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.