“Did Shetland have any special Christmas traditions in the past?” I asked storyteller Elma Johnson, whose spellbinding performances are so greatly enjoyed throughout the isles.
“Oh goodness yes,” she replied. “Let me look out my file.”
And so, a few days later, I found myself sitting in the cosy kitchen of Elma’s house in Bigton, looking through a fascinating archive of stories and rituals from times long ago. Elma has very kindly granted me permission to relate some of them in this column.
Nowadays we think of the Christmas season as one in which only benign forces are abroad, but back then it was a very different matter, and folk, says Elma, were “very, very superstitious”.
Seven nights before Yule was Tul-yas-e’en. This was the night when the trows received permission to leave their underground homes and come into the townships. In order to safeguard their lives and property it was important for people to observe the ritual called “saining”.
This took the following form. At sunset you laid two straws from your yard in the shape of a cross at its entrance. After that you drew a hair from every animal on the croft, plaited them together and fastened them above the byre door. Next you carried a blazing peat log through all the outhouses.
The following day, Tammasmas e’en, was particularly holy and no work or any kind of amusement were permitted. Byana’s Sunday, the one before Yule, was a day of prayer. That evening half a cow’s head was boiled and eaten for supper, after which the skull was carefully cleaned. A candle was stuck in its eye socket, and this was lit a few days later. I asked Elma why this was, but she said that she didn’t know and doubts if there is anyone who could tell you now.
On Yule e’en, after the main bread had been baked, a round oatcake was kneaded for each child, varying in size according to the child’s age. These were pinched into points around the edges and a hole was made in the centre. They were called Yule Cakes, and they symbolised the returning sun.
Every member of the family washed their whole body, with three red embers placed in the water in order to prevent the trows from taking away the powers of their hands and feet. The entire house was cleaned and set in order.
All locks were opened and polished, and an iron blade was put in a prominent place near the door, for the trows cannot stand the sight of iron. As an added protection a Bible was sometimes left open. A light was kept burning all night long.
On Yule morning the head of the household rose early and lit the candle in the eye socket of the cow’s skull. Next he went to the byre and fed his cows with better food than usual. After that he went round the house with a bottle of spirits and gave every person, young and old, a dram while saying the words Yule guide an Yule gear, follow de trow aa da year. The bairns looked into the socks they had hung on the raep the night before, and lighted candles were placed in every window. A fiddler did the rounds from house to house.
No work was permitted to be done on that day, and to break this rule would bring dire misfortune: Nedder bake nor brew, shape or shew upon gude Yule, else muckle dul will be dy share dis year and mair. The biggest barn in the township would have been cleared for dancing and merrymaking, which lasted until morning.
Presents in the old days were humble and homemade, using materials such as wood, string, paper and cotton. However, it is said that on one Yule e’en there came to Shetland a very special gift, which is still treasured to this day.
A peerie orphan lass, who was being raised by her beloved grandmother, lay in her bed mourning the fact that she had no present to give her granny the following morning.
Just as she was about to fall asleep an old, fat, wise and kindly spider appeared and spun thread for her, with which she was able to make the finest of shawls, which her granny found lying on the bed when she brought the child her morning cup on Yule day. So greatly did folk admire the shawl when they saw it that they tried to make others the same, and thus it was that Shetland lace was born.
In these days, when Christmas is so commercialised, it is touching to look back to a time of simple pleasures and celebrations. It is also interesting to try and guess why the spectre of evil or bad luck hovered over them.
Elma is of the belief that at some time in the very distant past the original Shetland folk might have been driven into the hills by incoming settlers, who went on to retain a fear of those they had ousted and the places they had retreated to.
This seems a very plausible explanation. It is also possible that the remoteness of the place and the hardships of life meant that even at a time of happiness people were aware of how precarious their wellbeing was. We shall never know for sure.
Events at social club
A couple of fun nights out between Christmas and New Year are planned for Sandwick Social Club.
On Monday at 8.30pm there is a quiz, featuring general knowledge questions and probably a few as well on the events of the past year. Entry costs £1.
On Wednesday the band Scaldin Bragg will be performing at the club from around 9.30pm. Entry is free and the event is for members and guests only.
Christmas Eve service
To celebrate the arrival of Christmas Day, the Rev Gordon Oliver will be conducting a watchnight service at Gulberwick Church tonight, starting at 11.30pm. The service is especially for adults and will be followed by tea and coffee.
The South Mainland Community Association Senior Citizens Group enjoyed a party in Levenwick Hall last week.
The group doesn’t meet again until April, and this was their final event of the year. “We’re going out with a bang,” said secretary Ann Black, as crackers snapped around her.
What a treat I had last week when I was invited along to a preview of the musical, entitled Countdown to Christmas, which Cunningsburgh School’s Primary 4-7 classes were rehearsing as part of the school’s Christmas concert.
The Primary 1-3 classes had done a run-through of their contribution that morning: a traditional nativity play called Happy Birthday Jesus, which tells the story of Jesus’ birth. The peerie bairns did a wonderful job of learning their lines and their songs, I was informed, and the school was very grateful to all the parents who helped them with that, and with the making of costumes. Mrs Pottinger, the school’s “fantastic music teacher” was also praised for her input.
Sparkling songs and lovely costumes were very much a feature of Countdown to Christmas too, and a lot of hard work and the six weeks of rehearsals had certainly paid off.
The show got off to a cracking start with a rousing musical number interspersed with the loud ticking of a clock, which introduced us to our narrators, Tick and Tock, whose animated performances took us through the countdown to the big day.
We also met the family whose seasonal preparations the show followed. The busy mum, bank manager dad, naughty little sister and big brother were all well-cast and delightfully portrayed. So was the fairy godmother who stepped in to help organise the occasion, providing the kind of magical support no home should be without at this time of year.
In a sequence of pacy scenes a very credible bunch of decorators hung garlands and mistletoe, ladies weighed down with parcels sang a wonderful bluesy song about shopping till they dropped, and the fairy godmother gave the mum some time off from cooking by ensuring that a burnt turkey meant the family had to go to a Greek restaurant on Christmas Day. The result was a show-stopping number, complete with Greek dancing.
Other elements of the classic British Christmas included teachers organising a nativity tableau, to the accompaniment of a sweetly harmonious song which revealed a wealth of musical talent, and a hit single for Christmas, performed with style and gusto on brightly-painted cardboard guitars.
The show ended with a joyful group chorus worthy of the West End, and a rendition of We Wish You A Merry Christmas that raised the rafters. Pupils and teachers alike deserve a big hand for putting together such a fine entertainment.
How we are celebrating Christmas is of course a time of traditional celebrations, yet most families have their own rituals without which the day would not be complete.
There are also tasks which still have to be performed and jobs that need to be fitted around. So what sort of things will South Mainland folk be doing over the Christmas period? I asked a few to find out.
Lesley Simpson, head teacher at Dunrossness Primary School, loves her pupils’ excitement at this time of year. “The buzz rubs off on everybody,” she says. She will be enjoying Christmas at home in Bigton, with all the cooking shared and each member of the family involved. The holiday won’t mean she’s just putting her feet up, however. “I’ll also be monitoring what my pupils learnt this term and preparing for next.”
Everyone lending a hand is part of Lorna Burgess’s Christmas too, and with good reason as there will be eight or nine people round the table.
“It’s always very family orientated,” says Lorna, who lives in Boddam and runs Robin’s Brae Shetland Pony Stud. “We eat late afternoon, turkey and all the trimmings. The foals have to be fed too, the same as everybody else. They get their meal later than usual on Christmas Day though, because we open our presents first.”
Alex Dodge, who lives in Aith, Cunningsburgh, will also be feeding animals on Christmas morning, but her cattle, ducks and hens eat at 7am, before presents are opened.
Christmas Day will be a brief spell of family time for Alex, between her shifts as watch officer for the coastguard. A keen cook, Alex will be roasting a goose raised by a friend, and accompanying it with her own home-grown vegetables. Again, everybody gets involved in the catering.
“No one person should be stuck in the kitchen,” says Alex, who also bakes shortcake to give as gifts. And along with the traditional fare she usually makes some homemade raspberry ice-cream, which she says is a change from the richness of everything else. She looks forward to peerie guizers calling round on Christmas Eve.
Far-flung family members can mean that folk travel outwith Shetland for Christmas. Sandwick residents Jane Matthews and Juan Brown will be visiting both sets of parents on Christmas day, which means driving from Nottingham to South Wales.
“It also means we consume the maximum possible amount of food, in the form of two Christmas dinners,” says Jane.
Steve and Elizabeth Mitchell and their young sons, who live in Levenwick, will be staying with Elizabeth’s family in Wiltshire. Elizabeth has a Guyanese background, and for breakfast on Christmas day will be eating a dish called garlic pork. Raw pork is marinated in vinegar, lots and lots of garlic, very hot peppers, thyme and cloves, for up to four weeks, before being fried on Christmas morning. “It’s the smell of Christmas for me and my family,” says Elizabeth.
As for my partner Raymond and I, we eat our Christmas dinner in the evening. We will start the day with a brunch of scrambled eggs and smoked salmon, and hope to go for a walk at Sumburgh Head on Christmas afternoon.
Have a good one everybody.