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Hay, corn and oats have been replaced by grass, with a little unripe corn, or barley-mix harvested later, all wrapped in black, or pale green, plastic.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