Blog Archive

Sunday 24 September 2023

My Stroma Home part 6 The return of the Wanderer.

 I had not returned to the Island for several years. It is no longer the isle of my memories but a sad, neglected place. 

It is September, the sky is a bright blue, the sea is calm and the wind is fair.  The tide is in, and the harbour is ideal for wild swimmers.

The back of the pier wall has been demolished due to frequent storms, but otherwise, the harbour gives the same refuge as it did when it was built in 1956, after over six years of argument and counter-argument between the islanders, the local council and The Scottish Home Department, it was finally completed at a cost of £30,000. 

These are the workmen who took time from their farms and fishing to build the harbour. In the photo are three generations of my family. My grandfather, (middle back row) my father (far right second row) and my brother (far left front row)

The engineer was Jake Lindsey who lodged with us. He was a lovely, friendly man and remained friends with the family until his death. (He is not in the photo) 

The house where I was born on 10th October 1946, always known as Eben's, sadly being slowly taken over by nature.

The trees at the bottom of our garden, or at least what I saw as trees, appear nothing more than overgrown hedging. The nettles are rampant.

The whole island should be renamed Rabbit Island, as the rabbits seem to have taken over.

The view from a window that once held glass and curtains.

Once upon a time, these houses were filled with families and pets. Animals would be grazing the fields, other fields would be filled with various crops. vehicles and walkers would be on the roads.

Some houses seem to have weathered the storms better than others. One could almost imagine that they still could be saved.

Unfortunately, My grandmother's house, Garrispow, is not one of them. I remember that front porch. Three pots of geraniums sat in the window, red white and pink, their scent filling your nostrils the minute you entered. The garden had daffodils and poppies. I dug up some of the double-faced daffodils and took them home with me. They have followed me from house to house until they got lost among others of their kind in the gardens of Scaraben.

Inside the houses, are the remnants of ranges, and even box beds.

Unfortunately, the animals have left proof of their occupation. 
Ignoring that, can you close your eyes for a moment and imagine a family sitting around this range of an evening? 
A large kettle, singing softly, would be on the top. A brass rod would stretch across the front of the mantlepiece for drying clothes. A clock would tick away the hours. Most likely a radio would be imparting either news or music, whatever the family's preference. 
Most families had a dog and a couple of cats.
 In winter months, the man of the house might be making lead sinkers for the fishing, knitting nets or playing games with the children, mother would be knitting or sewing. 
Sometimes the neighbours came around and there would be a sing-song. My mother played the accordion, and my granny had a repertoire of songs. Or we might be playing records on the gramophone which was powered by winding up, and the needle changed every time. 

We had three records, China Doll and Love Song of the Waterfall by Slim  Whitman,  The Little Red Caboose behind the Train by the Pichard Family and Just a Poor Batchelor by Frankie Laine. 

Not quite the same but as near as I can find to our original music center. Imagine us, four bairns, and I guess more with the cousins and all, dancing along 

Time to go home, and down to the harbour we trek. We must leave our island once more to the sheep, the birds, the rabbits., and, of course, the ghosts of our past.

Tuesday 19 September 2023

My Stroma Home part 5 on a Dark and Stormy Night

It was a dark and stormy night -- yes, honestly, I just wrote that.

As you already know, I was brought up until the age of nine on Stroma, an island in the Pentland Firth. Our transport to and from the island was a yawl, not more than eighteen feet long.

My mother and I had been in Wick for the day and were homeward-bound in our small but sturdy craft that had weathered many a storm.  The light was fading, but we should have made it before nightfall. Suddenly, the engine died and we were plunged into darkness. 

Now, the backup plan for any boat in trouble would normally be hoisting the sail. Not only would this give us wind power, but islanders, seeing a boat under sail, would be alerted that something was wrong.  Unfortunately, my father had cleaned out the boat that day and the sail was back on the island in the sail-shed.

The tides in the Pentland Firth are pretty strong, and with no power, we were being swept towards the notorious Boars, a place where several currents meet causing whirlpools and high, lashing waves. As we were dragged nearer, we were tossed around.

Luckily my mother had bought torches that day -- a present for my cousins who lived on the island. With the light, my father and grandfather struggled to get the engine going again. Dad had bought a new part for the engine and had it in his pocket.

I was scared, crying. They put me under a tarpaulin and the spray rattled like hail above my head as the boat bucked and rose on the waves and plunged into the troughs.

Meanwhile, back on the island, my grandmother, carrying my baby sister, continued to look out the window, searching the firth for any sign of the boat. In the darkness, we were invisible, the tiny torches not able to carry enough light to send a signal.

Finally, the engine spluttered to life and we fought our way from the lashing waves back to calmer waters.

I don't remember the welcome we must have got that night as relief flooded the family. But, as I had been taught, I did say my prayers and thanked God for delivering us from the jaws of the ocean.

Our boat, The Tern, in calmer waters.


Sunday 10 September 2023

My Stroma home part 4. Difficult weather.

 Winters could be tough when the boats could not get to sea or across the firth for fresh supplies. Yet, as a child, I don't remember ever feeling hungry or cold, so I guess the hardy island folk were always well prepared. 

My mother baked a lot, pancakes, bannocks, and sponges. Biscuits were a treat. Traditional sweets were a treat, but she often made tablet. 

We had a plentiful supply of chickens, salt herring, hard fish, and tinned food, and I imagine the shop was well stocked up in preparation for inclement weather.

The coal boat came once a year so the coal had to be rationed to last till the next coal boat came. 

In January 1955, we had the worst Snowstorm I ever remember.

'There's going to be a blizzard.' my father said, and we watched as he brought in extra drinking water and coal, and a large shovel. I didn't worry over much. whatever happened my parent were there and they would keep me safe.

The following morning, I woke up to a silent darkness. The house was encased in snow. My father was already tunnelling his way to the byre to tend the animals. He also tunnelled a path upwards, and once the blue sky could be seen, we children, decked out in wellingtons, hats coats and scarves, clambered out. Only the top of the roof and the chimneys were visible.  The large drifts made excellent sledge slopes. We could tunnel in and build caves, then fall back indoors with freezing feet and fingers, desperate to warm up and get outside again. The fact that our snow caves could collapse and bury us never entered our heads. When we ran out of water, my father brought in tin pails full of snow and put it on the stove to melt. 

Several of our sheep wandered over the cliff edge and fell down, sinking in the soft snow. My father tied a rope around his middle and rescued them. Trapped in their freezing bubble, and no doubt kept insolated by thick woolly coats, all had survived. 

Unfortunately for us children, being snowed in did not last long. I well remember the disappointment when I woke up one morning and the snow had almost disappeared. 

We perhaps fared better than many of our mainland neighbours, since those who relied on electricity had to do without. We relied on bottled gas and solid fuel and still had warmth and light. 

1953 brought a gale and floods all over Britain. Our sturdy wee houses fared better than many mainland dwellings. It was reported that 300 lives were lost in the UK. We didn't go to bed that night, but sat up and listened as the wind railed and battered our cottage. Strangely the wireless did not lose a connection and continued to report the progress of the storm until morning. I understand a great wall of water hit the north end of Stroma where the land was flatter, sending the coastal dwellers running up the rise while the sea poured into their houses. 
Next day, many households woke up to discover their wooden porches had gone. Many roofs had been damaged, ours included. 

1955 was Scotland's sunniest year on record. After a cold winter and a cold June, July and August were the hottest since 1911, giving a memorable summer. Not only was it hot on Stroma, but dry. Most of the wells dried up, leaving only a spring called 'the Stroop,' which supplied a constant source of drinking water, but even it was eventually reduced to a trickle.  

The big drums behind our house which stored rainwater also ran dry and my father carted containers of water from a pond near the lighthouse. Since the animals also needed to drink, it must have been hard days for the adults. 

Sunday 27 August 2023

My Stroma Home part 3 School days.

 School days

I left home on my first day of school clutching my brother's hand. I held fast although we didn't like each other very much. At the top of the hill and in sight of the playground, he refused to take my hand any more. He obviously didn't want this friends to see him  hold his little sister's hand!

 There were four of us new entrants, three girls and a boy.  The school consisted of two ends, the Beeg end for the older kids, and the Peedy end for the younger ones. Once upon a time, there were two teachers, one for each end. When I started there was only one. Mrs Wares. and we all sat in the Beeg end warmed by a small stove. On rainy days, we hung our coats near the stove to dry. No matter how far away we lived, we had no choice but to walk.

There were two doors, one for the boys and one for the girls, but the boy's door was permanently shut, again due to lack of numbers. Our toilets were outside, again separate toilets and consisted of buckets beneath wooden seats with the customary hole. 

The school building is no more and used for dipping sheep.

To one side was what we called the Cookery. Made of corrugated iron, it still stands defiantly against the elements and is mistakenly referred to as the School Room by day trippers, possibly since many of the exercise books were taken from the school rooms and stored there. 

The cookery was originally used to teach girls cooking, hence its name, but when I lived there it was the equivalent to a village hall for the islanders. After our Christmas treat, where the children put on a concert and received gifts from Santa, there was a dance for all in the Cookery. A white powder called Slipperine was liberally sprinkled on the floor and we loved sliding up and down on it. We were ordered to behave when the band struck up and the adults took to the floor.

Looking back over the years, it can be imagined how busy and thriving the island once was by the number of children attending school. 

This early photo is dated 1907.

This early photograph is dated July 1932. Back then Children could be educated in the school until they were ready for university if that was their aim. Many had to leave as soon as the law allowed,  at age thirteen, as they were needed on the land or to help at home. My mother had to become a full-time carer for her grandmother who was housebound.

Unable to find a date for this one.

The below photo was taken before I started. We joined those children for a year and then the majority of them left for secondary school.


And finally, the last two pupils left before the school closed for good.

As you see, a busy school, a busy island. I believe there were four shops on the island and a pub at one time. Also, the Floating shops from Orkney visited every fortnight. they came to buy as well as sell. I will deal with that in a later episode. 

When I lived there there was only one co-op shop built in the center of the island. 

Sunday 13 August 2023

My Stroma home part 2 Life on an island.

Stroma is divided into two areas. The north is Nethertown and the South side is Uppertown. We lived on the south side looking over the firth towards John O'Groats. 

Our cottage was a typical Butt and Ben, the design found all over the Highlands; a rectangular shape consisting of three rooms and attic space, with an outside lavatory. According to Wikipedia, it is a two-roomed dwelling, perhaps because the third room is very small, but in many cases still held a double bed and a chest. The Butt is an all-purpose room, a kitchen, living room and bedroom in one tiny space, the bed encased in an alcove in the wall and hidden by a curtain or shutters. The Ben room was usually the best room. Again with a box bed, fireplace and possibly easy chairs. 

Some cottages had extra porches at the front, and others had extra rooms added on with their own door, a granny flat would be the modern-day equivalent. 

We had a black Dover Range with a boiler to one side, so there was a supply of hot water. The box bed had been converted into fitted cupboards. We had a table and chairs, two comfortable chairs by the range and a chaise longue in worn brown leather which could be converted into a bed.  

No TV in those days but the wireless (radio) was constantly on, giving us news of the outside world. I particularly remember the children's program,  'Listen With Mother,' at about two o'clock every day. 

Before the days of Calor gas, I vaguely remember the Tilly lamp being suspended from the ceiling. 

Later that was replaced by the most modern of modern inventions, Calor gas.  Gas lights replaced the oil lamps, and cooking was now done on a gas cooker. For washing clothes, we had a gas boiler, a Godsend for my mother who had previously scrubbed my father's boilersuits which stank of oil and fish, on the step outside. She even had a gas iron! 

Being the gas engineer for the district was yet another job for my overworked father. He was now a crofter/fisherman/occasional lighthousekeeper and Gas representative. During the time he did spend at home, he taught us to play chess, draughs, Monopoly and cards (the only games we owned) and played hide and seek with us or read from Alice and Wonderland, which seemed to be the only children's book we owned. He read it in put-on voices and always made it sound different somehow. We loved those readings! Other indoor games we played were Hide the Thimble, I Spy, Consequences and The Minister's Cat.

Our small back room was referred to as the Closet, or scullery. In there we stored food, drinking water brought from a well, and a small table holding a basin beneath a tap. Water for washing came from two large tanks outside and was piped through the wall. they either caught rainwater or were filled manually during dry periods. Our roof was not slate, tile or even thatch, but flagstones quarried locally and cemented together. 

My parents slept in the Ben end, and the children slept in the attic. My father was handy and fashioned two bedrooms up there, one for my two brothers and one for myself and my sister. It wasn't a high attic and standing upright was impossible for an adult. The staircase was very steep, not dissimilar to a wooden stepladder, for comparison.

We often had relations come to stay for a holiday. At those times my parents gave up their bed and somehow managed to squeeze in beside us! Our wee room was than wall-to-wall bed!    

 Left was the view from our skylight. We called it The Chapel, but it was never used as a place of worship in my lifetime.           

The kirk, standing roughly in the middle of the island, is the kirk. It was well attended on a Sunday and still stands proud to this day. With its steeple, it can be seen clearly from the mainland.

The manse is attached to the far end and is now used as a home for the owner. 

 The public phonebox was not added until 1953.

The interior, in my memory, is reminiscent of all old churches, smelling of books, wood and beeswax, that unique smell only churches seem to have. The triangular dome above the pulpit was bright red. 

After the last sad service, the bible was left open at the last reading, the hymn books left open at the last hymn ever sung in that wee kirk, 'God be with you till we meet again.' 

That must have been a very poignant service indeed. I can just imagine the congregation filing out in silence, hearts too full to speak. I was just a young child, and none of it touched me.  
Unfortunately, the building has been emptied and is now used as a store.

Above are the children of the Sunday School on that same last day. I'm the one with the long legs in the middle!

Saturday 5 August 2023

My Stroma home part one, an introduction

 Looking over the firth from John O'Groats, one might assume that Stroma Island is still populated. These sturdy wee houses, built many years ago by the crofters themselves, have withstood the test of time and only on close inspection can one see the devastation caused by the elements, the birds and the sheep.

The Norse gave Stroma its name, Straumsey, the island in the stream. The first written history of the island is by Norsemen who we know inhabited the island in the eleventh century. There is evidence that a Pictish community existed there before that. 

On the 1872 Ordnance Survey map, there are two castles on Stroma. Castle Mestag, of which a few pieces of masonry remain, is on a stack off the southwest side of the island and the other is simply marked as 'Castle' on a rocky promontory at Flendie Clett on the Southeast side.I believe a chambered tomb exists near the North End, but I don't know of anyone who has been able to find it.

From the mainland, Kennedy's mausoleum is also plainly visible near the shore on the Southest side. Built in the seventeenth century, it still stands defiantly against the elements with only part of the upper story, a dovecot, in partial ruins. All around it is the graveyard, where many tombstones bear testament to the thriving population who lived, worked and died on the island.

My claim to fame is that I was the last baby to be born on the island. Thereafter babies were born on the mainland. 

My parents bought a cottage formally known only as Eben's, and they flitted in. That same evening my mother went into labour, The following morning, on a beautiful sunny October day, I was born. And there I lived until I was nine years old. 

The cottage was a typical Caithness croft house, with three downstairs rooms, an outside toilet, and an attic space which my father later converted into two bedrooms, one for me and my sister, and one for my two brothers.

At the front was my mother's vegetable garden. The only flowers there were poppies and a few daffodils. The garden was bordered by small trees with an evergreen at one side.

Sadly, we were the last family to live in that house. We sold our livestock, including our beloved Petty the sheep who we had reared from an orphaned lamb.

Thursday 20 July 2023

Updates on my life

 Follow the Dove: Book one of the Raumsey saga (Raumsey series 1) eBook : Byrne, Catherine M: Kindle Store

Reviews: Follow the Dove (3)

Paperback edition

Review of 'Follow the Dove'

Title: Follow the Dove
Author: Catherin Byrne
• ISBN-13: 978-1848768062
Publisher: Matador
Published: December 2011
Copyright © 2011
General Subject Matter: The life of a young woman in Scotland, and the families with
 which she became involved.
Theme: Lifestyle of the early 20th century in Scotland.
Thesis: The story surrounding 2 families living on 2 small islands off the coast 
of Scotland in 1899, and 1900. Here we find that the poor were not an exception 
to the normal population; the poverty stricken were the basis of most of the 
Jobs were almost impossible to find, and if a man could get work on a fishing boat, 
he would be away from home most of the time, leaving his wife, and children
 to find whatever was available to stay alive. The land was not highly fertile, so 
only small patches of vegetables were available, and any grass was for the sheep, 
whose lambs brought small inputs of cash when they were sold at the summer 
market. Bartering was the main method of obtaining anything needed for the 
house, as cash was just too rare to be thought of.

The reader is introduced to Isa Muirison in the first sentence of this novel, and
 she becomes a window into the lives of the Muirison family, and the Ried family. 
‘The first time she saw him Isa forgot to breathe.’ This sentence sets the atmosphere 
for the entire book. It allows the eye to naturally flow from page to page while 
the story of Isa’s coming of age unfolds. The narrative descriptions are used in 
every scene just enough to give the reader the background needed to continue, 
while the dialog of the characters tells the reader just how important every word is. I
sa’s life is followed closely during her triumphs, disappointments, and disasters. 
The effects of these events and their ramifications upon those close to Isa make 
this book into a compelling story for every reader.
The Author, Catherin Byrne, is Scottish, and her knowledge of her country and 
its history comes out in every word spoken by her characters. Authentic older 
Scottish names, and dialog reinforce the story further, and the fact that it takes
 place on the islands of Kirkwall, and Raumsey, just off the coast of Scotland is 
the icing on the cake. This author can write. Her story remains compelling up to
 and including the last page. Catherin Byrne has written a novel that is worth far 
more than the price of the book. RB
8th October 2017
 Helpful? Upvote 12
Paperback edition

A great story set in the Far North of Scotland

I started to read "Follow the Dove" by Catherine M Byrne and found myself 
immersed at once in this compelling story so vividly written by newcomer 
Catherine M. Byrne from Wick.
After the first few pages I knew I had to keep going, I was desperate to get to 
know the characters better, to understand them and to get involved in the way 
they lived their working and private lives in very remote and sparsely populated 
"Follow the Dove" is a strong story and very relative to the period and the setting.
 The characters involved become very real. You feel their pain, frustation and 
anger at what life throws at them.
Many older readers, especially those from the North of Scotland and the Northern 
Isles, will be able to relate to this harsh way of life which existed before and for 
some time after the turn of the 20th century. Catherine Byrne leads you into the 
islanders way of thinking, working and socialising until you believe they really 
Thank you Catherine for filling a space on my bookshelf with a wonderful, 
wonderful read; you most certainly have a winner on your hands!
14th January 2018
 Helpful? Upvote 8
Paperback edition
by JanetW

A compelling read

Once I started on this book I could hardly put it down. It is set in Orkney in 1
900 but it could be any farming, fishing community in those days. 
I could relate immediately to the characters. Within a few pages 
they felt like family and I kept reading wanting to know more. 
The plot moves along at a cracking pace with humour and tragedy never 
far apart. I would heartily recommend this novel.
2nd February 2018
 Helpful? Upvote 7