Friday, 10 May 2019

Seeds of Interest Sown

Posted on behalf of Balfour Blogger #2

Volunteering in the Orkney Archive, getting hooked by an invoice for seeds

In Autumn 2018, I started to help with the cataloguing of the Balfour papers. These are a collection deposited in the Orkney Library in 1962 and are legal papers, letters, financial records and estate records and material relating to the family of Balfour of Balfour [Shapinsay] and of Trenabie [Westray], 1547-1921. There are over 100 books - including letter books, account books, pay lists and muster rolls. There are also 54 boxes of bundles of letters, notes, invoices, receipts, etc. Each box has between 11 and 20 bundles of papers.

I am working on Box 24 which contains letters to John Balfour MP received in 1825 and invoices for a variety of years. Bundle 11 of Box 24 consists of invoices and receipts for the estate of Charlton Grove near Blackheath in Kent. These include, amongst other items, statutory Poor Rate Tax, building work, invoices for journeys to London, and the rent of the estate. My favourite in this bundle is D2/24/11/3/3a which is the invoice and receipt from 'Thomas Gibbs & Co., Nursery and Seedsmen to the Honorable[sic] Board of Agriculture', Corner of Half Moon Street, Piccadilly' for the year 1824. The total bill is for £16 and 5 shillings (£16 5/-). According to data from the Office for National Statistics, that is equivalent to about £1,444 in 2017 prices.

D2/24/11/3/3a page 1
The quantity and variety of the listing is astonishing. For example:

2 quarts of Magazan beans (cost 1 shilling). I had to look up what these are. It turns out they are the 'smallest and most delicate species of the Windsor bean.

Windsor beans, long pod beans, negro beans and liver coloured beans.

Varieties of peas include early Charlton, Prussian, blue imperial, and white Prussian

Included in the list is 2 quarts of Prickly Spinage[sic] and 2 quarts of round Spinage.

Then there is scorzonera which may refer to black salsify, especially as it is immediately next to salsify in the listing.

Onions (3 kinds including Deptford).

Herbs include knotted marjoram, sweet basil, curld[sic] parsley.

Cabbage varieties include early Battersea, early York and Cornish.

Broccoli, 7 varieties in all - white, Belvedere, early Cape, late Cape, sprouting, late Portsmouth and late Danish.

Apart from vegetables, there were '25 paper flower seeds' costing 12 shillings and sixpence (12/6), 12 pounds (lbs) of fine mixed grass seeds for lawn costing £1 and 16 shillings (£1 16/-); and a variety of sundries including 9 canvas bags (5/-) and 1 large hamper (2/6). The most expensive items are yew trees, 18 in all at a cost of £4 10/-.

D2/24/11/3/3a part of page 2
This is one year's invoice from Gibb's. There are several more from this company in Bundle 11. There is a large variety among the invoices. The building work is extensive, including the roof of a dairy. I could spend months on just this bundle, but I have 13 other bundles in this box. Of course, there are another 30 boxes to be completed, luckily not all by me.

Monday, 18 March 2019

Palaeography Group

We have started a new group in the Orkney Archive. It is an informal group for folk who wish to practice their skills reading Secretary Script, Scottish handwriting from the 16th and 17th centuries. There are various online sources that are useful, particularly Scottish where you can begin your studies of this fascinating script. Once you have learnt the basics the only way to become proficient is to practice.

Our group is meeting on Monday nights in the Archive Searchroom from 5.30pm - 6.30pm. Please contact Lucy Gibbon, Assistant Archivist in the first instance if you would like to book a place. Her contact details are 01856 873166 or email

Each week Lucy picks one piece of writing, makes copies of it and the group sit around a table and read aloud what they think the words are, working through the document word for word or letter by letter depending on the level of difficulty. The others can agree or disagree. There will be reference books nearby to look up. Each week one member of the group has been happy to type up the transcription as we decipher it.

The group is organic and will evolve depending on who joins in or the level of skill in the room. Sometimes we will struggle and sometimes we will fly through a document.

We hope that learning from each other will enhance all our skills.

The first week, we started small with this document:

This document is from D2 which is the Balfour of Balfour and Trenabie papers and dated 1673.
Our transcription is this:
We the Justices of his Ma[je]sties peace gentlemen, heritores, fewares, uddallers and otheris within the contrey of orknay doe by these pr[ese]nts testifie and declaire that the provost, baillies, counsell and inhabitants of the burgh of Kirkwall and their predecessores [had/hes?] of this long tyme bygone menteined and upholdine that great and ancient fabrek called St Magnus Kirk there.
While in January 16 [space] years a pairt of the samyne was [beirned/ruined?] by a dreidfull and aciden-tall fyre from heavin and now the povertie of that place has so increassed that they ar not in abilitie nor Capacity to repaire naither that pairt that is rewined [ruined] nor uphold what is yet remaineing without the supplie and help of some Christiane charitie for that effect. In testimonie wh[e]r[e]of we have sub[scribed]t this p[rese]ntis with our hands at Kirkwall the [space] day of November 1673.
Edward McLaw[rren]
W[illiam] Buchanan
Geo[rge] Sinclair            J Buchanan
John Elphinstone            James Fea
                                       Arthur Buchanan
James Sinclair                Will[iam] Douglas
Michael Rendall             O[liver] Kincaid
Robert Irving                 William Young
                                       N. Moncrieff
The names were interesting, but most of them could be found in the book, Kirkwall in the Orkneys by B H Hossack, first published in 1900.
Other reference books we used were The Concise Scots Dictionary; Scottish Handwriting 1150-1650 - an introduction to the reading of documents by Grant G Simpson.

If you disagree with our transcription, please comment below. We are here to learn and any help is greatly appreciated.

If you would like to join in, please contact Lucy Gibbon to book a place. We are limiting the group to 8 members, but so far the most we have had is 5. So it is always worth phoning or emailing to see if a place is free the night you want to come. If you have set up a similar group, we would be interested in hearing about it too.

Friday, 22 February 2019

Scouting For Orcadians

When I was a child, a group of us met up every Friday night and pretended to be gnomes, pixies and elves. Some ladies were there and we all pretended they were owls. Together, we sang songs, covered things with glitter and learned how to iron the shirts of our future husbands.

Occasionally, we would go on overnight trips to learn important survival skills such as sticking chocolate biscuits together with marshmallows, decorating bookmarks with pressed flowers and dancing to the soundtrack of Fame (possibly specific to our troup.)

And there were woggles. Oh Brownies and Guides, you taught me so much...

Today, in 1857, Scouting co-founder Robert Baden-Powell was born. Below are some images of Orcadian brownies, guides and scouts from the Orkney Photographic Archive. Click to enlarge.

A dapper 1929 jamboree. Light neckerchiefs - Shetland and dark neckerchiefs - Orkney.

Orcadian Brownies and Guides meet up to celebrate centenary of Scouting Association co-founder Robert Baden-Powell.

Some Very Serious Stronsay Scouts.

A Girl Guide troup - no date. Fourth from the left, front row has just remembered that she left the oven on at home.

Monday, 18 February 2019

A Pharay Inventory 1694

A new post written by The Balfour Blogger:

The Balfour papers contain many documents from the 17th century, dating back well over 300 years, and largely unexplored. This is exciting territory for anyone with an interest in Orkney's history. Most are documents retained by Balfours over the centuries, to demonstrate ownership of land, but there is much more than that to be picked over.

These 17th century documents are written in archaic script, in secretary hand and thus difficult to decipher. Many are also legal documents, again making them tricky to understand. Finally they use language, whether it's old Orcadian, Scots or English with which we are no longer familiar. These are the reasons why they are unexplored - they take time and careful study to understand, but it's never time badly spent.

Box 23 of the Balfour papers is now being catalogued fully for the first time.

A brief catalogue of its contents exists but a full description is now in progress which will take many hours of work especially if lots of 17th century deciphering is needed. Secretary hand is full of unfamiliar versions of letters, flourishes, dashes, dots with meaning, and letters no longer part of our alphabet. Numbers are another worry, and of course some of the documents are in poor shape where damp and repeated folding and unfolding have left actual gaps in the paper, where information has been lost.

Several people who work or volunteer in the Orkney Archive have some training in secretary hand; Jennifer Thomson is particularly adept and it was Jennifer who deciphered the inventory, dated 22 November 1694, which this blog is about. Both Jennifer and I are indebted to Alexander Fenton's book, The Northern Isles: Orkney and Shetland, for its encyclopaedic information which has made both translation and this blog possible.

Also most useful have been The Scots Dictionary and William P. L. Thomson's Orkney Land and People and his New History of Orkney.

The inventory is a steillbow inventory made by George Balfour of Pharay to William Craigie of Gairsay of the ground and lands of the island of Pharay. A steillbow or steelbow rental was one which included all livestock, equipment and the land itself. Pharay is the modern island of Faray, lying between Westray and Eday, recently in the news, having been bought by Orkney Islands Council in November 2018. Pharay was inhabited until 1946, the population having become simply too few for life to be sustainable there any longer. It was however a fertile little island, only about 2 miles in length and in 1694 it belonged to George Balfour, who rented land out to William Craigie.

The inventory is of the horse, kyne or cattle (modern Orcadian - kye), seed and servants bolls. Bollmen or bowmen were paid in grain or oatmeal rather than cash.

1. Imprimis [first] ane horse called Burger [i.e. one horse called Burger, perhaps named after its original owner, or the man it was bought from, or the place it came from? And then more horses called] Smithie, Starniebroun, Corrigall all four comprised to tweintie [twenty] six pound Scots money. [Starniebroun translates as starry brown. I wonder if here, the broun should read brow? Starry brow makes for a lovely name.

2. Three more horses follow, being Sinclair, Barnie and Steinson, value in 24 pound Scots.

3. One black mare and a brown mare, combined value of 11 pound Scots.

Alexander Fenton says that Orkney tended not to breed horses at this time, but to buy in stallions, which were small but valued for their strength. mares were deemed much lesser creatures, emphasised here by the lack of the naming of the black and brown mares, and by the lesser monetary value.
There is a total of 7 male and 2 female horses and they would have been hard-worked, to plough and harrow, and as pack animals carrying all sorts of burdens, least of which was probably people, on the small island. Note that there are no oxen in the inventory, and oxen were often a plough animal in Orkney.

4. Four bulled kyne, two kyne unbulled and two bulled quoyocks

5. Ane young bull of thrie years
This translates as four cows which have been serviced by the bull and are therefore, hopefully, in calf (pregnant); two cows not yet been serviced by the bull and therefore not in calf; and two heifers which may be in calf. Heifers, young cows yet to have their first calf, until recently were called quoys in Orkney rather than heifers, but here they are an older terminology again, being quoyocks. And at item five, we have the bull, but he is young, so may or may not be the father of the expected calves. No value is given of the cattle, surprisingly - perhaps an error by the clerk?

6. Beer seed and servants bolls fourtie four meills which translates as being bere barley seed, saved from that year's harvest, and the bere intended for the servants in payment for their labour - in total 44 meills/meils of bere grain. With weights and measures, we hit another difficulty in understanding old documents; weights vary across time and standards change, as does the relationship of Scots currency to Sterling, or the value of a pound Sterling at one date against another date. William P. L. Thomson states that in 1806, a meil was standardised at 177lbs and 12 ounces (roughly 80kg) but also "weights had increased over the years and in earlier times had been very much less." Tricky then to know how much bere was in the Pharay barn that November (which is by the Julian Calendar, not our Georgian Calendar, so in modern terms is early rather than late November - another pitfall for the reader of early documents). Of course, bere also needs explanation outside of Orkney - it is a form of barley, Hordeum vulgare, still grown in Orkney, but rarely now elsewhere. It was a staple of the Orcadian diet until well into the 19th century, being used still today in whisky, beer, shortbread, biscuits and as the main flour in a staple which has never left the Orkney table, bere bannocks. The bear seed in this inventory would have been dried and ground to make bere-meal/flour for ubiquitous use.
7. Twenty eight meils of oats for seed No mention of oats for the servants, so perhaps the harvested oats of 1694 had all been distributed for the use of either the landowner or tenant, perhaps to sell on, or to the servants, again to be milled for various uses. From this weight of oats for seed, we might calculate the area to be sown by George Craigie, if we could establish what the meil weighed...

8. Two furnished ploughs which given the lack of any further plough-parts (see Fenton Chapter 38) in the inventory, likely means two ploughs and all their ancillary pieces. Thrie forks and ane ware pyck with two harras, being three forks and two harrows (toothed implements pulled over ploughed land to break it down to a tilth for sowing) and a ware pick which was a two-pronged fork with which harvesters of the ware/seaweed pulled the seaweed in from the sea. The first harvest/manufacture of kelp in Orkney was in 1722, therefore the Pharay pyck/pick was used to gather ware to be used as fertiliser on the land.

Next is a fold in the paper and an indecipherable item, but followed by ane kirne, ane old stoup, ane cea. A kirn is a butter churn made of wooden staves and into which a plunger is manually worked to turn the butter to milk; and old stoup was a container for liquid, and a cea or sae was a wooden tub often used to hold water, which stood frequently on a sae-bink, a stone bench.
Then there are ane malt pundlar and ane pundlar stone. Pundlars were beams upon which goods were weighed, in this case malt for ale brewing, and the pundlar stone being the weight against which the malt was weighed. Quarrels arose over the efficiency and correctness of beams and stones - were they weighing under? Or over? And in whose favour?

Following on from the pundlar, we get ten clibbers which are wooden pack-saddles onto which were attached to whatever the horse was to carry (illustrated Fenton p249). Then ten pair of maise which are triangular nets made of straw or bent grass/marram grass (Ammophilia Arenaria) into which goods are put, to carry them (particularly peats), then attached to the clibber - all of which would have been hand-made on Pharay. And twentie treaves of bent, twenty sheaves (bundles) of bent grass. Treaves is possibly another error of the clerk: Fenton and the Scots Dictionary want the word to be threaves, more recently known as sheaves.

Also part of item 8, are ane yoall with four oars. A yoall/yole is an open boat, clinker built, about 15 feet (4.5 metres) long, rowed by two men and in 1694 unlikely to have a sail. She may have come flat-packed from Norway (nothing new in flat-packing from Scandinavia) as boats often did to treeless Orkney and Shetland. She was the inter-island work-horse, used for cargo and passengers and fishing, a vital element of the islanders diet.

And finally ane scoop, worth eighteen pound, two speads, two corne forks, ane riddle, eight corne hooks and ane pynt pott, which are one scoop, two spades, two corn forks, one riddle, eight corn hooks and one pint pot. The scoop was for measuring out dry goods and probably made of wood. It may have served as an actual measure, its contents heaped or flat, giving a consistent and equal measure to each recipient. It is here that the clerk slips up again - the eighteen pound value (which should also read eighteen pound Scots) will not be for the scoop alone, but for all of the items in this eighth section of the inventory, so should follow after ane pynt pott. The corne forks were made of wood, possibly part of the harvesting process, or for barn/byre work. The riddle was used to clean up grain and made of wood and pierced animal skin. The corne hooks were sickles, the means by which the grain was cut by hand, then bound into bundles/sheaves. The pynt pott, like the scoop and the pundlar and pundlar stone, may have been an important measure, part of a landlord's equal distribution of liquids or dry goods, or his calculation of rent paid in kind.


This short inventory, dating from November 1694, gives an insight into what life on Pharay was about. The inventory relates to a small island, the land division of which was very different from modern farm division (refer to Fenton and Thomson): it has work-horses; a small number of cattle; it grows bere and oats on land ploughed and harrowed and fertilised with seaweed; the landlord pays his workers in bere and. probably oats, making ale from malt weighed on a malt pundlar; milk from the cows is churned into butter and cheese; bent grass is gathered from the shore to make nets and baskets and ropes (probably supplemented by oat and bere straw); there is a boat to cross to Westray and Eday and further afield, rowed by two men, and to fish from, and probably to shoot seals and seabirds (flesh, skin, feathers, oil all invaluable). The doling out of consistent measures of malt and liquids and dry goods is marked by the pundlar and the scoop and the pint pot. The various tools and equipment all relate to the work of the place which is done without electricity, without carboniferous oil-based technologies, without easy imports of fertilisers and seed, with well-water only and all done on a diet of barley and oats, fish, cheese and butter and probably kale. Food, shelter, warmth, light are all derived from the island of Pharay itself - little comes in from further afield, other than clothing and footwear and both are probably infrequently renewed in an economy driven by in-kind exchange rather than cash. Of course George Balfour and William Craigie had access to silver and gold and lived well as men of trade and property, but not so their servants or tenants.

Life in the 1690s was particularly harsh and for much of Scotland serious famine was a feature of the latter half of the decade. Orkney and Shetland were already experiencing famine by 1694. The Little Ice Age had reached its coldest trough of cold and wet, and three massive volcanic eruptions in Iceland and Indonesia had made things even worse, with dust particles reducing sunlight. Perhaps the lack of oats for the servants, above, is nothing to do with prior distribution, and everything to do with shortage and poor harvest.

Also Orkney was beset by privateers at this point, sent out from France to plunder North Sea shipping and in June 1694, two French ships looted the storehouse at St Mary's village in Holm and remained on Lamb Holm island for a week, leaving with the looted store and possessions of the islanders.

These were hard and dangerous times, all a long way from our world in 2018 and marvellous that 324 years after the inventory was set down, we can share its contents and its meaning, and ponder the future of Pharay/Faray as it moves from private hands to those of Orkney islands Council, and hope that its future is bright and important to all of Orkney.

by The Balfour Blogger, 6 Dec 2018
Sources used:
Archive item: Inventory, 1694 from bundle D2/23/1 ;
Reference Book: The Northern Isles: Orkney and Shetland by Alexander Fenton, 1978, John Donald Publishers Ltd. ISBN 0859760197, Orkney Room reference: 301.4 YZ
Reference Book: The New History of Orkney by William P. L. Thomson, 2008 edition, Birlinn Ltd., ISBN 9781841586960; Orkney Room reference: 941 Y
Reference Book: Orkney Land and People by William P.L. Thomson, 2008, The Orcadian Ltd (Kirkwall Press). ISBN 9781902957319; Orkney Room reference: 630 Y
Website: The Scots Dictionary
Website: Scottish Handwriting

Saturday, 26 January 2019

Get Down and Dusty

It's a brand new year in the Orkney Archive and time to get down and dusty. Here are a group of regulars doing just that on Thursday night. Shoes and pencils were cast aside, casual onlookers bewildered and staff were trapped behind the counter.

Some of our maps are just ginormous and have to be unrolled on the floor. This one of a part of Westray in the 1830s, proved difficult to figure out. North was not at the top of the map, there were only a few houses or farms shown and parts of the coastline did not match the modern map. But then a lot can change in 190 years!

The map shown is D8/N/15[E2] Plan of the lands of Midbea, Tuquoy and Fitty Hill, Westray showing land belonging to Dr. Traill of Tirlet. c. 1830