The time of the whistling sticks

Once I wrote a letter from North Ronaldsay called On being off-colour in the summer, in which I described how, for a week or so, I was forced to stay very firmly ‘a-bed’ as they say.

I’m of a mind to tell you of my latest change of fortune. It might serve as a cautionary tale for other potential victims – especially (but not exclusively) those getting on in years, and of how an island casualty gets in to Kirkwall. It’s also useful to remember some words of Burns: The best laid schemes o’ mice and men gang aft agley.

Yes, I shall try to be brief. What began, without any warning with a pain in my right thigh, lasting five or six days, developed, finally, one night, into a period of excruciating pain extending the full length of the leg.

After a time I was able to dose off. When I awoke, early in the morning, I discovered the pain had virtually gone, however the lower right side of my leg (from the knee down), part of my thigh and my foot – excluding the big toe – was ‘numbish’ with some pins and needles and I could not control my ankle from going over.

This (I assure you) alarming discovery, elicited the intervention of our local doctor which ended in a rather spectacular helicopter flight, in the moonlight, from the island, to Kirkwall, and thence to the Balfour Hospital.

The request for the air ambulance helicopter had been lodged, I think, about noon, to the control centre in Inverness.

The machine was somewhere in the Western Isles attending to an ambulance case.

An approximate arrival time was given as after 3pm, but then another emergency intervened.

A new time of arrival was estimated with the helicopter eventually landing at the local airstrip at about 5.50pm.

And so we touched down at the Kirkwall airport just after 6pm.

I’m, of course, not qualified to comment on the medical intricacies of all of this, but as I flew through the night sky I could not help but reflect on the fact that, had I been flying with the previous ambulance arrangements, operated so successfully by Loganair, I could have been at the Balfour Hospital within the hour.

I should say that the Balfour Hospital, and my treatment there, was more than one could wish for.

I was seen immediately by a doctor and later in the evening an x-ray was taken.

This, plus the assessment of the hospital surgeon and that of a consultant orthopaedic surgeon the following day, confirmed what I understood to be a prolapsed disc.

After a day or so I was seen by the head of the physiotherapy department, who also attended to my condition in a most professional manner. He gave me certain rehabilitating exercises to carry out and supplied me with some elbow sticks or crutches.

So, here I am, beginning to write this letter from Stromness where I have lodged for a week, living like, as Richie o’ Girnavald once said to his creel-boat crewman (but in a different context), a Jamaica tourist.

My cousin, Ella, has very kindly looked after me, taking me here and there, on first one enjoyable visit and then another, whilst, at home, my relatives have been as kindly, attending to my farming responsibilities.

Talking about my farming responsibilities, and just to end this account of my ‘aaps and doons’. I should mention, maybe as a warning, that on the final day of reckoning, I had unwisely, on my own, been tackling the re-heading of a stack of square bales.

As I had never got round to tying down the stack-in the summer (despite many lectures) that first earlier, furious gale of wind had lifted the loose hay heading, or the thatch, plus net, quite over the stack.

Although I had help to finish the job, the result of this foolishness ended in the way I have described.

I now return to my week’s stay in Stromness and my visiting sprees. How curious and true it is, that sometimes it takes unusual happenings, unwanted and unexpected, to make contact with, or see friends and acquaintances – even sometimes of years ago.

The fact that one’s home is on an island does limit contact with folk, whereas, living in a more central location, such as the Orkney Mainland, one’s socialising activities would be much easier.

Anyhow, I’m going to mention two particular individuals I made contact with, if I may, in a minute.

Apart from those two (I cannot list everybody) I saw and spent time with friends who, had I not been ‘laid a bittie doon’, I would not, as I said, have visited them at all.

Many subjects were discussed. Some were, appropriately enough, about back and leg problems by those who had experienced similar and worse symptoms than my own.

Other subjects turned over, with North Ronaldsay folk now living on the Mainland, went back through the years – island history and so on, including stories, some of which made me laugh more than I have done for months and months.

Incidentally, one uncomplaining, very Orcadian lady whom I met, (while waiting our turn at the physiotherapy department) and whom I had never seen before, made me stop and think.

I suppose she must have been in her mid 70s. She had two sticks. She told me that since the 1960s, when something had happened to her back which affected her legs, she had had to get about using those sticks and every day she had to take pain killers, but yet she soldiers on.

Imagine that for a moment – over 40 years of pain and restricted mobility. Let’s not complain for one moment about our misfortunes – difficult as that is for most of us.

Now, those two individuals I’m venturing to tell you just a little about – two Orcadians as it happens – and both rather remarkable men and both over 90.

Neither complained about anything and both were happily resigned to their circumstances.

As Johnny o’ Holland would have said, they took a philosophical view of their differing lives. One I visited in the Balfour Hospital. The other I spoke to at length over the phone.

At the hospital, to which I had been taken by car by (Mary Ann Thomson (formerly South Ness), a school classmate of the 40s and 50s, we both met Jock Harcus.

He had been an engineer along with other duties undertaken on the SS Earl Sigurd.

For many years he had worked on more than one boat, serving in various capacities. Folk of my generation, and many others, often sailed in the Sigurd on trips to and from the island.

So we knew most of the crew of those days. I think Jock said that he had been on the Earl Sigurd for 25 years.

The boat made her last voyage in 1969. We talked at length about those days and not without some nostalgia. He spoke with affection about the ship and the reliability of the old steam driven engine.

As young travellers, sometimes we were allowed to visit the engine room. He mentioned how once the Sigurd had sheltered in the lee of an island when threatened by tremendous winds.

Two anchors were dropped, but the engine was kept running with the propeller turning at a speed sufficient to hold their position.

We continued to talk about this and that, then I reminded him of the time he had stopped an animal from escaping up the pier – one for shipping – by catching it by the nostrils, and between that hand-grip and his other arm round the beast’s neck he brought it to its knees. It was shipped.

But such an action was achieved only by his legendary strength – to lift a 50-gallon barrel of oil was no problem. It was most enjoyable to relive those days and to listen to such a great character.

My other contact, by phone, was Jim Craigie, from the farm of Dale, just outside Stromness.

Jim Craigie, and his late wife Molly, had spent a few years in the 1940s and early 1950s at the farm of Holland, in North Ronaldsay, living life to the full in the lively island community of those days.

Of course at that time I was very young and not really acquainted with my elders of another generation. I knew their daughter, Mary, from our school days.

She is about my age and is presently back from Canada and staying with her father. However, the early death of a North Ronaldsay man, Jimmy Thomson (formerly Nether Linnay), who once worked for a time as a young man with Jim and Molly, put us in touch (I required some information for Jimmy’s obituary).

Now this latest escapade of mine got us together again – albeit over the phone. Those North Ronaldsay days feature highly with Jim I know.

Among his many recollections, he remembers the last days of the local football team (at one time there were two teams on the island).

He also mentioned the singling of turnips at Holland when islanders’ helped to single the many acres of ‘neeps’ grown on the farm.

After the work, a good meal and suitable refreshments, a dance was sometimes held in Holland’s large barn loft.

Most likely, we thought, the swinging accordion music of Ronnie Swanney, Trebb, would have rung through the summer night – maybe there were fiddles as well, though Jim could not quite remember.

We continued to ‘discoorse’ about this and that and laughed at stories – some not maybe safe to tell, but to have a talk with this dedicated farmer and cup-winning ploughman (even I noticed he was ploughing last year at one of those Mainland matches) was a real pleasure.

Well, I’ve come almost to the end of this longish letter. If you are wondering about the title, the whistling sticks are my elbow crutches.

When I walk with them outside, the wind plays curious little tunes through the series of adjusting holes.

I’m finishing with a prayer I spied pinned up on Ella’s notice board. It is an anonymous nun’s prayer from the 17th century. But that we all could practise it!

Lord, Thou knowest better than I do myself, that I am growing older and will some day be old. Keep me from the fatal habit of thinking I must say something on every subject and on every occasion. Release me from the craving to straighten out everybody’s affairs.

Make me thoughtful but not moody; helpful but not bossy. With my great store of wisdom it seems a pity not to use it all, but Thou knowest, Lord, that I want a few friends at the end.

Keep my mind free from the recital of endless details; give me wings to get to the point. Seal my lips from aches and pains. They are increasing, and love of rehearsing them is becoming sweeter as the years go by. I dare not ask for grace enough to enjoy the tales of others’ pains, but help me to endure them with patience.

I dare not ask for improved memory, but for a growing humility and a sureness when my memory seems to clash with the memories of others. Teach me the glorious lesson that occasionally I may be mistaken.

Keep me reasonably sweet; I do not want to be a saint – some are hard to live with – but a sour old person is one of the crowning works of the devil.

Give me the ability to see good things in unexpected places, and talents in unexpected people. And give me, Lord, the grace to tell them so.


You couldn’t have guessed this was the end of an era

It would seem, from the opinion of archaeologists and other experts, that the earliest people living on Orkney go back over 5,000 years.

It also seems likely that those people, apart from hunting and fishing, grew grain. This grain is believed to have been a form of bere, or corn as we call it locally, a version of barley grown in our islands until recent times.

I was thinking, it might also be reasonable to assume people have lived on North Ronaldsay for probably as long as on the Orkney Mainland.

Over all those years, until 2005, one could argue that grain, of one sort or another, has been grown, harvested and re-sown on this island.

Some barley is produced today for silage, but no longer are sheaves built into stacks, brought inside and thrashed to supply grain for another year’s crop.

No longer do we hear the thud of the mill engine nor the hum of the high-speed drum as it thrashes the sheaves.

This break in the island’s long history of farming practices does have a ring of finality about it.

To cease something that has gone on for thousands of years without a break is a thought and a milestone in our history.

I suppose that in the evolution of agricultural methods, the ‘saaing cubbie’, sickle, scythe, reaper, binder and baler, and, more recently, silage-making and so on, constituted milestones.

Yet, to have sown seed by hand until 2004 – however old fashioned and unprogressive it may have been – continued a very long historical tradition.

The other night, I was reading through some of my late father’s diaries – in particular the year 1962.

It might be interesting to mention an entry or two and see what was happening 43 years ago around the harvest time of year.

On September 6, he mentions taking out the binder and beginning to cut corn. Oats was the main crop and by the end of September the cutting was finished.

By October 10 the leading, or taking in and building the crop into stacks, was completed. He says that a total of 21 stacks were built at Antabreck with five at Napp (an additional small croft).

Another farm, Cruesbreck, where my uncle lived, was also helped, and though he doesn’t mention the total number of stacks built for 1962, the total for 1964 was 48 stacks. The number in 1962 would have been similar.

Next came the lifting of the tatties, with the resulting 60 sacks being put up on dykes to dry before taking in and sorting.

Then, on October 19, leading at Holland farm, followed a day later by six loads of dung put out on the shift at ‘Danald’s dyke’ – Donald Thomson was a previous owner of Antabreck.

A further seven loads emptied the middens and on October 23 he began to plough ley. By the end of the month, all of Antabreck’s animals were in their winter quarters and on November 2, the first stack of corn was brought into the barn for thrashing, and on that night the island’s harvest home took place.

At the end of the month, corn was being steeped for the making of malt. Later, the steeped corn was spread out on the barn’s loft floor, previously swept and washed for the purpose.

Thus began the process, which would culminate in the making of the North Ronaldsay home brewed ale and the subsequent great Yule celebrations.

Well, folks, all of this brings me to our harvest home which took place in the Memorial Hall, on October 28.

Upwards of 90 attended the event, with many coming to the island by courtesy of Loganair – all friends and relatives to boost our numbers, with six of those coming from as far afield as Cornwall, Banbury, Aberdeen and Elgin.

Guest speaker was Robbie Fraser who was accompanied by his wife Eileen, and the Grieve Family from Rousay – Athol, Ellen, James and Kirsty – had been invited to provide music for the dance, giving our local players a break. Evelyn Gray, the North Ronaldsay Community Association’s president, welcomed the guests and company.

She thanked all the folk who make the evening possible and hoped that the harvest home would be greatly enjoyed.

I then gave a report on the Memorial Hall. Tarring and minor repairs had been carried out. Two new windows remain to be bought and installed (five were fitted last year). Mention was made of the absence of new sheaf decorations; only a token number had been saved from 2004.

Stowers, a type of long, reed grass which grows in the vicinity of loch areas, was used very successfully instead. The person who suggested such a convenient alternative remains unnamed.

Suffice it to say that this individual, apart from trying with difficulty to keep me on my toes with my farming efforts, even comes up with ideas for decorating.

In the past, stowers or bent was used extensively and very satisfactorily, to build in binders and other farm implements to protect them from the weather, rather than housing them in a shed when such storage space was not always available.

It was also used, and still is at one farm, to thatch roofs. The rough grass is cut and made into sheaves and gives good protection.

There are still sufficient straw simmans for a year or two – rolled into large balls they survive for a while. But what then? Shall we be like Robbie Fraser, who, as you will see, went back for fun to the old ways?

After the supper, which included native mutton, cold cooked meats and clapshot, followed by cheesecake and cream, with tea and cakes to finish, Radio Orkney’s Robbie was invited to deliver his harvest home tribute.

Robbie Fraser, seated left, was the guest speaker at this year's North Ronaldsay harvest home. (Picture: Marion Muir)

He began by saying how pleased he and his wife were to be present. He went on to say how the harvest work had changed greatly over the years.

Today, with good weather, a four-day spell could complete the harvesting.

He described how, at their farm in Rendall, they had grown around two acres of oats and had harvested it in the old fashioned way – binder, stooks and some small ‘disses’. This work had been great fun, with neighbours helping.

Among other observations, he mentioned that 2005 had been a difficult year, with a poor summer and prices down at the mart – £180 or so less per stot.

He hoped that next year would bring better weather and better prices. Drawing to a close, he said that we were here to celebrate the harvest of the year – whatever people’s efforts had been. Robbie then proposed the toast to the harvest.

Tables and dishes were quickly cleared away before the Grieve band played for the first dance – the favourite Strip the Willow.

At least three were danced throughout the evening. If ever one wants to liven up the proceedings, announce a Strip the Willow and speed up the tempo.

More dances followed with the well-sprung wooden floor crowded with dancers.

Later, a raffle (run for the benefit of the Memorial Hall’s funds) consisting of a watercolour and numerous other prizes was held.

An excellent sum of £295 was raised. Robbie Fraser, returning in splendid form to his old job as an auctioneer, sold a second watercolour for £315. This brought the total amount raised to a magnificent sum of over £600. Tea, sandwiches, and homebakes were served during the break.

Jen Smith, Alison Duncan, Sandra Tulloch and Ella Henderson enjoy the dancing at the North Ronaldsay harvest home. (Picture: Kevin Woodbridge)

On went the dance in great style with the band and dancers stepping up the tempo.

Four sets of an Eightsome Reel, danced madly as if by whirling dervishes, fairly shook the floor before the last dance was announced.

By 2.30am, it was time for Auld Lang Syne. The memorable evening was brought to a close with hot soup, sandwiches and more native mutton.

That is how, for the 15th year since returning to the old venue of the Memorial Hall for this special event, we celebrated the North Ronaldsay Harvest Home.

As we left the hall, well after three in the morning, the night was quite beautiful. There was a warm wind from the southward and a starry sky was dominated by the Milky Way which glowed brightly across the velvety blackness.

In the east, not far above the horizon, the crescent moon, still cast a little light across the eastern sea.


I was going to say that for a while, we have been enjoying an Indian summer and even as I write, on November 6, the weather for this time of year has been wonderful.

I have just come in from a little walk in the mirking. The sky, rose coloured across the southwest in the afterglow of the sunset, is almost clear except for a few dark purple clouds here and there.

The new moon, crescent shaped just like as on the harvest home night but now rising in the southern sky instead of setting in the east, is quite beautiful.

She will soon disappear, but, for the moment, her luminous, orange-coloured light seems like a lantern just above the horizon. No stars are as yet visible though Mars is a reddish light in the east and the darkening, grey-blue sea seems cold and far away.

By the way, the harvest home tidying-up-day fairly had the helpers in sparkling form, and dancing when finished, with as much enthusiasm as on the night before.

And then, at another venue, celebrations continued until the early hours, finishing with a rather spectacular and furiously-danced Eightsome Reel. The dancers, I’m sure, would have held their own with the fearsome performers in the churchyard at Alloway made famous by Rabbie Burns.

Yes, we certainly had a great harvest home weekend!

Times they are a-changing as school head Patricia bids farewell to North Ronaldsay

This last few days seem like a belated Indian Summer and very acceptable and pleasant it has been.

Yesterday, October 6, the North Ronaldsay Primary School held an open day, and today the holidays begin for the October break.

How very fine it is to have a week or more clear from school midway between summer and winter. I’m trying to remember if, in my school days – some 60 years ago – there were mid-term holidays.

I seem to recall what we called the ‘tattie holidays’ but can’t at the moment get my memory to come up with any clear-cut recollections – a sign, no doubt, of advancing old age.

Talking for a moment about tattie holidays, today, there are very few crofts on the island with this particular crop, and I suppose it would be difficult to justify a school break.

But “Times they are a -changing,” in the words of the Bob Dylan (or is it Woody Guthrie) song.

Anyhow, I was out in the land the other day helping, with others, to gather our next door neighbour’s tatties. Many hands make light work, and in a couple of grand days the job was lightsomely completed.

But to get back to the end of term day. The weather was beautiful with almost summer sunshine and warm southerly winds. A good turnout came to enjoy the school’s open day.

The occasion this time was rather special and perhaps a little sad at the same time, as this open day marks Patricia Wilson’s retirement from teaching – a nice way indeed to end her ten years’ work as head teacher at the island school.

The main hall (partly curtained off) was light and airy with the afternoon sunshine streaming in through the windowed doorways.

Craftwork was the main theme, with many items for sale. This time the venture was run under the banner of The Old Lighthouse Enterprise (small business experience project).

Some of the work was not for sale, such as felt creations, and some beautiful fabric paintings. The travelling art teacher, Christina Sargent, had helped with this artistic work.

The pupils had also attended a class at Andrew Appleby’s pottery (Fursbreck Pottery), where, under Andrew’s supervision, each had thrown a small bowl and very attractive they were. Andrew had donated one of his own pieces to the school.

On the walls were photographs of the pupils visiting the Corrigall Farm Museum where they made simmans, ground corn by hand and thrashed some sheaves with the old fashioned flail.

In addition, during the term, there were regular swimming lessons; varied activities at the Pickaquoy sports centre and a visit to the Orkney Science Festival.

The four pupils, Heather Woodbridge, Duncan Gray, Cameron Gray and Gavin Woodbridge each had a stand selling their unique creations: pot-pouri; jewellery (bead rings and pendants) made from locally polished stones; multicoloured coasters and small brightly coloured items (fimo models); and woven bracelets and scoubidou pendants. Almost everything sold.

Particia mentioned how hard her pupils had worked on the project and, in fact, all year at their studies and how talented they were.

All had won certificates for their good behaviour and hard work, each being presented with their individual certificates and a gift voucher.

Patricia went on to say that Heather Woodbridge was the primary six winner (Orkney schools) of the best design for Pudsey Bear (Children-in-Need competition) subsequently engraved on a set of glasses and a decanter. The set was then auctioned in Kirkwall for Children-in-Need.

Duncan Gray, captain of the ‘Kirkwall A’ rugby team and winner of a number of medals for his playing skills, was praised for his efforts, as was his brother Cameron, who also travels to Kirkwall to play.

An impressive winning trophy was on display which will shortly have the team’s own engraved shield attached. Duncan, as captain of the rugby team, is allowed to have the trophy for a time.

Gavin Woodbridge was also mentioned, a pupil who has his own special talents, and pre-school pupil, Ronan Gray, who had perfect attendance with good behaviour, was not forgotten.

End of an era as North Ronaldsay school head Patricia Wilson (back row second from the right) bids farewell to pupils past and present. Joining her are, back row, from the left: Cameron Gray (P4), Duncan Gray (P5). Heather Woodbridge (P7), Joni Craigie and Louis Craigie. Front row, from the left are: Ronan Gray (pre-school), Lilly Gray( Nursery in '06), Gavin Woodbridge (P4) and Lorna Tulloch. (Picture: Marian Muir)

Patricia went on to thank everyone connected with the school. All had helped in one way and another to make her ten years on North Ronaldsay so enjoyable. Her four pupils then presented their own farewell gift – a beautiful framed photograph of the New Lighthouse taken by Marion Muir.

Tea with all sorts of homebakes was then served to complete a most pleasant afternoon.

A day or two has passed. This morning, Saturday, after a night of continuous rain, I flew into Kirkwall by Loganair in order to attend the opening of Bryce Wilson’s exhibition held in the Orkney Museum. That was enjoyable.

How nice it is to see this artist able to be painting again now that he has retired from his demanding post as museums officer.

By the late afternoon the grey skies had cleared, and it was a pleasure to drive through part of the Mainland in sunshine with the wonderful changing colours that Orkney is so famous for.

I suppose one could spend a week or two just travelling on the Mainland never even speaking of the islands. Imagine spending almost a lifetime without getting round to doing such things.

Now I’m back in North Ronaldsay and just home from Patricia Wilson’s farewell party which took place in the New Centre. I’m beginning, well past the ‘heuld’, to make a start to writing up the occasion.

Evelyn Gray, the new president of the community association, welcomed everybody and invited Gerald Morris to show a laptop presentation of photographs taken by him and his wife June.

The selection covered a year on the island. It was enjoyable to be reminded of some of the sights and sounds of the passing months.

Evelyn then invited Penny Aberdein, service improvement officer. Orkney Education Department, and link officer for North Ronaldsay, to speak.

Firstly, Penny introduced Heather Woodbridge (the eldest pupil) who played a farewell piece for Patricia on her violin.

Penny continued, explaining how she was attending this special event on behalf of the education department.

In her speech, she was profuse in her praise of Patricia’s contribution to teaching on the island; how she had given her pupils many opportunities to meet others of their age group by travelling to the Orkney Mainland.

There, the pupils had experienced and learned much about so many aspects of Orkney’s life and history along with active participation in all sorts of educational activities.

Penny went on to say how much she had enjoyed coming out to the North Ronaldsay School and wished Patricia a happy retirement.

She then presented Patricia with a framed Certificate of Excellence from the education department for her ten years service as head teacher.

In my further tribute to Patricia, as a former member of the community association, I noted her great support for community events; her supply of wonderful homebakes for every possible function – even sometimes when she was not on the island; the much enjoyed end of term open days; her contribution to the religious aspect of island life; the many school concerts and other presentations where she made use of her musical talents, both as a singer and accompanist, to inspire her pupils.

Evelyn, on behalf of the island, then presented Patricia with beautiful gifts: a Freda Bayne cushion woven of wool from the native sheep; a rug also made from the same unique wool, and earrings by Sheila Fleet.

Drinks were then raised in a toast, proposed by Evelyn, wishing Patricia a happy retirement.

In her reply, Patricia said how much she had enjoyed her ten years on the island; how she would especially remember her pupils and the joy they had brought her; the many community events over the years; how she had enjoyed the privilege of getting to know the island and its people and the friendliness shown.

She mentioned the efforts that were being made to revitalise the island and how she hoped we would succeed; how she would be following the progress of her pupils and the community as the years passed. Finally, she thanked the island for the wonderful gifts she had received.

With those pleasant proceedings at an end, tea was served along with all sorts of delicious things to eat: sandwiches, pies, shortbread and home-bakes. For a little longer folk relaxed and talked, having enjoyed a memorable evening.

To finish this letter I go back to the school’s open day. As I left on that sunny afternoon I was reminded of past times – some 60 years ago when I attended the school.

I walked over what remains of the old playground, remembering exciting battles fought between ‘soothyard’ and ‘northyard’ (either ends of the island), when we used ‘bombs’ made of firmly tied long grass; of games of rounders and lea-o-ley and other games for the moment forgotten.

Then I walked down the south school brae where I once travelled all those years ago.

For a short time I was a ‘soothyard’ person as my home was at Cruesbreck, where I was born, on the south side of the island. Then I became a ‘northyard’ resident as the family moved to a new home in ‘Link-lis-toon’ (Linklet toon) – a northyard toonship. So now I was to battle for fun with my former colleagues!

A little down the brae, as I retraced my steps, I stopped to look at the old school well with its little protective dyke.

There the cast iron pump stands unused but remarkably, almost unchanged. Often pupils would be asked to bring water in a galvanised pail for the classroom.

Down the familiar brae I walked but the landscape is missing the many oats and corn stacks that took one’s eye at this time of year, and the prominent building of the island’s mill, working when I was living at Cruesbreck (and for a time afterwards) is now silent and empty. Still, the houses are there. Four are nicely renovated in keeping with the island, with three harbouring new islanders. Others are derelict with their inhabitants long gone.

Now, I turned north. Along the road verges silver weed in autumn colours of orange and dull silver decorated the roadways. A few tattered sow thistles, past their prime, sadly hung their heads.

All of a sudden a golden plover flew swiftly past, and in the distance I could hear the piping of the curlew – or as we call them the ‘whap’.

Before long I had arrived at the stone-built ‘turlie stile’ (once a turning gate) now rebuilt to the east of the new tarmac road.

For many years it was the way up the north school brae – though there was also an ordinary small gate.

Many a time we all climbed over its stone steps as many generations of scholars (as the old folk called them) before us had done, making our way to school up the grassy path.

A nearby stream still runs as it used to do coming from hilly ground to the west.

Well, when last I wrote it was the time of the harvest moon, in another good week it will be the hunter’s moon.

It is chilly outside and the sky is dark but clear. Stars are twinkling brightly with the plough dominating the northern sky, and I can hear the west sea sounding behind Antabreck in the south-westerly wind.

I was just thinking about some of what I have been saying. Yes, as I mentioned earlier, “Times they are a-changing”.

Musing and memories of the old hairst moon

Tonight is the night of the full moon but she has been hiding in a cloudy sky for most of the evening.

A couple of nights ago she looked absolutely beautiful. Occasionally dark clouds might sail past, momentarily hiding her face and sometimes rainbow colours would appear nearby just before she came into view again, but later the sky became a sort of misty grey in which the moon swam ever fainter.

I happened to be out in the night for a spell. From time to time a solitary teewup would give a lonely cry as it flew away, invisible in the night.

A few days ago it was mid-hairst day – 15th September.

The old saying was “Cut green or grey on mid-hairst day.” In other words, even though crop might not be ripe it was the time of year to shear.

Well, I was remembering the old adage and also that we are now in the phase of the harvest moon.

I have to say that in the moonlight the other night and hearing the cry of the solitary teewup I felt rather sad, in as much as this year there is no hairst work to do – no clickety-clack of the old binder, no sheaves, stooks or stacks, nobody to come along and remind the island of past hairsts.

I’m glad that two seasons ago (2003), knowing that, as I said at the time, the writing was on the wall, I set about composing a particular Letter from North Ronaldsay. In that letter I described the process of bringing out the binder, cutting the crop, stooking and leading with two or three peedie stacks being built.

I imagine that had I sown oats this year, the shearing would not have been much fun considering the great amount of rain that has fallen lately.

So at least I/we have been spared some unpleasant work.

But then one had to put up with such difficulties especially when, not so very long ago, so much of the island was cultivated and sown to the old-fashioned Orkney bere and oats. I say not so long ago but really we are talking of 40 years or more ago.

What is missing is the lightsomeness of it all – because along with the bad days there were the good days. And, as I have often described before, there were the days when one helped others to complete the harvest work. It was a type of enjoyment that I do not think we will ever experience or share again in quite the same way. Only for a few will those memories remain of a way of life, it seems, now gone.

Well, this has been a disappointing summer in terms of weather, but otherwise we have had a very busy and varied social life.

First, the three-day Folk Festival, with workshops, talks, a dance, bonfire, barbecue etc.

Then the opening of the North Ronaldsay Archive exhibition with another dance to follow when 14 folk celebrated special birthdays. A wreath was placed at the War Memorial on that occasion.

This was followed by another entertaining week-end with a concert and dance and the first open North Ronaldsay six-mile road run and, because of the inclement weather, an indoor barbecue (operated in a lee doorway).

A sale of work in aid of the North Ronaldsay Trust also took place. I was spared having to write up accounts of the first and last (written by others) but managed the second event.

Of the three dances – one in the New Centre with the other two in the Memorial Hall – the last was a really great night and as good a dance as we’ve had for some time. I suppose upwards of 90 folk participated with a great proportion being in the younger age group. All were very enthusiastic – visitors, islanders, relatives on holiday, and returning islanders alike.

Everybody simply got up and jigged away the night long.

Now that makes for a really good dance. The band: Three in a Bar – Fran Gray, Lesley MacLeod and Hamish Bayne, were in great form – and Hamish in fine voice as he sang a song or two. No amplification required just swinging music in an old hall full of atmosphere, decorated with balloons, bunting and evergreens; good acoustics and a grand dance floor and a chance for older folk to discoorse and enjoy themselves.

What else can I tell you? I think I will have a look outside and see how the old hairst moon is faring – what’s more it’s well past the “heuld” (never mind, I painted a few windows during the day). The sky is overcast but there is, along the southern horizon, a curious luminous light which at least tells me that the moon is certainly still to the fore.

Recently, at the New Centre, we enjoyed an Orkney Science Festival evening, when Anne Sinclair from the Fair Isle gave an illustrated talk about her native isle. She spoke about shipwrecks, island life and the famous Fair Isle knitting.

As well as Anne’s contribution, a Slovenian speaker, Katarina Juvancic, gave a talk about traditional music and its importance to a people’s culture. As her theme she took Slovenian and Scottish/Orkney folk songs. She both played recordings of, and sang, a number of traditional songs.

After a lengthy question and answer session the two speakers performed together a song from Foula. There was an excellent attendance and to end the evening tea and biscuits were served.

On another fine day a group of us tarred the Memorial Hall in addition to doing a few repairs. That was fun, and more fun was had with a dram or two or three when the workers enjoyed a well earned spread of sandwiches, cake etc.

John o’ Westness was in fine form with some particularly amusing stories from the old days.

Finally, a small group of folk from the Orkney Archaeological Trust came out for a few days to investigate an area next to the Broch of Burrian (excavated by Dr W. Traill in 1870/71).

Owing to part of the surrounding sheep dyke having been severely damaged by winter storms, sheep had gained unhindered access to the monument. Their damaging activities had exposed a few artefacts in an area (it was thought) of discarded material from the original excavations.

June Morris took this photograph of the dyke builders at work below Burrian broch.

After careful research a number of additional items emerged: some bone needles; bones of various animals (yet to be identified); a painted stone with Pictish symbols; part of a whalebone; and part of a bone comb.

In addition, the area east of the broch was found to be far more extensive than first thought. This was discovered with the use of a magnetometer which identifies minute quantities of magnetic material – such as burnt residues, which in turn indicates human activity and, therefore, probably more settlements

The main part of the damaged dyke was rebuilt later with a few islanders helped by a number of visitors from the bird observatory including the team from the archaeological trust.

Drs Gerald and June Morris, Howar, owners of the ground on which the broch is situated, kindly served drams and sustaining chocolates to the dyke-builders.

What would the old men have thought? I’m very sure they would not have said no to the fine whisky. The broch is once more protected (at least until the next storm to hit that area) and should recover its protective covering of natural grass in time.

Before the research team left, a well-attended gathering at the bird observatory enjoyed a short talk on the monument’s history and an account of the work carried out. This talk was given by the team leader, Paul Sharman. Photographs were shown and items found were on display.

It was nice to meet up with my school classmate Dr Marion Chesters (nee Tulloch, Kirbest) after the great birthday celebrations (mentioned earlier) and her husband John who is also a doctor. Both are interested in Orkney’s archaeology and were out from the Mainland to help with the work.

I’m finishing this letter on one of those silvery grey mornings with the sunlight filtering through a scattered canopy of high cloud. Pale blue and greenish patches of sky add a bit of colour here and there. The wind is southerly and the day is mild though I think that change is on the way.

Contrary to my idea that the teewup, or lapwing, is a solitary bird at this time of year, I counted 30 or so wapping this way and that, calling to one another as they flew – maybe this was just a back-end get-together!

Flame-coloured montbretia adds a bit of colour to my very limited front garden and a peedie wren has just flown over the dyke. Starlings are chuckling on the chimney enjoying this peaceful morning, and a few of my kye are having a rest as they chew the cud.

Well, I have some more windows and doors to tackle so I shall have a cuppa, as Mary o’ Burray used to say, before I begin.

I hope maybe tonight the old hairst moon will be up in the eastern sky – sad memories though she will bring me. I think she too will be a little disappointed not to see an old-fashioned oats stack or two (actually there is one stack – a loose hay stack made, and build in the traditional way at my late father’s old home not far away) but there we are.

Oh, I’ve just heard the honking of geese and I have counted some 80 or more flying south in an ever-changing vee formation, and the sun has just come out with a freshening wind which is making the montbretia take to a spot of dancing.

A memorable day in more ways than one

Well over 100 years ago, the camera recorded a surprising amount of what took place, and, of course, the camera captured images of people who lived all those years ago.

Then there is the written material – letters, records, documents, books etc, all of which give an understanding of how people lived and worked; how they thought, and how their lives influenced the times in which they lived, and vice versa.

The ongoing collection of that material, and the later recording technology and its availability creates an archive – a place for us and others to learn about our past.

Today, in North Ronaldsay, for example, there are a few folk around who are – so to speak – living archives; folk who remember events and characters or stories told, as long ago as before the turn of the 20th century and of more recent times.

From day-to-day one hears such tales. From them we learn about the island’s history. Sometimes the accounts are amusing but they are also informative.

Those who remember and relate this information are only here for a short time. When they pass on, only a little will be remembered by the next generation.

That will be so, and especially today since technology, both in farming, day-to-day living, and in the world of modern media development, all contribute to the loss of the oral tradition. That is why some record of our history should be preserved for future generations.

One of a number of Millennium ideas submitted by the island was the North Ronaldsay Archive Project.

This project was successful, and on Saturday, July 23, an exhibition in the New Church showing what the archive project means – its aims and progress to date – was officially opened.

Kathleen Scott, archive project co-ordinator, welcomed a company of between 60 and 70 gathered in the New Church, where the exhibition had been mounted.

The work displayed – photographs, maps and information albums – stretched through the main of the church, into the entrance hall and session house.

Kathleen explained briefly how the archive project – a project under the auspices of the North Ronaldsay Heritage Trust – had come about.

Laying a wreath at the war memorial, from the left, are: John Cutt, John Tulloch, Eileen Eton and Sinclair Scott. (Picture: Fraser Dixon)

She explained how the archives would eventually contain a wide range of information including archaeology, prehistory, education, religion, lighthouses, shipwrecks, culture, language and natural history, and that key elements would be digitised.

She went on to say that many people, too numerous to mention here, both at home and abroad, are currently involved in the archive project.

Special thanks go to Alison Fraser, chief archivist, Orkney Library, and her staff, David Mackie, Colin Rendall, Lucy Gibbon and Sarah Grieve and to Roddie Hibbert, Mabel Grieve and Mary Anne Fotheringhame.

Special mention was also made of help from the Orkney Museum and Grainshore Training Centre who fabricated the professional display stands for the exhibitiion.

Funding for the Archive Project had been provided by the OIC development fund, the Esmee Fairbairn Charitable Trust, the Robertson Trust, Orkney Enterprise and SCRAN-RLS.

Cameron Taylor, of Orkney-based consultants, Seabridge, prepared all the applications for funding and Northstar New Media, in Stromness, digitised all the material sent to SCRAN.

After this introduction, Kathleen invited Councillor Sinclair Scott to speak.

He began by saying: “Basically, the Millennium project was the brainchild of a number of people, one of whom was Howie Firth.

“The project was a great idea . . . it has benefited Orkney in all sorts of ways in different places.

“North Ronaldsay has been successful with two applications, one being the archive project – a project which would go on for years – and the other the erection of bird hides.

“The council, I hope and believe, is going to have another project with a similar fund to be set up. The announcement, once the councillors have finalised the system, should be made sometime this year.

“Such projects will attract great assets to Orkney from people outside Orkney who give grants and so on.”

Sinclair finished by saying how pleased he was to see so many folk present.

Alison Fraser was invited to speak.

She began by saying: “I’m really impressed with what I’m seeing. I’ve been watching and seeing it through Beatrice Thomson’s work.

“She has been coming to the archives two or three times a week and I’m really impressed with what she has done.

“A lot of material here is held in the archives in Kirkwall and it’s really good to see it in its original context where local people have much easier access.”

Roddie Hibbert’s contribution was also acknowledged as he scrolls through newspapers alerting Beatrice to anything relating to North Ronaldsay.

Alison finished by congratulating everybody who had been involved with the project.

Kathleen then asked Howie Firth to speak and open the archive project officially.

Howie began by describing the origin of the Millennium money when he was a councillor. He spoke of how, initially, £500,000 was the sum mentioned. Howie’s fellow councillor, and great friend, John Brown, proposed £2 million and it was accepted without more ado. This money, he said, has done great things for Orkney.

He continued: “The past is not another country, it is actually another dimension of the country we all live in.”

Last night (having a preview of the exhibition) an hour went by, Howie said, and he was only half way through a folder.

“The past is not a distant place. The people in the photographs were here and now, the exhibition was taking me into their lives, and their lives and my life was joining at the one time. I felt that other people were in the church and I was among them – and you see them here in the photograph.

“The past is another dimension of the present, and we can access it very easily, if we try – when it matters to us, we begin to investigate.

“Just as the past is not another country but another dimension of the country we live in, and just as that past becomes alive when we investigate it, in the same way an understanding and knowledge and research into the past is the basis for the future.”

Howie then mentioned how people – especially young people – are rediscovering their own culture.

He mentioned the heart, soul and spirit of a place which he sees in North Ronaldsay.

The exhibition and other events happening in the island were proof of this, and he thought the future for the island was both exciting and positive.

Finally, he said how it was a great honour and privilege to be asked to open the exhibition. After a round applause wine was then served.

Shortly afterwards, people proceeded to the War Memorial to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, where Sinclair Scott, Cruesbreck, played the lament.

John Tulloch, Senness, veteran of the Burma campaign, laid the wreath of poppies and, after the two-minutes silence, John Cutt, Gerbo, recited the familiar verse by Laurence Binyon, beginning with the words, “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old…”

Later in the evening, folk arrived at the Memorial Hall for a video presentation called An Orkney Symphony and it proved to be a most enjoyable, well filmed, visual mosaic of the Orkney Islands.

Immediately afterwards, substantial drams were served by a number of folk who had, in this year of 2005, reached milestones in their lives.

Soon a really swinging dance got under way with toe-tapping music being played by Ruby Manson and Tom Newlands, from Stromness.

Taking advantage of the evening were the lively birthday folk who had, in one way or another, reached milestones in their lives,

Celebrating various landmarks, from the left:Ian Scott, Mary Ann Thomson, Kathleen Scott, Billy Swanney, Mina Tulloch, Sidney Ogilvie, Jenny Tulloch and Howie Firth. (Picture: Fraser Dixon)

There were four 60-year-olds: Eileen Eaton (nee Tulloch, Scottigar), Kathleen Scott, South Ness, pupils together at the local school in the 50s. Sandra Mawson, Roadside, a relatively recent new islander, was the third 60-year-old, with our familiar Howie Firth making the fourth ‘milestone person’. Howie was up in Orkney on Science Festival business.

Then, of the island’s 1940 class of five, now all in their 65th year, there was Mary Ann Thomson (formerly South Ness), David K. Scott (formerly North Manse), Billy Swanney (formerly Phisligar), Marion Chesters (nee Tulloch, formerly Kirbest) and myself.

Two others – new islanders or not so new since they have been living here for some years now -Sydney and Anne Ogilvie, Cursiter, brought that age group to seven.

Next came the three 70-year-olds, again island classmates: Helen Swanney, Trebb, Oliver Scott, North Manse and Bessie Muir, (nee Scott, formerly Cavan).

Still more birthday folk are to be mentioned, for present also were two of our more senior islanders. They were Mina Swanney, Cott, in her 80th year, and Jenny Tulloch, Scottigar, who will be 85 before the year is out. With over 90 of a company present, a great cake cutting ceremony eventually took place and much fun was had when a beautifully-decorated, iced cake, baked by Evelyn Tait, Kirkwall, was cut by Mina and Jenny with the rest of the birthday folk providing support and encouragement.

On went the dance with Strip the Willow, an Eightsome Reel, Palais Glide, Pride o’ Erin and so on.

A special birthday cog prepared by Jean Tulloch, Kirkwall, (formerly Upper Linnay), made the rounds through the evening, served by first one birthday pair and then another. Traditional fare was also served as the night progressed.

Ian Deyell and Arthur Cowie supervised the raffle which brought in £147 for the North Ronaldsay Heritage Trust – one of whose commitments is the preservation of the Old Memorial Hall.

So went the night, until, between two and three in the morning, and with the singing of Auld Lang Syne, this memorable day’s events came to a close. Association members, who had organised the evening and attended to their usual duties, finally helped to serve hot soup.

Outside the dawn was beginning to light up a cold northerly sky but the gods had indeed smiled favourably on this 23rd day of July, 2005.

All the ingredients for a heuld horn letter

I wonder if any person who read my last letter (June 2) got round to having a look at Walter Traill Dennison’s classic tale The Heuld Horn Rumpis, of which I made mention?

Well, I’ve decided to begin another letter on the heuld – or near that time (midnight) – simply for the fun of it and, furthermore, I am planning a heuld horn drink (a warm spirituous drink served at midnight) or as close to the mixture as will do.

Dennison mentions a recipe of gin and hot ale, highly spiced, which features so amusingly in the tale. I hasten to add that I’m not in the habit of drinking gin or dabbling in strange concoctions, but consider the experiment interesting.

I’m thinking too that I might continue with the letter and even finish it this very night.

I have done but little today, which partly explains my frame of mind; so I have ordered gin, and I aim to heat up some ale – sadly, not the real old North Ronaldsay ale, but something from a tin. (Actually, mulled ale, even commercially brewed, with a dash of sugar can be most pleasant.)

An occasional swig or more of the heuld horn, now and again as I’m writing, could be quite inspiring!

A heuld horn, incidentally, was made of horn and held a generous amount. I have just seen a note on the size of a horn: Dennison says, even a small one such as he had in his possession, measured three and a half inches in height, while the upper and lower diameters were three and a half inches, and two and a half inches, respectively.

And the local pronunciation of heuld – if I can make an attempt to explain the sound of the word – the ‘eu’ sound, as someone has said, is almost identical with the French, ‘eu’ as in ‘peur’.

I can think only of the vowel sound of ‘u’ in the words ‘ugly’ or ‘smug,’ that otherwise comes anywhere near the ‘eu’ in ‘heuld’.

Hugh Marwick gives quite a lengthy explanation of the word in The Orkney Norn. I am thinking now, though, that a few servings, such as of the size mentioned above, would put an end to any serious writing or much of anything else.

The little jenny wren, whose nest I mentioned in my previous letter, has now hatched out her family. While she was sitting, when I walked through the door nearby, she would tolerate a quick passage; but if I seemed to hesitate – even for a moment – out of the nest she would fly.

Sometimes I would try to see if she was in her cosy home. That involved a fraction of time longer when her little head would pop out with beady eyes watching me.

So her decisions about safety – whether to sit or leave the nest – she made in split seconds. Now, when I pass by two or three peedie opened beaks, yellow lined, appear and then as quickly disappear when they realise that I am certainly no jenny wren.

As to the family of ‘tee-wups’ that were running to safety when I was rolling – not personally you’ll understand – but flattening the ground with a tractor-pulled roller (some folk thought I was actually rolling about on the ground which would have been most amusing) they are not as yet flying but they’ve grown, and now run even faster with longer legs.

And then the peat (I said that not a peat has been turned at Antabreck this year: I meant, in the North Ronaldsay sense, the ploughing of the land). There are no peats in the island. To be a bit more accurate, and using the local dialect, a series of paets (spadefuls) would make a furrow, then a field. How else, ‘for heevens sake,’ could I have sown an acre or two of oats?

The ‘ae’ in paet, by the way, is pronounced as in the old Scots song Ae fond kiss.

Anyway, I do so like the cry of the lapwing or the ‘tee-wup’ in the spring and summer. In the autumn and winter those birds become more solitary, and often in the dark of a night they will, as one passes by, suddenly fly away with one sad cry.

No sign of my bottle of gin – my messenger is dilly-dallying. I’m afraid I’ll just have to bide my time.

Now then, the other day, when the wind was once more in the north, the air was as invigorating as the after-effects of sea spray upon one’s face; or the feeling one has after freshening up with a wash just before going out into the open air.

So spectacular and full of sunshine was the day, with summer-looking clouds rolling endlessly from the north, brilliantly white with purple and pink where the sun made shadows, that one could hardly but feel greatly exhilarated and absolutely alive.

Below this impressive sky, the sea was a blue of deepest intensity, sparkling with the white of broken water.

Such days bring back memories – a curious feeling of something that happened long ago.

Certainly, such a day, with the sea horses flying, would remind the old creel-men of thudding along in their famous praams with the salt spray sweeping the boat and her crew.

The sun would create rainbows which would stay with the boat on the starboard or portside according to the course being run. Ah, for such a day indeed.

It’s past the heuld. Can’t have this. I’m away for my heuld horn drink ingredients. As I set forth, Venus was bright in the south west, and further west, the new moon, crescent-shaped and rather beautiful, hung not too far above the western sea,

We’ve (who? where? – it’s already all round the island!) experimented with a heuld horn mixture, including some spices.

Quite interesting, and not to be trifled with I think – I tried a couple of glasses (no drinking horns at hand though I know there is one somewhere at Antabreck).

Now I’m back home and inside, as I write, but before coming in I looked round about the island.

As well as our lighthouse, another flashed to the west – Noup Head on Westray – and the Start lighthouse on Sanday threw forth her beams.

In the north, dark purple clouds sailed overhead, disappearing away south. Nearer the horizon, more elegant, darker clouds formed zig-zag patterns like carefully-drawn shapes seemingly unmoving, beyond the force of the wind. And then at another level – higher, near the crown of the sky – pale, ghostly clouds moved in unison with their darker companions.

It’s now well past the heuld. This is ‘waant o’ wut’ – without much sense.

As soon as my letter appears I shall hear some very critical comments about my activities – or lack of more important ones.

Never mind, let me see what is happening outside at this hour – coming on three in the morning.

The early dawn is in the sky, rose-coloured above changing cloud formations, which stretch like distant mountain peaks across the northern sky.

The wind is still in the same direction but the sky above is now clear and brighter than before.

I can hear in the distance the call of oyster catchers and of the ‘whap’ or curlew. Occasionally, a native ewe (brought in from the shore to feed on the grass for the lambing time) calls to her off-spring, and the sea is still dark and foreboding.

Willie Swanney, who lived at Verracott, North Ronaldsay, spreading dung in the early 1960s. (Picture: Mary A. Scott)

The first house I see in the brightening of the dawn, is Verracott (recently renovated and occupied from time to time).

There lived Willie whom I remember, a tall, arresting-looking man who still made use of his horse into the early 60s.

In his youth he worked for a time, as many young men from the island did, on Mainland farms and others in the North Isles.

I remember him once singing a snatch from the bothy ballad The Dying Ploughboy.

Further north, in fact the most northerly croft, Nether Linnay, is silhouetted against the cloudy background but it stands sadly, and rather lonely, with memories of past generations, as does Burray and others that I see which fit snugly into the island landscape.

Before coming in to finish this letter, I stood for a time with the north wind blowing in my face. There was the heavy hushing of the sea carried by the wind, with a line of white surf visible along the shoreline. The call of a bird here and there would sound across the land. This feeling, this turning of thought and memory to scenes from the past, would come again.

I knew that it was unlikely that any soul, save myself, would be out at this bewitching hour of the morning, which somehow made my contact in memory closer with those folks now gone.

It’s strange, but you know very often in one’s dreams, as an old Chinese poet said: “It’s there where once again we can meet up with those we once knew.”

But like most dreams, the seemingly very real happenings which at the moment of wakening seem so crystal-clear, just fade away like the rose colours of the early dawn.

Harvest at Antabreck will never be the same

It’s a while since last I wrote, so here goes for another letter.

This is the month of May when the weather should be looking and feeling like summer.

Instead, on the 17th of the month, large flakes of snow came swirling, heavily, albeit briefly, out of the north and whitened the ground for a time. Imagine that! Almost unbelievable, you might think at this time of year.

What is also as unbelievable (to some of us at least) is that five islanders, of whom I am the only one living on the island, who went to school together (1945-1952) can now say that we have all become OAPs – the two ladies of our school class have, of course, been in that category since they turned 60.

Anyhow, when we and our contemporaries were younger and heard of this person and that person reaching pension age, we generally thought: “Weel, the’ir juist gottin tae be aald fok.”

On the other hand, at least the bluebells are in bloom and the old fashioned lily (narcissus) has appeared lately.

I look forward every year to their arrival, and always have a few in the house. The scent of these flowers pervades the room, and their elegant form is a pleasure to the eye.

As to being OAPs, I’m always reminded, as I’ve mentioned before, of the old Chinese poet, 2000 years ago, who wrote a poem on being 60.

He said that he was far from old age and being decrepit, and that between 60 and 70 he could still seek the rivers and hills. Let us hope firstly, that the weather improves and that secondly, OAPs can be like the Chinese poet – even beyond the 70 mark.

A few days ago, when we were enjoying a brief spell of fine weather, the moon could be seen during the day in the east. She appeared like a ghost in the blue sky. It seems very strange to actually see the moon when the sun is shining, but there she was.

Two days ago she was full, and at night looked magnificent, but last night she swam in a watery sky and tonight her silvery light is hidden behind a canopy of cloud. The wind is a cold southeasterly, and grey, sullen mist that came down in the mirking has turned into rain and I can hear the pitter patter on the roof. In fact it’s not at all pleasant and the mournful sound of the foghorn comes and goes.

The only consolation is the calling of the birds: In particular the whistling of the ‘whap’ but I can also hear the ‘sheldars’ in the background and the easterly wind carries the tang and sound of the sea

Speaking about birds – when I was out in the fields recently doing a bit of rolling, I saw three young lapwings or, as we say, ‘tee-wups’. They were running as fast as their legs could carry them, first one way then another.

All the while their parents flew above, sometimes landing, but decidedly guiding their family from the air away from mortals such as myself.

And then in the barn, for days, I had been aware of a little wren flying out through the open door as I went through.

On closer investigation I discovered a nest, most beautifully made, cup-shaped with the smallest entrance hole. At night I had a better look with a flashlight – away flew Jenny Wren, but I knew she would be back. On tiptoe, I could see four tiny, whitish coloured eggs, and the inside of the nest, which had been woven of hay, was lined neatly with white feathers.

Her nest had been made in the coils of an old sisal creel rope from the 60s.

For some 40 years or so the old rope had hung untouched. Once it had helped to catch a lobster or two, now it was being put to use to bring a family of wrens into the world to entertain us with their musical song.

This is another day and, after a night of heavy rain – 11.9mm, John Cutt tells me – the wind has swept strongly into the southwest. The sun has been bright all day and the west sea is fairly dancing.

As the evening began to close-in, the wind moderated a little, but into the north it seems to be heading. Grey and pink-tinged cloud began to fill the sky and away on the horizon the yellow and orange of a mostly hidden sunset appeared above the cold, steel blue of the sea. If this weather continues, silage, hay and grass will certainly not be very abundant this season.

Island news I’ll cover briefly as well as I can remember – my diary is a help. After the school’s open day at Easter, the North Ronaldsay Trust held a spring fayre when many and varied items were for sale, with numerous attractive and valuable prizes kindly donated for the raffle.

Two members of Friends of the North Ronaldsay Trust travelled from the Mainland to help. A sum in excess of £400 was raised.

Otherwise, the community association ran a series of evening classes, in yoga and computing, ending in March, and a whist drive raised around £70 for the association; while, at the bird observatory, a most enjoyable informal get-together took place, when a number of very competent musicians from the Mainland performed over a weekend stay.

On the two evenings a good company of islanders and visitors enjoyed the music and song.

Two talks at the community centre took place relatively recently and were well attended. First was John Mowat who gave an illustrated lecture on the Faroe islands – updating a previous one (Aberdeen University sponsored lectures), and a little later Jenny Taylor (Orkney Woodland Development Project) gave useful and expert advice on treeplanting – a difficult business requiring knowledge on soil suitability, initial protection, and the most likely type of tree to survive Orkney’s exposed geographical situation.

Island work such as native sheep punding, ploughing, artificial fertilizer sowing, rolling etc has more or less followed the usual season’s pattern. Barley has now, I believe, all been sown. Sadly perhaps, after, I suppose, hundreds of years, not a peat has been turned at Antabreck.

No oats sown for the first time in my memory at this house – the hairst time will never be the same.

Well folks, this is not going to be too long a letter. For the moment I think I’ll go to bed before the ‘heuld o’ the night’ which is fast approaching – I’m going though, to read a bit more of Walter Traill Dennison’s book, The Orcadian Sketch-Book (published in 1880), a copy of which I have on loan.

While on a visit recently I came across this book and in it I saw Denninson’s classic story, The Heuld-Horn Rumpis – a tale which I have been long wanting to read. It is written (as all the stories in the book are) in the dialect of the writer’s native isle of Sanday.

Dennison says: “The author’s principal object has been to preserve the dialect of his native islands . . .”

The heuld is explained as midnight, and the heuld horn was a kindly old custom of Norse origin where sometime after the guests had retired to bed, the lady of the house would make a round of the bedrooms offering every guest a drink of warm spirituous liquor.

This was, Dennison says, the “heuld-drink” which was presented in a small horn vessel called the “heuld horn”.

I can tell you that, in this particular story, the heuld horn offered to the guests and the copious refreshment before certainly led to a proper ‘rumpis’ – at one point in the narrative a minister, who had sensibly retired to bed was offered the “heuld-drink” by the formidable lady of the house.

Being a widow twice over, she had other designs on her guest who was fortunate to escape through the window but with only part of his bed-gown remaining.

Another day and the wind is in the north and forecast to veer into the northeast with more rain on the way.

The morning brought ‘flams o’ weet,’ but as I draw this letter to a close, the sun has just appeared, veiled behind thin cloud. Nevertheless, the air has warmed a little.

I’ve just had a phone call to tell me that there is a three-masted sailing ship passing to the north. She is a fine sight as she sails swiftly east with the flood and a following wind. Her white sails (some furled) stand out against a dull sky of pale blue and passing, purple tinted cloud. Her hull is painted red.

I imagine she is about halfway between the island and the Fair Isle which I can just see behind the ship – today there is a bit of haze in the distance giving the isles a pale blue, faraway appearance.

This is indeed a sight from the past and conjures up memories of the great days of sail one reads about; flying down the Roaring Forties or scudding along with the trade winds or fighting a perilous passage round Cape Horn.

A verse from John Masefield’s poem Sea-Fever should round off this letter nicely.

I must go down to the sea again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

Rhythms of art and island life

An art school life study, 'an essential alphabet of three dimensional form.'

Last year, I wrote a letter which was intended as a reply to several folk who had asked questions about an exhibition of my work held in the Pier Arts Centre, Stromness. Questions about my art and about island life.

Sometimes a considered response, written at leisure, is the best way to answer such queries.

Here is my letter. Perhaps, it may be of interest to today’s young art student or to others who wonder.

After art school days at Grays in Aberdeen I came back to North Ronaldsay – that was in 1962.

My parents were still in their prime and I had brothers and sisters who shared the work.

Since the island population was around 160, there were folk who could help and, conversely, there was time to help.

In many ways the island was still very much alive; it was an island where its folk had grown up together and lived together for most of their lives.

They also shared a common history stretching back through the generations. It was an island very different from today; agriculture has changed dramatically as has almost every aspect of life, but perhaps most serious of all, the population has fallen to around 60.

In those far off days I had the time to produce the artwork that I wanted. I could travel to further my artistic research and development and I could enjoy island life.

There was the fishing, the communal work involved with the tangles, native sheep and the hairst work, contact with the older generation with their knowledge and experience and so on.

Time seemed to be there for the taking. But time steals away the years; folk age, as earlier freedoms, once taken for granted, become less and less, other commitments appear and the years slip away all the more speedily.

Then, one day, before we are fully aware of what is happening, the reality of the passing years becomes apparent.

If I recall my art school days and make at least one comparison with today’s teaching, I think there is now more emphasis put on written work – at least that is my impression.

Too much theory can detract, I believe, from actually getting down to developing the art of sculpture, painting, or whatever discipline one specialises in (if one really wants to become a practising, creative artist).

Imagine, for example, learning how to be a farmer or a fisherman from a book! I’m not saying that the theory of art, with its historical background etc, should not be the subject of detailed study with a degree qualification at the end of the day; but there is a big difference between the purpose of this knowledge and the knowledge of a creative artist.

I always felt every year was important and that even four were too short. Two were a general course – anatomy, history of art and architecture, drawing, design, painting, sculpture, metalwork, jewellery, ceramics etc. Then, for two years, one specialised in one of the three main subjects – painting, design or sculpture.

It is at this stage that a fifth year would be so useful and, having had that advantage, I am convinced of it.

The studios, plus equipment and materials, all supplied virtually free, were a great thing to have during those early informative years.

An Egyptian sculpture - powerful and monumental, and showing the simplification of form.

It was an unrivalled opportunity to develop artistic abilities from day to day – something that one loses initially when the art school days are over.

In the sculpture department, where I finally settled, we learned to model in clay, cast in plaster-of-paris (portraits, lifesize pieces etc) and we did basic carving, mostly using sandstone or serpentine.

Also used, was a soft building material called siporex – enabling students to get the experience of carving quickly.

Letter cutting was taught, working in slate, marble or granite. Leo Clegg, head of the sculpture department at that time, said that a sculptor should be able to draw, model, carve, cast, cut letters etc – all the skills a sculptor should have.

In carving granite, marble, wood or whatever, the process is slow. As it happens, I prefer modelling/building up.

However, working in clay means one has to cast the final piece, a tedious process of making plaster moulds and creating a plaster (or other mediums) replica with all that entails – casting, laminating, joining, chipping out, finishing, colouring, polishing etc.

On the other hand, modelling directly in plaster (as I did for my recent exhibition) is much faster and one has the satisfaction of seeing a piece of work evolving quickly.

I think when modelling in clay one has more control – it’s slower but arguably gives a more considered creation.

If a portrait or a figurative piece (or an abstract sculpture for that matter) is not going well, then one can simply slice away the clay and begin again – not so easy for either set plaster and even more difficult with setting/set cement.

When working in plaster or cement all the additional procedures are eliminated, though one is restricted by a medium that sets quickly – 20 minutes or so for plaster.

And, if modelling in cement, cement does not tolerate interference – apart from anything else it could weaken the structure.

I should say that plaster-of-paris, by comparison, is easily worked with surf-forms or the like, even when hard and properly cured, but the disadvantage with a plaster piece is that it is fragile and so one is then looking at another cast with the replica in cement, bronze, or cold cast resin bronze, to name three possibilities.

As a sculptor, I believe the most difficult challenge is modelling, or carving a lifesize study of the human figure.

If one looks at an ear, eye, hand or foot, let alone the body, we are confronted with all sorts of shapes, changing angles, subtle planes and proportions.

Once life studies are mastered, then a sculptor (or painter) is well on the away. From that basis – just like learning to read and write – an artist can develop his or her ideas. The very same principle applies to all work which I believe is an art of one kind or another: building with stone; the carpenter or the knitter; the person who ploughs the fields or the fisherman and so on.

Clay study of a lifeboatman

Each learns the basic skills and every person will have a different talent with a different approach and degree of accomplishment all their own.

Let me now mention my painting. I have always aimed at producing a picture that captures, in a way that most folk will understand, the atmosphere, colour and, if I may use the word, the essence of North Ronaldsay or of the Orcadian landscape.

Maybe as a sculptor, with my interest in three-dimensional form, I might dwell a little longer on eye-catching shapes where rock and stone feature.

I do not attempt to be entirely realistic, since a camera can manage that. Instead I paint quickly, mostly always on location in a free impressionistic style, concentrating on the overall interest of the scene, leaving out unnecessary detail.

A painting, if not completely finished, must convince me that it will be a success – the colour and composition has to be good.

Further development and finishing touches may be necessary and that will mostly be done later at home before the oil paint begins to harden. Watercolour, by comparison, is a more instant medium and has generally to be finished in one go.

Mostly, my art is a question of getting down to work. The difficulty sometimes is making that start.

When one does (taking painting as an example) there will be frustrating failures.

And even when one has got under way, not every day goes successfully. Mentally it is often hard to force oneself back to work after days of failures and particularly if there are deadlines to meet or other distracting work to do.

What else is there? Yes, my so-called abstract sculpture.

Some folk say: “No I don’t understand it.”

It’s very simple. Suppose someone, who was greatly taken with North Ronaldsay, wanted a painting to remind them of the island. That is easy. Paint a picture.

Suppose they asked for a sculpture. Well, I could model a portrait of someone or maybe a figure – a farmer, peat-carrier, fisherman etc. But what about something other than a human representation?

Something which reminds them of the sea, a bird in flight, such as the forever gliding fulmar, or the graceful tern; sea shells and rock formations; the streamlined dogfish or the wonderfully engineered pincers of the sea-urchin; or curious-shaped seaweed, stone and broken shells that one finds every other fishing day in the lobster creel or along the shore.

It’s possible to look at those many objects and create a piece of work which could be based on one, or which could combine two or three or more.

Would that not remind a person of a day fishing or a walk on the beach? That is what I sometimes do. And when I do, I remember the complicated human body – that essential alphabet of three-dimensional form and understanding.

I remember Egyptian sculpture with its monumental, simplified forms. I even remember days at sea — the artistry, if you like, of balancing in a small open boat against the moving waves with every fleeting view a work of art.

For, against each heaving mass of water, the boat and fisherman counter poise and shift to meet the rise and fall, imperceptibly following the rhythms of sea and sky.

And what about the rhythms of North Ronaldsay itself? I hadn’t thought about it like this before, but I was just thinking about what I have been saying – about the artistry in our day to day activities.

Perhaps, one could compare the island to a work of art. The island has sometimes been described as a jewel set in azure seas for example. How could the island be, so to speak, a sort of living work of art?

That would be interesting. Well, it would have to look good from all perspectives.

If there were bad areas, changes would be required, as in my piece of sculpture that was not coming along well.

To wipe everything away, as I sometimes do when a painting is not going satisfactorily, is perhaps too drastic – though often I find the best solution is a new beginning.

One of Ian's abstract sculptures

This piece of island art would have to be balanced – just like the fisherman and his boat at sea.

Not only that but it would have to meet the challenge of adverse weather as well. Could the island be looked at as it was in the past, when, arguably, as I said earlier, it was alive and island life could be enjoyed?

I believe it could. It would require a few touches of vibrant colour, such as young families.

More people would be around to help, just as we did in our early days. They would, most importantly, have to respect and carry on the best of the old traditions and customs, which cover almost every aspect of island life, and, at the same time, develop new opportunities.

Then, possibly, a frame could be placed round the picture, and North Ronaldsay could be displayed for all to see.

I am including four photographs of pieces of sculpture as an explanation of the above text. One is an art school life-study – that essential alphabet of three-dimensional form.

Another is of an Egyptian sculpture – powerful and monumental, and showing the simplification of form.

A third is my clay study for a lifeboat-man – showing something of that Egyptian concept.

There, for example, the folds of the clothing are reduced to uncomplicated forms, leaving the essential figure strong and complete.

The fourth shows one of my abstract sculptures based on natural forms but using the knowledge gained and developed from those examples.

New twists to Burns tradition

“Then let us pray that come it may,
As come it will for a’ that,
That sense and worth, o’er a’ the earth,
May bear the gree and a’ that,
For a’ that, and a’ that,
It’s comin yet for a’ that’
That man to man, the warld o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that!”

Suppose, for a moment, that you were asked to propose the Immortal Memory. And suppose that you agreed to carry out the request jointly (you and your partner), and just think that the audience had been able to listen in on your developing ideas.

Well, that is exactly how the North Ronaldsay Community Association’s guest speakers, John and Naismi Flett from Kirkwall, presented this year’s Immortal Memory.

There they were sitting at a table (as if at home) discussing ways about how best to put together their speech; wondering what the North Ronaldsay folk would make of it all. From time to time, to emphasise a point or illustrate the humanity or the satirical and perceptive genius of the bard, they would recite a special poem or quote a verse or two: Holy Willie’s Prayer, John Anderson, Mary Morrison, The Twa Herds, My Spouse Nancy and so on.

I can tell you now that John and Naismi, as you might expect, gave the most wonderful tribute to Burns – one which, I’m sure, will be long remembered.

Upwards of 70 folk attended the Burns Supper held on Saturday, January 19, in the new community centre.

A number of visitors from outside the island were present this year as it happened, including the newly appointed development officer for North Ronaldsay and Sanday, Rose Seagrief.

A number of North Ronaldsay folk also came out for the event. This meant moving from a smaller venue into the main hall. The night before the event a few of us rolled up our sleeves, got down to work, and decorated the large hall.

Up went three nine feet or so wide curtains of red, blue, and green, covering the stark white walls and reducing the hall in size by a quarter or so. On to the draped curtains we hung tartan rugs, lengths of tartan material, hessian and scrim with neep baskets and various assorted riddles – all implements such as Burns would have used.

Across a false ceiling, which we brought down to about the curtain height by stretching fine netting across the hall, we scattered many red roses made from crepe paper. All of that in candle and lamplight created an atmosphere very suitable and cosy for the night’s proceedings.

To begin the evening, Peter Donnelly, North Ronaldsay Community Association president, welcomed everybody. He acknowledged the efforts of many willing helpers (without whose work no successful event could ever happen) and introduced the association’s guests. Two speakers have already been mentioned but there were other quests: Innes Wylie (pipes) and Grace Wylie, of Dearness, Howie Firth, Fiona Driver (fiddle) and her partner Keith Rendall, of Rendall.

This year, two pipers wearing kilts piped in the haggis – Innes Wylie and our local piper Sinclair Scott (both members of the Stromness British Legion Pipe Band). They made a couple of rounds of the hall for good measure. Between the two marched the chief cook, Winnie Scott.

Howie addressed the haggis with much verve, to be followed by the Selkirk grace recited by John Cutt. The pipers then marched out playing Highland Laddie.

Cider accompanied the supper, with ample drams being served later in readiness for the main toast of the evening.

We then enjoyed John and Naismi’s Immortal Memory, which, as I explained, was so wonderfully and so very grandly performed. They had extra lights for their readings but otherwise they sat or stood up in candle and lamplight with Burns’ portrait looking on in the background.

After the Immortal Memory, Sidney Ogilivie proposed the Toast to the Lasses and his wife Anne replied. They performed this part of the programme very nicely indeed with both their speeches delivered in rhyme, basing their discourse on For a’ that and a’ that (with apologies to Burns).

Howie Firth, who last year recited Tam o’ Shanter, followed with a short tribute to Burns and a near contemporary, Slovenian poet, France Preseren. (In Slovenia, on January 25, there had been a celebration of the two poets’ lives.)

Howie began by reminding us of the tsunami disaster and of the Holocaust, this year being the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. He went on to talk about the similarities of the two poets, quoting some verses to illustrate, in particular, the two men’s belief in the brotherhood of man.

Sidney, by special request, then sang Kellyburn Braes, a 14-verse poem by Burns (slightly changed by Sidney to suit the tune). It is always enjoyable to listen to the song.

This was followed by the fiddler, Fiona Driver, who has been a guest performer at a previous Burns Supper. Once again we listened to her fine fiddle playing. She began with two slow airs by Neil Gow, followed by strathspeys and reels by Gow and others of the period. How very fitting it is to listen to music such as Burns would have known and in the same lighting as would have been used in those days of over 200 years ago.

John Cutt continued by reciting, in his inimitable style and in the North Ronaldsay dialect, a short story, Things we said in Aalden Days, written by Allan Taylor (Kirkwall).

Slight adjustments had been made to suit the local situation as the reader explained. The reading caused much amusement and I’ve no doubt that Burns would have thoroughly approved of the keeping alive of the local dialect.

To conclude the programme, Howie proposed a toast to North Ronaldsay. At the first official Burns Supper held in the island in 1933 such a toast was made. It seems appropriate to continue with this tradition and Howie, as he did last year, delivered a short speech full of interest when he talked about several people from the past: Sir Walter Scott, the lighthouse-builder, Robert Stevenson, Rev George Low, Colonel Thomas Traill and Earl Rognvald of Orkney.

Howie imagined that they would have readily raised a glass to join in with the toast to North Ronaldsay.

Soon the dance got under way. Sometimes folk were in a “discoorsie” mood, other times in a dancing mode.

Innes Wylie played accordion, as did Ann Tulloch. From time to time Fiona Driver accompanied on fiddle, as did Jim Sinclair (Shapinsay) on guitar, Kathleen Scott and Victor Reid (Kirkwall) tapped out the rhythm and I tinkled a key or two in between times.

Sinclair played a fast eightsome reel which had us in a whirl. Great was the mood of the night.

During the tea break, with homebakes, currant bun and Westray shortbread being served, the raffle in aid of the tsunami disaster was drawn, with Ian Deyell and Peter Donnelly officiating. Many were the generous prizes donated and very magnificent was the amount raised (including donations) – £510.70. The door takings were also added to the fundraising efforts, making a total of £893.20. That sum, plus other monies from the community council gave, a grand total of £1,493.20 for the appeal. Collection boxes from around the island have yet to be opened.

Fiona Driver played a selection of toe-tapping tunes in her seemingly effortless style (accompanied by Jim Sinclair on guitar) before the last two dances were announced.

By around three in the morning the singing of Auld Lang Syne brought our celebrations for Scotland’s national poet to a close.

It also brought to a close what is now our tenth celebration of Burns (after a lapse of some years). It was, in fact, the former director of education, Jim Anderson, who provided the inspiration for this revival. He had been our Harvest Home speaker in 1995 and reminded us that 1996 was the 200th anniversary of the poet’s death and so he became our first speaker in our revival of the commemoration – a revival which has brought much enjoyment.

Last night, the stars were brilliantly clear, with Orion for a time dominating the eastern sky. Earlier, the sunset, mostly hidden behind black, purple clouds, left a line of orange close to the horizon. And above the dark clouds, in between the main canopy which extended in all directions, the background sky was a beautiful pale, luminous green. All day the West Sea was thundering away.

North Ronaldsay's winter is possibly three-quarters gone, judging by the weather on Candlemas Day.

Tonight, February 3, at the mirking, I heard a blackbird trying out a few notes. Is this a good or bad sign so early in the year, I wonder? Either way it’s grand to hear the blackbird begin to sing once again.

The oystercatchers are also calling.

But what about Candlemas day, February 2?

“If Candlemas day dawns bright and fair, half the winter’s to come or mair” – is that how the rhyme goes?

Well, it was a fair morning followed by a misty “weet,” so maybe a quarter of the winter is still to come.

In Holland House’s gardens, and in other shelters here and there, the snowdrops are hanging their little heads. They are the first sign of the coming spring and, if one takes a look under their peedie petals, delicate colours of green and orange surprise and please the eye.

One month is past, another is begun,
Since merry bells rung out the dying year,
And buds of rarest green began to peer,
As if impatient for a warmer sun;
And though the distant hills are bleak and dun,
The virgin snowdrop like a lambent fire,
Pierces the cold earth with its green-streaked spire
And in dark woods, the wandering little one
May find a primrose.

Hartley Coleridge

Lifeboat fundraiser provokes memories of a trip to the ‘North Ronaldsay of Shetland’

Yesterday was Christmas Day, and having done very little today I thought I would begin to write up our Yule events and one or two earlier ones.

In November, at one of the Aberdeen University lectures, we had a well-attended talk on aviation (illustrated with slides) given by a retired airline pilot, Captain Bill Innes.

Of much interest were his photographs of different types of aeroplanes, many of which he had flown.

The photographs showed machines flown during his national service days in the RAF, up until piloting the big transatlantic BEA passenger airliners.

Of interest too, were a few historic photographs taken in the 30s, which he had included, of Captain Fresson’s planes in North Ronaldsay. One lady in the audience, Janet Tulloch, Scottigar, had flown as a passenger with Fresson.

More recently, the North Ronaldsay Lifeboat Guild held their annual (and enjoyable) fundraising event.

As is always the case, the island responded very generously when over £825 was spent. Raffles, local goods, Christmas cards, calendars and so on, provided the attraction.

RNLI collection boxes brought that sum to almost £900. Although this amount is not entirely all clear profit for the institution, a considerable sum is, and I think it is commendable that a small island can muster such effort and support.

Later, a whist drive raised over £100 to help with the bairns’ Christmas Eve party. Though some children were away from the island this year, others from the Mainland were present.

All the usual entertainment, including Santa’s visit, took place in a hall glittering with Christmas decorations.

The school meals Christmas dinner for the island was well attended, with the school children giving a short musical performance.

By way of a change this year, Patricia Wilson conducted, and played the music for a service of Christmas Carols held in the New Church a few days later.

Her pupils read appropriate Bible readings from the pulpit, between the singing of many of the old familiar carols. Soft drinks and warm Christmas pies were served later to over 30 residents, making a most pleasant end to the occasion.

In speaking of the island’s lifeboat guild’s fundraising evening, I’m reminded of the Longhope lifeboat disaster in 1969. I suppose many will remember the day, and I’m sure the tragedy is still thought about by Orcadians especially at such events.

Well, I was going to say that in 1969, I travelled up north to Shetland to spend a couple of weeks making drawings, mainly of rock formations.

While there, I spent some time in Unst, also I visited the Hillswick area, Sumburgh and Bressay.

Unst was reached by sailing on the old Earl of Zetland which gave a wonderful sense of the islands and those northern waters. I especially remember calling in past Whalsay – a place full of activity, for those were the days when the fishing in Shetland was going very well.

Steaming up to Unst past the islands in one of those old coal-powered ships reminded me of many a similar trip taken in another Earl, the Earl Sigurd, when, in the 50s and later, we made the sea-trip from Kirkwall to North Ronaldsay. Unst was in a way the North Ronaldsay of Shetland.

November was the month I travelled to Shetland, and although the weather was reasonable to begin with, snow fell a week or so into my visit and it became very cold.

Nevertheless, I had to soldier on, clad in a suit of black oilskins, with gloves to keep myself reasonably warm for drawing.

One day while walking on a slope, I slipped. Dressed in oilskins I suddenly found myself quite out of control, careering like a toboggan. Fortunately, I came to a stop, as I was not that far from a cliff face which dropped vertically some distance down to the sea. The experience left me considerably shaken, and from then on I stayed well away from any cliff areas or steep, questionable slopes. One day in Lerwick, when it was snowing, I spent a day making studies of various natural objects in the museum.

There were cases of all sorts of fascinating shells, interestingly-shaped archaeological objects, models of beautiful old Shetland boats such as the foureens and sixereens and so on.

During my travels I carried a 35mm Russian camera, a Zenet, taking photographs wherever I went. I must have a look at those slides sometime and see if they are still showable.

They were viewed in North Ronaldsay one night over 35 years ago before a dance in the Memorial Hall. Ronnie Swanney, from Trebb, might well have been playing his accordion that evening. When he was really in form, his music swept folk along and if everybody was not up dancing, then their feet would have been tapping out the rhythm.

As I write, I’m beginning to think that I may have mentioned something of my Shetland visit in a previous letter. Anyway, I was going to say that when I went across to the island of Bressay from Lerwick – a short ferry trip – I actually attended the Bressay harvest thanksgiving service.

It was conducted by James Lennie Matches (who came from Stronsay originally). He had married a first cousin of my late father – Emma Tulloch, from Upper Linnay.

I think I stayed two weekends with them and what laughs we had going over old times in North Ronaldsay. Matches had a great sense of fun and had preached here for a time in the 20s.

A couple of fun weekends were spent with James and Emma Matches during Ian's 1969 visit to Shetland.

He also had entertaining stories to tell about his experiences in Shetland, as he had been a preacher in Burra Isle, Uyeasound, Yell, Unst, and Whiteness, before ending his preaching days in Bressay.

Emma was a nurse and she was just about to retire from working in Montfield Hospital. Every day she had to travel from Bressay by ferry to work. Today, I hear that there is either a bridge or an underground tunnel planned. Imagine that!

In the 80s I used to listen to Rhoda Bulter’s programmes on Radio Shetland. Thinking of those programmes (the playing of old 78s) reminds me of trimming creels or corking ropes in the early summer shortly before the fishing season began, for often I would have Radio Shetland switched on where I worked in the open air.

And remembering those days it would be grand, on a summer’s day to sail once more round to the North side, there to set a creel or two in the old familiar sets. Perhaps in the Swallow Rock Ley, the Sholtsquoy Ley or the Blue Pow Ley, maybe one at the Kirn o’ Rue or two or three in the Caty-Holes at the back o’ the Green Skerry. Those names are interesting.

The Swallow, for instance, was a trawler wrecked on the west side (Toungie) of Seal Skerry in 1905.

It must have been fishermen of Sholtisquoy and Rue who exploited the house-name creel sets and the Blue Pow (pool) Ley on the east end of the skerry is self-explanatory.

The Kirn was a round shaped rock, like the old-fashioned kirn, but why the Caty-Holes? Today the population of those special fine-weather sets will no doubt be like that of North Ronaldsay – somewhat depleted, since the continued exploitation of island waters by other than local boats has taken its toll. But then isn’t that the story of fishing everywhere?

Rhoda, of course, was a great advocate of Shetland culture and tradition. Dialect in particular was, I think, one of Rhoda’s passions.

It’s interesting, for instance, to find one or two (now rarely heard) words of Norse origin which we still remember in North Ronaldsay that can be found in Jacob Jakobsen’s Dictionary of the Norn language in Shetland – some 10,000 words (mostly unknown to me personally) and first published in English in 1928.

I say this because those words were not recorded in Hugh Marwick’s Orkney Norn (c. 3,300 words, published in 1929).

Marwick’s book, by contrast, does contain a number that we still use. Two generations from now I doubt whether many of the old Orkney words of Norse origin will be remembered.

One hundred years ago and less, many of the old words were in everyday use as they related directly to what has now become outdated farming and fishing methods, household chores – long out of fashion implements and utensils, states of the weather or the sea, and so on.

How many young Orcadians, for instance, know the word Teebro? As they say, unless a language is used, it will die. The Orcadian dialect itself is in danger and differences in pronunciation, which varied from island to island, parish to parish, are fast fading away.

One of these words, for example, is oot-rugg. Rugg in Jakobsen’s dictionary means strong tide or wind. In fact locally, our interpretation would be a strong out-going undercurrent – a danger experienced when coming ashore by boat with a land sea running and especially dangerous for someone to be caught up in.

Another similar word we might use (though not Norse) would be oonder-tow (Scots oonder – under, tow – to pull). Marwick mentions ‘rugg’ but not in connection with tides. There is another word mentioned by Jakobsen which has the same meaning: baksuk (backwash of broken shore-waves – bak back, suk sook) but etymology is another subject all together.

So there we are for this part of the letter. Anyhow, Shetland remains a place of nostalgia for me, not only from my visit of so many years ago now, but also through connections of friends and relatives who still live there. It is a place to which I should pay a long overdue return visit.

Well, Hogmanay has been and gone with the old year passing into history and between one thing and another, a sad history.

Folk had made their way here and there as they usually do bringing in the New Year. And today, New Year’s Day, 17 stalwarts set forth to the old standing stone.

Heavy westerly seas pounded the rocky shoreline, throwing up white spray against grey skies, and against dark, windy clouds an Eightsome reel circle was danced briefly to accordion music. One enthusiastic dancer began in a real business fashion for, in a twirling of arms, off came his coat and jersey, and on this winter day, in shirt-sleeves, one arm for the swing, the other pointed to the sky in Highland fling style, the short dance began.

Such is the fun of the occasion, which ended with a round or two of the Famous Grouse.

Later, at Neven, in front of a blazing fire, tea, cakes and drams were served. A special toast was proposed: Doom and gloom to be banished, no talk of being old and decrepit, but always to have a positive outlook, and that 2005 would be a special year for everybody.

Then five peedie folk presented a little sketch for the ‘stan stane’ dancers called The Explorers in the Jungle.

New Year celebrations continued here and there through the ‘heuld’ and into the ‘wee sma oors’, and no doubt they will continue for a night or two yet to come. That toast, by the way, is not a bad one at all.

As I finish, I was just noticing my late father’s fiddle box – it’s in the same room as my computer. It reminds me of a very different New Year’s night of long ago when the population of the island would have been over 200. If only the old fiddle, I thought, could conjure up the dance music and bring the night back for an hour or two.

The ‘aald hut’ was full of folk on that occasion. Pipe and cigarette smoke floated above the company that seemed to sway this way and that. Voices and music, and dancing feet filled the building with a sound we’ll never hear again.

And in my mind’s eye I can remember certain faces as clear as yesterday. This one night in particular (for not always was there a New Year’s dance) must have been in the early 50s.

My father would certainly have had his fiddle and there would have been an accordion – maybe there was a number of instruments, I can’t quite remember, but the music would have had the dancers flying. Tonight, the fiddle in its box is silent but yet the memories remain to pleasantly haunt the mind from time to time.