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.