Friday 27 November 2009

Booze Ban

It is tempting to think that binge drinking and concerns about its effects on society are a modern phenomenon.
However, the second half of the nineteenth century and early years of the twentieth century saw great efforts in Orkney, and indeed the rest of Britain, to stamp out the 'demon drink'.
Good Templar associations conceived along Masonic lines complete with rituals, costumes and passwords sprung up all over the county and Temperance hotels were situated throughout Kirkwall and Stromness. The Albert Hotel was a temperance venue and nearly every Parish had at least one Good Templar Lodge including the Emblem of Love Lodge in Holm, the Star of the East Lodge in Deerness; the Maeshowe Lodge in Stenness and the Noltland Lodge of Westray.
The stated object of the Temperance league was "the entire abolition of the drinking system" and much of the dedicated literature quotes alcohol related death and crime statistics in much the same manner as newspapers and websites do today. Indeed, Royal Commission reports were ordered on the situation and articles bemoaning the damage being done to the nations health, mental acuity and economy by 'the greatest evil' appeared in the local and national press with great frequency.
In 1920, the first Local Veto Polls took place. The results ensured that Stromness and Holm became 'dry' parishes, with no alcohol license at all, and Kirkwall's license was 'Limited.' Reactions to this were mixed. The Orkney Herald carried a regretful obituary for 'Mr Johnnie Walker' claiming that 'his demise has left a vacant place in the hearts (and the throats) of a host of his admirers and friends, both open and secret...' Some felt that other parishes deserved to go dry as a 55% share of the vote was required to carry a no license decision, meaning that some areas where the majority had voted to be dry remained licensed.
It must be noted that there was a great reduction of crime reported by the police post Veto Polls and various statistics to this effect were brandished by the No License campaigners whenever a reversal was threatened.
Stromness was officially dry until 1947 whereas Holm did not reverse their decision until 1975.
Information taken from: Orkney Herald, 5/01/1921, 1/06/1921, 29/11/1922, 14/11/1923.
The History of Stromness by George S. Robertson
Various Good Templar pamphlets and journals.

Tuesday 24 November 2009

A Refutation of Charles Darwin

Today is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin's 'Origin of Species'. We do not have much about Darwin in the Orkney Archive but we do have this four page essay 'A Refutation of Darwin's Theory of the Descent of Man'(see left.)
'Once upon a time, a long long time ago, there were no people in the world except Trolls and Fairies; and I am going to tell you how the first man and woman came into the world.
The Queen of the Globe was a hideous little monster with seven humps on her back, one towering above the other till they appeared like a small range of hills behind her. her nose was turned down and her chin turned up till they met and looked exactly like a nutcracker; her grizzly beard descending to her waist, was tucked in at her girdle. This creature had decreed, that if a Fairy woman and a Fairy man could be found, one with a nose a yard long, the other with a chin the same length; and if they should marry, they would immediately become a real live Man and Woman, take possession of the world and turn all the rest of the Fairies into stars.
Well, of course there was a great deal of measuring of noses and chins going on among them (for they all had an ambition to become men and women) but the nose and chin could never be found that was the right length, no matter how they pulled and twisted them about. Till one day, they were all enraged and disappointed when a wee Fairy man hopped out of a freshly opened bean pod, with a nose just the right length.
This Pygmy announced his intention of becoming a man and accordingly set out to look for a wife with a chin the requisite measure. He had travelled over all the world till he came to Orkney, but had not found his twin-soul.
When he came to Kirkwall, however, he went to the Ayre, and found a party of Fairies dancing the 'Highland Fling', and in their midst , playing upon a flute, sat a girl with a chin a yard long!!
So the Fairy man with the outrageous proboscis, and the fairy woman with the unrivalled chin, were united in the Holy Estate of Matrimony; and the stars you see every night are the rest of the Fairies, and the moon is their Queen._________
This academic thesis was taken from the Minervian Library Collection, reference D98, which consists of nine folders full of stories, poems, plays and novellas by the Cowan and Bremner children. Other titles include " Evangeline", "To Win His Love", " A Past For Margarita" and "The Birth Right, or The Secret."
Maria, Clara and Alfred Cowan and their cousin Isabella Bremner were Kirkwall residents aged 6 to 14 when the library first originated in 1865 and who who later ended up living in Tankerness House, now the Orkney Museum. The Minervian library consisted at one point of roughly 100 volumes and was a functioning lending library amongst the children's friends and acquaintances.

Friday 20 November 2009

Happy Anniversary Ma'am

Today our Queen celebrates her 62nd year of marriage with hubbie Prince Philip. In honour of this Royal occasion, we are posting photographs of Her Majesty's first visit to Orkney on 12th August 1960.

The top picture is of the Queen visiting the council offices on School hill and she can be seen next on Broad Street on the way to St Magnus Cathedral.

This Royal visit was originally supposed to take place a year earlier on August 11th 1959 as can be seen from the printed programme of events (shown above, reference D1/223) which included a poem by Robert Rendall and a specially prepared map of the Royal itinerary(shown below). The Royal couple were due to arrive on the Royal Yacht Britannia from Canada but the Queen became ill and flew straight home instead. There was some grumpiness at the amount of time, money and effort, both public and private, that had been wasted by this short-notice cancellation.

The wedding of Elizabeth and Philip took place on the 20th November 1947 when post-war rationing was still in effect. The then Princess had to use clothing coupons to buy the material for her dress just like the book below which belonged to a family living in Clay Loan in 1947. (Orkney Archive reference D1/979/1)

CORRECTION: It has been pointed out to me by a reader that the top photograph can, of course, not date from 1960 as the Council Offices did not move to the old Kirkwall Grammar School site until the late 1970s. They were officially opened by the Queen on 12th of August 1978, her second visit to Orkney, during which she attended the 93rd County Show. I also said School Hill instead of School Place, sorry!

Wednesday 18 November 2009

Hoarding is good.

This week we received a gift of a carrier bag full of old Orkney photographs. The depositor asked if we would be interested in them(Yes, always, very), and said that if we hadn't been, then the precious cache would have just gone into the bin.

We get told that quite a lot and being sensitive, hoarding souls, it never fails to make our blood run cold. Sometimes, upon receiving a potential archive, we listen as the depositor cheerfully describes the letters, photographs, scrapbooks and documents that they destroyed before thinking of the archive. A few weeks ago, a lady told me about the bonfire of photographs and legal papers that she made when clearing a relative's house. Oh the humanity...

We are always interested in your family papers and documents as they can contain so many clues to the past. If ever in doubt as to what to do with interesting old documents that no longer seem relevant, always think of us please!

Tuesday 17 November 2009

Winter Wonderfullness

In these cold, rainy days when it gets dark at HALF PAST THREE IN THE AFTERNOON, it is easy to curse the arrival of winter in Orkney. Take a look at this delightful Tom Kent picture of snowy Kirkwall, however, and unclench those angry fists.
Winter means snow (and therefore the possibility of snow-days off work), twinkly lights, open fires, and the completely justified use of fattening pies to obtain essential cold-busting layers around one's midriff.

Saturday 14 November 2009


Today our assistant archivist gave a talk to members of ODIN on the Orkney Archive itself. The presentation was an introduction to our main collections, with instruction on using the archive and included suggestions of material that might be of particular interest to the group.

This talk or 'virtual tour' has been given to various groups over the years with a tweak here and there to suit the specific interests of Lunch clubs, school groups and MA students. We are always happy to give tours to small groups or indeed talks to slightly larger audiences.

Friday 13 November 2009

Friday the 13th

Feeling freaked out by the date? Be freaked out by a creepy story instead!

Orkney does not have many proper ghost stories, perhaps tough Orcadians don't scare easily.

Most of the folklore revolves around the sea. Sea monsters, selkies and phantom ships all make frequent appearances in our files of wonderful tales. This makes sense as many people relied on the sea for at least part of their living and the flat landscape sometimes feels dwarfed by the sea and skies, especially when it's stormy.

One creepy tale that keeps popping up in various forms is that of 'The Book of The Black Arts.' The basic story goes that there once existed a book full of charms and spells imbued with the requisite power to put said charms and spells into action. The book was said to be made up of black pages printed with white ink.

All of this was great except for one terrifying fact. If anyone died whilst still in posession of the book, he and it would be instantly claimed by its author, the Devil himself. The book was not easy to get rid of.

According to Ernest Walker Marwick's 'The Folklore of Orkney and Shetland', a man in Sandwick tried to get rid of the book by taking it far out to sea and throwing it over the side of his boat in a sack weighted with rocks. When he got home, the book was waiting for him on the kitchen table. Aaaaaaggggghhhh!!!!!

A girl in Sanday who had been tricked into accepting the evil book by a local witch flung it over Grunavi head but it was home in her bedroom before she was. Aaaaaggggghhhhh!!!

The story nearly always ends with a minister being appealed to and accepting charge of the terrible tome. The Rev. Charles Clouston is said to have buried the Sandwick copy in the manse garden and the Rev. Matthew Armour dealt with the Sanday copy.

The title page of the Book of the Black Arts is said to have read:

'Cursed is he that peruseth me.'

Thursday 12 November 2009

Black Building

The demolition of the 'Black Building', Orkney's war-time communications hub, has begun this week. It has been a controversial decision for some who view the old RAF building as an irreplaceable piece of Kirkwall's history.

For years, small efforts had been made by members of the public to prevent the deterioration of the objects and papers still left in the vacant rooms and we have a very small collection of official (blank) forms and jotters as well as an annotated OS map in the archive. Empty buildings do not take long to destroy themselves, however.

But does something still have to be physically present to serve as a reminder of the past?

Before demolition began, the entire building was laser scanned by Historic Scotland so that a 3-dimensional model can be made, even when the original no longer exists. The Royal Commission for Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (or RCAHMS) hold plans, and photographs of exteriors, interiors, building details and aerial views:

Surely it is the information that counts, especially when any atmosphere of a bustling communications hub must have disappeared as soon as the damp infiltrated and mould, moss and mice took up residence?

Wednesday 11 November 2009

Remembrance 2

We received a wonderful gift today. A gentleman from Deerness brought in a folder of handwritten reminiscences/essays and stories for us to copy for the archive. His writing is clear, illuminating and at times very funny. Titles include:

'Ingenuity Versus the Law'
'Of Kirks and Manses'
'The Broch of Deerness'
'Of Coracles, Soos and Curraghs'
' A Few Old Memories, Recounted in Winter Evenings 60 or 70 years ago. Some a Bit Newer'

We were also treated to a bit of his life story; war years in Cairo, life as an Orkney tradesman and the courting of his wife!

Like many today, he was in town to mark Remembrance Sunday at the Cathedral and had lain a wreath.


There will be a two minute silence in the Library and Archive today at 11am.

From the archive window we can see Cadets, Boys Brigade members and others moving towards St Magnus Cathedral and the Gateway of Remembrance with their flags and poppies.

Tuesday 10 November 2009

Letters Home

Our popular exhibition 'Letters Home: Emigration Stories From the Isles' which we first staged in January to coincide with the beginning of the year of Homecoming Scotland is now up again until St Andrews day.

It is a selection of letters, newspaper articles and documents that relate to the many Orcadians who left these Isles in search of a better life. Below is an extract from Orkney Archive reference D31/21/1/9, a letter from James Flett to his brother in Orkney from Fort Norman, Canada and dated 20th February 1880:

" I wish very much to see you all once more and if god spares us a few years hence I hope I will. When I come home I wish the income of my money to support us. I don’t think of beginning any branch of business now in my old days if I can do without it. I have been a long time in this part of the world when I come home I wish to be able to support myself and family without help from any one. I find your letter very kind you say you would give me any comadatian as far as you could in the House line till I got time to look about me – very kind indeed thank you. It gives me much pleasure to hear you are prospering and getting on well in the world long may you continue that way. You say my sister is staid (?)-at many people that may when they get old they get staid if they are living well. My own old ladie is getting pretty staid – the (?) is Peter I find myself quite comfortable in this part of the world with my wife and two children – still I long to see my old countrey and my friends. "
The theme of emigration just being a temporary measure in order to make some money is quite common in the letters that were sent home to Orkney. Many correspondents talk about coming home and the people they hope to see when they do. Perhaps this explains the great enthusiasm of our many international visitors. The descendants of emigrants, however many generations later, still see Orkney as home.

Friday 6 November 2009

Steering the Stone Ships by Jocelyn Rendall

This is the new book by Orkney author Jocelyn Rendall. Jocelyn is a regular visitor to the archive and carried out much of her research for the book in the Orkney Room. Below is a description of the book taken from the Orcadian Bookshop online:

"Through many centuries, Orkney's churches have been the theatre in which the great dramas of Orkney's history have been played out.

From hermitages on wind-blasted holms to dour nineteenth-century preaching barns; from a splendid cathedral founded by a Norse earl to a Nissen hut painted by Italian prisoners during the Second World War; from city kirks built for huge and earnest Presbyterian congregations to a diminutive Roman Catholic chapel converted from a byre, Orkney's churches are diverse in scale, age, style and history, but all play their part in a story that is as beautiful and stormy as the islands themselves.

Jocelyn Rendall tells the fascinating story of an island's people through the records of these churches. From reluctant pagans to zealous firebrands and all in between, the tales within range from the hilarious to the heartbreaking and give a vibrant, enlightening and important perspective to Orkney's rich history. "

With evocative illustrations by Crispin Worthington.Price: £11.99

Thursday 5 November 2009

'Penny for me pop...'

Bonfire night in Orkney is linked to the old Hallowmass, one of the four main pagan festivals including Yule, Beltane and Midsummer.

Hallowmass signalled the end of harvesting when malevolent forces roamed the land and darkness reigned once more.

In Stromness, the children of the town traditionally spend the 5th of November parading, not with a guy, but carved turnips. The grotesque heads can be ghouls, aliens, animals or even topical figures or celebrities. The common cry is 'penny for me pop?, 'pop' being 'Pope'; a reminder of the days when effigies of the Pope were burned on a bonfire!

Photograph copyright Keith Allardyce, taken from the wonderful book on Stromness 'Sea Haven' by Bryce Wilson and with a foreword by George Mackay Brown.

Wednesday 4 November 2009

Mary Boyd's Cave

We have received an enquiry from Denmark regarding 'Mary Boyd's Cave' in Stromness. Apparently there is no physical trace of the cave left but it involves 'a tragic tale'.

Our correspondent saw a brief description in the Stromness museum alongside a photograph but I can find no reference at all in the Orkney Room or Archive.

Any more info out there?

Tuesday 3 November 2009

On this horrible rainy day...

"Suddenly the sun has risen, the sky is bright. The landscape is lit up. Sheep still bleating. The house upon the moor looks bleak and lonely - edge between stony clay and heather. A trickle of water among the heather. And that's it."

Taken from Margaret Tait's notebook reference D97/6/4

Monday 2 November 2009


I hope that none of you were the victim of any Hallowe'en pranks on Saturday night. The streets of Kirkwall were strewn with eggshells and flour on Sunday, so perhaps that hope is in vain.

Pictured above is what japers of yore did on the 31st of October.

The image by Tom Kent is part of the Orkney Photographic Archive.