Records of a Bygone Age by Ian Cooper
Republished here with kind permission of the Stronsay Limpet
Strictly speaking this isn’t a record of a bygone age at all, as ‘gaan tae the spoots’ is still a pastime enjoyed by a dedicated but seemingly ever decreasing group of folk, although apparently not taken as seriously as in days of yore.
Spoot is, of course, an Orcadian word and, according to the Orkney Word Book, ‘spoot’ has several meanings:
- To spout (send out liquid in a forcible stream)
- A razor fish or razor clam
- A rain gutter under the eaves of a house
The spoot I’m talking about here is the razor fish, or razor clam. Found in many sandy bays around Orkney, it gained the name of ‘spoot’ by its mechanism when disturbed of spouting out a jet of water as it digs itself deep down into the sand away from any predator.
Spoots are, as you probably realise, only to be found in the areas of sand exposed during the extremely low tides that occur near the Spring and Autumn equinoxes. This phenomenon of exceptionally low tides at those times of year are described on Google as follows.
“During full or new moons – which occur when the Earth, sun, and moon are near-ly in alignment – average tidal ranges are slightly larger. This occurs twice each month. The moon appears new (dark) when it is directly between the Earth and the sun. The moon appears full when the Earth is between the moon and the sun. In both cases, the gravitational pull of the sun is “added” to the gravitational pull of the moon on Earth, causing the oceans to bulge a bit more than usual. This means that high tides are a little higher and low tides are a little lower than average. In the weeks around the spring and autumn equinoxes, the Sun exerts a stronger pull on the Earth than the rest of the year, because of the alignment between the sun and the equator. Consequently, the water sur-face is strongly attracted by the Sun, which accentuates tides. We call them “great tides””.
Orcadians tend to describe this in more down to earth and much shorter, but no less descriptive, terms as ‘spoot ebbs’.
On Stronsay, a number of beaches and sandbanks are home to the elusive spoots but St Catherine’s Bay was always by far the most popular place for catching spoots. Sadly, the future of this whole bed and others like it was put at risk a few years back. A fishing boat with divers aboard was seen on numerous occasions going very slowly back and forth across the bay and there was concern locally that the crew were making use of the highly illegal method of electro-fishing for the razor clams in that area. This method uses electrodes trailing from the boat to shock the clams in the seabed, causing them to rise up out of the sand where they are then easily collected by divers. This practise, banned across Europe since the 1990s, soon attracted the attention of the Fisheries Protection Agency and before long, a Fisheries Protection Vessel appeared around Rothiesholm Head.
A Rigid Inflatable Boat (RIB) was quickly deployed in the direction of the fishing boat which immediately set off at full steam through Linga Sound, with the Fisheries RIB in hot pursuit! This was really no contest and the RIB very soon overtook and stopped the boat, then came alongside at which point Fishery officers boarded her. After some considerable time, when it would have been good to have been a fly on the wall, both boats went on their way, with the RIB returning to ‘mother ship’ and the fishing boat continuing down the sound at a much reduced speed. We had a grandstand view of all this taking place from our kitchen window and it certainly made for an entertaining afternoon. Who needs reality television when this sort of drama can be viewed live right outside your window?
There was suspicion locally that the divers may have jettisoned their equipment on sighting the RIB and, sure enough, the boat appeared back briefly a couple of days later which, it was assumed, may well have been to recover their equipment off the seabed.
Luckily, this seemed to put an end to this practise locally but the beds don’t seem to have fully recovered yet as the spoots are much fewer in number than previously,
When I first remember going to the spoots there could be twenty or more folk on the sands at St Catherine’s, spread right along the water’s edge, but now I’m afraid there are seldom more than two or three diehards looking to catch their supper.
Gaan tae the spoots was (and still is) a serious business. As said previously, the highest and lowest tides (spring tides) normally occur a few weeks on either side of the spring and autumn equinoxes and they also have a direct relationship with the phase of the moon. The lowest tides occur on or, more usually, a day or two after, a full moon or a new moon and this is when the ‘spoot sand’ is exposed – the lower the tide, the more sand is exposed. Simple, really.
But this is only a start. The serious spoot goer, once he or she has consulted the calendar to determine the moon phase and checked the ‘Orcadian’ for the tide times, then goes to the barometer (the gless) on the wall and gives it a good hard tap to make sure it is doing the job it is supposed to and to see what it can tell. The higher the atmospheric pressure, the more pressure is exerted on the surface of the sea and hence the lower the tides. But there is more to do yet; the weather forecast must be consulted. An offshore wind also helps to make the sea recede that peedie bit further and might just expose that small smidgen of sand ‘where no man has gone before’ – or not for a while anyhow!