School’s come a long way from the days of slate pencils and a yearly visit to Kirkwall

On my living room table there are two particular reminders of jobs to be done. One is a little book in which I made a few notes about the school’s open day, held just before what used to be called the tattie holidays.

The other is a lovely display of red carnations created by D. & H. Glue for the recent harvest home. I have taken the liberty of keeping one to remind me of a grand occasion.

Before I begin, I must tell you that I am still sleeping in one of our attics. I moved there to allow for extra accommodation at the time of the island wedding reviewed in my last letter.

It’s especially enjoyable, to fall asleep with the stars shining through the room’s skylight; or when the moon is in the west and she illuminates my room with a silvery light.

If the weather’s fine and my little window is partly opened, another pleasure is the sound of the sea, and the occasional cry of a curlew or lapwing. Even the wind, when it gets the chance, plays around my face and gives one the vivid feeling of actually being outside lying underneath starry skies.

In my last letter I mentioned the beginning of the harvest work. After the shearing and stooking up of my crop of oats there were windy days, damp and rainy days when, from time to time, I had to set up, all over again, the stooks that were badly battered.

On September 27, a good day came and we built three stacks and a ‘diss’ — a word from the Old Norse which means a small stack.

During the following two days, a jolly team of workers took up my neighbour’s tatties — many hands made light work as the last fruits of the season were gathered.

I’m back now to the tattie holidays and the school’s open day.

Patricia Thomson and support teacher Sheila Grieve were there to help and talk about the school’s activities and so on.

The four pupils, Heather and Gavin Woodbridge, Duncan and Cameron Gray, had been involved in many studies over a period of two terms that had taken them here and there in Orkney.

Castles, brochs, 17th and 19th century houses were visited, studied, photographed and written about, using digital cameras and computers — places such as the Bishop’s Palace, Kirkwall, Earl’s Palace, Birsay, Noltland Castle, Westray, Cubbie Roo’s Castle in Wyre. Then the more recent and grander houses were seen, Skaill House and Balfour Castle for example.

They also had a look at early prehistoric settlements when they went to see the Broch of Gurness, Evie, and the Broch of Burrowston in Shapinsay.

The pupils had mostly prepared and set up their own wall displays and were ready to talk about their work as the visitors walked around. Heather was dressed as a Victorian lady whilst the boys were dressed as knights.

Costumes had been designed and expertly made by classroom assistant, Edith Craigie.

In addition to their school project work, the pupils had also experienced activities such as archery, canoeing, map-reading etc at the Birsay outdoor centre.

After presentations of swimming and good conduct certificates, tea and homebakes were served, to end a most enjoyable afternoon.

When some of us older folks were partaking of all sorts of homebakes and other tit-bits that afternoon, we reminisced about earlier school days.

We tried to work out where the movable partition that divided the present new classroom into the ‘peedie end’ and the ‘muckle end’ used to be — peedie for the younger scholars and muckle for the older — but couldn’t quite.

We remembered the two old coal fires that didn’t heat up the rooms particularly well during winters which were much colder than we experience today.

As for visits to the Orkney Mainland, that never happened, apart from the one yearly island trip-day to Kirkwall, during the summer holidays. Sometimes we had picnics at our own broch at Burrian, but that was more or less the extent of our archaeological excursions. What I will say though is, that it’s a big step from the old-fashioned slate and slate pencils (that I just remember using occasionally) to the computer technology of today’s comfortably-heated classroom.

Mary Leonard has recently written a fine account of our harvest home in Orkney Today but I will add a little extra just to complete the picture.

On October 29, a night which, in the old days, would have been considered very appropriate as the moon was full, the old Memorial Hall was brought to life once more.

About 80 folk, including many friends and relations coming from the Orkney Mainland, three from London and one from the USA, sat down to a royal feast of native mutton, roast beef, gammon, clapshot and cider. Cheesecake with cream was the second course, with tea and homebakes to follow.

Before the supper, the association’s president, Peter Donnelly, made the welcoming speech in which he talked a little about island life and told a funny story or two.

Guest speaker Andy Cant addresses the 80 guests at North Ronaldsay harvest home. (Picture: Jean Tulloch)

The association’s guests this year were: Andy Cant, our speaker, and his wife, Alice; Marlene Thomson, manageress, Birsay Farmers, her husband Gordon; Neil Foubister, manager, Frozen Food, his wife Susan; members of the group Hullion, Ingirid Jolly (Billy was unable to come), Owen Tierney, Micky Austin, and his wife Liz — Andy is of course the other member of the group.

The North Ronaldsay Heritage Trust, one of whose main duties is to look after the Memorial Hall, also had guests this year for the first time.

They were Mike Pascoe, his son Daniel, and his wife Shelagh. Mention was made of Mike Pascoe’s sterling efforts in the heritage trust’s fundraising activities for new windows for the old hall.

Mike and some of his diving colleagues, who, in the mid-70s, had dived on the wreck of an old East Indiaman lost in 1740, gave very generously as they remembered lightsome days when they had billeted in the old hall. Five new windows are now installed — two to go.

Incidentally, the old hall has been recognised as a war memorial by Friends of War Memorials, an organisation based in London.

Patricia Thomson followed those acknowledgements by saying the grace, and after supper, Andy Cant rose to make his speech.

He opened with the dramatic statement: “The World has gone Mad.”

He went on to enumerate examples of this madness from Iraq to the unbelievable (I think) passport system required for farm animals along with all the other ever increasingly restrictive farming controls now being administered across the board.

But North Ronaldsay residents were not let off entirely scot-free when he managed a few apt references. He also told a number of amusing stories connected with his veterinary activities.

Peter Donnelly (right) and other guests - including three from London and one from the USA at the Harvest Home.

One related how, in one of the North Isles, where often in the isles a car is hired for visits and when occasionally there are problems with temperamental vehicles, he faced a minor problem.

On this occasion, the car was pre-booked but, on arrival at the airstrip, his contact was nowhere to be seen. Undaunted, Andy picked a likely looking car parked at the airstrip that performed beautifully all day.

Some time later, (having never received an account) he discovered from his island contact that he had in fact quite forgotten to arrange for any car. Andy never heard whether the owner had been any the wiser.

After closing remarks to an entertaining speech, the speaker, glass in hand, asked everyone to be upstanding and to toast the harvest home.

Once the tables etc had been cleared, the dance got under way with the local band and Hullion providing the music.

A combination of accordions, guitars, banjo and fiddle ensured lightsome footwork.

During a break, Ingirid Jolly sang a Shetland song about fishing, with the title of Rowan Foula Doon, and John Cutt recited a poem written by his late uncle, William Swanney, Viggie, commemorating the exploits of Captain E. E. Fresson, OBE. The poem was entitled, Exploits of Captain Fresson to North Ronaldsay.

As John explained, 70 years ago, on May 29, 1934, Britain’s first domestic air service was inaugurated when Captain Fresson flew to North Ronaldsay with passengers — the war years put an end to that service in the islands.

Then there was a very lively Eightsome Reel with Sinclair playing the pipes. Five sets swung round the bouncing dance floor with many a ‘Heuch’. On went the music and dance until a break for tea — more mutton, sandwiches and homebakes made the rounds.

Ian Deyell and Peter Donnelly organised the raffle when many great prizes were won — a food hamper, binoculars, an original watercolour, bottles of whisky, wine and brandy and numerous other items.

The raffle, arranged for the benefit of the Memorial Hall, raised a magnificent sum of £362.

More dancing followed until about three in the morning when the last dance was announced. After the singing of Auld Lang Syne, and for another hour or so, folk enjoyed cups of hot soup, more mutton and anything else they fancied.

And so the 15th harvest home to be held in the Memorial Hall since our return to the traditional venue came to a close.

As I turned the key in the lock, I wondered if the ghosts of the old hall of 84 years gone, came back once more to relive the great days of North Ronaldsay and to dance another reel to the music of fiddles and melodeons.

Well, folks, I’m at the end of my letter and I’ve been looking for a suitable poem or some lines to close with.

After much searching, I found a verse which suits in many ways. I found it in The Orkney Book published in the early 1900s. The poem was called Orkney and the author was John Malcolm.

Oh! At such soul-inspiring strain
The wondrous links of memory’s chain,
Though scattered far, unite again,
And Time and Distance strive in vain.
Again Youth’s fairy visions pass
In morning glow oe’r Memory’s glass,
At every magic melting fall
They come like echoes to their call,
And with the dreams of vanished years
Steal forth again our smiles and tears.

A wedding planned from afar made for a glittering occasion

Kelvin and Rachelle Scott, who were married on North Ronaldsay. Kelvin's father, David, was born and brought up on the island.

Somebody told me the other day that they had not seen a Letter from North Ronaldsay since April last.

It’s true – I’ve just had a look at my file of letters. So spring and summer have sped away and now we are well into autumn.

The fuchsia trees are past their best with scatterings of scarlet flowers lying rather sadly on the ground. But still the honeysuckle scents the air and the montbretia’s flame-coloured flowers brighten up a garden here and there.

Well, folks, here goes for another letter. I’m sitting at my computer and beginning to apply my mind to the task before me.

I see in my last letter I was making excuses about the Seven cares of the Mountain (all the undone jobs one has upon one’s shoulders).

There are still a goodly number undone but one day, early in the summer, I set about tackling one that had been on my mind for some time – an exhibition of new work in the Pier Arts Centre in Stromness.

Yes, I managed it but not without some ‘apps and doons’. I shall not commit myself again – if I can avoid it – to work to a deadline and at the same time try to be a crofter.

I say ‘try’ because I don’t regard myself as a serious crofter/farmer nor, incidentally, do I refer to myself as a real fisherman.

I mention this since in reviews of my exhibition I am referred to as an artist-cum-farmer fisherman.

In both the latter occupations I worked or still work in one at least, under the guidance of professionals.

By the way, I did say to one interviewer that two hours was about the time it took me to paint a seascape.

Let me qualify that by saying that it has taken me a lifetime to arrive at this capability, and that mostly I have to review my work afterwards and make the necessary changes I often must do.

Anyway, I was going to say that one day, in the middle of trying to paint and being involved in haymaking, my baler broke down.

A day or so later, a bearing went on my drum mower. Into the house I wearily stepped, thoroughly disheartened – so much so that, to begin with, it was my intention to cancel my exhibition.

They say that every cloud has a silver lining. It’s true, for the very next day, up came my neighbour from next door ready to work or help in any way he could, and then another day he and a friend set about repairing my baler. Spanners, hammers and other tools rattled and flew in the sun and before one could say “Jack Robinson” my old baler was ready for action.

Let me now tell you about another island wedding (there was one last year). This time it was David and Kathleen Scott’s son, Kelvin, who married Rachelle Jacobs from Wisconsin (all live in the States).

This was a wedding planned from afar.

Thirty-five American friends and relatives came to the island with every step of the way here and back organised in great detail by Kelvin’s parents, David (born and brought up on the island) and Kathleen from Indiana.

Both have mentioned how the wedding would not have been possible without massive community support from the island and from many of the American guests — decorating, church improvements, lending equipment from within and outside the island, pitching tents etc.

But talk about “apps and doons”.

Planes in New York were delayed by a storm; another broke down in Alaska; luggage went missing. Then, in Orkney, there was the fog, with all sorts of complications.

Boats had to be hired to bring folk to the island. Loganair made great efforts to fit in additional flights. There were false alarms, bad forecasts, threatened cancellations – all sorts of problems.

But, in the end, everybody, I believe, who intended to be at the wedding made it to the island — except the hairdresser. There lies another tale; one of the guests, Glasmeris Mateo, stood in as the hairdresser at the very last minute and did a wonderful job.

But talk about the song from My Fair Lady, Get me to the Church in Time. During a very, very lengthy bride’s prerogative, everybody enjoyed wonderful prelude music, when Rognvald Scott from London (piano) and Jeff Yang from Chicago (violin) – a professional musician – entertained everybody.

The wedding ceremony was conducted by the Rev John MacNab, Sanday, with John Cutt, Gerbo, reading the well-known passage from Ecclesiastes – “To everything there is a season”.

Bridesmaid was Kelvin’s sister, Wendelin, with the best man, his brother Jeremy. Flowergirls were Anna, Mary and Jenna Scott. Pageboys were Duncan, Cameron and Ronan Gray.

Ushers were Albert and John Scott, James Cowe and Aaron Rhodes, from Santa Fe (in Highland dress).

During the signing of the register, the well-known Orkney fiddler, Tommy Mainland, played a selection of traditional music. All of this took place in the New Church, beautifully decorated with flower arrangements by Ola Gorie (Stenness) and Bertha Mainland (Dounby), aided by Arnold Tait and Tommy Mainland.

After the customary photo taking, Sinclair Scott piped many of the company in a ‘wedding walk’ from the New Church to the venue for the reception.

This was held in a specially-decorated New Community Centre, lit up by candle flame and sparkling fairy lights, with Ola and Bertha’s flower displays making a perfect scene.

There, a great evening began to unfold after a splendid wedding feast arranged by Chris Thomas, from Stromness, and his intrepid team of caterers (they had travelled the long sea road to the island).

Fine speeches with toasts, etc, followed. The Grand March began the dance, when the groom, in Highland dress, and his beautiful bride, resplendent in an ivory satin dress, spangled with pearls, led the company of just over 180.

And so to dancing, music and song with the Birsay Boys providing the music. A bride’s cog, made by Jean Tulloch (an expert in such brews) who, along with her assistant, ran the bar, made many rounds. Great was the fun, and great was this evening that finally came to a close around 4am.

Outside, the early morning was calm, and into the still darkish sky a fireworks display cascaded in sometimes rainbow colours to crown an unforgettable island occasion.

The rest of the summer’s work got done as it always does, silage, hay, punding clipping sheep and plastic wrapped barley. And, again with the gods on my side, I managed with much help, only yesterday, to shear a very late sown crop of oats.

Clickity-clack went the old binder and up went the stooks, just as easy as we had managed the shearing. If the weather is good, it won’t be long before I shall have a stack or two to remind us of the old days.

Perhaps, they will be built by the light of the harvest moon, due shortly. That would be very grand indeed.

Next, once the tatties are up, we will have to be thinking of the Harvest Home when all the year’s bounties will be remembered. Then, also to be remembered, will be Armistice Day when some of us will stand round the island’s war memorial once more.

You know, for many years Armistice Day was organised by the church, which provided a wreath. Then, for a spell, there was no minister or only infrequent visits.

Somehow, the actual ceremony at the memorial lapsed. But then, two new islanders with wartime connections placed those small wooden crosses with an attached poppy at the monument. Since that time, we conduct a traditional service there on Remembrance Sunday.

It is not that we have forgotten, or ever did forget, those who died in the wars — when a country does, then its soul is in danger.

No, I was brought up with the history and emotional involvement (my late father had a cousin who was killed in action in 1918).

I, also, like many other islanders, knew men who had been veterans of the First World War or we knew of its victims.

In fact, two of those veterans, John Tulloch, Upper Linnay, (whose brother referred to above had been killed) and Peter Swanney, North Gravity, had been involved with the erection of the memorial and had built the fine back wall.

Both were masons. One, John, had served at sea, and Peter in the trenches in France. Both those men towards the end of their lives spoke to me about their wartime experiences.

Peter remembered, he said, seeing comrades blown to bits. I’ll further tell you that both those men, one with only a week or two to live, and the other an old man in his 90s, had tears in their eyes when they spoke with me. Yes, they absolutely did and I only wish they could come back this very day.

I’m hoping that we all remember the wartime sacrifices made for our country and that we remember the men of North Ronaldsay whose names are carved in granite.

Some of them died violently in the battlefields of France, others were blown up at sea by mines and yet others died as a result of the war. Let us remember those young men from both world wars, and let us always respect our War Memorial with its sanctity and very special place on this island of ours.

Well, folks, that’s it more or less for a time. I don’t have to write about the North Ronaldsay Trust’s great weekend we had lately when the 150th anniversary of the lighting of the New Lighthouse was celebrated.

Both Margaret Carr (The Orcadian) and Mary Leonard (Orkney Today) have very adequately covered the weekend events.

But, I must mention, firstly, the group, Hullian who gave a wonderful concert on the Saturday night and went on to provide the dance music for a most successful evening’s entertainment.

And the following day there was the Kirkwall City Pipe Band, whose presence here really made the event at the New Lighthouse so very memorable and special. Their piping, drumming, and turn out was magnificent. As the Earl Thorfinn left in the late afternoon, the pipe band stood playing on the upper deck of the ferry. It was a wonderful sight and an especially moving experience.

The music of the pipes travelled over the water and continued to sound for a while but ever fainter as the Thorfinn gained on her seaward journey back to the Orkney Mainland.

Let me finish with a poem I have used before. It’s my favourite. Having reached the age of 64, I understand every sentence of it. Incidentally, John Robertson, the poet, was the grandfather of Captain Duncan J. T. Robertson, laird of this island for over 50 years.

Recently, Duncan, now into his 80s, met with those who took on the responsibility of maintaining the old Memorial Hall.

I could see that he believes, as do we, who are getting on in years believe, in the line of the poem you are about to read: “Still in (our) hearts the winds of youth are singing”.

Let us remember that there are many whose hearts never had the chance to hear for very long the song of the winds of youth.

Sons of the Isles

There is a spell woven by restless seas,
A secret charm that haunts our Island air,
Holding our hearts and following everywhere
The wandering children of the Orcades;
And still when sleep the prisoned spirit frees,
What dim, void wastes, what strange, dark seas we dare,
Till, where the dear green Isles shine low and fair,
We moor in dreams beside familiar quays.
Sons of the Isles! though ye may roam afar,
Still on your lips the salt sea-spray is stinging,
Still in your hearts the winds of youth are singing;
Though in heavens grown familiar to your eyes
The Southern Cross is gleaming, for old skies
Your hearts are fain, and for the Northern Star.

Duncan John Robertson (1860 – 1941)

Time to tackle the seven cares of the mountain on my shoulders

Well, I’ve been thinking about writing one of my letters for some time. January and Burns’ suppers seem very far away.

Honestly, the days seem to fly, they really do, and I have very little to show for almost five months of wintertime – long nights and plenty of time to do many things one would have thought but no, not an extra job have I done.

In fact it almost seems as if winter has never been and now we are having April showers and the daffodils are brightening the roadways and gardens. The black-headed gulls have been back for a few weeks.

This is around the time of year when great clouds of those smart birds would have been following the plough.

Today, there is not a ploughed field to be seen and I doubt if we will see many this season. Yes, we are living in changed times.

Earlier in the year, as part of the Aberdeen University sponsored lectures in Orkney, Jim Troup (retired history teacher from Stromness Academy), visited the island and gave a fascinating talk entitled Pioneer problems: Traills and Moodies in the Canadian wilderness.

Slides were shown as part of the talk and there were booklets and other informative material on view.

A good turnout enjoyed the evening, with tea and biscuits available after a discussion period.

I’m thinking as I write. What else has been happening?

One very successful event took place not long ago when the North Ronaldsay Trust and Friends held a bring and buy sale, raising a magnificent figure of £800 (reviewed in The Orcadian, April 1).

There has also been some sheep dyke building, followed by the native sheep gathering arranged to bring in-by the ewes for lambing, and, at the end of the winter school term, we enjoyed the usual school open day.

On view was work by the pupils. Since Christmas they had been busy studying the vital element of water as their special project for the term.

The four pupils, Heather Woodbridge, Duncan Gray, Cameron Gray and Gavin Woodbridge, had looked at its many aspects, carrying out experiments and studies under such headings as: analysis, flotation, cleaning, distribution, etc. with maps, graphs and text on view substantiating their work.

They also took photographs of the local water pumping station, wells, reservoir, loch, old-fashioned iron hand pumps and so on.

In addition, Africa’s serious problems with water shortage were investigated. Each pupil had worked out how water is used, often wasted, and how wastage could be avoided.

I was just thinking that, had those four pupils been brought up some 40 years and more ago they would have understood how important water was and how not to waste it.

In those days, every gallon had to be brought into the house by hand from wells for washing, cooking, cleaning, and laboriously feeding to animals in byres during the long winter months.

Washing day was a big occasion requiring considerable quantities of water, when often a large out-house iron boiler, fired by coal, would come into use. Then there were the hand-turned mangles for removing as much water as possible from blankets, sheets and personal clothing – but I digress.

Another interesting study connected with the project was how the French Impressionist painters had painted water; how they captured light, colour and movement using a completely new technique removed entirely from the more traditional style of painting.

Even a musical composition, with water as the inspiration, was performed by the four pupils.

It was based on a poem written by Heather who also composed the short piece. Percussion instruments were used for its interpretation. That was entertaining.

Finally, the pupils were presented with good performance certificates by the teacher, Patricia Thomson, with each individual receiving a present in recognition of their efforts.

Support teacher, Shelagh Grieve, came out especially for this pleasant occasion that ended with tea and homebakes. Displays of daffodils decorated the classroom.

As I said earlier, the winter has simply flown and nothing much extra have I managed to do, though I know very well that there are many things I should be doing.

I think I am like the man on the Great Blasket islands, away back in the 1920s, whose story I told in one of my previous letters – it’s worth re-telling. It was called A Man with the Seven Cares of the Mountain on his Shoulders. The islander in the story had so many jobs to do (as he said to a neighbour on the road one fine day) that he couldn’t make up his mind which should be tackled first and decided to take another day off.

The advice was to go straight back home and finish one and next day it would not be there to face him.

I shall have to follow Tomás O’Crohan’s advice – he was the friend with the positive answer to the problem. At nights now, when in bed, I am re-reading Tomás O’ Crohan’s, Island Cross Talk – Pages from a Blasket Island Diary – there you will find the ‘seven cares’ story.

Earlier in the winter, every night for a time, I travelled (in my imagination) down the West Coast of Scotland, as I read Seton Gordon’s, Highways & Byways in the West Highlands.

I really looked forward to reading the next chapter or two as I went to bed. And then, more recently, I read his Days with the Golden Eagle.

This is the book I mentioned that was reprinted very recently. Tam McPhail (Stromness Books and Prints), was able to get it for me. It is described as a classic. I do think it is, and I have much enjoyed reading the book.

Seton’s descriptive writing – when he describes nature – the mountain scenery lakes and rivers etc, is a real pleasure – so much so that I have, from time to time, re-read a number of those particularly beautifully written chapters.

The trouble, though, with late night reading is the inevitable late morning that usually follows.

In the dark of winter I suppose one can get away with it but now that the daylight is long enough for any manner or amount of work such luxuries should be set aside – but will that happen, no!

Last year I wrote about a sudden whim I had one warm evening in summer when I visited a small natural swimming pool down among the rocks and where I had a quick plunge.

As I came home the moon was rising and the summer night was wonderful. The first croft I passed was the empty house of Nether Linnay. I was just thinking about that house the other morning.

I see it every day as I cast an eye north. It now reminds me of Jimmy Thomson, who was born there in 1932, and who lived there during his very early years before following a career in the south.

Those who read obituaries would have seen that he died recently. Jimmy really loved North Ronaldsay, and what fun he could be, and though retired and living on the Orkney Mainland, his presence and help with the island’s main entertainment events, and many other things, will be very greatly missed.

When someone dies suddenly and unexpectedly it is difficult sometimes to believe that such a person will never be seen again.

As I continued my walk home that moonlit night last year, I mentioned another lightsome house for me, and for many others, as I passed by.

It was the neat little house of Burray. Sadly, just the other week that cheery home has also become empty.

There Mary Tulloch (née Seatter), in her 90th year lived, and if ever there was one to brush aside the Seven Cares of The Mountain then it was surely Mary – she was a fighter to the very last.

She was up with the lark – as they say – attending to her chores all her long days, and as long as she was able.

Flittering away time, as I seem to be doing in my advancing years, certainly was something of which she certainly never did approve of.

One evening I was there along with others paying my last respects in the old fashioned way.

As I walked home, the night was most beautiful and the sound of spring was all around; birds were calling here and there in the stillness of the air.

It was the night of the full moon and in the eastern sky she was a wonderful sight to behold. As I came abreast of Ancum loch, with the moon’s reflections, it seemed like a moving band of silver, and no less impressive was the flickering bright ribbon of the East sea.

Well, I was thinking of Mary and past times and of how those good days are now left to memory.

Tomás O’Crohan, near the end of his life, writes in his book, The Island Man: “the like of us will never be here again”.

It’s very true and when islanders such as Mary and Jimmy, and the many others that have passed away over the years, take their leave, I always think that the North Ronaldsay of old dies a little.

A Burns’ Night to remember

Tam o’Shanter's mare Meg having her tail caught by a witch. Howie Firth gave a perfect rendition of the poem during the North Ronaldsay Burns Night celebration.

This is a letter I began to write on ‘Aald Neuar-e’en’.

I thought at the time that it would not be amiss to cast one’s mind back to Yule, before January finally flies away, and remember a time of year that, in the old days, was greatly looked forward to — the days when the real home-brewed-ale was the mainstay of those old fashioned times.

So here I am writing this introductory paragraph between the end-of-the-year celebrations and my account of the island’s Burns’ Supper.

January 13 should be the last night of the New Year visits and time to bring the ‘Yulin’ (making ones visiting rounds and generally being on holiday) to an end.

I managed all my familiar visits apart from one house. Unfortunately, when I went there (less than half an hour ago), I discovered that the ‘fock wur no in aboot’.

So back home I came ‘wae me whusky bottle’ and me good luck New Year gifts. I thought, never mind, have a go instead at the beginnings of a new ‘letter’ as a build-up to my coverage of the forthcoming Burns’ Supper.

In my last letter – my Yule letter as I like to call it – I was day dreaming about the ghosts of the Linklestoon men coming back to Antabreck to relive one of their great Hogmanay nights.

I had in fact written the letter the day before Hogmanay and imagined this pleasant visitation of the spirits of the past.

The day had been the most beautiful winter’s day that you could imagine. There was a scattering of snow lightly covering the island. The sea was a dark ultramarine and, in the east, the Fair Isle was decorated, here and there, with snow, but clear cut like a diamond against the darkening sea.

I had, some would say, wasted most of this beautiful, windless day composing my last letter to The Orcadian.

Having got the main of the writing to my satisfaction, I went off on foot to see the last of the setting sun and to watch the transition from its afterglow to the light of the rising moon.

On my way, with the frosty road crinkling and crackling under my feet, I met a couple of young folk – here for the end of the year celebrations – and we had a grand ‘crack’ for a bit. I continued my walk, firstly to the graveyard, then into the dark interior of the adjacent Old Kirk.

It belongs to an American who bought it from another. The first, planned, we heard, to make it into a jewellery factory, the second, into a dwelling house. Can you believe it? Both had to give up their ambitious plans – this was when they discovered, too late, that the building was listed.

Well, buyer number two is waiting for a re-cap of his money before relinquishing the building. Sadly, meantime, the building is deteriorating day by day.

What is to become of all the empty churches throughout the land? And what has become of the sort of folk that used to attend them?

From the Old Kirk I meandered further south, travelling now by the light of the rising moon.

I was intent on reconnoitring the old Standing Stone so as to judge whither a few enthusiasts might manage the relatively recently revived, yearly visit and informal dance round the stone on New Year’s day – just for the fun of it all you understand.

Last year, as a result of an earlier occurrence, ‘some flegged baest pat an end tae wur silly chaipers’ (often animals are in the area but normally eye the proceedings with studied curiosity).

Anyhow, not to be beat, we revived another old custom and danced in the courtyard of the New Lighthouse instead.

My decision was that I thought the New Year’s day visitation very possible. While at the ‘Stan Stane’ and looking through the two-inch or so diameter, eye level, hole in the stone, I could see Venus to the south-west, and in a more southerly direction, I could also frame the moon nicely.

This, I thought, an unusual view of the two heavenly bodies. I continued my walk on to the nearby Gretchen Loch. Up flew a flock of Greylag geese with a great honking, but invisible in the evening sky. Venus threw a pale sheen across the icy loch waters.

Ah, but came Hogmanay. A ferocious day ensued, getting worse by the hour until, by six or seven at night a terrific gale of wind whistled and buffeted the island.

Then heavy rain lashed down and blew up into unlikely bits of many a house, byre and shed. No moonlight – as I had imagined the ghostly Hogmanay company might have enjoyed.

It was a struggle to walk to my next-door neighbour’s house to take in the New Year. But, eventually, by three or so in the morning, a goodly little company had built up from other travels to enjoy fine hospitality and some early New Year fun.

Sad to say, on New Year’s Day not a soul was at the Standing Stone. The fault, it seems, lies at Antabreck’s door – phones rang, folk spied, made ready, wondered. Never a sign, never an answer!

It was a bit like the old Broadway song Mr Scott regrets he is unable to dine today.

No, I was not under-the-weather – a minor migraine had laid me a ‘peedie bitty low’, and with my magic migraine tablet I dosed away the possibility of a visit to the ‘aald Stan Stane’.

Had we ventured to the monument at the usual time we would have been, ‘maistly a lock o’ puir aald drookled cats’.

Yes the rain began to ‘tuim’ again and so slipped away New Year’s Day but, nevertheless, folk here and there enjoyed, in one way or another, the first day of 2004.

This is the 25th of January. Last night, and well into the morning we celebrated the birth of Robert Burns in style. So here I am, on his actual birthday sitting down to give an account of our little Burns’ Supper.

Peter Donnelly, president of the Association, welcomed a company of well over 50 folk.

He thanked everyone who had made the evening possible and introduced the association’s guests. They were: Robert and Gladys Leslie, Mike and Hazel Parkins, Tommy and Bertha Mainland, Howie Firth – all participants in the Burns programme.

Also invited was Colin Tulloch (who had been most helpful in connection with the North Ronaldsay Trust) his partner, Leona Benston and their son, Findlay.

To the skirl of the pipes, played by Mike Parkins, resplendent in his Kirkwall City Pipe Band uniform, the haggis was brought in by the cook, Winnie Scott, and deposited at the head table.

The piper’s dram was quaffed in one go followed by another tune on the pipes, and then Howie, already in good form, swept into The Address to the Haggis.

Jimmie Thomson recited the Selkirk Grace before the supper of haggis and clapshot, along with cider, was served and enjoyed.

Drams were served for the main toast of the evening and the two speakers jointly proposing the Immortal Memory were introduced.

This year the speakers were: Bobby Leslie and his wife Gladys. Bobby has worked at the Orkney Library for 43 years and has held the post of Chief Librarian for 12 years.

Bobby, in his tribute to Burns, concentrated on the poet’s agricultural background, speculating on how this aspect of his life had affected his work as a poet.

He argued that the often hard, and physically demanding farming activity had contributed significantly to his development as a poet of depth and understanding.

He understood the nature of the land and the people who lived in that environment. Interestingly, as he completed his address, he wondered, for example, if Burns had lived in North Ronaldsay, in what way that life might have influenced his work.

Gladys, by contrast, speculated on the poet’s love of women and the manner in which this had affected his poetry, and of his involvement with Jean Armour and Highland Mary (Mary Campbell) – two of a number of women mentioned.

How this part of his life had resulted in sadness as well as joy and how those differing relationships had been the inspiration for some of his most beautiful poems.

Gladys, I thought, paid a very moving tribute to Burns. Both Bobby and Gladys quoted from Burns and both acknowledged the universal greatness of the poet and the man. Glasses of whisky and sherry sparkled briefly in candle and lamplight as Gladys proposed the toast to the Immortal Memory.

Then Sidney Ogilvie sang Ae Fond Kiss followed by a fine recitation of To a Louse.

Howie Firth followed this performance by proposing the Toast to the Lasses. He did so by telling a few appropriate stories which caused great amusement. Bertha Mainland replied – not without some humour – mentioning the many achievements, inventions and often, she thought, superior abilities of the fairer sex.

Next in the programme was a selection of fiddle music beautifully executed by Tommy Mainland. He played a number of Burns songs, but also two moving laments written by Neil Gow (who had known and worked with Burns) and ending with one of this famous Scottish composer’s more lively compositions.

The fiddle music was followed by a recitation and a reading. Hazel Parkins recited one of her poems from a book of verse published in October 2003 called, In Remembrance of Burns, whilst John Cutt read a short piece written in Orcadian dialect by Allan Taylor (published in The Orcadian) extolling the old fashioned Orcadian supper (a substantial meal taken late at night). John read the piece with vigour in the North Ronaldsay dialect.

Howie Firth then rose to deliver Tam o’ Shanter. Howie has perfected his rendition of this wonderful, imaginative poem by Burns; it is always a special pleasure to listen to, and watch Howie’s antics as he almost lives and acts the various characters and scenes that this poem describes so magnificently. With another ‘peedie’ dram ready to complete the little Burns programme, Howie proposed a closing toast – this time briefly, but eloquently, to the island of North Ronaldsay.

Dancing soon got underway with our two guest musicians, Tommy and Mike contributing significantly to the dance music.

A raffle brought in a very fine collection for the association’s funds. Tea, Westray current bun and shortbread was enjoyed before the dance once more got underway.

So swiftly did the evening pass, and with such enjoyment, that our planned communal singing of Burns songs never materialised – it can be said though, that those of us who had decorated the little room the evening before, bravely sang the five or six songs chosen, to accordion accompaniment.

But, as in Tam o’ Shanter: “The minutes wing’d their way wi pleasure”, and as the moving hands of the morning clock sped onwards and approached three, it was time for Auld Lang Syne, that most universal of songs, collected and completed by Burns and about which he said: “Light be the turf on the breast of the heaven inspired poet who composed this glorious fragment.”

For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
We’ll tak a cup o kindness yet.
For auld lang syne.

Hogmanay lit up by the moon

Here we are at almost the end of another year with Hogmanay and the New Year only a few hours away. By the time this letter appears in print it will be 2004. So I send my good wishes for the New Year.

Well, since last I wrote, North Ronaldsay has been enjoying the usual Christmas celebrations. On the evening of 17th December a Carol Service was held in the Community Centre when a few of the old familiar carols were sung. The North Ronaldsay Primary School’s pupils participated, with scripture readings and singing under the direction of head teacher, Patricia Thomson. She also conducted the short service and accompanied the singing on keyboard. Tea and Christmas pies followed. Incidentally, the school pupils had earlier been in Kirkwall to see the Pantomime ‘Babes in the Wood’, performed in the Arts Theatre.

The following day, the yearly Christmas dinner (provided by School meals) was enjoyed by a large turnout, which included many visitors to the island. Winnie Scott, school cook, supervised the elaborate proceedings. Afterwards, folk made their way into the school classroom, which had been transformed into almost a little theatre with seats arranged in front of a curtained-off stage. There, hidden behind a puppet booth, the four school pupils, Heather and Gavin Woodbridge, Duncan and Cameron Gray, operated puppets (which they had made) in a presentation of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Dialogue and singing had been pre-recorded thus allowing the puppet operators free reign. The presentation was greatly enjoyed. Later, the pupils received certificates based on their good efforts, and good behaviour throughout the term, and they also received gifts in acknowledgement of their achievements.

Christmas Eve saw the traditional children’s party. This year there were many children present due to the numerous visitors on the island. All enjoyed the fun which was followed by a splendid assortment of sandwiches, homebakes etc. Santa was as mysterious as ever with Winnie Scott as his faithful attendant.

Next on the menu – so to speak – of Christmas celebrations was a locally produced Pantomime, which was followed by a dance. This end-of-the-year get together took place on Saturday 27th. with well over 60 folk present. Peter Donnelly, the Association’s President, welcomed everybody and introduced Sydney Oglivie who briefly explained the background to the play and the dedicated efforts of all who were involved. Sydney was the inspiration and producer of Snow White and the two Dwarfs. Actors were: Sydney Oglivie (Dwarf), Anne Oglivie (The Butler), Norman Bayley (Dwarf), Winnie Scott (King), Joni Craigie (Nuff the Good Fairy), Paul Brown (Stepmother), Lucia Shaw (Huntsman and Prince Hero) and Isobel Muir (Mirror). Carole Bayley acted as narrator and Edith Craigie was the behind-the-scenes assistant. The production was great fun with audience participation adding to the enjoyment.

A good little dance soon got underway made all the more lively with the presence and energy of quite a few younger folk – both islanders home on holiday and visitors. The many additional folk on the island for Christmas all participated very well, making the dance a success – though often the dancers had to simply fly. There was a short break for refreshment after which the dancing went on until about two in the morning.

A famous visitor to North Ronaldsay – but what was Michael Powell doing on the island? He is pictured (left) with author Seton Gordon and the island’s medic Dr W. Dawson.

Recently, I have been reading a book by a well known Scottish writer of the past, Seton Gordon, and illustrated by Sir D. W. Cameron R.A. The book, one of many travel books he wrote about Scotland, is called ‘Highways and Byeways in the West Highlands’ The book was published in 1935. It is an account of the author’s trip down the West Coast beginning at Cape Wrath and finishing with a look at Loch Lomond. The text is beautifully written and includes historical background, legends and snippets of other travellers’ tales, such as Boswell and Scott.

One of the islands described is Jura, a place I visited some years ago now. I was sketching there for a week or more and lodged about halfway up the island, with a gamekeeper and his wife and family. Well, that was interesting. I was able to see inside one of the lodges in Lord Astor’s estate where very rich sportsmen spend hundreds of pounds – even thousands – each for the sport of shooting deer. Very grand were the set tables with silver cutlery, crystal etc. Then there were the poisonous adders (I only saw one); the annoying little ticks that sucked blood and itched like the very ‘diel’ (a dab of methylated spirits made them ‘let go’); the biting midges; the goats and deer. And there were all sorts of beautiful insects such as the colourful fritillary butterfly, stunning, delicate blue-winged dragon flies, brilliant green beetles, bright green frogs and burnished, copper coloured flies. More frightening, but harmless apparently, was a huge dragonfly with a large body and a wing span of at least, I’m sure, three inches that came whirring like a helicopter round my head.

One day I climbed one of the Pap’s of Jura – of which there are three. The three mountains – for such they are described – vary in height from about 2,300 ft to 2,600 ft. Unfortunately, a dense mist came down which ruined the otherwise magnificent view I would have had of the surrounding mountains, islands and the mainland of Scotland. On too many nights I was obliged to visit the main pub at the south of the island – not to have done so would have been bad form. My host, with whom I lodged so comfortably, simply loved a visit to the pub. I do not think I have seen whisky consumed by all and sundry with such ease and in such quantities. I was forced to play a careful balancing act practising diplomatic generosity as a play-off against suffering ‘mortal illness’ the next morning. I survived, and managed to fill a sketch book or two, eat venison, collect a few antlers as souvenirs, and see the house in the distance (up north) where George Orwell wrote his classic, ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’ All in all, I really enjoyed my Jura visit.

By the way, Seaton Gordon visited North Ronaldsay in 1951 along with the famous film producer Michael Powell. In any case he presented the then Doctor on the island, Dr. W. Dawson, and his wife, with the book I’ve just been reading, in acknowledgement of their kindness and hospitality during their two day stay.

Whether Michael Powell was looking at North Ronaldsay as a possible site for a film we do not know. In 1937 he had made the film, ‘The Edge of the World’ on the island of Foula – the story of the evacuation of St Kilda. Anyhow, I have this book on loan from Mary Shearer (nee’ Dawson), Dr. and Mrs Dawson’s daughter, and must return it along with some excellent photographs taken during their visit – probably photographed by Powell.

One was of the fine seaman, Johnny o’ North Ness, whose life-saving exploits I wrote about in my account of the loss of the Norwegian MV Mim in 1939. His photograph appeared along with the article, which was published in The Orcadian about a year ago

Another day will be Hogmanay and I see the moon is gaining extra light every night – just the sort of moon phase that the old Linklestoon (my toonship) men would have liked. It would have made their Hogmanay and New Year visits relatively easy as they travelled on foot from house to house. Never does this time of year come round but I recall those past days.

Maybe, just maybe, on the ‘heuld’ o’ the Hogmanay night, when I’m settled comfortably in bed, I shall hear a ghostly ‘chapping’ at Antabreck’s door and into the house will stride the Linkletstoon men again to relive those great days of yore. I will hear once more the familiar voices of past generations.

On the table, I know, will be a large ashet filled with the mutton of our native sheep and ‘jugs’ of home-brewed ale; the old ‘modern mistress’ fire will be crackling and burning brightly; and moving round the company will be my parents busily filling up the ale cans or serving this and that.

As the ghostly company warm up to the occasion a song or two will be sung. For sure my father will be singing ‘A Capital Ship for an Ocean Trip’ with the favourite line ‘I’m off to my love with a boxing glove ten thousand miles away’ and Arnold o’ Greenspot will be having a go at his very own song about the Angels way up yonder – I never heard him sing anything else.

There will be more singers from time to time or all together – Johnny o’ Purtabreck (senior), Johnny o’ Barrenha, Johnny o’ Waterhouse and others – all will add to the entertainment singing such songs as, ‘Tipperary’, ‘The Rigs o Barley’ – Corn rigs, an barley rigs, or ‘Bonny Galloway’. Then, after much persuasion, Willie o’ Waterhouse (senior) will sing, wonderfully well, the old Scots song, ‘The Braes o’ Balquhidder’.

“Will you go, lassie go.
To the braes o’ Balquhidder?
Where the blae-berries grow.
Mang the bonny bloomin’ heather”.

His face will be all a-glow with the night’s celebrations – Antabreck being the last of the ten or so houses visited – and there will be a twinkle in his eye as he sings that song and more.

And if, in this world of make-belief, I dare venture through to the festive room to take my place among the company, every step I take along our connecting passageway will shed away the years until over 40 have flashed past.

But as I open the ‘but’ door, in an instant – as fast as one could ever blink an eye-lid – all the company will disappear and the room will be empty and dark save for the light of the moon which will be creeping in through the corner of the west window, and, like the words of the song, about the great sailing ship far away on an ocean trip, those days will be ‘ten thousand miles away’.