By Bernie Bell

Towards the end of Robert Rendall’s  ‘Orkney Shore’, under the page heading of  “O Happy Countryman!”  he writes of how ‘plain living people’ who appear to be living ‘lives of ordered simplicity’ can in fact have ‘that sensitivity and imaginative vision which makes the world such a treasure-house to live in.’

This reminded me of an old friend of my parents. When I was a child our family would go ‘home’ to Ireland every year, back to the area where both my parents were born and grew up.  We would go and visit family and old friends, among whom were Kate-Ann and Patrick-James  Rochford and their family who lived on the side of a hill by Lough Talt, County Sligo.  They farmed the land and Patrick-James also worked for the Forestry – as did many people in that area.  Very few could manage with one job – very much as was, and is, the case here in Orkney.

  A cross of trees, on the hills by Lough Talt

Kate-Ann would spin wool from their own sheep – I remember her old spinning wheel clearly – I was fascinated by it and the sound it made – very soothing.  She would then sell the wool or knit Arran jumpers from it, for which there was also a ready sale among visitors.

One of the highlights of my visits there was to be allowed to ride on the donkey, who was a multi-tasker before that term came into being.

He pulled the cart taking folk to work at the turf-banks, then he pulled it home full of turf once it was dried out enough.  He pulled or carried most things, including a little girl who was ’home’ on holiday, who loved donkeys, animals, and the whole way of life there.  I must admit – the donkey stank, but I didn’t care.

These were the impressions I had of that farm, and that family – good friends of my parents,  working land as it has been worked for a very long time.

Then, in 1991, Patrick-James published a slim booklet called  ‘Close To The Foothills : A journey in Prose and Poetry through the Ox Mountains’, which is exactly what it says it is.  He gave e copy to my Mum, my Dad having passed from this life some years before. When Mum died in 1992, the booklet came to me, and now, reading the words of Robert Rendall about how someone who can appear to just work away, on the land, attending to the weather and conditions as they need to as a farmer or fisherman, can also be aware of and responding to what is around them – as Patrick-James did.

There are chapter and poem titles worthy of ‘The Irish R.M.’ by Somerville & Ross – ‘Poteen and the Catechism’ – ‘Along the Banks of the Owenaar’ – ‘The Fair in Dromore’ – ‘The Deserters from Credan-Cille’ – ‘The Raid on Cloonbarry’  and…. ‘Out for the Day’.

There are tales of the construction and use of Iron Age earthworks in the area, such as the Ring Fort at Tullinaglug.  As Patrick-James tells us…”Tullagh we are told means ‘elevated’ place and ‘clug’ means a kind of ‘sundial’ which is believed to have been used by those who occupied this stronghold in bygone days.”

I was intrigued by this ‘sundial‘ in an Iron Age Ring Fort, and Patrick-James later explains that an old man took him to one of the look-out posts found near to the principle “Cosshells” or ‘Dunes’  and told him how they were constructed, and used to send messages…..

“ …an excavation was made to a depth of approximately ten feet.  Circular and lined with stones, in all cases wider at the top or ground level than the bottom, with a kind of narrow doorway which opened towards the south in most cases…..

……That old peep-hold, he said, in which you have taken such an interest was used as a signalling station in the days when most of the Ring-forts were occupied………

….Not with a glass mirror as we might use today, but in those days, they could polish certain types of metal, and also a substance known as mica to reflect the rays of the sun during suitable sunshine hours using code messages that never seems to have outlived their usefulness.

During the hours of darkness lights were used and we are led to believe that the residents of those massive earthworks were the first human beings to use a method of signalling similar to that now known as Semaphore.”

Patrick-James also tells of how, at one time “any person who owned a house was buried under his own roof……

…..A shallow grave was made in the floor.  The corpse was interred and covered, and the floor smoothed over again.”

Burials were found under the floor in one of the structures at Skara Brae in Orkney

How far back did this kind of practice go?  Keeping ancestors near you – for protection…and possibly consultation?

On a lighter note, tales of sports days and Fairs held on the same patch of land, on the same dates each year, for centuries – maybe more – for example the “clean dry patch of rough grazing land” known as Cnuc Na Cluiche.

I can remember a sports day by Lough Talt when I was, maybe eleven years old – rough land, maybe not ideal for sports – but great fun for everyone anyway.  In Sligo, they have to work with the land they’re given, no point griping about the stones!

Many of the old ways of life were similar in widespread farming and fishing communities, and are now fading from the places which can be linked by tales such as those told by Patrick-James – and Robert Rendall.  But folk of a certain vintage can just about remember them and some, like Patrick-James, were, unbeknown to friends, recording their responses to their lives in prose and poetry….

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