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: http://www.orkneycommunities.co.uk/WOODLAND/index.asp?pageid=595130

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: https://www.northlinkferries.co.uk/orkney-blog/the-stromness-yule-log-pull/

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: https://theorkneynews.scot/2018/06/29/orkneys-secret-creative-garden/

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

Friday 13 December 2019

20 Days of Orkney Trees #11

Today's post is a letter written to Orcadian historian John Mooney in 1925. The author is New York based business man, Adam H. Cormack, who had a 'dream of forestation' for Orkney.

'It appears to me, Mr. Mooney, that we of the present generation could do few things that would be of more permanent good to our native Isles than to start a tree planting movement in the Orkneys. Not that the present generation, or at least we who are now of middle life, could expect to derive any direct benefit except the pleasure of added charm of the Orkney landscape which would necessarily follow from the planting of trees, but it would be of great importance and benefit to future generations.'

Orkney Archive Reference D49.3.1

Adam Cormack was born on the island of Eday in 1872, the 10th of his father James' children. James was a crofter who did not own any land and Eday's population was gradually becoming too much for the available resources to support. Adam will have seen America as an opportunity to own property and land and to make a good living, but Orkney obviously never left his heart.

I didn't find any evidence of any results of Adam Cormack's reforestation dream but, as was discussed a couple of posts ago, the Forestry Commission did plant 18 hectares of woodland on Orkney during the 1950s.

Information taken from:

Orkney Archives D49/3/1 and  D31/31/1 'Typescript of a book entitled Tales of Orkney and Eday, my Father's Island, by Maribelle Cormack'

Thursday 12 December 2019

20 Days of Orkney Trees #10

Today we bring you a couple of vouchers for work carried out in 1838. Alexander S. Graham of Crantit paid William Crear 16 shillings at the rate of 2 shillings per day for 8 days of pruning and transplanting trees and pruning the hedges in the grounds surrounding the ruins of the Bishop's Palace in Kirkwall.

Orkney Archive Reference D9/10

The 1883 OS map detail and Tom Kent image below show the Bishop's Palace and its trees several years later:

1883 Ordnance Survey

Tom Kent image reference 3412

Archive reference D9/10 also contains a letter from the Commissioners of Her Majesty's Woods and it has a lovely seal on the envelope...

Wednesday 11 December 2019

20 Days of Orkney Trees #9

Still looking at trees planted around 'big houses', today we bring you Orkney Archive Reference D15/21/21 which includes a couple of plans of trees and plants in the old garden at Orphir House, Orphir, c.1900

If you click on the plans to enlarge them, you can see that trees planted include planes, apple, ash, elm and rowan.

The collection also includes rubbings made of initials which had been carved into the garden's trees in the 1870s:

The OS map below shows the extent of the gardens as surveyed in 1900.

Tuesday 10 December 2019

20 Days of Orkney Trees #8

We showed you an image of Binscarth woods in yesterday's post and here are a couple more tree portraits from the same collection:

I initially assumed that this tree was one of the sturdy trunks currently festooned with Christmas lights, but the picture below shows that there is still a rather spindly tree in the same position (although it is hard to be sure). The photo above is nearly one hundred years old. Perhaps the original was replaced? 

Some snowy trees outside Crantit house. The album of photographs covers the 1920s and 30s.