Yesterday the sea was still too rough for us to make a crossing to Swona. Both mornings we had psyched ourselves up – packed the kit, food supplies, dressed in warm layers of clothing and head-to-toe waterproofs – and arrived at the pier, only to receive the message of the cancelled crossing. Yesterday morning felt a bit like Groundhog Day. As the adrenaline seeped away as I looked out to sea, I started to get excited about a day in the warm archive room at Orkney Library in Kirkwall. Swona will have to wait until Thursday now, then surely we WILL get there!
So yesterday was on to plan B, to check out any archive material to supplement all of the amazing information Cyril Annal provided on Monday. Orkney Archive room is a cosy place, which must not have changed in decades. I listened to some Orkney Sound Archives on an old fashioned reel to reel machine. They are yet to digitise quite a lot of their archive. I listened to three sections of an interview with the last school teacher who was employed to work and stay on Swona in 1924. Jessie Aitken was interviewed in 1992 and it was worth a listen. She was 18 when she started her post and lived in the school house on her own sleeping in a box bed, with only pesky mice for company.
Aitken described the simplicity of island life on Swona, but also the sense of isolation and loneliness she felt. She stayed for a couple of years, the main reason she went back to stay on the mainland was for health reasons and lack of food choices! Aitken gave a flavour of the lifestyle at that time and I enjoyed trying to decipher the dialect. I worked out that to remember is to mind something, a church is a kirk and peedie is little or mini. She spoke a lot about the Rosie family and other families on the island. Her parting comments were that the people of Swona were ‘tidy folk, nice folk’. Just as with listening to Cyril on Monday, her stories will bring the island alive for me.
I also looked through the photography archive, and there was very little on Swona. Most of the photographs must still be in private collections or with the families still. Of course, I saw some great photographs on Monday which Cyril had with him in his treasure chest of Swona memorabilia. The two black and white photographs below where my favourite finds from yesterday, especially the one of Edith Rosie feeding the sheep.
The star find in the archive was an award winning essay by Cyril’s son Alexander Annal, which he must have written as a school boy. ‘Shipwrecks of Swona’ describes the key shipwrecks in Swona’s history, mostly from primary sources and stories passed down the generations. It is a very rich account and also contains a fair amount of humour, giving a taste of the importance of the spoils of the wrecks for the islanders’ survival. My favourite story involved the ‘Pennsylvania’ ship, which wrecked on 27 July 1931, on route from New York to Oslo and Copenhagen (pages 6-8). All of the crew survived thankfully, and as was always hoped by the islanders there was plenty of cargo to salvage. In this instance a customs officer was on the scene very quickly and noted the large quantity of Cornflakes boxes (enough to fill a barn). The customs officer ordered Grandad Annal to burn all of the cornflakes boxes by morning. This is Annal dutifully did, but in the darkness of night, emptied the contents into several barrels. Grandma Annal reported that over that year ‘the hens never laid better’!
Today we are doing some test filming and sound recording locally, revving up for our maiden voyage across to Swona tomorrow…