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)