Four years ago, I wrote this piece in response to the artwork Lullaby by Sheena Graham-George. Today I am going to see the follow-up piece Voices of the Cillin. 

Art, of course, is a subjective thing. We bring ourselves to it, and depending on our life experiences thus far, we might respond with anger, with joy, with amusement, with melancholy, or maybe with boredom or non-comprehension. I don’t think anybody could have responded with indifference to the art installation I saw today, because every single one of us was, or is, a child.
Lullaby, by Sheena Graham-George is at first glance a simple piece, comprising thousands of paper butterflies pinned to the wall of a first floor room in The Orkney Museum. They sweep around the room in a great swarm, high and low, crowded in some places, breaking away in others. The floor is bare, but the air is filled with sound; through a discreet speaker, a female voice sings an unaccompanied, wordless melody. I didn’t recognise the tune, but I would guess that it is an Irish lullaby.
The piece is inspired, you see, by a visit made by the artist to Ireland, to study the cultural phenomenon known as the cillìn burial grounds. These areas of unconsecrated ground, often hidden away on the wrong side of the churchyard wall, were the final resting place for unbaptised children, as well as suicides, shipwrecked sailors, and others of the dead who could not, for whatever reason, lie in holy ground.
Graham-George spent time seeking out these strange places, many of which are disappearing without trace. Because the burials were often unmarked, and memories fade, sometimes all that remains of these poignant spaces are dips in the ground, mounds of earth, or small unmarked stones. She discovered that mothers who gave birth to stillborn children would often be so ashamed that the burials would be carried out at night, and in secret, away from the judgemental eyes of society.
Running parallel to this sad tradition run the Irish folk tales, wherein the soul is represented by a white butterfly. Butterfly-souls that can cross into the otherworld can be found in many ancient belief systems, but in the case of Ireland, it applied particularly to the souls of dead children. These were the two themes – the cillìn, and the butterflies, that the artist brought together when she created this work.
The butterflies in Lullaby are between 1-3 inches wide, and are cut out of paper. Even if they had been plain white, the effect of them swarming joyously across the walls would have been powerful enough; but look closely and you discover that they contain text, and black and white illustrations. Drawn in to read the words, you find that they are all from classic works of children’s literature – Mary Poppins, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Peter Pan. These books are often the touchstones of our childhoods, and many of them are stories that engage with the magical, involving children that can enter different worlds, or enable them to have special powers, like the ability to fly. Pulled in by these echoes from past, my eyes were caught by the name Mary Lennox, character from one of my favourite childhood books, The Secret Garden. Mary’s garden was a place where she found joy and acceptance; the contrast with the resting places of the unbaptised children was heartbreaking.
Reading as many of the paper butterflies as I could before my eyes began to ache, it struck me that they were all utterly individual – no two were alike. Some were crammed with excited dialogue – others had a few simple words, or no words at all – just a pen and ink drawing of a small hand, or a tree, or a scruffy little dog. The differences between them gave every single one a personality; it was as if the creation of the butterflies had given all these children a voice of their own, at last.
This feeling of childhood recreated is also apparent in the way that the butterfly swarm flows across the wall. In some places they are crammed happily together, jostling for position whilst still surging forward. Others have broken free and are flying off to the edges of the room as if to explore this world of space into which they have been released. I stood back into an alcove, butterflies to the left and right and above me, and imagined them flitting by me, brushing my face with their paper wings.
All the while, the lullaby played; the same soothing, simply melody, over and over again. It could have been any mother, singing to any child, but the sound seemed very personal and intimate, helped perhaps by the fact that I was the only person in the room.
In the corner on the floor sat two wooden boxes of butterflies, unpinned and packed together. I picked a few up and looked at the rough cut edges, trying to work out how long it must have taken to make them; who did them? Did Sheena Graham George create them all, or did she enlist the help of small hands to help her? I had to resist the urge to take a handful and throw them into the air and watch them fall. I resisted too, the desperate need to put one in my pocket and take it home. I imagine that many women, and men, might feel the same; particularly those who have suffered the melancholy, pain and perceived shame of miscarriage, terminated pregnancies, stillborn children, or infertility.
I am not alone, it seems. The comments in the visitors book reveal how much the artwork has touched people – several were moved to tears, others found it soothing or calming. This beautiful, simple artwork commemorates little lost souls; and in doing so, it finally gives them a home.



It’s show week here in Orkney. It’s been a rubbish year so far farming-wise, and a couple of the shows have had to be cancelled due to water-logged showparks and beasts barely out of their byres. However, the weather gods eased off on the proto-winter stuff for the Dounby (properly the West Mainland) Show today; at 8.00am it was overcast and drizzling, but by lunchtime it had cleared up and the sun had come out, ready for the parade of champions. Opinion was expressed that it was a good turnout, everything considered.

The Thursday of Dounby Show day is a local holiday here, and the highlight of the social calendar for many farmers and their families. Two days later comes the culmination of the week, the County Show – usually attended by 10,000 plus people, nearly half the population of Orkney. The bigger shows, such as the Dounby and the County have fairgrounds, where young Orcadians can learn how to get rat-*rsed on cider and then throw up on their friends after a go on the waltzers. In years to come they will grow up to climb on new combine harvesters: thus traditions continue through the generations. The shows also have many more stalls, selling anything from inflatable spidermen to steak sandwiches, alongside tables fund-raising on behalf of Cats Protection, the RNLI and Orkney Archaeological Society.

However. Much as I enjoy the agricultural side of the shows……..the true glory, the jaw-dropping wonders, the inspirational pinnacles of rural achievement are, I believe, to be found in the Flower & Produce/Horticultural/Industrial shows which run alongside the coo stuff in a local school, church hall or community centre.


In times gone by the skills of the farmers’ wives would provide the family with meals made from the farm produce. Preserves would take care of the fruit; cakes and pies would ensure that a hungry working man had a piece for out in the field, dried herbs could be used in cooking during the winter months. Yarn too was put to good use – the shorn wool was spun by hand and knitted or woven into garments for the family. The home would be made jolly with decorative handcrafts and bunches of wild flowers. If you took pride in your abilities, and wanted to show the other farmers’ wives what you could do, and demonstrate skills to the young folk, what better platform could there be than the indoor event which ran alongside the one with the livestock? Thus we have the fabulous produce/industrial shows.


A year or two back I attended the County Horticultural Show in Kirkwall, and I was a bit disappointed. It was mostly minimal artistic flower arrangements, and a few ropey-looking runner beans. Turns out that the County do is a paltry affair, and the very best exhibits are held back for the more local shows like the Dounby Show.


For the first time ever, I got my act together to enter something (after 12 years of muttering ‘I could do that’); 10 green gooseberries on a plate, and a jar of blackcurrant jam. In preparation I bought a bonny plate (Clan charity shop, 50p), even though the schedule stipulated that they were not judging the berries on presentation. Having complete the paperwork (sealed envelopes, class and category clearly stated etc) I dispatched Mr Dragon at the appointed hour to take our produce to the Dounby Community Centre. The report came back about the competition: ‘other goosegogs look like peas but nicely presented on leaves’.

The event was officially opened by a local worthy (a church minister who sang a comic song), and the good folk of the West Mainland flocked into the hall to see what had been baked, grown, preserved, knitted, fermented, displayed and photographed this year.


First up, the cakes. Did you know there are rules for entry to the cake competitions? They have to be in circular tins, for a start (well, the Dounby ones did). The scones have to be no more than 12cm in diameter. But the most astounding thing is this……they have to follow the SAME RECIPE. Now I know many of you will be raising your eyes heavenwards and thinking ‘well obviously’. But this was news to me. No scouring recipe books for that perfect Victoria Sponge. No phoning auntie Beryl for secret ingredients tips. You have to purchase the Schedule some time before, and use only the ingredients listed for each cake. Some folk practice like mad, apparently – I suppose their nearest and dearest get the benefit. I wonder what would happen if you sneaked in an extra egg? D’you think they can tell?


We had a healthy debate about whether the cakes were actually eaten – my mother claims that down her way, the judges take a small sample from the underside of the cake to taste, and leave the top looking its best. For smaller cakes, we thought perhaps they make 6, and 1 gets eaten. I suspect it will be many years before I feel confident enough to attempt anything like a sultana loaf or an oven scone for a show. The baking section gets bigger every year, it seems to me. Everything from coconut ice to bere bannocks, strawberry tarts to shortbread rounds, oatcakes to gypsy creams. Nowadays the tables of goodies are covered in a protective film but I’m sure that back in the days of yore they were uncovered and at the mercy of every poking finger and explosive sneeze.


I could weep with a sense of inadequacy when I see the handicraft sections – these exhibitors have been knitting and crocheting and appliquéing for decades and by golly it shows. Star items for me this year were the gorgeous embroidered cloak and the knitted lace.


Then there’s the fruit and veg. Get a saucer. Put some shredded blue tissue paper in the middle. Surround the paper with 20 firm, plump redcurants. Sit back and reap the admiration of your peers and the judges. Or, find a handy wicker basket and, channelling Bert Fry and Jo Grundy, fill it with your finest cabbages and let a shaft of late afternoon sunlight play on the fresh green leaves. 2015 has been a poor year for the fruit and veg though, and even those with polytunnels or greenhouses have struggled to grow much worth the name. And yet here were shallots, lettuces, parsnips, all looking plump and fresh.

The most pleasure, I think, is to be had from the children’s sections. They have the best categories, the funniest entries, and the most imagination. I am delighted to see the return of the handwriting competitions, especially when the subject is a poem of the writer’s choosing. I’m a fan of all the recycled items, the floral arrangement in a toy (this year’s entries included a beautiful posy in a plastic slurry spreader) and the decorated chocolate digestive. And best of all – the vegetable animals. They always bring a huge smile to my face – this year was no exception.

IMG_3390 IMG_3391 IMG_3392

Moving away from the children’s section again, I must give a special mention to our neighbour Skip, who makes exquisite scale models of Orkney buildings. His entry (and worthy prizewinner) this year was a stone-and-slate model of St Magnus Church in Egilsay, complete with tiny funeral in progress; mourners, coffin, flowers, and open grave.


So now comes the moment of truth. Were the Dragon’s entries laughed out of the hall, or did they sweep all before them? Well……I got a Second Prize for my blackcurrant jam, and I was hugely pleased with that. But as we moved on from the preserves table to the fruit and veg section, two brightly-coloured cards caught my eye….a red one saying First Prize to Stromness Dragon for 10 green gooseberries! And even better, a yellow card declaring that they were the Best Exhibit in Fruit!!! Mr Dragon claims that he has done most of the soft fruit maintenance this year (ie weeding a bit and throwing a net over them). Fair enough, says I, but it was me who bought a bonny plate and actually bothered to enter them. So we have agreed to share the winnings, which comprise a bundle of tea towels and (I have only just discovered) a small cash prize.


As the sun sets on the 117th annual Dounby Show, the farmers of the West Mainland are enjoying a drink, having taken their animals home. I am heading for bed too, my winning certificate proudly displayed in the kitchen. I’ve taken the first step, with some success – so next year we will try our luck with wine, cordial, eggs, scones, rhubarb jam….there will be no stopping us!

This is an old post from a few years ago…but I have resurrected it as the annual Embers cricket match is to be played this Sunday (21 June) and this may inspire some of you to go along!

Crex Crex Cricket – a day of blood, sweat and cake in Sanday – 2012.

Test Match Special has never seen anything like it – what is believed to be the world’s most northerly regular cricket fixture took place last Sunday between Stromness Cricket Club and the club on the island of Sanday. At a latitude of 59 degrees, with a brisk easterly wind blowing across the school playing field, Lord’s it ain’t, but The Embers, as the match is known, provided a cracking day out in more ways than one.


The rag-tag-and-bobtail team (including Mr Dragon) assembled on MV Varagen at 9.00am as she set sail for one of the bonniest of the north isles. The clue’s in the name – Sanday, boasting miles and miles of great sweeping white beaches and huge dunes, crystal clear water. And every house on the island (many undergoing renovation of some kind) seems to have a breathtaking view.


On the ferry, the talk was cricket: over tea and Tunnocks Caramel Wafers we discussed the relative merits of TMS commentary. The verdict; Blowers is a star, Boycott’s an ass, and Michael Vaughan knows what he’s talking about. Another cuppa? I took the chance to quiz a few seasoned players about the origins of the Embers. The idea of the Sanday/Stromness fixture came about 12 years ago, the brainchild of two cricket enthusiasts who wanted to develop the game in the islands. Money was available for kit and coaching, and anything that involved Orkney’s outer isles was viewed with favour. Approaches were made to Westray and others, but only Sanday responded with any conviction. Any truth, I wondered, in the story that Sanday was the only island with enough flat land for an outfield? Nah, came the response, but it might have had something to do with the number of Yorkshiremen living there.

At the pier, several cars were on hand to drive us to the ground, along with the kit, the beer, and a large bag of dog food brought by local Member of the Scottish Parliament, who was there to play for the Sanday team. ‘Don’t make a mess now’, quipped R, as we clambered into a Range Rover full of dust, hair, straw, sundry tools and the odd plastic spoon.


My previous Embers trips have usually involved dropping off the players at the local school/community centre, then zooming away in someone’s car to explore, returning only to sample the fabulous tea and make casual enquiries as to the score. On previous occasions I have walked miles along flawless beaches, investigated ruined crofts, visited Stone Age chambered tombs, and met Master of the Queen’s Music, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, out walking his dog. This time however, due to distinct lack of like-minded CWAGs* and transport (previous partners in crime having been lured by the sandcastle competition at Evie Sands), I decided to stay and watch. Mr Dragon coached me through a variety of arm signals (fours, sixes, wides, no balls, out, byes etc etc), in case I was called upon to umpire. In the event those honours were done by DC, ex-captain who is now semi-retired from the game after several shoulder dislocations. Cricket’s a dangerous game, you know.


Proceedings started with a cup of tea and a biscuit – after all, we had been on a boat for nearly two hours with only a snack shop and a Quick Reads library for company. The pitch was inspected by a largish Antipodean chap who (in the tradition, dare I say it, of his fellow countrymen) fancied himself a bit of an expert. This same fellow earned himself some high-spirited teasing during his innings, prompting the teaser to observe that he didn’t think he’d ever sledged somebody in his own team before.

As Stromness won the toss and opted to bat first, I wandered off to the boundary in the hope of seeing one of Britain’s most elusive birds, the corncrake. Once heard all over the UK, intensive farming practices mean that corncrakes have now all but died out completely in England, but are clinging on in Ireland and the north and west of Scotland. Rarely seen, it has a very distinctive call – a sort of throaty rasp – which led to the onomatopoeia of its Latin name, Crex Crex. The birds migrate from Africa to Britain for breeding, and every year the RSPB in Orkney recruits a Corncrake Initiative Officer to monitor the birds across the islands, counting them and gathering sightings/hearings from members of the public. This year the post is held by Amy Liptrot – she has a Twitter account (@Amy_May) and often posts beautiful photos of Orkney at 3am, as she travels the length and breadth of the islands in search of the secretive birds.  As I strayed near to the boundary I heard it – rasping away in the long grass, just as the Sanday locals had told me.  My mobile phone came out, in order that I might share my discovery with the world. ‘Guess what I can hear?’ I tweeted to Amy: #crex #crex!


A corncrake recently

I had decided at the start of the day to tweet the highlights for the benefit of ‘remote attendees’, an idea I picked up whilst being involved in #IslandGovCamp last month. For more information on that event, please visit the blog of my pal, Northern Blethers. The phone signal in Sanday was reasonable for most of the day, the only limitation being the resilience of my battery as I forgot to bring the charger. My tweets about the actual score were intermittent it’s true, but I did managed to mention that the first Stromness wicket to fall was a run-out. Mr Dragon also got a mention for a creditable double-figures performance before being caught at gully.

The bright conditions and occasional blue skies began to disappear, and a very fine mizzle began to fall as Sanday struggled a little to make inroads in the Stromness batsmen. Without boring non-cricket fans with too much detail, the away side scored 165 runs in their 30 overs. At about 1.30pm the innings ended and it was time for the finest cricket tea north of Edinburgh; the Sanday ladies always put on a fantastic Embers spread. Home-made pakoras, fruit loaf, chocolate cake, cream sponge….all washed down with copious amounts of tea. Chatting to several players (including the local nurse, recently moved to the islands, who made two excellent catches and hit the stumps for a cracking run-out), it struck me that for all the banter and friendly chat, they did all take the game seriously. ‘Of course,’ one Sanday player told me, ‘what would be the point, otherwise? We’re all very competitive, and that’s the way it should be!’


The start of the Sanday innings signalled the arrival of the home ‘crowd’, a dozen or so women and children (and a Labrador puppy) came to cheer on the team and ask ‘why don’t they run faster?’ as the batsmen peched between creases. Some spectators sat in their cars and watched through the windows, others produced picnic tables and cracked open the wine. A little cheer went up as Liam the MSP got off the mark with a 4, better than last year when he was bowled out first ball (a golden duck) by Mr Dragon. He hoisted his bat in the manner of a test cricketer acknowledging a century, to further cheers and perhaps a smattering of lighthearted abuse from the Stromness fielders.

The 70-plus-year old behind the wicket hunkered down for the next ball, delivered by A, Stromness fast bowler. A clunk, the ball was in the air….the cries of ‘catch it!’ were immediately drowned out by the cries of ‘First Aid kit! NOW!’ as it appeared that Liam had hit the floor and was in considerable pain. Luckily, his team-mates included amongst their number the island nurse (who had fielded with some panache in the Stromness innings) and a locum doctor from Kirkwall. Within minutes an enormous First Aid kit had appeared, closely followed by the island’s resident doctor: no injured cricketer has ever been so well attended. Liam retired injured and was led away, very wobbly, whilst the game resumed.

The wickets tumbled and at 27 for 5 the Sanday captain was heard to remark, ‘I think personal glory is the best we can hope for, boys’. But the sun came out and the team rallied, cheered by a dropped easy catch. A boundary was greeted with a cheer and a jubilant air horn, which at least shut the corncrake up for a minute. Just as the words ‘it’s picking up’ fell from my lips, a wicket fell – caught and bowled, Mr Dragon – and the end of the innings was in sight. After a very valiant 86 all out, the Sanday team accepted defeat gracefully.


Presentations were made, speeches were given, more cake eaten, the quaich of Highland Park whisky started making the rounds, and Liam returned in triumphant style with a couple of stitches in his head and a few parliamentary debates’ worth of anecdotes illustrating the importance of adequate medical cover in Scotland’s remoter islands. The match had it all, we agreed: blood, sweat and cake (‘there’s the title of my autobiography right there’, said our MSP). As the tremendous tea was cleared up around us, one of the Sanday ladies sat down at her wheel, prompting cries of ‘should have brought on the spinners earlier’.


Finally, it was time to head for the ferry. No chance of getting inside the cabin, full as it was of Sanday school kids travelling to Kirkwall for their week’s stay in the hall of residence. However, out on deck the sun was beating down, and everyone was discussing their highlights. ‘That has to be the only cricket match played to the sound of crex crex,’ I offered. ‘Except perhaps one played between Angola and Mozambique,’ countered TD. Trust a bird expert to know the migratory habits of a corncrake.


*Cricket Wives and Girlfriends







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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.