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.