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Archive for March, 2015

A Sun-eating Dragon or Why I won’t mind if it’s cloudy tomorrow morning

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Tomorrow, at about 8.30am, I will be standing at the Ring of Brodgar with like-minded souls, hoping to catch a glimpse of the sun being eaten by a dragon. Or a solar eclipse, as the scientists insist on calling it.

We are well-placed in Orkney to take advantage of this phenomenon, as the further north you go, the more of the earth will be cast into shadow by the moon. 96% of our natural light will be extinguished, and we will have night time in the middle of the morning. And if it’s cloudy….well, it won’t matter in the slightest.

In August 1999 Mr Dragon and I travelled to his home town in south Devon to witness the total solar eclipse. With a couple of pals we headed to Windwhistle Farm, and staked our pitch in a field overlooking the lovely River Dart. The media build-up had been extensive, and as well as the safety advice and instructions on how to make a pinhole thingy for viewing, there was talk of Bailey’s Beads and Diamond Rings and all sorts of magically-named things. Many of these phenomena depended on a sunny day, and we were to be disappointed in that respect. But the event itself was amazing: here’s why.

Firstly, the clouds went funny. They made strange, beautiful patterns, probably responding to the drop in temperature as ‘dusk’ started to approach.

Then all the insects came out, as the light levels were telling them that twilight was here and they should get busy.

Because all the bugs came out, so did the birds! Cue much swooping and diving as the swallows of Windwhistle Farm enjoyed a bonus snack in the middle of the day.

Strangest of all were the sheep. As the artificial dusk gathered, the sheep clearly took this as their cue to head for the edges of the field where they normally slept at night. Slightly confused, they set off for the stone walls, softly chewing. Then, when the path of totality hit them, they all stopped dead in their tracks and remained motionless until the light had returned.

In the meantime, we humans had caught glimpses of the sun through the cloud, and could see chunks being taken from the circle. It was also rather disturbing to see a long black line cutting across the landscape and heading our way – as the shadow of the moon fell onto the earth.

Cloudy or no, I know this much, it got bloomin’ dark and it was very exciting. On the opposite side of the river someone set off a firework.

After the eclipse was over, we headed back into town and I purchased a lovely silver ring which depicted the phases of a solar eclipse, made especially by a local jeweler for the occasion. Then, we went to a tearoom and had a huge cream tea. When in Devon, etc.

Another reason why it will not matter if it is cloudy tomorrow: the eclipse will give me an excuse to go to a stone circle. Of course, I could go there any time, and I drive past them frequently. I also take groups of tourists round. But I rarely go on my own account, for the fun of it – there’s always work to go to or studying to be done or admin for various other things I’m involved in.

At the Ring of Brodgar I will also hang out with some pals – always a nice thing to do (and likewise, probably something I don’t do enough).

It will give me the perfect opportunity to wear my eclipse ring AND my Ring of Brodgar ring.

Above all, I will be thinking of the people who built the stone circle thousands of years ago and wondering what they would have made of an eclipse. Was it the Gods speaking to them? Was it a punishment or a boon? Was it a sign of a good or bad year ahead? Either way, we will stand in the footsteps of our ancestors and look at the sky and wonder!

Enjoy the spectacle and stay safe.

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Gutters

Orkney has a rich heritage of fishing, as you might suppose of an island group. There is plenty of evidence that the prehistoric inhabitants took full advantage of the seas, and fish would have been a staple of the Vikings’ diet. It has often been said that the Shetlander is a fisherman with a croft, and the Orcadian is a farmer with a boat; and for the most part, Orkney has been predominantly an agricultural place. However, in the late 19th and early 20th century, the fishing came into its own as never before, or since.

For centuries, shoals of Atlantic herring would migrate around the top of the British Isles and make their way down the east coast of Scotland and England. From about 1880 onwards this became a huge industry and provided a boom time for many of the UK’s fishing towns and villages due to the ability to meet demand for the fish in Eastern Europe and Russia. The ‘silver darlings’ were chased from Stornoway in the Isle of Lewis, through Lerwick in Shetland, past Whitehall, St Mary’s and Stromness in Orkney, the Moray firth in north-east Scotland, Musselburgh, Tyneside, Grimsby, Hull, and all the way down to Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft on the Suffolk coast. The season lasted from early spring in the north to the autumn months in the warmer south, but in Orkney the season lasted roughly from about June to mid-August, and for those 8 weeks the islands would be heaving with boats, nets, barrel makers, fishermen, herring gutters, salt merchants, and the constant screeching of seagulls overhead. In Stromness, every pier and jetty and slipway became a gutting and curing station for the silver fish, and the work was relentless.

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The fishermen who caught the herring in their nets would drag them ashore and dump them in boxes on the piers, before heading back to their boats for sleep or more fishing. The boats might be the larger Zulu types, or they might be the yole-type with the sails brown through being steeped in bark to deter insects and prolong the life of the fabric. As the boats sailed south down the coast, they were followed on land by the womenfolk who traveled in trains, carts and charabancs, and slept in tents or lodging houses or sheds. These were the gutters – the lassies who processed the fish by cutting off the heads, scooping out the guts, and packing the fish tightly into barrels of salt. This preserved the fish for export, at a time before refrigeration. Herring are a fatty fish, so they need to be processed as fast as possible to prevent them rotting.

Along every pier and quayside would be set out dozens of long wooden trestle tables, and hundreds of wooden barrels. The women would cover their hair with headscarves and don large leather aprons before standing behind the tables and wielding a small, sharp knife. A herring gutter was not paid by the number of hours she worked, as would be the case today; she was paid by the number of barrels she could fill. Thus the faster she worked, the more money she earned. Working at high speed with a very sharp knife could be a perilous business, and fingers were occasionally lost. As the women were outside all day, their fingers could easily become very cold (even in summer), which made them not only more clumsy but could also lead to loss of feeling, and this numbness meant that they sometimes did not feel the knife slicing their hands until it was too late. To prevent this from happening, the women would tear up strips of cotton and use them to wrap round each finger, thus protecting them from knife wounds.

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There was a woman from Portknockie called Betsy Slater who was widely regarded as the champion of herring gutters. At the height of her powers she could gut over 60 herring in a minute – quite a feat! An old fisherman in Stromness explained to me that it was all in the way you held the knife – in one movement you sliced off the fish’s head and slit its belly, whilst with the ring and pinkie fingers of your right hand you scooped out the fish guts before throwing the entrails into a bucket and the herring into a barrel…then picked up another fish. All that in under a second! The lasses were often at work for 12-15 hours a day; whilst the fish were being landed, they had to be processed immediately.

Economically, the herring boom benefited Stromness in a number of ways. It gave employment to fishermen and herring gutters, but it also provided enough related work to support at least 3 boatyards and 7 coopers for making barrels. Lodging houses made money from gutters and boat captains, and the 30 or more pubs, taverns and ale houses that graced the main street would also have had cause to thank the silver darlings. The herring season added up to 5,000 people to the town’s population, and it was said that you could walk from one end of the harbour to the other on the 400 or so fishing boats, without getting your feet wet.

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It was the same in Great Yarmouth – the figures are astonishing. 1913 was a record year in Yarmouth; the records show there were 1163 boats using the port and over 1200 million (1,200,000,000) fish were caught! At its peak in the early 1900s Great Yarmouth’s population would increase by 10,000 during these two months. It will be no surprise to hear that the fish finger was invented, by Birds Eye, in Great Yarmouth.

I’ll confess at this point to a family interest. My great-grandfather was a fisherman, operating from a small village on the Moray Firth called Findochty. He followed the herring shoals each summer, and whilst he sadly never had a son live long enough to accompany him, he was blessed with four daughters, all of whom were expected to become herring gutters. My grandmother’s two eldest sisters worked ‘at the fishing’, and Nana said that on the occasions she saw them in action, there seemed to be a lot of laughing and singing and flirting with the fishermen. However, this light-hearted banter did not detract from the plain fact that it was gruelling work – long hours, filthy, smelly conditions and low wages. In fact, so unpleasant was the job, that my grandmother and her younger sister refused to do it. In the face of family pressure they both opted instead to go into domestic service; this, they decided, was a preferable career option! My grandmother eventually rose to the dizzy heights of becoming a live-in housekeeper to the man who invented the squeezy Jif Lemon, but that’s another story….

Whilst searching for songs to do with the herring industry, I found this fabulous film of two folk singers. The song is about herring gutting lassies, their journey south and the hardships they face. Here are the words, followed by a link to the song. Enjoy – preferably whilst eating a fish finger – and remember these amazing women.

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Come, a’ ye fisher lassies, aye, it’s come awa’ wi’ me,
Fae Cairnbulg an’ Gamrie an’ fae Inverallochie;
Fae Buckie an’ fae Aberdein an’ a’ the country roon,
We’re awa’ tae gut the herrin, we’re awa’ tae Yarmouth toon.

Rise up in the morning wi’ yer bundles in yer han’
Be at the station early or ye’ll surely hae to stan’,
Tak’ plenty tae eat, an’ a kettle fer yer tea,
Or ye’ll mebbe die o’ hunger on the way tae Yarmouth Quay.

The journey it’s a lang ane, an’ it tak’s a day or twa,
An’ fa’n ye reach yer lodgin’, sure it’s soond asleep ye fa’
But ye rise at five wi’ the sleep still in yer e’e
Ye’r awa’ tae fin’ the gutting yards along the Yarmouth Quay.

It’s early in the morning an’ it’s late intae the nicht,
Yer han’s a’ cut an’ chappit an’ they look an unco sicht;
An’ ye greet like a wean fa’n ye put them in the bree.
An’ ye wish you were a thoosand mile awa’ frae Yarmouth Quay.

There’s coopers there an’ curers there an’ buyers, canny chiels,
An’ lassies at the pickling an’ ithers at the creels,
An’ ye’ll wish the fish had been a’ left in the sea,
By the time ye finish guttin’ herrin’ on the Yarmouth Quay.

We’ve gutted fish in Lerwick an’ in Stornoway an’ Shields,
Worked along the Humber ‘mongst the barrels an’ the creels,
Whitby, Grimsby, we’ve traivelled up an’ doon,
But the place to see the herrin’ is the quay at Yarmouth toon.
Come, a’ ye fisher lassies, aye, it’s come awa’ wi’ me,
Fae Cairnbulg an’ Gamrie an’ fae Inverallochie;
Fae Buckie an’ fae Aberdein an’ a’ the country roon,
We’re awa’ tae gut the herrin, we’re awa’ tae Yarmouth toon.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K0Aeety5IGg

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The Dragon Returns

Hello folks, and welcome back. Sort of. Although this is a newly launched blog, it is actually the third incarnation of Stromness Dragon after the dearly-departed original BBC Island Blogging, and the independently hosted Island Blogging (also now defunct, set up and run by a fellow called Les who moved to Lewis).

Until something pops into my brain, I thought I would track down some of my old posts and stick them up. A revisiting of old glories for some, a brand new experience for others, and a way for me to edit out some of the more obvious howlers and any escapades which might compromise my *ahem* professional integrity.

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