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.