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.