Monday 20 February 2017

Britain is a country where Scotland's Shetland Islands say "Farewell" to their erstwhile lighthouse keeper of Muckle Flugga and storyteller from Yell called Lawrence Tulloch

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Lawrence, who was the teller of traditional stories from the Shetland Islands, appeared at many folklore festivals throughout the world and was also a familiar voice to islanders tuning into BBC 'Radio Shetland', has died at the age of 74..

Lawrence or 'Lowry' Tulloch was born half way through the Second World War in 1942 at Midbrig on, what Lawrence called, 'the beautiful sands of Brekon' on the Island of Yell in the Shetlands Islands, the son of Eliza and Tom, who worked on the croft before daylight and as a road builder by day and took 4 years to build his new croft to replace the Old Haa at Midbrig.

Story telling was in Lawrence's blood, for his father, born at the start of the First World War, had a reputation as a story teller and historian and in later life was also known as the 'Cullivoe Skald', after the village of 'Cullivoe' on the north coast of Yell and 'skald' the old Norse name for 'poet.' No doubt Tom told his son about the "belief among the Shetland men that if they ever had the chance to spear a polar bear they would have supernatural powers.";jsessionid=6636A7A10958B1F2707445B7A6F891DF
and 'Da Backstane' a story of benevolent witchcraft : "This was in the days when the haff fishing
was going out of Netherton and Gloup."

The croft he lived in as a boy in the 1940s was occupied by, in addition to himself and his Mother and Father, his Grandmother, her sister, Netta and his cousin John and he recalled : 'In our house money was scarce.' Family life centred on the kitchen, 'the most important room, It was here that the food was cooked and eaten and it was in the kitchen that folk sat around the fire in the evenings.'

Lawrence's recollections of celebrations at Christmas when he was a boy gave insight into traditions on the Herra Peninsular which dated back many hundreds of years. Christmas itself was known as the 'Owld Jül', based on the old viking concept of 'Jül', a period of time which stretched from Mid November to mid January from which the English 'yule.' Christmas Eve was celebrated on the 5th January as it is in many Scandinavian countries and in preparation his mother 'would undertake a very thorough clean. Paintwork was washed down as was the ceiling. Often paintwork was renewed and the ceiling given a coat of distemper.' His Father 'would kill the fatted hug. This was an adult sheep, as a ram lamb it had been castrated and reared. Several of these could be food on any croft.' 'No part of this beast was wasted; some of the entrails were eaten as tripe and some were stuffed and made into fruit puddings to be fried. The head was considered the tastiest part and all of the meat from it would be shared.'

It was not until Lawrence was 22 in 1964, when the the question of keeping 'Owld Jül' was put to the vote that the Herra folk decided to switch to the celebration dates in the rest of Scotland, partly to stop the children, who were at school in Lerwick on the south of the island, who were going back before 5th January, missing out on all the festive activities. haff fishing

On Christmas morning he always got : 'fruit, sweets, a cheap toy and perhaps things that were needed in any event, like new boots, a new jumper, mittens and socks. I remember my Uncle Bobby struggling to find the words to describe his excitement the year he got a torch and batteries.'

Dinner was preceded by some kind of competition and for many years in North Yell, for the boys, this was football with the home-made ball consisting of a salted and cured pig's bladder inserted into hand-stitched leather quarters. There was no limit on numbers and the match followed after the two captains 'drew knotty' or straws and the 'rules were pretty basic, but it was a foul to cross the opponents bye line.' For the men, home-made model yachts would be 'sailed by pairs of men, one or either side of the loch. Every man would have a hip flask or half bottle.'

Later in the day 'Christmas dinner would be served in the early part of the afternoon, perhaps around 2 pm when the daylight would all but be gone. Roast mutton, root vegetables, followed by steamed pudding.' As the day unfolded it was also a time of 'great excitement for the youngsters seeing how the older men behaved when they had a few drinks. Christmas was the only time of year when many of them had a drink.' As a boy he observed a ritual which harked back to its Norse roots : 'There was a kind of code that a man drank what he was offered all at the one go. If a glass of whisky was accepted, then something like this was said : "Since dus kom sae neer me nose, A'll tip de up an doon do goes."'

In addition, 'there would be singing and dancing and anyone who could play the fiddle would be encouraged to do so.' In fact this north part of the Island of Yell was noted for its fiddlers and a survey carried out in 1978 found that of the 70 residents who were 16 and over in the area, 21 played and had played the fiddle, 5 the melodeon or accordion, 4 the guitar and there were 8 singers.

He remembered that his Grandmother, who was very religious and generally took a dim view of drinking : 'always set a bottle of whisky on the breakfast table' and 'children were not banned from tasting alcohol. poor folk had so little of the stuff, that it never posed any threat to them.' When Lawrence looked back he found the relationship between the Kirk and Christmas 'interesting and somewhat puzzling.' 'In my youth, Christmas had no religious aspect whatsoever. In those days the Church of Scotland was very influential in the community, but there was never such things as Watch Night or Christmas Day services. Sunday observance was of paramount importance, so if Christmas Day fell on a Sunday, they simply shifted Christmas Day into the middle of the week.'

New Year's Eve was also governed by tradition with all the men gathered at the village shop, a licensed grocer, to buy the necessary dram. Almost without exception they would buy 2 bottles of whisky, a bottle of port and one of sherry. One half stayed with the man and the rest was drams in the house for visitors. 'This was followed by the men dividing into groups and visiting as many houses as possible.' Lawrence reflected, in what is an amusing statement, that 'women stayed at home. It was not that there was any taboo. It was just that it meant no home was empty of people.'

As a teenager in the 1950s, Lawrence went out 'guising', when he and the other lads 'would dress up, sometimes cross-dress, wear masks and go visiting' and 'sometimes girls would go too and they all considered it great fun if the folk in the houses did not know who they were.'

No doubt the lads also played their role in the islander's homage to the sea gods. Lawrence observed that 'Christianity came to Shetland to stay around 1000, but older beliefs lingered' and given the importance of the sea to Shetlanders, 'even in the midst of festive celebrations, they felt that they had to acknowledge the sea. On New Year's Day every year every householder would go to the shore and bring something back. It might be no more than a bucket of seawater to use in cooking or a small quantity of crushed shell to give to the hens for grit, but it said in a loud, clear voice, that we could never survive without the bounty the sea provides, year on year.'

In 1957 at the age of 15 Lawrence left Junior High School and was still without a job, when, at the Regatta dance in Cullivoe the following year, when Peter Spence the Sub Postmaster in the hamlet of Gutcher, took him to one side and asked him if he would like to work for him, He recalled : 'I had no clear idea of what I was going to do or, indeed, wanted to do. I spoke to my parents but lost little time in accepting Peter’s offer. When I started I found that he wanted me to do a variety of jobs. I was to work behind the counter in the Post office and work the loom, also look after the telephone exchange. In the area there were very few subscribers, less than a dozen, but it had to manned from 9am until 7pm when it went on to what was called ‘night service’. Phone numbers were singles, 'Gutcher 2','Gutcher 3' etc. but they had to be connected on demand and there were two outside lines connecting to the Mid Yell exchange. Anyone looking after it had to be ready to answer it at once.' It wasn't surprising that he was berated by impatient subscribers.

The weaving loom in question was a 'Hattersley Automatic' Peter had bought to set about producing Shetland tweed and it wasn't long before Lawrence had to learn to work Peter's Adana Printing Machine 'capable of printing bill heads, letterheads, raffle tickets with perforated counterfoils, wedding invitations etc. He had a number of different fonts, Time New Roman, Gill Sans and Palace Script.'  He said with perfect understatement : 'It all added up to a job that had plenty of variety, it was never boring, the only snag was the pay, the princely sum of £2 a week.'

Peter’s mother was in poor health and he found 'looking after her when he was away on holiday was the most taxing of all my tasks.' In addition to this 'She has suffered a stroke and she found it very difficult to speak. I could understand her but once, when he was away, she collapsed and I had to carry her to bed. Her sister in law was a nurse and her help was something that I badly needed. Nursing a sick old lady, as well as all the other things I had to do, and I had to try and cook as well, was more than should be expected from any 15 year old boy.'

Lawrence was 18 in 1960, when Peter left Gutcher and the post office and Lawrence's Father, Tom, became the the new sub-postmaster and the family moved to Gutcher and initially Lawrence stayed on, but became redundant when the telephone system was automated and 'there was not enough work for all of us. I went off to do my own thing and my parents started a tearoom in the part of the building that used to be the shop.'

Over the next 10 years Lawrence had a succession of different jobs until 1970 when, at the age of 28 he was taken on as a trainee lighthouse keeper, his application to join the service, triggered by the fact that he and Margaret Henderson were getting married. As a trainee, one of the Principals Lawrence served under when he was at the Muckle Flugga Lighthouse was Magnie Leask of East Yell, musician, a songwriter, a poet and an inveterate joker he had two stuffed dummies in the lighthouse named Boki and Grulie which used to startle trainee keepers and unwary visitors and on one occasion, one of  them fell through a trapdoor on top of young Lawrence while he was making his way up to the light room in the middle of the night.

Over the next 9 years and despite his incurable seasickness, Lawrence, as a keeper, had more than his share of isolated 'rock' lighthouses and was, at various times, “on the rocks” at 'Muckle Flugga', where he was serving when his daughter Elizabeth Anne was born, 'Out Skerries', 'The Bell Rock', 'Rubh Re' and 'The Calf of Man'. In between he served at 'Sumburgh Head', his least isolated posting, 'Fair Isle North', 'Ailsa Craig' and the dreaded 'Cape Wrath', which some reckoned worse than a rock.

Muckle Flugga, can be found on a map, a tiny, storm-thrashed speck off the top of the Shetland island of Unst, the last one - if you don't count the little rock of Out Stack, home only to a few seabirds. It is over 100 miles north of John O’Groats and farther north than Oslo, Helsinki or St Petersburg. It was working here, listening to cricket on the radio that he got in touch with Brian Johnston at the BBC : "I told him I lived on Muckle Flugga. It's a little rock with a lighthouse on it. There isn't anything after that" and he was proud of the letter he had from Brian "acknowledging that I was the most northerly listener of Test Match Special."

Lawrence maintained that his roots made him temperamentally fit for his work : "A lot of lighthouse keepers came from Shetland. We're used to living in remote areas, we can stand the isolation a lot better. Basically we're Norse people, used to surviving long winters. The Vikings used to hole up for the winter, and just get drunk and socialise. Winter isn't something you dread; a lot of people like it, there's more time to relax."

He maintained that his relationship with the weather was also in his bones : "People like me who were born and brought up here are shaped by the weather. You'll never find a farmer or a fisherman who isn't an amateur weatherman. They tend to look at the television forecasts with derision, because the weather's so unpredictable. Tourists sometimes ask me what the summer was like up here. I tell them it was on a Tuesday."

On a 'rock' Lawrence's life was dictated by the routines imposed by temperamental, diesel-powered generators and ingenious clockwork machinery that kept the light shining and rotating and the seasons because : "you have precise times when to switch the light on and off. Five hours and eight minutes, that's how short the day was in mid-winter."

In 1971 Lawrence was recorded talking with his father, Tom about the Shetland dialect :

His 9 year stint in lighthouses came to an end in 1979, when Lawrence was 37 and his parents retired and he moved into and took over the post office in Gutcher with Margaret and was now the father of a 4 year old daughter. They developed a cafe, sold soft drinks, sweets, cigarettes and Fair Isle knitwear made on their knitting machine and then converted the lower story of the post office and offered bed and breakfast.

It was during these years that he built up his reputation as a storyteller both in Shetland and beyond and appeared in international in Sweden, Faroe, Iceland, Slovenia, Austria and the USA, as well as festivals in Ireland and Scotland : 'The Four Swans', 'Isle of Skye Festival', 'Tales at Martinmas', 'Woodend Barn', 'Orkney' and appearances at the prestigious 'International Storytelling Festival' in Edinburgh. In a addition he also recorded three cassette tapes of his stories on the Veesik label of which Maille was one : "Maille was a widow and she lived with her three sons. Her hausband had been lost at sea....."

BBC Radio Shetland manager John Johnston said: “Lawrence was a stalwart of Radio Shetland. He was involved in the station right from the start, presenting many programmes including 'Give us a Tune'. He was a regular contributor, and our main contact for stories in Yell." Lawrence also served as Chairman of Shetland Tourist Board, Vice-Chairman of the Mid Yell School Board, a member of the Community Council and in 1980 was the Cullivoe Up-Helly-Aa' Guizer Jarl.

In 2006 Lawrence published 'The Foy : And other Folk Tales' which related stories he had learned from his Father and those he had collected himself, concentrating on the unique tradition of Shetland folklore of with its 'selkies', mythical creatures which looked like seals in the water and assumed human form on the land as well as invading giants and Vikings. He followed this with his 'On The Rocks' in 2010 and 'Shetland Folk Tales' in 2014 which included 'The Boy Who Came from the Ground' and 'Norway's First Troll.' By this time he and Margaret had left Yell and had moved to the Island of North Roe.
experience as a light keeper in

In 2010, on his first visit to London where arrived fresh from a storytelling trip to Slovenia he made his way to the fourth test between England and Pakistan at Lords where he recalled : “I was led into the Test Match Special box where they were doing the commentary. I could not believe that I was in this place that I had listened to for so long.When teatime came I was introduced to Jonathan Agnew, Henry Blofield, Christopher Martin-Jenkins as well as the producer and Rameez Raja." Interviewed and broadcast live, he recalled : "Aggers is a very pleasant man and asked gentle questions but his knowledge of Shetland and lighthouses was scanty to say the least. But he was very willing to allow me to say what I wanted." "As well as the commentators on TMS we saw Geoff Boycott, Ian Botham, Nasser Hussain, Michael Atherton, Andrew Flintoff, Bob Willis and Phil Tufnell and we shared a lift with Gladstone Small.”

In 2012 related the story of a bear and young boy called Wally at the 'Celtic Connections Festival' :

Lawrence said : "I was extraordinarily lucky in my young life to meet and hear so many wonderful storytellers. During my youth we lived in three different houses and each one seemed to be a magnet for interesting visitors."

Lawrence tells the story of 'Joen Tait and The Bear' and the story of Windhouse, house of ghosts on Yell :

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An earlier post :

25 January 2015
Britain is a country where a town called Lerwick and its Festival called Up-Helly-Aa in Scotland's Shetland Islands, bid "Farewell" to an old Jarl called Willie 'Feejur' Tait    

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