Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Orkney Winter Nights

Winter, in past times, was the most important season for tales; when people would gather round firesides and tell stories and make music.  I was browsing my bookcase full of Scottish books and found the following extracts on just this subject.  This evocative passage is from the introduction to an antique book entitled, 'Around The Orkney Peat-Fires: Being Sketches of Notable Orcadians And Characters, Smuggling Anecdotes, Stories Of The Press-Gang, And Witch And Other Tales.' By W.R. MacKintosh:    
"Prior to the days of cheap periodical literature, neighbours were in the habit of meeting in each other's houses, and, seated round a rousing peat-fire, whiled away the long winter evenings recounting the achievements of notable Orcadians in every part of the world, telling of the eccentricities of local characters, describing all kinds of smuggling exploits, and relating many thrilling incidents connected with the press-gang.  Before "the amers were raiked" for the night, something creepy, generally in the shape of a witch story, was usually thrown in, so that the members of the company wended their way home in the dark, prepared to see a ghost in each waving thistle, or troops of fairies on every rising knoll."
George Mackay Brown is probably Orkney's most famous writer, and he is one of my favourites.  The following passages are from his writings. The first one is from his collection of stories, 'Winter Tales':
"The winter last year was cold and stormy. The first television sets had come to the island.  They were the latest of the never-ending miracles of science, those half-dozen television sets installed in the bigger farms. They held children from their play and old men from their memories in the chimney corner.  The poorer folk who couldn't afford to buy television sets would almost beg to spend their evenings in those fortunate houses where the grey images flickered and came and went. 
I'm glad to say that the enchantment didn't last.  The islanders came to the conclusion that there was probably more fun playing draughts on the kitchen table by lamplight.  The fiddle was taken down from the wall again.  Cherished books were brought from the wide windowsill and opened with reverence and delight.  But while it lasted, even Ben the sailor was under the spell of the television set, going from house to house to that."
"One of the delights of winter is soup- good thick nourishing broth that will outbrave snow and gales." (From Rockpools and Daffodils).  Although for me, who has a gift for making wonderful soups, soup is for every day of the year, in that I could be pleased to have it every day, winter or summer. Making a pot of good soup is very satisfying, easy, comforting, and another form of creativity.  But homemade soup is particularly vital in the winter, it seems to be needed. 
(On Midsummer):  "I must say, I love this time of year best of all.  But, strange to say, there are folk-and I've spoken to them-who find the long light monotonous, or unnatural, or maybe both.  For them, the great thing is the cosiness of lighted lamp and blazing fire after tea-the easy-chair with book or newspaper or TV.  They are the winter people; and who shall blame them, in a way?  For winter has its own magic:  mazes of stars, the changing moon, and rare-come Aurora."


  1. Must agree with the islanders on how to spend winter~ much of what Mr Mackay Brown lists here about 'winter people' are the very things I love too about winter and for me it does have it's own special magic . I know. depending on where you live .it can seem to drag on for ages or be quite severe but for the most part I find it a lovely time for hibernating, dreaming, reading and enjoying the fire ~ I do think it is sad that people no longer spend long winter evenings in story telling ~ I loved hearing my mother and grandparents tales whenever the were in the mood to tell them. Far better than most television fare ! Lovely post.

  2. Thank you. Yes, it does depend on your outlook, and your mention of "a lovely time for hibernating, dreaming, reading, and enjoying the fire" is ideal. I think enjoying quietness is part of it, there's too much noise and also too many trivial distractions. If people would sit and talk and focus on each other, instead of having to be in front of a television to be together...