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.