Imagine standing in your garden surrounded by 14 members of the local pipe band playing a tune named after your own island home. Sounds pretty idyllic? It is and we are lucky enough to have experienced this many times.
Many years ago, on a lovely summer’s day we had a visit from a few men in a boat. But this was no ordinary group of men having a day out on a remote island, this was a bunch of men with musical instruments intent on playing them in Auskerry just for the hell of it. The group consisted of; Billy Jolly, a local fishmonger and an aficionado on the mouth organ whose boat it was; Andy Cant, a local vet who plays both fiddle and pipes; Micky Austin, an Architect who plays the fiddle and a few others whose names I have since forgotten.
The result was an amazing ceilidh. I made a cake and we got out the whisky, and the returning crew were not as sober as before they arrived, although that was not entirely my fault.
Every year since then, when weather and boats and pipers availability have allowed, we have held the piping competition out here and as the years have gone on so have the numbers coming grown. We have often had three boats and well over 20 visitors, all with an instrument. Last time we had seven pipers and seven drummers from the Kirkwall Pipe Band as well as a flute, accordion, guitar, fiddles and of course Billy on the mouth organ. The competition is for a solo on any instrument, though so far it has always been won by a piper, and also there is a duo event when any pair of musicians pair up and perform something off the cuff. One year I was paired with a drummer and I danced a samba dance- probably only ventured upon because I had had a fill of whisky so had no inhibitions!
For me one of the best moments is when we first hear the boats approaching and the music of the pipes drifting over the sea. I can imagine how terrifying the sound of the Scots army coming over the hill must have been. It is such a poignant sound and so suited to Orkney and its far horizons. We always take the dinghy down to the pier to transport instruments and less able walkers to the house at the north end of the island, and then once everyone has arrived, the music begins.
The playing continues throughout the day with a pause for lunch and more drink and a lot of laughter. It has to be pretty calm for this event to happen so we can all enjoy being outside with our view of the sea and the hills beyond. One tune that is always played is ‘Blue skies over Auskerry’ written by Raymie Peace after his first visit here, a beautiful melody that always reminds me of these competitions.
Tradition has it that the drinking of alcohol begins as soon as they leave Kirkwall pier, and certainly there is never any shortage of drink. This has, in the past literally been my downfall. One year we were playing the then customary football match of Auskerries against everyone else, and I slipped and fell, hearing an ominous crack as I did so. I was carried off the pitch on a ladder by several players, where I was examined. Despite hearing the crack we thought that it was only a sprain, so I was confined to the house and could not see them off. In fact, two weeks later it was confirmed that my ankle was broken, but that is another story.
Many other customs have evolved over the years. We now cook legs of lamb and rolls as well as the ubiquitous fruit cake to keep everyone fed and I usually rewrite the words to some old song to sing as my solo contribution to the competition as I do not play any instruments. We even have a flyover – last year there were 2 planes involved! The final ‘act’ is a whaling song sung by Andy and Billy. This is always sung to the magnificent 30’ skeleton of a Northern Bottlenose whale washed up several years ago on the island and mounted in our garden. Once we have all applauded them, it is time to head off for the pier and home, with one slight detour to the sundial in the middle of the lighthouse garden where a sheep’s horn filled with whisky is passed around for a final dram and the winner is announced. The prize is usually an Auskerry lobster or a leg of our finest lamb- luckily so far we have not had a vegetarian winner!
A final tune or two on the pier from the band and we are left with the sound of the pipes, a hangover and wonderful memories. Long live the competition!