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.