Recalling island events as daffodils dance in the wind

“April weather; rain and sunshine both together.”

Here I am again, writing a letter from North Ronaldsay. That old motto, by the way, is very apt this year.I’ve been out of touch for a while, it seems mainly, I think, because I have fallen into lazy ways.

The worst of it is that more important jobs have been neglected in this sort of inactive sabbatical that I have drifted into. Never mind, here goes for another letter.

Today is such a beautiful day that I’ve taken myself outside for a moment. I am actually sitting in a chair enjoying the warmth of the late morning sun and listening to the many sounds of the island.

Yes, this is indeed a fine morning. Daffodils are in bloom no distance from where I sit, and some purple primroses are very pleasing to the eye.

Flies, their species unknown to me, glint silvery in the bright sunshine as they move erratically up and down and speed this way and that.

Hardly a breath of air is to be felt so that the sound of birds comes across the airways from near and far.

A few feet away, two little wrens are calling as they flit around the garden dyke. One, I’m sure, is busy with her nest for she darts in and out of a certain little hole partly hidden with the, as yet, bare branches of an elder tree.

Then in another moment, perched on a prominent part of the dyke, she, or her mate maybe, will sing for a minute or so.

Starlings are chuckling up on a chimney, and sometimes the occasional sparrow can be heard. A blackbird whistles not far away at my neighbour’s house and somewhere up in the blue sky a solitary skylark sings.

This April day is the warmest yet of the spring and, though I’m sure it will not last, it is very pleasant to sit and feel the heat of the sun once more.

In the distance, oyster catchers and lapwings are calling and the curlew, or ‘whaup’, is whistling, sometimes with long sad notes and then a series of thrilling notes.

Once or twice I heard the less- musical croaking of a raven – there are only a few on the island.

But the call of gulls, such as the little common gull and the black-headed gull, that used to follow the plough or harrows in great white clouds in the past, comes familiarly over the still air.

Our Burns Night, which my last letter described, feels like a while ago. Since then our lives have been mainly dominated by the weather which has come upon us in all guises: rain and more rain, snow, strong winds and then days of rain again.

For the time of year everything is aback, with the fields still very wet and bare. Not all that many years ago (1981) by April 23 all the land work – the sowing, and then the planting of tatties – was complete at Antabreck, and probably elsewhere, since the Voar time that year had been particularly fine.

The creel boats were in the process of being checked over and painted, and I further read from my 1981 diary that our drift of creels was out at sea on May 21 – a Thursday since Friday was considered unlucky. Ten days later (counting two non-fishing Sundays) the first shipment to John Steer, the shellfish agent in Stromness, amounted to 77 lobsters.

Well, well, as my Faroese friend always says. I’m now trying to remember what has been happening lately.

Event-wise, two talks were given in the New Community Centre. They were sponsored by the University of Aberdeen in conjunction with the OIC education committee.

The first, called Farming in Scotland 5,000 years ago, was given by Donald Paterson from Aberdeen University.

The second, more recent, talk was titled Alternative sources of energy and the wider sustainability agenda.

Colin Risbridger from Westray was the speaker. A fair turnout attended both presentations, and both proved to be very informative and were illustrated with slides.

Then there was the news of the North Ronaldsay Trust’s substantial financial award for work at the new lighthouse complex (already comprehensively covered in The Orcadian).

Not so long ago Dr Kevin Woodbridge gave a showing of many photographs taken on a family holiday trip to New Zealand. The show, held at the Bird Observatory, was most enjoyable and well attended.

On Saturday, April 15, a very grand pantomime really cheered us all up immensely. Around 60 folk attended, including a number of visitors from the Orkney Mainland.

A party of visiting young folk from one of the EU countries added to the company.

The North Ronaldsay community association (NRCA) ran the evening’s entertainment, held in the Memorial Hall.

Evelyn Gray, NRCA president, welcomed everybody and introduced the evening’s performance. The pantomime Aladdin and his wonderful lamp, originally planned for Christmas, was produced and directed by Sid Ogilvie, who certainly has a great talent for this form of entertainment.

Aladdin is one of the stories from The Arabian Nights and Sid’s adaptation was original, very entertaining and amusingly topical at times (island wise) with one or two local references, for example, to Billalli, the famous Moorish builder.

In the story this character had to build a castle in a week which even he, it was thought, could not manage!

The cast, in order of appearance, was: Narrator, Ann Ogilvie; Widow Twanky, Bob Simpson; Sailor, Gavin Woodbridge; Aladdin, Alison Woodbridge; Owima Bin Liner, Sid Ogilvie; Genie of the ring, Cameron Gray; Genie of the lamp, Lu Shaw; Genie’s mum, Kevin Wood-bridge; Princess Moonsome, Heather Woodbridge; Wozzere, Sid Ogilvie; Sultan, Winnie Scott; Guard, Ronan Gray; Reporter, Gavin Woodbridge.

The play featured a number of scene changes during which suitable background music added to the presentation; and the hall’s old stage and curtains proved invaluable – on its well-worn platform, many a sketch, concert and performance had taken place in the past.

Actors, Sid, Lu and Alison each sang a solo as the play progressed and it was especially encouraging to see the young folk from the school (including Ronan Gray, nursery school) take part with relish. They were Heather Woodbridge, Cameron Gray, Gavin Woodbridge and, not least, Ronan Gray.

The colourful costumes were created with the professional help of Edith Craigie – though I suspect the two male actors, who were appearing as females, had added certain prominent appendages to their persons.

Scenery was a collective affair, painted mainly by the school pupils. It helped to make the production all the more delightful.

Loud applause followed the end of the performance with additional recognition for the four youngest actors at Sid’s request.

Soon a little dance got under way, with the local musicians providing the music. Tea, sandwiches and a grand choice of homebakes were enjoyed half way through the evening.

A raffle in aid of the Memorial Hall funds brought in an excellent figure of over £90. Dancing continued until around one in the morning, when the singing of Auld Lang Syne brought this enjoyable Easter time island get-together to a close.

Now I must finish my letter. It’s well past the ‘heuld’, which is nothing unusual for me.

I’ve just come in from some late byre chores, hoping to find some inspiration outside, but the night is cold with a chilly easterly wind blowing, and the sky is dark and overcast with not a star to be seen. My plan is to get to bed and see what another day brings.

This is another day with the sun shining once again with a fair, warm southerly wind – much better.

How shall I conclude this letter I wonder? I think I will tell you how some of my time has been spent.

I’ve taken to a bit of sustained reading these past months, I have to say, travelling in my mind to the mountains and islands of Scotland, round Cape Horn a few times, from Australia to South America, north to the Arctic and south to the Antarctic, and then back to the Orkney parish of Firth of the 1800s.

One might ask which books have I been reading? Well, apart from other bits and pieces, varied accounts, or whatever, I have really been enjoying a collection of Seton Gordon’s writings called Seton Gordon’s Scotland: An Anthology, compiled by Hamish Brown (published 2005).

I re-read, with the same enjoyment as of old, Eric Newby’s The Last Grain Race, a voyage in a sailing ship from Australia to South America, undertaken in 1938.

Then it was Two Years Before the Mast, by Richard Henry Hanna, a personal narrative of life at sea on a sailing ship. The account traces a voyage from Boston, around Cape Horn, to the California coast.

I must tell you that this is the most wonderful account of life at sea in the early 19th century – not at all romantic I may say. So enthralled was I with the narrative that hardly did I set the book aside as I read day and night to the finish.

My next book took me up to the far north of Canada, and the Eskimos, or Inuit to be more precise, with whom the author, Duncan Pryde, lived some ten years, having moved to Canada in 1955.

His unrivalled record of life with those indigenous people of the far north makes fascinating reading. The book is titled Nunaga.

My literary travels brought me from the far north to the Antarctic with Alfred Lansing’s definitive account of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s epic journey to cross the Antarctic overland.

It also gives an account of his remarkable sea journey, with four other men, in a virtually open boat, across 850 miles of the stormiest ocean in the world to procure help for the rest of his crew.

This incredible, and courageous journey was made after their ship, the Endurance, was crushed by ice. The book is called Endurance ‘the greatest adventure story ever told’ and was first published in 1958.

This excellent reprint contains many of the spectacular photographs taken by the expedition’s photographer, Frank Hurley, and is an addition to the original book.

For my last book I’m back to Orkney to read, once more, John Firth’s wonderful account of life in the Orkneys, Reminiscences of an Orkney Parish. It was published in 1920 — I think there was a reprint in 1974.

Although the book deals mainly with the township of Redland in the parish of Firth as it was, down to the middle of the 19th century, the life described is typical of Orkney as a whole. Now there is a book for folk in Orkney to read.

As I write these last few lines I’m briefly outside my front door again — not sitting this time as it is somewhat chilly. Birds are still calling but less noticeably than I heard them in the warmth and stillness of the other morning.

The day is bright and sunny and the freshening southerly wind is making the yellow daffodils dance.

Candle and lamp evoke Burns’ nights of old

A few days ago – and a very beautiful day it was – as I set off for a walk to the West Banks, I was reminded of Robert Burns’s poem To a Mouse and that it was time to write up an account of our Burns’ Supper.

You will remember the fate of the mouse when Burns’s plough destroyed its home:

. . . Till crash! the cruel coulter passed
Out thro thy cell . . .

And you’ll remember his earlier lines:

I’m truly sorry man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union . . .

The same thing happened to a cosy nest of ‘banks mice’ situated by the roadside, but instead of the plough, an inquisitive dog had dug up their home with more dire results.

Anyway, sad though this was, I proceeded on my way.

The blueness of the sea and of an almost-clear sky was particularly striking with hardly a cloud in view.

Waves sometimes broke heavily on dark rocks leaving a fine mist that lightly veiled the shoreline seen against the brightness of the late afternoon sun.

As I continued on my journey, I met up with a friend who made my leisurely walk all the more lightsome.

We proceeded north, passing a little clear water spring just over the face of the banks from which many a picnic pot of tea, or drink of crystal clear water, has been taken.

I remember one moonlit Hogmanay night, many years ago, being at this rock spring. There I drank a good-luck draught for the New Year.

A little further on, as the wide spread of the Bay of Ryas Geo opens up, we knew that nearby was the Fairy Well – a small, round, maybe 14 inch or more deep, hole in the rock that is always filled with water as the tide comes and goes.

Along the shore line, one finds the bric-a-brac of the tides so that beach walks are always a bit of an adventure.

As we walked – I still very carefully for my whistling sticks have been silent lately – the sun began to set in colours of orange and gold.

In the sky to the southwest, a faraway jet plane left a bright trail of vapour.

Soon the sun disappeared behind the high hills of Rousay, and the islands deepened in colour becoming blue and purple against the luminous afterglow.

The few distant clouds in sight turned pink and rose as the hidden sun, now below the horizon, still shone in the higher, deeper blue regions of the sky.

Later, as I made my way homewards along the island road and down the brae o’Ancum, wild duck called from the loch.

Coots, it seemed, made curious cries and often the whistling of the curlew and the occasional cry of the lonely lapwing could be heard away in the distance.

Every few seconds the bright flash of the lighthouse was reflected upon the still water of Ancum loch.

Well, let me now begin my account. The North Ronaldsay Community Association’s Burns’ Supper took place on January 27.

The association’s president, Evelyn Gray, welcomed a company of well over 60, many of whom had come specially to the island for the occasion.

Piper Sinclair Scott leads the way, followed by Winnie Scott and the haggis. (Picture: Kevin Woodbridge)

Proceedings began with the chief cook, Winnie Scott, carrying in the haggis, accompanied by Martin Gray, and piper, Sinclair Scott, who led the way. Martin Gray addressed the haggis with considerable verve. John Cutt recited the Selkirk Grace before the traditional supper was served.

As at the early Burns’ nights of long ago, the pleasant light of candle and oil lamp made the evening almost a step back into time.

I suppose in those early days a good mug or two of ale would have washed down the haggis. Instead, this year, a choice of wines was provided.

Two drams of whisky were served – one for the ‘Immortal Memory’, and one for the toast to North Ronaldsay.

Yes, John Barleycorn featured handsomely as the evening began.

Then let us toast John Barleycorn.
Each man a glass in hand;
And may his great posterity
Ne’er fail in old Scotland.

After the supper, Les Cowan, guest speaker, proposed the Immortal Memory. In a fine tribute to the Bard, Les concentrated on the humanity of the poet and why Burns is still remembered more than 200 years after his death – not only in Scotland but all over the world.

Verses were chosen from a number of Burns’s well-known poems to illustrate the poet’s understanding of the human spirit and of nature.

I shall quote a few lines to give an idea of Les’s appreciation and to remind us of some favourite poems:

To a Mouse:

But Mousie, thou art no thy-lane.
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us naught but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

Some lines from To a Louse:

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us
An’ foolish notion; . . .’

From For a’ that and a’ that:

Is there, for honest poverty
That hangs its head, and a’ that?
The coward-slave, we pass him by-
We dare be poor for a’ that!
For a’ that, and a’ that,
Our toils obscure, and a’ that,
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp-
The man’s the gowd for a’ that.

Les finished with a very early but beautiful little poem of Burns, My Handsome Nell, from which I will quote a couple of verses:

O once I lov’d a bonnie lass,
An’ aye I love her still,
An’ whilst that virtue warms my breast,
I’ll love my handsome Nell.

As bonie lasses I hae seen,
And mony full as braw,
But, for a modest, gracefu’ mein,
The like I never saw.

Howie Firth, in great form, followed with the ‘Toast to the Lasses’. He also quoted from a poem using one verse as his theme but from another poet. This time it was GMB and his poem Attie Campbell 1900 -1967:

A million light-years beyond the Milky Way
Where Villon and Burns,
Falstaff and slant-eyed Li Po
Order their nectar by turns
(No ‘Time, gents’ there, no drinker has to pay)
And words immortal gather head and flow?

Howie imagined that in the company there would have to be some great woman from the past, like Mary Queen of Scots for example, but also Orcadian women he could think of who should certainly be there.

Next came the reply, composed by Jenny Mainland, who, unfortunately, was unable to attend. Her sister, Bessie Muir, kindly took over to make the reply. Jenny also chose some words but from a modern song as her theme:

Everybody wants to go to heaven,
But nobody wants to die.

Jenny remembered the old folk of her North Ronaldsay toonships – Bustie and Nesstoon – and the stalwart men of the area with their great craic.

But if she could meet them in heaven she would also like to see some of the formidable women characters of those days present to “keep the pot boiling”.

Two Burns songs followed. They were sung magnificently by Hamish Bayne, who also played his concertina. Additional accompaniment was provided by Fran Gray (accordion) and Lesley MacLeod (fiddle).

Those three constitute the group Three in a Bar. Hamish firstly sang Ay Waukin, O followed by The Silver Tassie.

Then John Cutt, in his inimitable style, recited the old poem, Maggie fae the Bu as he had once done many years ago when full concerts of songs, sketches and music were fairly common entertainment on the island. The poem, read partly in dialect, was much enjoyed.

The recitation was followed by Lesley MacLeod who, standing in front of Burns’s portrait, entertained everybody to some beautiful fiddle music contemporary with the poet’s lifetime.

She began with a slow air, then a strathspey and then a lament and finished with an Irish tune in praise of whisky.

To complete the short programme, A toast to North Ronaldsay was proposed by Howie Firth.

He referred to the island’s ancient history and how, through the centuries, the sea that never changes, the land and the people had survived, and though less in number, folk were still here, as he hoped they would continue to be.

After the toast, a pleasant ceremony took place when the new teacher, Susan Gilbert, and her partner, Gordon Asher, were welcomed to the island.

Evelyn Gray presented Susan with a beautiful basket of flowers. Susan acknowledged the presentation saying how both she and her partner had been made most welcome, and how she was looking forward to teaching and to life on the island.

Our guest musicians, Three in a Bar, soon got under way in style, with some great music that certainly encouraged folk to get up and dance.

Then, after a lively spell of dancing, a number of Burns songs were sung, with Hamish and Howie leading the lightsome communal singing with gusto. Scots Wha Hae, Ae Fond Kiss, The Lea Rig, and Afton Water were four of the favourites.

On went the dance. In between times, tea, currant bun and shortbread were served, and a raffle drawn. The raffle raised £160.50 for Cancer Research.

Folk continued to dance, with an eightsome reel livening up the proceedings. Sinclair’s bagpipe music fairly kept the dancers on their toes.

A few more dances followed before the last one, a Pride o’ Erin. The singing of Auld Lang Syne finally brought the enjoyable occasion to a close.

I thought, as I left for home, that even if Burns is somewhere “a million light-years beyond the Milky Way,” as GMB imagines, he surely would have been very pleased with the night as we celebrated the life of Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns.

Bidding traditional farewell to New Year

Before the old Yule-time spell is over (January 13), I thought I should write a little letter just to say goodbye once more to a time of year that, in the past, had great meaning.

In the dark days of the winters of long ago – and not so long ago – when life was hard and there was little entertainment or distractions to brighten everyday life, Yule was, as one can imagine, a time of enjoyment.

Ernest Marwick has written extensively, as I’ve said before, about this particular time of year which began on December 21 and ended on Aald New’er Day – January 13.

He mentions, for example, that Yule was very much a Norwegian festival. It was the greatest ale-feast of the year.

In Norway it was thought that the spirits of the dead came into the houses to share the Yule fare.

In Shetland and Orkney it was the trows that had their eye on the good things. So people had to be careful, and one reads about the importance of fire as a form of protection from those unwanted visitors.

Ernest mentions that the old bonfires were lit on four occasions in the year, with the Yule festival being one.

You might remember in my last letter that I mentioned that we had a spectacular Yule bonfire on Dennis Ness, so we should be safe enough in North Ronaldsay.

You know we have a small loch called Trollavatn, meaning the water of the trolls, so – who knows? – they may be lurking around Dennis Ness where the loch is situated, ready to pounce upon an unwary traveller.

Readers may also remember my mentioning the ‘Neuer Sang’ – the New Year Song.

Actually, the few lines I quoted were perhaps a little misleading in that I had omitted to quote the refrain which followed the second and fourth lines of each verse.

I had instead only chosen a few lines which gave some idea of the blessings which the singers and visiting company bestowed upon the house, its occupants and its animals. But let me just quote a couple of verses to illustrate how the refrain fits in.

This night is guid New’ar ev’n’s night,
We’re a’ St Mary’s men,
An’ we’ve come here tae claim wur right,
‘Fore wur Lady.

The morn it is guid New’ar Day.
We’re a’ St Mary’s men,
An we’ve come here tae sport an’ play,
‘Fore wur Lady.

And let me tell you about the recording by some North Ronaldsay men of the ‘Neuer Sang’ (Orkney Sound Archives).

Three of the singers I know about. My father was one, and often he would tell the story of the recording.

It was made one early, dark winter’s day at the house of Nouster – not far from the jetty where the Earl Sigurd was briefly berthed that morning.

The fortnightly trip of the steamer to the island had been missed because of adverse weather and so the boat arrived, if not the morning after the New Year, very close to that time.

My father said that singing this particularly lengthy song after a late night of Yule visiting was about the last thing any of the singers wanted to do. However, it had to be done, and, as I said, it was made as a BBC recording.

Of the other two men who sang that cold winter’s morning, one was John Tulloch, Senness, now 84 years of age and the island’s most senior man (I must ask him if there were other singers).

John is the last surviving member of the group. The other singer was Henry Thomson, Neven, who was lost at sea, aged 38, in November, 1971.

Those two men came in on the refrain. The recording was made, as I mentioned in my letter, in the 1950s.

At that time, I think North Ronaldsay’s population would have been around 170, and there would have been much ‘jan aboot’ (visiting) with almost every house able to supply a good drink o’ the real home brewed ale.

Well, the time for Yule visits is almost at an end, the 13th being the last day.

I have two or three houses left on my list. A couple of nights ago, far past the ‘heuld’, I estimated the moon 30 degrees north of west which I always think looks very unusual. But she was brilliantly bright, shining above a thundering sea.

In the old days when only the light from a tilley lamp (or even a lesser light) shone from a friendly window, and roads were not very easy to walk on – nor the dark fields for that matter – the moonlight would have been a great help for the visits made at this time of year.

Tonight a large broch has appeared round the moon. I wonder what it will mean?

Earlier there was thunder and lightning which came and went for a short time, but now – I’ve just been out to look again – the sky is very hazy with the moon veiled behind the thin, high cloud. Shortly she will be full.

The wind is in the southwest and, as I stopped for a moment or two, I listened to the west sea. There is a never ending pounding which pervades the air with sudden, loud explosions of sound as some heavier wave drove itself upon unyielding rocks from time to time.

A snipe piped one sad note once or twice, and, then again, sometimes quite near, as it flew on some unknown errand. Then the lonely call would come from the distance and fade away altogether.

It’s well past the ‘heuld’ as usual and time to make for my bed – “high time and by time” – as Sarah o’ Lochend would have said.

Shortly it will be our Burns’ Supper night, so we shall have to get ourselves organised. It’s lightsome when the Yule time comes around. Too soon it passes but then Burns briskens us all up again.

What about finishing with a North Ronaldsay man’s toast? I’ve just been reminded of it in John Firth’s book Reminiscences of an Orkney Parish. By the way, he also talks about the New Year’s Song.

Here’s a health tae ye and yers,
For being sae kind tae we an wiz;
And if ever ye and yirs come to we an wiz,
We and wiz sal be as kind tae ye and yirs
As ever ye and yirs wus tae we and wiz.

Festivities conclude with dancing at monument

This is a letter I began early in December. Time has passed and we are now in the last few days of the old year. I shall end as the New Year gets under way but, in-between, I think I will just include what I have already written.

December 5: Well, my whistling sticks, which I use for safety from time to time, have been singing away – you may have read in my last letter about my elbow crutches and how the wind affects them.

This morning they played a tune in North Ronaldsay as I used them to get me to the airstrip, then on the streets of Kirkwall they still whistled a little as the airt of wind suited.

As I travelled to Kirkwall by Loganair, the only sun to be seen was that above the low cloud canopy where the plane flew.

Below the clouds, the islands remained dull and dreary all day. Tonight, as I begin this letter, the westerly wind is quite strong. Sometimes an almost full moon appears through the clouds, which are fairly flying and the ‘wast’ sea is thundering away in the background.

You know, the whistling sound of my sticks reminds me of the early 1950s, when I was lodging in Kirkwall.

At weekends, sometimes, I would go for walks out to Hatston. At that time, the war had only been over for a few years and so there remained air raid shelters, Nissen huts and such constructions near the almost intact wartime aerodrome.

Here and there one would pass one of the tubular aluminium gates that were in evidence.

Then, as now, there would be construction holes in those gates, and the mournful sound of the wind could be heard as it blew through the little openings.

I used to imagine that the sad tunes were a requiem for those wartime years, and for the pilots who had been lost as a result of enemy action in Norway, or whatever fate befell them. So when I hear the song of the tubular gates, or of my walking sticks, I am reminded of those days.

This is another night, as I continue. When, not exactly by choice, I stayed on the Mainland recently, I was disappointed to have missed the Armistice service on the island when John Tulloch, Senness, laid the wreath at the War Memorial. A good turnout was there to pay their respects.

The Rev John McNab, from Sanday, officiated, with John Cutt reciting Binyon’s familiar verse. Sinclair Scott played the bagpipe lament.

I also missed the North Ronaldsay Ladies Lifeboat Guild’s yearly fundraising evening which was well attended.

The guild president, Isobel Muir, opened the proceedings. Many items were for sale including island produce and other goods – vegetables, homebakes, books etc. In addition there was the usual raffle.

A little supper followed with tea or coffee, sausage rolls, sandwiches, and homebakes. A total of £788.89 was spent as folk gave generously. Otherwise, island life has been very quiet apart from the AGM of the North Ronaldsay Trust and of the Yarn Company. And a whist drive raised around £160 for the children’s Christmas Eve Santa party.

In my last letter, I mentioned visiting Jock Harcus, former engineer for many years on the SS Earl Sigurd.

I also mentioned Jim Craigie, of Dale, champion ploughman, to whom I had spoken at length over the phone. Sadly, he died recently.

When I was in Kirkwall a couple of weeks ago, I was able to visit Jock once again. This time we talked at greater length. Let me tell you a little more in this letter.

Jock Harcus was born in Faray – a small island situated between Westray and Eday – in 1911.

He lived there with his parents until he left the island when he was 14 which was the school leaving age in those days. I asked him about life on the island then. At that time, he said, there were eight tenant crofters.

Land work – ploughing, harrowing and so on – was carried out by harnessing two animals together, such as an ox and a cow. Later, in the thirties, his father acquired a horse.

We talked a little about the brewing of ale. The bere or corn was steeped for two days, made into malt and dried in small kilns that were part of the croft.

The bruising of the dried malt, prior to the brewing, was accomplished with the use of the quernstone – there were no bruisers nor indeed a mill on the island.

I asked about dances and such events. Christmas and New Year were the special days when the folk of the island would visit one another, beginning at one end of the long, narrow shaped island on Christmas Day and visiting from the opposite end on New Year’s Day.

Otherwise, community events seemed to be infrequent. Music was usually an accordion or melodeon and maybe a fiddle.

As well as the crofting, there was fishing such as for ‘cuithes’ – an important addition to the staple diet of those more austere days.

Jock and his father also augmented the croft’s income by fishing for lobster.

When Jock left Faray in 1925, he went to work as a farm hand at the farm of Cauldhame, near Stromness.

He was also employed at two other farms, one of which was Brettobreck, in the same area, where he became a horseman.

Once he won a medal (which he still has) for the best turned out horse at a ploughing match. He returned briefly to help at the island farm before following a career at sea, as I have already mentioned previously, beginning as a deckhand, then learning all there was to know about steam driven engines, firstly, on a drifter in the flow (Pride of Fife) and later in 1944 when he joined the SS Earl Sigurd.

In 1940, Jock married Annie Rousay, who was a teacher. She later wrote a book, Don’t tell Bab!, published in 1995, in which she recounts her teaching days and their life together.

In 1947, Faray was evacuated as the population had fallen to an unsustainable number. Jock was there to assist the last inhabitant leave.

We then talked about the steam driven engines. I think I’m right in saying that the supply drifter on which he worked in the Flow, was powered by a two-cylinder engine – the size for the smaller trawlers of those days.

The deep sea, larger trawler had a three-cylinder engine exactly the same as the engine in the Earl Sigurd.

It gave the ship a maximum speed of around nine and a half knots. Coal had to be shovelled into a furnace that was part of the boiler to produce the head of steam required to drive the engines.

On deck were large ventilators which could be adjusted to best suit the requirements of the fire.

On the Sigurd the fire chamber measured around 7ft long by 4.5ft in the round. Jock went on to explain that to steam to North Ronaldsay, for example, (30 miles as the crow flies) consumed three tons (six for the round trip).

Once, he told me that my sister, Kathleen, had boldly rolled up her sleeves and fired the ship on an outward trip – a journey of between three-and-a-half and four hours.

After the SS Earl Sigurd was decommissioned in 1969 – thus ending the days of steam, Jock served out his remaining years at sea on the new ship, diesel powered and named the Islander, retiring in 1976.

This information, only a part of which I have related here, I jotted down from memory as I flew back to North Ronaldsay. So I hope it is correct.

Well folks, this is all for the moment, shortly it will be Yule with Hogmanay and the New Year to write about.

It’s well past the ‘heuld’ and all the time I’ve been writing the wind is whistling outside the west window. I’m going to have a look outside for I think it is a wild night. Yes, it is certainly a very ‘coorse’ night. The wind (northwesterly) I judge to be gale force as it increased for a shower, and when I walked to the corner of our front byre to view the stormy scene, a fierce pelting of sleet came flying out of a dark grey sky.

As it passed, the wind fell a little, allowing for the pounding of the sea to be heard and the sky to the west lightened. Though I could not see her, the full moon was there above the clouds.

Days have passed and for some time, the weather has been amazingly mild with some spectacular sunrises and sunsets.

The winter solstice has been – can one believe that the days are on the turn? But they are! On the shortest day, school dinners, with Winnie Scott in charge, provided the traditional island Christmas dinner.

It was well-attended and we enjoyed the meal, as we also very much enjoyed the school bairns’ singing of appropriate songs for the festive season.

Music teacher, Elaine Geddes, had done a great job. She and support teacher, Sheila Grieve, came out to the island for the event.

And, along with the assistance of stand-in teacher, Anne Ogilvie (until the arrival of our newly appointed head teacher who comes to the island early in the New Year), the pupils are being well looked after.

On Christmas Eve, the bairns’ Santa party took place. That was great fun.

Christmas Day has been and gone and, as I write, this is Boxing Day. It’s cold, as the wind is coming from the east.

Fair Isle is crystal clear, and lonely Foula, away to the north, is also visible. I’ve just been out and the sky is full of rolling cloud from east to west and from south to north, beyond which, here and there, a background of blue shines through.

Colours of silver, grey, and purple, and pale yellow, where the hidden afternoon sun lightens up cloud edges, dominate the sky of the dying year. In the background, I can hear the piping of the curlew and the calling of wild duck from the direction of Ancum loch.

On December 27, a Christmas Carol service was held in the New Centre with Rev John McNab, from Sanday, officiating. Around 30 folk attended. Readings were by John Cutt, Gerbo, Isobel Muir, Hooking, Carol Bayley, Breckan, and Linda Weston (nee Tulloch, Scottigar), here on holiday from Canada with her husband John.

Ann Tulloch, Purtabreck, accompanied the singing of some favourite carols on the keyboard. Tea and warm Christmas pies were served to end a very pleasant evening.

Yesterday, December 29, was also an enjoyable day when about 40 folk – islanders and a number of relatives and friends on holiday – were involved in a beach tidy-up.

An amazing amount of work was managed on a bracing winter’s day. In the mirking, a ‘Yule’ bonfire burned fiercely in the strong southerly wind, lighting up the grounds of Dennis Ness.

Later, in the New Centre, refreshments were served along with hot soup and all sorts of food.

Great was the ‘talk,’ with a number of youngsters having the time of their lives in the cheery hall with all the Christmas decorations glittering in the coloured lighting.

North Ronaldsay Community Association organised the event and president, Evelyn Gray, requests that I express her thanks, and those of the members of the committee, to all who helped to make the day such a great success.

This is New Year’s Day and the most magnificent day it has been.

Hogmanay (New’er Even) by contrast, was not a pleasant day as heavy showers came and went. Nevertheless, the last hours of 2005 were celebrated well enough with first footers arriving, at this house and that house, as the New Year got under way.

When the ‘New’er’ song (a song of some 50 verses) was sung, not all that long ago, as men of my late father’s generation easily remembered the song. It had to be sung before the visiting company of men were allowed into the house — I’ve mentioned before how the men from each toonship in North Ronaldsay went on their visiting rounds on Hogmanay and the New Year.

Anyhow, I was going to say that some of the lines of the old song were surely very appropriate for the beginning of a New Year.

Though asking for hospitality, as the singers do, would it not be very fine to wish the best for the neighbour’s house – not only for the house itself, but for its occupants including all the animals? Here are a few lines:

Guid be tae this buirdly bigging!
Fae the steeth stane tae the rigging,
Guid bless the guidwife an’ sae the guidman,
May a’ your kye may weel tae calf,
An’ every ane ha’e a queyo calf,
May a’ your geese be weel tae t’rive,
An’ every ane ha’e three times five,
May a’ your yowes be weel tae lamb,
An’ every ane ha’e a yowe and ram…

So the good wishes go on. If any reader would like to read the complete song it can be seen in Ernest W Marwick’s An Anthology of Orkney Verse (published 1949).

Ernest Marwick writes that the New Year song was sung not only in Orkney but also in Shetland and Foula and even further afield – Findochty for example.

Words and tune varied somewhat as one might expect. But the song can be heard in the Orkney Sound Archives as it was sung by a group of North Ronaldsay men for the BBC in the 1950s.

Although, by the 1950s, the singing of the song had died out, it was still remembered on the island by the older generation.

As I mentioned, this day has been grand and just before a beautiful sunset, 22 ‘Stan Stane’ dancers circled the monument to the music of an accordion.

Toasts for health and good luck for 2006 were proposed and, as we made our way homewards to enjoy festive fare at another venue, the first sun of the New Year was setting behind blue islands in the south west.

The time of the whistling sticks

Once I wrote a letter from North Ronaldsay called On being off-colour in the summer, in which I described how, for a week or so, I was forced to stay very firmly ‘a-bed’ as they say.

I’m of a mind to tell you of my latest change of fortune. It might serve as a cautionary tale for other potential victims – especially (but not exclusively) those getting on in years, and of how an island casualty gets in to Kirkwall. It’s also useful to remember some words of Burns: The best laid schemes o’ mice and men gang aft agley.

Yes, I shall try to be brief. What began, without any warning with a pain in my right thigh, lasting five or six days, developed, finally, one night, into a period of excruciating pain extending the full length of the leg.

After a time I was able to dose off. When I awoke, early in the morning, I discovered the pain had virtually gone, however the lower right side of my leg (from the knee down), part of my thigh and my foot – excluding the big toe – was ‘numbish’ with some pins and needles and I could not control my ankle from going over.

This (I assure you) alarming discovery, elicited the intervention of our local doctor which ended in a rather spectacular helicopter flight, in the moonlight, from the island, to Kirkwall, and thence to the Balfour Hospital.

The request for the air ambulance helicopter had been lodged, I think, about noon, to the control centre in Inverness.

The machine was somewhere in the Western Isles attending to an ambulance case.

An approximate arrival time was given as after 3pm, but then another emergency intervened.

A new time of arrival was estimated with the helicopter eventually landing at the local airstrip at about 5.50pm.

And so we touched down at the Kirkwall airport just after 6pm.

I’m, of course, not qualified to comment on the medical intricacies of all of this, but as I flew through the night sky I could not help but reflect on the fact that, had I been flying with the previous ambulance arrangements, operated so successfully by Loganair, I could have been at the Balfour Hospital within the hour.

I should say that the Balfour Hospital, and my treatment there, was more than one could wish for.

I was seen immediately by a doctor and later in the evening an x-ray was taken.

This, plus the assessment of the hospital surgeon and that of a consultant orthopaedic surgeon the following day, confirmed what I understood to be a prolapsed disc.

After a day or so I was seen by the head of the physiotherapy department, who also attended to my condition in a most professional manner. He gave me certain rehabilitating exercises to carry out and supplied me with some elbow sticks or crutches.

So, here I am, beginning to write this letter from Stromness where I have lodged for a week, living like, as Richie o’ Girnavald once said to his creel-boat crewman (but in a different context), a Jamaica tourist.

My cousin, Ella, has very kindly looked after me, taking me here and there, on first one enjoyable visit and then another, whilst, at home, my relatives have been as kindly, attending to my farming responsibilities.

Talking about my farming responsibilities, and just to end this account of my ‘aaps and doons’. I should mention, maybe as a warning, that on the final day of reckoning, I had unwisely, on my own, been tackling the re-heading of a stack of square bales.

As I had never got round to tying down the stack-in the summer (despite many lectures) that first earlier, furious gale of wind had lifted the loose hay heading, or the thatch, plus net, quite over the stack.

Although I had help to finish the job, the result of this foolishness ended in the way I have described.

I now return to my week’s stay in Stromness and my visiting sprees. How curious and true it is, that sometimes it takes unusual happenings, unwanted and unexpected, to make contact with, or see friends and acquaintances – even sometimes of years ago.

The fact that one’s home is on an island does limit contact with folk, whereas, living in a more central location, such as the Orkney Mainland, one’s socialising activities would be much easier.

Anyhow, I’m going to mention two particular individuals I made contact with, if I may, in a minute.

Apart from those two (I cannot list everybody) I saw and spent time with friends who, had I not been ‘laid a bittie doon’, I would not, as I said, have visited them at all.

Many subjects were discussed. Some were, appropriately enough, about back and leg problems by those who had experienced similar and worse symptoms than my own.

Other subjects turned over, with North Ronaldsay folk now living on the Mainland, went back through the years – island history and so on, including stories, some of which made me laugh more than I have done for months and months.

Incidentally, one uncomplaining, very Orcadian lady whom I met, (while waiting our turn at the physiotherapy department) and whom I had never seen before, made me stop and think.

I suppose she must have been in her mid 70s. She had two sticks. She told me that since the 1960s, when something had happened to her back which affected her legs, she had had to get about using those sticks and every day she had to take pain killers, but yet she soldiers on.

Imagine that for a moment – over 40 years of pain and restricted mobility. Let’s not complain for one moment about our misfortunes – difficult as that is for most of us.

Now, those two individuals I’m venturing to tell you just a little about – two Orcadians as it happens – and both rather remarkable men and both over 90.

Neither complained about anything and both were happily resigned to their circumstances.

As Johnny o’ Holland would have said, they took a philosophical view of their differing lives. One I visited in the Balfour Hospital. The other I spoke to at length over the phone.

At the hospital, to which I had been taken by car by (Mary Ann Thomson (formerly South Ness), a school classmate of the 40s and 50s, we both met Jock Harcus.

He had been an engineer along with other duties undertaken on the SS Earl Sigurd.

For many years he had worked on more than one boat, serving in various capacities. Folk of my generation, and many others, often sailed in the Sigurd on trips to and from the island.

So we knew most of the crew of those days. I think Jock said that he had been on the Earl Sigurd for 25 years.

The boat made her last voyage in 1969. We talked at length about those days and not without some nostalgia. He spoke with affection about the ship and the reliability of the old steam driven engine.

As young travellers, sometimes we were allowed to visit the engine room. He mentioned how once the Sigurd had sheltered in the lee of an island when threatened by tremendous winds.

Two anchors were dropped, but the engine was kept running with the propeller turning at a speed sufficient to hold their position.

We continued to talk about this and that, then I reminded him of the time he had stopped an animal from escaping up the pier – one for shipping – by catching it by the nostrils, and between that hand-grip and his other arm round the beast’s neck he brought it to its knees. It was shipped.

But such an action was achieved only by his legendary strength – to lift a 50-gallon barrel of oil was no problem. It was most enjoyable to relive those days and to listen to such a great character.

My other contact, by phone, was Jim Craigie, from the farm of Dale, just outside Stromness.

Jim Craigie, and his late wife Molly, had spent a few years in the 1940s and early 1950s at the farm of Holland, in North Ronaldsay, living life to the full in the lively island community of those days.

Of course at that time I was very young and not really acquainted with my elders of another generation. I knew their daughter, Mary, from our school days.

She is about my age and is presently back from Canada and staying with her father. However, the early death of a North Ronaldsay man, Jimmy Thomson (formerly Nether Linnay), who once worked for a time as a young man with Jim and Molly, put us in touch (I required some information for Jimmy’s obituary).

Now this latest escapade of mine got us together again – albeit over the phone. Those North Ronaldsay days feature highly with Jim I know.

Among his many recollections, he remembers the last days of the local football team (at one time there were two teams on the island).

He also mentioned the singling of turnips at Holland when islanders’ helped to single the many acres of ‘neeps’ grown on the farm.

After the work, a good meal and suitable refreshments, a dance was sometimes held in Holland’s large barn loft.

Most likely, we thought, the swinging accordion music of Ronnie Swanney, Trebb, would have rung through the summer night – maybe there were fiddles as well, though Jim could not quite remember.

We continued to ‘discoorse’ about this and that and laughed at stories – some not maybe safe to tell, but to have a talk with this dedicated farmer and cup-winning ploughman (even I noticed he was ploughing last year at one of those Mainland matches) was a real pleasure.

Well, I’ve come almost to the end of this longish letter. If you are wondering about the title, the whistling sticks are my elbow crutches.

When I walk with them outside, the wind plays curious little tunes through the series of adjusting holes.

I’m finishing with a prayer I spied pinned up on Ella’s notice board. It is an anonymous nun’s prayer from the 17th century. But that we all could practise it!

Lord, Thou knowest better than I do myself, that I am growing older and will some day be old. Keep me from the fatal habit of thinking I must say something on every subject and on every occasion. Release me from the craving to straighten out everybody’s affairs.

Make me thoughtful but not moody; helpful but not bossy. With my great store of wisdom it seems a pity not to use it all, but Thou knowest, Lord, that I want a few friends at the end.

Keep my mind free from the recital of endless details; give me wings to get to the point. Seal my lips from aches and pains. They are increasing, and love of rehearsing them is becoming sweeter as the years go by. I dare not ask for grace enough to enjoy the tales of others’ pains, but help me to endure them with patience.

I dare not ask for improved memory, but for a growing humility and a sureness when my memory seems to clash with the memories of others. Teach me the glorious lesson that occasionally I may be mistaken.

Keep me reasonably sweet; I do not want to be a saint – some are hard to live with – but a sour old person is one of the crowning works of the devil.

Give me the ability to see good things in unexpected places, and talents in unexpected people. And give me, Lord, the grace to tell them so.


You couldn’t have guessed this was the end of an era

It would seem, from the opinion of archaeologists and other experts, that the earliest people living on Orkney go back over 5,000 years.

It also seems likely that those people, apart from hunting and fishing, grew grain. This grain is believed to have been a form of bere, or corn as we call it locally, a version of barley grown in our islands until recent times.

I was thinking, it might also be reasonable to assume people have lived on North Ronaldsay for probably as long as on the Orkney Mainland.

Over all those years, until 2005, one could argue that grain, of one sort or another, has been grown, harvested and re-sown on this island.

Some barley is produced today for silage, but no longer are sheaves built into stacks, brought inside and thrashed to supply grain for another year’s crop.

No longer do we hear the thud of the mill engine nor the hum of the high-speed drum as it thrashes the sheaves.

This break in the island’s long history of farming practices does have a ring of finality about it.

To cease something that has gone on for thousands of years without a break is a thought and a milestone in our history.

I suppose that in the evolution of agricultural methods, the ‘saaing cubbie’, sickle, scythe, reaper, binder and baler, and, more recently, silage-making and so on, constituted milestones.

Yet, to have sown seed by hand until 2004 – however old fashioned and unprogressive it may have been – continued a very long historical tradition.

The other night, I was reading through some of my late father’s diaries – in particular the year 1962.

It might be interesting to mention an entry or two and see what was happening 43 years ago around the harvest time of year.

On September 6, he mentions taking out the binder and beginning to cut corn. Oats was the main crop and by the end of September the cutting was finished.

By October 10 the leading, or taking in and building the crop into stacks, was completed. He says that a total of 21 stacks were built at Antabreck with five at Napp (an additional small croft).

Another farm, Cruesbreck, where my uncle lived, was also helped, and though he doesn’t mention the total number of stacks built for 1962, the total for 1964 was 48 stacks. The number in 1962 would have been similar.

Next came the lifting of the tatties, with the resulting 60 sacks being put up on dykes to dry before taking in and sorting.

Then, on October 19, leading at Holland farm, followed a day later by six loads of dung put out on the shift at ‘Danald’s dyke’ – Donald Thomson was a previous owner of Antabreck.

A further seven loads emptied the middens and on October 23 he began to plough ley. By the end of the month, all of Antabreck’s animals were in their winter quarters and on November 2, the first stack of corn was brought into the barn for thrashing, and on that night the island’s harvest home took place.

At the end of the month, corn was being steeped for the making of malt. Later, the steeped corn was spread out on the barn’s loft floor, previously swept and washed for the purpose.

Thus began the process, which would culminate in the making of the North Ronaldsay home brewed ale and the subsequent great Yule celebrations.

Well, folks, all of this brings me to our harvest home which took place in the Memorial Hall, on October 28.

Upwards of 90 attended the event, with many coming to the island by courtesy of Loganair – all friends and relatives to boost our numbers, with six of those coming from as far afield as Cornwall, Banbury, Aberdeen and Elgin.

Guest speaker was Robbie Fraser who was accompanied by his wife Eileen, and the Grieve Family from Rousay – Athol, Ellen, James and Kirsty – had been invited to provide music for the dance, giving our local players a break. Evelyn Gray, the North Ronaldsay Community Association’s president, welcomed the guests and company.

She thanked all the folk who make the evening possible and hoped that the harvest home would be greatly enjoyed.

I then gave a report on the Memorial Hall. Tarring and minor repairs had been carried out. Two new windows remain to be bought and installed (five were fitted last year). Mention was made of the absence of new sheaf decorations; only a token number had been saved from 2004.

Stowers, a type of long, reed grass which grows in the vicinity of loch areas, was used very successfully instead. The person who suggested such a convenient alternative remains unnamed.

Suffice it to say that this individual, apart from trying with difficulty to keep me on my toes with my farming efforts, even comes up with ideas for decorating.

In the past, stowers or bent was used extensively and very satisfactorily, to build in binders and other farm implements to protect them from the weather, rather than housing them in a shed when such storage space was not always available.

It was also used, and still is at one farm, to thatch roofs. The rough grass is cut and made into sheaves and gives good protection.

There are still sufficient straw simmans for a year or two – rolled into large balls they survive for a while. But what then? Shall we be like Robbie Fraser, who, as you will see, went back for fun to the old ways?

After the supper, which included native mutton, cold cooked meats and clapshot, followed by cheesecake and cream, with tea and cakes to finish, Radio Orkney’s Robbie was invited to deliver his harvest home tribute.

Robbie Fraser, seated left, was the guest speaker at this year's North Ronaldsay harvest home. (Picture: Marion Muir)

He began by saying how pleased he and his wife were to be present. He went on to say how the harvest work had changed greatly over the years.

Today, with good weather, a four-day spell could complete the harvesting.

He described how, at their farm in Rendall, they had grown around two acres of oats and had harvested it in the old fashioned way – binder, stooks and some small ‘disses’. This work had been great fun, with neighbours helping.

Among other observations, he mentioned that 2005 had been a difficult year, with a poor summer and prices down at the mart – £180 or so less per stot.

He hoped that next year would bring better weather and better prices. Drawing to a close, he said that we were here to celebrate the harvest of the year – whatever people’s efforts had been. Robbie then proposed the toast to the harvest.

Tables and dishes were quickly cleared away before the Grieve band played for the first dance – the favourite Strip the Willow.

At least three were danced throughout the evening. If ever one wants to liven up the proceedings, announce a Strip the Willow and speed up the tempo.

More dances followed with the well-sprung wooden floor crowded with dancers.

Later, a raffle (run for the benefit of the Memorial Hall’s funds) consisting of a watercolour and numerous other prizes was held.

An excellent sum of £295 was raised. Robbie Fraser, returning in splendid form to his old job as an auctioneer, sold a second watercolour for £315. This brought the total amount raised to a magnificent sum of over £600. Tea, sandwiches, and homebakes were served during the break.

Jen Smith, Alison Duncan, Sandra Tulloch and Ella Henderson enjoy the dancing at the North Ronaldsay harvest home. (Picture: Kevin Woodbridge)

On went the dance in great style with the band and dancers stepping up the tempo.

Four sets of an Eightsome Reel, danced madly as if by whirling dervishes, fairly shook the floor before the last dance was announced.

By 2.30am, it was time for Auld Lang Syne. The memorable evening was brought to a close with hot soup, sandwiches and more native mutton.

That is how, for the 15th year since returning to the old venue of the Memorial Hall for this special event, we celebrated the North Ronaldsay Harvest Home.

As we left the hall, well after three in the morning, the night was quite beautiful. There was a warm wind from the southward and a starry sky was dominated by the Milky Way which glowed brightly across the velvety blackness.

In the east, not far above the horizon, the crescent moon, still cast a little light across the eastern sea.


I was going to say that for a while, we have been enjoying an Indian summer and even as I write, on November 6, the weather for this time of year has been wonderful.

I have just come in from a little walk in the mirking. The sky, rose coloured across the southwest in the afterglow of the sunset, is almost clear except for a few dark purple clouds here and there.

The new moon, crescent shaped just like as on the harvest home night but now rising in the southern sky instead of setting in the east, is quite beautiful.

She will soon disappear, but, for the moment, her luminous, orange-coloured light seems like a lantern just above the horizon. No stars are as yet visible though Mars is a reddish light in the east and the darkening, grey-blue sea seems cold and far away.

By the way, the harvest home tidying-up-day fairly had the helpers in sparkling form, and dancing when finished, with as much enthusiasm as on the night before.

And then, at another venue, celebrations continued until the early hours, finishing with a rather spectacular and furiously-danced Eightsome Reel. The dancers, I’m sure, would have held their own with the fearsome performers in the churchyard at Alloway made famous by Rabbie Burns.

Yes, we certainly had a great harvest home weekend!

Times they are a-changing as school head Patricia bids farewell to North Ronaldsay

This last few days seem like a belated Indian Summer and very acceptable and pleasant it has been.

Yesterday, October 6, the North Ronaldsay Primary School held an open day, and today the holidays begin for the October break.

How very fine it is to have a week or more clear from school midway between summer and winter. I’m trying to remember if, in my school days – some 60 years ago – there were mid-term holidays.

I seem to recall what we called the ‘tattie holidays’ but can’t at the moment get my memory to come up with any clear-cut recollections – a sign, no doubt, of advancing old age.

Talking for a moment about tattie holidays, today, there are very few crofts on the island with this particular crop, and I suppose it would be difficult to justify a school break.

But “Times they are a -changing,” in the words of the Bob Dylan (or is it Woody Guthrie) song.

Anyhow, I was out in the land the other day helping, with others, to gather our next door neighbour’s tatties. Many hands make light work, and in a couple of grand days the job was lightsomely completed.

But to get back to the end of term day. The weather was beautiful with almost summer sunshine and warm southerly winds. A good turnout came to enjoy the school’s open day.

The occasion this time was rather special and perhaps a little sad at the same time, as this open day marks Patricia Wilson’s retirement from teaching – a nice way indeed to end her ten years’ work as head teacher at the island school.

The main hall (partly curtained off) was light and airy with the afternoon sunshine streaming in through the windowed doorways.

Craftwork was the main theme, with many items for sale. This time the venture was run under the banner of The Old Lighthouse Enterprise (small business experience project).

Some of the work was not for sale, such as felt creations, and some beautiful fabric paintings. The travelling art teacher, Christina Sargent, had helped with this artistic work.

The pupils had also attended a class at Andrew Appleby’s pottery (Fursbreck Pottery), where, under Andrew’s supervision, each had thrown a small bowl and very attractive they were. Andrew had donated one of his own pieces to the school.

On the walls were photographs of the pupils visiting the Corrigall Farm Museum where they made simmans, ground corn by hand and thrashed some sheaves with the old fashioned flail.

In addition, during the term, there were regular swimming lessons; varied activities at the Pickaquoy sports centre and a visit to the Orkney Science Festival.

The four pupils, Heather Woodbridge, Duncan Gray, Cameron Gray and Gavin Woodbridge each had a stand selling their unique creations: pot-pouri; jewellery (bead rings and pendants) made from locally polished stones; multicoloured coasters and small brightly coloured items (fimo models); and woven bracelets and scoubidou pendants. Almost everything sold.

Particia mentioned how hard her pupils had worked on the project and, in fact, all year at their studies and how talented they were.

All had won certificates for their good behaviour and hard work, each being presented with their individual certificates and a gift voucher.

Patricia went on to say that Heather Woodbridge was the primary six winner (Orkney schools) of the best design for Pudsey Bear (Children-in-Need competition) subsequently engraved on a set of glasses and a decanter. The set was then auctioned in Kirkwall for Children-in-Need.

Duncan Gray, captain of the ‘Kirkwall A’ rugby team and winner of a number of medals for his playing skills, was praised for his efforts, as was his brother Cameron, who also travels to Kirkwall to play.

An impressive winning trophy was on display which will shortly have the team’s own engraved shield attached. Duncan, as captain of the rugby team, is allowed to have the trophy for a time.

Gavin Woodbridge was also mentioned, a pupil who has his own special talents, and pre-school pupil, Ronan Gray, who had perfect attendance with good behaviour, was not forgotten.

End of an era as North Ronaldsay school head Patricia Wilson (back row second from the right) bids farewell to pupils past and present. Joining her are, back row, from the left: Cameron Gray (P4), Duncan Gray (P5). Heather Woodbridge (P7), Joni Craigie and Louis Craigie. Front row, from the left are: Ronan Gray (pre-school), Lilly Gray( Nursery in '06), Gavin Woodbridge (P4) and Lorna Tulloch. (Picture: Marian Muir)

Patricia went on to thank everyone connected with the school. All had helped in one way and another to make her ten years on North Ronaldsay so enjoyable. Her four pupils then presented their own farewell gift – a beautiful framed photograph of the New Lighthouse taken by Marion Muir.

Tea with all sorts of homebakes was then served to complete a most pleasant afternoon.

A day or two has passed. This morning, Saturday, after a night of continuous rain, I flew into Kirkwall by Loganair in order to attend the opening of Bryce Wilson’s exhibition held in the Orkney Museum. That was enjoyable.

How nice it is to see this artist able to be painting again now that he has retired from his demanding post as museums officer.

By the late afternoon the grey skies had cleared, and it was a pleasure to drive through part of the Mainland in sunshine with the wonderful changing colours that Orkney is so famous for.

I suppose one could spend a week or two just travelling on the Mainland never even speaking of the islands. Imagine spending almost a lifetime without getting round to doing such things.

Now I’m back in North Ronaldsay and just home from Patricia Wilson’s farewell party which took place in the New Centre. I’m beginning, well past the ‘heuld’, to make a start to writing up the occasion.

Evelyn Gray, the new president of the community association, welcomed everybody and invited Gerald Morris to show a laptop presentation of photographs taken by him and his wife June.

The selection covered a year on the island. It was enjoyable to be reminded of some of the sights and sounds of the passing months.

Evelyn then invited Penny Aberdein, service improvement officer. Orkney Education Department, and link officer for North Ronaldsay, to speak.

Firstly, Penny introduced Heather Woodbridge (the eldest pupil) who played a farewell piece for Patricia on her violin.

Penny continued, explaining how she was attending this special event on behalf of the education department.

In her speech, she was profuse in her praise of Patricia’s contribution to teaching on the island; how she had given her pupils many opportunities to meet others of their age group by travelling to the Orkney Mainland.

There, the pupils had experienced and learned much about so many aspects of Orkney’s life and history along with active participation in all sorts of educational activities.

Penny went on to say how much she had enjoyed coming out to the North Ronaldsay School and wished Patricia a happy retirement.

She then presented Patricia with a framed Certificate of Excellence from the education department for her ten years service as head teacher.

In my further tribute to Patricia, as a former member of the community association, I noted her great support for community events; her supply of wonderful homebakes for every possible function – even sometimes when she was not on the island; the much enjoyed end of term open days; her contribution to the religious aspect of island life; the many school concerts and other presentations where she made use of her musical talents, both as a singer and accompanist, to inspire her pupils.

Evelyn, on behalf of the island, then presented Patricia with beautiful gifts: a Freda Bayne cushion woven of wool from the native sheep; a rug also made from the same unique wool, and earrings by Sheila Fleet.

Drinks were then raised in a toast, proposed by Evelyn, wishing Patricia a happy retirement.

In her reply, Patricia said how much she had enjoyed her ten years on the island; how she would especially remember her pupils and the joy they had brought her; the many community events over the years; how she had enjoyed the privilege of getting to know the island and its people and the friendliness shown.

She mentioned the efforts that were being made to revitalise the island and how she hoped we would succeed; how she would be following the progress of her pupils and the community as the years passed. Finally, she thanked the island for the wonderful gifts she had received.

With those pleasant proceedings at an end, tea was served along with all sorts of delicious things to eat: sandwiches, pies, shortbread and home-bakes. For a little longer folk relaxed and talked, having enjoyed a memorable evening.

To finish this letter I go back to the school’s open day. As I left on that sunny afternoon I was reminded of past times – some 60 years ago when I attended the school.

I walked over what remains of the old playground, remembering exciting battles fought between ‘soothyard’ and ‘northyard’ (either ends of the island), when we used ‘bombs’ made of firmly tied long grass; of games of rounders and lea-o-ley and other games for the moment forgotten.

Then I walked down the south school brae where I once travelled all those years ago.

For a short time I was a ‘soothyard’ person as my home was at Cruesbreck, where I was born, on the south side of the island. Then I became a ‘northyard’ resident as the family moved to a new home in ‘Link-lis-toon’ (Linklet toon) – a northyard toonship. So now I was to battle for fun with my former colleagues!

A little down the brae, as I retraced my steps, I stopped to look at the old school well with its little protective dyke.

There the cast iron pump stands unused but remarkably, almost unchanged. Often pupils would be asked to bring water in a galvanised pail for the classroom.

Down the familiar brae I walked but the landscape is missing the many oats and corn stacks that took one’s eye at this time of year, and the prominent building of the island’s mill, working when I was living at Cruesbreck (and for a time afterwards) is now silent and empty. Still, the houses are there. Four are nicely renovated in keeping with the island, with three harbouring new islanders. Others are derelict with their inhabitants long gone.

Now, I turned north. Along the road verges silver weed in autumn colours of orange and dull silver decorated the roadways. A few tattered sow thistles, past their prime, sadly hung their heads.

All of a sudden a golden plover flew swiftly past, and in the distance I could hear the piping of the curlew – or as we call them the ‘whap’.

Before long I had arrived at the stone-built ‘turlie stile’ (once a turning gate) now rebuilt to the east of the new tarmac road.

For many years it was the way up the north school brae – though there was also an ordinary small gate.

Many a time we all climbed over its stone steps as many generations of scholars (as the old folk called them) before us had done, making our way to school up the grassy path.

A nearby stream still runs as it used to do coming from hilly ground to the west.

Well, when last I wrote it was the time of the harvest moon, in another good week it will be the hunter’s moon.

It is chilly outside and the sky is dark but clear. Stars are twinkling brightly with the plough dominating the northern sky, and I can hear the west sea sounding behind Antabreck in the south-westerly wind.

I was just thinking about some of what I have been saying. Yes, as I mentioned earlier, “Times they are a-changing”.

Musing and memories of the old hairst moon

Tonight is the night of the full moon but she has been hiding in a cloudy sky for most of the evening.

A couple of nights ago she looked absolutely beautiful. Occasionally dark clouds might sail past, momentarily hiding her face and sometimes rainbow colours would appear nearby just before she came into view again, but later the sky became a sort of misty grey in which the moon swam ever fainter.

I happened to be out in the night for a spell. From time to time a solitary teewup would give a lonely cry as it flew away, invisible in the night.

A few days ago it was mid-hairst day – 15th September.

The old saying was “Cut green or grey on mid-hairst day.” In other words, even though crop might not be ripe it was the time of year to shear.

Well, I was remembering the old adage and also that we are now in the phase of the harvest moon.

I have to say that in the moonlight the other night and hearing the cry of the solitary teewup I felt rather sad, in as much as this year there is no hairst work to do – no clickety-clack of the old binder, no sheaves, stooks or stacks, nobody to come along and remind the island of past hairsts.

I’m glad that two seasons ago (2003), knowing that, as I said at the time, the writing was on the wall, I set about composing a particular Letter from North Ronaldsay. In that letter I described the process of bringing out the binder, cutting the crop, stooking and leading with two or three peedie stacks being built.

I imagine that had I sown oats this year, the shearing would not have been much fun considering the great amount of rain that has fallen lately.

So at least I/we have been spared some unpleasant work.

But then one had to put up with such difficulties especially when, not so very long ago, so much of the island was cultivated and sown to the old-fashioned Orkney bere and oats. I say not so long ago but really we are talking of 40 years or more ago.

What is missing is the lightsomeness of it all – because along with the bad days there were the good days. And, as I have often described before, there were the days when one helped others to complete the harvest work. It was a type of enjoyment that I do not think we will ever experience or share again in quite the same way. Only for a few will those memories remain of a way of life, it seems, now gone.

Well, this has been a disappointing summer in terms of weather, but otherwise we have had a very busy and varied social life.

First, the three-day Folk Festival, with workshops, talks, a dance, bonfire, barbecue etc.

Then the opening of the North Ronaldsay Archive exhibition with another dance to follow when 14 folk celebrated special birthdays. A wreath was placed at the War Memorial on that occasion.

This was followed by another entertaining week-end with a concert and dance and the first open North Ronaldsay six-mile road run and, because of the inclement weather, an indoor barbecue (operated in a lee doorway).

A sale of work in aid of the North Ronaldsay Trust also took place. I was spared having to write up accounts of the first and last (written by others) but managed the second event.

Of the three dances – one in the New Centre with the other two in the Memorial Hall – the last was a really great night and as good a dance as we’ve had for some time. I suppose upwards of 90 folk participated with a great proportion being in the younger age group. All were very enthusiastic – visitors, islanders, relatives on holiday, and returning islanders alike.

Everybody simply got up and jigged away the night long.

Now that makes for a really good dance. The band: Three in a Bar – Fran Gray, Lesley MacLeod and Hamish Bayne, were in great form – and Hamish in fine voice as he sang a song or two. No amplification required just swinging music in an old hall full of atmosphere, decorated with balloons, bunting and evergreens; good acoustics and a grand dance floor and a chance for older folk to discoorse and enjoy themselves.

What else can I tell you? I think I will have a look outside and see how the old hairst moon is faring – what’s more it’s well past the “heuld” (never mind, I painted a few windows during the day). The sky is overcast but there is, along the southern horizon, a curious luminous light which at least tells me that the moon is certainly still to the fore.

Recently, at the New Centre, we enjoyed an Orkney Science Festival evening, when Anne Sinclair from the Fair Isle gave an illustrated talk about her native isle. She spoke about shipwrecks, island life and the famous Fair Isle knitting.

As well as Anne’s contribution, a Slovenian speaker, Katarina Juvancic, gave a talk about traditional music and its importance to a people’s culture. As her theme she took Slovenian and Scottish/Orkney folk songs. She both played recordings of, and sang, a number of traditional songs.

After a lengthy question and answer session the two speakers performed together a song from Foula. There was an excellent attendance and to end the evening tea and biscuits were served.

On another fine day a group of us tarred the Memorial Hall in addition to doing a few repairs. That was fun, and more fun was had with a dram or two or three when the workers enjoyed a well earned spread of sandwiches, cake etc.

John o’ Westness was in fine form with some particularly amusing stories from the old days.

Finally, a small group of folk from the Orkney Archaeological Trust came out for a few days to investigate an area next to the Broch of Burrian (excavated by Dr W. Traill in 1870/71).

Owing to part of the surrounding sheep dyke having been severely damaged by winter storms, sheep had gained unhindered access to the monument. Their damaging activities had exposed a few artefacts in an area (it was thought) of discarded material from the original excavations.

June Morris took this photograph of the dyke builders at work below Burrian broch.

After careful research a number of additional items emerged: some bone needles; bones of various animals (yet to be identified); a painted stone with Pictish symbols; part of a whalebone; and part of a bone comb.

In addition, the area east of the broch was found to be far more extensive than first thought. This was discovered with the use of a magnetometer which identifies minute quantities of magnetic material – such as burnt residues, which in turn indicates human activity and, therefore, probably more settlements

The main part of the damaged dyke was rebuilt later with a few islanders helped by a number of visitors from the bird observatory including the team from the archaeological trust.

Drs Gerald and June Morris, Howar, owners of the ground on which the broch is situated, kindly served drams and sustaining chocolates to the dyke-builders.

What would the old men have thought? I’m very sure they would not have said no to the fine whisky. The broch is once more protected (at least until the next storm to hit that area) and should recover its protective covering of natural grass in time.

Before the research team left, a well-attended gathering at the bird observatory enjoyed a short talk on the monument’s history and an account of the work carried out. This talk was given by the team leader, Paul Sharman. Photographs were shown and items found were on display.

It was nice to meet up with my school classmate Dr Marion Chesters (nee Tulloch, Kirbest) after the great birthday celebrations (mentioned earlier) and her husband John who is also a doctor. Both are interested in Orkney’s archaeology and were out from the Mainland to help with the work.

I’m finishing this letter on one of those silvery grey mornings with the sunlight filtering through a scattered canopy of high cloud. Pale blue and greenish patches of sky add a bit of colour here and there. The wind is southerly and the day is mild though I think that change is on the way.

Contrary to my idea that the teewup, or lapwing, is a solitary bird at this time of year, I counted 30 or so wapping this way and that, calling to one another as they flew – maybe this was just a back-end get-together!

Flame-coloured montbretia adds a bit of colour to my very limited front garden and a peedie wren has just flown over the dyke. Starlings are chuckling on the chimney enjoying this peaceful morning, and a few of my kye are having a rest as they chew the cud.

Well, I have some more windows and doors to tackle so I shall have a cuppa, as Mary o’ Burray used to say, before I begin.

I hope maybe tonight the old hairst moon will be up in the eastern sky – sad memories though she will bring me. I think she too will be a little disappointed not to see an old-fashioned oats stack or two (actually there is one stack – a loose hay stack made, and build in the traditional way at my late father’s old home not far away) but there we are.

Oh, I’ve just heard the honking of geese and I have counted some 80 or more flying south in an ever-changing vee formation, and the sun has just come out with a freshening wind which is making the montbretia take to a spot of dancing.

A memorable day in more ways than one

Well over 100 years ago, the camera recorded a surprising amount of what took place, and, of course, the camera captured images of people who lived all those years ago.

Then there is the written material – letters, records, documents, books etc, all of which give an understanding of how people lived and worked; how they thought, and how their lives influenced the times in which they lived, and vice versa.

The ongoing collection of that material, and the later recording technology and its availability creates an archive – a place for us and others to learn about our past.

Today, in North Ronaldsay, for example, there are a few folk around who are – so to speak – living archives; folk who remember events and characters or stories told, as long ago as before the turn of the 20th century and of more recent times.

From day-to-day one hears such tales. From them we learn about the island’s history. Sometimes the accounts are amusing but they are also informative.

Those who remember and relate this information are only here for a short time. When they pass on, only a little will be remembered by the next generation.

That will be so, and especially today since technology, both in farming, day-to-day living, and in the world of modern media development, all contribute to the loss of the oral tradition. That is why some record of our history should be preserved for future generations.

One of a number of Millennium ideas submitted by the island was the North Ronaldsay Archive Project.

This project was successful, and on Saturday, July 23, an exhibition in the New Church showing what the archive project means – its aims and progress to date – was officially opened.

Kathleen Scott, archive project co-ordinator, welcomed a company of between 60 and 70 gathered in the New Church, where the exhibition had been mounted.

The work displayed – photographs, maps and information albums – stretched through the main of the church, into the entrance hall and session house.

Kathleen explained briefly how the archive project – a project under the auspices of the North Ronaldsay Heritage Trust – had come about.

Laying a wreath at the war memorial, from the left, are: John Cutt, John Tulloch, Eileen Eton and Sinclair Scott. (Picture: Fraser Dixon)

She explained how the archives would eventually contain a wide range of information including archaeology, prehistory, education, religion, lighthouses, shipwrecks, culture, language and natural history, and that key elements would be digitised.

She went on to say that many people, too numerous to mention here, both at home and abroad, are currently involved in the archive project.

Special thanks go to Alison Fraser, chief archivist, Orkney Library, and her staff, David Mackie, Colin Rendall, Lucy Gibbon and Sarah Grieve and to Roddie Hibbert, Mabel Grieve and Mary Anne Fotheringhame.

Special mention was also made of help from the Orkney Museum and Grainshore Training Centre who fabricated the professional display stands for the exhibitiion.

Funding for the Archive Project had been provided by the OIC development fund, the Esmee Fairbairn Charitable Trust, the Robertson Trust, Orkney Enterprise and SCRAN-RLS.

Cameron Taylor, of Orkney-based consultants, Seabridge, prepared all the applications for funding and Northstar New Media, in Stromness, digitised all the material sent to SCRAN.

After this introduction, Kathleen invited Councillor Sinclair Scott to speak.

He began by saying: “Basically, the Millennium project was the brainchild of a number of people, one of whom was Howie Firth.

“The project was a great idea . . . it has benefited Orkney in all sorts of ways in different places.

“North Ronaldsay has been successful with two applications, one being the archive project – a project which would go on for years – and the other the erection of bird hides.

“The council, I hope and believe, is going to have another project with a similar fund to be set up. The announcement, once the councillors have finalised the system, should be made sometime this year.

“Such projects will attract great assets to Orkney from people outside Orkney who give grants and so on.”

Sinclair finished by saying how pleased he was to see so many folk present.

Alison Fraser was invited to speak.

She began by saying: “I’m really impressed with what I’m seeing. I’ve been watching and seeing it through Beatrice Thomson’s work.

“She has been coming to the archives two or three times a week and I’m really impressed with what she has done.

“A lot of material here is held in the archives in Kirkwall and it’s really good to see it in its original context where local people have much easier access.”

Roddie Hibbert’s contribution was also acknowledged as he scrolls through newspapers alerting Beatrice to anything relating to North Ronaldsay.

Alison finished by congratulating everybody who had been involved with the project.

Kathleen then asked Howie Firth to speak and open the archive project officially.

Howie began by describing the origin of the Millennium money when he was a councillor. He spoke of how, initially, £500,000 was the sum mentioned. Howie’s fellow councillor, and great friend, John Brown, proposed £2 million and it was accepted without more ado. This money, he said, has done great things for Orkney.

He continued: “The past is not another country, it is actually another dimension of the country we all live in.”

Last night (having a preview of the exhibition) an hour went by, Howie said, and he was only half way through a folder.

“The past is not a distant place. The people in the photographs were here and now, the exhibition was taking me into their lives, and their lives and my life was joining at the one time. I felt that other people were in the church and I was among them – and you see them here in the photograph.

“The past is another dimension of the present, and we can access it very easily, if we try – when it matters to us, we begin to investigate.

“Just as the past is not another country but another dimension of the country we live in, and just as that past becomes alive when we investigate it, in the same way an understanding and knowledge and research into the past is the basis for the future.”

Howie then mentioned how people – especially young people – are rediscovering their own culture.

He mentioned the heart, soul and spirit of a place which he sees in North Ronaldsay.

The exhibition and other events happening in the island were proof of this, and he thought the future for the island was both exciting and positive.

Finally, he said how it was a great honour and privilege to be asked to open the exhibition. After a round applause wine was then served.

Shortly afterwards, people proceeded to the War Memorial to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, where Sinclair Scott, Cruesbreck, played the lament.

John Tulloch, Senness, veteran of the Burma campaign, laid the wreath of poppies and, after the two-minutes silence, John Cutt, Gerbo, recited the familiar verse by Laurence Binyon, beginning with the words, “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old…”

Later in the evening, folk arrived at the Memorial Hall for a video presentation called An Orkney Symphony and it proved to be a most enjoyable, well filmed, visual mosaic of the Orkney Islands.

Immediately afterwards, substantial drams were served by a number of folk who had, in this year of 2005, reached milestones in their lives.

Soon a really swinging dance got under way with toe-tapping music being played by Ruby Manson and Tom Newlands, from Stromness.

Taking advantage of the evening were the lively birthday folk who had, in one way or another, reached milestones in their lives,

Celebrating various landmarks, from the left:Ian Scott, Mary Ann Thomson, Kathleen Scott, Billy Swanney, Mina Tulloch, Sidney Ogilvie, Jenny Tulloch and Howie Firth. (Picture: Fraser Dixon)

There were four 60-year-olds: Eileen Eaton (nee Tulloch, Scottigar), Kathleen Scott, South Ness, pupils together at the local school in the 50s. Sandra Mawson, Roadside, a relatively recent new islander, was the third 60-year-old, with our familiar Howie Firth making the fourth ‘milestone person’. Howie was up in Orkney on Science Festival business.

Then, of the island’s 1940 class of five, now all in their 65th year, there was Mary Ann Thomson (formerly South Ness), David K. Scott (formerly North Manse), Billy Swanney (formerly Phisligar), Marion Chesters (nee Tulloch, formerly Kirbest) and myself.

Two others – new islanders or not so new since they have been living here for some years now -Sydney and Anne Ogilvie, Cursiter, brought that age group to seven.

Next came the three 70-year-olds, again island classmates: Helen Swanney, Trebb, Oliver Scott, North Manse and Bessie Muir, (nee Scott, formerly Cavan).

Still more birthday folk are to be mentioned, for present also were two of our more senior islanders. They were Mina Swanney, Cott, in her 80th year, and Jenny Tulloch, Scottigar, who will be 85 before the year is out. With over 90 of a company present, a great cake cutting ceremony eventually took place and much fun was had when a beautifully-decorated, iced cake, baked by Evelyn Tait, Kirkwall, was cut by Mina and Jenny with the rest of the birthday folk providing support and encouragement.

On went the dance with Strip the Willow, an Eightsome Reel, Palais Glide, Pride o’ Erin and so on.

A special birthday cog prepared by Jean Tulloch, Kirkwall, (formerly Upper Linnay), made the rounds through the evening, served by first one birthday pair and then another. Traditional fare was also served as the night progressed.

Ian Deyell and Arthur Cowie supervised the raffle which brought in £147 for the North Ronaldsay Heritage Trust – one of whose commitments is the preservation of the Old Memorial Hall.

So went the night, until, between two and three in the morning, and with the singing of Auld Lang Syne, this memorable day’s events came to a close. Association members, who had organised the evening and attended to their usual duties, finally helped to serve hot soup.

Outside the dawn was beginning to light up a cold northerly sky but the gods had indeed smiled favourably on this 23rd day of July, 2005.

All the ingredients for a heuld horn letter

I wonder if any person who read my last letter (June 2) got round to having a look at Walter Traill Dennison’s classic tale The Heuld Horn Rumpis, of which I made mention?

Well, I’ve decided to begin another letter on the heuld – or near that time (midnight) – simply for the fun of it and, furthermore, I am planning a heuld horn drink (a warm spirituous drink served at midnight) or as close to the mixture as will do.

Dennison mentions a recipe of gin and hot ale, highly spiced, which features so amusingly in the tale. I hasten to add that I’m not in the habit of drinking gin or dabbling in strange concoctions, but consider the experiment interesting.

I’m thinking too that I might continue with the letter and even finish it this very night.

I have done but little today, which partly explains my frame of mind; so I have ordered gin, and I aim to heat up some ale – sadly, not the real old North Ronaldsay ale, but something from a tin. (Actually, mulled ale, even commercially brewed, with a dash of sugar can be most pleasant.)

An occasional swig or more of the heuld horn, now and again as I’m writing, could be quite inspiring!

A heuld horn, incidentally, was made of horn and held a generous amount. I have just seen a note on the size of a horn: Dennison says, even a small one such as he had in his possession, measured three and a half inches in height, while the upper and lower diameters were three and a half inches, and two and a half inches, respectively.

And the local pronunciation of heuld – if I can make an attempt to explain the sound of the word – the ‘eu’ sound, as someone has said, is almost identical with the French, ‘eu’ as in ‘peur’.

I can think only of the vowel sound of ‘u’ in the words ‘ugly’ or ‘smug,’ that otherwise comes anywhere near the ‘eu’ in ‘heuld’.

Hugh Marwick gives quite a lengthy explanation of the word in The Orkney Norn. I am thinking now, though, that a few servings, such as of the size mentioned above, would put an end to any serious writing or much of anything else.

The little jenny wren, whose nest I mentioned in my previous letter, has now hatched out her family. While she was sitting, when I walked through the door nearby, she would tolerate a quick passage; but if I seemed to hesitate – even for a moment – out of the nest she would fly.

Sometimes I would try to see if she was in her cosy home. That involved a fraction of time longer when her little head would pop out with beady eyes watching me.

So her decisions about safety – whether to sit or leave the nest – she made in split seconds. Now, when I pass by two or three peedie opened beaks, yellow lined, appear and then as quickly disappear when they realise that I am certainly no jenny wren.

As to the family of ‘tee-wups’ that were running to safety when I was rolling – not personally you’ll understand – but flattening the ground with a tractor-pulled roller (some folk thought I was actually rolling about on the ground which would have been most amusing) they are not as yet flying but they’ve grown, and now run even faster with longer legs.

And then the peat (I said that not a peat has been turned at Antabreck this year: I meant, in the North Ronaldsay sense, the ploughing of the land). There are no peats in the island. To be a bit more accurate, and using the local dialect, a series of paets (spadefuls) would make a furrow, then a field. How else, ‘for heevens sake,’ could I have sown an acre or two of oats?

The ‘ae’ in paet, by the way, is pronounced as in the old Scots song Ae fond kiss.

Anyway, I do so like the cry of the lapwing or the ‘tee-wup’ in the spring and summer. In the autumn and winter those birds become more solitary, and often in the dark of a night they will, as one passes by, suddenly fly away with one sad cry.

No sign of my bottle of gin – my messenger is dilly-dallying. I’m afraid I’ll just have to bide my time.

Now then, the other day, when the wind was once more in the north, the air was as invigorating as the after-effects of sea spray upon one’s face; or the feeling one has after freshening up with a wash just before going out into the open air.

So spectacular and full of sunshine was the day, with summer-looking clouds rolling endlessly from the north, brilliantly white with purple and pink where the sun made shadows, that one could hardly but feel greatly exhilarated and absolutely alive.

Below this impressive sky, the sea was a blue of deepest intensity, sparkling with the white of broken water.

Such days bring back memories – a curious feeling of something that happened long ago.

Certainly, such a day, with the sea horses flying, would remind the old creel-men of thudding along in their famous praams with the salt spray sweeping the boat and her crew.

The sun would create rainbows which would stay with the boat on the starboard or portside according to the course being run. Ah, for such a day indeed.

It’s past the heuld. Can’t have this. I’m away for my heuld horn drink ingredients. As I set forth, Venus was bright in the south west, and further west, the new moon, crescent-shaped and rather beautiful, hung not too far above the western sea,

We’ve (who? where? – it’s already all round the island!) experimented with a heuld horn mixture, including some spices.

Quite interesting, and not to be trifled with I think – I tried a couple of glasses (no drinking horns at hand though I know there is one somewhere at Antabreck).

Now I’m back home and inside, as I write, but before coming in I looked round about the island.

As well as our lighthouse, another flashed to the west – Noup Head on Westray – and the Start lighthouse on Sanday threw forth her beams.

In the north, dark purple clouds sailed overhead, disappearing away south. Nearer the horizon, more elegant, darker clouds formed zig-zag patterns like carefully-drawn shapes seemingly unmoving, beyond the force of the wind. And then at another level – higher, near the crown of the sky – pale, ghostly clouds moved in unison with their darker companions.

It’s now well past the heuld. This is ‘waant o’ wut’ – without much sense.

As soon as my letter appears I shall hear some very critical comments about my activities – or lack of more important ones.

Never mind, let me see what is happening outside at this hour – coming on three in the morning.

The early dawn is in the sky, rose-coloured above changing cloud formations, which stretch like distant mountain peaks across the northern sky.

The wind is still in the same direction but the sky above is now clear and brighter than before.

I can hear in the distance the call of oyster catchers and of the ‘whap’ or curlew. Occasionally, a native ewe (brought in from the shore to feed on the grass for the lambing time) calls to her off-spring, and the sea is still dark and foreboding.

Willie Swanney, who lived at Verracott, North Ronaldsay, spreading dung in the early 1960s. (Picture: Mary A. Scott)

The first house I see in the brightening of the dawn, is Verracott (recently renovated and occupied from time to time).

There lived Willie whom I remember, a tall, arresting-looking man who still made use of his horse into the early 60s.

In his youth he worked for a time, as many young men from the island did, on Mainland farms and others in the North Isles.

I remember him once singing a snatch from the bothy ballad The Dying Ploughboy.

Further north, in fact the most northerly croft, Nether Linnay, is silhouetted against the cloudy background but it stands sadly, and rather lonely, with memories of past generations, as does Burray and others that I see which fit snugly into the island landscape.

Before coming in to finish this letter, I stood for a time with the north wind blowing in my face. There was the heavy hushing of the sea carried by the wind, with a line of white surf visible along the shoreline. The call of a bird here and there would sound across the land. This feeling, this turning of thought and memory to scenes from the past, would come again.

I knew that it was unlikely that any soul, save myself, would be out at this bewitching hour of the morning, which somehow made my contact in memory closer with those folks now gone.

It’s strange, but you know very often in one’s dreams, as an old Chinese poet said: “It’s there where once again we can meet up with those we once knew.”

But like most dreams, the seemingly very real happenings which at the moment of wakening seem so crystal-clear, just fade away like the rose colours of the early dawn.