Yarnin’ is far from being a waste of time, as Althing debate proves


THE ALTHING Social Group decided to take a more lightsome approach to the monthly meeting with December’s debate entitled “Yarnin’ is a Waste of Time”.

The audience was surprisingly small – one might have thought such a motion would have raised a lot of debate in a place like Shetland with its long cultural tradition of storytelling. However, those present were well picked and the speakers all delivered excellent papers.

Before the debate the votes stood at one for the motion, 13 opposing and three undecided.

First to speak for the motion was June Johnson, who was keen to point out that before one even began to consider the meaning of the word, yarnin’ was of course a waste of time. It was often based around irrelevancies and it took up precious time and consequently prevented people from getting on with more important things.

Mrs Johnson quoted telephone conversations as a case in point. How often did someone call to impart a piece of information that could have been told very briefly before they embarked on a lengthy yarn, debating all the issues of the day and holding people up? Mrs Johnson stated that the people who do this often have no idea of how trying they can be to another’s patience.

Meetings on the street often incur the same sorts of incon­venience – people standing yarnin’ for ages when others really do need to get on.

Mrs Johnson did go on to discuss the true meaning of the word “yarn” though, stating how it derived from sailors’ tales of long ago and how it meant a tall tale or a tale spun out to some length.

The relevance or otherwise of yarnin’ was also brought into play when Mrs Johnson suggested that we no longer had any need for tales of the mystery and mystique of foreign climes when modern technology had made life altogether more efficient and convenient. A click on a mouse could give us accurate information on any topic.

Mrs Johnson did concede that it was important for traditional tales to be kept for posterity, but there was a difference between imparting useful and gainful information with a purpose and just sitting yarnin’ for the sake of it and not getting on with anything useful.

In days gone by workers did not let yarnin’ stand in the way of their work. Tales would often be told while men were at work on the croft, and the women would tell tales too, often to the children, while they worked at knitting or spinning.

But these tales would often have some moral or educational purpose for the child. As early as 1877, Shetland Fireside Tales included stories which were told as yarns within the croft houses of Shetland.

Nowadays it seems that yarnin’ has taken on an even more worrying trend with the likes of MySpace, Facebook and Bebo to mention a few. People spend hours in front of their computers chatting to friends online and generally wasting time.

In conclusion Mrs Johnson said she wasn’t denying the fact that yarnin’ was enjoyable, but it was often unnecessary and hindered people from getting on with more important things.

Bobby Hunter was quick to counteract Mrs Johnson’s argument by stating straight away that yarnin’ was a pleasant diversion from the daily chores, and that it could be informative and useful as a means of passing on and disseminating information.

Mr Hunter was keen to point out that yarnin’ could be important for the community. If a car had gone off the road, folk would want to know if the occupants were alright, and if not what could they do to help?

He said that you could not get that sort of information on a website and that this imparting of good news or bad news was all a part of keeping communities together.

Mr Hunter quoted the experience of local fishermen as part of the important role that yarnin’ had to play as regards keeping com­munication links open. The fisher­men would tell each other where they were going and what weather conditions were like, etc. These conversations might well be refer­red to as yarnin’ but really they were important in terms of pro­viding useful and gainful inform­ation.

Mr Hunter then went on to recount details of all his working activities on Saturday before he left the house in the evening to come to the Althing. There were many useful snippets of information included in the story.

As he said, it was far more enjoyable to impart this information by sitting speaking to friends rather than use impersonal methods such as email which seemed to be so commonplace nowadays.

Shetland librarian Karen Fraser said that she was rather bemused when asked to speak on the topic as her first instinct was to think that on the surface yarnin’ was a nice warm, cuddly and positive thing to do – it formed the “bread of human understanding”.

But as she began to research the topic she began to realise that there could indeed be a dark and sinister side to yarnin’ and that the vast majority of yarnin’ could be very insidious. For a start what were all these people so intent on yarnin’ most likely to be talking about? Probably about you! And it was worth bearing in mind that people rarely went on at length discussing other people’s virtues.

Miss Fraser quoted Bertrand Russell, who said: “Most con­versation plays to the worst of human nature.”

She then mentioned the “wit­tering classes”, not to be confused with the chattering classes who are nearly but not quite as bad.

The wittering classes are formed of those people who cannot shut up even if they know when and how to. These are the sorts of people who are content to “witter on and on” regardless of whether anyone is listening or not.

The wittering classes are widely spread and impossible to avoid, and they see silence as a vacuum that they and only they can fill. This means that because of their inability to stay quiet, nobody else can say anything or get a word in edgeways and so the poor listener is trapped.

The wittering classes will rarely have anything important to say but they feel it imperative to pass on their opinions none the less.

Finally, and perhaps most distressing of all, Miss Fraser was brave enough to mention the bore. The bore is a person who violates your valuable time against your will. There are of course numerous types of bore – the computer bore, the fantasy role play bore, the car bore.

The only redeeming feature of the bore is that fortunately for most of us they are likely to seek out their own kind for discussion, and if they cannot find anyone to do this with they are often quite content to hide behind their own anorak.

However, it is important to be aware of the bore as some can raise their game play to almost pro­fessional standards. The crashing bore will have honed his skills to include long digressions and diversions and with hints and tips picked up from the wittering classes once again you will be unable to state your own opinion or interject at any stage.

Miss Fraser concluded therefore that not only can yarnin’ be a waste of time, it is not necessarily a mutually beneficial activity: it can be dangerous and destructive. Therefore the young, the innocent and the naive need to be educated now. Geordie Jacobson concluded the presentation of papers for the evening by telling a few yarns of his own. He told tales from his school days about parish minister Kenneth MacRae, who had lectured local boys on the evils of “blue yarns”. The minister made it quite clear to the boys that he did not approve of these yarns but his disapproval did not extend to yarnin’ in general and Mr Jacobson felt sure that if it had the minister would certainly have told the boys.

He backed up Mr Hunter’s previous comments by stating that yarnin’ was in many ways a means of survival among people, especially in days gone by when information was passed down through generations and little was written down. Many instructions were passed on by word of mouth; people’s good and bad fortunes would be incorporated into stories which would become part of a yarn but would also be a lesson.

Mr Jacobson said that nowadays we had 24-hour news, we had the internet and information flew around the world almost instantly. But the old ways of yarnin’ had not been eclipsed and neither should they be. Yarnin’ should be a part of life.

He gave the idea of passing on instructions as a good example of the importance of yarnin’. It was often easier to carry out a task if someone explained it to you face to face or showed you how to do it, rather than trying to read instructions from a book. This comment brought murmurs of agreement from the audience.

Mr Jacobson explained that yarnin’ could also be very therapeutic. He told the tale of a doctor who once called at a house to a patient who had a non-life threatening ailment. The doctor stayed for a while and had a good yarn with the patient. It was only after he left that he realised that he had not examined the patient at all. But he realised that really the patient was only seeking re-assurance and that the good yarn with the doctor had been as good a remedy as any.

After the break there was some consternation when one of the audience members spotted that the two panellists speaking for the motion were both yarnin’ during the interval.

Order was restored, however, when it was explained the conversations were being gainfully held to pass on useful information. So that was alright then.

As a highly amusing and entertaining evening drew to a close, the votes were swung with seven voting for the motion, 11 against the motion and only one undecided.

There was bound to have been plenty of yarnin’ done in vehicles as the audience made their way home.


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