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.