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.