Friday, 27 March 2020

Snapshot on Orphir

A recent addition to our collection is this little booklet all about the parish of Orphir. It was made to accompany a photographic exhibition in June 1992 in Orphir Church, but actually stands on its own with its interesting facts and figures. Topics covered are: Churches; Transport from Horse to Aeroplane; Picnics and Parties; Schools and continuing Education; People; Events; Buildings and Shops; Horses and Ploughing; Island of Cava; Orphir at Work; Orphir at Play; Orphir at War; and Organisations.

Drawing "The Round Church from North East in 1889" Showing remains of old houses of the Bu on the North, now demolished. From a sketch by C. S. S. Johnston

Click on each picture to enlarge the image. 

Tuesday, 25 February 2020

Iron Box of Jewels #3

The documents transcribed in the last two blog-posts leave us these questions:
1. Where did the jewels come from?
2. Why were they in Orkney, when the main person connected with them came from Benholm in Kincardineshire?
3. Why were Cromwell's men involved in the inventory of the jewels?
4. Why were a group of men who were leaders and landowners of the county listing the contents of the box?
5. What happened to the jewels?

The Palaeography Group have clues and/or theories for each question.

1. Where did the jewels come from?
The jewels are linked to James Keith of Benholm. Benholm is a parish in Kincardineshire about 30 miles south of Aberdeen. The Keiths were the lairds of Benholm and they lived at Benholm Castle. According to The Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen, James Keith was involved (with his mother!) in a burglary of Benholm Castle in 1622.
BDES volume 3, p297

BDES volume 3, p298

Could the jewels described here be some of the Jewels in the Iron box? Some of them sound very similar: "a rich jewel set with diamonds...a chain of ''equall perle'' wherein were 400 pearls great and small...a diamond set in a ring...other rich stones in gold". It also states that the case was eventually dropped by the courts but that James Keith was "outlawed for not appearing". The hoard worth £26,000 in 1622 would be worth £6,246,602 in today's money.

2. Why were the jewels in Orkney, when James Keith was from Kincardineshire?
In July 1643, in return for his help to Charles I, the 7th Earl of Morton received a grant of the Earldom of Orkney and Lordship of Zetland. James Keith turns up in Orkney records in November 1649, when the 8th Earl of Morton (Robert Douglas) grants him a commission to be co-factor for his estate alongside his brother John Douglas.

Transumpt off Commissione be the Earle of Mortown to the Laird off Benholme, Novr, 1649.
Why did the Earl of Morton pick James Keith? Well, after some internet searching and a bit of genealogy, we find that James Keith's sister Lady Anne Keith was mother to Robert Douglas, the 8th Earl of Morton.
You'll see also from this small family tree that James Keith of Benholm had a son called James Keith. We have not found out anything about this man yet. At the moment, we are not ruling him out as being the man who brings the Iron Box to Orkney, except that he is not termed as being "of Benholm".

3. Why were Cromwell's men involved in the inventory of the jewels?
These were turbulent times in Scotland and Orkney. Scotland was still an independent country in 1649 with a shared monarchy with England, Wales and Ireland. The king, Charles I, was beheaded in 1649 and Oliver Cromwell invaded Scotland in 1650. Major defeats at Dunbar and Worcester resulted in Cromwell's troops taking over Scotland, even though the Scots had crowned Charles II as their king.

Orkney, siding with the Royalists and Charles II, had sent 1000 men to the Battle of Carbisdale in April 1650, where the Royalists were also defeated. The Earl of Morton fled Orkney and a garrison of Cromwell forces moved in in 1651. They built two forts on either side of Kirkwall Bay to defend the town, and were known to stable their horses in St Magnus Cathedral. Nothing remains today of either fort, except the name of the one on the east of the bay.

Cromwell's Fort, Kirkwall. The Ordnance Survey Name Book (ONB) notes from 1881 state that 'very little of the original of this fort remains -when Cromwell's soldiers penetrated as far north as Orkney, they threw up a rude temporary fort on the spur of the headland to the east of Kirkwall Harbour. It is now converted into a fort or battery for the use of the 1st Orkney Artillery Volunteers'.
In April 1654, the Council of State issued an Ordnance for uniting Scotland into one Commonwealth with England, which would be the "Commonwealth of England Scotland and Ireland", under the authority of the Instrument of Government that made Cromwell Lord Protector. This remained the legal basis of the union until the Ordinance became an Act of Union under the Second Protectorate Parliament on 26th June 1657.

4. Why were a group of men who were leaders and landowners of the county listing the contents of the box?

The group of men who witnessed the opening of the box were:
Charles was Charles Seton, Earl of Dunfermline who features on the family tree above as being married to the 8th Earl of Morton's sister Mary Douglas.
Major Henry Ronnall, was Cromwell's Governor of Orkney.
Captain Edmund Leister and Captain John Hobblethorne were probably captains of the garrison stationed in Orkney.
Patrick Blair, of Littleblair,  Sheriff of Orkney
William Stewart, elder of Maynes and James Stewart, younger of Maynes - we don't know much about these two yet.
William Craigie of Gairsay, related to Hugh Craigie who was a Member of Commonwealth Scottish Parliament in 1652.
Captain Robert Irving, writer.
So probably a mixture of Cromwell's men and those loyal to Charles II.

As to why they were listing the box of jewels, we are very grateful to the work of Dr Charlotte Young whose PhD subject is invaluable to our mystery and describes sequestration in the time of Oliver Cromwell. Here is a quote from her PhD page:

"Sequestration was the process by which land, money and goods were confiscated from delinquent families during the English Civil War. This tactic was primarily utilised by the Parliamentarians as a method of reducing the revenue available for Charles I to draw upon, and simultaneously finance their own military campaign, but the Royalists also launched their own sequestration policy in the mid-1640s, albeit on a smaller scale."

In a message to us she also added: "It's possible that Keith did fear a sequestration raid and so sent his most precious possessions as far away as he possibly could to stop them being confiscated. I've got multiple examples from England of people leaving valuables with friends and relatives because they know they're about to be raided and they want to protect things."

5. What happened to the jewels?
It is likely the jewels would have been secured as per General Monck's instructions in document 3, possibly sent to Leith and used to fund Cromwell's army.

I received yors of the 9th December conteining the jewells into the
iron chist belonging to the Laird of Benholme and desired yow that
yow will secure the same till forder (further) order. I have writtin to the commissioners
for sequestration concerning the same whose directions therin I would
have you observe I likeweell yow and yor [---?] caire in ordering
the keeping of the fast the first of November in regaird my letters came
to yow after the day of the observation of it heer and in England.
I remaine                         yor very loving friend and servant
Subscryved thus George Monck
Dalkeith the 18th Jan 1654
For Major Henry Ronnall Governor of Orknay
Can you help us find out more? What do you think of our theories and answers? Do you agree? Have you got theories or answers of your own? Please do get in touch. Personally, I would like to know more about James Keith of Benholm and where the jewels went next and more about Orkney during this time.  This is certainly a fascinating time period of history.

Sources used:
Who was Who in Orkney by W.S Hewison, 1998 [Orkney Room 920 Y]
A Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen, Volume III edited by Robert Chalmers, 1855. [Archive Reference 920]
Cromwellian Scotland 1651-1660 by F D Dow, 1979 [Adult non-fiction 941.06]
Orkney and the Earls of Morton, 1643-1707 by Jane N Ross, 1977 [Orkney Room 941.06 Y]
D24/9/106 Baikie of Tankerness Papers: Authentic transumpt and copy of the commission by the Earl of Morton to James Keith of Benholm, 6 Nov 1649 [Original document]
GD150/2531/3 General statement made before the Sheriff regarding the iron box of jewels, 1654 [Original document]
TK032 - Photograph of Kirkwall from Cromwell's Fort area by Tom Kent
Ordnance Survey Name Books (ONB), 1881 [on Microfilm in the Archive Searchroom]

Friday, 7 February 2020

Iron Box of Jewels #2

There are three supporting documents with the Inventory of the Iron Box of Jewels we showed you in the first blogpost. Here are their transcriptions:


"I William Craigy of Gairsay by these presents doe declare and testifi that James Keath somtime Laird of Benholme in the moneth of May 1654 did give me a verball order to go to the deceast* Elspeth Paplay my mother and to require and receave of her ane iron or steel box which wes locked (and wherof he had the key) and that I should keep the samyne, until such time as he should require me to delyver it bak againe to him: conforme to the which his order and desire I did receave the samyne locked box from my said mother and did keep the samyne by me until such time as it was called for by the present Governor of Orknay Major Henry Ronnall his order in August last; And then it wes broken up in presence of Charles Earle of Dumferling the said Major Henry Ronnall and Patrick Blair Shirreff of Orknay and the particullars found therin inventoried and consignd in the hands of William Stewart of Maynes at the said Earle of Dunfermling and Major Ronnall then desires in presence of severall famous witnesses both officers of the guarrison and honest countrymen As severall testificatts signed by them as that time doth evidence: I declare likewayes that in July last the saids James Keith of Benholme did two severall time send a servant of his named Robert Douglas from the ile of Stronsay to the ile of Rousay (being sixteen or eighteen myeles of sea) to require the box from me. Bot I being ignorant on what tearmes he stood with his Heighnes the Lord Protector and the state did both times refuse to delyver it, whereupon the said Major did send for it and disposs of it as above said Att which I witness to be reall trueth by this my subscription at Kirkwall the second day of December 1654
W Craigy

*We're pretty sure this means that his mother was alive at the time he asked her for the box and that she had died by the time he wrote the declaration. (We hope.)


GD150/2531/3 page 1

Dalkeith the 18th Jan 1654            
For Major Henry Ronnall Governor of Orknay
"I received yo[u]rs of the 9th December conteining the jewells in the iron chist belonging to the Laird of Benholme and desired yow that yow will secure the same till forder (further) order I have writtin to the Comissio[n]ers for sequestration concerning the same whose directions therin I sould have yow observe. I likeweell yow and yo[u]r concurers (conquerors) caire in ordering the keeping of the fast the first of November in regaird my letters came to yow after the day of the observation of it heer and in England.
I remaine   yo[u]r very loving friend and servant
Subscryved this George Monck
Dalkeith the 18th Jan 1654
For Major Henry Ronnall Governor of Orknay
At Kirkwall the 6th March 1655 yeers the whilk day in presence of Patrick Blair of Litlblair [-------?] Shirreff prin[cipa]ll of Orknay and Zetland and Major Henry Ronnall Governor and Shirreff Deputy of Orknay compeired personally Williame Stewart of Maynes and Williame Craigy of Gairsay and desired that the letter abovewrittin might be transumed* and the saids Shirreffs ther judiciall act interponit therto And the samyne transumpt be the saids Shirreffs their decreet ordained to be delyvered to the saids Williame Stewart and Williame Craigy And to make faith in judgment conforme to the said letter. They which desire the said Shirreffs thought reasonable: and therefore have ordained and ordaines the said letter to be transumed and have interponed** and interpones ther judicall act and decreet therto. And to make faith in judgment in all tyme coming, which transumpt wes dewly collationed with the said prin[cipa]ll letter be me James Georgsone Shirreff Clerk of Orknay witnessing my signe and subscription manuell
Ja Georgson

GD150/2531/3 page 2
Leith 4th Feb 1654       For Major Ronnall Deputy Governor of Orknay

"In my last about ten dayes since, I desired yow to send these jewells belonging to the Laird of Benholme to Leith by the first responsible hand that would bring them safe to us: since which tyme being giwin (given) to understand that the pasing (passing?) friggat is to sail fra Orknay and to return further againe speedily: And conceaving it a good opportunity to have them sent by her: I desire yow to delyver them to Capitan Alexander Fairlay commander of the said friggat who hes a warrand from the Generall for that purpose in a boxe sealed with your seal he first seing (seeing) them inventoried a coppy wherof under your hand yow may please to send allong with him, And ane other copy yow may please to let him signe a recept upon for your oune (own) discharge which being done yow may driess (address?) them to us And give it him in speciall charge to be carefull of them that they may come saffe to our hands This is all I have to trouble yow with at present sawe (save) that I am...
                                                     ...Your very affectionat friend to serve yow

                                                                                                     Ed: Syller 
Att Kirkwall the 6th of March 1655 yeers The which day in presence of Patrick Blair of Litlblair [------?] Shirreff prin[cipa]ll of Orknay and Zetland and Major Henry Ronnall Governor and Shirreff deputy of Orknay compeared personally Williame Stewart of Maynes and Williame Craigy of Gairsay and desyred the letter abovewrittin might be transumed* and the said Shirreffs ther judiciall act interponed therto and the samyn transumpt be the said Shirreffs ther decriet ordained to be delyvered to the saids Williame Stewart and Williame Craigy and to make faith in judgement conforme to the samen letter the whilk desire the saids Shirreffs thought reasonable And therfore have ordained and ordaines the said letter to be transumed and have interponit and interpones ther judicial act and decrie[t] therto and to make faith in judgment in all tyme coming whilk transumpt wes duely collationat with the said prin[cipa]ll letter be me James Georgsone Shirreff Clerk of Orknay witnesing this my signe and sub[scrip]t manuell Ja Georgeson"

*Transume - to transcribe a legal document
**Interpone - to intervene [to prevent something]


GD150/2531/4 page 1
March 6th 1655
"I Major Henry Ronnall Governor of Orknay grants me by thir presents to have receaved from the hands of Willliam Stewart of Maynes the particullar jewels and uther underwrittin 
(To Witt) Imprimis (first item) one rose or round heart of small diamonds wherin ther is fourteen peece with a cross of small leser diamonds therin 
Item fyfteen roses of pearles containing four pearles in every peece.
Item ane carrat of small sparks of diamonds containing thirtty thrie small diamonds therof upon a threed of blak silk
Item ane string of small seed pearles containing three yards long of therabouts
Item ane ring sett round with round diamonds lacking thrie peece of diamonds
Item eighteen peece of peared (paired) amatists (amethysts) or grannatts (garnets) 
Item a [piketooth/pikworth?] case of gold with two gold [piketooths/pikworths?] 
Item on[e] two strings one hundreth and nyne blood beads
Item one smal dow (dove) of mother of pearle with gold wings lacking the head
contained within one steell box wherin particullars and box above writtin were formerly take out of the hands of William Craigy of Garsay by Charles Earl of Dumfermling and me And of mutuall consent of us both deposited in the hands of William Stewart of Maynes until such tyme as it should be cleared that they belonged to the Earl of Morton As a subscrybed paper by us and diverse otheres of the daitt at Kirkwall the fyfteenth day of August 1654 yeres-
And now I haveing receaved order from General Monck Commander in Chief of the Forces of Scotland of the date the [blank] day of February last bypast to secure them and to dispose of them as I shall be advised by the commissioners of sequestration at Leith. Also ane other order from Collonell Syller one of the saids Commissioners dated the 29th of February last pybast: Willing me to send the same fourth to him and the rest of the commissioners As the said two orders judicially transumed before the Shirreffs of Orknay at [----?] proports, in obedience to the which orders and conforme therto I have cald at this time for the said particullars and accordingly receaved the same from the said William Stewart of Maynes wherof as a grant the recept and discharge him of the samyne to Ja[me]s Governor of the place in name of the [State?] obliedge me by veilue of the said Generall and Comissioners orders to keep harmles and skaithles (undamaged) the saids Williame Stewart of Maynes and Williame Craigy of Gairsay for ther delywering of the [squire?] on my order, at the hands of all haveing interest or pretending to have the same because the same being consigned upon perill of the ouner I have by order of the Commissioners at Leith sent the same to them where the Earl of Morton or any other pretending interest to them may plead their rights and receave the samed they being only seased on now as belonging to the Laird of Benholm delinquent and farther I am content that these presents be inseirt on any publick register in this Nation therin to remayne for future memory and to receave all due execution constituting.
GD150/2531/4 page 2

My procurator for that effort in witness wherof thir presents are by Capt Robert Irving and sub[scribi]t by me at Kirkwall the sixth day of March 1655-
Peeres befor these witnesses
Patrick Blair of Litlblair Shirreff of Orknay
Andrew Young sometime servitor to the Earl of Morton
and James Georgson Shirreff Clerk of Orknay
and the said Capt Robert Irving
subscribed thus
Pa: Blair witnes
Henry Ronnall
An Young witnes
Ja:Georgson witnes
Robert:Irving witnes"

So there you have all the documents we have which are connected with the Iron Box of Jewels. If you have any comments, transcription corrections or suggestions, please add them below or on our Facebook or Twitter accounts. Or you can email us at The next blogpost will be about our interpretation of the documents and background evidence we have collected so far. Click on the label "Iron Box of Jewels" below to find all blogposts about this subject.

For those of you helping to figure out what the word piktooth/piketooth/pikwoth actually is here are a couple of close-ups from Gd150/2531/4 above.

Friday, 24 January 2020

Iron Box of Jewels #1

Happy New Year to all our followers. We begin the year with a new mystery...

The Palaeography Group have recently transcribed a document which brings to light a mysterious iron box of jewels itemised in an inventory in 1654. This is the time of Oliver Cromwell's occupation of Scotland, and indeed his Governor in Orkney is one of the witnesses to the inventory.

But where have these jewels come from? Why are they in Orkney? Why are they to be handed over to the Earl of Morton? The information and people listed in this document bring up many questions which the Palaeography Group are investigating. If you can add any information to help, we would like to hear from you.

D38/2531/1 Document from the Earl of Morton papers, dated 1654
"Inventar of the Jewels wes found in ane iron box which wes left besyds William Cragie of Garsay by James Keith sometime Laird of Benholme. Which box wes broken up publically at the sight of Charles Earle of Dunfermling, Major Henry Ronnall Governor of Orkney, William Stewart elder of Maynes, Captane Edmund Leister, Patrick Blair Shirreff of Orkney, Captane John Hobblethorne, James Stewart younger of Maynes, Williame Cragie of Garsay and Capt Robert Irving writer (writer) hereof at Kirkwall the 25th day of August 1654 yeers.

Item ane Rose (or cross heart) of small diamonds whein ther wes 14 peece with a cross of small leser diamonds therin

Item fifteen roses of pearles contenning four pearles in every rose

Item ane carhat of small sparkes of diamonds contenning threttie three small diamonds therin upon a blak threed

Item ane string of seed pearls contenning three yards long or thereabouts

An example of some pearls

Item ane ring sett with diamonds lacking three peece diam[ond]s

Item eightene peece of peared (paired) amatists (amethyists) or granatts (garnets)

Item a [------?] cast of gold with two [------?] therin of gold

Item on two strings ane hundredth and nyne blood beads with fourtie and one small beads of amber with fourty and one of small corall beads

Item ane small dowe (dove) of mother of pearle with gold wings lacking the head

These above writtin particullars wes deposited in William Stewart elder of Maynes his hands by mutuall consent of Charles Earl of Dunfermling and Major Ronnall Governor of Orkney to be secured by him the best way he can upon the [-----?] of the owners, until such tyme as they be made appear to belong to my Lord Mortone. After which tyme the Laird of Maynes is to delyver them to any haveing pouer (power) from the Earle of Mortone and his curators. This is witnessed to be a true inventory and conclusion as their subscription under writtin witneseth day and place above writtin"

In the line above "Item a [------?] cast of gold with two [------?] therin of gold", we struggled with the word blanked out here. It could be pikwoth, or bikworth, or something else entirely. Can you help us with this word? Could it be a measurement of gold not now used?

There are some interesting names mentioned here.  Who was James Keith and why was he in Orkney? Benholm is a parish in Kincardineshire on the mainland of Scotland. In the book Who was Who in Orkney, James Keith is listed as Provost of Kirkwall from 1650, but we don't know if it is the same James Keith who is involved in the document. In the book Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen a James Keith of Benholm is described as being involved in a jewel robbery from Benholm Castle in 1622. Is this the same man 32 years later? Are these the same jewels?

If anyone knows about any of the people mentioned or have heard this story before, please do get in touch. It is an intriguing mystery. We will post updates of our research on future blogs, just click on the label "Iron Box of Jewels" below to see all blogs relating to this story.

Sources used: Who was Who in Orkney by W.S. Hewison pub.1998; Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen Volume 3, edited by Robert Chambers, pub. 1850; D38/2531/1 Document from the Earl of Morton papers

Tuesday, 24 December 2019

20 Days of Orkney Trees # 20

Merry Christmas Eve dear readers! Surely, there are few sights more Christmassy than trees heavily-laden with snow. Today we bring you some extremely lovely snow-scenes from the Orkney Photographic Archive..

First of all, here are some pictures taken by Ian Tulloch after a snow storm in 1955:

Negative reference L 9479/3

Negative Reference L 9480/3

Negative reference L 9479/4

And these delights were taken by Tom Kent c.1900:

Tom Kent reference 3423

Tom Kent reference 3403 (detail)

Tom Kent reference 3436

Tom Kent reference 3446
We hope you have enjoyed our Christmassy, yet stubborn refusal to accept the myth that 'Orkney has no trees.' We may not have many, but we cherish the ones we have and will surely be adding to their number as time goes on.

Ah trees! God bless them every one!

Merry Christmas!

Monday, 23 December 2019

20 Days of Orkney Trees #19

'Anyone who plants a tree has faith in the future', Bessie Skea in 'A Countrywoman's Diary'

On Day 7, we quoted an interview with Jenny Taylor, in which she related the history and location of Orkney tree-planting. Jenny is known in Orkney as the 'tree-wife'. (Not because she is married to a tree you understand, 'wife' is an old North-East Scotland term for a woman.)

A landscape architect by training, Jenny ended up running the Orkney Woodland Development Project alongside her main job. The group's aim was to keep an eye on all proposed tree planting projects to ensure that they fit into the landscape and do not interfere with existing wildlife or archaeological sites of interest.

'The emphasis is on native species which are all propagated from Orkney seed and cuttings and which will hopefully adapt and evolve in the face of global warming.'

Jenny is the author of the Orkney Native Tree Conservation Strategy which is available in the Orkney Room and is a great overview of the history and future of Orkney's trees. It contains this plan of the tree cover which existed in Orkney in 1995:

As can be seen, the only native woodland left, (in fact the most Northerly native woodland in Britain) is Berriedale woods on Hoy. Berriedale is about a mile North of Rackwick Bay and is not extensive. It seems to be a small scrub of trees and shrubbery confined to a small valley as can be seen in the image below:

Image from Wiki Commons
The dominant tree is Birch but Grey Willow, Eared Willow, Rowan and Aspen have also been noted.There are a few more photos on the Orkney Woodland Project page too:

At the end of the Orkney Native Tree Conservation Strategy, a number of possible future projects are listed. One fascinating area of research is whether or not the Berriedale woodland is 'moving', Birnam wood-style due to Birch trees regenerating on its edge.

If you feel inspired by all this tree talk and want to plant your own trees then you could consult our copy of 'Tree Planting in The Orkney Islands' in the Orkney Room. Those of you who are not Orkney residents can visit the Woodland Trust website for some advice.

No space to plant a tree of your own? No problem. You can plant trees from the comfort of your laptop by supporting these charities:

Not far from Robin's bonfire site an apple-seed took root. I watched it through the summer, a green twig with two leaves, ...Yesterday I saw it again, a mere dry red-budded matchstick with one fallen leaf lying beside it...the thought came to me of the wise man who, when asked by his friend what his actions would be if he heard the world was to end tomorrow, replied: "I would still plant my little apple tree." Using a tin lid I scooped up the seedling and transplanted it in a sheltered corner of the garden; a very tiny apple tree, but a symbol, and a hope.

Bessie Skea in 'A Countrywoman's Calendar'

Information taken from:

Living Orkney #7
Tree Planting in Orkney published by Orkney Islands Council
Growth in Britain's Most Northerly Woodland by Chapman and Crawford
Orkney Native Tree Conservation Stratedgy by Jenny Taylor
A Countrywoman's Diary and A Countrywoman's Calendar, both by Bessie Skea.

Sunday, 22 December 2019

Winter Solstice Poems

George Mackay Brown from his Collected Poems

Margaret Tait Orkney Archive Reference D97/45/3/5/4

Saturday, 21 December 2019

20 Days of Orkney Trees #18

Just a couple of tree snippets today from our research this month:

First of all, even the birds became concerned about the lack of forests and began planting trees on Hoy...

Orkney Herald 10th February 1926

... and second, Stromness used to have a big tree too! Until 1926 that is...

Orkney Herald 24th February 1926
We checked the Stromness Town Council minutes for that time, but there was no mention of the tree removal. There is much talk about work being done in John Street to strengthen walls etc., so perhaps the tree was removed as part of that project.

We looked for a picture of the tree but unsuccessfully. Here is a lovely photo of tree-lined lovers' lane in Stromness instead:

Robertson collection 4596

Friday, 20 December 2019

20 Days of Orkney Trees #17

'Amid shouts and yells in the darkness of Christmas Eve, the youths and men dragged north or south, as Fate decided, the 'Yule Log'

George Mackay Brown, Under Brinkie's Brae

Although we have kept insisting that 'Orkney Has Trees' during this advent, it has become increasingly clear that, for a large number of years, the trees in Orkney were very few and far between and mainly cultivated in sheltered gardens or around big estates.

This is why the Stromness Christmas Eve tradition of a tug-of-war with the Yule Tree so exasperated the town council and those residents who had trees in their garden.

The Yule tree, or Yule log competition is similar to Kirkwall's Christmas and New Year Ba' games. Both involve a sweaty, wrestle through their respective streets with each town divided into two teams. In Kirkwall, Uppies compete with Doonies for control of the ba', whereas Stromnessians are divided into Northenders and Southenders. The two games have also necessitated the barricading of local businesses and co-operation from local authorities.

The best history of the game that we could find was in John Robertson's Uppies and Doonies which suggests that the game may have began before the late 1890s. The earliest mention Robertson found of the game was in 1907. Presumably, it was this report in the edition of The Orcadian dated 28th December 1907 (As you can see below, Stromness once also had their own Ba' games.):

A tree was chosen each year and chains or ropes were attached to either end to enable players to grab on. What could be the problem with this piece of light-hearted, community-binding fun? The answer is limited resources. As previously discussed, trees did not have much chance of making it to maturity in Orkney if they were not protected and encouraged which meant that many of the trees used in the yule-tied tug-of-war belonged to people.

Most of the trees were apparently stolen from gardens and Robertson tells of minister James Craigie, sitting up most of the night with his precious tree in order to keep it safe. He failed. Town youths manage to slip in anyway and cut the tree down. Rev. Craigie was very cross.

Eventually, in January 1933, the town council decided that enough was enough and that too much damage was being done to private properties. A restriction was placed upon the pinching of trees.

Orkney Archive Ref: S1/6 dated 9th January 1933

In 1935, this printed notice was displayed in the town:

Courtesy of Stromness Museum
These restrictions did dampen enthusiasm somewhat and the Orcadian of the 30th of December 1937 reported that 'A requisition was made for Yule Tree and we understand a tree was obtained in a legal enough manner, but any attempt to pull it through the street surely fizzled out, for none made its appearance so far as we know.'

Attempts were made during the next decade or so to resurrect this Christmas tradition but, along with the Stromness ba' game, it eventually fell into obscurity.

Until 2017! Read here about the very popular return of the Stromness Yule Log which attracted over 200 participants and huge crowds:

Information taken from:

Uppies and Doonies by John Robertson
Stromness, A History by Bryce Wilson
History of Stromness 1900-1972 by James Troup
Editions of the Orcadian as mentioned.

Thursday, 19 December 2019

20 Days of Orkney Trees #16

We have been looking back through the mists of time for the last 15 posts (as is our wont), but now let us whisk you into the future, Doc Brown style! No flux capacitors required, simply allow your eyes to drift down the page and alight upon the diagram below. It is a plan for the grounds of Kirkwall's new Balfour Hospital.

Existing trees are shown in black and white and are surrounded by proposed plantings of various trees, shrubs and hedgerows plus herbaceous wetlands and ornamental water lilies. The green area at the top right is to be planted with apple trees and soft fruit bushes whilst the ponds are to be surrounded by a 'woodland glade' containing rowan, whitebeam and birch trees planted with woodland wildflower.

We can only see it in our mind's eye right now, but it's looking pretty great to us. The name of the site is to be Arcadia Park:

Orkney Archive Reference D1/1616

Wednesday, 18 December 2019

20 Days of Orkney Trees #15

Orkney Herald dated 25th December 1935
An excerpt from the Orkney Herald today, in which the council discussed the removal of some trees from the grounds of the Earl's Palace as they were obscuring the building in photographs taken by visitors. The Earl's Palace was the only building of its type in Scotland and was therefore popular with tourists.

As you can see from the Tom Kent image below, the grounds were full of trees:

Tom Kent negative no. 2627

But are these not beautiful photographs?:

Tom Kent negative no. 2630

Tom Kent negative no. 2649

The chairman professed himself to be 'very much attached to every tree that grows in Orkney' but the Dean of Guild, although 'loath to see any tree taken away', pointed out that many had been planted earlier in the year for the jubilee. A Ha! This must have been why the saplings were being planted in the willows area by be-hatted officials in Day 4 of our tree-tastic advent.

The occasion in question was the silver jubilee of George V and there was a brief mention of the trees being planted earlier on in the year:

Orkney herald dated 8th May 1935

It was decided to allow the removal of 6 or 7 trees as they were thought to be on their way out due to old age. The clerk guessed this age to be about 100 and said that his grandfather, Dr Logie had planted them.

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

20 Days of Orkney Trees #14

Most of the archive staff are not Orkney-born and so we often ask our Very Orcadian Colleague to enlighten us when puzzled by local dialect, confused by 'Orcadian ways' or curious about growing up in the County.

I asked VOC about his early tree memories and he talked about a small wood being planted outside his school. Said wood is now full of hefty -trunked trees but our colleague remembers them being 'nothing but sticks'.

I asked what year this could have been was told to mind my own beeswax. Undeterred, I looked through the Phoenix Photographic collection (Dougie Shearer's archive) and found this great shot of all the tiny, newly planted saplings with the path winding through them. I think this photo dates from the early 1960s but don't tell VOC I said that...

Monday, 16 December 2019

20 Days of Orkney Trees #13

Tom Kent image negative no. 2461
Another 'big house' garden today. Papdale house stands in central Kirkwall behind its namesake school. The children of the school have the use of a walled garden, known as 'the Secret Garden' which was attached to the old house. Home to many mature trees and allotments, you can read more about the garden, which has recently been renovated by Orkney Blide Trust here:

Papdale house was built in 1807 by Malcolm Laing, (Advocate, historian and M.P. for Orkney from 1807-1812) and, in August 1814, he entertained an old friend from his legal days, Sir Walter Scott. As noted, in the article above, there is a rumour mentioned that Sir Walter was responsible for the avenues of Laburnam trees within the garden. He was only in Kirkwall for a couple of days, so it seems unlikely that he actually planted them himself. He did, however, note the scarcity of trees, so perhaps strong hints were made...

'All vegetables grow here freely in the gardens and there are one or two attempts at trees where they are sheltered by walls. How ill they succeed may be conjectured by our bringing with us a quantity of brushwood, commissioned by Malcolm Laing from Aberbrothock, to be sticks to his pease.'

Walter Scott in Northern Lights

Papdale walled garden on the 1902 OS map.

Malcolm Laing's childhood home was a town house in Kirkwall and was, according to his brother Samuel Laing's biographer Ray Fereday, 'remarkable in Samuel's youth for having three trees growing in its front yard. The house survives, with a ground-floor extension for two shops, and one decrepit sycamore remains, long known as the big tree.'

Earlier, in the same book, Samuel himself remembers the three trees as being plane trees:

'We lived in that house in Kirkwall a little below the broad street which is distinguished by two or three middling sized Plane Trees, which were planted by my father and are almost the only trees in the country.'

Perhaps the sycamore was planted after the Laings' residence.

The author of the preface to Samuel's autobiography, William P. L. Thomson was not just a historian, he also served as the rector of Kirkwall Grammar School from 1971-1990, living in Papdale House and, with his wife, tending the garden and its trees.

An aerial view of the Kirkwall Grammar School can be seen below, with the garden just behind it:

This photo was taken in the mid 70s and the walled area does seem quite sparsely treed compared to the garden today. The woodlands either side, however, seem in fine fettle and have been added to recently by pupils of the Grammar school.

Information taken from:

Northern Lights by Sir Walter Scott

The Autobiography of Samuel Laing of Kirkwall, edited & supplemented by R. P. Fereday with a preface by W.P.L. Thomson

Kirkwall Grammar School - From Sang School to Comprehensive, by W.P.L. Thomson

Who Was Who in Orkney by W. S. Hewison

Orkney's Secret Creative Garden in The Orkney News by Fiona Grahame

Saturday, 14 December 2019

20 Days of Orkney Trees #12

So far, we have looked mainly at natural, ancient woodlands and 'big house' plantations in Orkney. The island does, however, have a small woodland planted and, for many years, maintained by one individual.

In 1948, Edwin Harrold, Ned to friends and family, moved to the tiny cottage of Bankburn in Stenness. Edwin himself described this place as 'barren' when he arrived which can be seen from the image below:

Edwin had a vision, however, and he liked trees. There was only some elderberry shrub and an old dyke when he arrived but, beginning with some fast-growing and hardy sycamore as a windbreak (the 'Big Tree' of Albert Street and many of the trees in the willows are also sycamores), he began to plant a beautiful woodland.

With the shelter provided by his sycamore windbreak, Edwin could protect more sensitive and unusual trees such as Chilean pine, Japanese cedar, Hinoki pine, pencil cedar, larch, turkey oak, sugar maple, Chinese elm, Lawson's cypress, hazelnut, Canadian sequoya pine as well as the more usual Orcadian fare, such as rowan.

A dam in the nearby burn provided Bankburn cottage with both a water supply and a source of hydro-electricity. 'I don't miss any of the modern conveniences that people have', Edwin was to say, 'not a bit.'

Who needs mains water and electricity when you have a garden like this?:

Edwin died in 2005 and had been worried that his garden would 'go back to the hill' without him there to oversee its maintenance. Two years after his death, the Friends of Happy Valley society was created in order to document the history and people's memories of the garden, but also to ensure its continued survival. In 2008, members planted 800 trees on the outskirts of the garden.

Happy Valley is still flourishing and is enjoyed by families, walkers, gardening clubs and old friends alike.

Information taken from the Friends of Happy Valley Collection Orkney Archive Reference D128