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

No the Six o Clock News – some thowts on language in Scottish broadcasting


Wan o the things I love best aboot listenan tae BBC Radio Shetland or BBC Radio Orkney is the wey the presenters use thur local language wae a full, crisp, confident voice – withoot the least peedie bit o a cringe, nivver mind any sense o cultural inferiority.

The original broadcasters at BBC Radio Orkney and BBC Radio Shetland in the seventies and eighties were heroes o thur profession, who persevered tae bring thur language tae the fore. Spaekan Orcadian or Shetlandic on the radio haesna always been easy. Wan famous – and famously crass – complaint comes tae mind: ‘Ken is a man’s name, and kent is a county in England’. But ken and kent are northern verbs, used throughout Scandinavia and Germany, and pairt o wur legitimate language -replete wi its own grammar, adverbs, prepositions, pronouns, and soonds.

Whar ither than in the Northern Isles wid ye get proper, authentic Scots language like this on the BBC? And whit could be more natural, representative and fittan than Hallo, good morneen and welcome tae Aroond Orkney fae the BBC. The news bulletin itsel, as weel as political interviews (both questions and answers), hard news reports aboot NHS, Rural Payments, renewables developments, mart reports, fisheries policies, the fortunes o the SNP or the Lib Dems, cultural items – furtivver – are aal conducted in rich, broad Orcadian or Shaetlan.

Glasgow, the home o BBC Scotland, is thrang wi hunders o thoosands o Scots spikkers. Thur language is rich, expressive, hilarious, humane, profound, and gallus by turns. Yet, in 21st century Scottish broadcasting, Glaswegian Scots, by contrast tae the Orkney or Shetland varieties, remains almost entirely restricted tae comedy and football. Still Game or Tam Cowan’s On the Ball/Off the Ball are some o the best programmes on the BBC, full stop. We aal love them, and the connections atween the Scots language o these shows and the Scots used in the Northern Isles are much more numerous than ye might think. So could we no push Scots cheust a peedie bittie further?

River City may yet dae for Scotland and the Scots language whit Coronation Street did fur the language and culture o the North o England. When Tony Warren penned Elsie Tanner’s immortal line o soliloquy Ee, Elsie, you’re just about ready for the knacker’s yard in 1960, he set in motion changes in linguistic and media representation for the North of England that hiv thur descendants the day in drama like Happy Valley, or the acceptability o ‘Northern’ accents within mainstream broadcasting – includan even the most formal o news broadcasting. There’s no shortage o diversity within the BBC the day. But this diversity doesna extend tae representan the full linguistic reality o Scotland, gaan beyond accent intae language. Wur the last province remainan that is yet tae be touched by this benevolent and beneficial wave o political correctness.

Ann Cleeves’ Shetland is wan remarkable step forward. It wis a revelation for this Orcadian viewer tae hear some pretty good Northern Isles Scots in this mainstream setting. The Shelties who hiv pairts in Shetland are tremendous, and the show itsel is a tremendous opportunity for them – in a country whar young actors aal too often hiv tae ape the accents and language o anither culture tae get their next gig. Brian Cox’s weel-documented difference o opinion wae his BBC bosses aboot the acceptable density o Scots/Shaetlan in his own lines in the show points the wey tae the future fur Scots on wur TV screens. Shetland soonds pretty Central Belt-ish a lot o the time, and much o the Shetland language o the drama is faer too diluted for the tastes o most Northern Isles viewers. But consider this: when did we ivver hiv a serious TV drama that even attempted tae represent the real language o the North? Shetland might no be perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction.

I don’t ken if the whole country is ready tae hear the news read in Scots yet, and that’s a peety. But there’s lots o ither pieces we could mak a stert. Whit aboot a bit more Scots on Landward or Countryfile? I widna be at aal offended if denser Scots in contexts like this wis subtitled: tae me subtitling raises the status and profile o Scots. Welsh TV drama flits perfectly naturally atween subtitled Welsh and English. And thoosands o folk hiv no problem watchan oors and oors o subtitled Nordic Noir – while the soondtrack flings oot Scots/Scandinavian crossover words like barn/bairns, bra/braw and hus/hoose.

The Mart is watched religiously aal owre rural lowland Scotland – fae Gallowaa tae Moray tae Caithness – in pieces whar Scots continues tae be spoken by the majority o folk. It’s owld news noo, but 1.5 million respondents tae the 2011 census reported spaekan or understandan Scots. Wid the sky faal doon if we scripted the voice ower tae a production like The Mart in Scots, as weel as the fairmers’ and auctioneers’ real, recorded Scots dialogue? By comparison, some novelists in Scotland moved fae English narrative wi Scots dialogue tae Scots narrative wi Scots dialogue ower a hunder year ago.

Or whit aboot the splendid aerial film o Orkney we haed the pleasure o watchin on BBC Alba a few month ago, wae its beautiful Gaelic voice ower? Hou expensive could it be tae script an Orcadian/Scots voice ower tae accompany this film, and whit wid the dividend be in terms o inclusion and representation for the Northern Isles? Or whit aboot a TV version o the hugely popular Gruffalo in Scots for bairns? A voice ower for The Gruffalo animation widna cost the yird. Katie Morag could be owerset in Scots. The Mr Men in Scots wid be a student cult sensation in the West End o Edinburgh.

There’s an urgent need tae expand the possibilities o whit can be broadcast in Scots. I don’t believe for a meenit that these missed opportunities are the result o deliberate policy, or the result o any kind o thrawn BBC badness. They are more likely cheust because o a simple lack o understanding and appreciation o Scots at the top levels, and mibby a lack o professional expertise in scrievan formal material in Scots.

Top o me wish list for a reformed BBC Scotland is a simple plea that it better represents the linguistic realities o the country it serves. Wur professionals in Lerwick and Kirkwall could teach their colleagues at Pacific Quay twarthree salient things aboot language, audience, and broadcasting.

Is the skerry up?


Is the skerry up? is the question that sometimes goes roond wur hoose at this time o year. Fur if the skerry’s up, it’s worth hivvan a try for spoots doon at the shore. I fling oilskins, a bucket, an a gairdeen fork intae the back o the ker and set off.

Only the biggest tides expose the spoot beds. An me favourite spot is cheust inside the point at Aikerness, close tae the Broch o Gurness. This is whar ye’ll see folk waakin backwards across the sand, lukkan fur the telltale elliptical aperture afore plungan the fork doon, turnan owre the sand, an grippan the spoot.

Then there’s a life an death struggle as ye draw him up fae deep aneath the beach. He’s duggid, sharp, an slippery, and won’t gie up his life easily. Eventually, ye’ll feel him relax, an ye can draa him oot. Tak care no tae draa him up too kweek, or ye’ll loss the fruit. His shell is like varnished teak. Clunk in the bucket.

It’s great tae stretch up an luk oot tae Eynhallow an Rousay fae the watter’s edge in the winter grimleens, the great tangles lyan limp aal roond in the massive ebb. The folk that bade at the Broch o Gurness likely did the sam afore a feed o spoots on a winter night.

Wae half a bucket fill an darkness closan in, it’s time fur home. On wae the fryan pan an oot wae the butter an black pepper. High heat an cheust show them the pan, really. The owld folk likely haed a can o MacEwen’s Export wae thur spoots. These days, we like a gless o crisp Chardonnay tae wash them doon. Hou tae describe them if ye hivna eaten them afore? Somewhar atween calamaris an scallops – but different fae both. There’s notheen like a spoot!