Fine nights in North Ronaldsay, inside and out

This is April 21 and a fine day it is, with light north easterly winds.

The Fair Isle, lying some 25 miles away to the east, was clearly visible yesterday, but today it has disappeared in a slight sea haze. But the day, though cool, is most pleasant and I’m sitting down at my “writing machine” once more.

Over the weekend great have been the festivities and yesterday, tidying-up day, proved particularly entertaining, with the world and North Ronaldsay being put to rights!

In the evening, when I was back home, I was ready for a peedie nap. It was a bit like the time I fell asleep one hot summer’s day long ago in a rather unique piece of ground called the mire, which has never been cultivated. I was trying, unsuccessfully, to identify different grasses.

When I awoke some time later I wondered, like Rip Van Winkle, where I was. I had the same initial feeling on this occasion for in the time of my greatly extended nap, the moon and the stars had risen and moonbeams lit up my darkened kitchen table.

At this stage, long past the heuld of the night, and refreshed with a “cuppa,” as Mary o’ Burray used to say, I idly turned on the television to see what new worldwide calamities, shenanigans and corrupt goings-on were afoot.

I eventually ended up (arguably not very constructively) watching an old-fashioned American gangster film, where good triumphs over evil. You know, nowadays, many folk no longer know the difference between good and bad — that’s the trouble!

Robert Burns, in one of his letters, says: “What is politics? Politics is the science of wherewith, by means of nefarious cunning and hypocritical pretence, we govern civil politics for the emolument of ourselves and our adherents.”

He’s not that very far wrong even more than 200 years later.

Anyhow, after the film, and still feeling as fresh as a daisy as a result of my over-long sleep, I could see the glimmerings of the dawn in the eastern sky. I thought, out I must go to experience the sights and sounds of an early summer’s morning.

Yes, to be up and about, watching the dawn unfold is certainly worth the effort. Often, during lobster-fishing days such sights were very common.

As it happened the moon was full but of low elevation. What a sight she was, glowing warmly like a lantern in the southwest, and further south the planet Venus shone palely. Ancum loch, not far away and towards which I meandered, still reflected the bright flash of the lighthouse.

The air was full of the sound of bird-life. From different directions I could hear at least three snipes, or “horse-gowks,” as they dived steeply groundwards above established territory with their outer pair of tail feathers giving that unique, unmistakable tremulous sound. If there is a memory of spring and early summer, then it has to be, for me at least, the thrumming of the “horse-gowk” and the piping of the “whaup,” or curlew.

And all around came the voices of lapwings, oyster catchers, curlews and black-headed gulls. Sadly, only a few of that latter species are to be heard by the loch edges, from which coots and wild duck added to the morning symphony. As I walked back home a blackbird was singing and the far away sky, a pale rose colour, brightened gradually as the morning crept ever nearer to the rising of the sun.

So here I am today, aiming to tell you about our Saturday evening’s entertainment. Shall I begin by mentioning Walter Traill Dennison (1825 – 1894) the Sanday writer and folklorist described by Hugh Marwick as a “man of unquestioned genius”? Ernest Marwick noted that “he saved from extinction, single-handed, a whole corpus of myth, legend, and historical tradition . . .” Dennison’s Orcadian Sketch Book came out in 1880. In 1904 Orcadian Sketches, with a subtitle Traits of Old Orkney Life was published. Other works were printed in the Scottish Antiquary (1891-1894) under the title Folklore: Sea Myths.

To these major writings, as Ernest says, must be added his Orkney Weddings and Wedding Custom. Ernest goes on to mention other writings by Dennison, which can be read in his very full and informative introduction to Orkney Folklore and Traditions, published in 1961, by the Herald Press, Kirkwall.

One of the many old stories (essays and poems) collected and recorded by Dennison was Assipattle and the Mester Stoorworm. First published in the Scottish Antiquary but also to be read in Tom Muir’s compilation of many of Dennison’s stories in Orkney Folklore and Sea Legends, Orkney Press 1995. This is a marvellously-told story containing many old Orcadian words and, additionally, notes by the author, with a glossary pertaining to the story

It is upon this old folk tale that Sidney Ogilivie based his Saturday night’s production in the Memorial Hall, calling it Assipattle and the Stoor Worm. A little like the gangster film, mentioned above, many of those tales relate to the triumph of good over evil. And the story of the sea monster, the Stoor Worm, being vanquished by the hero, Assipattle, is typical of many folklore and fairy stories.

The Mester (master: superior in all things) Stoor Worm was described as the most terrible of all living things on land and sea and at times he could only be pacified by being fed with seven virgins once a week.

Assipattle, the hero, was always represented as the youngest son in differing versions of the tales (Assi — from lying in the ashes, and pattle — from the movement of his feet and hands to and fro).

So the plot unweaves, with many turns and twists with Assipattle, as Dennison says, beginning in ridicule and degradation, but rising to the challenge and ending on the highest summit of earthly glory.

And so round this tale, told in many versions at the firesides of old, Sidney Ogilivie wove his little concert, sketch or whatever, adding various other characters to enhance the action. After hearing a few of those entertainments over the years, it is clear Sid has a fine talent for writing this type of production.

Despite many difficulties with preparation — players off on holiday in Australia, France and Edinburgh, and others not even on the island for practising, plus extras being roped in at the last minute — everything on the night seemed to work like clockwork.

The costumes were original, entertaining and colourful; the dialogue (with clever adaptation from the original tale) was very creative; innuendo, witty observations and swift scene changes resulted in a presentation enjoyed by children and adults alike.

Of course, Assipattle with his high hopes cleverly destroys the Stoor Worm, saves the Kingdom, marries the King’s daughter, Gem da Lovely (rescued from the Stoor Worm), and all live happily ever after. The Players, who closed by singing High Hopes, were: Assipattle, Alison Duncan (who sang two lengthy solos); Stoor Worm, Sid Ogilivie (with Norman Bayley adding two legs to the monster’s elongated body); Good King Harold, Jen Batten; Queen, Kevin Woodbridge; Sorcerer, Paul Brown; Assipattle’s mother, Norman Bayley; Princess Gem da Lovely, Heather Woodbridge (13); Princess Gem da Roughbit, Bob Simpson; Princes Gem da Biggerbit, Mary Scott (10); Princess Gem da Weebit, Lillian Gray (4); Sir Gawain, Anna Scott (13); Squire, Dawid Grudzinsky; Brother, Anne Ogilvie; King’s Messenger, Helga Tulloch; Guard, Ronan Gray (6); Lady in Waiting, Chris Sutcliffe; Narrator, Helga Tulloch; Costumes, Anne Ogilvie and Edith Craigie; Interval Music, Elaine Geddes and Lynn Proctor; Props and Scenery, The Cast.

After the performance, Evelyn Gray, President of the North Ronaldsay Community Association, thanked Sid Ogilivie, his wife Anne, and all the actors, for providing an audience of more than 70 — including many friends, relatives, and visitors — with such fun and enjoyment.

She also acknowledged the band, Three in a Bar (Lesley MacLeod, Fran Gray and Hamish Bayne) who had flown out with Loganair — the island’s lifeline — once again to play for the dance, which shortly got under way.

Beginning slowly, it soon livened up to become a lightsome affair with Three in a Bar’s toe-tapping music. Three sets madly danced the Eightsome Reel, with Sinclair Scott on the pipes.

Tea, sandwiches and homebakes were served, followed by the outcome of a raffle that brought in more than £150 for the Memorial Hall funds. By about 1.30 in the morning this event, highlighting, I hope, the name of Walter Traill Dennison, and bringing folk together for an enjoyable Easter break, came to a close.

Travelling down memory lane

Today, Thursday, March 13, has been a wonderfully fresh, sunny day — a day of tingling, westerly winds, pale yellow primroses and opening daffodils. With thoughts, sights and sounds of spring, I felt I should write a “peedie” (I almost wrote “peerie”) letter from North Ronaldsay.

More than a week ago, I heard a blackbird singing for the first time this year. And that very same day, when I was out walking, a flock of common gulls mixed with a few “haedie-craas” (black-headed gulls) came flying overhead and set away inland on the wind.

This is the time of year when those gulls come back again. They always look very smart with their black heads, red legs and white plumage. To see them in great clouds following the plough or harrows, when the “voar” work was in full swing, was a fine sight indeed. I think those days of extensive ploughing will not come again. But they were lightsome days, when some 40 years and more ago, many tractors would be out ploughing “nort” and “sooth” across the island.

And up and down the newly turned “paets,” clouds of birds, dazzlingly white in the sunshine, would rise and fall as they fed on thousands of twisting worms so rudely exposed to the “voar” winds.

Not only are those returning birds making their presence heard, especially round the areas of Ancum, Hooking and Bridesness lochs, but the “tee-wups” (lapwings), one of my very favourite birds, are crying, as are the “sheldros,”’ or oyster-catchers and the piping “whaups” (curlews).

And one other day, not long ago, I heard the common snipe drumming. The local name for that bird is the “horse gowk,” I suppose, because the distinctive, vibrating sound it makes, as it dives groundwards, resembles the whinnying of a horse.

Well, today, I was out for another walk to enjoy the bracing westerly winds. Part of my travels took me past a little stream (mentioned before) that crosses the north road up to the school. It drains water from nearby higher ground and a little stone brig crosses the old path that existed before a new road was built. But the water still runs — strongly at this time of year — and I often stop to listen to its tinkling, bubbling sounds as it tumbles over stone, under a dyke at right angles, to travel south along the road drain.

There is something very pleas ant and relaxing in the almost musical notes of running water. But more than that, it reminds me of far-off school days when life seemed much simpler and when never a serious or worrying thought crossed our minds.

Thursday is Day Club day, when senior citizens enjoy a get-together and also enjoy a meal prepared by the newly appointed school cook, Evelyn Gray.

Sometimes, since I’m now in the OAP category, I will go along simply for the enjoyment of the occasion, and especially for the opportunity to listen to talk of the old days by some islanders much older than I.

Today, for instance, one subject turned over for a bit was Second World War mines. A number came ashore round the island during the 1940s and exploded.

Those mines were extremely dangerous, though, fortunately, no islanders were injured. Windows were broken some distance inland depending on how the blast travelled. This happened to the Meal Mill which is some way from the shore.

Nearer the exploding mines, buildings could be slightly damaged: cracks might appear in the plaster, or the building itself would be shaken. And certain parts of the beach would be noticeably scarred, with the damage visible long afterwards. Shrapnel would fly miles inland and pieces were found and, years later, bits of jagged iron could be turned up by the plough. Once, we were told, near Westness — a croft close to the seashore — a henhouse, not far from the exploding mine, was blown apart and plumage on the surviving hens (white leghorns) had turned a dull grey colour.

Sometimes, mines would not explode and sometimes — at great risk, one would have thought — folk might remove large, useful iron shackles attached to the mine. Great risk indeed, for a mine disposal officer, who was for a time on the island defusing unexploded mines, was subsequently killed when working at the same job in Stronsay.

Talk continued: singling matches of turnips when maybe a nine-acre field, at the largest farm on the island, Holland Farm, had to be worked. Many folk went with their hoes on those occasions.

Or days in the harvest time when large fields of, mainly, oats had to be stooked and built into stacks.

Such communal work — even helping neighbours or being helped — was greatly to be enjoyed, and especially at the end of the day, when there was food, drink and grand entertainment. I certainly remember the “hairst” time with many happy memories of those vanished days and nights.

Then we talked about a man, Simpson to name, who often preached. His wife (Australian) I learned later was a missionary.

In his younger days he had been a tea-planter in India, where, when working at a sawmill, he lost most of one arm. He wore plus-fours, my companions remembered.

Once, at some public gathering where there was too much talk going on in the background, Simpson, who was conducting the gathering, informed the culprits, in an authoritative voice, that “he would do the talking.”

My companions could not be sure that Simpson had died on the island but remembered the “roup” at his home — known as New Bigging or locally “Nebikin.”

George, I discovered, was his Christian name and he actually died unexpectedly in Kirkwall after an operation. The local word, by the way, for such a clearance was a “rope” with the “o” in the word sounding more of an “au” sound (as in awk). The sale of most of the Simpsons’ belongings took place in the early 50s and I remember being there and coming home, with my uncle from Cruesbreck, in the moonlight.

My late father bought some books at the sale that I well remember. They are still in the house. One especially frightened me as it told some chilling ghost stories. I’m just going to have a look at them — they were all large books (published late 1930s) with sinister black covers.

The ghost story book cover is embossed with a black bat silhouetted against a faded golden moon.

There are five books I see: The Mammoth Book of ThrillersGhosts and Mysteries (the one I remember in particular); Fifty Enthralling Stories of the Mysterious EastFifty Amazing Secret Service DramasFifty Great Adventures that Thrilled the World; and Fifty Strangest Stories ever Told.

The books were illustrated and the stories told by well known authors such as: R. L. Stevenson, Edgar Wallace, H. G. Wells, J. B. Priestley, Somerset Maugham, Agatha Christie, Jeffery Farnol, Washington Irving and many others. Some of the illustrations (I haven’t looked at them for years) still give me the shivers and I’m not keen — though tempted — to re-read any of those ghost stories when I go to bed tonight. Forby, I see it’s past the “heuld” and midnight was the “bewitching hour.”

Other subjects came up after our lunch – too many to go into here – such as: George V1; Kitchener; Robert Burns and Burns Suppers; the wearing of plus-fours; the blitz in London; a male teacher in the 30s who belted pupils regularly; John Tulloch, from Hooking, who was aboard an armed merchant ship torpedoed in the First World War. He survived, returned to Hooking, married and farmed for many years. Later, he with his wife and brother, went to live in Stronsay, where he was drowned while fishing alone.

Well, this, I said, was not to be too long a letter and so, to end, as I often do, I have been outside to see how the night has turned out. The moon, in its first quarter, shines fairly brightly, almost in the northwest, and stars sparkle. It always seems odd to me to see the moon shining and setting so far north. And, to use a word used by the poet Robert Rendall, I can hear the “swaa” of the sea upon which, to the west, the moonlight scatters.

It’s certainly not been a busy day for me, but still my outing and discourse at the Day Club had led me down memory lane. I never thought that I should be looking at those old books mentioned above but you see how one thing leads to another. Will I — I wonder again — dare to read one of those horror stories? No, not at this time of the night — not by any stretch of the imagination.

Singing, speakers and dancing mark special night

I noticed today, January 27, that the snowdrops are just beginning to show their little heads and, before I get this letter completed, February will be with us.

How shall Candlemas Day (February 2) turn out, I wonder? Suddenly, the festive season seems very far away and that feels a little sad — something lost again to join with the many memories of the passing years when Yule was celebrated in great style.

The other night I was making my way along the road to post some letters. The stars were bright and a fresh, strong westerly wind sharpened one’s senses. In the east, the moon, though almost half spent, still shone brightly. Sometimes drifting lines of dark cloud passed momentarily across her face.

In a garden next to the road, tall spears of the now leafless willow tree, black against the sky, whipped sharply in the wind sounding like the sea on a “coorse” day. The stars and those black, moaning trees on one side and the moon on the other, as I briefly stopped and listened, gave me a very curious feeling.

In one of Robert Burns’s letters he too mentions the wind in the trees and the effect of inclement weather.

He says: “There is scarcely any earthly object gives me more pleasure — I don’t know if I should call it pleasure, but something which exalts me, something which enraptures me — than to walk in the sheltered side of a wood or high plantation, in a cloudy winter day, and to hear a stormy wind howling among the trees and raving o’er the plain.”

The tempest’s howl, it soothes my soul,
My griefs it seems to join;
The leafless trees my fancy please,
Their fate resembles mine!
(From Winter: a Dirge)

This year’s Burns Supper was a grand affair from beginning to end.

How very enjoyable it is to sit and talk leisurely in the soft candle and subdued lighting that we create, waiting for the rather late North Ronaldsay starting time.

And so, a peedie bit past the set time, the North Ronaldsay Community Association’s president, Evelyn Gray, welcomed the company including the guests. She went on to acknowledge the work of the many helpers who make such an evening possible.

Then, in came the piper, Sinclair Scott, playing the pipes and the chief cook, Winnie Scott, carrying the reeking haggis — officially for the last time as school cook, since she retires within days.

Round the darkened hall they marched — twice for enjoyed effect to the tunes of Highland Laddie and A Man’s a Man.

Red, blue and green curtains of great dimensions decorated with tartan rugs, old barn riddles and neep baskets transformed the hall area into a place of comfort and old times remembered. Across the roof a canopy of red crepe and paper roses floated in fine white nets.

After this colourful (Winnie in white blouse and tartan skirt) entrance and the quaffing of their respective drams by the piper and the cook, the haggis was deposited ready for the Address.

In full highland rigout, Alastair Duncan, coming from Aberdeen, recited To a Haggis with fine verve and authenticity. His wife, Lynn, was also present.

Being in a bit of a ‘dwaam’, a light-headed dream, I almost forgot to announce the Selkirk Grace but John Cutt was there as always.

After the traditional supper, a knowledgeable and keen Burns man from Kirkwall, Bill Wilson, gave a particularly well prepared, well thought out and illuminating Immortal Memory. Being a past president of the Edinburgh and Leith District Orkney Association and a past president of the Glasgow Orkney and Shetland Association, and presently president of the Debating Society in Stromness, the tribute to Burns came effortlessly.

Next, a married couple, Chris Sutcliffe and Georgette Herd, of Stromness, gave the Toast to the Lasses, and the reply, in very fine form.

John Cutt, in his own and inimitable style, then recited two Orkney dialect poems written by Christina M. Costie (1902-1967).

Standing in front of Robert Burns’s portrait, the accomplished fiddler, Lesley MacLeod played a selection of Scottish tunes, ending with the particularly beautiful and moving Neil Gow’s Lament for his Second Wife.

Then, once again, came Burns’s Tam o’ Shanter. Howie Firth in cracking form, wearing a Balmoral bonnet and tartan shawl delivered this recognised masterpiece with great flair.

The programme continued when the fine singer Hamish Bayne — one of the original members of the well known folk group, The McCalmans — sang The Lea Rig, accompanying himself on his own, hand-made concertina.

His second song Ca’ the Yowes to the Knowes was accompanied by Fran Gray, who now resides in Longhope, on accordion. She, along with Lesley MacLeod and Hamish Bayne, form the group Three in a Bar. Lesley resides in Kirkwall and Hamish, whose wife Freda was also present, stays in Stromness.

A short interval ensued to allow for further drams to be served for the last part of the evening’s Burns programme — The Toast to North Ronaldsay. This is one of the many special toasts delivered at the island’s first Burns Suppers, begun in the 1930s.

We think it must continue and we think it deserves another dram.

And so Howie (as toast maker) in a scholarly presentation talked about North Ronaldsay’s importance in the Saga times and down through history. He thought the island would live on and have a great future. Glasses, sparkling in the candlelight, were raised in the toast to North Ronaldsay.

This toast ended our short Burns programme and the 13th Burns Supper since the NRCA’s resurrection of this enjoyable event, in 1996.

More than 60 folk attended the function — islanders, former islanders and many friends from the Orkney Mainland — even a former islander from the USA. How very grand it is to be present, support and enjoy this event (for we absolutely do) and to appreciate the work and the fine efforts, freely given, of the association’s guest performers and other contributors to this commemoration of Scotland’s National Bard.

Retirement presentations followed, marking in a way the end of an era, with the bowing out from public duties by three contemporaries, whose school days go away back to the 1950s.

Head teacher Sue Gilbert and NRCA’s president Evelyn Gray came forward to supervise this pleasant occasion.

The first ceremony was the presentation to the janitor, John Tulloch, and his wife Ann. John had been janitor for 20 years. Ann was invited to come forward to accept an inscribed clock and barometer and a set of Edinburgh crystal whisky glasses.

Evelyn handed over the gifts and Sue, on behalf of the NRCA, paid tribute to John’s and Ann’s years of service to the community. She mentioned how efficiently their work had been carried out and also mentioned the many other supportive community activities with which they had been involved.

School pupil, Cameron Gray presented Ann with a beautiful bouquet of flowers. Ann thanked everybody for the very fine gifts. She said how John and she had worked under five teachers in their time and how they had enjoyed their years at the school and the community centre, She was sure the new janitor, Marion Muir, would continue the good work.

Winnie Scott, as mentioned earlier, was, within days, due to retire as school cook. This was a post she had held for 15 years.

Again, Evelyn made the presentation handing over a beautiful, boxed Ola Gorie silver necklace with matching earrings. Sue, paying tribute to Winnie, praised her years of service — not only as school cook but also for providing meals for the Day Club and for the many functions at which she had officiated and for her work for the community. Sue and the school children had calculated that every year Winnie cooked well over 1,000 meals.

Heather Woodbridge, a former pupil, now at the KGS, presented Winnie with her bouquet of flowers. Winnie thanked everybody for the beautiful jewellery and the lovely flowers. She said how she would certainly miss her days at the school and wondered how she would ever manage her retirement.

Jeremy Scott then came forward and read two short, but quite unique retirement poems which he had specially composed – one for John and Ann and one for Winnie.

With this pleasant, and memorable occasion at an end, the tables were swiftly cleared. And at once Three in a Bar struck up the music for the first dance, Strip the Willow. Everything got off to a swinging start and continued with one dance following another almost without delay. Many lively dancers on the floor gave an exciting feeling to the night.

But hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys, and reels,
Put life and mettle in their heels.
(From Tam o’ Shanter)

But missing this year was the sight of Bessie Muir and Howie, at some stage, up in a dance when Howie’s feet would move like lightning and his partner would also be going at it with equal agility.

After at least seven or more dances Sinclair, playing the pipes, fairly dirled folk through an Eightsome Reel with many a heuch resounding through the hall.

The piper loud and louder blew,
The dancers quick and quicker flew.
(From Tam o’ Shanter)

Tea, currant bun and shortbread followed. Then with a lull in the proceedings, with sufficient song sheets for everybody, a number of favourite Burns songs were grandly sung and as grandly enjoyed by the company. Songs such as Comin’ Thro’ the Rye, A Red, Red Rose, Afton Water, Ye Banks and Braes.

Back to the dance again with continued enthusiasm until well after three in the morning when, hand in hand, that great parting song of Robert Burns, Auld Lang Syne, brought a wonderful evening to a close. Let me end with lines from this song that brings back memories of many a great occasion.

And there’s a hand my trusty fiere,
And gie’s a hand o’ thine;
And we’ll take a right guid-willie waught,
For auld lang syne.
For auld lang syne, my dear.
For auld lang syne,
We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne

The ‘Talking Rings’

Not all that many days ago I was sitting outside on the old seat (which I have often mentioned) at Holland House.

From there one has a fine view of the North Ronaldsay Firth – the stretch of water that separates our island from Sanday and those further afield.

Amazingly, at this time of year, maybe eight or a dozen flies danced up and down no distance from where I was sitting. If I hadn’t known that the month was December, or had I been Rip Van Winkle awakening after his long sleep, I might have been excused for thinking it was a summer’s day.

Not only the presence of flies at this time of year was surprising but also the sun was quite warm as it shone brightly from a blue, windless sky. In fact it was the most beautiful day that one could wish for at this time of year. And, if I had allowed myself to nip 40 winks, I could easily have slipped comfortably into a little summery nap.

Today, as I write on the second day of the New Year, there is a bitingly cold, strong south-easterly wind, and along the length of the east side of the island, powerful, breaking waves hammer the shoreline. Out at sea the dangerous Reef Dyke is a mass of white, tumbling water and vicious, cold rain showers, and sometimes hail, sweeps the island from time to time.

It has to be said that summerlooking days and dancing flies in December are not at all good signs.

Well, Christmas is past as is Hogmanay and New Year’s Day. All the main pre-festive activities are over once again.

First, there was a whist drive organised to raise funds for the Christmas Eve party.

That was followed by the island Christmas dinner provided by School Meals, after which the school pupils gave a lively presentation of mime and song. A goodly turnout greatly enjoyed both events.

Christmas Eve saw the traditional bairns’ Christmas party, with the Santa Claus visit bringing pleasure and presents to children and adults alike.

A Christmas carol service conducted by the Rev John Macnab followed a day or two later. How very pleasant it is to hear the old Christmas carols once again.

Then, to celebrate the end of the year a little get-together, organised by the North Ronaldsay Community Association, took place on Saturday. Great was the discourse, food and company. A dance or two, from time to time, added to the evening’s entertainment.

All of those events took place in the new centre glittering with decorations. And, this year, hundreds of little fairy lights added to the atmosphere, sparkling as if they were stars on a winter’s night.

Hogmanay came and went with lightsome visits extending well into New Year’s morning. The old Standing Stone was also visited as a windy, cold New Year’s Day began to mirk. Celebrations continued with more visits here and there. A merry company had certainly brought in 2008 in grand style.

I mentioned Rip Van Winkle earlier. This tale by Washington Irving of someone sleeping for 20 years or so poses interesting questions in terms of time and change — particularly for small vulnerable communities such as North Ronaldsay.

Another writer, H.G. Wells, wrote The Time Machine. His Traveller in Time takes us far into the future to the year 802,701 One can relatively, easily speculate — given, for instance, a static population and given age statistics for 60 souls — on how North Ronaldsay might be in 20 years time. Without additional islanders we might easily become another St Kilda or another Stroma. The Time Machine is another business all together, though I will try to draw some connections.

In the film version of this futuristic story I particularly liked the introduction of the Talking Rings. As the Time Traveller speeds through the centuries he stops his machine and discovers a race of people living in an apparently idyllic world — but they have lost all sense of responsibility and care little about their existence or the history of their past.

Museums are filled with dust and decay and have no significance in this New World. Though books and manuscripts crumble into dust when touched, the Talking Rings still function. As long as they are spun and turn they tell, among other things, of the collapse of civilisation brought about by a nuclear war between the East and the West.

Anyhow, this idea of the Talking Rings is interesting. They would be equivalent, I suppose, to today’s CD-ROMs, or the earlier reel-to-reel tape recorders which came into commercial use in the 1940s.

Before that there was, of course, the 78 rpm vinyl records produced by the million. Recordings of speech and song date back to the early 1900s and just before. Being able, for example, to listen to the great voices of the past I always think is remarkable when one remembers that most of the singers are long dead and gone.

When the relatively simple, but surprisingly good quality tape recorders became readily available they were used extensively. And Orkney was not slow to make use of these recording possibilities with a number of individuals using such machines. Thousands of hours of tape recordings — reel to reel recorders and the later cassette recorders — exist. They constitute a unique audio record from all over Orkney of oral history and the music and song of people long since gone, and performances of others now well on in years.

In a nine-page, very authoritative, article, Magnetic tape deterioration, printed in the 1996 issue of Video Magazine (which one can download from the internet) it states that: ‘”Virtually all of the magnetic tape ever recorded older than as little as ten years may be in serious jeopardy.”

The article goes on to list the many reasons for the deterioration of the tape — quality, poor storage, chemical breakdown and so on. Mention is made of ways in which deteriorating tape can sometimes be rescued. It also stresses the importance of professional expertise in the preservation and copying of those vulnerable tapes.

When one thinks of the huge amount of material recorded in Orkney by such people as Adrian Stuart, Ernest Marwick, Ann Manson (when she worked as sound archivist at the Library) Sandy Wylie, Dougie Shearer, Radio Orkney, the School of Scottish Studies and the BBC, and, no doubt, many others, it is imperative that immediate preservation and copying work should be embarked upon before it is too late.

I know that efforts are being made to acquire funds for this work. It is work that will take years, simply because of the sheer volume of copying and cataloguing required. Help, encouragement and effort from all quarters should be sought.

Recently, I met up with one of the above collectors, Adrian Stuart — accordion, piano, organ and keyboard player extraordinaire — who was making his recordings mainly away back in the 60s, 70s and later. His dance band of those early years, made up, as he said, with some very fine musicians, featured prominently in the Orkney social scene.

This audio record, made by many, is of an Orkney now vastly changed. Yet generations of Orcadians, and generations to come, will, hopefully, be able to listen, learn and study from the collection of all recorded material available. Among Adrian’s tapes, for example, there are recordings of dance bands, concerts, singers, musicians, and recordings of many other important occasions and gatherings, all of which give a fascinating glimpse into Orkney’s past.

Remarkably, Adrian, has painstakenly, over a period of the last three years, transposed his own taped material onto CDs. This has been done with surprisingly little loss from tapes dating as far back as around the sixties. There still remains, he tells me, as much material recorded on the later cassette recorders to preserve in the same way.

So now you see, bearing in mind all other collections, the enormous, overall task that confronts our archive departments.

Let us hope that we do not become like the people discovered by the Traveller in Time — people who have lost all sense of responsibility, and care little about their existence or the history of the past.

Let us be assured that our libraries and museums with their books, artefacts and archived collections do not fall into dust and decay, as the Time Traveller discovered, or that those institutions become under-financed in a fast changing world. Let us hope that the “Talking Rings” will be preserved and become publicly available.

As I finish I am going to have a late, last night’s enjoyment of the festive decorations and some of my red Christmas candles still left to burn. Tomorrow, you see, is the Twelfth Night of Christmas.

All day long, though the wind has decreased and “southerd,” a tremendous east sea dominates the winter landscape, and even now it thunders away in the darkness of the night. I still have most of my Yule visits to make before Aald New Year’s Day on the 13th.

So there are a few folk left locally to whom I must say A Happy New Year as I do now to those who might read A Letter from North Ronaldsay.