Sunday, October 14, 2012

Bizarre Orcadian Traditions

Travel brochures and guide books cover most things to expect when visiting Orkney, but there are a lot of traditions that they miss out that leave many tourists simply bamboozled.


If you see a group of men or women covered in treacle banging drums on the back of a truck, it is most likely that you have just seen your first blackening. A blackening usually occurs at some point the week before a wedding and the bride and groom are taken on their seperate trucks and the aim is to get the couple as drunk, and as dirty as possible. All the while you are being driven around the town trying to make as much noise as possible. Local policemen describe blackenings as an "acceptable breach of the peace."  A blackening usually ends up with the bride or groom either in the sea or tied to a local landmark with clingfilm - which would you prefer? The origin of this tradition is fairly uncertain but has thought to have something to do with ensuring the bride/groom is dirty before the washing ceremony before a wedding.

The Orcadian Dialect

"Beuy, I'll tak a peedie swadge as me puggie is affie full o' wind."
This is roughly translated as "I need a rest after this meal because I have flatulance."

Although the Orcadian dialect is dying out there are still many phrases and words in circulation today and is a large part of the identity of the county. The strongest accents can be hard enough for me to understand let alone a poor Frenchman who has barely got the gist of English. Many words are nearer the Norwegian equivalent than the English. The Orcadian dialect comes from Norn, which was a mixture of Norse and Scots and provides Orcadians with a "sing-song" accent of the same tonality as Norwegian and an accent not a million miles from Welsh.
Some of my favourite Orcadian words:
Peedie - Small
Pugie - stomach
Swadge - A rest after a meal to let your food settle so you can continue eating.
Gansey - Jumper
Throughby - Next door

Shopping week

The Queen and her Attendants
In the middle of July every year my hometown of Stromness has it's main calender event which used to be the week of the year where traders were attracted to sell goods within the town and beyond. Nowadays it is more just an excuse for a bit of a party; for the whole week there is a programme of events to keep all ages happy. Most notable events are the Yard O' Ale, three legged beer race around the town and the parade followed by an open air dance on the Saturday. One of the strangest traditions as an outside must be the "Shopping Week Queen." On the opening Monday there is a ceremony in the morning, not unlike a wedding ceremony, where a girl in a long white dress accompanied by two "attendants" and led through the town in a horse and carriage. The "Shopping Week Queen" is elected by fellow pupils in the local secondary school and often has to spend their first Shopping week as an eighteen year old by being respectable and keeping up with their duties.

59° North

Other than the Shetland Isles, Orkney is as far north as you can get in the UK. Located on the same latitude as St Petersberg and Alaska we should experience temperatures similar to that of a freezer but thanks to the North Atlantic Drift we get a much milder, wetter experience. However we do get to take advantage of about 20 hour daylight during the summer solstice and the occasional glimpse of the Northern lights in the winter months. Unfortunately this comes with darkness from 1pm to 4pm in winter. 

Orcadian Strip the Willow

Throughout the year there are several "barn dances" that have grown from a get together in a barn to celebrate a good harvest but are now major gatherings for locals. It has also lead to the development of our own versions of Scottish dances. Our version of Strip the Willow has become popular on the Scottish mainland too as it is much more fun as it involves more people and much more spinning!

Ploughing Match and Festival of The Horses

The Horses
I don't know how many of you will be familiar with the concept of ploughing matches but they are normally done by horsepower or on tractors and are meant to demonstrate precision and skill in the art of ploughing. However in the town of St Margarets Hope the ploughing is all man-power, well boy-power. The horses are not forgotten though as other children dress up in elaborate costumes to represent horses with harnesses and straps. These costumes are often very beautiful and handed down generations with each generation adding something to the costume.

North Ronaldsay Sheep
Yup, we have sheep that eat seaweed because they somehow got stuck on a beach on the wrong side of a six-foot wall. Confined to Orkneys northernmost island of North Ronaldsay this exotic feral breed of sheep are bred for their wool. They have evolved a unique method of extracting sugar from seaweed and graze and ruminate in-sync with the tides.

The Ba
The Ba is notoriously hard to explain to people. It's is essentially a massive ball game with no rules where beefy men fight for a leather ball.  Oh yeah and it all happens in the middle of winter. There are two teams, the "uppies" and "doonies" and their allegiance is decided by where they lived but is now mainly through family loyalties. Orkney's biggest town, Kirkwall closes down on Boxing day and New Years Day and shops board up their windows as the streets fill with spectators. There is also a 'Boy's Ba' which takes place earlier in the day which is just as brutal. Each side has a goal; the uppies head inland whereas the doonies have to end up in the sea. If you are still confused this video might help give you more of an idea:

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