The view stretched beyond the point o’ Smithaquoy across the azure sea to Papay, while in the middle distance the Loch o’ Swartmill lay like a jewel set in a band of golden marsh marigolds, embellished with the inevitable pair of swans.”
That’s a description of a Westray scene from Jack Cooper, looking back to his boyhood in the island in A Pot of Island Broth, published by The Orkney View twenty-five years ago.
He looks back at days of work on the sea and on the land.
March is a fickle month when the crisp crumbling of the drying furrow can turn to mud and from mud to frozen rigidity in a matter of a day or two. But I remember it as the month of hope when the seed oats were set aside, when the annual seed and manure order arrived in the old S.S. Orcadia, and there might be a ‘hurl’ to the pier to fetch it home. Strange words were in the air also, indicative of the gradual invasion of agricultural science, words like New Zealand Wild White clover, Alsyke, Cosk’s Foot, Super Phosphate and Basic Slag. Turnip seed was ordered by name to suit the soil, and new varieties of potatoes were tried. There was a wind of change arriving with the winds of March.”
For those of us arriving today, the journey is by car ferry to Rapness. Out on deck we can watch gannets appearing from nowhere out of a clear blue sky, swift darting arrows of white, cutting the waves with a splash to appear again, beak fish-filled, up and away to fade ever higher. Solitary bobbing black guillemots turn a beady eye to the churning wake of the passing vessel – as if to say ‘Fancy seeing you here?’ – then diving under the rolling swell as the boat thrashes past. Perhaps you will be lucky enough to see a comical puffin, flapping his stubby wings, disappearing under the waves; then nothing for breath-holding ages, until a cheeky face emerges, then flaps away with a beak full of the day’s catch.
Tysties, auks and tammie-norries
The island provides the visitor with an opportunity to enjoy the day’s catch from the local boats, crab and lobster and fish from deeper water. The green fields and black cattle produce fine beef, and mutton as well, and there is also the ‘Holmie lamb’ – from the ancient breed of seaweed-eating sheep like those of North Ronaldsay, which are kept out on Rusk Holm and the Holm of Aikerness.
Eighty years ago Jack Cooper was out on Rusk Holm for weeks at a time, gathering in the winter’s harvest of tangles with his friends, working out on the rocks amongst the seals and the sheep and the birds.
Every day we worked we were attended by clouds of common and Arctic terns. They floated in and out of the smoke like little snowflakes, and their grating cries were a constant background. Tysties also found the Holm a congenial habitat, and in the evening, when leisure allowed, we could locate the nests of dozens of storm petrels by their ‘churring’ emerging from gaps in the sheep dykes. Gulls of several types abounded, and many flights and rafts of auks and tammie-norries from the Rapness cliffs passed by on their fishing forays.”
Fish and crab and Holmie lamb
You can see scenes of Westray on the website of Westraak, who have been running island tours for the past ten years. Graham and Kathy Maben will collect you from the boat or the plane, and take you to see the island sights – the lighthouse and cliffs at Noup Head, the Aikerness Craigs, Noltland Castle, the Norse site with its boat noust at Quoygrew. And in the evening there is all the local food to enjoy, and the warmth of a Westray welcome.
BEETROOT AND BEREMEAL PANCAKES
You can make a pile of these and they’re quick and easier than blinis. Use a large mixing bowl.
- Sift together 100g plain wheat flour with the same amount of bere meal, and 2 heaped teaspoons baking powder.
- Season lightly with sea salt and ground black pepper
- Liquidise till smooth 2 small or 1 large freshly boiled or baked beetroot (you can buy a vacuum pack if needed) and add to the bowl.
- Break in 2 large eggs and then beat to a smooth batter, the consistency of thick cream, with tepid water.
- Heat a girdle or large frying pan on a medium heat, oil lightly, then drop dessertspoonfuls of the mix onto the hot surface to bake.
- When bubbles break and burst on the surface, flip over to bake on the other side.
- Cool on a wire tray wrapped in a clean dish towel.
- Serve warm.
- Cover each pancake with finely shredded lettuce leaves, then top with a spoon of either of the following fishy toppings fresh from Pierowall.
Pierowall Fish Sweet Chilli Mackerel
Remove the skin and flake fresh roughly into a bowl, remove any stray bones.
Moisten to taste with a little mayonnaise or sweet chilli sauce.
Hot Smoked Horseradish Salmon
Mix flakes of delicious hot smoked salmon with horseradish sauce to taste.
WESTRAY CRAB MUSHROOMS
To serve four people.
- Take 4 Portobello mushrooms, wash, remove the stems and chop.
- Brush with melted butter and lay on a baking tray.
- Soften in butter adding a little garlic, a dash of Worcester sauce and a good dollop of crab meat.
- Mix with 30 g grated farmhouse cheese and season with sea salt and ground black pepper.
- Fold in 1 tablespoon mayonnaise and divide between the caps of mushroom.
- Top with Westray brown bread crumbs and a knob of butter.
- Bake 10 minutes at 180C (350F or Gas 4) and serve hot and bubbling.
SLOW ROASTED HOLMIE LAMB
- Take a leg of Holmie lamb and brown lightly in a good slosh of hot oil in a large casserole dish,
- Toss in a generous mix of chopped local vegetables like onion, carrot, turnip, and add a few sprigs of fresh herbs like rosemary, thyme, bay etc.
- Add half a bottle of red wine and the same amount of stock.
- Cover. Simmer and then put into a slow oven at 150C (300F or Gas 2) to slowly cook for up to 3 hours or till tender.
- Remove from the oven to rest.
- Drain the juices into a pan to reduce by simmering to a syrupy gravy, season to taste and add a little sweetness from mint sauce or redcurrant jelly or similar.
RHUBARB AND GINGER STIR FRY RELISH
- Toss chopped fresh rhubarb into a hot wok with some light oil.
- Add about 1 inch finely grated root ginger, a handful of soft brown sugar, and a glug of whisky or similar.
- Stir vigorously over high heat till bubbling.
- Reduce the heat, cover and simmer till tender.
- Adjust seasoning with a little sea salt and perhaps a pinch of chilli flakes to heat the ginger.
- Serve with the carved lamb.
WESTRAY MEALIE TATTIES
- Cook Westray potatoes in boiling salted water till tender.
- Drain, steam and toss with butter and freshly ground oatmeal.
Mash cooked new potatoes roughly with simmered tender new carrots, stir in cream and ground black pepper and serve hot.
SUMMER FATTY CUTTIES
- A biscuit made on a girdle
- Cream 115g margarine with 60g caster sugar till light, stir in 175g plain flour sifted with a pinch of bicarbonate of soda.
- Stir in 60g chopped dried cranberries along with a pinch of ground cardamom.
- Knead together to make a smooth dough and cut into three pieces.
- Roll each piece into a long strip about 4 cm wide cut into fingers about 3.25 cm wide
- Bake on a medium hot girdle or frying pan for about 3 minutes for each side till golden.
- Cool on a wire rack and enjoy.
- Store in an airtight tin if there are any left over!