Harvest Home – a time for celebration and remembrance of bygone days

Well, the harvest moon has been and gone and so too has the time of the aald hairst days.

I’m always a little sad when that time of year fades away. Despite the sometimes unpleasant, hard work of those days when, as I’ve often said, there were nevertheless great days and great memories. Even on the difficult days when crops lay raffled or flattened, folk working together could still enjoy overcoming such obstacles.

And who of that workforce could ever forget the golden days when the sun was shining; when fields of golden corn and ripening oats coloured the Orcadian landscape; when the crop stood safe and ready for shearing, stooking and building into stacks. Such pleasant memories can never fade. And at the end of the season there was the abiding pleasure of celebrating the completion of the year’s harvest work.

Yes, I know those days are in the past but the memories remain – important memories I may say, since working together with neighbours and others was very satisfying and gave real pleasure. It’s a pity that today’s young farmers, or other young people for that matter, will never experience such activities and never quite understand the enjoyment of those bygone times.

So, in North Ronaldsay, though the alternative harvest of silage/barley wrapped bales and the like, gets done mainly much earlier in the year and no longer does one see and hear the clicking-clacking binder, or see the stooks and then hand-built stacks, we still like to have an old fashioned Harvest Home.

Our hall decorations of mainly simmans and large ‘flackie’ designs made from straw —renewed not so long ago and so far lasting well. And the oat sheaves are now replaced with sheaves made from another, once much-used material, “stowers” (a tall coarse type of grass used to build-in and protect binders). Some say, as they maybe play the devil’s advocate, that those items are no longer appropriate. But such materials provide great decoration and they will always symbolise the harvest — however changed the produce might be — just as the red poppy of Flander’s Fields symbolises the sacrifice of those who gave their lives for freedom in war.

Evelyn Gray, president of the North Ronaldsay Community Association (NRCA), welcomed the company and the guests and thanked the very many folk who had worked hard to make the evening possible.

In addition, I made a short report about progress with Memorial Hall affairs. Tar had been purchased for tarring the building, as had road-repair emulsion for repairing the parking area in front of the hall. Two windows remain to be bought and installed.

Perhaps, as I suggested, if we got another really good spell of weather we might still, this year, tar the hall. I noticed in one of the old minute books of many years ago a decision had been taken to carry out this work in the month of November. So we may yet have a grand tarring day.

Jerry Wilson, recently retired veterinary surgeon, was our Harvest Home speaker. Jerry was accompanied by his wife Evelyn. The North Ronaldsay Community Association’s other guests were our man at the Orkney Auction Mart, Jim Linklater, with his wife Elizabeth. And Bill Carstairs, also a veterinary surgeon, just retired. Bill had for many years been our North Isles vet and a familiar presence on the island. His wife, Olive, very disappointingly, was unable to be present. Bill was our first Harvest Home speaker when in 1990 the NRCA returned to the old venue of the Memorial Hall.

Incidentally, on this occasion, there were three other previous speakers from this period present: Howie Firth in 1991, Willie Tulloch in 1993, and David K. Scott in 1996 — the two latter speakers both local men living outwith the island.

Anyhow, as I was saying, this return to the Memorial Hall happened after a lapse of nine years when, for that time, the event was held in the New Community Centre (opened in 1981). So Bill’s return to a Harvest Home after 18 years was a nostalgic trip back in time.

Also among the Association’s guests was the band, who had very kindly come from Kirkwall and Stromness to play: Lesley MacLeod. Dave Linklater and Hamish Bayne.

There is no building, I think, so appropriate for a Harvest Home as the Memorial Hall. It has real character and one feels completely at home in surroundings that go back 87 years. There is a wonderful dance floor, and no nonsense about using the traditional slipperine — health and safety indeed! Even from the time of Robert Burns and later in Scotland when the sometimes very formidable dancing masters were travelling around the country giving dancing lessons, slivers of wax were used on the various types of floors so as to enable folk to easily turn and glide.

After a magnificent meal, that included the mutton of our native sheep, blessed by the Rev John McNab from Sanday, Jerry Wilson rose to give the Harvest Home speech.

Jerry chose to deliver the oration in rhyme. He referred to his early days in his native Fair Isle, mentioning the hairsts of those days and his inspiration to become a vet.

He went on to expand on a long career as a veterinary surgeon, telling of many escapades and of various amusing episodes when travelling round the farming community.

Jerry concluded his very original, and enjoyable, Harvest Home address and invited a company of almost 100 to be upstanding and to toast the harvest.

Gold nectar sparkled briefly in the lantern and candle-light

After this tribute to the year’s many bounties, a wonderful birthday cake was conveyed to the main table. This was Ronan Gray’s sixth birthday and after blowing out his six candles the song Happy Birthday to You was sung with gusto.

A great dance followed going with a swing and with plenty dancers on the floor. Lesley, Dave and Hamish hardly stopped playing. Sinclair Scott provided pipe music for the two swirling eightsome reels danced.

When it came to the raffle Ian Deyell and Evelyn Gray swept through this business which raised £320. Many substantial prizes were available, including one of my watercolours.

Then, Jim Linklater, in very brisk form, handled an auction. Being in his element as a professional auctioneer, before we knew where we were he had sold another watercolour of mine for £380.

Altogether a very splendid sum of £700 was raised for the Memorial Hall funds.

Tea followed, with all sorts of things to eat. Then, once more the dance got under way with a Strip the Willow (what else!) and so continued grandly until the back of two.

Auld Lang Syne brought the dancing to a close. Hot soup followed to bring to an end a great Harvest Home.

Outside, a full moon illuminated the island. The old folk would have been very pleased as a good moonlit night was generally the chosen time for most events — no cars in those days, just feet and maybe a flashlight or two.

I left the “Aald Hut” at 3am, or later, and, as I mostly do, I thought about all those islanders now long gone. Would they, I wondered, come back for an hour or two, with fiddles and melodeon, and relive the great days of the past?

I like to think that they might but before the long night was through, they would disappear like the Merry Dancers that shimmer and dance across the wintery skies.

Winter Mood
by Robert Rendall

Day comes on silent foot, and earth awakes.
Within their stackyards farmers come and go.
In yonder field the ploughman, leaning low.
Furrow on furrow o’er the landscape makes.
He from the stillness of the morning takes
A quiet mind, and motions calm and slow.
Ah! Would that I with him might feel the flow
Of days and years beside these hills and lakes.
What wealth of inward joy and peace have they
Who shepherd flocks or till the fruitful soil,
Fulfilling ‘neath the heav’ens’ infinitude
Their daily task, nor wander far away;
Each on his native croft content to toil,
Season by season, matching Nature’s mood.

Busy times are tinged with sadness

I’m beginning this letter as August comes to an end. It’s a day of fresh northerly winds. Those northerly winds are indeed bracing and especially so today as the sun, still fairly warm, heightens the sharpness and pleasure of the day. And, when I looked out to the northwest, the deep blue of the sea – as it becomes at the back-end of the year – is broken here and there with the dazzling white of breaking wave tops.

Seventy or more years ago the island would have been thinking about making a start with the old-fashioned ‘hairst’ work.

Across the landscape, as September advanced, fields of gold and changing greens to russet browns would soon have been alive with half, or more, of the population at work. Mainly the menfolk cut the corn or oats with their long-bladed scythes. Women would have made the sheaves and set them up to cure and dry. What a sight it would have been, with a hundred or more folk scattered across the harvest fields.

But today the fields are mostly all green and hardly a soul is to be seen. Instead of the hard, physical labour of gathering in the crops – made somewhat easier as time passed by reaper and binder – fodder for animals is now managed entirely by heavy machinery – one man to forage, one to transport and one to wrap.

Hay, corn and oats have been replaced by grass, with a little unripe corn, or barley-mix harvested later, all wrapped in black, or pale green, plastic.

In the space of a lifetime, great changes have taken place – changes such as the old folk could never have imagined.

But the social life still goes on and over the past weeks we have had a busy time, and a pleasant time, and I will continue this diary with those varied events, though, also, there have been sad times that I must mention.

The weekend of August 18/19, was a busy one.

First, on the Saturday, in the New Kirk, four boys – Alexander, Jason, Christopher and Thorfinn – were christened. Graeme and Gina Scott were the parents. The Rev John McNab performed the lengthy baptism ceremony quite delightfully.

A nice touch, and I believe a traditional one, was the use of an actual scallop shell to administer the water. With the godparents and partners also present, quite a splendid party of young folk stood round the old christening font.

Christenings in North Ronaldsay are certainly very unusual affairs nowadays, and throughout this memorable occasion, one thought kept recurring: what a great pity that this family, who live on the Orkney Mainland, and other families in the same position, and with similar island connections, could not come to live and work on the island. Then we would be in business!

In the evening of the same day, as part of a fun weekend, organised by Carole Bayley, Helga Tulloch and Anne Ogilvie, an enjoyable event took place in the Memorial Hall. Anne Ogilvie welcomed a large company of between 70 and 80, which included many folk from the Orkney Mainland. She paid tribute to Carole Bayley, who had died suddenly, only days before, and to whom she dedicated the weekend.

Carole, Anne said, would have insisted that the planned events should go ahead.

Firstly, we were very grandly entertained to a short concert given by Lesley McLeod, fiddle. Dave Linklater, accordion and Hamish Bayne, concertina. Interspersed with the musical contributions – both individually and collectively – were readings by Pam Beasant of some of her original short poems. Hamish also sang The Silver Tassie.

Dancing followed to the lively music of the same three players, with the usual wonderful assortment of refreshments being served.

Next day, still in the Memorial Hall, folk gathered for a variety of events: home-grown vegetables were available; a range of items made from the wool of the famous native sheep; souvenirs with a North Ronaldsay theme etc. Many helpers, including Friends of the North Ronaldsay Trust, who had come from the Orkney Mainland, and the North Ronaldsay Community Association, ensured that the week-end was a success. A raffle raised a sum of around £170.

Also, as part of the activities, Freda Bayne (textile and wool designer) gave a class in felt design. And, as part of the earlier events, Pam Beasant (George Mackay Brown writing fellow) had conducted a writer’s workshop.

The highlight of the day was the signing of John Cutt’s newly-published book, The Way we Were, by the author, who was in attendance. All proceeds from sales are being donated to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.

On Saturday, as part of the Orkney Science Festival, Howie Firth, organiser of the festival, came out to North Ronaldsay to present a very special one-time event to the folk of the island.

With Howie was a very fine group of five musicians from Burghead: Saut-Herrin – two singers who played fiddle/mandolin and guitar, another fiddler, a bodhran player and a small pipes player. And from Kirkwall came Lesley MacLeod and Dave Linklater.

In the evening, in the new community centre, Anne Ogilvie, on behalf of the North Ronaldsay Community Association, welcomed everybody and introduced Howie Firth.

After presenting his guests, Howie began his talk, The Web of Space and Time. Into his talk, he mixed various, fascinating, historical ingredients, along with legends and their connections.

There was Walter Scott’s 1814 voyage on the lighthouse yacht round the Scottish Lighthouses; an amazing story from North Ronaldsay’s past (a poem from the sagas still remembered locally in the Norn language in the late 18 century); the work of the great French philosopher and mathematician, René Descartes; and he took a look at the physics of space, and time, with the help of Albert Einstein.

Between different parts of the talk, there were short interludes of music, with photographs and drawings projected on to a screen simultaneously.

The evening continued in a relaxed style. Flowers decorated tables, illuminated by candlelight in an area made smaller by great coloured curtains to suit the occasion. Music and song followed with easy discourse round the hall. Howie told a hilarious ‘mermaid’ tale from Sanday, which he had composed in verse.

Generous refreshments and traditional fare were on offer, and a little dancing took place from time to time.

As the evening drew to a close, Anne Ogilvie acknowledged the work of the community association’s president, Evelyn Gray, in organising the event.

Well, all those celebrations were greatly enjoyed, but other events had taken place, reminding all of us of how short, unexpected, or inevitable, our existence can sometimes be.

On the Orkney Mainland Ronald Swanney, formerly from Kirbist, North Ronaldsay, aged 45, tragically lost his life.

He left North Ronaldsay in his early years. He sailed for a time as a ship’s chief engineer. He continued this work as a maintenance engineer but was shore-based. And over the years he became very well known in Orkney for his greatly admired, professional, restorative work on vintage tractors and other machinery.

Then Robert Thomson, aged 87, formerly from Peckhole, North Ronaldsay, died in the parish of Rendall. (An appreciation appeared recently in both local newspapers).

And, quite suddenly, about a week ago on the island, Carole Bayley died, aged 65.

Norman, her husband, and she came up to North Ronaldsay from the south of England eight, or so, years ago.

Both had followed professional careers before deciding to move up north. They tastefully, renovated the old croft house of Breckan, where they lived happily together, involving themselves with great zeal and creativity in various island activities. Gardening and looking after animals were also interests of both Carole and Norman

Not long ago I was re-reading J. W. Muir’s little book entitled Island Stories, printed by W. R. Rendall, Stromness, in 1979.

There is a verse set to music at the end of his book, with which I will conclude this letter.

I was thinking that this verse would be very appropriate as those three islanders, each in their different ways, loved North Ronaldsay.

Two were, as one says, born and bred, on the island, and the third was a new islander.

As the days pass at such times life goes on.
Birds still sing; the sea sparkles and the clouds hurry by;
The seasons follow, one by one, and the generations come and go.
But the island never changes all that much.

J. W. Muir – or Johnny o’ Burray as we better knew him – also remembered the land of his birth. Here are those few words that seem to fit in quite beautifully for all those North Ronaldsay folk who come and go:

Little island of blue and soft green.
Where in the summer the arctic terns wheel and sail in the sky.
And the seaweed-eating sheep follow the ebbing tide … Goodbye.
Rita C. Muir. June, 1967

Summer days filled with work and arts

Somebody told me the other day that the summer holidays are almost halfspent.

That can’t be possible I thought, but when I considered for a moment and looked up my diary I saw that the school’s end of term open day, which usually heralds the beginning of the school’s summer holidays, actually took place on June 28.

So now I see that as we get older time appears to get shorter. What seems like two weeks is nearer four, and two years becomes four or five or more.

In any case, the school’s open day was as enjoyable as it always is.

An informative selection of work was on view. There was the term’s project work — a study of the Romans; pupil target folders; examples of creative writing — computer and hand-written work, etc. Pupils Duncan Gray, Gavin Woodbridge, Cameron Gray and Ronan Gray (Primary One) had obviously been well motivated. Lilly Gray, nursery section, had also been having a constructive time.

On view were projected video stills and photographic displays showing the three older pupils’ visit to Caithness. They had been to the Wick Heritage Centre, to the Thurso football pitch, to Stroma by speedboat, a re-cycling centre, on a sea-fishing trip and enjoyed quad bike rides.

Ronan and Lilly, on a visit to Kirkwall had seen the hospital, fire station, Kirkwall lifeboat and the Pickaquoy Centre.

Add to all of that swimming and collaborative joint-school work such as in drama productions and art.

In the main community hall an exhibition of quite impressive art work was on view from Papa Westray, Eday, Flotta, Rousay and North Ronaldsay. This collaborative effort between the different islands is a great idea, as are the visits made to the Mainland and further afield.

So, head teacher, Sue Gilbert, had done great things with her pupils. This was acknowledged when, as reported recently, HMIE inspectors applauded the versatile range of work provided and the effective leadership of the head teacher.

Praise was given to all aspects of nursery provision. Commendation must also be attributed to support teacher Anne Ogilvie (Anne took over mid-term from Sheila Grieve, who had taken early retirement) and nursery early-years worker Marion Muir.

Having begun by looking back, I think I will continue my letter as a sort of extended ‘here and there’ dairy.

Readers of The Orcadian and Orkney Today would have seen the very comprehensive coverage (with many photographs) of the North Ronaldsay Folk Festival.

That weekend coincided with the opening of the £4.5m redevelopment of the Pier Arts Centre in Stromness. This was a special occasion with some 400 Friends of the Gallery, funders and exhibiting artists attending the public opening.

My mind had been made up earlier to be in Stromness for this event, so off I flew by Loganair on a day of sunshine and banks of shifting, rolling mists. How very grand it was to be in Stromness again, strolling up or down the “hills and dales” of the friendly old town.

Still to be seen preserved in Stromness, are parts of the original cobbled streets of past times. I had a Stromnessian friend who walked along with me answering my questions about this and that, or pointing out places of interest or of historical importance. Such as, for example, the Lieutenant’s house (built by Lt James Robertson RN, who commanded HMS Beresford at the battle of Plattsburg in 1812); the Lighthouse shore buildings where generations of lightkeepers’ families once lived; the remaining gable-end of a house where long ago a blacksmith worked away on his forge — part of its chimney can still be seen in the gable; the cast iron pier head fountain, where once horses drank.

The fountain bears a plaque commemorating Alexander Graham. It was he who led the fight against an excessive, debilitating trading tax levied on Stromness traders by Kirkwall. Though successful, Graham was forced into bankruptcy as a result of his efforts and died, seemingly, in poverty.

As we made our way down to the harbour who should I meet but a lady from the past. Years ago, she lived for a time in North Ronaldsay where her husband was a lightkeeper. And another acquaintance from more recent times — also with a lighthouse connection — was the son of the last principal (before automation), of the North Ronaldsay Lighthouse, now a successful owner of a taxi business.

But I have strayed a little from the Pier Arts Centre. It has now become a truly magnificent building and a great centre for the Arts. The opening was a splendid affair with further celebrations in the Stromness Hotel.

In Kirkwall, earlier last month, I visited the Orkney Museum and the Kirkwall Town Hall to see the retrospective exhibition of paintings spanning the life and career of Dr Stanley Cursiter RSA RSW (1887 – 1976). I must certainly go back again.

Janette Park, Social History Curator at the Orkney Museum, with much work and dedication, over a period of two years of research and fund raising, had organised this tribute to Stanley Cursiter. Janette is an ardent admirer of Cursiter and at university wrote her dissertation, for her MA in the history of art, about the artist. This great Orcadian was indeed a man of many talents, with many honours to his name, not least being the Queen’s Limner in Scotland. He was a masterful painter of portraits, of royalty, and of many others holding positions of importance or of some high office.

Once, Stanley Cursiter showed me an album in which was a photographic record of very many, if not all of his portraits. As he said, there were Lord Provosts, bishops and generals, university professors and chairmen of companies. The exhibition includes examples of his fine portrait work, drawings, etchings, and a spectacular still life study in black and white.

And then there are his magnificent paintings of Orkney’s sea and landscape a number of which Janette had been able to acquire on loan for the exhibition.

The Orcadian landscape is beautifully captured and in the seascapes one almost hears the sound of the sea and feels the wind and sun.

One such painting is a powerful seascape entitled Surf. This was his RSA Diploma piece (1937). Another great painting (to be seen in the Town Hall) is his impressive and atmospheric interpretation of the Old Man of Hoy (pictured on the right).

Anyway, back home from Stromness I came. For days since, when the weather was suitable, the wrapping of round bales has been going on apace. As I write, Sunday, July 21, two weeks or so later, this silage work is about complete.

Shortly, it will be punding time, when the native sheep will be shorn of last year’s coat of wool and the County Show is not far away. So, you see, we are almost into the Market time of year when the nights are beginning to draw in once again.

Yesterday was a magnificent day with bracing, droughty, northerly winds and the sun shone with some brilliance. Grass-wrapping machinery was going at it here and there and heavy tractors roared.

It was a pleasure to be out and about and I myself, pursuing a more sedentary occupation, set about painting a bit more on a Nissen hut. Then it rained at night.

Today has been mixed but now, at night, it’s raining once again and heavily. But Orkney can’t complain if we think about the unbelievable rain, floods and unseasonable weather experienced further south.

Well, here I am sitting outside my front door this Monday morning finishing off this letter. It’s sunny and warm for the moment.

Bluebottles are darting here and there. Their buzzing reminds me of days long ago when chests of clothes and all manner of interesting things were brought outside in the sun to air.

In the garden, sparkling little beads of last night’s rain decorate the leaves of the montbretia like scattered jewels.

A curlew is piping in the distance and some gulls are calling and wheeling high in the sky — more rain I shouldn’t wonder. From time to time a young family of swallows sweep and bank at high speed round the house, as they hunt for flying insects, and a little wren is singing cheerfully on a nearby dyke.

Cast not a cloot ’til May be oot

Here I am again beginning a letter just a day or two before May comes to an end.

When I was writing my last letter but one — back in March — my inspiration came from a visit to the gardens of Holland House. There I reminisced about earlier times.

So pleasant was my sojourn that I resolved to return when the bluebells came into bloom. Well. I did go there one day fairly recently and, once again, sat myself down in the old slated seat from the past that had made me think about the North Ronaldsay of long ago.

I wrote down some notes and I will shortly have a look to see if there is anything worth a mention

In April we had a great night in the Memorial Hall the coverage of which constituted my last letter.

So on to this day. It began fairly quietly, then rained, and now, there is a gale of southerly wind which got up during the afternoon.

All of a sudden the east side of the island presents a stormy scene indeed. From the North Riff to the South Riff— an offshore underwater reef extending for around a mile or more—waves are breaking surprisingly heavily for such a short onslaught of wind.

Linklet bay is alive with broken water and on the shore, long sweeps of surf keep rolling landwards.

In the fast-changing evening sky, clouds fly northwards exposing sudden flashes of bright sunshine. Those waves of light come rushing across the island — sometimes from far out at sea — to lighten up the grass, like a brilliant searchlight, to an intensity of differing greens that almost dazzles the eye.

At the same time dykes, houses and fencing posts, which crisscross and dot the landscape, change colour and stand out prominently in the passing surges of sunlight.

This weather must be the belated Gabs o’ May (stormy weather usually early in May).

Another expression, which probably means the same, is the ‘ku-kwacks’. Hugh Marwick, in the Orkney Norn, describes them as stormy, blustery weather that comes often in May.

Not many days ago, the wind was in the north. Very cold and unpleasant it was, with rain and even sharp showers of sleet and hail dancing madly among the daisies and the dandelions.

So the old proverb: “Cast not a cloot ’til May be oot,” is still good advice. Mind you, earlier in the month there were some fine, bracing days with intense sunshine and we were lulled into thinking that summer had come. Since those misleading times there have been days and nights of cold rain and wind reminiscent of ‘back-end’ weather.

Just to liven us all up recently, artists from the 25th Orkney Folk Festival visited the island to give a concert — as they had done in other neighbouring islands.

All of this has already been covered in our local papers so I won’t dwell on the event. Particularly satisfying though, for me at least, was the opportunity to hear and enjoy the music and singing without the often unpleasant and detracting amplification that seems to be synonymous with such events.

Why, for heaven’s sake, must everything be amplified to such an unbearable pitch?

Of course the judicious use of a microphone is helpful — even necessary — when, for example, a fiddle is in competition with the more powerful accordion, or a singing voice is backed by various instruments including drums.

But no, up goes the volume until one could comfortably take a seat half a mile away in the open air and still hear everything — I know there are others who feel the same way.

Anyhow, the community association had created a cosy atmosphere with the decoration of the community centre. Use was made of coloured curtain material, coloured light bulbs, candles and vases of flowers to transform the interior. Various refreshments completed the enjoyment of the evening.

As I write I can hear the whistling and moaning of the wind.

I’ve just been outside to inspect the weather. How swiftly everything changes. The sky is now almost clear, and the moon, not very high up in the southern sky, is within a day or two of being full. She really commands attention.

In the west Venus is as bright as a button. It’s just too dark to make out the condition of the sea, though I can just, from time to time, see the ghostly appearance of the heavier breaking waves.

Over the night air I can smell the tang of the sea. It must partly be the churning up of old ‘brook’ — masses of seaweed or ‘ware’ that lie along parts of the shore decaying in the spring and early summer.

It’s a smell that is particularly nostalgic for me, for around this time of year, over 40 years ago, it always brings to mind a day when the creel boats put out to sea.

I wrote about those days in a two-part article on traditional lobster fishing published in The Orcadian in 2000.

The wind was easterly on that day of far-off memories. The same smell of decaying brook pervaded the early summer air, and the creel boats were first setting their drifts of creels for the season’s fishing.

I find it quite sad to think of those vanished times. Only in our minds or dreams do some of us ride the waves with the salt sea flying and the cold spray tingling the senses.

And only in our dreams do we set our creels in those old lobster-promising leys, slunks and trinks and well-remembered waters.

Yes, I went to Holland’s gardens and on my way I picked a display to bring home with me of my very favourite flower, the old fashioned lily, or the narcissus to be precise.

The primroses had gone, though among some of their pale green leaves, magical little forget-me-nots pleased the eye instead. But the bluebells were wonderful to view with their faint but special fragrance.

Great clusters held sway among the tangle of trees and it was enjoyable just to wander here and there and savour a feeling of, I suppose one could say, a world apart, since no other large gardens exist on the island.

There the birds sing and tree branches faintly creak in wafts of wind. In corners, open spaces and among the trees New Zealand flax adds to the strange, exotic mood of those almost forgotten gardens. In their heyday they must have looked spectacular.

Back across the mown lawn in front of Holland House, I went to my old seat once again. I could see the same view as that fine day in March, though this time round it was early evening with the sea dancing in the west instead of the south, and the sky was the colour of the little forget-me-nots.

A few faraway clouds stretched, unmoving above the islands, slightly hazy in the distance, and the Red Heads of Eday were instead a faint misty purple.

Yet the blinding reflection of a still powerful sun made me half close my eyes when looking westwards across the dark blue of the sea.

And looking back across the North Ronaldsay Firth, not far off the nearby point of Stromness, ebb could be seen jumping in the face of the fresh south-westerly wind.

So in this way, I took in the sights and sounds of North Ronaldsay. Linnets and little wrens were singing all around. A blackbird sometimes would whistle. They sing a very melodious tune you must admit. It’s a pleasure to sit quietly and just listen.

In the distance, as before, curlews, lapwings and oyster-catchers were calling. And above me a solitary tern went clip, clipping past in a businesslike way with an occasional warning cry.

Maybe we should interpret that cry as one of desperation instead, for now the little terns can hardly find sufficient food to bring up their families.

And that magnificent bird, the puffin, with its rainbow coloured beak — which we sometimes used to see winging past during days at the lobster fishing — can no longer find enough feeding of the right kind for its offspring.

Instead, without realising the horror of their efforts, they feed, I believe, a type of pipe-fish that chokes their young. What is to become of us all if this sort of tragedy and far more serious ones are to continue as a result of our unchanging, selfish ways, I wonder?

Time to make for the bed I think, as it is certainly well past the ‘heuld’.

It’s going on two in the morning to be precise. I took one more look outside. To my surprise the moon has quite disappeared and the sky seems to have taken on a sort of all-enveloping grey, misty haze.

The wind has backed into the southeast and the sound of the sea carries loudly across the half mile or more that stretches from Antabreck to Linklet bay.

Maybe this summer storm will be short-lived, as they usually tend to be. In any case, as they say, “tomorrow is another day”.

I will finish with one verse and a chorus of a sea shanty that caught my fancy at the island folk festival mentioned earlier.

The group Fridarey, from Fair Isle, with Martin Curtis (New Zealand) sang the song, Mollymauk—another threatened species. It is, of course, that great bird of the southern Atlantic Ocean – the albatross.

Now the southern ocean is a lonely place,
Where the storms are many and the shelter’s scarce.
Down upon the southern ocean sailin’,
Down below Cape Horn.

On the restless water and the troublin’ sky
you can see the mollymauk wheel and fly,
Down upon the southern ocean sailin’,
Down below Cape Horn.

Won’t you ride the wind and go, white seabird,
Won’t you ride the wind and go, Mollymauk,
Down upon the southern ocean sailin’,
Down below Cape Horn.

An unforgettable island Easter celebration

Christine Allan (left) receives gifts presented by Helen Swanney, on behalf of all on North Ronaldsay to thank her for her service of more than 30 years with Loganair. (Picture: Dawid Grudzinsky)

Already it is April — the name of the month that Edith Holden says is derived from the Greek word for ‘opening’.

She lists three days of note: April 1, All Fool’s Day; April 23, St George’s Day; April 24, St Mark’s Eve.

And here is one motto she mentions: “April weather, rain and sunshine both together.”

I’m beginning the rough draft for this letter sitting in the old Memorial Hall where a few of us have just finished tidying up after last night’s entertainment.

It’s raining outside but we are very comfortable here with our old-fashioned gas heaters keeping everyone warm. A peedie dram or two on such a dreary day and some lightsome discourse is just the thing to finish off this Easter break, I think.

As you can imagine, apart from a few notes, I didn’t get very far with my draft. But we managed a strip the willow and a one-step before closing up the old hall.

Now, a day or two later, I’m getting down to the business in hand. It’s a very fine morning with the skylarks singing and a blackbird is whistling not far away.

Lilly Gray, who presented a bouquet of flowers to Christine Allan. (Pictures: Dawid Grudzinsky)

It’s a dry day, with tumbling silvery-grey clouds that stretch from east to west and north to south, and the sides of the roads, here and there, are ablaze with daffodils.

No sign of the sun so far, yet the day is particularly mild and the light south-westerly wind carries the sound of breaking seas from the windward side of the island.

Anyway, to get back to our Easter event. Sidney Oglivie had written a little sketch, or a play, or was it a short concert? Or dare I say it was a pantomime?

Everything has to be declared these days and described in minute detail. The time will no doubt come when everybody will have to fill in a risk assessment form before we will be allowed even to step outside our own door!

Suffice it to say that Sid had created something that everybody enjoyed — particularly the young folk of whom there were 17 present.

Eleven had actually come from the Orkney Mainland with friends and relatives for the occasion — if only they were all living here!

Also coming from the Mainland was the Linklater band — Dave, on accordion, his mother, Elsie, on keyboard, and his father, Dave, on drums.

Then there was Pat and Christine Allan. The North Ronaldsay Community Association had, after at least two previous attempts, managed to get Christine Allan (retired from Loganair 2006) and her husband Pat out to a function.

The evening’s entertainment provided the opportunity for this Easter celebration and the opportunity to make a delayed presentation to Christine.

Alison Woodbridge, vice-president of the community association, welcomed the guests and

the company of well over 70 before getting the evening’s performance under way.

Sid had called his production Jock and the Beanstalk — or perhaps more appropriately — The Little Giant and the Birdie Folk.

The cast of the North Ronaldsay show line up on stage during their Easter performance. (Picture: Dawid Grudzinsky)

Here is a list of characters: Storyteller, Anne Oglivie; King Ravenus, Winnie Scott; Queen Robina, Bob Simpson; Birdie Princess, Lilly Gray; Jock, Alison Duncan; Jock’s Mum, Kevin Woodbridge; Cow, Ronan Gray; Hansel, Anna Scott; Gretal, Heather Woodbridge; Goose, Paul Brown; Giant, Sid Oglivie; Giant’s Mum, Norman Bayley; Constable, Ian Deyell; Inspector Collapso, Paul Brown; Witch, Carole Bayley.

It was great to see a few of the younger generation taking part: Heather Woodbridge, Anna Scott, Ronan and Lilly Gray.

Attending to the background music (The Hansel and Gretel Overture by Engelbert Humperdinck) was Edith Craigie.

The exotic and often amusing costumes had been made by the cast as had the scenery. Three scene changes added to the drama: Outside Jock’s Cottage; Cloud Cuckoo Land with the Castle in the distance; and Inside the Giant’s castle.

So began the evening’s entertainment. As you can imagine from the characters, all sorts of things happen: the giant that turned out to be a little giant, but who nevertheless liked to eat the Birdie Folk and bairns; the witch who paid for Jock’s cow with the magic beans; the goose that laid golden eggs; the King and Queen of the Birdie Folk; the Cloud Cuckoo Land Police Department; Jock, who sets out to vanquish the giant and who sings When you wish upon a Star and Somewhere over the Rainbow; the Giant’s song, a version of Count your Blessings; the giant’s defeat, capture and punishment.

And thus we arrived at the happy ending with Anne Oglivie, the storyteller, summing up and giving a moral to the story: “And so the years passed and Jock and Gretal married and went to live on Cloud Nine. And though the little giant (sorry, big dwarf) sometimes missed his Sunday roasts, he realised he was much happier being friends with his neighbours. In fact he discovered one of the most important lessons in life. Every cloud has a silver lining, but you must look for it if you want to find it”.

All the cast then sang Look for the Silver Lining.

After resounding applause, everyone was asked again to show appreciation for such grand entertainment and for providing this opportunity for an Easter celebration.

Next was a tribute and presentation to Christine Allan. In 1974 Christine had embarked on a career with Loganair that lasted 32 years.

Loganair had, in 1967, reinstated Captain Fresson’s short pre-war inter-island North Isles air service.

Those were the early days when Loganair was a large and very busy organisation. Flotta and the oil business were at their height, with Loganair often arranging transit for oil-rig crews flying by helicopter when required.

Air charter work featured prominently, and not only was there the North Isles air service but Flotta — at that time a very busy oil-terminal — and Hoy also received a passenger service.

North Ronaldsay was to receive extra passenger flights including a once weekly air-freight service of perishable goods.

In those early days too, Loganair was in competition with British Airways, with Loganair staff arranging bookings etc, to Wick, Inverness, Glasgow and Edinburgh.

There was also, of course, the efficient ambulance service to the islands that after many years of reliable work was recently, unjustifiably, terminated and replaced with a questionable alternative.

Then there was the franchise period, with Loganair becoming independent again in 1997.

Through all those years, Christine gathered much experience behind the desk becoming for some years senior customer services officer in charge of the office.

More responsibility fell on her shoulders with the early death of Bob Tullock in 1998, when her years of experience proved invaluable. Christine’s consideration and help, especially in connection with North Ronaldsay, will always be remembered.

As a token of the island’s appreciation and thanks, Helen Swanney, manager of Loganair’s service’s on the island, was invited, on behalf of the community association and the local community, to present Christine with a North Ronaldsay woollen rug and a piece of Ola Gorie jewellery.

This she carried out most graciously. And to complete a very pleasant occasion, the youngest member of the community, Lilly Gray, presented Christine with a bouquet of flowers.

Christine, much moved by the occasion, accepted the gifts and thanked the community for their generosity to Pat and herself over the years. She said how she missed dealing with us all on the island but had taken early retirement to be with her husband.

She went on to thank everybody for the beautiful gifts given to her on this evening.

After the chairs had been cleared away and the usual dusting of slipperine applied to the much-used old dance floor, a short dance began with the Linklater family taking the stage and providing the music.

Later, Sinclair Scott, on the bagpipes, got folk swirling in a lively eightsome reel. And so the evening progressed until it was time for refreshments.

Tea was served with a splendid assortment of sandwiches and homebakes. This welcome break gave the opportunity for the raffle to be drawn.

Ian Deyell, in great form, worked his way through a very large assortment of prizes, the execution of which was almost all-together another sketch. The raffle brought in a very generous sum of over £150 that the community association and the cast of the production kindly gifted towards the Memorial Hall’s funds.

A few more dances were managed before Auld Lang Syne brought the evening’s celebrations to a close.

Well, I must also bring this Easter letter to a close. I thought it would be nice to remember the words of the song with its good advice that the cast had sung at the end of their performance: Look for the Silver Lining.

Look for the silver lining
When e’er a cloud appears in the blue.
Remember somewhere the sun is shining,
And so the right thing to do,
Is make it shine for you.
A heart, full of joy and gladness,
Will always banish sadness and strife.
So always look for the silver lining,
And try to find the sunny side of life.

Thoughts turn to days gone by during a visit to Holland House

In days when daisies deck the sod
And blackbirds whistle clear,
Wi honest joy our hearts will bound
To greet the coming year.

The above verse by Robert Burns is quoted among a number of poems suitable for the month of March, by Edith Holden (1871-1920), who kept a diary for the year 1906. I have mentioned her illustrated diary before.

She, by the way, was drowned in the Thames at Kew, while gathering buds from a chestnut tree.

As well as quoting some favourite poems and verses, and writing up her diary, Edith Holden gives an explanation as to the derivation of each month of the year.

For March she says: “This month was called Martius by the Romans, from the God Mars, and it received the name ‘Hlyd Monath’, ie ‘loud’ or, ‘stormy month’ from the Anglo Saxons.”

I suppose one could say that March came in like a lion so we might hope for a fair end to the month.

Already there is a feeling of spring in the air, and the daffodils along the roads and in gardens are not far from brightening up the island with flashes of yellow. But for all that, March is a month to be wary of.

The other day, I visited the gardens at Holland House. The snowdrops are past their best but they last a while under the shelter of the old trees, and the garden dykes, where they are scattered in great profusion.

They are well worth a look when in full bloom. Anyway, on this visit, I was looking to see if the primroses were beginning to flower.

Only one or two of the pale, lemon yellow-coloured flowers had opened — a bit early yet I thought. Another week or so and they will be decorating the brae in front of the big house in clusters. And the bluebells, of which there are hundreds, will follow a little later to please the eye. Where they are in greatest profusion, their delicate scent will pleasantly pervade the air.

Winnie (the school cook) has just phoned to tell me that the eclipse of the moon is in full swing.

It’s 11.20pm — just the time predicted. I left all and stepped out into a darkened night. Earlier, a virtually full moon lit up the island almost like the day. What an amazing sight — a pale, coppery, blood-red orb high in the southern sky.

The night is chilly and I saw, guided by the constellation of the Plough to the North Star, that the wind is south-westerly. As it will, I believe, be another six years before the next full lunar eclipse I am away out for a road walk (not to Riff Geo this time) so that I can observe the changing scene.

I first walked south, past the War Memorial, its granite cross silhouetted against the sky, and remembered the war dead. Then on to the Memorial Hall where perhaps the ghosts of past generations relive, for a time, great days and dance a jig or two.

Great days too, of old, across the road on a Saturday night, at the one-time shop of Roadside (now a pub and restaurant). On such a night the shop would have been full of folk from about every “tunship” — of which there are six.

And what about the talk? What talk indeed, what stories, fun and banter! Further I travelled, and from nowhere it seemed — for no visible clouds could I see — a fine rain merely dampened my face for a minute or two. Could it have been some ghostly lunar shower in keeping with the strangeness of the night?

Next, I passed Holland’s gardens where stark, leafless branches of the many trees creaked in the wind. And where the dominating shape of Holland House and the adjacent steading buildings, silent in the night, stood out black, and somewhat menacing against a starry sky.

With my back to the moon and the wind, I walked home. Once, when looking round from time to time, I saw a pale, misty-looking cloud, like a fine gossamer veil, briefly pass the face of the moon (now beginning to regain her brilliance) and for a moment a little halo of rainbow colours could be seen.

Well, I’m returning to my Holland gardens visit. So fine was the day, with summer looking clouds passing overhead and a tingling northerly wind, that I had a good excuse to dilly-dally for a time.

So I sat myself down in the shelter of the building on a very old, cast iron seat. Across its frame were bolted slats of an enduring hard wood — probably oak.

The seat dates back to far off days when the then Laird was in full residence, and when, in the summer and later, the house would have been a hive of activity, with family and friends on holiday; croquet on the well-kept lawn; golf at the north links and the shooting of game later in the season. All of this with whatever island administrative business that might have been on hand.

As I sat in the surprising warmth of the afternoon sun, I thought of such things and of how the island would have been 100 years ago.

How today, I wondered, would the then population of well over 400 (436 in 1911) manage to survive?

Such an existence would well nigh be impossible given the vast changes in agricultural methods and circumstances, and with present-day economics, attitudes and expectations.

My view south more or less encompassed the North Ronaldsay Firth with the islands of Sanday, Eday and Rousay in the distance.

One begins with the Start Lighthouse in the north of Sanday but it’s actually furthest east from my position.

In the west, Westray lay stretched across the western approaches. Part of the firth was a sheet of blinding silver caused by the sun’s reflection. It fairly dazzled the eye but where a large bank of cloud stopped the sunlight, the sea, near the Sanday land, was dark and almost black by contrast.

In the background I heard a skylark sing and a little wren whistled nearby. The smart black-headed gull is back and the lapwing, oyster catcher and curlew are to be heard almost every passing day.

For a time I idly reminisced. How many times had I crossed that stretch of water by post-boat to Sanday I wondered?

Twenty-five to thirty times maybe, when we came and went from Kirkwall and further afield. If it was not by post-boat, then it was on the old coal-burning steam ship, the Earl Sigurd, and almost as many times but by direct passage.

Then, going back to the last years of the war — since, in 1945, I would only have been five years old — I can remember the four tall pylons on the north end of Sanday that formed part of Britain’s early warning radar system.

I read recently that two were steel pylons (350ft high) and two were of wood (240ft high). They were removed some years later.

It is a little surprising to think that the steel towers would have been just higher than double the height of our New Lighthouse (139ft) with the Old Beacon (70ft) placed on top.

The pylons formed part of a chain of such stations that stretched from Land’s End to John o’ Groats and to Orkney and Shetland.

The northerly stations gave warning of German bombers, flying from Norway (captured in 1940) on their way to attack targets such as the naval base at Scapa Flow.

Another memory is of the smoke of burning fires of rough grass or bent that, in the spring, we could see in Sanday and on the higher hills of other islands. When the wind blew from the south, the smell of the fires carried all the way across the firth. I fancy I can still remember the almost pungent smell of the burning grass.

From where I sat, looking across the south-west of the island, I could see the old ‘Stan Stane,’ that monolith of a bygone age.

Then, not far from Gretchen loch, is the Laird’s pillar. It is a conical-shaped, 14ft high, stone-built construction. There, in 1924, while stepping over a dyke, the Laird at that time, W. H. Traill, lost his life as a result of a shotgun accident.

Next in line one sees the site of South Cott, where once folk lived and worked. Part of the remains of the house was built into a square with a pyramid-shaped top.

As I looked further north-west I could just see the one churchyard (there are two) which partly surrounds the Old Church, built in 1812. Within its walls lie the remains of probably all of the 400 or so folk I mentioned who lived 100 years ago.

There, at that final resting-place, my line of vision ends with the house in front of which I was sitting.

Well, that was my view from Holland House and those are one or two memories and observations. Over the time of my visit the bank of cloud referred to earlier seemed to creep up on the wind, which came from the north, until eventually it hid the sun from view.

Suddenly it became decidedly chilly, and little wafts of cold air came furtively round the corner of the big house near to where I had enjoyed this pleasant break.

I thought — enough of this; I’ll come back another day when the sun is shining, and the primroses and bluebells are in full bloom, and when the North Ronaldsay Firth dances in the sun.

What would Burns have made of modern life?

I began my last letter by remarking on how fast the Yule time comes and goes. Now Burns’ Day has been and gone, and before we know where we are the first two months of winter — December and January — are behind us.

Maybe, though, we should remember that the old folk used to say: “As the day lengthens, the cowld strengthens.”

But in these days of global warming, anything can happen, with the old sayings seemingly having less and less significance.

George Mackay Brown, when he was writing those marvellous short essays for The Orcadian (Under Brinkie’s Brae), often paid a tribute to Robbie Burns.

I’ve been looking over some of the comments he made. He says, for instance, that: “He will always, for me, be one of the great poets.”

Then again in another letter: “So, when the Kilmarnock Edition (of poems) was published, Scotland had suddenly a new hero, who reminded the Scots of their past glories, and put strength and joy back into their threatened language, and at the same time appealed to new stirrings in the human heart: the notion of the dignity of all men and women, even the poorest and the humblest.

The vision went deeper, until all of creation was involved: the mouse and the mountain daisy are made of the same dust as men.”

On Saturday, January 27, we celebrated Burns. Evelyn Gray, president of the North Ronaldsay Community Association, welcomed a company of upwards of 50 folk, islanders and friends from the Mainland, and the association’s seven invited guests, all of whom contributed to the Burns programme, and to the dance that followed.

Vivia Leslie was our main speaker. Her husband, Allan, gave the Address to the Haggis. Lesley McLeod played fiddle selections, and her husband, Alastair, proposed the Toast to the Lasses. Mark Wemyss was the piper.

Dave Linklater (accordion) and his mother, Elsie, (piano) played for the dance, as, of course, did Lesley and Mark.

Of no less importance was John Cutt, Gerbo, with Jenny Mainland and Ella Henderson, who are former islanders, coming from the Mainland, where they now live, and being asked to contribute to the programme at the 11th hour. But more of their participation in a minute.

To the skirl of the pipes, in marched Mark Wemyss in his Stromness Pipe Band uniform, playing A Man’s A Man for A’ That followed by the chief cook, Winnie Scott carrying the haggis.

Both received a civil dram. Allan Leslie gave a spirited and very competent Address to the Haggis and John Cutt recited the Selkirk Grace, before the traditional Burns supper.

Then, after the meal, in candle and oil lamp illumination, Vivia Leslie, rose to propose the Immortal Memory.

She took as her theme the love songs of Burns, tracing the life of the poet. She touched upon many aspects of his life: his humanity, how he brought Scotland’s history back to life, the collection of some 370 airs and tunes, his great ability to combine tunes and words.

Interspersed between those, and many other tributes, Vivia sang with much expression three of his songs: Whistle and I’ll come to you my Lad, The Braw Wooer, and, as she said, one of Burns’ greatest and most moving songs, John Anderson my Jo.

Also, through the eulogy, she led the communal singing, with accompaniment from Lesley and Dave, of four other favourites: Ca’ the Yowes to the Knowes, The Banks o’ Doon, Ae Fond Kiss, and My Love is like a Red, Red Rose.

In Burns’ songs, Vivia believes, one can see and understand the man, and his songs are songs for the people, indeed, for all mankind. With glasses raised the toast to Robbie Burns was proposed.

Alastair McLeod followed with a thoughtful Toast to the Lasses, noting that Burns’ main and abiding interest was his love of women and poetry.

How would he relate to today’s women with their quite different lifestyles; their ability to be multi-functional and so on?

What, for instance, would Burns have made of all this and the new forms of communication — the world of the computer and the internet?

After much speculation, using verse which he had composed in the style of Burns and other references, Alastair concluded, that, since Burns was one of the world’s great communicators, he would probably have made use of the latest technology. Alastair finished with the toast to the lasses.

Jenny Mainland, in reply, thanked Alastair for his remarks.

She went on to reminisce about her young days in the 1940s and early 50s in North Ronaldsay when she, and many others of her age, used to go visiting together at Yule (the population then would have been around the 200 mark, rather than ‘well over 160’ as stated in my last letter).

The brewing of ale was a great time and an important time in the island; very special days to be remembered.

Jenny then turned her attention to another toast, which Howie Firth was to have given. Still on the theme of celebration and of looking back, she explained how her generation had been brought up to appreciate Burns and went on to recite John Barleycorn. Jenny then proposed the toast to North Ronaldsay.

John Cutt followed with a humorous poem, written in fairly broad Scots dialect, called The Broken Bowl (composed by Jessie Morton, born in Edinburgh around 1824).

Fifty years ago John had recited the poem at one of the many grand island concerts held in those days. John’s recitation, carried out in his inimitable style, was much enjoyed.

Next on our programme was Lesley McLeod playing a selection of fiddle music with which Burns would have been familiar.

She chose compositions by Neil Gow (1727-1807) and William Marshall (1748-1833).

As always, Lesley’s fiddle-playing was a pleasure to listen to. Especially beautiful was her interpretation of Neil Gow’s Lament for his second wife. This music, played in candle and lamp-light, always takes us pleasantly away back in time and memory.

To conclude the programme, it was time for Burns’ favourite poem, Tam o’ Shanter.

Ella Henderson, standing in for Howie Firth, who was unable to come, came forward to recite the famous poem. Ella also, like Jenny, remembered her school days in the 40s, and how, when she and her brother and sister had the German and the ordinary measles she had been given the task, by her father, to learn Tam o’ Shanter and entertain her two ill siblings.

After all those years Ella was still able to recite much of the poem with expression and style.

Dancing soon got under way with Lesley McLeod, Dave Linklater and Elsie Linklater providing the toe-tapping music.

As the evening progressed Mark Wemyss played a scintillating series of tunes on his pipes that almost had folk up dancing.

Many dances were managed, with our own Heather Woodbridge (KGS pupil) playing along with Lesley for a spell, before tea was served with Westray shortbread and Christmas currant bun.

A raffle in aid of the community association’s fund was drawn bringing in over £130.

On went the dance until the second last dance when, playing the pipes once more, Mark put the two sets up for the eightsome reel through their paces.

After the last dance and the singing of Auld Lang Syne, Evelyn Gray was carried shoulder high round the hall, thus bringing a most enjoyable evening to a close.

This is Candlemas Day, February 2, and as it happens the night of a full moon. It has been a day of sunshine and showers so whether “half the winter is to come or mair” or whether half “is by in Yule” is anybody’s guess.

There are numerous other old proverbs. Here are three:

All the months of the year.
Curse a fair Februeer;

On Candlemas Day, you must have half your straw and half your hay;

In February, if thou hearest thunder,
Thou shalt see a summer wonder.

As Alastair speculated about Burns’ reaction to today’s communication systems and how he would relate to modern-day women. What, I wondered, would he think of some of the news headlines of today?

Thousands die in Africa and elsewhere from AIDS, starvation and war; Dire warning by scientists: Catastrophic climate changes; UK like Nazi Germany: Moslem leader; PM defiant over police honour probe; Curse of oil sees corruption in Nigeria; Chinese tortured Tibetan refugees; Palestinian truce but killing goes on; Iraq: a political catastrophe.

After over 200 years of progress, invention and thinking, since Burns’ death in 1796, it seems we are as far away as ever from the ideals and hopes of Robbie Burns.

Do you think that the world will ever achieve the ideals expressed in A Man’s A Man for A’ That, the last verse of which I shall quote to finish this letter?

Then let us pray that come it may,
As come it will for a’ that,
That Sense and Worth o’er a’ the earth,
May bear the gree and a’ that:
For a’ that, an a’ that,
It’s comin yet for a’ that,
That man to man, the world o’er,
Shall brithers be for a’ that!

Looking back as the old year passes

How fast does the Yule time come and go.

Today, as I begin to write, on January 6, 2007, the main Yule events are past though I still have to sally forth on my New Year visits.

Antabreck’s Christmas decorations are still up but before the day ends, down they will have to come. So, for a moment, under the sparkle of tinsel, Christmas cards and the last burning of my festive candles, I’m thinking back over the holiday period in order to record the Yule activities.

After a fundraising whist drive for the Christmas Eve party, there was the island Christmas dinner provided by School Meals.

The meal was followed by the little sketch. Goldilocks and The Three Bears, performed by the school pupils, Duncan, Cameron, and Ronan Gray and Gavin Woodbridge. Four carols were also sung. Supervising the proceedings was the head teacher, Sue Gilbert, and the itinerant music teacher, Elaine Geddes. Marion Muir and Edith Craigie assisted with costume changes etc.

On Christmas Eve, the bairns’ party took place with Santa and his helper, Winnie Scott, adding to the fun this year by presenting a little gift to the adults as well as to the few young folk present – two had left earlier for a visit south. A carol service in the new centre was conducted by the Rev John McNab with keyboard accompaniment for the singing by Ann Tulloch. Then, on December 30, by which time extra holiday-makers had arrived, an end-of-the-year get-together was arranged with much talk, good food and a little dancing from time to time. Two young families, including five very active bairns who kept folk on their toes, were among the visitors. All those events were greatly enjoyed.

Hogmanay and the New Year were celebrated in style. Also managed was a bracing visit to the “Stan Stane” by a few stalwarts and some keen, new participants. Afterwards, as the moon began to lighten the first night sky of 2007, the monument visitors gathered together for a house visit, making a lightsome company for a time.

As New Year’s night spent, some early first-footers came and went. Later, I stepped into a moonlit night well after the midnight hour had passed – or to use that favourite word of mine – after the “heuld” had passed.

By then the weather had greatly improved and so magnificent was the scene and so bright was the moon – an almost full moon – that I set off along our north road for a walk.

My fancy took me here and there, and, as I walked, many were the thoughts that came to mind. I carried a writing board and a pen with me, thinking I might record this and that as I made my way along the road. Looking over my notes I see that it was 2.25 when I began a venture which might well have been my last. But more of this later.

My first thoughts, as always on Hogmanay and New Year, were in the difference of the island’s festivities at this time of year compared with the days of my youth.

I have often written about those days of yore. Suffice it to say that on this occasion, at 2.25 in the morning, 50 years ago, I would most likely have been in company with somewhere around 20 fellow islanders. Their ages would have ranged from the teens to the early 30s, and we would have been visiting maybe four houses on “sooth yard” – the south end of the island. Then the next night would have been the turn of Linklet-tun and Aby-tun where another five or six houses would have been on our list.

I have tried to work out the island population at that time. It would have certainly been more than 160.

Anyway, as I walked along, I was thinking that that merry company of young folk amounted to well over a third of the present island population (60) – for even extra to that number would have been many too young to participate, plus some who didn’t gallivant.

Those, of course, were the days of the home-brewed ale, when Yule was prepared for, and looked forward to with great anticipation, for weeks before. And, apart from the activities of the younger generation, the more senior men would have been enjoying their “tunship” visits with equal enthusiasm.

Today, I hardly think that the island will ever reach that proportion of young folk again, and crofting will never be the main-stay of island life, even if half of that 1950s number of around 160 were here.

Half that number would be a help though.

Five young families with children would raise our dwindling population to about 80 and increase the school numbers.

But, where are the houses? They would need to be built tomorrow – yes tomorrow – not over the next few years. But what work would sustain new islanders? Those are questions that have been asked for a long time without, so far, any real action or answers.

It would not, I think, be much good if such folk were unemployed. No use if they could not adjust to island life or if they ignored custom and tradition; no use if they were unable to accept the comparative isolation of island life and were forever thinking that the grass is greener on the other side; or wanting to recreate their past lifestyle – always restless and determined to have a bit of both worlds.

No help either if they were old fogeys like myself. Mind you, having been born on North Ronaldsay and having lived here for most of my life, I might be able to give some advice about various aspects of island life. Well, even if I didn’t, there is an old saying often quoted: “When in Rome do as the Romans do,” But remember too that Rome was not exactly all it was cracked up to be – now there’s a dilemma!

In any case, I was thinking about other islands with similar problems and how they manage.

One comes to mind – the Fair Isle, which lies some 25 miles to the east of our Dennis Head Beacon. The present population is 73, with eight pupils at the school, three nursery, and seven attending the main secondary school in Shetland.

Some say that as the National Trust for Scotland owns the island (since 1954) comparison with North Ronaldsay would be somewhat unbalanced. Still, the above statistics sound good and it’s worth taking a closer look to the Fair Isle.

Recently, the National Trust, which also owns the houses, advertised for two new families to replace two who had left, mainly I think because their children had reached secondary school age. Hundreds applied. Eventually, two families were chosen by a panel of Trust members and another person who represents the Fair Isle. Both families already had some work of their own – almost a necessity nowadays for new islanders – and were thought to be suitable candidates for the challenge of living on a relatively remote island and of contributing positively to the life of the community.

It would seem, therefore, that if North Ronaldsay only had the houses, there would be no shortage of applicants.

In the Fair Isle there are various committees/sub-committees that deal with such things as the museum, power supply (two 35kw diesel generators and two windmills – one 100kw and one 60kw), common grazings, com munity hall, housing and so on.

But here, I believe, after talking with one or two residents, is probably the main reason for the island pulling together – which they do. All those committees report back to a general island committee once every three months. A chairperson is elected for a three-year period and then someone else takes a turn. Everybody can attend and is encouraged to do so. Any problems, controversial issues, disputes or whatever are discussed, debated and resolved – not left to simmer on, causing suspicion, ill-feeling and damaging divisions.

And what about their infrastructure? The island has its own boat, the Good Shepherd, crewed locally, sailing three times a week in the summer and once in the winter – weather permitting. If cargo is too heavy or too much for the Good Shepherd then, with discussion and advance planning, a larger boat comes from Lerwick in fine weather with the necessary goods. TheGood Shepherd is limited in carrying and lifting capacity and can accommodate only 12 passengers.

An Islander aeroplane, operated by DirectFlight, flies in and out twice a day on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and on Saturday in the summer, and on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday in the winter.

Each year, teams of ten or so volunteers at a time travel to the island. They assist with all kinds of island work. Their accommodation and food is generally supplied by the two organisations that operate three or so camps in the summertime. They are the National Trust and International Voluntary Service. But the Fair Isle residents, who benefit greatly from such assistance, help out with food and other necessities, including entertainment. Medical requirements are attended to by a resident nurse and a monthly visit from their area doctor based in Shetland.

So there’s a perspective of another island, arguably more isolated than North Ronaldsay and with fewer communications – yet they seem to be a very contented community, all working together. There is, by the way, a fine book called Fair Isle: An Island Saga written by Valerie M. Thom. Although published in 1989, it gives a good account of the island’s history and way of life.

Now I’m back looking at my notes. As I walked further northwards, I was surprised at the brilliance of the moonlight. Great white clouds billowed up in the east against an expanse of sky in which stars shone, but not with the sharpness of darker nights. To the west, where my footsteps finally took me, a restless sea, angry at the never-ending Atlantic depressions, rolled landwards. Since the moon was in the west, the sea below was a sheet of silver and those waves came marching in one by one, black against shining sea, before exploding on jagged rocks. And further out, where clouds sometimes blanked out the moonlight, long strips of darkness would break up the bright silver of the sea.

Winter pools of water here and there, rippling in the fresh westerly wind, turned into sheets of silver when the moonbeams were at the right angle.

Soon, I arrived at Riff-Geo – a steep, sea inlet flanked on either side by high rocks and joined by a bridge of rock, thereby giving the name. Many years ago the top part of the joining rock was blasted away so as to prevent the native sheep crossing over and creating one of the two barriers which prevent the animals free access round the island.

Geos are always interesting places to venture into as they often act as catchment places for drift.

I suppose I was remembering old times, and, without thinking, down into the depth of the geo I ventured, stepping carefully on jumbled stones, both large and small, white and dry in the moonlight. Ah, but in one area the receding tide had left stones covered with the grey, frothy residue of heavy seas that looked as white as the higher, dry boulders upon which I had been stepping with fair confidence. Crash! One moment I was vertical and the next horizontal.

My writing pad flew in one direction and my pen in the other. Fortunately, I suffered no real damage, apart from a bruised elbow.

When I was relating this foolish escapade to my neighbour next door, from whom I receive frequent timely lectures, he said that had I suffered serious injury and lain in the tidal geo I would have eventually been found like a “puir aald droonded sheep.” The moral of the story is, don’t go down alone into sea geos or below the high-tide-mark on the “heuld” of the night.

Recovering from this shock to the system, I moved north along the high banks watching the breaking waves and seeing familiar places: Antabreck Geo, Verracott Geo, South Himera Geo, and finally, Himera Geo (the cave geo).

Nearby, just below the rocky face of the banks, there is a natural freshwater spring. There, as once long ago, on a similar moonlit night early on a New Year’s morning it was – I lay down to take a drink of the running water. At the time of that earlier visit, we were coming to about the end of those great days when home-brewed ale was still around, and when Hogmanay and the New Year were a time of old fashioned magic. I remember afterwards visiting a house not far away to wish them a Happy New Year.

So now, as I finish this letter, on Aald New Year’s day (January 13), I take this opportunity to extend the same wish to all my readers.