Stories from the Islands

Beltane fog

Written by Christine Muir

Beltane brought a cold fog, and a wind from the east, bending the new grass before it had a chance to grow.

The old people believe that the Beltane weather forecasts the next three months, especially the direction of the wind. It’s a time to light bonfires, to burn the winter’s accumulation of papers and letters. The flames leap upwards, throwing sparks into the air, carrying the last of the dark months’ debris off into the night.

The cattle used to be driven through the Beltane fires to protect them from disease and disaster, and the people danced, and carried burning torches round the fields, to help the sun on its journey into summer.

Today the fog has gone, and we are back to spring sunshine, so warm that my hands are sunburned already. The polyanthus and primulas along the verge, and in the old sandstone quern are in full bloom, a mixture of gold and crimson and yellow. The sea is still and blue, and there is a haze on the horizon. Everything smells new and fresh, the earth when it is dug over, the young grass, and in the stackyard the warm smell of sweet Cicely, like aniseed, or liquorice.

This herb is called myrrh in North Ronaldsay, and its official name is myrrhis odorata. It grows beside the dyke in great profusion, and its fragrant, feathery leaves can be used instead of sugar to sweeten tart fruit, or in tisanes, but we have never used it. It must have been used in the past, because every house has great bushes of it, and it spreads and flourishes, scenting the air, especially after rain. Caraway grows here, and angelica at one time, a plant cultivated by the Vikings wherever they settled.

We make no use of the plants which proliferate round the house. Dandelions and nettles are a valuable tonic in spring. Tansy and woodruff, or new-mown hay, were used to scent the clean sheets and blankets in cupboards and kists. Many of the wild plants have medicinal properties, especially scurvy grass for vitamin C deficiency.

There is plantain, lady’s smock, wild pansies, water mint, eyebright, cow parsley, chickweed, once used as a poultice, sorrel, herb Robert, stonecrop, and many others, all with medicinal properties.

Most gardens have an elder tree, once used for a variety of troubles, berry, leaf and flower. Charms were recited to ease the pain of burns and scalds, and to staunch blood, and herbs were used, for there was nothing else.

Now all the old herbs and plants are forgotten, they flower and wither almost unnoticed, their magic no longer known, or understood. But they add beauty and colour to the fields and paths, and it would be interesting to learn more about them. The kitchen herbs, thyme, marjoram, tarragon and sage, rosemary, and tall feathery dill, are homely plants. Crushed in the fingers and added to food, they are aromatic, evocative, with centuries of tradition and legend surrounding them.

The cows are finally out for the summer. They kick up their hooves and jump, pleased to feel the sun, and taste the new grass. They race round the fields sniffing the air, and find a sandy place to roll in. Already their winter coats are going, and they are looking sleek and glossy. Now that the cattle are out, the byres can be scrubbed down and their walls limed, and the doors left open to the fresh air.

The island has taken on a new aspect, and is altogether gentler, and less bleak and harsh. Young oats are up already, a green shimmer on the harrowed fields, and the nights are becoming shorter all the time. The winter always seems so long and dark, then suddenly, almost without a perceptible change, summer is almost here.

From the book Orkney Days by Christine Muir. A few copies of the book are available from the author for £11 by cheque including P&P, from Garso, North Ronaldsay, Orkney KW17 2BG.

About the author

Christine Muir

Christine is a Leith lass, who has lived in North Ronaldsay all her married life, and brought up four children on the croft, with her husband Tommy. She loves languages, history, writing, music, and her family. She also loves the Open University, which encouraged her to study for three degrees, and enabled her to teach, proving that distance is no barrier to learning.