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