Sea and Land

Lost sounds of my youth

Coming from two long-established Orkney families with traditions of living life to the full – the Fletts of Kingshouse on his mother’s side had family links to the writer Eric Linklater and the Drevers are descended from the man who Eric Linklater termed ‘The Ultimate Viking’ – Roy Drever was always likely to live life more fully than most other people. Making gunpowder at the age of eighteen cost him his sight and his left hand – and brought out a total determination to make sure that nothing got in the way of the sheer enjoyment of taking on every challenge that life could throw at him. Whether in his career as a programmer or out on the ski slopes, or gathering with family and friends for an evening of refreshment and stories, he did everything with energy and flair. In his later years his wife Anne persuaded him to join a writing group, as both their children, Lawrence and Helen, wanted him to put down on paper his stories and memories of childhood, and here is one of them, written in October 2019.
For the memorable sounds of my youth I have to associate listening pleasure with the hours of dusk and darkness. My bedroom at the back of the house was thirty yards from a high wall which separated our garden from a large hay meadow that ran up to the western edge of the small town of Kirkwall. Lying in bed reading with the window open, the night air never failed to carry in sounds of field-nesting birds such as corncrakes and curlews. Many times I sat on top of the wall trying to spot the corncrake that was filling the darkness with his rasping croak (the male is the one responsible for this sinister sound). Needless to say, I never got a glimpse of our most elusive bird.

The preferred habitat for corncrakes was fields of long grass which provided cover and a good food source. Curlews and lapwings preferred to nest on moorland which was less susceptible to human disturbance. Up to the early 60s, corncrakes were still plentiful in northern Scotland due to the low change from old-fashioned haymaking machinery to the more modern silage cropping system. In northern areas hay cutting would take place in early or mid summer, which means ground-nesting birds have finished nesting and their young have taken off before the harvest machinery arrives. With silage making, the grass is cut in mid-spring with the result that field-nesting birds are destroyed because they won’t leave their nests when the tractors approach. It is estimated there are only about ten breeding corncrake pairs in Orkney. To hear one it is necessary to visit the more remote islands where small-scale, low-tech farming is the norm.

In summertime when northern lands experience a couple of months of 24-hour daylight, all manner of birds are heard through the ‘night’. A blackbird might burst into song between 3 and 4 am. Seagulls would hold impromptu noisy nocturnal discussions, no doubt uninhibited by the fact they knew they had the world to themselves while human kind were sleeping (or trying to). The nightly gurgle of the curlew is one of the most haunting and evocative bird calls. It is a beautiful sound to fall asleep to – which I did many times.

Seagulls are airborne politicians. Heaven knows what they find to say to each other all day, but they are never silent from dawn to dusk. When I was young, the fishing industry produced lots of waste which kept the gulls happy and centred around the harbour. However, with our much-reduced fishing economy, seagulls now encroach on our high streets in their hunt for food. In Aberdeen you can see the odd foraging gull ‘walking’ around amongst shoppers just as though it were a stray dog.

After the meadow had been cropped, the farmer would bring in a herd of cows or sheep to feed on the stubble. It is astonishing how noisy sheep are. They are the parliamentarians of the hooved world, continually heckling, complaining, questioning and correcting. To my mind George Orwell should have chosen sheep as the leaders of the Animal Farm coup. Sheep are as vociferous as our own politicians, but they are certainly a lot more polite and respectful of each other. Like seagulls, they appear to have a lot of things to talk about. Cows and pigs munch away with just a moderate amount of communication, but horses go out of their way not to disturb their human neighbours.

I have written before about the several hundred hens my father reared for egg production. Even though 8 am in the morning seemed to me the middle of the night, the excitement and noise of the hens on seeing my arrival with buckets of food was uplifting to my dead brain. The loose hens fluttered around your feet trying to get into the bucket, while the caged hens voiced their frustration at not being to get at the early worm. They had to wait in turn for me to drop a scoop of meal into each trough.

A less pleasant agricultural noise that pierced the tranquillity of my semi-urban home came from the slaughterhouse which was about 150 yards away. It was always the terrified squeals of the pigs that struck at my ears. Maybe they had an instinct for knowing what fae was about to befall them. I don’t recall cows or sheep voicing their fear.

Another remarkable sound feature of my island home was the sudden switch from continuous wind noise in my ears during daytime to the silence of flat calm about dusk. I believe this phenomenon has something to do with land and sea temperatures changing over as darkness sets in. The impact on a listener’s sound stage is profound. All of a sudden you can hear distant noises that you can’t hear during windy daytime, such as engine noises and animal calling.

These flat calm evenings often came with banks of mist which created the conditions for weird acoustic echoes that bounced from cloud to cloud. As kids we used to have great fun shouting all kinds of nasties just to hear our voices being bounced over a wide area. The Rt Hon. John Bercow would have appreciated such sound effects.

Another association with mist and stillness is the sound of distant foghorns. Just as I described above, banks of mist cause weitd tumbling echoes when the foghorns belch out their ghostly low-frequency sighs. Nowadays, foghorns are rarely activated as ships and even smaller fishing boats carry sophisticated electronic navigational aids. 

The most omnipresent noise in a coastal community is that of the sea. It is always seeking your attention when you are by the shore, with waves slapping, stroking, sucking, hissing, and gurgling as they surge back to and fore. It is a source of fascination, the range of sounds the sea can create.  On a very calm night the sea can go completely still and silent. It is a magical experience to walk along a normally clamorous shoreline to discover the Atlantic Ocean sound asleep. You just might fancy you heard a sigh of regret for all the lives it had consumed. At the opposite extreme, the western cliffs of Orkney can sound like a dozen Heathrows with 20-metre-high waves crashing against the towering cliffs, forcing great walls of water over the top of the edifice.

One noticeable disappearance from modern human activity is that of people whistling. There are several matters of social importance going on here. First of all, I can’t recall ever hearing a woman whistle. Could this be due to the design of their lips being optimised for other signalling activity? Secondly, it could be argued that whistling is more of a working-class activity. Even when taking such environments into account, the trend nowadays is for workers to be accompanied by personal or public music replay technology. I seem to recall that whistling was discouraged in my office environment. Finally, the quality of the music played on public media is not inspiring for any would-be whistler – when did you last hear a broadcast tune that you would want to whistle, assuming you could? Back in the Sixties there were many musical genres that were a popular source of whistle tunes. For example, Scottish dance music, pipe band tunes, and the popular repertoire of the big dance bands along with the crooning tones of Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra.

About the author

Roy Drever