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