Saturday, 10 November 2018

Margaret Tait 100

Margaret Caroline Tait, Orcadian film maker, poet and medical doctor was born, one hundred years ago tomorrow, on the 11th November 1918 - Armistice Day.

Her family lived in a flat on Broad Street, opposite St Magnus Cathedral and so would have heard the ships honking in the harbour and seen the bunting bedecked streets from their window on that day.

Tait trained as a doctor in Edinburgh after primary schooling in Kirkwall and a secondary education in Edinburgh. She enlisted in 1943 and served with the Royal Army Medical Corps in the UK and the Far East where she began to write short stories.

Margaret Tait's Italian Student Matriculation Card with photograph dated 1947.
Orkney Archive Reference D97/1/6

After some time working as a locum doctor (and writing screenplays) in various parts of Britain, Tait travelled to Perugia in 1950 to research a film. She ended up abandoning the proposed film and instead enrolled at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia film school in Rome for a two year course. This led to the formation of Ancona films with fellow student Peter Hollander.

Margaret Tait and Peter Hollander
Orkney Archive Reference D97/44/5

For the next 46 years, Tait worked under the banner of Ancona films, largely alone and in various Scottish locations, making short films which were partly funded by her continuing work as a locum. Books of poetry were also produced, short stories and a children's book. She made watercolours, wrote a novel and took photographs.

Watercolour design for film Painted Eightsome.
Orkney Archive Reference D97/44/2

In 1992, Tait finally directed her long gestated feature film Blue Black Permanent at the age of 72.

Continuity polaroids used during the filming of Blue Black Permanent.
Orkney Archive Reference D97/13

When she died at the age of 80 in April 1999, her husband Alec gifted several crates worth of letters, photographs, poems, screenplays, paintings, personal diaries, filming diaries, notebooks and personal documents to the library and archive. 48 boxes worth have been catalogued and are available to view.

Several items are currently on loan to GOMA in Glasgow, Summerhall in Edinburgh and Northlight in Stromness, all of whom are currently hosting exhibitions celebrating Margaret Tait's centenary. There is also a small display in the Orkney Room in the Orkney Library & Archive.

If you are unable to visit us in person, then please see below for more images from our exhibit and click here to watch her films. For more information on the Margaret Tait centenary celebrations please click here and here.

Poster and ticket for the 1955 Rose Street Film Festival held in Margaret Tait's Edinburgh flat.
Orkney Archive Reference D97/23/1/19&20 

Storyboard for Blue Black Permanent
Orkney Archive Reference D97/26/8

Orkney Archive Reference D97/13

Thursday, 18 October 2018

A Free Man In Kirkwall

Orkney Archive Reference SC11/5/1826/66
Today is anti-slavery day and we took a look through the catalogue to find the few mentions we remembered about Orcadian gentry who were either slave-owners in Jamaica or who made money from the slavery trade.

Instead we found a court case from 1826 between David Erskine of Kirkwall and James Makewell, a former slave.

Erskine was claiming breach of contract against Maxwell who, as he put it 'had belonged' to his brother, Dr Robert Erskine of London who was referred to as Maxwell's 'master'. Dr Erskine had visited his brother in Orkney, leaving Maxwell behind when he returned home.

David Erskine claimed that he had fed and clothed Makewell and sent him to school whilst waiting for his brother to send for his servant. When no word came, he alleged to have offered Maxwell employment at the rate of £3 per year, half of which he said was paid upfront.

Makewell was then apparently 'induced' by John Traill Urquhart of Elsness, to join him as his servant in Sanday despite Urquhart being previously warned off by Erskine.

This version of events was roundly disputed by Makewell who averred that 'the moment he arrived in Britain, his slavery ceased, and he became equally free as the petitioner himself.'

He agreed that he had been left behind in Orkney by his former employer, but not that he had been treated well nor truly engaged in formal employment by his Kirkwall host. He described being fed but not clothed, ending up in nothing but rags, whilst being forced to work as a farm labourer, something which he had no training for.

His version of the events had him deciding that he had been patiently uncomfortable for long enough and that he had to do 'something for himself' which led to employment as Urquhart's servant.

He rejected the idea that he had been paid £11/2 as a retainer for the rest of the year and claimed that he had been handed 10 shillings for clothes towards the end of his stay with Erskine and a further 20 shillings before he left. This, he said, was renumeration for all the work he had done thus far rather than a new wage. 'The alleged engagement was altogether imaginary' in his opinion.

David Erskine hit back at this representation, calling it 'ungrateful' and 'uncandid'. He reiterated that he had put Makewell through school which apparently took up much of his time and called the idea that he had made Makewell work as a labourer 'absurd' as he did not have a farm, merely a 'park' which Makewell has 'taken a fancy' to ploughing one day.
Click to enlarge

Unfortunately, our Sheriff Court papers never record the outcome of a case, but the last item in the packet stated that the Sheriff Substitute 'allows the petitioner (David Erskine) a proof of his averment of the engagement under which he claims the respondent's (James Makewell's) services and for that effect grants diligence against witnesses to be reported the day of...(left blank).

I'm not sure if this means that the Sheriff Substitute was ruling in Erskine's behalf or whether he was merely giving him more time to prove that he had engaged Makewell in his employ.

Can any lawyers help??

Thursday, 4 October 2018

Happy National Poetry Day

Published poetry collections can be found in the Orkney Room

Regular Radio Orkney listeners will have heard poems by Margaret Tait being read out every day this week in honour of National Poetry Day.

Not heard of Margaret Tait? Simply click here to see our previous blog posts, click here to listen again to Radio Orkney's morning broadcasts and click here to watch her films.

The Orkney Library and Archive hold Margaret Tait's archive of poems, correspondence and working papers and we also keep published copies of her collections of poetry. Those of you who are already fans may wish to read unpublished poems from her collection as well as her many working diaries made during filmshoots and peruse the lovely watercolour paintings which were recently shown at the Pier Arts Centre.

Manuscript of Origins and Elements, Orkney Archive reference D97/46/2/3/1

Manuscript of The Hen and the Bees, Orkney Archive reference D97/46/2/3/2
Unpublished writings, Orkney Archive reference D97/46/2/1


Saturday, 15 September 2018

Orkney at War (July - December 1918)

The 13th instalment of our "Orkney at War" Exhibition is now available to see in the Archive Public Searchroom.
The display shows how Orkney and Orcadians were affected by the war in their daily lives, using items from the Archive collections which were created at the time. Items such as newspaper reports, scrapbooks, council minutes, photographs, letters and diaries.

Here are a few items from the main exhibition:

From the Orcadian 4th July 2018:

"The New Voters Roll
Large Increase in Number of Voters
Over 1500 absent Voters on Orkney Roll
Compared with the register of voters, when last made up on 1st October 1914, the electorate has increased from 4414 to 11726 an increase of 7315.
As female voters account for 4568 of the total on the new list, male voters show an increase of 2747, or, excluding the 1547 men shown to be on active service, an increase of 1200."

Extracts from the Memoir of Bernard Williams (Archive ref: D1/526):

"The weather in July 1918 was perfect for this was the month that we embarked on the wooden 150 ton boat Minerva from Kirkwall to Pierowall Bay. It was as well that this boat was motivated by an eight horsepower combustion engine with a propeller with a 2 foot diameter, for if it relied on sail we should have been becalmed and stranded, this calm weather was unusual for the Orkneys.
When about to cast we had a distribution of letters and parcels from home. I well remember my packet contained a slab of Rowntree's plain chocolate which sustained me on this long sea epic to Pierowall, Westray Island, the most northern of the Orkney Islands [sic.] It was remarkable that Air Force authorities thought it not necessary to provide us rations until the end of this long sea journey. Of course the need for our visit to Westray was to make dawn attacks on U-boats that had become a menace to our shipping lines supplying food and arms to the Allied Forces and civilian population. The Minerva was already accommodating depth charges for this macabre mission of ours, also an Observation Balloon, also a 1 ton lorry with windlass and wire anchoring rope. They played a prominent part in spotting German submarines in the vicinity of the Northern Orkney Islands.
There was no slipway at Pierowall Bay so all loading had to be done by a rowing boat belonging to a Westray owner. The Minerva docked on the sea side of the pier at full tide. This, whether by fortune or guile of our intrepid pilot who charted us through this perilous venture, lessened the ordeal of unloading all our equipment. The lorry was removed first and was soon to be the first motorised vehicle to operate on the island of Westray. Only equestrian drawn traps and carts prevailed before

From John Fraser's Scrapbook, Archive Reference D1/692:

Letter to Willie Rendall from his mother about life in Kirkwall in July 1918. Part of the letter states that: "I can not get jam here today or Saturday as the Americans has been ashore on leave by the thousands and bought up everything we had".
Robert Rendall Papers D27/7/10

From book, Early Flying in Orkney by Dr. T Crowther Gordon: Extract from his day-to-day log book while stationed at Houton Air Station, Orphir. p20-21.
"The most exciting, dangerous and perplexing day of my whole career was Sunday 15th September [1918].
At 2.15pm I took off in F.3 4235 with Observer Harwood and flew at 1500 feet to squares 83, 84, and 95 in search of U-boats. When sixty miles out eat I decided to return to base with nothing to report, but the wind rose and low clouds obscured the Orkney Islands. I asked my navigator for my position, but he confessed he did not know. My engineer tapped me to draw my attention to the starboard engine. I was horror-struck. The petrol pipe was severed and more than half of the petrol was running along the outside of the exhaust pipe, which on an RR360 was very short. Flames flared from the inside of the exhaust while petrol ran along the outside. In a moment the whole machine could go down in flames and out of control. We were over a minefield; there was no ship small or large in sight. The revs dropped from 1400 to 400. The sea was rising. owing to low clouds no land was in sight. Four lives were at stake. One thing was clear to me: I would stay in flight for as long as the plane would fly.

Dr. T Crowther Gordon
On we flew and finally, plunging down through thick clouds, I levelled out to see just ahead of us the Horse of Copinsay, Holm Sound and the Flow. As the boat landed the starboard engine cut out completely. We were helpless but we were home. On examination the slipstream had kept the two broken halves of the petrol-pipe close enough to allow some of the fuel to pass into the engine and so keep the machine in the air."

From John Fraser's Scrapbook, Archive Reference D1/692:

From the Orcadian newspaper 19th September 1918 p7:


The urgent claims of coal economy make it imperative that baking days should be as infrequent as possible. But infrequent baking days have their disadvantages - among them numerous dry, stale crusts of bread which just before baking day comes round again accumulated remarkably fast. Bread does get dry nowadays!

Here is a good recipe for using up some of the crusts - and for making at the same time some excellent cakes for tea:-

Put the crusts of bread in a basin and pour boiling water on them. Meanwhile prepare a plain short pastry and line a number of small patty pans with it.

Drain away the water from the bread and beat with a fork. Add some dried egg beaten up with water, a little sugar, and if obtainable a few currants. If the currants cannot be had, flavour the bread mixture with ratafia.

Ratafia is a liqueur flavoured with almonds or the kernels of peaches, apricots or cherries.

From the Orcadian 14th November 1918, p4:

The news of the signing of the Armistice with Germany was received in Kirkwall on Monday morning. The announcement was received with intense enthusiasm. The shipping in harbour, and the streets of Kirkwall were quickly bedecked with bunting, whilst the steamers in port voiced the feelings of all by the continuous sounding of sirens. All through the day the manifestations of joy continued; as ship after ship entered the bay, the glad tidings were announced to the mariners by renewed blowing of whistles.
On the recommendation of Provost Baikie, all places of business in the town were closed in the afternoon, and a joint service of thanksgiving, in which the ministers of the town took part, was conducted in St. Magnus Cathedral at night.

From John Fraser's Scrapbook, Archive Reference D1/692:

From the Orcadian newspaper 21st November 1918:

DISTRICT NEWS                                 FLOTTA
CELEBRATING "THE DAY" - The day on which the Germans signed the Armistice, which means peace, with glorious (if dear bought) victory for our side, was made memorable here by the blowing of their sirens for a long time, both in the forenoon and at night, by the "multitude" of vessels in the vicinity; by the hoisting of flags at prominent places, and by the ringing (by the minister himself) of the Parish Church bell. And now we will be looking for the early return of our dear ones who have "come through the war". Alas! That the general joy of meeting the living will be so much taken away from by the sorrow for those whom we will meet no more on earth. With every community in the empire, we thank God that the carnage has eventually ceased; and that it is hardly within the bounds of possibility that there will be another "world conflict" for generations to come.
Surrender of the German High Seas Fleet, November 1918:
It was actually November 1918 that the German High Seas Fleet came to Scapa Flow.

The German Fleet in Scapa Flow, Orkney

The 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th instalments are still displayed in various locations around the building and the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th instalments, including a special feature of the sinking of HMS Hampshire, are available to see in a folder in the Archive Searchroom. Click on "Orkney At War" in the labels to see more blog posts on this subject.

Monday, 9 July 2018

Drunk Bees

We were most amused to read this account of liquored-up bees:

Orkney Herald - 24th February 1897

 How on earth does a bumble-bee show 'remorse and disgust'? Texting last night's companions to apologise for their behaviour? Recycling their cans and bottles under cover of darkness? Commencing a juicing diet in order to detox?

Bombus lapidaries does none of these things. The lush.

Perhaps you are wondering when Humblebees became Bumblebees? Well wonder no more readers... wonder no more:

I do not know why drunk bees surprised us so. In Orkney of yore, even the babies were at it.

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Old Orkney Photograph Phun

Dusty and I began our morning when our Very Orcadian Colleague invited us to inspect these fantastic photos. He often brings through examples of interest, mirth or mystery and these delighted us.

The first is a positive image printed on glass of a group of four.

Photographs of this vintage rarely include people smiling as the exposure times were too long for sitters to hold a smile for. Dusty and I thought the woman looked particularly grim and wondered if she was having a bad day. VOC informed us that they were 'probably all in clamps' to keep them still (photographers used posing rods and neck rests to help sitters to remain static) and wondered why we were not more intrigued by the fellow on the right who was feeling his fellow sitter's ear and holding what appeared to be a small pipe.

What's his deal?

The instruction not to smile clearly caused this wee lass some mirth and we were amazed by how modern this picture seemed. It could have been taken yesterday. VOC thought it was early twentieth century and guessed from THE WALL BEHIND HER that it was taken on the isle of Westray.

The Orkney Photographic Archive comprises of close to 70,000 images of people, places, transport, archaeological digs, sporting events, terrifying creatures, mystery (poo-like) objects and many, many more subjects and/or events. Most of these are available to peruse in the Archive Search Room on the first floor of Orkney Library.

We can photocopy and scan images we own the copyright of and VOC can makephotographic prints for you in his Tardis-like darkroom.

Update: VOC investigated the origin of this photograph and it was indeed taken on Westray.

Saturday, 23 June 2018

Happy Birthday For Tomorrow Glenn!

Oh Glenn Mederios, is anything, ever going to change our love for you? Certainly not the fact that you went to university after your chart success and became a teacher and the possible fact that your children are called Chord and Lyric pleases us greatly.

OBVIOUSLY we pretend to be the girl in this excellent video the most: (the balloon bit)

...but we also like to pretend that we are riding a horse on a beach with you and the following song is the Orkney Archive ode to our old, desperately needing a service, soon to be obsolete micro-film viewer-printer which only the archive staff may use.

Nothing will change our love for it.

 Not the wonky focus knob, not the way the lens constantly springs out of place, not the way it snatches the film from our hands and spews it out the other side, not the rubbish way it sucks in two sheets of paper at once and then prints half of a newspaper page on each one....NOTHING will alter our ardent love for it. This one's for you Canon Microfilm Scanner 800! Take it away Glenn...

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Billy Manson's Sea Chest

It is time for another post from our redoubtable Balfour Blogger. This one covers sea-faring,  packing for said faring and smelly, 18th Century pants. Avast and Huzzah!

Click To Enlarge

Orkney Archive reference D2/22/20

Billy Manson left Ackworth School, Yorkshire, in April 1791, aged 15 and came north to his father’s home in Kirkwall, Orkney. Ackworth was, still is, a Society of Friends, a Quaker, boarding school.

Billy’s father was Captain William Manson, sea captain, trader, ultimately Comptroller of Customs at Kirkwall and co-founder of the settlement of Friendsborough in Georgia, USA. His mother was Dinah Jackson from Whitby. She was William’s first wife, and she disappeared in Georgia sometime after February 1780 when she and William parted company, leaving Billy and his sister Elizabeth with their father, in Georgia. Billy had been born on-board his father’s ship, the Georgia Packet, in December 1775, as his parents, his sister and 100 settlers arrived in Savannah from a 14 week crossing of the Atlantic from Britain. Many adventures later, William returned to Orkney and remarried, in 1787. His second wife was Elizabeth Balfour, sister of John, Thomas and David Balfour, and in marrying her, William probably made the best bargain of his life, finding himself a fine wife and an active and lucrative role in the Balfour family’s burgeoning estates and business interests.

The Mansons, particularly Captain William, figure highly amongst Orkney Archives’ Balfour Papers. There are letters from the Captain, ledgers and financial documentation from his father’s business, from his own business, letters to and from all of Captain William’s siblings, his mother and much else.

And in amongst it all, in bundle D2/22/20, is a letter dated September 8th 1792, from Kirkwall, to an unknown person, written possibly by Billy’s stepmother, Elizabeth. It is a list of what is to go into a chest for W Manson and it becomes clear that this is a list of what a young man i.e. Billy, will need, going to sea for the first time.

Firstly, a list of clothing to be put into the chest, presumably from his current wardrobe, being:

8 white shirts and 6 check shirts

6 pair linen, 6 pair woollen and 1 pair cotton stockings

1 green great coat, 1 brown coat

3 waistcoats and 3 pairs breeches

3 pair shoes and 1 pair buckles

2 silk handkerchiefs and 2 cravats

3 pair worsted mittens, and

3 pocket handkerchiefs

I’m curious about the 12 shirts and how the white are to be successfully laundered, versus the check ones. White shirts suggest smart formality and their preponderance suggests an officer rather than a seaman. Also why 13 pair of stockings - and the specific need for 1 pair of cotton stockings? Why 2 coats of different colours? Were they also of different materials, for different climates? 2 silk handkerchiefs and 2 cravats – also of silk? For land-based or sea-based events?

The following page of the letter then states that further items are to be purchased for Billy at London (does this mean, once he gets there from Kirkwall?), which

‘may be had cheapest & most suitable  at a slop shop in Wapping’

A slop shop in Wapping? A shop where ready-made clothing was sold, and in Wapping because it was hard on the River Thames and part of London’s docklands. Young Billy’s uncle Thomas was settled in London and it is probable Billy was with his uncle and his family, pending his departure.

The list of what’s to be bought at the slop ship is headed by more clothing:

2 outside duffle jackets, lined in the body and sleeves with blue flannel and [costing]about 10 to 12 shillings each, with horn buttons - duffle in the 18th Century is about the type of fabric, a heavy-duty woollen flannel, rather than the design of the garment. Horn buttons would have been harder-wearing than wooden.

2 pair canvas long trousers about 2 shillings and sixpence to 3 shillings  – canvas would be immensely hard-wearing, and note the fact that they must be long trousers, not knee-length, or any other short trousers.

1 pair blue baize trousers, at 5 shillings – baize being coarse, woollen cloth.

3 pair woollen drawers at 2 shillings to 2 shillings and sixpence i.e. undergarments worn next to the skin. Billy has 12 shirts but only 3 pairs of drawers. It’s an imbalance not to be dwelt on, perhaps.

2 under waistcoats with sleeves, unlined with horn buttons at 5 to 6 shillings – think about the environment Billy is setting out into. The letter is written in September so we can surmise an autumn or early winter departure, from London, out onto a cold, cold Atlantic ocean where layers of warm clothing will be vital.

The list then moves onto miscellaneous items:

I hammock bed of flock, 2 blankets and a rug  – not only did a hammock take up least space in the confined world of 18th century ships, but it was a safe place for a sailor to sleep. The hammock moved in rhythm with the ship and held in the sailor, much preferable to being flung about in a bunk.

1 pair block tin buckles with brass chapes and tongues- as 2 buckles are required, it seems probable they are for footwear. Block tin is solid tin, as opposed to tinplate, therefore sturdy, as is the brass from which the chapes and tongues are to be made. And what of the chapes and tongues? Chapes are the plates by which the buckle is attached to the shoe and the tongue is the pin of the buckle.

2 sailors’ frocks of canvas to wear over all – the frock worn by a sailor was a heavy duty, waist length tunic, presumably as protection from weather and dirt. No Gore-Tex for Billy and his companions!

1 French Grammar and Dictionary to be got second hand, and any other small books he may chuse – is this the first clue as to where Billy is heading? His father and Uncle Thomas both had connections to the Caribbean sugar trade, and France had its share of the islands of the Caribbean, which Billy might visit if he too joined that trade. Or - the French Revolution of 1789 was the reason for war across Europe by 1792. Britain was neutral until 1793, but the storm was brewing and perhaps understanding French might be useful for a naval man – prizes to be captured on the high seas, perhaps?

And finally, one navigation book of Hamilton Moor’s that has all the tables used in keeping a ship’s way at sea etc – John Hamilton Moor was Edinburgh born and his The New Practical Navigator and Daily Assistant was published in 1772. Again, an indication that Billy is officer material, to be trained to command and take charge, as his father had done.

The letter’s author believes it is needless to buy a quadrant for him for the 1st voyage, nor sea charts.  But notes that if Billy meets up with John Paterson (who was John Paterson?), he should take Paterson’s advice on what it is necessary to have for this first trip.

Finally, the writer states

N.B. His things must be very easy for him as sea clothes are very apt to shrink and get past use in a little time- presumably easy is used in the sense of comfortable and roomy.

There is very little known about young Billy’s sea-going career. He had been born at sea, he had crossed the Atlantic before he was 10 years old, returning from America to Britain, his father was a sea-going man and his London and Orkney families lived by trade which was dependent on the sea: all in all, no surprise then that he goes to sea, aged 16. It may be that more information lies un-catalogued in the Manson letters in the Balfour papers - we don’t know the ships he sailed on; whether he was Royal Navy or Merchant Navy, but probably the latter given his father’s and uncle’s connections.

What we do know, from a sad, torn and tattered little list of family deaths, written up perhaps by his step-mother, is that Billy died in June 1795, of yellow fever in Antigua. He was 20 years old.  

Yellow fever is a nasty, tropical virus spread by infected mosquitos. Inoculation helps nowadays and immunity also builds but Billy didn’t benefit from either in 1795. Antigua is one of the West Indies, and was an important British naval base from the 1660s onwards. Was he nursed at the naval hospital at English Harbour, or were its beds reserved for Royal Navy men? Did he die, as he was born, on board ship? And does he have a burial place in Antigua?

A short life, filled with adventure and separation – the loss of his mother, his time at Ackworth, and then away to sea, far from father, step-mother, sister and all the rest. Did he mind? A life lived from sea-chests ………


And a post-script: in April 2018 an Orkney family visited Antigua, made contact with the local Archive There was no immediate trace of Billy there, but they will keep looking – he was one of hundreds, if not thousands of seamen who died in the Caribbean – and so the candle lit for Billy by uncovering the inventory of his sea-chest, will keep burning and we’ll also keep looking for more information in the Balfour papers

Friday, 8 June 2018

We Only Do It Because We Care...

We have blogged before about our passive - aggressive relationships with certain TV shows. Sometimes one nit picks because one loves a person so very much and it pains us that they are not reaching their potential.

We wrote a snippy complaint about Autumnwatch calling Orkney 'The Orkneys' because we are pedantic but also because we love BBC's 'The Watches' so very much. It is the only thing that has ever annoyed us about that wonderful show.

We were unreasonably delighted by the first series of Bake Off, and we almost lost our minds when Who Do You Think You Are called (another show we had previously chastised), but we ADORE Spring/Autumn/WinterWatch. Thus, there was another very hysterical afternoon after we were contacted by one of the show's producers to provide copies of audio tapes of Orkney naturalist and expert on Hen Harriers, Eddie Balfour.

The relevant program aired on Wednesday but can still be watched on iplayer here:

For more information on Eddie, see this obituary which appeared in a 1974 copy of The Orcadian:


Friday, 1 June 2018

Cheesey Does It

It is, as I am sure you are all aware, World Milk Day today. Up here, the supermarkets stock delicious local milks, creams and cheeses and the staff here are eager to support our local dairy and farmers. Why, only today, we forced down several tubs of local ice-cream in various flavours. 'Twas our citizenly duty and a tribute to World Milk Day...and it was hot... and ice-cream is quite nice...

Cheeses drying in Flotta, 1945

A woman using a plout kirn, Birsay.

Butter making class with Miss Boyd, Burray

Woman. making butter, Birsay
Cheese and butter making class at Grimness school, South Ronaldsay.

A plethora of cheeses

Friday, 25 May 2018


We are crying again in the archive. This happens a lot... probably the dust or something...

But today, it is because of GDPR, otherwise known as General Data Protection Regulation which comes into force today. You may all be aware of this new legislation as we have all received numerous emails from companies keen to hold on to our data and put up with irritating pop up windows every time we want to check on handsome movie men.

Basically, the idea is that we have to specifically consent before someone takes and keeps our data and they can only keep it for as long as they need it. This is obviously a good thing. Orkney Archive will securely keep your data for only one year after you get in touch with us for an enquiry.

But oh, readers! We are an ARCHIVE which means we hate to throw anything out. One man's rubbishy pile of old papers is our delightful and informative gold. Our storerooms heave with old negatives, notebooks, receipts, cash books, diaries and letters and we LOVE IT.

It is with a heavy heart these last few weeks that Dusty and the Fonds have scrolled through our vast database of past enquiries, deleting the names and addresses  of people we have come to know as old friends.

"Goodbye Bob Bunting"* whispered Dusty* through tears as she deleted our first ever enquiry.

"Farewell Mavis Moobs"* wept the Fonds* as he shredded an enquiry regarding 18th century paving stones in Stromness.

We can still hold on to any information uncovered during the course of investigation for future reference but our enquiries seem all blank and impersonal now that they contain correspondence addressed to and signed by no-one... Sob...

For more information see here

* All names have been changed for this blog post re: GDPR

Saturday, 12 May 2018

Ha-Pee Old Beltane

Happy 'Aald Beltin' dear readers! According to our beloved Ernest Walker Marwick, the Old Beltane or May Day used to fall, by our calendar, on the 12th of May.

It has been a very wet, cold winter here in Orkney and, although we have had a wee share of sunshine, there is still an annoying nip in the air. April and May are always thus. To quote Mr Marwick:

"We have no sooner had a couple of halcyon days, blue as sapphire, than there comes a bleak wind which cuts us to the bone..."

Consequently, the farmers have been a bit later than usual sowing their fields but, according to Marwick, neither peats were cut nor bere seeds sown until 'Orkney Beltane (Old Style)' with this tradition still being observed in some parts of Orkney and Shetland in the 1970s.

Bel for sun and tein for fire, Beltane was a farewell to dark winter and a welcome to Summer months. F. Marian McNeill, author of The Silver Bough tells how "fairies, witches and all the uncanny creatures of the Otherworld" were abound on May Day eve and sprigs of rowan were carried, worn and festooned around the home to ward them off. Rowan was also perched in the midden (the bin, basically) because that is where the 'black sisterhood', i.e. witches, used to hang out. Keep it classy sisters.

As is usual with Orcadian traditions, the Beltane celebrations would not be complete without a liberal sprinkling of urine for lucky domestic animals . For it's healing powers obviously... Honestly, this example is the tip of a urine-soaked iceberg. People used it ALL the time. They sprinkled it on their animals, women about to give birth, left it lying about in buckets, put it in their eyes, drank it... All. The. Time.

References: D31/BBC/7
The Silver Bough Volumes I and II.

Monday, 23 April 2018

Samuel Laing of Papdale

Today is the 150th Anniversary of the death of Samuel Laing of Papdale, who died in Edinburgh
on 23rd April 1868.
Samuel Laing was born in Kirkwall on the 1st October 1780 and baptized on the 2nd. His parents were Robert Laing of Strynzie and Margaret Blaw.
OPR/21/2 Birth/baptism of Samuel Laing, Oct 1780
According to Who was Who in Orkney, he was educated "at Kirkwall Grammar School and in an Edinburgh counting house. He went to Kiel to learn German and later from a London counting house became secretary to a merchant in Holland and British Consul in Rotterdam, rapidly learning Dutch."

He is described as "Norse scholar, soldier, entrepreneur, agricultural improver, linguist, author and translator."
In 1818 he inherited his family's estate in Orkney and settled at Papdale House, St Ola.

Papdale House (Archive Reference: TK2461)
One of his best known translations was of Snorri Sturlusson's 'Heimskringla' the saga history of the Kings of Norway in 1844, copies of which we have here in
the Orkney Room.
If you would like to learn more about Samuel Laing, we have a copy of his Autobiography which we keep in the Orkney Room under reference 920 Y LAI. There are also many lending copies in the Orkney Library downstairs.
In this publication which was published in 2000, it says the original manuscript has been lost. We are pleased to say that that is no longer the case. In 2003 the original manuscript was deposited in the Orkney Archive on behalf of the owner. This means the public can request to see it in the Archive Searchroom whenever we are open.
Here are a couple of pages:
D1/853 Original memoir/diary of Samuel Laing 1816-1855

D1/853 Original memoir/diary of Samuel Laing 1816-1855