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She never brak a fence, Thro' thievish greed

Updated: Jan 27, 2020

From 'Poor Maillie's Elegy', which was written as an accompaniment to 'The Death and Dying Words of Poor Maillie', Robert Burns' tribute to his dead sheep. Maillie probably would have never broke a dyke either, "she was a sheep o' sense, An' could behave hersel' wi' mense". The North Ronaldsay sheep could've learnt a thing or two from Maillie!

According to Gilbert, Robert's younger brother, after receiving information that a ewe (yowe) had entangled herself in the tether Rabbie "set her to rights" and came up with her 'Death and Dying Words' that evening. Burns mentions sheep throughout his poetry and songs; his father had a farm and would have kept sheep, and later he kept sheep at Ellisland Farm.

And of course, sheep is essential to the Burns Supper, as a haggis. More on Burns Night later...


Olly and I returned to the section which collapsed near Westness in the recent storms to rebuild. Most of the stones which came out of the dyke were huge! When we arrived at the site there was a wee grey seal hauled out on the beach, the tide was on its way out and the sheep were still snoozing on the shore. Unlike other sheep which are diurnal (active during the day time), the North Ronaldsay sheep's biological rhythm is regulated by the tide. Following the roughly 12.4-hour transition from high to low tide and back, feeding twice a day when the seaweed is exposed by the low tide.

Whale vertebra incorporated into a dyke near Westness

I had rebuilt the foundation the previous week so we got to putting the stones back up, tying it in with the neighbouring erect dyke. Not only do many hands make light work, the morale boost of having another person building is invaluable. When the section is wide enough (3 meters this time) we work seamlessly at opposite ends, moving back and forth to the middle to ensure we're tying in with each others section.

Before After

Louise at Caven, the newest "newbies" on the island, gave Olly an introduction to pre-ferment. We have been making all our own bread since coming to North Ronaldsay - not only because fresh bread is so delicious (especially when warm from the oven!), but in an effort to live more sustainably. Homemade bread requires 3 ingredients - flour, salt and yeast. The flour comes in paper bags which can be used to light our stove, or recycled, the salt is in cardboard (same uses as the paper bag), and the yeast comes in a tin pot, which can be recyled but we use them for keeping odds and ends in, such as screws, or Denttabs*

Making bread with a pre-ferment such as Poolish takes much more time to prepare than bread using the direct yeast method, however the flavour and texture of the bread is far superior and it keeps better. Not only is it more enjoyable to eat, it's better for you. The long fermentation breaks down more gluten, which can cause digestive problems. This breadmaking method  was first developed in Poland during the 1840s and was later spread by Viennese bakers into Austria, and then into France, initiated the production of breads in Paris using the Poolish technique.

Fresh out the oven - it makes a wonderful crackling sound!

On Saturday evening there was a Burns night celebration at the Community Centre. The sports hall had been transformed into a cosy room; the walls lined with tartan, a floating ceiling of paper flowers, lit by candles and globe string lights. The evening started with the haggis, carried and cooked by Winnie, piped in by Sinclair before an entertaining address by Howie Firth.

Howie Firth addressing the Haggis

Bill Crichton gave an amazing Immortal Memory, where anecdotes from his childhood intertwined harmoniously with poems by Robert Burns and jokes which had the whole room laughing. After supper came the Toast to the Lasses by David Murdoch and the reply from his partner Maggie Hay, whose feminist take on recognition of Orcadian women in history and academia I wholeheartedly agreed with. We were treated to beautiful fiddle performances by Lesley MacLeod and North Ronaldsay's Heather Woodbridge. The room was then cleared for more music and dancing, and of course, the raffle (Olly won some lovely ladies gloves...)!

* We have switched to using Denttabs to clean our teeth with - solid toothpaste to cut down our plastic usage. Toothpaste tubes are unrecyclable. Denttabs arrive in a carboard box, the solid form means that less packaging and water is used (dramatically reducing the carbon footprint). The ones we use have flouride in (which many solid toothpastes don't) and taste like proper toothpaste. Not only are they a great environmentally friendly option, they are much kinder on my senstive skin - I suffer from eczema and dermatitis, espeically around my mouth, which is really irritated by all the foam from normal toothpastes.

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Love the bit of poetry. And excited to hear about the sourdough...I brought some up when I first came, and never used it. Have been making Irish sodabread though, which is easy and delicious. This has prompted me to give sourdough another go though.

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