The Last King of Scotland
First published in the Guardian Weekend Magazine on 27th Feb 2016
He’s the lighthouse keeper, the sheep farmer, the firefighter, the air-traffic controller… We try to keep up with Billy Muir, the pensioner who almost single-handedly keeps the tiny island economy of North Ronaldsay afloat.
Three of us are sitting at the kitchen table at Billy and Isobel Muir’s farmhouse on North Ronaldsay: Robert the photographer, me, and Billy Muir. His wife Isabel is making lunch.
Or she’s trying to make lunch, but Billy keeps getting up and down to look for things, going into the sitting room, casting around, shifting the framed pictures of grandchildren from the mantelpiece, moving the Herd Register for Female Bovine Animals three inches to the left. He’s grumbling under his breath and Robert is clicking away in the corner. I keep asking questions. None of this is making Isobel’s life any easier.
After a couple of minutes, Billy comes in with a file which he puts down on the table. It’s a collection of letters congratulating him on receiving the MBE in 2009. The original citation for the award is for for ‘services to North Ronaldsay’, but as I flick through them, it becomes clear that none of the correspondents seem able to decide exactly which services they should be congratulating him for. Some letters thank him his 45 years as a keeper to the Northern Lighthouse Board. Others praise him for his efforts in preserving the island’s rare breed of seaweed-eating sheep. A couple talk about his work as a retained firefighter and his conservancy of the island’s historic buildings. The last letter, a handwritten note from a friend, says he should have got a medal for the way he dances an Eightsome Reel.
In fact, it would be quicker to describe what he doesn’t do than what he does. He doesn’t nurse, and he won’t preach.
If Buckingham Palace had really tried to itemise what services Billy provides, the citation would have run to several pages. In fact, it would be quicker to describe what he doesn’t do than what he does. He doesn’t nurse, and he won’t preach. But on the island of North Ronaldsay, he does almost everything else. He’s both fireman and air-traffic controller at the airfield, he restores the island’s historic buildings, he does the contracting for the wind turbines, sits on the local council, the island trust and the Crofting Commission, collects the rubbish, refuels and fixes everyone’s cars and farm machinery, builds houses, does electrics, plumbing and stonemasonry, manages the lighthouse holiday cottages and takes tours of the light. ‘Oh, I’m not doing as much as I used to,’ he says. ‘I’ve scaled back a lot.’
Up in the small communities of the far north of Scotland, most people double-up with jobs because it’s the only way to make the local economy work. So the vet might also be a fisherman, the staff who man the ferry terminals might just as easily be running the shop, the joiners could well be lawyers or architects. But even by Orkney’s profligate standards, Billy takes things to extremes. He is a one-man employment boom, a single-handed nation-state. Or, just as likely, he’s a 67-year-old Atlas holding up a failing island with a big yellow digger and sheer strength of belief.
After lunch, Billy puts his plate aside and turns to Isabel. ‘I’m getting decrepit,’ he says. ‘I hardly could get up the lighthouse today.’ This is a barefaced lie. Robert, who’s in his twenties, said Billy had scampered up the 176 tower steps at twice the speed he did. So does Isobel want him to start taking it easy? ‘Of course I want him to cut back,’ she says. ‘I want him to retire.’ Billy mimes shock. ‘Hell, no!,’ he says. ‘Retire? No, no, no! I’m not old enough. No, no. I’m far too young for that.’ If you did retire, I ask, who would do the work? ‘I don’t know. The younger generation.’
And that, really, is the heart of the matter. Because there is no-one from the younger generation. North Ronaldsay is the last of the Orkneys, the northernmost island before Shetland and Fair Isle. Around fifty people live here full-time, plus maybe another twenty or so second-homers. Nearly all the full-timers are well into retirement age, which means that Billy and a handful of others do all the jobs on the island because there’s nobody else to do them. And because he loves this place with the whole of himself.
‘What more do I do with the JCB? Someone said I used it as a bicycle.’
Billy disappears into the sitting room again and returns with a box full of bright yellow stationery all bearing the JCB logo. ‘Rubbers … pens. Rulers.’ He rakes over them. ‘You get freebies from the county show to make you buy more.’ What, so they give you a pencil and you buy a JCB? Isobel, standing by the sink, turns. ‘He did. He bought a digger. He went off on his own to the county show and bought a digger without ever telling me. The phone rings and there’s my friend saying she’d just passed the JCB stand and she’d seen a huge digger with a label with ”Sold – WT Muir’ on the bucket. That was the first I hear of it.’
Billy puts the box down, smiling, not even slightly sheepish. The purchase of the digger comes under his one guiding principle in life: ‘If you don’t ask, then the answer’s yes.’ Besides, as far as he’s concerned, that digger has more than earned its keep. ‘I do everything with the JCB. I pound the sheep, I put up fenceposts, I round the cattle up with the JCB, I feed the cattle with the JCB, I take in the bales to the field with the JCB – or my daughter does.‘ He looks at Isabel. ‘What more do I do with the JCB? Someone said I used it as a bicycle.’
‘That’s about it,’ says Isobel. ‘A rather expensive bicycle.’ So you use it for meetings? ‘Yes. Because I might be working in the field before. And if you’ve paid £45,000 for it, you’re going to want to use it, not sit and look at the thing.’ Have you thought of moving in to it? ‘Well, yes, I have thought of that too.’
* * *
To the non-Orcadian, North Ronaldsay is definitely an acquired taste. From the air, it’s a long skinny slip of land curved round to the right and divided by dry-stone walls into squares and rectangles. But down at ground level, it’s like arriving in a bizarre kind of geological operating theatre where all the things that go to make up what most people usually think of as a landscape have been removed. Imagine a patch of land and then take all the flesh off it. Take the hills away, and then the rivers. Take the hedges and the trees, the ploughed or growing fields. What you’re left with is the skeleton of an island, the barest bones of earth. Water, air, stone. Nothing else.
And because there’s no trees it feels as if there aren’t any seasons either, nothing to mark the passage of the year except maybe a row of snowdrops or daffodils or the grass turning either bright or dull. Nobody grows any arable crops here any more, so there’s no ploughing and no harvest. The fields are square and all the places where green stuff might normally be are full of grey-brown granite instead, so you can look along a line of grass and see walls that have stood and fallen and been rebuilt and fallen again so often it seems like it must have been the sea that put them there in the first place. The long stone enclosures for gathering and sorting the sheep (the pounds) look like something Andy Goldsworthy made with a hangover. Even the Norse-ish namings of place sound like a mouthful of pebbles: Grim Ness, South Gravity, Ire’s Taing, Viggay, Long Labour.
Still, it’s amazing how much interest you can generate with just three elements. The winds up here can hurl a grown man flat and send whole henhouses with all their occupants whirling out towards America. Beyond the north-eastern corner there’s a long flat slab of rock sticking right out into the middle of a shipping lane which must have wrecked as many ships as Cornwall has. The payback for all this ruthless beauty is a place which feels as if it belongs to another dimension. When the wind and the sea are up, there’s so much water in the air that it’s difficult to tell which is which, and when you come back from North Ronaldsay, it feels like you’ve been beaten back to a cleaner, clearer version of yourself.
The little six-seater Loganair plane functions as the bus, the train, the post-van and the delivery van.
That clarity affects other things as well. Everything here is both much simpler, and much more complicated. There’s no pub, no garage, and no GP. Everyone orders their weekly groceries from the supermarkets on Kirkwall on the Orkney mainland and gets them delivered on the plane. The nurses comes over for a few hours a week. The little six-seater Loganair plane functions as the bus, the train, the post-van and the delivery van. Without that subsidised service, and without Billy and a handful of others holding it together, the island fails.
The plane ride alone is an exercise in bureaucratic zen. At Kirkwall airport, you walk up to the Loganair office, you ask if there’s space on the next flight, and a lady wearing office clothes and a hi-vis jacket tell you yes or no. You and the other four passengers stand around chatting for a bit, and ten minutes later you all walk out to the six-seater plane. The pilot turns in his seat and says, ‘Hello. Everyone ready?‘ He consults with air traffic control, he taxis down the runway, and after half an hour’s sightseeing over a sunlit sea, you arrive. Outside a portakabin-sized hut, three men in late middle age in brown firefighters’ uniforms are leaning against the wall, watching. Sometimes it’s raining, sometimes it isn’t. You get out. That’s it. £21 return. No airport security, no iris-recognition, no stress-position pat-downs, no x-rays, no safety drill. No waiting, because if one flight gets cancelled due to bad weather they’ll just lay on an extra one later. Not even any need to switch off your mobile – ‘Not much point,’ says the pilot David Miller, gesturing towards the little plane’s vintage instrument panel. ‘No sophisticated electronics.’ The runway is just an ordinary unflattened field with a gravel strip.
But for all the simplicity of being here, it’s modern life that’s killing North Ronaldsay. Earlier that morning, Billy, Robert and I had sat in the lighthouse cottages picking over a large tin of shortbread and the Statistical Accounts, the 18th century equivalent of Google Analytics which give detailed records of every village and parish in Scotland. In 1787, they say there were 64 houses on North Ronaldsay with an average of six people per household. By the end of the 19th century, there were more than 500 inhabitants. Now there’s barely a tenth of that. So what happened?
Some clue lies in Billy’s own life. He was born here in 1948, when, ‘there was no electricity, there was no water in your house, no toilets – it was all very basic really. If you wanted water, you’d to go to the well and carry it home. And eventually we had a water pump that pumped the water from a petrol-driven engine. So that was quite a step forward, you could have piped water in your house. And then we had Lister Startomatics (generators) that gave us light and maybe a bit of heat as well. That came in maybe in the sixties, and we had television that came along with that. You could have your TV and maybe more significantly, you could have a deep freeze to store your food. That was a major breakthrough because everything before th
at had to be salted or had to be fresh and that wasn’t so easy, living on an island, if everything had to be fresh.’
So, even in a place full of people, self-sufficiency was a pre-requisite. ‘You couldn’t go to Kirkwall for everything every day. You had the ferry once a fortnight in those days when I was a boy, and you had a mailboat three times a week if you were lucky. And the ferry might be storm-stayed up to a month too. A month without a ferry. We can still get that today.’ The island got hydro electricity in 1983, and almost all of the houses were fitted up with toilets, showers and baths. More recently there’s been double-glazing, mobile masts and broadband, though at the moment the connection is so bad it makes working from home almost impossible.
Still, it seems counter-intuitive to think that all the things which made life hard here in the past – its distance from the centre, its minimalism – were also the things which made it successful. But now, if you’ve got the sort of career that requires offices and travel then remaining on the island isn’t even a possibility. It’s notable that both of Billy and Isabel’s daughters did their best to stay, but have now settled with their families on the Orkney mainland.
* * *
North Ronaldsay Primary School has two teachers and one pupil. Teigan Scott is ten and her specialist subject is hamsters. At home that evening, she announces that she likes being the only person at the school and that she doesn’t miss having anyone to play with before introducing us to the hamster and running upstairs to be photographed in her bedroom, a room so violently pink it sticks to my retinas for about three days afterwards.
Teigan’s parents came here from Lewis five years ago when the council built a couple of homes for young families. One family moved on after a year, but the Scotts have stayed. David does the roads, digs the graves, co-ordinates the airfield, works for the fire service and acts as handyman at the Bird Observatory. Maureen was working as a carer, but that came to an end when all her charges died of old age.
Teigan’s other two sisters are older – one is at college in Glasgow and Maxine, aged 14, commutes weekly from Kirkwall secondary school. Maureen blames the declining population at the lack of affordable housing. Even though by mainland standards North Ronaldsay seems like real-estate Christmas (there’s a croft on the market for £120k with 13.4 acres, several outbuildings and a free Neolithic burial site), it’s still out of the range of most families. The neighbouring island of Papa Westray, (Papay) which faced exactly the same problems as North Ronaldsay, turned things around by offering cheaper housing, improving communications and making it easier for people to work at home. Though smaller than North Ronaldsay, they’ve gone from 65 residents in 2001 to 90 now.
But what’s it like to live here all year round when the flights can’t get through and the sea rises so high it feels like it’s going to pull the whole island adrift? Maureen shrugs, relaxed. ‘We’ve only had one really bad gale in the four and a half years I’ve been here when the winds were over 90.’ And what are the bonuses of living here? Maureen appreciates the size of the island and the opportunity for more family time. And, she says, ‘I like not having loads and loads of supermarkets and shopping centres and all these things around me because the kids grow up not thinking that they need to have something – I don’t know, whatever, this huge constant list of things. It’s not that my kids don’t have junk, but they don’t get things in a constant stream. Other kids seem to need it like they need air.’
‘I wanted them, if they needed something, to know the difference between needing it and just wanting it. And also to open their minds up to something different. Because if they’re living in a place where there aren’t loads and loads of kids, whatever they decide they’re interested in, they don’t have to clear it with their peer group. It shows them that it’s OK to be different. You can’t help but be different living as the only child at the school or being the only child from a village, but it means that being different in other areas of their life isn’t such a big leap for them.’
* * *
That evening after dinner, Billy drives Robert and me back over to the lighthouse cottages. There are two lights on North Ronaldsay. Dennis Head, the older and lower of the two, was built in 1806 and decommissioned after 46 years. In 2006, it was the winning subject of a BBC Restoration appeal for which £300,000 was raised. Two centuries of bird guano was cleared out, the scaffolding went up … and nothing happened. A couple of islanders had objected to the plans for the restoration and the project became mired in disputes. Now the money has gone and the light stands untouched, encased in its prickles of scaffolding, waiting to disintegrate.
The new lighthouse (‘new’ being a relative term; it was lit in 1852) stands a little further away. It’s dark now and we find ourselves driving through the middle of a cloud, the air so saturated with moisture that when wisps of cloud slide across the headlights, it looks like wind made visible. Summer fogs stop the flights more often than winter gales. If the cloud cover is below 300 feet then the island stays cut off, lost to everything but itself.
Then suddenly the air was full of them, thousands exploding out of the clouds, as if the sky had been holding them down.
As we approach the light, we can see the windows of the tower lit up in a little row like buttons on a uniform. Robert gets out to take some photographs and Billy and I sit in the car, waiting. The beams turn slowly, shining out in a broad impeturbable crown of light. We’re caught beneath a great encircling arc of brilliance, watching the mist drifting and the lantern’s slow revolutions. Once in a while a bird flies into the beam, a sudden speck of white against the darkness. Somewhere out there is the sea.
The sight of this, and the privilege of it, makes both of us philosophical. Billy describes standing in the lantern room of the lighthouse in the early hours of a spring morning with a mist down over the whole island. As the sun rose, the mist rose too, sliding over the windows and trailing away. As he watched, a few birds began to break through, heading upwards to the sun. Then suddenly the air was full of them, thousands exploding out of the clouds, as if the sky had been holding them down. ‘I’ve seen some bonny things in my time,’ he says fondly.
Have you ever wanted to live anywhere else? ‘Me? No, not particularly. I like it here. Very much. I go to Kirkwall and if I have things to do I love it. But the minute I’ve done all I want to do, I think my God, I want to get home again, I’m wasting my time here.’ You get homesick in Kirkwall? ‘I do get homesick, yes, I do. I do.’ What is it that it gives you? ‘This. Your own identity, I guess.’ He is silent for a minute or two. Both of us look out at the tower, the light touching us and moving on, the steady rhythm of its turning. ‘If I had my time again, I would do it all just the same. I wouldn’t change a thing.’
Robert gets back into the car. We drive over to the light and climb the 176 steps again – Billy ahead of us all the way – to stand beside the majestic Fresnel lens. The glass throws colour against our faces, twisting us upside down or disappearing us through a trick of the light. Up here, on a night like this, the question isn’t why you’d want to be here, but why you’d ever think of being anywhere else.
But no matter how well he carries it, Billy can’t hold this place up for ever. Do you really think the island population might get too low to be viable, I ask as we make our way back down to the ground. ‘It’s a continual danger that, yes, but what the devil do you do? The real challenge is to create work. I’ve been lucky in my lifetime – I’ve had more work than I can do.’ Yes, but that’s because you keep taking on more tasks, I say. Come to think of it, we never did to the bottom of exactly how many jobs you do. I think we ran out of … ‘Time,’ he says, and laughs.