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.