New Lambs, Owld Stone



Picture: Anja Hall

Sorry, but the picture o the lambs is cheust clickbait. This post is aboot sometheen else. It’s aboot pittan up a new lambeen shed. Read on, though! Pittan up a new shed is a big event.

Ally arrived shortly eftir Christmas wae his Japanese digger tae dig oot the found. He worked long oors, and soon struck rock; the kind o stuff we caal ‘blue whin’, tae be precise. Haird as diamond. Whit ancient sediment wis he brakkan up? Whittiver it wis, stoor stood oot o it when Ally pit the brakkar on it. That slowed us doon a bit. We enjoyed Ally’s company when he wis here. But when he wis feeneeshed, we didna miss the noise o the brakkar gaan aal weekend long. D D. Ddd ddd ddd ddd ddd ddd ddd ddd ddd ddd ddd. Ddd ddd. D d. d.

Eftir the hole wis dug, Bruce and Scott arrived tae assemble the kit. It gaed up in no time. These boys work haird, teu. And in any weather. Drivan rain, howlan wind, freezan cowld. Nane o it bothered them much – they cheust worked and worked and worked. And the shed wis up – a bonny new structure gleaman in the April sunshine. They got the concrete floor poored in the nick o time.


So. Tak the sheep in, and stert lamban. The usual, cutesy ‘Lambing Diary’ stuff sterts tae happen. Multiple births. Easy lambeens. Bad lambeens. Up aal night. Unsuccessful adoptions. Successful adoptions. Orf. Snatchan some sleep through the day when ye can. Calorific breakfasts, and litres o cappuccino. Faalan asleep on a weet bale in the new shed at 4.45 am. Steam in the haet o the piggy bulbs. Milk. Mithers. Atrocious waather. Joni Mitchell on the radio. Boiler suits laggered in … best no tae say. Red Throated Divers caalan ootside. Peedie lambs gaan Meeeh! Meeeh! Meeeh! till yur cheust aboot demented wae it.

Soon, the new shed, that began as an empty hole in the grunnd, is fill o life.

I step ootsite the shed door wan morneen at aboot 6.00. The sun is shinan eftir a few days o April shooers. The rain haes washed the gutter fae the thoosand fragments o blue whin that lie aal roond the site. In the corner o me eye, I see the fossilised underjaw o a peedie fish – no unlike a troot fae the Harray Loch. If thur’s new life in the new shed, then thur’s the remains o some o the owldest life on Earth rooed up ootside. Fossil fish fae the sediment o Devonian Loch Orcadie, when Orkney wis in the southern hemisphere.



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

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.

Return of the Eagle

The white-tailed sea eagle occupies a unique place in the history and prehistory of Orkney. It is the mythic bird, known as Onyo to the Orkney Norse, that fed carrion to ragged fledglings in heathery nests on the eponymous Enya’s Hill, in Rendall. It is the Pictish spirit bird from the Broch of Birsay, carved – complete with dense leg feathers extending down to the feet – on the perplexing, meticulous symbol stones. It is, most famously, the talisman bird of the Isbister chambered tomb in South Ronaldsay; the world-renowned Tomb of the Eagles.

It was with no small sense of expectation that we began to read, years ago, of the modest successes of the reintroduction programme in Mull. I don’t like melodrama, but it’s true that I have been waiting all my life to see a white-tailed eagle in my home islands.

When the moment finally arrives, at about three o clock on Saturday afternoon, it is not as I had expected. I’m driving my daughter home from her weekend job at Woodwick House, when we see an agitated mixed flock of hoodie crows, gulls, a whaup and a teeack. What are they mobbing? Well, yes, it is enormous, and flying low over my neighbour’s barn at Fursan: the bird which needs no identification.

Luk! It’s a sea eagle! I say.

Calm doon, Dad. It’s just a bird, she says.

And this is the undecorated truth: it is just a bird. Of course it is the size of a medium-sized car bonnet. But apart from the shock of its size, the creature seems relaxed, at home, unperturbed by its frantic flock of frightened followers. An ordinary bird, gaan aboot its business. Slouching a little, hounded, not too majestic, and with the broad, stubby sea-eagle tail. Covering about four metres to every wingbeat, it makes its way across the steeper fields to Moonlight, and beyond to the hill land.

So where does this leave the years of build up? It hasn’t been so much the Pictish spirit bird of the carvings. And it didn’t appear like my imagined Neolithic talisman, circling at dawn round bright sunshafts out over the North Sea, five miles east of the Isbister craigs. It turns out to be a familiar, hungry-looking bird. The kind of thing you might see crouched on your neighbour’s midden, mobbed by rooks and jackdaws, glaepan a ku’s cleanings. Less a mythic spirit of Scotland’s past than a domestic symbol of Scotland’s future.

What is it we love so much about creatures like this? Well, they connect us to other parts of Europe, reminding us that we are not at the end of any line. An orca can travel from Iceland to John O Groats, a walrus from Faroe to North Ronaldsay. A sea eagle that can soar over the Hordaland fjords can also fish in the Orkney soonds. So they remind us that we are at the centre of an interconnected northern ecological web. Our Scottish sea eagles cry out rebirth, renewal, revival. They are our triumph over the upper-class Victorian perversion for plundering nests, and shooting into oblivion anything that flew. They speak to us not of what Scotland was, but of what Scotland will be. And, for the record, I still do expect to watch a pair of magnificent Onyos soaring over Eynhallow in the dyes of the westering sun, in a not-too-distant future summer.


Peace that passeth Understandeen


A single sheep haes made her wey doon tae the hollow at the foot o the brae, daean her best tae avoid the sinister birds – the great black-backs and the corbies. We tak a haad o her gently, an stert tae dae whit we can tae help. Lamban a two year auld gimmer is rarely easy, an this the day will be no exception.

I kin get a haad o wan foot – cheust – an I can see a broad peedie chaa, an the tip o a purplan peedie tongue. I don’t think we hiv long tae dae this. Hid’s fairly tight, an slippy. I grip wan delicate fetlock, an haeve doon wi aal the strength I can muster. The gimmer brays in distress. I haeve again, feart that I might brak the leg o the peedie lamb. The hoof o a second feet appears, shiny like it haes been newly varnished. I tak wan fetlock in each hand, and heave, and heave, and heave. The gimmer – that wis born here in this sam field cheust twa year ago – is strugglan, an sufferan.

Hid must happen noo. An, miraculously, sheu sterts tae loosen off. The broad heid o a texel cross lamb – the first fae the new ram we browt home in November – appears in the April sunlight. Then, immediately, the body. The gimmer wheechs roond in wan fluid movement, draain off the birth sac, an gently severan the umbilical cord, afore stertan immediately tae lick her new lamb clean. Glegly in an oot goes her tongue. Hid’s a muckle lamb, an haads hid’s heid high. I cast awey some o the cleaneens, an dry me hands on the gress.

In the dryan wind an sunshine, sheu murmurs tae her lamb in that sweet mither’s language, the ovine music that is only ivver heard in the first few oors eftir birth. Likkan off the yolk-yellow birth fluid, sheu reassures her lamb wi a gentle, staccato mu-uh-uh-uh, mu-uh-uh-uh, tae which the lamb replies wi a plaintive, high me-ee-eh! April, as the poet said, is invariably cruel. I won’t pretend otherwise, and this April will be no different fae any ither. But fur the day at least, hid’s been gentle and benevolent.

When sheu haes feeneshed cleanan her lamb, I pick it up by the forefeet, an sheu follows me tae the shelter o the owld sheep shed. There, I lay the lamb on a square o fresh, clean strae in the sunlight cheust inside the door. First lamb o the year! An the first texel cross at Kirkpretty! I realise noo that me haands and wrists are achan – but I must spare a thowt fur this brave peedie gimmer. Her eye, close up in the sunshine, is like a walnut in golden oil. An sheu’s no a gimmer any more, but a yowe noo, and deservan o real respect.

*                      *                      *

Later, in the grimleens, I come doon tae the shed again tae check on them. Venus shines green an bright in the west. The rest o the flock are inside for the night, safe fae the weekid birds an the vagaries o the Spring waathir. They are settled doon, an ruminate contentedly. But there, in the corner stall, is the baby lamb, standan in the golden strae, sookan the rich, creamy colostrum fae hids mither. The two are completely absorbed in wan anither, oblivious tae the wind that’s stertan tae rummle owre the slates above. This, I think, is the peace that passeth aal understandeen.

April 12th, 2015