By Ian Cooper from Records of a Bygone Age. Republished here with thanks to the Stronsay Limpet.
A couple of weeks ago, I decided I would need to do my bit to preserve one of the old Orcadian traditions and go to the spoots. I’m not exactly a regular spoot goer. In fact, the last time I went I had our two daughters, aged six and three, in tow and, as I remember it, we had just got to the edge of the sea when the younger one tripped and went her length in about four inches of water. With one soaking wet and unhappy daughter wanting to go home and another dry and very unhappy daughter wanting to stay on the beach to catch spoots, I had to admit defeat and head for home. That six year old lass had her 40th birthday a few weeks ago. As I said, I’m not a regular spoot goer!
With calendar checked for the full moon, the ‘Orcadian’ consulted for tide times, ‘gless’ tapped for the barometric pressure and forecast viewed for the wind direction and strength, it seemed that everything was falling into place nicely for late afternoon on the coming Sunday to be a good ‘spoot ebb’. Armed with the tools of the trade, consisting of a bucket (I made sure to take a small bucket so that anything I caught would appear more than it really was) and an old bread knife and, kitted out with wellies and waterproof trousers, I was good to go. The waterproof trousers were an optional extra as I had figured out that the spoots might seem just a tad further away than when I was catching them nearly forty years ago, so it would make good sense to be able to go down on my knees when hauling them. I even persuaded my good wife to come along for the jaunt, the first time she had gone to the spoots in her life, and her an Orcadian lass to boot!
Arriving at the beach, we made the fairly long trek down across the sand to the edge of the sea and began the hunt. To catch the spoots it is necessary to walk slowly backwards, watching the sand you have just crossed over intently for the tell-tale spout of water or, if the sand still has some water on top, it may appear as a little round indentation with sand churning in it, indicating that a spoot has been disturbed. This walking backwards, of course, comes with its own problems as navigation isn’t so easy and it is very easy to collide with someone going backwards in the opposite direction!
The spoot is very sensitive and feels the least vibration in the sand which makes it aware of impending danger, whereupon it digs itself deeper into the sand at an unbelievable rate! As soon as this sign appears, the bread knife must be thrust its full length into the sand and pulled across until, if you are lucky, the blade comes into contact with the shell of the spoot. It is possible to feel in the hole to find in which direction the spoot is going and this can be useful in deciding where the knife should be inserted to catch the spoots.
More experienced spooters appear to know in which direction the spoot is headed by the shape of the hole or the way the sand is churning, although I’ve never mastered that technique. Once contact is made, a steady pressure must be maintained on the knife and, in theory at least, this sideways pressure stops the spoot in its tracks. The other hand is then used to scoop away the sand until contact is made with the top of the spoot when, with a firm grip it can be gradually eased out of the sand.
This is the tricky part where a slow, steady pull must be maintained to have any chance of success. With all those other spoots just waiting to be caught, it is all too easy to lose patience and pull a little too quickly with the result that the large digging foot (called the ‘fruit’ locally) is pulled out of the shell and is lost. This fruit is the main edible part of the spoot so it is of limited value without it.
It is also possible, if the sand is reasonably dry, to pour a little salt down the hole left by the rapidly descending spoot. This increase in salinity is too much for the spoot, forcing it to return to the surface where, a few minutes later, it can be seen sticking just above the sand and picked up at your leisure. This method was always frowned upon by the purists as a form of ‘cheating’ as little skill was involved and, with the local cemetery not far distant from the beach, would probably have a few of the old timers turning in their graves!
I’ve often wondered what a stranger might make of seeing folk at the spoots for the first time. Folk at the edge of the sea walking slowly backwards then suddenly bending over or falling to their knees and digging ferociously in the sand. Some kind of ancient ritual perhaps, to welcome the coming of spring or to pay homage for a bountiful harvest? Or maybe just had a tad too much home brew? I’ve also wondered how this would appear if it was filmed and then played backwards, so that everyone seemed to be walking forwards. Anyone out there with a video camera?
There were actually eleven folk on the sands that evening, the most I’ve seen for many a day; some simply because it was such a glorious evening and some, like me, to try to keep alive an old tradition, with over 70 years spanning the youngest (a 9 month old baby in a sling on her mum’s back) to the oldest. It was a great opportunity to enjoy what was a beautiful Orkney evening and to have a socially distanced yarn with some of the other spooters, so having a few spoots for supper was really just a peedie bonus!
If you’ve had a good haul of spoots and want to try something different, this photo caught my eye on Facebook! This is how Marion, Adrian and Filip, who were at the spoots that same evening, enjoyed the spoots they caught.
All caught, gathered or baked within a couple of miles from their house. You can’t get less food miles than that!
That looks very tasty and is making me feel hungry! Looks like it could be a good spoot ebb at the weekend again – noo where did I leave that knife………
Related article: Gaan Tae The Spoots – Part 1