Revitalising this community is my overarching ambition

04 August 2017 | Scotland

Billy Muir's JCB

Billy Muir won the first TSB Community Partner Award for his unrelenting service to the small island of North Ronaldsay in Orkney. We spent 24 hours with him to hear what’s next for this amazing man and the home he loves

Billy Muir’s day starts before he’s been to bed.

That’s why we’re here at around midnight on a breezy, moonlit night as sharp and clear as crystal. We’re watching something uncanny unfolding on the foreshore of North Ronaldsay, official population 72, though Billy says it’s actually nearer 40. A JCB digger is bumping and grinding an uncertain path over rock and stone, and a flock of startled sheep is fleeing before this roaring yellow menace. Behind the controls is none other than William Tulloch Muir – Billy to his friends – a sprightly veteran who possesses more zip than many men half his age.

The purpose of Billy’s midnight foray among the rocks is simply to help a neighbour. At dawn tomorrow he will be up with the larks to begin the task of rebuilding a sea wall that has fallen into disrepair, which could leave his neighbour’s home dangerously exposed to the high and wild winter seas later in the year.

“The key to creating a sense of community on an island is to ensure that no one goes without, and that help is always at hand whenever something needs to be done,” says 68-year-old Billy.

It might be easier to say what Billy doesn’t do on the island. Running and supporting his beloved island community requires around 20 ‘jobs’ in total. No two days are the same but if it needs doing, Billy will turn his hand to it.

He’s the lighthouse keeper, airfield firefighter, the stonemason, the sheep farmer, the tourist accommodation officer, the tourist guide, the school maintenance man, he builds houses, he does repairs, he does electrics, he does plumbing. He chairs the local community council, he’s an assessor with the Crofting Commission and a member of the island trust, collects the rubbish, fixes his cars and farm machinery. He’s a director of the woollen mill that spins and uses the yarn from the local flock. If you ring the number on the lighthouse he will even turn up and show you around. If ever they remake the popular children’s programme Mr Benn – a character of many guises – they need look no further for their inspiration.

“I should start taking it easy,” he laughs, but he doesn’t mean a word. Quite simply Billy does what he does because he loves it – and because there’s no one else to do it.

“When you live on a small place such as this, with very few people, it’s a case of always learning on the job. Simply saying, “This job can’t be done” is not an option. You have to train yourself how to do something,” says Billy.

“And because I want this island to thrive and to attract more families and fresh blood, I’m delighted to do my bit to help keep North Ronaldsay sustainable and to train some others on the island to do the various jobs that need to be done.

“It’s natural that young people will leave here and seek their futures elsewhere. College and university have given them other options, and families are much smaller than they used to be. People aren’t having as many children because they don’t need to. The advent of the tractor and mechanisation meant these jobs could be done by fewer people.”

North Ronaldsay is at the northernmost tip of the Orkney Islands, that little crop of green patches at the top right hand corner of your television screen during the weather report. Billy was born here in 1948, when electricity and water in homes were unheard of, and he still lives here today, with his wife of 41 years, Isobel, and their black Labrador Robbie. His two daughters are grown-up now and live in Kirkwall on the Orkney mainland with their families.

“Aye, you had to fetch water from the well – there were no modern luxuries, like toilets. But we just got on with it, we didn’t know any different,” says Billy. “I’ve always been self-sufficient, I suppose. You had the ferry once a fortnight but in bad weather it might not be able to come for a month. We can still get that today.”

Back then there were about 500 people living on the island. Now it’s around a tenth of that. But Billy Muir and a small band of brothers and sisters believe that by sheer hard work and selfless determination for the good of the community they can help to stem the retreat and attract new blood.

In the 12 hours or so I’ve been on this island I’ve seen Billy carry out so many chores I can barely keep track. At the tiny island airport he is there to greet me, as he is most days. He’ll help new arrivals disembark from an eight-seater Loganair plane before turning his car into a taxi to carry them to their onward destinations. Billy is full of praise for this ‘lifeline service’. The airline charges just £21 return to visitors and just a fraction of that to residents. Without such affordable access the island would struggle.

I’ve seen him repair a sea wall before turning his attention to erecting a wind turbine with his friend Sinclair. Then it’s back to the lighthouse cottages and the small woollen mill where two employees process the wool from the sheep that graze on the shoreline. Then, accompanied by young Sarah Moore, Billy’s young apprentice from Edinburgh, he visits the small herd of sheep he gave her last year. He is teaching her to tend to them and hopes to teach others, too.

According to 80-year-old Sinclair Scott – friend, cousin and resolute support – Billy’s work will never end. “He has worked tirelessly for the benefit of North Ronaldsay,” Sinclair says.

It’s this kind of selfless lifetime of commitment to the isolated community that resulted in Billy being honoured last October with TSB’s first ever Community Partner Award. The award recognises the work of people who toil heroically for the benefit of their local communities. It has Billy’s name through it like a stick of rock. It goes nicely with his 2009 MBE for “services to North Ronaldsay”.

“I can’t tell you how delighted I was to receive this award from TSB,” Billy says. “It means a lot to me, and to this island, because it showed that we are not forgotten and that people care about this island and its future.” The inaugural award came with a £5,000 cheque from TSB so that Billy can help the island in whatever way he sees fit. Billy is hoping that Orkney Islands Council are going to match that amount with a donation of their own. And there’s one thing on his mind: sheep.

North Ronaldsay is home to an ultra-rare, rather beautiful breed of sheep, the aptly-named North Ronaldsay Native which has evolved to exist almost entirely on seaweed; one of only a few mammals to do so. They are shepherded within a 6ft high, 13-mile-long dry-stone wall that circles the entire coast of the island. It is one of the largest dry-stone walls in the world.

Billy Muir with his dog

Around 3,000 of these semi-feral sheep live on the island, yet they could hold the key to the island’s future prosperity. The singularly fine wool that they produce is popular in parts of Europe, especially France, and in America. But their grazing must be confined to the narrow belt of beach and foreshore so that they don’t overrun the agricultural pastures further inland.

“There simply aren’t enough people on the island to tend to them and to control them. They eat everything in their path,” he adds.

“With the money that TSB are giving us and with the match funding, I’m hoping to employ an apprentice dyker and to train him or her in building, repairing and maintaining the dykes. These sheep have been here for five and a half thousand years and are integral to the economy of North Ronaldsay. If we look after them properly and tend to them they will be here for another 5,000 years,” says Billy.

“If we can employ a dyker, they might bring a family to the island, too. We could encourage a whole new generation to settle here. Revitalising this community is my overarching ambition and it will remain so for as long as I have breath in my body,” he says.

At North Ronaldsay school, Billy introduces me to 11-year-old Teigan Scott, its last pupil. Sinclair Scott is playing the bagpipes to pipe her out as she is leaving for secondary school in Kirkwall. Now the school has no pupils. Teigan’s dad, David, is there and so is Edie Craigie, the classroom assistant, and her son Louis who is the janitor. The local authority has agreed to maintain the school building rather than mothball it, and when new families arrive it will be ready immediately for service.

When Billy is safely out of earshot, they speak of what he means to the island. “It means everything to him,” says David Scott, who combines his role as airport controller with digging graves and myriad other jobs. “He is desperate to ensure that North Ronaldsay has a future and that it can attract some young families to make their homes here.”

There’s already the first glimmer that times are changing. Billy’s young apprentice, Sarah Moore, has decided to make her home here and help with island jobs after several holidays with her parents.

“She has taken to island life very smoothly,” says Billy. “She is made for this place, and its future is in her hands and in the hands of others who will hopefully come.”

How long will you remain here?” I ask her. “I’ll live the rest of my life here,” says Sarah. “I fell in love with this place. It seeps into your soul.

“Billy has been brilliant with me. He helped me to adjust to life here and is training me up in many of his jobs. I currently have about five or six jobs, including helping at the airport and looking after a small flock of sheep that Billy gave me. There’s nothing he won’t do or which he won’t give to someone if it helps ensure the future of the island.”

Yet wherever he is, he always heads home for lunch with his wife, Isobel, a retired primary school teacher who now farms sheep and cattle. Today it is her birthday and she is scuttling about her tasks before taking a plane to Kirkwall town to visit one of her two daughters who will make dinner for her.

They are quietly devoted to each other. He hands me a piece of dyewood from the 277-year-old wreck of a Swedish ship that ran aground near North Ronaldsay. “There have always been rumours of treasure but I haven’t found any,” he says and there’s a twinkle in his eye and in his voice. “But I found my treasure in Isobel, although it felt like she took a year to accept my proposal!”

“I certainly did not take that long!” she says. “We met at a wedding on the island while I was visiting on holiday.” Nearby sits a framed photograph of her and Billy outside 10 Downing Street at a reception hosted by the Prime Minister, Theresa May, in honour of his TSB Community Partner Award.

In the early evening he’s back at the North Ronaldsay lighthouse conducting a handful of tourists on a tour of the building. It’s his first and enduring love. Billy has been the lighthouse keeper here for more than 48 years.

The North Ronaldsay Trust, chaired by Billy, has secured more than £1 million to convert the former keepers’ dwellings and outbuildings into a workshop where two employees process the wool of the sheep grazing nearby. There is an interpretation centre, with a café and shop and two high-quality self-catering cottages; all of which Billy manages.

Before the end of the night, he and Sinclair share a single-malt whisky as both men pore over the accounts of the Lighthouse Complex and discuss what grants they may be able to apply for to finish the development.

In the distance, the flashing white light of the lighthouse keeps shipping off the rocks as Billy and his friends work for however long it takes to steer their ancient island safely into the future.

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