Culture

Tarka Skinner

By Bob Leslie

Glasgow-based traditional songwriter Bob Leslie is half-Orcadian, with relatives on Mainland, Graemsay, and Stronsay. As such, he takes a healthy interest in Orkney, its people, stories, and history, which have proven a great source of inspiration for his songs.

Bob’s latest piece sprang from a memory he had of a pet otter owned by a cousin of his Granny, Annie Skinner of Graemsay.

Jock Skinner was Storekeeper for the Northern Lighthouse Board in Stromness. While visiting on Graemsay, he was summoned, along with Dick Gammack (then Lighthousekeeper for Hoy Sound), to the home of one John Seatter. John had found two baby otters lying beside the body of their mother, who had been shot.

The two men offered to care for the otters, taking one each. Dick Gammack named his one “Thora.” Thora would go on to travel with Dick to his postings on Sule Skerry and Foula. Jock called his “Tarka,” after the titular hero of Henry Williamson’s popular 1927 novel “Tarka the Otter”.

Once Tarka had become accustomed to his new surroundings, and knew that they meant home, he would often be seen playing in Jock’s garden or by his slipway. Eventually, Jock started to take Tarka for walks along Alfred and Dundas Streets to his office on the Pole Star Pier. Visitors to Stromness were often astonished to sea a man in a peaked seaman’s cap strolling along with an otter “lopping along behind him”, as one person described it.

Bob mentioned the family story of the otter to an American friend, Liz Browning Fox who presents a Celtic music show on North Carolina’s Radio Hatteras. Liz immediately said, “You must make a song out of that!” Never one to turn down a lady, Bob put out a call for information of Facebook’s Orkney Past and Present and Orkney Reevlers pages.

Fortunately, a great many folk still remembered about Tarka and Jock, and posted lots of helpful information. In particular, Jock’s grandson, Colin MacLeod, got in touch and supplied a wonderful picture of his grandfather with the otter.

John Skinner with Tarka – courtesy Colin MacLeod

Bob has always felt it was a pity that the language changeover from Norn to Orcadian Scots lost so much of Orkney’s singing heritage – an absence that seems to have tilted Orkney’s musical identity pretty firmly to the side of instrumental music. While this has arguably made Orkney a world-class base for fiddlers, performers like Ivan Drever, Saltfishforty, and Fara have proven the vitality of Orcadian as a songwriting medium, and Bob likes to do his own wee bit to contribute to the balance of music and song in the islands.

So his new song, “Tarka Skinner”, is written in his best Orkney Scots. He sends many, many thanks to his Orkney “beta-testers” on Facebook who helped him sort out the mixture of Lallans and Orkney that lives in his mind (that’s what comes of being the product of a “mixed-marriage”)!

It all seems to have worked out well as the song will soon be heard on a feature broadcaster Cameron Stout is preparing on the story of Jock Skinner and his otter for BBC Radio Orkney.

In the meantime, you can hear “Tarka Skinner” here: https://bobleslie.bandcamp.com/track/tarka-skinner

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