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Posts Tagged ‘Orkney’

I had lived in Quoyloo for about three weeks before the knock came at the door. As it happened I was out at fiddle practice, so I didn’t speak to the lady herself, but when I got home Mr Dragon told me gleefully that I had had ‘the call’. A representative had dropped by to see if I would be interested in joining the local branch of the SWRI. The Scottish Women’s Rural Institute (known as ‘the Rural’) is the equivalent of the WI in England. For non-British readers, the WI (Women’s Institute) are the ones featured in the film ‘Calendar Girls’, based on a true story, where the ladies posed naked with sunflowers and sticky buns. The Quoyloo branch of the Rural would never stoop to such sensationalist tactics, I can assure you. Why waste a good bun?

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The Rural was formed in 1917, by a remarkable woman called Catherine Blair. She was an ardent supporter of the suffragette movement, and a member of Women’s Social and Political Union. Her husband, a farmer, supported her activities, and aided her in setting up a safe house for suffragettes released under the Cat and Mouse Act (a nasty piece of legislation whereby hunger striking women were released from prison once they were weakened to the point of near-death, then re-imprisoned once they had regained their strength). Blair was a skilled designer and craftswoman (she founded the Mak’Merry pottery) and realised that women throughout Scotland has skills to pass on, but little social opportunity to do so. Inspired by Guilds being formed in Canada, she proposed a similar organisation in Scotland, and the SWRI was born in Longniddry, providing women with a chance to meet, and exchange experiences and knowledge about everything from vegetable growing to political letter writing. The organisation (now the Scottish Women’s Institute, the ‘R’ having been recently dropped), now has over 20,000 members and more than 700 branches.

Most Orkney parishes have a branch of the SWI; Quoyloo is not actually a parish, but has one anyway. The aims are the same today as they ever were; to pass on skills from one generation of women to another, to take part in activities together, and to enjoy the friendship and company of local women.

I applaud them mightily for their talents and philosophy. One is not born knowing how to darn a sock or make lemon curd, and if a young lass from the city had the good fortune to marry an Orkney farmer, well…..she would need to learn these essentials. The Rural meetings are usually held every month, there is sometimes a theme or a motto, and often a visiting speaker, followed by gallons of tea and any number of home-baked goodies. A quick glance at one week’s Orcadian newspaper reveals a run-down of the Rural meetings over the past month:  in Firth, the ladies chose the motto ‘A laugh is worth 100 groans in any market’, and enjoyed a quiz, a drawing game, and a Christmas story. The women of Harray embraced the spirit of ‘It’s always the busiest folk who have time for more’, whilst listening to John Copland from the cattle mart talking about ‘A Day in the Life of an Auctioneer’. Meanwhile, in Costa, the guests Thora and Anne sang and told stories, mindful of the phrase ‘Sweet music lingers in the memory’.

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I have, on occasion, had the pleasure of speaking or playing as a guest at the Rural. The ladies are always a discerning but appreciative audience, and any guest is treated very well indeed, plied as they are with tea, cake, and potentially winning raffle tickets. But then….the crunch. The payoff. The heavy, heavy responsibility. It falls to the visitor or guest speaker, you see, to judge The Competition. The objects in The Competition, brought in by the members, will usually be laid out on a side table for inspection and awarding of points: the grading might be 1st, 2nd and 3rd, or Gold, Silver and Bronze, or some other way of marking the three best items. The judge ponders, picks up, inspects, tastes (if appropriate), holds up to the light. After due deliberation, and without knowing who made or chose the items, the judge then places the awards accordingly. The ladies themselves will then inspect everything, and the chair or secretary will note down the winners and order of merit.
At this point, those who are aware of the workings of the Rural will know what the competitions involve. Those who don’t will be shaking their heads and wondering what all the fuss is about. I can do no better than emulate our local station BBC Radio Orkney who regularly read out the sublime and poetic Rural competitions.
An item knitted from 100g of wool.
A poem about winter and four cheese scones.
An old plate.
A photograph of a flower and a jar of raspberry jam.
An embroidered handkerchief and a glass milk jug.
A matchbox filled with objects beginning with ‘M’.
A Christmas tree decoration (any craft) and home-made Baileys (!)

It is, as I have already said, a heavy responsibility to choose between the items presented, and one that must be treated with all seriousness. The crafts, creative writing, artistic appreciation and cookery skills of the Rural members range from warm-hearted attempts, to full blown genius, and sometimes the judge must exercise high levels of diplomacy – difficult when the items are anonymous.  I do hope that as a result of my judging efforts no-one has ever been cast down too much; after tasting six jars of rhubarb chutney it can be difficult to tell between them. When presented by a range of tartan items, I hope my ambivalent feelings towards dolls were put aside in an attempt to admire the artistry of the kilt stitching. And I beg forgiveness for the rebellious thoughts that have flashed through my brain when confronted by dense cheese scones – to wit: ‘Mine are better than that!’

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And therein lies the reason I ignored the summons. Not that I fear the Rural’s (erroneous) reputation as the bastion of old-fashioned attitudes. Neither am I put off by the (again false) impression that the Rural is full of old ladies (firstly, some of them are younger than I am, and secondly, they are individuals and many of them are brilliant and wise and funny). I could beg to be excused on the grounds that I have many other things to do, but that isn’t really good enough. No, the reason I have not joined the Rural is this. I am far, far too competitive. I would hear the call to produce a tray bake and a knitted tea cosy, and I would not rest until I had made the best tray bakes and tea cosy of which I was capable. The red mist would descend, my competitive streak would kick in, and no prisoners would be taken in my desire to gallop across the finishing line ahead of the pack. The day I stop wanting to win is the day I shall join the Rural. In the meantime, I shall continue to listen with pleasure to Radio Orkney’s broadcast of that week’s competitions.
A drawing of a farm animal.
An item beginning with J and a floory bannock.
Four squares of fudge and a bonny plate.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!’

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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.

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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’.

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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.

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*Cricket Wives and Girlfriends

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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