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.