.

She talks about a Thursday wedding (as did E. Marwick); of guests bringing whisky and food – chickens, scones, oatcakes etc; how sometimes the marriage ceremony was held in the church but quite often in the bride’s house or sometimes even in the barn.

She mentions the guests’ initial welcoming “dram” of either whisky or wine. The wedding feast and dance was held in the barn, with tea and refreshments served in the “ben end” to the older folk during the dancing.

Then she mentions the “grand march” led by the bride and bridegroom and the best man and best maid; the bridal quartet danced a Scots Reel to begin the night’s dancing, which continued with refreshments and singing, well into the “wee sma oors”; the Bride’s Reel danced as North Ronaldsay’s own A’aksome Reel which took place towards the end of the evening.

The last ceremony, she says, was the passing round of the “Bride’s Cog” – a kind of punch made up of whisky, hot ale, and perhaps a little rum, with pieces of oatcake thrown in.

A night or two later there was the “back-treat” when those who had been particularly helpful during the wedding were well entertained (after my late mother and father’s golden wedding in 1986 they had a “back-treat” which lasted until the dawn was in the sky).

This occasion could be, as Mary says in her book, the merriest evening of all.

And talking about golden weddings, I remember a little of my grandparents’ golden wedding at Cruesbreck (1948) – in particular the cake which had gold decorations and which for a time was placed in the ‘seller’.

This room was a sort of store where milk was kept, cream saved for churning; where girnels for storing oatmeal or flour were, or where, in the winter time, a sheep’s carcass might be hung.

We younger folk were greatly entranced with the cake and the idea of a golden wedding.

But back to weddings. The aforementioned relative in Sanday recalls my parents’ wedding, which took place in 1936 at the same house.

She remembers the dancing and especially the continuous cups of tea, etc served in ‘ben’ or the ‘by-hoose’.

This was a July wedding and the day ordained was one of dense fog – so much so that the bridesmaid on her way to North Ronaldsay from the south languished in Sanday as the post-boat was unable to cross.

Imagine the disappointment of such a calamity!

This meant that another bridesmaid had to be found.

Some 50 years later, the first bridesmaid, my father’s sister now aged 89, was able at last to take her place as the golden wedding bridesmaid. In addition that day, as a result of the fog, a motor trawler called the Bohemian Girl, bound for Iceland, went ashore at Bridesness (she was later taken off by the SS Earl Thorfinn).

My parents’ wedding and reception was held in Cruesbreck’s barn, as was my mother’s sister’s wedding (1927) though she was married in the kirk.

After her marriage, folk left the kirk in twos led by a fiddler and marched the mile and a half or so to her home.

At all the weddings of that period, and before and up until the early 1960s, when brewing came to an end as a result of the closing down of the mill, home brewed ale was the sustaining drink.

And when weddings took place at the smaller houses it was not at all uncommon to have more than one night’s celebrations – folk would say they were invited on the second night, or third, or even later – but this could sometimes happen in any case.

For more detailed descriptions of weddings held on the island, of the above period and later, there are a few accounts written in The Orcadian and the Orkney Herald.

And for earlier times, I have just been re-reading John Firth’s wonderful account of courtship and marriage in his book Reminiscences of an Orkney Parish. There you will find the definitive, and most entertaining, description of a traditional Orkney wedding of around the mid 19th century.

Remembering my grandmother (1870-1966) I recall that she used to tell us of a tragic accident which took place in the same barn where those joyous events occurred that I’ve just been describing.

This happened in 1876 when a young sister (aged eight) of her husband-to-be, was killed when she got caught up by her long hair in the gearing system of the horse driven mill.

Such an accident must have been quite devastating and shocking for the family. It was she also that talked about the custom of dancing round the standing stone.

Her mother might have told her about this tradition since she would have been alive at the time of the Rev W. Clouston’s observance of folk dancing round the stone on New Year’s day – mentioned in the Statistical Account of 1795-1798.

Another story my grandmother often told was of her journey to Chicago (1895), made when she was in her early 20s.

A North Ronaldsay couple – a man from Purtabreck and his bride from Cruesbreck – who had gone there in the late 1800s had a child, but the mother died shortly afterwards.

A decision was taken by relatives to bring the child back to North Ronaldsay. This entailed a long journey which most likely meant leaving the island by sail-boat to cross to Sanday and from there by steamer to Kirkwall.

Then, from Kirkwall to Aberdeen or Leith by sea and on by train to Liverpool. My grandmother had two other islanders as travelling companions – one from Dennishill, and the other from Waterhouse, but before arriving at Liverpool to catch a steam ship across the Atlantic the man from Waterhouse died suddenly on the train.

This traumatic event of course involved the police and other complications. However, the return journey, with my grandmother this time accompanied by the child’s father (who returned to the USA), was completed, and the child grew up at Cruesbreck.

She left the island in 1910, trained as a teacher, eventually settling in Sanday where she taught for some years. She became the mother of my informative relative living in Sanday.

That last sentence above, you will see, brings me back to my first paragraph and finally to my last so there we are.

Silage is being made and grass for hay and wrapped bales will be cut shortly. As I write, well past midnight, this is the beginning of the longest day.

I think that over these past few days we have been suffering the ‘ku-kwacks’ (stormy, blustery weather that often comes in May) for the wind has been persistently strong and ‘fore-by’, heavy rain has fallen.

Usually this sudden turbulent weather occurs in May, but if it misses May then June can receive a pounding just as well.

Earlier today, I visited the gardens of Holland House, where the wind in the trees sounded like stormy weather at sea.

And when winding one’s way through the extensive fuchsia trees, a carpet of dislodged crimson flowers with their little wraps of purple made an unusual path – almost like some grand Arabian carpet.

The trunks and branches of the fuchsia and the sycamore trees swayed and creaked eerily in the strong south-westerly wind.

In certain secluded areas where nothing can be seen but trees and a bit of sky, a canopy of green leaves waved like 1,000 flags, sometimes bright and translucent in the sudden flashes of sun and at other times a deeper green when flying clouds darkened the sky.

One branch of fuchsia was quite spectacular inasmuch as it was an absolute blaze of uncountable crimson flowers. I had to look at it for a minute or so, for such was the ‘stunningness’ of it.

All around little linnets were calling, and darting here and there, and through all of this mixture of the senses, sounds and colours, a blackbird began to sing.

A traditional island wedding

I’m beginning this letter as May comes to an end, and before very long the longest day will be upon us.

I always think that North Ronaldsay is, in many ways, at its best at this time of year. The island looks very green with the first flush of early grass set against the summer blue of the sea and sky, and along the three main lochs – Bridesness Loch, Ancum Loch and Hooking Loch – and here and there in marshy ground, the marsh marigolds are in full bloom. Every day the skylarks are singing and, from time to time, the blackbird whistles as does the curlew or ‘whaap’. Then there is the sound of calling terns, oyster-catchers, and my favourite, the ‘tee-wup’ or lapwing. The other morning, when still in bed, I was listening quite carefully to a blackbird singing. Between each part of the song there is a pause of maybe about five seconds or even as long as 12 or more, and I think that the bird improvises as he sings for the sequence of notes always varies in length and melody.

But thinking for a moment about the beauty of the island in the early summer, I’m reminded of Willie Swanney’s poem ‘A song of North Ronaldsay’ which I was reading the other day. One verse goes like this:

‘I would hear the praise of that emerald gem.
In its setting of silver ocean.
As it basks so fair in the noonday glare
Mid the seas in their glittering motion’.

Kirk elders . . . from left, Thomas Tulloch, of Rue; Hugh Muir, Sholtsquoy; William Swanney, Viggie; Rev M. Gordon; William Tulloch, Cruesbreck; John Cutt, Cauldhame, session clerk, and William Tulloch, Kirbest.

Willie Swanney lived at a croft called Viggie on the south east side of the island and not far from the sea. He spent all his days on the island working his small steading, and in the summer, like many other islanders, he fished for lobsters. Willie was an elder of the church.

I remember visiting the little croft house with my uncle in the late 40s. On the kitchen table would be bits of paper – backs of calendar month pages, envelopes, etc, and the white wrapping paper of the posted The Orcadian or Orkney Herald which, when opened up, provided a good length of writing material. Willie was greatly interested in composing poetry, mainly about the island, which he wrote on those bits and pieces of paper. Had he been able to obtain the further education of today’s generations who knows what he, and many other island folk, might have done. One of his better and more memorable poems was, ‘The Hairst o’ Thirty-eight’ – that year (1938) was a particularly bad harvest. After he died, aged 80, in 1952, a little book of his best poems was published. If I remember correctly it was called, ‘Island Musings’.

Well, May has been a very busy month what with a wool mill (from Canada) being set up at the New Lighthouse with all the preparation work. At the same time the New Church has been partly renovated inasmuch as, so far, the session roof has been re-slated, with the inside of the church, entry hall and session house given a wooden ceiling, and the main interior of the building has been re-decorated.

The North Ronaldsay Trust (owner of both buildings) is responsible for those developments – carried out by a few really hard working individuals. Presently, work goes on in perfecting the complicated spinning procedures. An expert from the Canadian firm, who supplied the machinery, has recently left the island after setting up the equipment and giving instructions in the various spinning techniques, felt making, etc.

Then there has been a May wedding when Georgina Hunter (Stirling) and Graeme Scott (North Ronaldsay) were married. Michael Scott (Graeme’s brother) was the best man, and the two bridesmaids were Olivia and Laurie Hunter (nieces of the bride).

All residents on the island who were able were at the wedding. In addition, many friends and relations, who came from far and near, attended – some close relatives coming from as far away as France. Upwards of 145 were present in the newly re-furbished church. Rev John McNab from Sanday conducted the marriage ceremony and Rev Tom Clark, Stenness, also took part in the proceedings. Morag Sinclair, Kirkwall, was the organist. Many photographs were taken of the bridal party both inside the church and outside and, later, in Holland House. The bride looked radiant in a magnificent ivory white dress, accompanied by her two young and very graceful bridesmaids. The groom and best man were in Highland dress. Eventually, at the New Community Centre, amid beautifully arranged flowers, candles, fairy lights, and many other hall decorations, the company was ready for the events to unfold. The evening began with speeches, toasts, the cutting of the bridescake, and more photographs, to be followed by the wedding feast laid out on long very attractively set tables.

Big day . . . Graeme Scott and Georgina Hunter. (Picture: Marion Muir, Hooking)

Once everything had been cleared, a long night of dancing and general enjoyment ensued. Refreshments were served as the night slipped away. Bridescake was served with the traditional bridescog making its rounds.

Around 3am this special occasion drew to a close as Auld Lang Syne was sung. Eight years have passed since the last island wedding of a married couple who still live here, and although Graeme and Gina plan to come back to North Ronaldsay they will be working in the south for a number of years.

Weddings are great occasions but this wedding was not, I venture to say, without drama of one sort and another. For, at about 5am, on the great day, a close relative of the bridegroom became very seriously ill, and before most folk were up and about a Loganair ambulance plane took the invalid away to the hospital in Kirkwall. Fortunately, the patient is making a good recovery.

On a lighter note, somehow or another, the appointed ‘chauffeur’ (who was not quite familiar with North Ronaldsay’s houses) mistook the temporary residence of the beautiful bride, so for quite a little spell the bride and her various attendants were not to be found.

Meantime, in the church, where everybody was waiting, time passed pleasantly enough with Morag entertaining the company on her keyboard with appropriate music. The kirk was warm and folk sat in relaxation, speculation and comfort until at last Wagner’s, Bridal March set everything in motion.

And still connected with the church, the following morning when Sunday worship was proceeding peacefully, drama again unfolded, for, into the kirk sprang the local ferry agent (with apologies). She told those present, who intended leaving the island on the trip-ferry, to make their way to the jetty right away. A fresh southerly wind was blowing almost directly on to the jetty, and conditions were judged such as to only allow the briefest of contact by the ferry. Well, after a second or so of stunned silence, down went the cover of the keyboard and out went the organist with the instrument under her arm followed by others who had planned a more leisurely afternoon return trip to Kirkwall. Additional passengers destined for the ‘toon’ were alerted and quickly made their way to the boat – the church service continued as if nothing had happened. Incidents of this sort, unplanned and unexpected, become part of the history of such events.

One of the recollections that I have of a barn wedding held at Kirbest away back in 1947 (when I was seven) was of Henry Thomson, Neven, singing Cigarettes and Whisky and Wild Wild Women – a song popular in the 40s. I think Henry would have only been 14 years old at the time. I have a hazy impression of the barn and of fiddle music though there must have been an accordion or melodeon playing as well. Twenty-four years later Henry, who made his living from lobster fishing, was lost at sea off Lopness in Sanday.

In the old days weddings were usually held at the house of the bride and often in the barn, though others of more recent times that I remember took place at the Memorial Hall where, of course, extra space was available if large numbers happened to be invited. The distinguished Orcadian writer and folklorist, Ernest Marwick (1915-1977) writes about ‘Old ways at Island Weddings’ which can be read in An Orkney Anthology – Selected Works of Ernest Marwick, edited by John D. M. Robertson.

He mentions many interesting superstitions and old customs connected with weddings, one or two of which I will mention. He says in his great-great-grandmother’s day an Orkney wedding could last for three or four days with the guests bringing much of the food and drink with them; the bridescake was made from oatmeal, butter and caraway seeds, which was flung over the bride’s head.

Everyone scrambled for a bit, and it was considered lucky to secure the largest piece. In a further article Ernest says weddings were usually held in winter and Thursday was the lucky day on which to marry, with Tuesday and Sunday the best alternatives. It was important to marry when the moon was waxing, that is between a new moon and a full moon, and with the tide flowing. In those far away days, superstitions were believed and respected. Writing in his lifetime, Ernest says that today most of the old customs and beliefs have faded into the past. The passing round of the bridescog is, he says, about the only one of the old ceremonies that survive – and that is still true 26 years later – and it is probably the one custom which will survive.

Here I am sitting outside in a comfortable chair on the ‘brigstanes’ for a ‘peedie meenit’ just to bring this letter to a close. Round and about me bluebottles are humming in the warm sunshine, and in our front garden a yellow and black bumblebee is busy in a tree. For a moment he suddenly took a spree and flew round my head presumably on an investigative flight – though I have never been stung by a bee, I like it best when they busy themselves elsewhere. In the distance terns are calling, and at our neighbours’ house of Purtabreck nearby a blackbird has begun to sing. Well, I think it would be nice to finish with another couple of verses of Willie o’ Viggie’s, ‘Song of North Ronaldsay’:

‘Will you sing me a song of our native isle,
The home of our loved forefathers,
When the sun rides high in a cloudless sky
And at twilight the sea mist gathers.
Will you sing it again in a gladsome strain
When the young lambs frisk and play,
In their innocent mirth o’er the sunkissed earth.
All the livelong day.’

Home thoughts of wartime days

A postcard from Bantry prompts reminder of Orkney new year of 1918

Tonight, March 19, I am, as they say, “putting pen to paper”, or rather, to be more accurate, tapping the computer keys. It has been such a perfect day with spring definitely in the air that the thought came to mind that I might try a “voar” letter.

This morning was warm and calm with hardly a cloud in the sky – the sort of morning that tempts one to take the day off. With that lazy idea in mind I thought to myself: “To heck with all the undone jobs, I’m simply going to go visiting”.

So, having got myself into a “boony” (tidied up), away I set on foot along the northyard road to make a call that I had been planning for a while.

As I travelled along, skylarks were singing, and Ancum loch sparkled in the morning sun. In fact the air was full of the sounds of spring: Whaups, Sheldros, and Haedycraas were calling from all directions and, here and there, the “millennium daffodils” – as I call them since the planting of those flowers, and others, along the roadways was a millennium idea – were beginning to come into bloom.

As yet the lurking weeds are lying low and the surrounding fields appear generally tidy, and, with the prolonged spell of fine weather that we have been enjoying, the island is looking pretty good for the time of year.

Before very long carpets of undesirable dandelions will transform great areas of the island into a blaze of colour. The change in farming methods over the last couple of decades has allowed the ever-increasing encroachment of such weeds as the dandelion and the dochan. How all this will finally turn out is indeed a question – since I cannot see the old traditional system of rotation farming ever coming back.

Along the public road one comes to a point where a fairly prominent man-made ridge of ground has been cut through, to allow for the construction of the thoroughfare. This is actually the remains of what Hugh Marwick (1881-1965) the Orkney historian and linguistic scholar, described as a “treb dyke” – known locally as Matches dyke. It crosses the island from west to east. And further south there is the remains of another treb dyke, known as the Muckle Gersty.

Those two prehistoric earthen dykes divide the island into three fairly equal portions. Legend has it that at one time North Ronaldsay belonged to three brothers, but whatever the truth of the mysterious dykes their construction must have entailed a considerable amount of physical work. I suppose originally they could have been in the teens of feet high.

Their total length is a little over two miles. Even with today’s machinery such a construction would be a formidable achievement. It is still possible to see much of their remains and on this spring day I stopped for a minute or two to think about those early inhabitants. Who were they and how did they manage to live on the island? What would have been their thoughts all those thousands of years ago as they stood where I was standing? I suppose they were not looking back or speculating about past times, as I was, since they probably were the makers of the island’s earliest history. No doubt, though, like myself, they surely would have heard, and enjoyed the song of the skylark.

Talking about history, it’s amazing how within a short period of time photographs become part of history and how, when trying to name individuals in a photograph, some folks’ looks change more than others. Take school photographs for instance. When in the house of my planned visit and enjoying a “cuppa” we were looking at two island school photographs, one taken, I think, in the early thirties – eight years or so before I was born.

I thought I could recognise one or two individuals – there was a definite likeness, and with others I could see a likeness when I was told who was who. School photographs capture generations and if we know the names of the pupils in the classes recorded then each person has a history to investigate. Did they leave North Ronaldsay or stay? What did they do with their lives? Did they marry? Did they have a family and if so what happened to the family?

Take other categories such as views of the island, of houses, of croft and sea work, community events, the war years, shipping and the air service and so on. Such snapshots in time — some dating back as far as the late1800s — can tell the history of an island. It will involve committed researchers in many investigations and interviews. Most likely the register of births, marriages and deaths will be looked at, as will public archives, newspapers, and all sorts of documents here and there, and near and far.

With my visit at an end I retraced my footsteps south in sunlight of almost summer warmth and intensity. It was litesome to hear the birds calling once again and to stroll along absorbing the sounds and smells of the island. As I walked homewards I picked a flowering sprig of Winnie’s veronica, small bushes of which decorate the roadside. This evergreen reminds me of the harvest home as we use them for wall display — they have an elegant scent all of their own. In the west, over 100 calling geese were cutting across the sky in two vee formations that kept changing shape and direction. I wonder what they are thinking of – could it be that they are they toying with the idea of living in Orkney?

Later in the evening I myself had a visitor and we were looking over photographs, and one or two old postcards. Postcards, by the way, are often very interesting, for there the writers have left their thoughts and brief news of the moment. The photos at this house, which are actually made up of three houses’ collections, amount easily to a thousand or more – one night I made an initial count of them. They have somehow to be categorised and researched. And then there are all the island’s photographs, and the photographs of other North Ronaldsay folk scattered across the world to investigate.

Anyhow, one postcard in particular, dating back to 1917, took our fancy. It, as will be seen, along with two other photographs, well illustrates the points I have just been making.

At that time World War One was still being bitterly fought. Today, some 86 years later, we are involved in a much more controversial and vastly different war. One great difference between recent wars and World War One was the duration timescale, and I am always amazed that countries could continue fighting for so many years.

Apparently, in 1918, the conflict was costing Britain £7 million a day (there appears to be, on so many occasions, plenty of money for killing people but none for sorting out all our problems). In the constant horrific battles of that war thousands of men could die in a morning.

At Passchendaele (July 31-November 10, 1917), for instance, British casualties alone were at least 300,000, and by the end of hostilities the British Empire would have lost almost onemillion combatants. Just suppose for a moment that we could have followed the action from day to day on TV as we do with the war in Iraq.

The auxiliary patrol vessel on which John Tulloch from North Ronaldsay served in World War One.

But to get back to our postcard story. Among the many photographs of World War One servicemen at Antabreck, there are a number of John Tulloch from Upper Linnay. There is also, interestingly, a small photograph of the boat on which he served. The boat (Canadian built) was the forerunner of the British MTB of World War Two. They were 80 feet long, top speed 19 knots, armed with a three-pounder gun, and were used for anti-submarine work, minelaying and inshore minesweeping. They formed part of the Auxiliary Patrol which was mainly manned by RNVR personnel. (inf. Imperial War Museum) On the bow of the motor launch it’s possible to read the boat’s identification number, ML 173.

The post card is actually a New Year card, illustrated with silver bells, ribbons and posies of violets, with the words “A Glad New Year to You”. In the centre of the card there is a painting of a rustic scene by a river. The card has a halfpenny stamp depicting the head of King George V.

It is addressed to Miss J. Tulloch, Queens Nurse, Schoolhouse, Orphir, Orkney, Scotland.

John Tulloch writes the date, December 18, 1917, and below the date he notes HMML 173, c/o GPO London. The postmark is Bantry, County Cork, southern Ireland, from where the ML worked.

The message reads: “ Dear Aunt, Just a PC to let you know that I have got back safely. I did not manage to see Helen as I passed through Edinburgh. How did you manage to get home that night I saw you in Kirkwall. I had a letter from Helen today. She has seen Willie of Cruesbreck in Edinburgh. She had a letter from our Willie short ago. He is keeping well. I will stop now — wishing you a Happy New Year. From John”.

John Tulloch, from Upper Linnay, North Ronaldsay, survived World War One to return to his island home.

John must have been home in North Ronaldsay on leave. Helen was John’s sister and worked in Edinburgh in service for a time. In December, 1917, there was heavy snow in Orkney which could explain the question about getting back to Orphir.

John Tulloch, from Upper Linnay, North Ronaldsay, survived World War One to return to his island home.
Willie of Cruesbreck was my uncle (he served on minesweeping trawlers: Leith, Edinburgh, would have been his base).

The other Willie referred to is most likely John’s brother who served in the Seaforth Highlanders and who was shot by a German sniper in 1918 at the very end of the war.

There is a simple little verse on the post card:-

‘Take this loving wish from me:
Joyful may the New Year be:
May its days be free from trouble,
And all the joys of life be double.’

John Tulloch was mentioned in dispatches. He returned to North Ronaldsay, married, brought up a family, and lived his life on the island.

Tapes from the past stir old memories as Burns is celebrated

This is the day after our island Burns night which, for the second year running, we have managed to celebrate on the poet’s birthday. I shall write up the occasion in a moment.

Earlier in the month, when we were planning the event, I was looking for a particular tape which I thought I had of the Burns song, ‘Ae Fond Kiss’.

Among a number of tapes, which I not listened to for at least five years, was an untitled one. When I began to play this tape I realised that I was listening to the voices of my late father and mother. They have been gone these past four or five years, and the sound of their voices once again was very strange. It was as if for a space in time they were actually alive and back in the room of their old home. It was a curious feeling for I know that a granite gravestone marks their final resting-place. Yet there they were talking, and singing, with the chimes of our living-room clock sounding in the background. Those recordings, or most of them, would have been made some years ago, probably by Allan Bruford from the School of Scottish Studies. In their archives, in Edinburgh, are many similar recordings which include the voices of other North Ronaldsay residents and also a wealth of material from all over Orkney and elsewhere.

Bruford’s (and other field workers) recordings date back to around the early sixties or seventies, to a time when North Ronaldsay’s population would have been well over 150. Two of the old sea songs that my father sings, ‘The Dark Eyed Sailor’, and ‘Hoy’s Dark and Lofty Isle’, remind me of the fine voice of William Muir, Waterhouse, whose singing of ‘The Dark Eyed Sailor’ I particularly remember. Such songs were sung around Hogmanay, but mainly on New Year’s night – the night when the older men went on their visiting rounds. Well, that goes back more than forty years to those great nights that I have written about from time to time.

I now look back to those days and times with unashamed nostalgia.

North Ronaldsay was still in full swing in the late fifties and early sixties. There was the feeling of living among a community of folk whose lives were intertwined in many ways: by relationship and familiarity; by growing up with one’s contemporaries and elders; by dialect; by sharing and experiencing a way of life which probably brought folk together in a way difficult to achieve today.

It was an era shaped by the comparative isolation of the island, and by a history which the passing generations had been part of.

Christmas seems far away with all our Yule and pre-Yule activities: The school’s public Christmas dinner and the school pupils’ concert, Christmas carols, the association’s “Aladdin” and end of year dance, Hogmanay, and an eightsome reel danced in the courtyard of the New Lighthouse on New Year’s day, and so on, all of which were detailed fairly recently in The Orcadian.

Ernest Marwick tells us that Yule lasted from December 21 until January 13, and in the old days Christmas was never referred to. It was always Yule. He goes on to say that, among other things, this period was a festival of the winter solstice when people celebrated the returning sun, and that the ancient festival of Yule was one which our Norwegian forefathers brought over with them to the north of Scotland. Anyhow, I kept to one of the old traditions and managed all of my familiar New Year visits before Aald New Year’s Night (January 13).

Even with our much reduced population we try to keep cheery and make the best of life. That is why when the time of Burns comes along most of us are ready for a little fling and get-together. And what better way to do this than, at the same time, remember a man who, for all his apparent shortcomings – who doesn’t have shortcomings? – exposed deceit and hypocrisy and penned “A Man’s a Man.”

I wonder what Burns might have thought of Bush, Blair and Saddam? I doubt whether either of the three will be remembered, or so widely honoured, as Robert Burns still is 227 years after his death.

“The wintery west extends his blast,
And hail and rain does blaw;
Or the stormy north sends driving forth
The blinding sleet and snaw:”

When I began this letter the weather was still amazingly mild, but today, three days later, is a day that Burns would have been more familiar with. It’s cold, with sleet and hail showers, and the wind is fiercely flying down from the North Pole. The above verse of a poem by Burns sums up the weather pretty well.

At about eight in the evening of January 25, between 40 and 50 folk gathered in a cosy room in the New Centre. This year the decorating was even more homely and looked especially grand in the warm lighting of candles and oil lamps.

A number of our ever-supportive friends – even one from Derbyshire – and relations from the Mainland were there, coming out at some expense too, just to give support and enjoy themselves. What would we do without them? There were also the invited guests and others who had come specially to participate in the Burns programme.

They all were: John Aberdein (speaker) and his wife Penny, Mike Parkins (piper) and his wife Hazel, Fiona Driver (fiddler) and her partner Keith Rendall. Also included were Howie Firth (coming from Elgin), Jimmie Thomson and Georgette Sutcliffe.

Peter Donnelly, North Ronaldsay Community Association president, welcomed the company and acknowledged all those who had helped to make the evening possible. With Mike Parkins playing the pipes and leading the way, Winnie Scott, cook, carried in the haggis on a silver plate. The piper’s dram was ready and quickly quaffed in a twinkle. John Aberdein then delivered a fine and energetic address to the haggis. Supper was served, and after this enjoyable event a short introduction to the speaker followed.

John Aberdein is the principal teacher of English at Stromness Academy. He has a special interest in outdoor sports with canoeing being one of his passions – he had, in fact, canoed round Scotland and was probably the first canoeist to do so. He had also, in the 60s, spent some time at sea experiencing ring, drift, and purse net fishing for herring. Among his many other interests is, of course, his passion for politics.

With a framed copy of Alexander Nasmyth’s portrait of Burns looking on, John then rose to give the “Immortal Memory.” John’s address was unusual in that he had chosen to praise Burns in a way which no doubt would have pleased the Bard greatly.

John Aberdein in loquacious form during the Burns Night proceedings in North Ronaldsay. (Picture Kevin Woodbridge)

The address was composed as a poem (23 verses, see below) and written in dialect. The poem, both serious and light-hearted, made many references to Burns’ work, and also included appropriate observations about current events both topical and political. Even North Ronaldsay did not escape a peedie witticism or two, but also we came in for praise.

John finished his very original, and indeed splendid, tribute, by asking folk to be upstanding and to drink a toast to the memory of Rabbie Burns.

John’s “Immortal Memory” was followed by the “Toast to the Lasses” which James Thomson delivered with his usual flair, making a convincing case for the lasses. After the traditional toast, Georgette Sutcliffe, in fine form, replied in similar vein but not letting Jimmie or the men off scot-free.

Next in the programme was Sidney Ogilvie who, in his most pleasant recognition of Scotland’s poet, talked a little about how he, as a Northumberland man, had first come to know of Burns, and of how the English Poet, William Wordsworth, much admired Burns. Sidney recited “A Man’s a Man”, before finishing by singing, “My Love she’s but a Lassie yet”.

Howie Firth then gave a tribute to the late Tommy Swanney, Nether Linnay, (formerly Westness) who had died suddenly, aged 58, early in the year. He began by saying how appropriate it was to remember Tommy on this particular night, January 25, as Robert Burns and Tommy shared the same birthday.

Howie mentioned how he would always remember Tommy, with his ready smile, as a friendly and thoughtful man and how the island would miss his presence. How his help with the native sheep and various community events would be greatly missed. But he said that although he had gone, his life, like the lives of others, was part of the greater scheme of things and was woven into the very fabric of the island. Howie then proposed a toast which he was sure Tommy would have approved of when he asked folk to raise their glasses and toast North Ronaldsay.

Fiona Driver followed by taking up her fiddle to play a short selection of Neil Gow’s music. She began with a beautiful slow air, followed by two lively tunes which had folk’s feet tapping. This music would have probably been heard by Burns, since both men knew one another, and if Burns and Gow were looking down on the scene they would have approved of the homely atmosphere and the fine playing of the fiddle by Fiona

“O Tam had’st thou been sae wise,
As taen thy ain wife Kate’s advice!
She tauld thee weel thou was a skellum,
A blethering, blustering, drunken blellum;”

So Howie, in grand form, recited “Tam o’ Shanter”, warming up finely to the job in hand. Shortly, his arms and legs came into play for expression as Burns’ wonderful tale unfolded. Too soon this story of Tam and his visit to Kirk-Alloway came to an end, and so, too, did our short Burns programme.

Fiona Driver quickly got a little dance underway with her lively fiddle playing. After a few energetic dances, three Burns songs were sung with great gusto: – “Ye Banks and Braes”, “Comin’ thro’ the Rye”, and “A Highland Lad.”

John and Howie certainly got us going as they stood near Burns’ portrait singing with might and main. One or two other songs followed before the dance began once more. Mike Parkins, playing his pipes, “fu merrily” swept us up in an eightsome reel, and a waltz a little later in the night. Fiddle music continued for a few more dances with an accordion sometimes adding to the sound. Howie went at it with the spoons and recorder, while Keith Rendall also accompanied on occasion with his tin whistles.

Tea, shortbread and cake was served, “But minutes wing’d their way wi pleasure” as the line goes in “Tam’s poem”, and, after a dance or two, this most enjoyable Burns night came to an end. The singing of “Auld Lang Syne” finally brought the evening to a close

Well, there we are, that was how we celebrated Burns. I dare not look at the clock as I feel it is rather late. Still, I must brave the elements and diet my “twa or tree” byres, and carry in some bales of hay for “me bits o’ baest” in the morning. Before I finish, as finish I plan this night, I shall tell you how the weather is when I come back in.

The night is so very cold, with a strong north wind, and a dusting of snow here and there brightens the frozen ground. A bright glow lightens up the northern sky against which dark clouds are spread along its lower reaches, and just behind their rearing shapes the sky seems almost a luminous green. Above this light of the north, stars glitter as cold as the night and the Milky Way spills across the heavens. High in the southern sky the planet Jupiter shines brilliantly.

As I turned again to look towards the northern lights I could hear the sea thundering loudly above the sound of the bitter polar wind.


Below are the full 23 verses of the Immortal Memory, composed by John Aberdein, for the Burns Night celebrations in North Ronaldsay

O Rab, let me begin this lay,
Like billions babblin throu your day,
Fae Auchinleck tae Mandalay
Ye’ll hear us blether,
As tho we were the bairns o thocht –
And ye the faither.

I’m glad it’s Burns, nae New Year’s E’en,
Or they’d hae us jig by the licht o the meen,
Some caper roon the auld Stan Stane –
Ma back’s disjeskit –
And a selkie’s oot an gotten
Ma sealskin weskit!

Ye ken the feck o us are sots,
Tho some are posher, Burnsian swots,
Would tie your pedigree in knots,
Bile doon your oeuvre –
Tae pruve ye were at hinmaist bocht
By royal Han-over.

Ye knuckled nane tae a wheen mad Georges,
Had nae time for sic gypes or gorgeous –
Kent freedom only doth enlarge us,
Be we Muir or Swannay,
As freedom keeps fine Scotts rechargèd
In Rinansay.

Nae that ye crossed ony wattir,
Were Scot-land’s bard, and nae sea-auteur,
Like witch on brig ye feared ye’d stotter,
Sae sailed nae lenth
For North Isles clapshot, spoots,
Nor créme de menthe.

Or fancy Borean brew mair likely,
Carlsberg, strang and non-recycly,
Hale crates o Specky summoned weekly
In days of yore –
A beach o bashit archaeology,
The auld Green Shore.

The sea ye thocht gey ill tae conter,
Ye’d leave her aa tae whale an dunter,
Better the de’il ye ken than wander
Throu roost an motion:
The human hert a bigger foont
Nor ony ocean.

An as for fleein ye wadna dare,
In braw balloon or Loganair,
Like louse on high in a fine Lunar-di bonnet –
Tae flee yirsel, as ithers flee,
Ye’d sune bemoan it.

Thon kind o poet that hides in attic,
Wi dribbly pen and will erratic,
Ye never were, but aye emphatic,
Wi few digresses:
Yours was the mode full an dramatic –
Odes an addresses.

Some critics short on basic savvy,
(An usefu as a Sule Stack cabby),
This stanza ca the Standard Habbie
Howe’er it turns,
Tonight let’s cry it the Super Rabbie,
Its apex Burns.

As for thae Edinburgh literati,
The unco smooth, an creesh an catty,
There’s nae a one but was a tattie
Green i’ the sun
Wi envy o APOLLO’S pooers
In Fairmin’s son.

Against Decorum’s pride an faults,
The fol-de-rols o rulin cults,
An aa the sneers, an snide insults
Upon your station,
Ye spoke o man’s Equality

O poet fantastic an surreal,
Aye mindfu o the Commonweal,
Wha soared in sangs that mak us feel
Oor fears an joy;
Broken on Fairmin’s bitter wheel
Like landlaird’s toy.

Speakin o landlairds an sic Traills,
Ye’d be gled the wind’s noo oot their sails,
An aa the guid black grund they’d parcel
For private profit:
In Haly Rude they ruled this week
There’s nae need for it.

Feddin twa-three kye is hard eneuch,
Draain tang ower dykes is sair an teuch,
Haulin creels these days a hollow lauch
For conger, whulk;
Ae decent cod ye barena hook
They’re fished oot, bulk.

Wad ye were here, the warld hath need,
Ye’d satirise their bauld-faced greed,
When Bleezin Bush an Holy Tony lead
The New World Order –
For Conned-oil-eeza pRice they’d seed
Cycles o murder.

Ye fair spake oot, ye helped the French,
Wha gave their kings a monkey-wrench,
Sent cannon oot wioot a blench
(Nae muckle ken it),
Afore repression came, an stench
O bayonet.

Whaur got ye thaim? By serendipity,
While ye were at the excise nippy,
Ye seized upon a smugglin shippie
An bocht fower cannon –
An sent them oot tae the fowk o France
There was royal ban on.

Since then there’s been a gey attempt,
To say your later verses limped,
The Muse o Liberty by ye unkempt,
Ye wrote on flooers;
But Hogg has pruved your star undimm’d
Against false pooers.

A Man’s a Man was written at the last,
Against the unjust order sicna blast
Maks sure the warld will never fast
On Burns’s birthday,
Till each coorse Empire’s chains are cast
Furth an awa.

Now music o this nicht shall mellow
Fae Ae Fond Kiss tae Strip the Willow,
Baith piper’s lungs an fiddler’s elbow
Oor joy unfurl;
An, like a kinder place nor Tam did see,
The rafters dirl.

Rab, in a blink ye’ll get your fairin,
First thank our hosts, the folk whose carin
Has drawn us in this island here
Warm an thegither;
We’d be prood for aye gin ye stood amang’s
A vera brither.

Each thinks on the Bard as the mind pleases.
That glowe in the gless is the soul’s furnace!
An noo let’s staun –
An tak oor turns, as
Friens, I gie ye the Immortal Memory –
O Rabbie Burns.

John Aberdein

Islanders’ role in the Mim rescue

On September 3, 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany. A little over a month later, on October 14, HMS Royal Oak was sunk by a German submarine in Scapa Flow. In Orkney, within days, enemy air raids had commenced and a blackout was imposed.

On the high seas, shipping was already being exposed to submarine attack.

Facing such a danger was the MS Mim, a newly built ship on her maiden voyage from Fremantle to Bergen with a cargo of wheat. This account concerns the naval boarding and subsequent loss of the Mim and with the rescue of her crew and naval personnel aboard at the time. It also attempts to reconcile the various conflicting reports connected with the incident, and to acknowledge the rescue of 16 men by John Tulloch and his crew.

The MS Mim

The MS Mim (tonnage 4998.01, length 126m) had been built in 1938 by Flensburger Schiffbau in Germany for her Norwegian owners in Tónsberg.

Her photograph shows a very fine and graceful looking ship. During the voyage from Australia the Mim called by South Africa for ‘bunkers’ and then the Canary Islands, where the Captain, Olaf Andreas Nielson, asked for permission to continue his journey to Bergen. Nielson, who had heard of three neutral ships, that had been sunk by German U-boats in the Atlantic, decided to sail north, and then east passing north west of the Faroe Islands in an effort to avoid submarine attack.

The Mim, however, was intercepted 60 miles NW of Faroe on October 31 by a Royal Navy ship HMS Colombo. The Norwegian ship was boarded by Lt Commander, William K. Buckley, RNVR, who explained that an armed boarding party was to take over the ship and continue to Kirkwall for investigation. He left on board Sub Lt John A. T. Maisham, a navigation officer, and six naval ratings ­ one of whom was a signalman.

On Wednesday, November 1, the Mim was seen off the north side of the North Ronaldsay. According to local watchers, which included lighthouse keepers at the unlit new lighthouse, she appeared to be moving unusually slowly. The ship came very close inshore, and at 9.40pm the lighthouse foghorn was sounded in an effort to warn the ship of the danger of her position. She continued without alteration and passed very close to Kirk Taing.

William Thomson, Neven, Receiver of Wrecks, was one of the many watchers who saw the Mim. As the ship passed Dennis Taing, sailing in a southerly direction, Willie o’ Neven, in an account given to the district controller Coastguard some time later, remarked: “The Mim was lit up like a Christmas tree”, and, as he stood at the door of Neven, he said to the womenfolk that if the vessel did not alter course she would find herself on the Reef Dyke ­ a dangerous submerged reef about one mile south east of the island. Shortly afterwards, at exactly 10.10pm, the Mim did strike the Reef Dyke. This was to be the end of the MS Mim‘s ill-fated maiden voyage, and the hidden reef was to be her final destination and resting place.

At the time of grounding at 9pm, the wind, according to the meteorological return from the North Ronaldsay Lighthouse, was from the south-east, force four, increasing all the time, and between 3am and 9pm the wind strengthened from force five to six south-easterly. The tide was flowing and would do so until around one in the morning. Ebb tide would follow and run strongly north over the reef for almost the duration of the prolonged rescue operation. Visibility was good and the moon, which had been full at 6.24am on October 28, still gave a little light in a somewhat overcast sky.

Principal lighthouse keeper, David Work, in his official account, noted that when the Mim came to a sudden stop she sent out an SOS ­ a signal which she continued to transmit for some hours. A white flare was also fired. This was answered by flares fired from the lighthouse and the Start Lighthouse on Sanday. At the same time a rocket was set off by the local Auxiliary Coast Guard Volunteers, of whom there were four: John Tulloch, Purtabreck, Martin Thomson, South Ness, with John Tulloch, North Ness, in charge. The fourth man was probably George Tulloch, North Ness (John¹s brother). The Stromness Lifeboat, J. J. K. S. B. (capability nine knots), whose secretary at the station had been informed of the casualty, left Stromness at about 11pm under Coxswain Greig on a 60 mile stormy trip round the west side of Orkney. She was to arrive at the casualty some seven hours later. According to Captain Nielson, the Mim‘s crew numbered 29 (one of whom was an 18-year-old Englishman), one distressed Norwegian seaman, Captain Nielson (total 31) and seven naval personnel. A total of 38 men were on board at the time of the stranding.

John Tulloch - Johnny o' Ness, who was in charge of the post boat, took the decision to attempt a rescue on the Mim

As weather conditions were deteriorating John Tulloch, North Ness, made the decision to attempt a rescue. ‘Johnny o’ Ness’ as he was locally known, was in charge of the North Ronaldsay post boat which carried the Royal Mail and passengers to and from Sanday. He was the last in a family of boatmen who had for three generations continued to cross the North Ronaldsay Firth in all weathers. His knowledge of the sea and reputation as a seaman was unquestionable.

John Tulloch, accompanied by his three colleagues, launched the motor post boat from Nouster pier and embarked on their mission. Willie Thomson, Neven, mentioned above, and Harry Tulloch, Twynas, Piermaster, were also on the pier helping. The only lights available, either on the pier or in the post boat, were hand held flashlights. Having arrived at the Mim, 11 men were taken aboard the post boat, According to Sub Lt Maisham¹s report, which I will refer to later, the boat left at 1.50am.

The 11 men were landed at the pier, and shortly afterwards conducted to the Memorial Hall where the local honorary secretary of the Shipwrecked Fishermen and Mariners’ Royal Benevolent Society, Mr James Swanney, Trebb, attended to their needs.

Johnny and his crew set off again arriving at the Mim at 3.30am. However, this time fuel oil, which either had leaked or had been discharged from the Mim, got into the boat’s water intake and stopped the engine. In worsening conditions the situation must have become considerably more difficult. But, as Willie Thomson recounted in his report: “In true Orcadian fashion, this minor fault would not stop his craft returning to the jetty. Sails were hoisted and with five naval ratings from the prize crew aboard he set off for home arriving back at the jetty at 5am”.

The landing this time was difficult and dangerous, as Willie reported, with the southeast wind blowing from force five to six. With great skill, in darkness, with only the light from flashlights and without engine power, the boat was brought alongside the pier. Two ratings were able to scramble ashore as an incoming wave raised the boat and, together with Willie, they held the boat alongside allowing the rest of the occupants to get ashore. Johnny remained on board to ensure that the chains from the lifting strops did not unhook. Further rescue attempts were now impossible and the boat was hauled safely on to her cradle and made fast in the boat noust. About that time the lights of the Stromness Lifeboat were seen coming down the North Ronaldsay Firth, and the five ratings, who were met by the assistant lighthouse keeper, proceeded to the lighthouse where they were looked after.

The Stromness Lifeboat arrived at the Mim at 7.30am and rescued the remaining survivors, which their records show to have been 22. Their records in addition mention a further 11 men whom they took on board afterwards from the island.

Those 11 were the first survivors rescued by John Tulloch and, according to Maisham¹s report (see below) they were brought out to the lifeboat by a local boat. Maisham asked (this boat) that the five ratings should be found and conveyed aboard. The lifeboat waited for about an hour until the King’s Cross ­ possibly a naval ship ­ arrived and picked up the guard and equipment. The lifeboat then left for Kirkwall after 11am and arrived at her destination about 3 pm.

The event involving the King’s Cross would concur with the memory of George Seatter, Howar, who, though very young at the time, remembers men in naval uniform with rifles being boated out from the noust at Howar. It will be seen that the numbers of men rescued: 11 Norwegian seamen plus five naval ratings (rescued by John Tulloch and his crew) and 22 rescued by the Stromness lifeboat gives a total of 38 ­ Captain Olaf Neilson¹s recorded total on board the Mim given on oath to the Receiver of Wreck in Kirkwall.

Neilson also said that he was below in his cabin when the Mim struck and that the second officer was on the bridge. He goes on to say that 11 members of the crew plus naval ratings were landed on North Ronaldsay by boat (believed to be a Lighthouse boat) and the remainder were taken off by the Stromness lifeboat. Of the 22 men rescued by the Stromness lifeboat, two were the remaining naval boarding party ­ Maisham and one other ­ since only five ratings had gone ashore with John Tulloch in the post boat.

In The Orcadian of November 9, 1939, no mention is made of the local boat¹s rescue. It reports that 20 members of the Mim‘s crew were picked up by the Stromness lifeboat plus another 11 who had escaped from the Mim in one of their own boats.

In the following edition of The Orcadian a report from the island does mention that a local boat succeeded in rescuing 11 of the Mim¹s crew. By contrast, the Orkney Herald on November 8 states that ten members of the Norwegian crew of 32 had succeeded in launching one of their own boats and getting ashore, and that the other 22 men were then rescued by the Stromness lifeboat. According to both newspapers, at least one of the Norwegian crew said that they had been able to launch their own lifeboat.

In any event the following week the Orkney Herald contained a report by a local island correspondent in which it says that the local boat under the command of John Tulloch had made two successful trips rescuing two boatloads of the Mim‘s crew. In none of those reports is there any mention of the naval personnel. This, most likely, would have been as a result of war time secrecy.

A third account, contained in the 1939 RNLI Journal, does state that the Mim was on her way to the Kirkwall Contraband Base in Orkney for examination, but there is no mention of the naval personnel ­ two of whom (as I said) were picked up along with the remaining Mim’s crew. The report goes on to say that 11 men had been rescued by a local boat before the Stromness Lifeboat’s arrival but that the boat had been damaged (this damage is not mentioned by William Thomson).

They picked up the remaining 22 members of the crew and, with the 11 already rescued, proceeded to Kirkwall, which they reached at 2.40 pm on November 2. The final account of this event resulted from the discovery of a file in the National Records Office in London, describing a claim for compensation from the Admiralty for the loss of the Mim (not the cargo) by the Norwegian owners. A court hearing finally began on July 7, 1947. The issue seemed to be an argument about who was in charge of the boat ­ either the navigation officer, Maisham, or Captain Nielson. Maisham maintained that he was only acting as a pilot, while Nielson argued that the Royal Navy, who had taken over the ship, were responsible for her loss. The outcome, as one might expect, was that the Navy were exonerated.

The following sequence of events is part of Maisham’s report at the hearing. He, remained on board the Mim with the sixth rating (possibly the signalman) until rescued by the Stromness lifeboat. Although for some reason the rating is not mentioned.

  • On October 31: 14.20 Mim was boarded.
  • November 1: 22.10 ­ Grounded.
  • 22.11 ­ Lost port boat. SOS by Morse. White Flare.
  • 22.14 ­ Flare answered by rocket from shore.
  • 01.50 ­ A boat left with 11 men. At the same time information via radio that a lifeboat was coming from Wick (this must have been a message from Wick radio).
  • 03.30 ­ Boat returned and took off armed guard and equipment.
  • 07.30 ­ Lifeboat arrived and took off remaining crew ­ including captain and Maisham.

The above order of events agrees with Willie Thomson’s account, and with the principal lightkeeper’s log-book, where, among other details, two boat trips are mentioned. In addition, at the enquiry, the Mim’s second officer, Thormonnd Thormondson, says that 11 crew and six naval men were taken off the ship by boat (Nine Norwegians apparently attended the inquiry).

This more or less concurs with Nielson’s statement that 11 crew members and naval ratings were taken ashore by a local boat. The port lifeboat (on the weather side), which was lost during launching, came ashore and was found during the night. It landed undamaged on the sand at Haskie, blown almost directly there from the Mim by the strong south-east wind. The starboard lifeboat, which is not mentioned by Maisham, was presumably un-launched, as it came ashore in pieces after the ship broke up.

Before I complete this saga of the sea, I should mention that during the summer, one of the Mim’s survivors, Olaf Solheim, visited North Ronaldsay along with his son.

At the time of the accident he was galley boy aged 17. Interestingly, he seemed sure that he along with other crew members came ashore in their own lifeboat.

Memory could play tricks in the darkness and confusion of that winter’s night; this would seem so as his recollection differs from the general recorded version and local memory. Yet, Olaf was certainly there experiencing those dramatic events. Olaf was greatly taken with his visit to the island, and on asking about any relics from the Mim he was delighted to receive a small memento from John Cutt when he visited Gerbo. Olaf later told me how he continued to sail during the war under the watchful eyes of the German occupation troops. After the war he sailed as ship’s engineer ending up in South Georgia on a whale catcher.

As for the Mim, on the next day the ship split apart with a loud explosion, due most likely to the expansion of thousands of tons of wet wheat. And within three days, exposed to the full fury of the sea, she had completely disappeared except for her funnel. Great quantities of wheat came ashore, along with all kinds of wreckage, and no doubt some houses will still have a memento or two of the Mim. Her remains lie scattered among the rocks and crevices that shear away in deep water behind the reef.

Above her grave powerful tides hurtle past, and often great breakers cover the entire length of the Reef Dyke.

Over 63 years later, very few of either the Mim’s crew or the naval boarding party can be left alive, and the valiant crew of the post boat on that memorable night have long since passed away.

Acknowledgements: James Thomson: maps, moon/tide phases. Sydney Scott: Mim¹s file. Billy Muir: Lighthouse information. Bobby Leslie, Kirkwall Library: local newspaper reports. Lighthouse Board, Edinburgh. RNLI Poole, Dorset. Stromness Lifeboat Station. Bergen Museum Archives and Bjorn Kahrs, Norway, and many other North Ronaldsay folk who still have vivid memories of the Mim.