Do we really need to restore Old Beacon, or is conservation the best way to proceed?

When I was writing one of my letters to The Orcadian in September, I referred to the BBC Restoration Village competition and of how, at that time, the Dennis Head Beacon had won the Scottish entry.

As everybody now knows the island went on to take third place overall – a noteworthy achievement indeed.

The BBC Restoration programme obviously captured the imagination of many people. There is, without doubt, an undeniable romance and mystique connected with lighthouses: the history of their construction; their eye-catching, elegant design; their presence round the coastline of Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland, and, of course, their guidance to shipping with the familiar motto ‘For the Safety of All’.

People voted for the Beacon up and down the land, and as a result great publicity was achieved for the island with whatever benefits it might bring.

The final restoration plan for the Beacon seems to be as follows:

* The restoration of the tower with a new stairway giving access for tourists to the top;

* The outside and inside of the tower to be picked and pointed with doors and windows replaced.

* A “green road”(?) to be constructed between the public road and the Old Beacon.

* The restoration of the ruined cottages with finished interiors which will include box-beds etc — forming what is described as a living museum.

* Water, electricity, public toilet facilities and lighting systems will be installed.

* A replica lantern will be constructed at ground level.

Another part of this restoration package is the repair of the New Lighthouse pier (still in use locally for fishing activities) some distance away – a necessary, and easily achievable piece of work. Of course, those structures are listed with an A listing for the Beacon.

In my letter I merely touched on another word used by those who have responsibility for ancient monuments in England and Scotland.

That was the word conservation – quite a different word from restoration.

I had hoped there could have been a debate within the island as to which of those two might have been chosen or preferred by islanders.

Hopefully, this debate will be undertaken by Historic Scotland. I also, in the letter, mentioned the name of William Morris, who was responsible for establishing the Society for the Protection of Ancient Monuments in England in 1877. He argued very strongly for conservation rather than restoration.

Here is one of his ideas that might, I think, be worth considering:

“If it has become inconvenient for its present use, to raise another building rather than alter or enlarge the old one; in fine, to treat our ancient buildings as monuments of a bygone art, created by bygone manners…”

The original plans for the tower and the lightkeeper’s accommodation show the tower to be only 26 feet in height, though in the ‘agreement’ with the two masons, John White and James Sinclair, Kirkwall, it says the tower shall be 60ft high.

The thickness of the tower wall (in the plan) is 3ft 9in at the base narrowing to 3ft at 26ft.

A measurement taken at the actual base appears to be some inches over 4ft – ensuring more strength. The plan details a solid stone stairway. The steps (sandstone) were broken down at a later date in order to prevent access and little now remains.

The plan for the lightkeeper’s cottage shows only one house. In fact there are two, with the west-most facing house having been added, possibly at a later stage – the division between the two is clear and there is no connecting doorway.

From close observation the remains of Welsh slate can be seen at the point of abutment with the tower, which would indicate that roofing was of Welsh slate.

Measurements of the remains of the two joined houses indicates that what was built (excluding the second building) does not match the plan.

However, those inconsistencies and lack of every detail, may not have been unusual in the early days when the first four experimental lighthouses were built.

There is no indication of the interior finish – box beds etc – though we know that a box bed was acquired by a farm on the island after the vacation of the building.

The restoration of the joined buildings, and the interior, will therefore be restored, it seems to me, based on conjecture rather on proof.

The keeper’s house was still intact in 1871 when a local family connected with lighthouse work – the New Lighthouse (lit 1854) – was recorded in the census as living there. Shortly after this the building was vacated and, presumably, the roof removed at the same time.

So far, seriously missing from the Beacon’s history, as presented to the public, is the very obvious fact that the structure is extremely vulnerable to heavy sea.

Certainly, it has often been said that during the inhabited lifetime of the living quarters, the sea entered the buildings on more than one occasion causing the inhabitants to leave.

Today, it is very evident that sea-thrown stone has piled up on the seaward side of the buildings so that the floor of the dwelling houses varies from being 1ft 8in, to over 4ft below the outside surface.

One can see, for example, how unusually low the seaward-facing window in the first cottage is in relation to the outside ground level.

As recently as 1993 (when considerable damage was done to the A-listed sheep dyke) the wall of the sheep pund (trap) which borders the cottage buildings was partly demolished.

The dyke is really no distance from the building and without doubt, with the right combination of sea, wind and the height of a stream tide, water would have been sweeping through the area.

With the predictions of global warming and subsequent rising of sea levels this problem will probably become much worse as the years pass.

The Old Beacon tower is quite sound and stands as straight as the day it was built (John Sinclair, former OIC building inspector, now deceased, stated in a report written in 1995: “As it stands at present, it would be reasonable to assume that further deterioration of the structure would be minimal and I would fully expect the Beacon to be structurally sound in another hundred years”).

The masonry ball which so elegantly crowns the tower also appears to be sound.

The masons who placed the ball on the top of the tower certainly knew, one would think, what they were about.

To have remained in place for 200 years – come 2010 – is surely proof that it is on the rather unique design of the stone base upon which the cone and ball stand that everything depends, not on the visible, seemingly fragile, few wood timbers.

However, a proper survey by an architect or civil engineer should confirm the durability and construction methods employed to build the supporting structure and whether, in fact, there is a problem.

Health and safety requirements to allow tourists up on the top would certainly seriously alter the elegant lines of the top structure and the architectural balance of the tower.

In fact, I should think that the top stone work would have to be changed (almost re-built in fact) to allow sufficient width for a safe walking passage-way and to provide some form of secure base into which suitable railing could be securely fixed – both to prevent falling from the top and prevent access up to the masonry ball.

In any event, what is the point of climbing another tower when the New Lighthouse commands a spectacular view at almost twice the height (139 ft) and boasts the highest land-based lighthouse in the British Isles?

After all, we are talking about an unlit beacon which was not designed for sight-seeing from the top.

Why sacrifice the aesthetic appeal of the tower for an unnecessary balcony?

Two eminent Scots have both publicly stated that the top of the Dennis Head Beacon should not be compromised: Professor Roland Paxton MBE FRSE (The Scotsman, July 27, and Margaret D. Street MBE FSA (Scot.) The Orcadian, August 31).

Roland Paxton, teacher, researcher, writer and honorary professor at Heriot Watt University, along with Jean Leslie wrote the book Bright Lights – The Stevenson Engineers 1752 – 1971.

He is a Fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers, a former chairman of its panel for Historical Engineering works and commissioner on the Royal Commission on the Ancient Historical Monuments for Scotland.

Margaret Street is a former chairman of the Saltire Society, and a life member of the Orkney Heritage Society, having been involved in raising money for St Magnus, the conservation of Papdale House and the Strynd.

She has also been involved, and still is, in the commemorations of Samuel Laing and John Rae. In addition, the preservation of the North Carr Lightship, Wallace statue and many other commemorative project achievements, can be listed in a lifetime of dedicated work for Scotland’s heritage.

What many of us on the island and elsewhere would like is a professional inspection of the tower, with scaffolding erected outside and inside, with the purpose of checking on the top structure and making sure that the crowning masonry ball remains safely in place for the foreseeable future.

In addition, we would want what remains of the dwelling houses to be preserved in their present state.

Weather-resistant outside display boards, now commonly in use at historic sites, could be installed with a general tidy-up of the area.

The buildings could be cleared from fallen stone, and beach stone thrown in, from time to time, by over 200 years sea invasion.

An easy, safe access to the buildings; a ‘cleaned out’ tower, made secure against further bird invasion would be necessary.

There is also, of course, the immediate repair of the Lighthouse pier – a real south-easter would certainly inflict more damage.

The argument put forward that the Old Beacon project would secure a glowing future for North Ronaldsay needs to be debated.

It would, no doubt, increase tourism but it does not solve the one pressing, serious problem that the trust, along with the community council, should be addressing even more vigorously – lack of housing, jobs, and young families.

With about 34 of the present population of 60 inhabitants over 60; five in the 50 – 58 category and around nine aged 30-50, it’s time to concentrate on the three essential requirements mentioned above.

An ambitious programme of change and development is slowly going on at the New Lighthouse, costing many thousands of pounds.

In explanatory trust literature and the BBC Restoration programme, the Old Beacon is mentioned, along with the development of the New Lighthouse.

I was thinking, therefore, that, perhaps, instead of attempting to restore those vulnerable cottages, Morris’s idea mentioned above could be considered.

This could be a carefully-designed interpretation centre constructed entirely separate from the Old Beacon. Additional exhibition space would be gained and such a building, with modern amenities, would be safe from sea invasion.

The Old Beacon is spectacular – provided the masonry ball remains in place. It always has been so and will always attract visitors, as presently does the New Lighthouse.

Once the National Trust for Scotland promotes the two high-quality, self-catering houses planned for the New Lighthouse many more people will be tempted to visit the island.

The full restoration programme will, to my mind, most certainly change the appearance of this familiar and enduring monument and the unique atmosphere of the Dennis Head area created by the passage of time.

There is a continuity there of landscape, ancient stonework backed by the sea and sky in every colour and mood. I was there recently making some studies of the beacon.

A drawing of the Dennis Head Old Beacon on North Ronaldsay,
by Ian Scott.

Before I left, the moon was rising behind the dark tower and ruined buildings. The scene was truly magnificent.

As an artist working in North Ronaldsay, these past 44 years, I would be very disappointed if any of those irreplaceable icons were to be unnecessarily lost without a full and open debate with the people of the island.

I hope that Historic Scotland will look very carefully at any changes proposed to the Old Beacon.

It is a monument of national importance, familiar to generations of islanders and passing mariners.

There it stands on the Dennis Head peninsula, an imposing landmark and, I hope, a lasting memorial to Thomas Smith, the engineer, and those masons and builders who built it there over 200 years ago.

Let me now, if I may, comment on another island issue that has featured prominently, recently in The Orcadian. Since it has generated much discussion on and off the island, perhaps it should be mentioned. Certainly, it merits further open debate.

Once, North Ronaldsay was almost self-sufficient. It was an adventure to get to the island and, once here, there was a real sense of island life and this is something we need to preserve.

Its population in the 1930s was around 283 and by the 1960s still over 130. The island was served for a time by a steam ship sailing once every two weeks in the winter, once a week in the summer and run by a company that had to balance its books at the end of the year.

Nowadays, we hear, it costs millions to subsidise the running expenses of the ro-ro system. Will this support continue I wonder?

On steamer days, in the summer time, the pier was covered with tons of unloaded cargo with many islanders’ goods waiting to be shipped.

Today, as a result of a seriously depleted population, the turn-about time of our weekly ferry can be as short as 35-45 minutes.

Indeed, one might ask whether the weekly, wintertime, freight trip is justifiable in terms of time and oil spent.

Are all those many scheduled trips to the other islands that we read about really sustainable? Is this the only way for the islands to survive?

What, for example, is the breakdown on cargo shipped here and there and what is the revenue generated? And the problem, if it is indeed one, of getting certain types of material out to the island in a timely fashion could perhaps be resolved with better planning and negotiation.

During the summer months, we have three planes per day for seven days, with a freight plane carrying perishables once a week.

More planes are being asked for, plus extra freight flights – even night-time flights are being considered. A second ferry in the week (summer time) has been requested. It’s argued that this is essential. But, once implemented, will this then lead to more planes, more boats, more cars, more tourists?

Is that what the island really wants? Let us be careful that we don’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs and destroy the real values of island life.

I reiterate the three essentials which most islanders agree are vital if this island is to survive – houses, jobs and young families.

Hot stones, codling and a well-attended fundraising event

I have just returned from posting some letters at our local post office While I was waiting for attention, I was thinking of the scene that would have been before me had I been able to travel back in time.

I’m thinking of, I suppose, some 50 years or more ago when the population would have been around 140.

In those days it was fairly common for islanders to send Christmas presents of domestic fowls to their relatives. Such a gift in those days was greatly appreciated.

The post office would have been very busy around this time of year. In would come first one customer and then another.

The legs of the hen, duck, or whatever would be tied and labelled, and round the head would be securely wrapped some brown paper.

Those Christmas gifts would go to the Orkney Mainland and even much further afield.

In the wintertime the island’s post boat would still be making the passage to Sanday, though weather conditions at that time of year caused frequent delays.

Otherwise, the SS Earl Sigurd might carry the Royal Mail. For a while that service only occurred once a fortnight.

Sometimes neither post boat or ship would be able to make the trip, which often then meant that the perishable gifts certainly did get the ‘hanging time’ recommended for game.

Such carryings-on would not be tolerated today. As I write I can hear the early morning Loganair plane taking off on its return journey to Kirkwall. Yes, we are living in changed days.

And still on interesting reminiscences from the past, this time I was managing a little shopping at the local shop, Trebb.

There I was, telling of a recent unfortunate episode when I had burned my foot with a hot water bottle. Just imagine such a thing to happen. Anyway, the conversation then centred round the old-fashioned way of making one’s bed warm at this time of year – before the days of rubber, hot water bottles or electric blankets.

When I was staying in the early 1940s at the house in which I was born, there would have been at least eight individuals living ‘under the same roof’ as they say.

How did we manage to heat up cold beds one might ask?

In those days there were at least two makes of stoves. The Enchantress was one and the Victoress, or was it Victress, was another.

Those cast iron stoves, of size 6, 7, and 8, stood well out in the kitchen or living room on four ornate-looking legs.

They had, I remember, two little iron doors that could close up the front which had narrow bars, or ribs, as we used to say, to hold in the burning coal.

And just above that was a narrow, oblong, plate which could be opened for shovelling in coal or sometimes dried cow-pats. When the fire was open, its redness and heat was very lightsome on a cold winter’s night.

A little platform extended in the front with a small recess to hold the ash. On either side were two oven doors, and on at least one of those stoves two smaller doors situated near the burning space of the fire could be utilised, I believe, to shove in a long wood log which seemingly burned satisfactorily.

Those fires – were they, or, at least one of them American – were polished with a black polish called, I think, Zebra and on the lid of the box was, in fact, the striped (yellow – why yellow? – and black) body pattern of this animal.

Also, I remember, on the doors – oven doors, front and side doors – was an attractive design in relief.

On the top were four removable round plates, two for feeding in coal and two giving more heat for cooking or heating water, at least I’m sure I remember the four. Apart from a poker, a special iron tool, called a lifter, was used to raise the top plates which had a little grove for the purpose

But I have digressed mightily. I was going to tell you that the method that I remember best for heating the beds was a carefully chosen, round, not too thick, beach stone.

Those stones, some nine or ten inches in diameter, were put into the fairly ‘roomy’ ovens through the day and so by evening they were very hot.

As bed-time drew nigh, old stockings or whatever were used to cover the stone bed warmers.

I recall especially the lengthy ritual associated with the covering and dispersal of the bed warmers.

Believe it or not this method of warming one’s bed was very effective and, through time, the stones became quite smooth and shiny and a dark brown colour.

Also, I may say, folk had lame or ceramic bottles, called ‘pigs’, which were filled with hot water. They were a round shape, maybe ten or more inches long and some six or so inches high and are still available.

Well, we will not be allowed to send Christmas presents such as those I’ve described, but there is nothing to stop one making use of the old stone bed-warmers – I’m certainly tempted to try one just for old times sake.

This brings me to the main reason for writing this letter.

On Saturday, November 18, the North Ronaldsay Lifeboat Guild held its annual fundraising event.

President, Isobel Muir, opened the proceedings with Evelyn Gray, treasurer, and Sheila Deyell, secretary, on duty at the various stands.

On sale were the usual Lifeboat Institution’s Christmas cards and a variety of other sale-catalogue goods.

There were many other donated items: vegetables, books, baking, jars of home-made jam, ornaments and other attractive things were nicely laid out on tables.

In addition a goodly collection of raffle prizes tempted folk to buy tickets and that alone brought in over £100.

Total monies spent amounted to almost £700, a magnificent sum indeed. Those present enjoyed refreshments at set tables after the event. How very fine it is to have such a get-together in order to support that great organisation, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.

Time to finish I think. I’m about to make my tea. For a change I shall set about cooking a bit of codling.

Codling, I may say, fished from around the ‘Riff Dyke’. Yes, on two fishing trips, our (my partner and myself) 26-year-old boat, the Mary Jane, – still in very good shape – cut her way through blue seas and three of us successfully tried our luck at the fishing.

Ivan Hourston, the Shapinsay boatbuilder (now retired) certainly made a fine job of the Mary Jane.

The boat, scaled up to 20 feet LOA from detailed measurements, was based on that most famous of our island’s boats, the North Ronaldsay Praam.

The one time Coxswain of the Aberdeen lifeboat, and lecturer in sculpture at Gray’s School of Art, the late Leo A. Clegg, DSC drew up the plan.

The name of the most successful of these praams, and the one used as the model, was the Ruth (15ft 9in LOA) built in the early 1920s by the island boat-builder, Hughie Muir, Shaltisquoy.

William Alister Muir, Waterhouse, his grand-nephew, who died recently, continued to make use of this boat until he hung up his sea-boots in 1982.

How very enjoyable it was to venture forth over familiar waters once more and to see, as the afternoon spent, the low shoreline with the little houses beginning to darken against the evening sky.

And how very grand it was to see the diving gannets in the distance and to watch that most graceful of flying birds, the fulmar.

They would glide and bank, away up into the sky and back round the boat skimming the water one minute and then, with almost unmoving wings, climb once more into the pale blue of a faraway sky.

Harvest Home was tinged with sadness

When last I wrote, it was the time of the Harvest Moon. More than two months have passed since then and when I stood outside after the ‘heuld’ to think of some way of ending my ‘hairst’ letter.

Tonight, I begin with the same process — outside as the midnight hour slips away.

Again, I heard that same familiar bird, the lapwing or tee-wup, cry. And may I call her the Harvest Home moon? For we have just ‘goodly’ had our harvest celebration — well, she is to be seen just as in my last letter.

In the old days, special island events were usually planned to coincide with the growing moon, so that folk could more easily make their way by foot to whichever venue it was planned for.

Anyway, the night is still fairly calm, though a strong south-west wind is forecast for tomorrow with our weekly ferry already cancelled.

What is left of a fading moon, encircled by a great halo, is shining palely in a hazy sky and the west sea is grumbling away in the distance. I have a feeling that tomorrow will not be such a good day.

I’m at my keyboard again (another day) and the forecast has proved to be accurate. Strong winds are blowing from the predicted airt and rain has been coming and going in heavy showers since the early morning. Sometimes even hail has rattled the windows.

How shall I cover our Harvest Home (held on November 3) I wonder, for to lose two folk of the island in the midst of such preparations has thrown a shadow upon all our activities.

Already, as I write, a week has almost passed since the event in the Memorial Hall an enjoyable event, yet one has the recurring feeling that something of North Ronaldsay has slipped away.

On my living room table there are two commemorative leaflets brought back from two island funerals, which took place shortly after the Harvest Home.

Lesley Ann Scott, who died the day before the North Ronaldsay Harvest Home.

One is for Lesley Ann Scott, born May 4, 1968 and died on November 2, the day before the Harvest Home.

There was Lesley, a fighter to the last. Despite setbacks and illness that would have been a daunting challenge for the most courageous, she was determined in her own mind to get better.

Even during her school days on the island and her time living at Cruesbreck (her early home) with Cathy and Sinclair and her two brothers, Michael and Graeme, she set out to master certain obstacles and later, in Kirkwall, when she so enjoyed working at Glue’s Garden Centre.

There she carried out all sorts of tasks, which included not only gardening, but also visiting shops on behalf of the garden centre.

Through this employment hers became a well-liked face and she was proud to live and work in Kirkwall. Lesley wanted to be independent and manage her own affairs and to follow her own ideas of living and upon that aim she focused her mind.

Thirty-eight years is a short lifetime but they were years in which Lesley managed to find enjoyment and to impart some of that fun and laughter for others to remember.

William Muir, who passed away aged 83. Picture Irene Cutt.

The other commemorative leaflet is for William Alister Muir, Waterhouse. Born August 8, 1923 and died on November 3, just before the Harvest Home began.

Willie, who, like Lesley, had had to face severe illness, pain and discomfort, also fought back with determination.

He always looked forward rather than backwards. He went on after his illness, and during retirement, to carry out many renovation projects at home, and at his daughters’ houses in the south, and create some wonderful stonework round the neat and tidy home of Waterhouse.

After school on the island, Willie spent a short time working at the Kirkwall Post Office.

Then, in order to volunteer for the Royal Navy, he worked in Glasgow before joining as a wireless operator during the war. He was based in Ceylon, intercepting Japanese transmissions.

After the war, he returned to North Ronaldsay to rebuild his parent’s home. Then he again left for the south in 1949, where, along with John Swanney, North Gravity, a fellow islander (also a wireless operator but in the RAF) he worked at the MoD wireless station in Loughborough.

Willie came back to North Ronaldsay four years later to take over his parent’s croft, and return to his great love the sea as a very competent seaman and lobster fisherman.

He married Amy Swanney and they had two daughters, Anita and Maureen. Willie served in the Coastguard, the district council and as registrar. He was familiar too as an accordion player when, along with Lottie Tulloch, they both played accordion at many an island function, and at many a Harvest Home.

Both Lesley and Willie’s funerals were well attended with many friends and relatives travelling by Loganair to and from the island. The ‘Gods smiled favourably’ on those final days of parting as they did for the Harvest Home about which I will now continue.

About 90 attended the event. The guest speaker this year was Richard Shearer, from the well-established shop of W. Shearer in Victoria Street, Kirkwall. He was accompanied by his wife Audrey.

The association’s other guests were the Loganair pilot, Colin McAllister, his wife Jane, and daughters Mea and Rowan.

The North Ronaldsay Community Association’s president, Evelyn Gray, in a welcoming speech also paid tribute to Lesley and Willie.

She referred to the Old Beacon and the island’s success in reaching the final of the BBC’s Restoration Village.

She acknowledged the many helpers who had made the evening possible before starting off proceedings by asking John Cutt to say the grace.

The supper was as magnificent as ever. This is the part I really enjoy, with decorations, candles and old-fashioned lighting, and the anticipation of the toast to the harvest.

A few intimations were made concerning progress in the Memorial Hall and prospective work planned for next year. Richard was then invited to propose the toast to the harvest.

Richard, like Evelyn, paid tribute to Lesley and Willie reminding us that tonight was a time of thanksgiving for the year’s bounties and for good company and friends past and present.

He referred to the 50’s TV programme The Twilight Zone which he felt one experienced tonight as the interior of old hall felt like a step back in time, and of how it reminded him of a similar war-time hall in Tankerness and great nights enjoyed there.

He thought that whatever we did with the hall, we should never change the interior, which he felt had so much character and atmosphere.

He mentioned the Old Beacon and its success but said that maybe we should watch out that Sanday did not ask for the return of their masonry ball! (Once it graced the Start Point beacon in Sanday.)

Richard went on to mention when he, aged 12, first visited North Ronaldsay some 40 years ago, sailing on the ss Earl Thorfinn with his father William.

On that occasion, William Shearer was selling the old coir stack nets and Richard remembers their visits to the farm of Howar and the two island shops.

Then, after a funny story or two, he produced, one by one, from a large bag, symbols of the old-time ‘hairst’: first the sheaf with its many uses next year’s seed, even providing a filler for the old-fashioned bed-sack, etc.

Second was a coir stack net, important in the protection of the harvested stacks and a reminder of that first visit to the island, and lastly a vintage bottle of ale, another by-product of the ‘hairst’ fields.

After presenting the sheaf and stack net for safe-keeping, the bottle of ale was emptied into a suitable receptacle to be sampled by the company. The speaker then asked everyone to be up-standing and to toast the Harvest Home.

Martin Gray followed by proposing a toast to the Memorial Hall thus ending those pleasant proceedings.

Soon the dance got under way with the local band, including Howie Firth, back once more for the Harvest Home, providing the music.

During a welcome tea-break, Evelyn and Ian Deyell supervised the raffle. A great selection of kindly donated items were available, including two framed watercolours, one of which was auctioned for £330 by Richard Shearer.

Total proceeds for the ongoing costs and improvements to the Memorial Hall amounted to a magnificent sum of over £600.

A few more dances brought the evening almost to a close. After Auld Lang Syne, hot soup and sandwiches were served. By about three in the morning most of the company were winding their way home.

By early evening the next day, after the usual lightsome tidying up, the old hall was empty and bare. One more Harvest Home joins the passage of the years but with it will always be linked the names of two, now gone, who loved North Ronaldsay.

Well folks, I’ve come to the end of this letter. All day long the weather has been particularly unpleasant with gale force winds from the north-west. Showers of rain, and occasionally hail, has lashed across the island from time to time.

As I write those last few lines, a tremendous west sea thunders above the sound of the wind I have just been outside.

The sky has clear spaces here and there; almost luminous against menacing black cloud that seem to fly. In those few spaces, stars sparkle coldly and this year’s Harvest Home moon no longer lights the wintry sky.

Today, there is a lull in the weather and it is Remembrance Sunday. At the war memorial, a well-attended short service of remembrance was conducted by John Cutt, Gerbo.

At the memorial, John Tulloch, Senness, placed the Flanders Poppy Wreath.

The wind was down but the sound of the tormented sea carried across the island. To the west and north heavy seas pounded the rocky shoreline and across the ‘Riff Dyke’ great waves were travelling south.

Shine on, harvest moon

I cannot resist a peedie letter at this time of year because, in the old days, “hairst” would have been in full swing across the island.

Last night, in the mirking, we three travellers on the road could see the moon rising in the southern sky. “The Harvest Moon”, someone said. Well, it is indeed, as it will be full in a few days’ time and the equinox is not far away.

Tonight, I have just come in from a wonderful scene. The sky is clear from east to west, with only a few dark purple clouds seen against the luminous rose-coloured afterglow of the sunset.

The heat of the day, combined with the stillness of a windless night and a heavy dew, has resulted in great sweeps of mildew (a low-lying, cold, misty vapour) that, even as I write, slowly creeps across parts of the land. It creates an illusion of lakes of water, out of which the tops of houses are all that can be seen.

And the moon tonight is absolutely beautiful. She is only a little more than half full and not far above the southern landscape. There she floats a bright, glowing orange, a sight that takes precedence over all else.

Two years ago, I see from my diary, the last crop of oats to be grown on the island was just about to be cut by binder.

September 10, 2004, was the day. One week later the stooked sheaves were built into three peedie stacks and a little “diss”.

Yes, as I said last year, the moon will be sad just as I am. Not a stook or stack to remind us of those lightsome days and nights of old. What fun was often had, despite the less enjoyable days of flattened crop, broken binder sheets, sticks and stops, stooks blown hither and thither and windy, rainy days.

But we always remember the good times. They remain like little jewels of the memory that come stealing upon one to enjoy and talk about from time to time, especially when the old harvest moon comes wandering round again.

Since my last letter, North Ronaldsay has seldom been out of the headlines of one paper or another, with TV coverage adding to the publicity.

I have been lying low – a bit like “Brer Fox” but not with quite the same intent – waiting to see what might be the outcome of such great happenings – great happenings indeed, for to have won the Scottish entry in the BBC Restoration Village is a noteworthy achievement.

As readers of my letters will have surmised I am a man of old ways, old things.

How many folk have heard of William Morris (1834 -1896) artist, designer, poet; a craftsman extraordinary and defender of ancient monuments? He advocated conservation as opposed to restoration, but that is another story which I hope will be open to debate. For the moment I’m remembering again the relevant words of the old 1950s song:

Whatever will be, will be.
The future’s not ours to see,
Que Sera Sera.

In my last letter I was telling you about Mungo Park, whose account of his two African expeditions I had read.

This book I followed by reading Maggie Fergusson’s biography of George Mackay Brown, published earlier in the year.

It is, I think, a wonderful piece of research and writing. Anyhow, in the narrative, it mentions Robert Rendall’s poem Renewal.

When George was recovering from illness in hospital on one of the many occasions he had to seek medical attention, Robert came to visit in great excitement one day and he recited his newly composed poem to George. George thought it one of the best sonnets he had ever read.

I’m going to finish this short letter with this poem, but first I will have a look at the night and see how things have changed . . .

As it is well past the “heuld” (midnight), only one or two house lights are left to wink in the night but the bright, sweeping beam of the New Lighthouse never stops. As it lights up the land, moving from left to right, the mildew still lies like a ghostly veil across its path, briefly glowing as the beam moves along.

A few stars break up a sky now somewhat hazy and the moon has long since gone to bed.

The night is absolutely still but over the air comes a faint hush from the sea and I heard, once or twice, the lonely call of my favourite bird, the lapwing.

by Robert Rendall

Look how my autumn leaves from green to gold
Burn in their frosty fire. Tissue and vein
Shiver and curl to ash: no flowers remain
On withered stem, or from the patent mould
Draw breath and on life’s tree their fans unfold.
Twice has my summer’s pride waxed high;
now wane
The gentle influences of the rain,
The sun, the earth: and death comes, dank
and cold.

But fast inscalloped in the undying root,
Constant beyond all change of sky or soil,
Lies fenced the mystery of the living shoot –
Green involutions of the mind. No toil
Attends their weaving. Ah, would they
Again from that inmost core, leaf, stem, flower,

Thinking of the folk who are an inspiration to all

Captain Ted Fresson is pictured with North Ronaldsay folk at the launch of the inter-isles air service back in 1939. Those able to be identified are: Back row, from the left, Bella Swanney, Peggy Thomson, Sydney Scott, Dr Garvie, The Rev. A. Gordon, William Tulloch, John Tulloch, Captain Fresson, Robert Thomson (in cap), William Cutt, John Cutt, James Swanney, Roy Scott, William Swanney (moustache), Alec Swanney. In front, Peter Swanney, Ronnie Swanney, ?, Wilma Rendall, Oliver Scott, Jimmy Rendall, William Tulloch. (Picture: Orkney Photographic Archive)

Hello, it’s me again with another letter from North Ronaldsay.

Since I last wrote, the island folk festival took place and it has been comprehensively covered by others in both The Orcadian and Orkney Today.

When I was attending one of the events I was thinking if only all those folk present — well over 100 — were actually living on the island all our problems would be much easier to solve.

Furthermore, we would have music and dancing from day-to-day and everybody would be tripping the light fantastic!

As part of the decorations in the community centre over the festival period, we had on display, a small exhibition of some 20 photographs, enlarged to 12 inches by 16 inches and mounted.

The theme was air travel and the first delivery of letters by airmail on July 31, in 1939, to North Ronaldsay.

Many photographs were taken that day showing the pioneering Captain Ted Fresson OBE at the local airstrip along with islanders of all ages.

I’m including one of these photographs. It comes from a fascinating collection including articles, letters etc researched and put together for the island’s archives by Beatrice Thomson, Finstown (formerly of Neven, North Ronaldsay).

It’s rather amazing to think that the North Isles had a passenger service by air in 1934.

In The Orcadian, dated July 26 of that year, in the intimations column, Highland Airways Ltd, announces an experimental Inter-Island Air Service, as from August 6 to operate until further notice.

Flights from Kirkwall to Stronsay, Sanday, Westray and North Ronaldsay operated twice a week, on a Monday and Saturday, enabling islanders to get in to Kirkwall and back the same day with alternations in days to suit the conditions.

Flight times for North Ronaldsay were: Depart Kirkwall 8.30am, arrive N.R. 8.50am and depart for Kirkwall 8.55am. Arrival time in Kirkwall was 9.20am, having also collected passengers from Stronsay.

Departure time from Kirkwall back to N.R. 6.15pm, arriving 6.40pm.Those flight times gave North Ronaldsay passengers almost nine hours on the Mainland of Orkney. Fares were 15 shillings single and 30 shillings return. A complete island tour cost £3.

The airmail service did not last a month as the outbreak of the Second World War, on September 3, put an end to both the passenger service and the airmail.

Almost 28 years were to pass before Loganair resumed the passenger service and another four before the airmail contract was agreed.

In my last letter, written around the longest day, I was saying that as the days were on the turn, better weather might be round the corner.

Well, the weather has been very much kinder, with some fine days, and even with the persistence of foggy conditions lately, temperatures have been unusually high — in the 70s fahrenheit, John Cutt tells me.

Indeed it has been very warm — possibly too warm at times for much excessive physical labour.

At least we are not suffering the heat-wave experienced further south, on the continent, and in parts of the USA (and I’m sure elsewhere) where I think temperatures of over 125 fahrenheit were being experienced.

It seems terrible to think that thousands of people — the elderly and ill — can actually die from the heat.

Yesterday, I went on a little visiting spree, the day being so pleasantly warm with hardly a breath of wind.

Actually, part of my visit was to check on one or two names in the photograph included with this letter.

But then, apart from a ‘cuppa’ and some very good Christmas cake and shortbread, I enjoyed a tour of my host’s garden.

Through the different dyked enclosures we wandered, in and out of the trees, some displaying roses, honeysuckle and the purple scented flower of, what I call, the evergreen.

How very grand it is on a warm calm day to feast one’s eyes and senses on such displays — particularly the flowers with varying colours that bring pleasure at every turning.

As I write, well past the ‘heuld’, an unusual moth has just appeared fluttering this way and that.

I’ve never seen a white moth this size (about an inch or more wing span), with delicately orange-brown-patterned wings, indoors before.

I managed to catch the creature in a glass and I must have a look in my insect book and try to identify it.

In fact, the other day I saw outside a similar type of moth but larger with orange-coloured wing patterns The nearest, from memory, I thought the insect to be was a carpet moth — but then there are so many that look alike in my reference book.

Another far less pleasant insect that seems to be more common for my liking this summer (it must be the warm weather) is the biting cleg fly.

I have been attacked (by stealth, because that is how they operate) a number of times,

One only becomes aware of this menacing, ugly, grey-coloured fly when the typical needle prick attack is felt — sometimes even through one’s shirt or trousers.

It has the impudence to comfortably fold back its wings (well, that is what it does) intending to settle down for its vampirish meal. Each one who attacks me dies swiftly with as fast a hand movement as I can manage, but it leaves its poison to itch for days. Some folk, I may say, react very badly to the creature’s bite.

This will never do as I see it is coming on for two in the morning. I must away to bed and read at least another chapter of my latest book, Travels in Africa by Mungo Park — so much do I look forward to this fascinating account that even at this late hour I must read a bit more. I’ll finish my letter tomorrow.

Here I am again — not such a good day so far, grey skies and a breeze of wind but still warm, and on the lee side of the ‘hoose’ where the fuchsia and honeysuckle grow in great profusion (no I don’t have a beautiful garden) bluebottles and hover flies are buzzing away, and I’ve just seen a magnificent red admiral butterfly.

Thinking for a moment about Mungo Park when he was exploring West Africa in 1795 — in areas now known as Senegambia, the French Sudan, Niger Colony, Dahomey and northern Nigeria — he experienced real hardship, disease and danger. At one time he was imprisoned by a native chieftain, escaping with only his horse and a compass.

But I must tell you about an episode that took place during the explorer’s return journey from his first explorative venture (he made two).

It caught my imagination and reminded me of the story of Robert the Bruce when hiding in a cave and of how, when his spirits were at a very low ebb, he was inspired to fight on when he saw the determination of the spider.

On Park’s return journey, he was captured by robbers, stripped naked, with his horse, belongings and compass taken.

He was finally left, with minimal clothing in (as he says) “a vast wilderness in the depth of the rainy season, naked and alone; surrounded by savage animals and men still more savage and five hundred miles from the nearest European settlement”.

At this point his spirits began to fail and he resigned himself to certain death.

In this state of total despair he saw a small moss, not larger than the top of one of his fingers. It was, he says, of the most extraordinary beauty that he could not fail but admire this creation in such an obscure part of the world.

He mentions this, at the time, trifling circumstance, and how the mind will sometimes derive consolation when in a state of absolute dispair. He thought if that Being (meaning God) can create such a thing of beauty in such a place, surely he could not look without concern upon his own devastating circumstances. Disregarding both hunger and fatigue he started up and travelled forward assured that relief was at hand.

Well, Mungo Park survived, but on his second journey (1805-1806) to Africa to further explore the Niger he was drowned in this river during a clash with hostile natives. He was only 35.

As I’ve been writing, the day has improved, and now the sun is high in a hazy sky, though a fair wind is blowing from the southeast and I think change is in the air.

Oh, by the way, the moth I caught was, I’m sure, a magpie moth. Anyway, I don’t think I should write much more except to maybe mention one other inspiring tale.

Among former art school students of my acquaintance, there is one colleague in England who receives kidney dialysis three times a week.

She has one day clear between treatments with Saturday and Sunday also clear.

After each session (which takes three hours) the following day, when she is at home, she feels nauseous, tired and unwell. Almost the only day that brings some feeling of normality is a Sunday.

Yet, when I speak with her, she is so very cheerful and full of apologies for her condition and letting us (former colleagues) down by being unable to keep up her side of the work we all trained for.

But she is determined, with something of the same iron-will shown by those two great men mentioned above, to fly up to Aberdeen to meet once more for a re-union with those of us who are left, and who, 45 years ago, worked together and had much fun learning our trade.

Let us think for a moment about Robert the Bruce and Mungo Park and the former art school colleague.

When the struggle appears to be lost and when individuals are faced with seemingly insurmountable odds or suffer ill-health, it seems there is something in the human spirit that transcends all of this and gives us hope and courage to face another day.

Open day provokes thoughts of times past

In the not too distant past in Orkney, great fun was had at midsummer (though of course there were serious reasons for marking the occasion).

As has been mentioned before, it was one of the four times during the year (Yule, Beltane, Midsummer and Hallowmas) when bonfires were lit.

Ernest Marwick describes the celebration, as does John Firth, writing in more detail at the end of the 19th century.

Well, the other night, midsummer’s night, I received a phone call. The question was: “How about dancing round the Standing Stone?” I’m always game for such occasions.

Because of the lateness of the idea, only a few managed this bit of mid-summer madness, as some might call it.

Nevertheless, part of an eightsome reel, a waltz, one-step and an Eva-Three-Step were managed with appropriate music. The Famous Grouse crowned the occasion.

Let’s hope that the next half of the summer will be better than the first, now, as they say, that the days are on the turn.

Fairly recently I spent a day in Kirkwall. As my fellow passengers and I flew to the Orkney Mainland with Loganair, the islands below looked green and peaceful in the morning sun.

I was day-dreaming for a bit as we flew and thinking of how some centuries before I would have seen a few Norse settlements scattered here and there, and possibly a Viking longship or two sailing between the islands.

So there I was flying, literally through time in one sense, but backwards in time in my imagination in another. But more of my Kirkwall visit in a moment.

Yesterday was a splendid day, fresh and sunny with a tingling westerly wind. It was also the school’s open day. As always there was a good attendance.

The pupils’ work was on display, extending from the classroom through to the main hall. The term’s project had been — funnily enough for me and my day-dreaming – the Vikings.

Pupils and staff were dressed in Viking costume and looked very authentic indeed – even the boys with their helmets and swords had leg-bands dyed yellow with the dandelion, one of the various plants used for dying wool in those days.

A huge model of a Viking longship some nine or ten feet long with mast, sail, shields etc, dominated the classroom.

Throughout the school and the hall we could learn about the Norsemen: A large portrait of Astrik the Viking, born AD 812, formed part of a mural; a map indicating where those Norsemen had built settlements in Orkney; the use of natural dyes and how leather was utilised for day to day living; runes and their usage as an alphabet and so on. Interesting too were some Viking laws which caught my eye:

  • Be direct.
  • Be prepared.
  • Be a good merchant.
  • Keep the camp in good order

Quite good directives for any individual today I think – very desirable, in fact, for any community.

In addition there were examples of writing (free-hand and by computer). Pupils

Heather Woodbridge, Duncan Gray, Cameron Gray and Gavin Woodbridge had, among other exercises, each written an imaginative story.

They had also, I was told, as part of their project (during term) individually given a talk on the Vikings.

During the afternoon they manned money-raising stands and were available to talk about their work.

Even Ronan Gray, nursery pupil, standing at a mural illustrating some of his activities, was ready to answer questions. Incidentally, the sum raised for school funds was over £100.

After the veritable feast that followed the exhibition tour – including, by the way, some Viking-type bread baked by the pupils – the new head teacher, Susan Gilbert, thanked everybody for attending.

Prizes were presented to winners of the various competitions, bringing the enjoyable afternoon almost to a close.

Although a week or two remains of the term, this open day will be the last for Heather Woodbridge, who completes her time at the North Ronaldsay school and moves on to secondary education.

Folk lingered at tables discoursing for a bit longer, so pleasant are those open days.

At my table there were some senior islanders and we talked a little about old times. Of how much harder the work was in the 20s and 30s. Two of my companions were 85 and in good fettle; another was almost 80.

We agreed that, generally speaking, “folk nowadays didn’t know they were living” – a saying often quoted by a generation who really had very little, and had to work hard in a much more physical way than we do today.

Well, as they said, there was the cutting of the crop by scythe, the gathering of scythe-cut oats or corn by hand and making into sheaves.

Before tractor power, three horses pulled the binder (binders were generally in use by the 30s) though the roads giving access to the fields for cutting still had to be managed by scythe and hand.

How an insurance stamp had to be paid for. How folk from smaller crofts on the island were sometimes employed by those with more land who required help.

Many islanders, mostly young men, travelled to other neighbouring islands, and to the Orkney Mainland, to work for a hairst on big farms.

Life was without question much harder in those days, with any additional wages sought after almost out of necessity.

Think, for example, about the number of animals some small crofts could support – maybe as few as one cow and one calf with last year’s calf sold in the spring. Many others on the island might have had three cows and three calves. Larger crofts could boast more like six cows.

There was, in addition, the fishing and, importantly, the native sheep providing wool and meat, with each owner allowed a certain number according to their entitlement.

That regulation, of course, is still very relevant with regard to common grazings.

Any great deviation from those old rules, laid down by our forebears, would mean too many animals on the foreshore (in the case of North Ronaldsay).

In the Fair Isle, all sheep owners – one of whom I spoke to recently – adhere strictly to their allocation. Otherwise, in a common grazing, as the crofter rightly said, everybody’s animals suffer unfairly in one degree or another.

In fact my contact with our Fair Isle neighbour was most interesting and very enlightening, but that is another story.

Now I am back to my trip to Kirkwall. If I have a bit of spare time, as I did on that occasion, I mostly try to fit in a visit to the cathedral.

It really is a magnificent building and one can never tire of walking through its great corridors.

Another building which I try to get to is the Tankerness House Museum or as it is now called, the Orkney Museum.

This summer there is a splendid exhibition with many fascinating items on view called The Victorians: The Empire Builders.

Of much interest is the comparison between what was happening (broadly speaking) in the industrial cities of northern Britain and in Orkney.

It is those changing exhibitions that I try to see from time-to-time. Mostly my visits are confined to between planes on the one day.

However, on this occasion I had ample time and my footsteps took me into the other rooms that tell the story of Orkney, beginning with the Stone Age. This is an area where I have not had a chance to spend much time lately.

Imagine my surprise at discovering how extensive the rooms and exhibits have become.

Now there are new galleries on the Medieval periods and even more rooms devoted to the 19th and 20th centuries, bringing Orkney’s history up to the present day.

Those later additions, completed in 2003, marked the culmination of former curator of the museum, Bryce Wilson’s, long years of dedicated work, along with his staff, of bringing everything up to date with presentations that are truly magnificent.

There, for an hour or more, one can become, so to speak, a traveller in time — almost like my day-dreaming on the Loganair plane.

But in the museum there are the actual artefacts of some 5,000 years of Orkney’s history to see. How wonderful it is for Orcadians and visitors alike to have such a fine museum to see and enjoy.

Time now to bring this letter to a close. I’ve been tapping away for hours on my computer, feeling rather guilty about this sort of activity on such a good working day.

Earlier, the weather was beautiful with bright sunshine and a fresh southwesterly wind that made the tall lupins at the front of the house dance and swing.

The sea was a very deep blue speckled with white. It was the sort of day that it would have been a great pleasure to ride the waves in our old praam with the salt-spray flying.

Skylarks were singing and buttercups shone yellow in the sun. When I was out a moment ago the changing night has left the sky cloudy and grey. Two lonely gulls flew past banking in the fresh wind, and in the west the last vestiges of a midsummer sunset coloured the sky orange between the grey clouds and the darkening sea.

Recalling island events as daffodils dance in the wind

“April weather; rain and sunshine both together.”

Here I am again, writing a letter from North Ronaldsay. That old motto, by the way, is very apt this year.I’ve been out of touch for a while, it seems mainly, I think, because I have fallen into lazy ways.

The worst of it is that more important jobs have been neglected in this sort of inactive sabbatical that I have drifted into. Never mind, here goes for another letter.

Today is such a beautiful day that I’ve taken myself outside for a moment. I am actually sitting in a chair enjoying the warmth of the late morning sun and listening to the many sounds of the island.

Yes, this is indeed a fine morning. Daffodils are in bloom no distance from where I sit, and some purple primroses are very pleasing to the eye.

Flies, their species unknown to me, glint silvery in the bright sunshine as they move erratically up and down and speed this way and that.

Hardly a breath of air is to be felt so that the sound of birds comes across the airways from near and far.

A few feet away, two little wrens are calling as they flit around the garden dyke. One, I’m sure, is busy with her nest for she darts in and out of a certain little hole partly hidden with the, as yet, bare branches of an elder tree.

Then in another moment, perched on a prominent part of the dyke, she, or her mate maybe, will sing for a minute or so.

Starlings are chuckling up on a chimney, and sometimes the occasional sparrow can be heard. A blackbird whistles not far away at my neighbour’s house and somewhere up in the blue sky a solitary skylark sings.

This April day is the warmest yet of the spring and, though I’m sure it will not last, it is very pleasant to sit and feel the heat of the sun once more.

In the distance, oyster catchers and lapwings are calling and the curlew, or ‘whaup’, is whistling, sometimes with long sad notes and then a series of thrilling notes.

Once or twice I heard the less- musical croaking of a raven – there are only a few on the island.

But the call of gulls, such as the little common gull and the black-headed gull, that used to follow the plough or harrows in great white clouds in the past, comes familiarly over the still air.

Our Burns Night, which my last letter described, feels like a while ago. Since then our lives have been mainly dominated by the weather which has come upon us in all guises: rain and more rain, snow, strong winds and then days of rain again.

For the time of year everything is aback, with the fields still very wet and bare. Not all that many years ago (1981) by April 23 all the land work – the sowing, and then the planting of tatties – was complete at Antabreck, and probably elsewhere, since the Voar time that year had been particularly fine.

The creel boats were in the process of being checked over and painted, and I further read from my 1981 diary that our drift of creels was out at sea on May 21 – a Thursday since Friday was considered unlucky. Ten days later (counting two non-fishing Sundays) the first shipment to John Steer, the shellfish agent in Stromness, amounted to 77 lobsters.

Well, well, as my Faroese friend always says. I’m now trying to remember what has been happening lately.

Event-wise, two talks were given in the New Community Centre. They were sponsored by the University of Aberdeen in conjunction with the OIC education committee.

The first, called Farming in Scotland 5,000 years ago, was given by Donald Paterson from Aberdeen University.

The second, more recent, talk was titled Alternative sources of energy and the wider sustainability agenda.

Colin Risbridger from Westray was the speaker. A fair turnout attended both presentations, and both proved to be very informative and were illustrated with slides.

Then there was the news of the North Ronaldsay Trust’s substantial financial award for work at the new lighthouse complex (already comprehensively covered in The Orcadian).

Not so long ago Dr Kevin Woodbridge gave a showing of many photographs taken on a family holiday trip to New Zealand. The show, held at the Bird Observatory, was most enjoyable and well attended.

On Saturday, April 15, a very grand pantomime really cheered us all up immensely. Around 60 folk attended, including a number of visitors from the Orkney Mainland.

A party of visiting young folk from one of the EU countries added to the company.

The North Ronaldsay community association (NRCA) ran the evening’s entertainment, held in the Memorial Hall.

Evelyn Gray, NRCA president, welcomed everybody and introduced the evening’s performance. The pantomime Aladdin and his wonderful lamp, originally planned for Christmas, was produced and directed by Sid Ogilvie, who certainly has a great talent for this form of entertainment.

Aladdin is one of the stories from The Arabian Nights and Sid’s adaptation was original, very entertaining and amusingly topical at times (island wise) with one or two local references, for example, to Billalli, the famous Moorish builder.

In the story this character had to build a castle in a week which even he, it was thought, could not manage!

The cast, in order of appearance, was: Narrator, Ann Ogilvie; Widow Twanky, Bob Simpson; Sailor, Gavin Woodbridge; Aladdin, Alison Woodbridge; Owima Bin Liner, Sid Ogilvie; Genie of the ring, Cameron Gray; Genie of the lamp, Lu Shaw; Genie’s mum, Kevin Wood-bridge; Princess Moonsome, Heather Woodbridge; Wozzere, Sid Ogilvie; Sultan, Winnie Scott; Guard, Ronan Gray; Reporter, Gavin Woodbridge.

The play featured a number of scene changes during which suitable background music added to the presentation; and the hall’s old stage and curtains proved invaluable – on its well-worn platform, many a sketch, concert and performance had taken place in the past.

Actors, Sid, Lu and Alison each sang a solo as the play progressed and it was especially encouraging to see the young folk from the school (including Ronan Gray, nursery school) take part with relish. They were Heather Woodbridge, Cameron Gray, Gavin Woodbridge and, not least, Ronan Gray.

The colourful costumes were created with the professional help of Edith Craigie – though I suspect the two male actors, who were appearing as females, had added certain prominent appendages to their persons.

Scenery was a collective affair, painted mainly by the school pupils. It helped to make the production all the more delightful.

Loud applause followed the end of the performance with additional recognition for the four youngest actors at Sid’s request.

Soon a little dance got under way, with the local musicians providing the music. Tea, sandwiches and a grand choice of homebakes were enjoyed half way through the evening.

A raffle in aid of the Memorial Hall funds brought in an excellent figure of over £90. Dancing continued until around one in the morning, when the singing of Auld Lang Syne brought this enjoyable Easter time island get-together to a close.

Now I must finish my letter. It’s well past the ‘heuld’, which is nothing unusual for me.

I’ve just come in from some late byre chores, hoping to find some inspiration outside, but the night is cold with a chilly easterly wind blowing, and the sky is dark and overcast with not a star to be seen. My plan is to get to bed and see what another day brings.

This is another day with the sun shining once again with a fair, warm southerly wind – much better.

How shall I conclude this letter I wonder? I think I will tell you how some of my time has been spent.

I’ve taken to a bit of sustained reading these past months, I have to say, travelling in my mind to the mountains and islands of Scotland, round Cape Horn a few times, from Australia to South America, north to the Arctic and south to the Antarctic, and then back to the Orkney parish of Firth of the 1800s.

One might ask which books have I been reading? Well, apart from other bits and pieces, varied accounts, or whatever, I have really been enjoying a collection of Seton Gordon’s writings called Seton Gordon’s Scotland: An Anthology, compiled by Hamish Brown (published 2005).

I re-read, with the same enjoyment as of old, Eric Newby’s The Last Grain Race, a voyage in a sailing ship from Australia to South America, undertaken in 1938.

Then it was Two Years Before the Mast, by Richard Henry Hanna, a personal narrative of life at sea on a sailing ship. The account traces a voyage from Boston, around Cape Horn, to the California coast.

I must tell you that this is the most wonderful account of life at sea in the early 19th century – not at all romantic I may say. So enthralled was I with the narrative that hardly did I set the book aside as I read day and night to the finish.

My next book took me up to the far north of Canada, and the Eskimos, or Inuit to be more precise, with whom the author, Duncan Pryde, lived some ten years, having moved to Canada in 1955.

His unrivalled record of life with those indigenous people of the far north makes fascinating reading. The book is titled Nunaga.

My literary travels brought me from the far north to the Antarctic with Alfred Lansing’s definitive account of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s epic journey to cross the Antarctic overland.

It also gives an account of his remarkable sea journey, with four other men, in a virtually open boat, across 850 miles of the stormiest ocean in the world to procure help for the rest of his crew.

This incredible, and courageous journey was made after their ship, the Endurance, was crushed by ice. The book is called Endurance ‘the greatest adventure story ever told’ and was first published in 1958.

This excellent reprint contains many of the spectacular photographs taken by the expedition’s photographer, Frank Hurley, and is an addition to the original book.

For my last book I’m back to Orkney to read, once more, John Firth’s wonderful account of life in the Orkneys, Reminiscences of an Orkney Parish. It was published in 1920 — I think there was a reprint in 1974.

Although the book deals mainly with the township of Redland in the parish of Firth as it was, down to the middle of the 19th century, the life described is typical of Orkney as a whole. Now there is a book for folk in Orkney to read.

As I write these last few lines I’m briefly outside my front door again — not sitting this time as it is somewhat chilly. Birds are still calling but less noticeably than I heard them in the warmth and stillness of the other morning.

The day is bright and sunny and the freshening southerly wind is making the yellow daffodils dance.

Candle and lamp evoke Burns’ nights of old

A few days ago – and a very beautiful day it was – as I set off for a walk to the West Banks, I was reminded of Robert Burns’s poem To a Mouse and that it was time to write up an account of our Burns’ Supper.

You will remember the fate of the mouse when Burns’s plough destroyed its home:

. . . Till crash! the cruel coulter passed
Out thro thy cell . . .

And you’ll remember his earlier lines:

I’m truly sorry man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union . . .

The same thing happened to a cosy nest of ‘banks mice’ situated by the roadside, but instead of the plough, an inquisitive dog had dug up their home with more dire results.

Anyway, sad though this was, I proceeded on my way.

The blueness of the sea and of an almost-clear sky was particularly striking with hardly a cloud in view.

Waves sometimes broke heavily on dark rocks leaving a fine mist that lightly veiled the shoreline seen against the brightness of the late afternoon sun.

As I continued on my journey, I met up with a friend who made my leisurely walk all the more lightsome.

We proceeded north, passing a little clear water spring just over the face of the banks from which many a picnic pot of tea, or drink of crystal clear water, has been taken.

I remember one moonlit Hogmanay night, many years ago, being at this rock spring. There I drank a good-luck draught for the New Year.

A little further on, as the wide spread of the Bay of Ryas Geo opens up, we knew that nearby was the Fairy Well – a small, round, maybe 14 inch or more deep, hole in the rock that is always filled with water as the tide comes and goes.

Along the shore line, one finds the bric-a-brac of the tides so that beach walks are always a bit of an adventure.

As we walked – I still very carefully for my whistling sticks have been silent lately – the sun began to set in colours of orange and gold.

In the sky to the southwest, a faraway jet plane left a bright trail of vapour.

Soon the sun disappeared behind the high hills of Rousay, and the islands deepened in colour becoming blue and purple against the luminous afterglow.

The few distant clouds in sight turned pink and rose as the hidden sun, now below the horizon, still shone in the higher, deeper blue regions of the sky.

Later, as I made my way homewards along the island road and down the brae o’Ancum, wild duck called from the loch.

Coots, it seemed, made curious cries and often the whistling of the curlew and the occasional cry of the lonely lapwing could be heard away in the distance.

Every few seconds the bright flash of the lighthouse was reflected upon the still water of Ancum loch.

Well, let me now begin my account. The North Ronaldsay Community Association’s Burns’ Supper took place on January 27.

The association’s president, Evelyn Gray, welcomed a company of well over 60, many of whom had come specially to the island for the occasion.

Piper Sinclair Scott leads the way, followed by Winnie Scott and the haggis. (Picture: Kevin Woodbridge)

Proceedings began with the chief cook, Winnie Scott, carrying in the haggis, accompanied by Martin Gray, and piper, Sinclair Scott, who led the way. Martin Gray addressed the haggis with considerable verve. John Cutt recited the Selkirk Grace before the traditional supper was served.

As at the early Burns’ nights of long ago, the pleasant light of candle and oil lamp made the evening almost a step back into time.

I suppose in those early days a good mug or two of ale would have washed down the haggis. Instead, this year, a choice of wines was provided.

Two drams of whisky were served – one for the ‘Immortal Memory’, and one for the toast to North Ronaldsay.

Yes, John Barleycorn featured handsomely as the evening began.

Then let us toast John Barleycorn.
Each man a glass in hand;
And may his great posterity
Ne’er fail in old Scotland.

After the supper, Les Cowan, guest speaker, proposed the Immortal Memory. In a fine tribute to the Bard, Les concentrated on the humanity of the poet and why Burns is still remembered more than 200 years after his death – not only in Scotland but all over the world.

Verses were chosen from a number of Burns’s well-known poems to illustrate the poet’s understanding of the human spirit and of nature.

I shall quote a few lines to give an idea of Les’s appreciation and to remind us of some favourite poems:

To a Mouse:

But Mousie, thou art no thy-lane.
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us naught but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

Some lines from To a Louse:

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us
An’ foolish notion; . . .’

From For a’ that and a’ that:

Is there, for honest poverty
That hangs its head, and a’ that?
The coward-slave, we pass him by-
We dare be poor for a’ that!
For a’ that, and a’ that,
Our toils obscure, and a’ that,
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp-
The man’s the gowd for a’ that.

Les finished with a very early but beautiful little poem of Burns, My Handsome Nell, from which I will quote a couple of verses:

O once I lov’d a bonnie lass,
An’ aye I love her still,
An’ whilst that virtue warms my breast,
I’ll love my handsome Nell.

As bonie lasses I hae seen,
And mony full as braw,
But, for a modest, gracefu’ mein,
The like I never saw.

Howie Firth, in great form, followed with the ‘Toast to the Lasses’. He also quoted from a poem using one verse as his theme but from another poet. This time it was GMB and his poem Attie Campbell 1900 -1967:

A million light-years beyond the Milky Way
Where Villon and Burns,
Falstaff and slant-eyed Li Po
Order their nectar by turns
(No ‘Time, gents’ there, no drinker has to pay)
And words immortal gather head and flow?

Howie imagined that in the company there would have to be some great woman from the past, like Mary Queen of Scots for example, but also Orcadian women he could think of who should certainly be there.

Next came the reply, composed by Jenny Mainland, who, unfortunately, was unable to attend. Her sister, Bessie Muir, kindly took over to make the reply. Jenny also chose some words but from a modern song as her theme:

Everybody wants to go to heaven,
But nobody wants to die.

Jenny remembered the old folk of her North Ronaldsay toonships – Bustie and Nesstoon – and the stalwart men of the area with their great craic.

But if she could meet them in heaven she would also like to see some of the formidable women characters of those days present to “keep the pot boiling”.

Two Burns songs followed. They were sung magnificently by Hamish Bayne, who also played his concertina. Additional accompaniment was provided by Fran Gray (accordion) and Lesley MacLeod (fiddle).

Those three constitute the group Three in a Bar. Hamish firstly sang Ay Waukin, O followed by The Silver Tassie.

Then John Cutt, in his inimitable style, recited the old poem, Maggie fae the Bu as he had once done many years ago when full concerts of songs, sketches and music were fairly common entertainment on the island. The poem, read partly in dialect, was much enjoyed.

The recitation was followed by Lesley MacLeod who, standing in front of Burns’s portrait, entertained everybody to some beautiful fiddle music contemporary with the poet’s lifetime.

She began with a slow air, then a strathspey and then a lament and finished with an Irish tune in praise of whisky.

To complete the short programme, A toast to North Ronaldsay was proposed by Howie Firth.

He referred to the island’s ancient history and how, through the centuries, the sea that never changes, the land and the people had survived, and though less in number, folk were still here, as he hoped they would continue to be.

After the toast, a pleasant ceremony took place when the new teacher, Susan Gilbert, and her partner, Gordon Asher, were welcomed to the island.

Evelyn Gray presented Susan with a beautiful basket of flowers. Susan acknowledged the presentation saying how both she and her partner had been made most welcome, and how she was looking forward to teaching and to life on the island.

Our guest musicians, Three in a Bar, soon got under way in style, with some great music that certainly encouraged folk to get up and dance.

Then, after a lively spell of dancing, a number of Burns songs were sung, with Hamish and Howie leading the lightsome communal singing with gusto. Scots Wha Hae, Ae Fond Kiss, The Lea Rig, and Afton Water were four of the favourites.

On went the dance. In between times, tea, currant bun and shortbread were served, and a raffle drawn. The raffle raised £160.50 for Cancer Research.

Folk continued to dance, with an eightsome reel livening up the proceedings. Sinclair’s bagpipe music fairly kept the dancers on their toes.

A few more dances followed before the last one, a Pride o’ Erin. The singing of Auld Lang Syne finally brought the enjoyable occasion to a close.

I thought, as I left for home, that even if Burns is somewhere “a million light-years beyond the Milky Way,” as GMB imagines, he surely would have been very pleased with the night as we celebrated the life of Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns.

Bidding traditional farewell to New Year

Before the old Yule-time spell is over (January 13), I thought I should write a little letter just to say goodbye once more to a time of year that, in the past, had great meaning.

In the dark days of the winters of long ago – and not so long ago – when life was hard and there was little entertainment or distractions to brighten everyday life, Yule was, as one can imagine, a time of enjoyment.

Ernest Marwick has written extensively, as I’ve said before, about this particular time of year which began on December 21 and ended on Aald New’er Day – January 13.

He mentions, for example, that Yule was very much a Norwegian festival. It was the greatest ale-feast of the year.

In Norway it was thought that the spirits of the dead came into the houses to share the Yule fare.

In Shetland and Orkney it was the trows that had their eye on the good things. So people had to be careful, and one reads about the importance of fire as a form of protection from those unwanted visitors.

Ernest mentions that the old bonfires were lit on four occasions in the year, with the Yule festival being one.

You might remember in my last letter that I mentioned that we had a spectacular Yule bonfire on Dennis Ness, so we should be safe enough in North Ronaldsay.

You know we have a small loch called Trollavatn, meaning the water of the trolls, so – who knows? – they may be lurking around Dennis Ness where the loch is situated, ready to pounce upon an unwary traveller.

Readers may also remember my mentioning the ‘Neuer Sang’ – the New Year Song.

Actually, the few lines I quoted were perhaps a little misleading in that I had omitted to quote the refrain which followed the second and fourth lines of each verse.

I had instead only chosen a few lines which gave some idea of the blessings which the singers and visiting company bestowed upon the house, its occupants and its animals. But let me just quote a couple of verses to illustrate how the refrain fits in.

This night is guid New’ar ev’n’s night,
We’re a’ St Mary’s men,
An’ we’ve come here tae claim wur right,
‘Fore wur Lady.

The morn it is guid New’ar Day.
We’re a’ St Mary’s men,
An we’ve come here tae sport an’ play,
‘Fore wur Lady.

And let me tell you about the recording by some North Ronaldsay men of the ‘Neuer Sang’ (Orkney Sound Archives).

Three of the singers I know about. My father was one, and often he would tell the story of the recording.

It was made one early, dark winter’s day at the house of Nouster – not far from the jetty where the Earl Sigurd was briefly berthed that morning.

The fortnightly trip of the steamer to the island had been missed because of adverse weather and so the boat arrived, if not the morning after the New Year, very close to that time.

My father said that singing this particularly lengthy song after a late night of Yule visiting was about the last thing any of the singers wanted to do. However, it had to be done, and, as I said, it was made as a BBC recording.

Of the other two men who sang that cold winter’s morning, one was John Tulloch, Senness, now 84 years of age and the island’s most senior man (I must ask him if there were other singers).

John is the last surviving member of the group. The other singer was Henry Thomson, Neven, who was lost at sea, aged 38, in November, 1971.

Those two men came in on the refrain. The recording was made, as I mentioned in my letter, in the 1950s.

At that time, I think North Ronaldsay’s population would have been around 170, and there would have been much ‘jan aboot’ (visiting) with almost every house able to supply a good drink o’ the real home brewed ale.

Well, the time for Yule visits is almost at an end, the 13th being the last day.

I have two or three houses left on my list. A couple of nights ago, far past the ‘heuld’, I estimated the moon 30 degrees north of west which I always think looks very unusual. But she was brilliantly bright, shining above a thundering sea.

In the old days when only the light from a tilley lamp (or even a lesser light) shone from a friendly window, and roads were not very easy to walk on – nor the dark fields for that matter – the moonlight would have been a great help for the visits made at this time of year.

Tonight a large broch has appeared round the moon. I wonder what it will mean?

Earlier there was thunder and lightning which came and went for a short time, but now – I’ve just been out to look again – the sky is very hazy with the moon veiled behind the thin, high cloud. Shortly she will be full.

The wind is in the southwest and, as I stopped for a moment or two, I listened to the west sea. There is a never ending pounding which pervades the air with sudden, loud explosions of sound as some heavier wave drove itself upon unyielding rocks from time to time.

A snipe piped one sad note once or twice, and, then again, sometimes quite near, as it flew on some unknown errand. Then the lonely call would come from the distance and fade away altogether.

It’s well past the ‘heuld’ as usual and time to make for my bed – “high time and by time” – as Sarah o’ Lochend would have said.

Shortly it will be our Burns’ Supper night, so we shall have to get ourselves organised. It’s lightsome when the Yule time comes around. Too soon it passes but then Burns briskens us all up again.

What about finishing with a North Ronaldsay man’s toast? I’ve just been reminded of it in John Firth’s book Reminiscences of an Orkney Parish. By the way, he also talks about the New Year’s Song.

Here’s a health tae ye and yers,
For being sae kind tae we an wiz;
And if ever ye and yirs come to we an wiz,
We and wiz sal be as kind tae ye and yirs
As ever ye and yirs wus tae we and wiz.

Festivities conclude with dancing at monument

This is a letter I began early in December. Time has passed and we are now in the last few days of the old year. I shall end as the New Year gets under way but, in-between, I think I will just include what I have already written.

December 5: Well, my whistling sticks, which I use for safety from time to time, have been singing away – you may have read in my last letter about my elbow crutches and how the wind affects them.

This morning they played a tune in North Ronaldsay as I used them to get me to the airstrip, then on the streets of Kirkwall they still whistled a little as the airt of wind suited.

As I travelled to Kirkwall by Loganair, the only sun to be seen was that above the low cloud canopy where the plane flew.

Below the clouds, the islands remained dull and dreary all day. Tonight, as I begin this letter, the westerly wind is quite strong. Sometimes an almost full moon appears through the clouds, which are fairly flying and the ‘wast’ sea is thundering away in the background.

You know, the whistling sound of my sticks reminds me of the early 1950s, when I was lodging in Kirkwall.

At weekends, sometimes, I would go for walks out to Hatston. At that time, the war had only been over for a few years and so there remained air raid shelters, Nissen huts and such constructions near the almost intact wartime aerodrome.

Here and there one would pass one of the tubular aluminium gates that were in evidence.

Then, as now, there would be construction holes in those gates, and the mournful sound of the wind could be heard as it blew through the little openings.

I used to imagine that the sad tunes were a requiem for those wartime years, and for the pilots who had been lost as a result of enemy action in Norway, or whatever fate befell them. So when I hear the song of the tubular gates, or of my walking sticks, I am reminded of those days.

This is another night, as I continue. When, not exactly by choice, I stayed on the Mainland recently, I was disappointed to have missed the Armistice service on the island when John Tulloch, Senness, laid the wreath at the War Memorial. A good turnout was there to pay their respects.

The Rev John McNab, from Sanday, officiated, with John Cutt reciting Binyon’s familiar verse. Sinclair Scott played the bagpipe lament.

I also missed the North Ronaldsay Ladies Lifeboat Guild’s yearly fundraising evening which was well attended.

The guild president, Isobel Muir, opened the proceedings. Many items were for sale including island produce and other goods – vegetables, homebakes, books etc. In addition there was the usual raffle.

A little supper followed with tea or coffee, sausage rolls, sandwiches, and homebakes. A total of £788.89 was spent as folk gave generously. Otherwise, island life has been very quiet apart from the AGM of the North Ronaldsay Trust and of the Yarn Company. And a whist drive raised around £160 for the children’s Christmas Eve Santa party.

In my last letter, I mentioned visiting Jock Harcus, former engineer for many years on the SS Earl Sigurd.

I also mentioned Jim Craigie, of Dale, champion ploughman, to whom I had spoken at length over the phone. Sadly, he died recently.

When I was in Kirkwall a couple of weeks ago, I was able to visit Jock once again. This time we talked at greater length. Let me tell you a little more in this letter.

Jock Harcus was born in Faray – a small island situated between Westray and Eday – in 1911.

He lived there with his parents until he left the island when he was 14 which was the school leaving age in those days. I asked him about life on the island then. At that time, he said, there were eight tenant crofters.

Land work – ploughing, harrowing and so on – was carried out by harnessing two animals together, such as an ox and a cow. Later, in the thirties, his father acquired a horse.

We talked a little about the brewing of ale. The bere or corn was steeped for two days, made into malt and dried in small kilns that were part of the croft.

The bruising of the dried malt, prior to the brewing, was accomplished with the use of the quernstone – there were no bruisers nor indeed a mill on the island.

I asked about dances and such events. Christmas and New Year were the special days when the folk of the island would visit one another, beginning at one end of the long, narrow shaped island on Christmas Day and visiting from the opposite end on New Year’s Day.

Otherwise, community events seemed to be infrequent. Music was usually an accordion or melodeon and maybe a fiddle.

As well as the crofting, there was fishing such as for ‘cuithes’ – an important addition to the staple diet of those more austere days.

Jock and his father also augmented the croft’s income by fishing for lobster.

When Jock left Faray in 1925, he went to work as a farm hand at the farm of Cauldhame, near Stromness.

He was also employed at two other farms, one of which was Brettobreck, in the same area, where he became a horseman.

Once he won a medal (which he still has) for the best turned out horse at a ploughing match. He returned briefly to help at the island farm before following a career at sea, as I have already mentioned previously, beginning as a deckhand, then learning all there was to know about steam driven engines, firstly, on a drifter in the flow (Pride of Fife) and later in 1944 when he joined the SS Earl Sigurd.

In 1940, Jock married Annie Rousay, who was a teacher. She later wrote a book, Don’t tell Bab!, published in 1995, in which she recounts her teaching days and their life together.

In 1947, Faray was evacuated as the population had fallen to an unsustainable number. Jock was there to assist the last inhabitant leave.

We then talked about the steam driven engines. I think I’m right in saying that the supply drifter on which he worked in the Flow, was powered by a two-cylinder engine – the size for the smaller trawlers of those days.

The deep sea, larger trawler had a three-cylinder engine exactly the same as the engine in the Earl Sigurd.

It gave the ship a maximum speed of around nine and a half knots. Coal had to be shovelled into a furnace that was part of the boiler to produce the head of steam required to drive the engines.

On deck were large ventilators which could be adjusted to best suit the requirements of the fire.

On the Sigurd the fire chamber measured around 7ft long by 4.5ft in the round. Jock went on to explain that to steam to North Ronaldsay, for example, (30 miles as the crow flies) consumed three tons (six for the round trip).

Once, he told me that my sister, Kathleen, had boldly rolled up her sleeves and fired the ship on an outward trip – a journey of between three-and-a-half and four hours.

After the SS Earl Sigurd was decommissioned in 1969 – thus ending the days of steam, Jock served out his remaining years at sea on the new ship, diesel powered and named the Islander, retiring in 1976.

This information, only a part of which I have related here, I jotted down from memory as I flew back to North Ronaldsay. So I hope it is correct.

Well folks, this is all for the moment, shortly it will be Yule with Hogmanay and the New Year to write about.

It’s well past the ‘heuld’ and all the time I’ve been writing the wind is whistling outside the west window. I’m going to have a look outside for I think it is a wild night. Yes, it is certainly a very ‘coorse’ night. The wind (northwesterly) I judge to be gale force as it increased for a shower, and when I walked to the corner of our front byre to view the stormy scene, a fierce pelting of sleet came flying out of a dark grey sky.

As it passed, the wind fell a little, allowing for the pounding of the sea to be heard and the sky to the west lightened. Though I could not see her, the full moon was there above the clouds.

Days have passed and for some time, the weather has been amazingly mild with some spectacular sunrises and sunsets.

The winter solstice has been – can one believe that the days are on the turn? But they are! On the shortest day, school dinners, with Winnie Scott in charge, provided the traditional island Christmas dinner.

It was well-attended and we enjoyed the meal, as we also very much enjoyed the school bairns’ singing of appropriate songs for the festive season.

Music teacher, Elaine Geddes, had done a great job. She and support teacher, Sheila Grieve, came out to the island for the event.

And, along with the assistance of stand-in teacher, Anne Ogilvie (until the arrival of our newly appointed head teacher who comes to the island early in the New Year), the pupils are being well looked after.

On Christmas Eve, the bairns’ Santa party took place. That was great fun.

Christmas Day has been and gone and, as I write, this is Boxing Day. It’s cold, as the wind is coming from the east.

Fair Isle is crystal clear, and lonely Foula, away to the north, is also visible. I’ve just been out and the sky is full of rolling cloud from east to west and from south to north, beyond which, here and there, a background of blue shines through.

Colours of silver, grey, and purple, and pale yellow, where the hidden afternoon sun lightens up cloud edges, dominate the sky of the dying year. In the background, I can hear the piping of the curlew and the calling of wild duck from the direction of Ancum loch.

On December 27, a Christmas Carol service was held in the New Centre with Rev John McNab, from Sanday, officiating. Around 30 folk attended. Readings were by John Cutt, Gerbo, Isobel Muir, Hooking, Carol Bayley, Breckan, and Linda Weston (nee Tulloch, Scottigar), here on holiday from Canada with her husband John.

Ann Tulloch, Purtabreck, accompanied the singing of some favourite carols on the keyboard. Tea and warm Christmas pies were served to end a very pleasant evening.

Yesterday, December 29, was also an enjoyable day when about 40 folk – islanders and a number of relatives and friends on holiday – were involved in a beach tidy-up.

An amazing amount of work was managed on a bracing winter’s day. In the mirking, a ‘Yule’ bonfire burned fiercely in the strong southerly wind, lighting up the grounds of Dennis Ness.

Later, in the New Centre, refreshments were served along with hot soup and all sorts of food.

Great was the ‘talk,’ with a number of youngsters having the time of their lives in the cheery hall with all the Christmas decorations glittering in the coloured lighting.

North Ronaldsay Community Association organised the event and president, Evelyn Gray, requests that I express her thanks, and those of the members of the committee, to all who helped to make the day such a great success.

This is New Year’s Day and the most magnificent day it has been.

Hogmanay (New’er Even) by contrast, was not a pleasant day as heavy showers came and went. Nevertheless, the last hours of 2005 were celebrated well enough with first footers arriving, at this house and that house, as the New Year got under way.

When the ‘New’er’ song (a song of some 50 verses) was sung, not all that long ago, as men of my late father’s generation easily remembered the song. It had to be sung before the visiting company of men were allowed into the house — I’ve mentioned before how the men from each toonship in North Ronaldsay went on their visiting rounds on Hogmanay and the New Year.

Anyhow, I was going to say that some of the lines of the old song were surely very appropriate for the beginning of a New Year.

Though asking for hospitality, as the singers do, would it not be very fine to wish the best for the neighbour’s house – not only for the house itself, but for its occupants including all the animals? Here are a few lines:

Guid be tae this buirdly bigging!
Fae the steeth stane tae the rigging,
Guid bless the guidwife an’ sae the guidman,
May a’ your kye may weel tae calf,
An’ every ane ha’e a queyo calf,
May a’ your geese be weel tae t’rive,
An’ every ane ha’e three times five,
May a’ your yowes be weel tae lamb,
An’ every ane ha’e a yowe and ram…

So the good wishes go on. If any reader would like to read the complete song it can be seen in Ernest W Marwick’s An Anthology of Orkney Verse (published 1949).

Ernest Marwick writes that the New Year song was sung not only in Orkney but also in Shetland and Foula and even further afield – Findochty for example.

Words and tune varied somewhat as one might expect. But the song can be heard in the Orkney Sound Archives as it was sung by a group of North Ronaldsay men for the BBC in the 1950s.

Although, by the 1950s, the singing of the song had died out, it was still remembered on the island by the older generation.

As I mentioned, this day has been grand and just before a beautiful sunset, 22 ‘Stan Stane’ dancers circled the monument to the music of an accordion.

Toasts for health and good luck for 2006 were proposed and, as we made our way homewards to enjoy festive fare at another venue, the first sun of the New Year was setting behind blue islands in the south west.