Skipper Gunn’s Gifts


In the four o clock darkness o the late December afternoon, Skipper Gunn turns his back on the Christmas lights that are strung fae the rigging o the whitefish boats. He crosses Harbour Street, twists his skinny frame under the Ba barricades, and slips through the front door o the North Star Bar.

Skipper likes a double O.V.D. at the coal fire through the back, his peedie thin legs hanging fae the bar stool. His phone pings relentlessly wae notifications fae Leona – mind on Skyler’s prescription, don’t forget aboot Dale’s consent form, mind on the boat leaves early the night.  Steel-toed rigger boots, a toorie and a peedie beard. That’s Skipper. He nivver actually sailed as skipper, and he drinks in binges that come like northerly gales; one every twelve weeks or so, more often in the winter months.

Ally Ratter is sat there already, like a Heavy Metal Santa. Long white beard, and the big gut. His t-shirt says Baby Please Don’t Go. Ally is the engineer on the Jarl Thorfinn. On his fortnight ashore, Ally parks his reid Hilux on the pier at aboot 12.00. He sets his heavy wallet and his phone on the Formica o the bar. The screensaver is a picture o his dowter, Carrie. Four pints o Guinness for the afternoon, and four for the evening. Ally’s phone doesna ping; his ex doesna spik tae him.

But Skipper and Ally hiv a lot tae spik aboot. Their days in the school hostel taegethir. Westray folk that merried Sanday folk; Sanday folk that merried Westray folk. Ally’s fither’s trips tae Montevideo and Nagasaki. Skipper’s grandfither on the Northern Convoys. Climate Change. The weet westerly waathir, and hoo ye nivver get a right northerly gale any more. The reward for the ROV that the renewables company lost in the Westray Firth. Orcas in Eynhallow Soond. The price o lambs. Faroese quota. Unreal tonnages o salmon feed.

And dae you ken whit Brandon Harcus paid for that seventy acre at Ness? says Skipper, getting louder. Quarter o a million!

I heard that. I heard he paid cash in twa Lidl kerrier bags, says Ally, quietly. Still, he’s no a bad lad.

Sky News plays dumb overhead. Refugees: Skip wonders whitwey they can afford I-Phones; Ally says I-Phones are all they hiv. Ally luks at his screensaver.

Wae a dour nod tae the barmaid, Ally orders Skipper anither O.V.D. Ally’s gettan tae the stage whar he’s just aboot managing a peedie, shy smile. Skipper’s gettan tae the stage whar he can feel the rum coursing through his forearms. Ally does smile – peedie weys – aal big, heavy teeth. Skipper’s bad teeth luk broon in the mirror ahint the bar, especially when he’s been drinkan rum.

Mind on the bairns’ presents, Skipper.

Ah’ll no forget aboot them – I pat them in the waiting room.

And mind on the boat goes early.

Ah’ll no forget aboot that. Leona telt me no tae bother coman home if I miss it.

The north wind is gettan up. The boys on the boat will be gled tae get home across the Soond tae Blindarsay the night. Skipper scoops his last dram and claps the gless doon on the Formica.

Time for the boat. Hiv a Merry Christmas, Ally.

Ah’ll dae me best. Enjoy yersels the morn, Skip.

Cheers, beuy. And try no tae think aboot Carrie too much, says Skipper.

But I want tae think aboot her, says Ally. Anyway, get doon the pier – it’s three meenits tae six.

Oot intae the rising northerly wind he goes. Back across Harbour Street, and doon the pier tae the boat. Straight past the waiting room. He taks a peedie lurch as he’s crossan the linkspan, but whether it’s the wind or the rum he doesna ken. He’s no sooner aboard when CLUNK. CLUNK CLUNK the bow doors are secured and ready for sea. Skipper heads tae the lounge, kicks off his riggers, and is flat oot snoran like a bandsaw afore the boat sterts tae bury her heid in the lumps in the tide off the Ness.

He’s oot for the whole crossing until the voice blares oot o the speaker Ladies and gentlemen we have now arrived at Blindarsay please remember tae tak your belongings wae you as you disembark. And oot he goes again intae the wind.

Merry Christmas, Skip, say the boys on the deck. Merry, Christmas, beuys! Skip crosses the cobbles at the head o the Blindarsay pier. The lights hing doon fae the village Christmas tree as it springs upright and doon, upright and doon, atween the gusts. Cloods scud across the cowld sky and reveal a glimpse o the North Star. He’s home, on Christmas Eve! Skip gies a peedie skip and teks across the peedie square, past the War Memorial, and up tae his peedie Cooncil hoose whar Leona surely won’t realise he’s that drunk.

The wind claps the door shut ahint him. The nerrow lobby is fill o bruck. He sees three manilla envelopes wae cellophane windows addressed tae Mr S and Mrs L Gunn on the floor. Skyler is greetan; Dale is on the Xbox. Leona stands in the kitchen doorway. Her hair luks like it could dae wae a wash. She has rubber gloves on and a dishcloot in her hand, and she speaks quietly so the bairns canna hear: Did ye mind on the presents, Skipper? The wind roars owre the roof tiles. Jesus Christ the presents.

*          *          *

By seven AM the wind is doon again. Leona steps ootside the back door wae the bin bags, sets them doon, and lights an Embassy Regal. She can hear the eider ducks on the still bay a quarter mile away as the eastern sky reddens. They mate for life, her mither tellt her. Skip is indoors, sleepan on the sofa. The bairns are sleepan, too. As she exhales, Leona’s phone pings. It says ‘new message from Ally Ratter’:




Doon the concrete path tae the coal hoose she goes, and there, inside the door, are the three damp, bright parcels. The paper is soggy wae salt watter, and it’s a peedie bit ripped, but there they are. Leona draas deep on her cigarette, haads the breath, and stoops in under the low lintel o the coal hoose tae retrieve the gifts. Thank God fur that, sheu mutters tae hersel as the light sterts tae come up.






Hugh Marwick’s The Orkney Norn (1929) is the dictionary of the Norse language of Orkney. It records words of the land and words of the sea, weather words and the names of creatures and places – words like gems glittering in the last lingering light of the Viking Age.

Hundreds of the words have become obsolete, left behind as ways of living and ways of making a living have changed forever. There are also, here and there on every other page, sporadic words that have survived – against all odds – into the digital age.

So we preserve the contemptuous bruck – trash, garbage, rubbish. We maintain freck for bairns and pets. Orcadian dogs still weesk at the door for in, and when wind and tide contend at a ness there’s a lively chabble.

These words are part of the modern Norn/Scots/English mashup that is today’s Orkney language. But for how long will we keep them, in the face of online standardisation?

Mibby for twathree generations yet – for a hunder or so unbound copies of Marwick’s magisterial work have been discovered during a clear oot o the former store of Leonard’s bookshop in Kirkwall.

Now bound, and with miraculously preserved original 1928 dust jackets, these remarkable time capsules are available for sale. The new/old book is a magnificent object in itself; an antiquarian curiosity packed full of the rich and beautiful mystery of the Orkney Norn.


(The newly-bound edition of The Orkney Norn is available from The Herald Printshop, Kirkwall, priced £55)

Bonny Isle o Sanday


Cata Sand



A billion grains o sand. A hunder thoosand migrant birds. A scant scattering o folk. The isle o Sanday in October presents a glorious unfolding flatness o sand/soil and pure sky, stretching northwards and eastwards into the shallow North Sea – into distances that belie the island’s deceptive baby dragon profile on the admiralty chart.

This isle is a vast table o riches spread beneath the northern sky. It’s possible for a vistor tae get lost in Sanday. Distant hooses on the horizon seem like they canna be on the same island, but they are. Every road ends in the sea. Every aspect pleases.

We traverse the vast ouse o Cata Sand and climb the dunes. A gull owerhead in the blue is an emblem o absolute purity. Godwits and redshank wade in 20mm o brine. A heron awaits the flood. The tide returns swiftly, and wur walk back is twice as long as the walk oot.

Sanday is a modern, forward lukkan piece. A generous proportion o the profits o the 10 MW wind farm at Spurness are ploughed back in tae community projects, such as the employment o a ranger on the island – whose job is tae mak the abundant wildlife accessible tae the public. We join ranger Emma on a scheduled walk roond Spurness, whar sheu shows us a peedie baby selkie in a geo. The mither selkie waits anxiously nearby on the margin o Eday Soond, like a granite boulder. Migrant goldcrests flit roond the geo in the morning sun – fire creaturs in a watter place.

Sanday haes a magnificent literary heritage, teu. The Victorian gentleman-farmer Walter Traill Dennison single-handedly saved Orkney folklore with the publication in 1880 o his The Orcadian Sketch Book, a little-read gem o lore and language. As a result, we ken more folk tales fae Sanday than fae any ither pairt o Orkney.

For instance … the Broonie o Helliehowe tormented a family in a nearby ferm tae the point whar they haed tae leave. On the day o the flit, they were carting their possessions tae the ither end o the isle when the Broonie popped his heid oot o a milk churn and said: my, but wur gotten a fine day for the flitteen. The tale is a cautionary one: many problems are within us, and canna simply be left ahint.

*                    *                     *

But on Sunday morning at low-watter we leave wur problems ahint and cross the causeway tae Start Point, the easternmost and flattest pairt o aal the brokken isles o Orkney. Here, the selkies sing, and the abundant shell sand haes a purple hue in the morning sun. Here, in the shadow o the only vertical-striped lighthoose in the northern hemisphere, we gaither groattie buckies till wur hearts are content.



(Sanday Sealcam:

Last night in Tokyo – Japan Diary Part Three

We are a merry company, twelve Japanese and two Scots working our way through the thronging Tokyo streets to the tavern at Myogadani. The November evening is wet, but the weather can’t dampen our spirits. The tavern is simple, the food honest, and the company warm.


In the tavern at Myogadani

The celebration is to mark the end of a rich and wonderful visit to Japan. Our companions are members of the Japan Scotland Society and the Tokyo Caledonia Society, and all speak excellent English.

A tiny waitress appears with a huge bottle of saki. She fills a glass in front of me until it can hold no more. The diners laugh and cheer as I stand up and do my best to sup the saki without spilling. Osamu, our kind host in Tokyo, makes a short speech, and I make a short reply. We begin our banquet of tempura shrimp, fried chicken, smoked Pacific fish, and crisp edamame.

The group is deeply interested in Scotland. Most have travelled there, some of them frequently. One lady spent a winter in Orkney, and speaks English with an Orkney accent. Some of the others enjoy Scottish country dancing. They ken lots aboot malt whisky. One of the ladies specialises in origami, and presents Linda with three beautiful, delicate paper girls, dressed in traditional kimonos. We learn some of the rules of Tanka and Haiku.


Origami lasses

The following morning, Yuko takes us to the Meiji shrine at Shibuya. This is the perfect place to relax after a busy week. There are weddings taking place at the shrine, and children’s confirmations. Here, we see peedie lasses in real kimonos, brilliant in the crisp November sunshine. Tokyo is a magnificent city, and our friends have been so kind. We long to return.

November 14th and 15th, 2015


Kimono lass



Linda and Yuko at the Meiji Shrine

Last wolf/first wolf


Wolf country, Valemont B.C.

I flew home from Vancouver to Glasgow on Sunday. During my three weeks in Canada, wolves were on my mind.

I heard about them from a forward-thinking young engineer who was working on a geothermal energy project in Valemont, British Columbia. He told me that he had seen a wolf once, with its paw in the river at Banff. I watched the news in the evenings, which fondly reported the movements of a pack near Kamloops. In the Okanagan, I discussed aspects of Scotland’s future with my expatriate uncle, Kenny Mair, from Aberdeen. We touched on the concept of rewilding, and the possible reintroduction of wolves.

Kenny wonders about range and scope. He’s mildly sceptical about how wolves and people might be able to coexist in our more densely populated country. British Columbia is twice the size of some of the larger European nations, and much less populous. Vancouver island alone is about the size of the Highlands north of the Great Glen. Taking off from Vancouver airport, I feel a kind of agoraphobic awe watching the sun set over the Pacific, as the immense mountain ranges stretch all the way north to the Arctic. But, as MacDiarmid remonstrated, Scotland small? Our infinite, our multiform Scotland small? I discovered today that Italy, Spain, Germany, Poland, Norway, Sweden, and even tiny Portugal all have their own beloved populations of indigenous wolves.

Who wouldn’t want them here? Well, there’s what psychologists call ‘dread’. The overwhelming but illogical terror of something that is, in reality, statistically very unlikely to happen: the idea that wolves might actually harm people. I think we can talk people out of their dread, and persuade them of the thrills and the potential ecotourism and the enviro-economic benefits. Seeing a wolf track in Assynt. Hearing a wolf howl in the Cairngorms. Catching a glimpse of a distant wolf disappearing into a stand of aspen on Rannoch Moor.

Keepers and farmers will be the people who will take the most persuading. I stalked for ten years in Moray with a keeper who was a family friend. Like all true countrymen, he loved his environment. The last time I was on the hill with him, Douglas was enthusing about the benefits of sensitive reforestation in the Highlands, and in particular the initiative to reforest with native species – as opposed to the mono-cultural and ecologically sterile conifer belts that strap our hillsides. Mixed, indigenous forest of birch, rowan, alder and aspen, he maintained, presented the most exciting landscape, and the best stalking opportunities. How much more exciting would these opportunities be for any stalker who has the added chance of spotting a wild wolf as part of a day on the hill?

And wolves, as they’ve seen in Yellowstone in the USA, benefit the entire ecosystem. For the wolf eats the deer that would otherwise graze down the holly sprig or the willow sapling. These growing trees then slow erosion, improve rivers, and make vital marginal reductions to flooding. So insect, bird, aquatic, plant and human life benefits. The apex predator ensures diversity across the entire system, by redressing the artificial imbalance in deer numbers.

Sheep and deer, for which the lairds cleared the glens of people in the nineteenth century, gnaw and nibble at what would otherwise be a rich and flourishing mixed forest environment. Ironically, sheep might be the biggest impediment to the reintroduction of wolves. As a part-time farmer myself, I know how difficult and frustrating it is to lose a lamb or a yowe. But I’d be prepared to sign up to an intelligent compensation scheme for the sake of our wider environment, and I believe many other environmentally conscious farmers would think the same way.

Legend has it that the last wolf in Scotland was killed on the banks of the river Findhorn in the late Eighteenth Century. Now Pine Martens and Red Squirrels are extending their range across the Highlands for the first time in many, many years. Beavers are making a comeback, and improving our rivers at the same time. The news this week says that the Lynx will be next, slinking quietly and unobtrusively back into southern Scotland. The return of the wolf can happen too, if we want it badly enough.


Rashabreck Corbies

The owld byre at Rashabreck wis re-slated in 1966. Three winters ago, a northerly gale stripped off a patch o the Orkney slab slates an noo a ragged hole gapes oot tae the north. Cheust inside this opening, on top o the cupples, rests a most remarkable built structure – the largest made by any creatur in these islands. A metre wide by a metre high, it is a massive ravens’ nest.

It’s a coorse nest, reflectan the intelligence, strength and resourcefulness o its builders. Most o the dried sticks are sycamore or fuchsia. There are bits o rope, barbed wire, cable ties, heather roots, ku hair, scrap metal, an dried gresses wound intae the structure. It’s like a roond bale o rural detritus. The top is crowned wae a delicate, soft bed o cheviot wool. This is the regal bed o the corbies’ eggs.

There are folk that wid clim up there an smash those eggs. Ravens perpetrate unspeakable cruelty tae newborn lambs at this time o year. But I love them nevertheless. The purple sheen o them. Their cheust-fur-the-hell-o-it tumbling fall in mid-flight. Their gentle xylophone calls. Their size, their ability tae coont, their monogamy.

Me owld freend the late Ernie Donaldson loved the Scots ballad The Twa Corbies, in which twa ravens discuss the whereaboots o a cadaver. The ravens plan tae perch on the dead knight’s collarbone, eat his eyes, an use his ‘gowden hair’ tae theek their nest. Ernie liked tae remark that, although the knight was dead, he ‘gave so much tae life’.

Black, carrion birds they may be – but they are rich in iridescent colour and spirited character. They gie so much tae life themsels. I wish them weel, as they cock an eye oot fae under the brokken slates in the Rashabreck roof and luk owre Eynhallow Soond tae the Atlantic beyond.



(Listen tae Rashabreck Corbies by Simon Hall #np on #SoundCloud