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.