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
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?
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.
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
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 http://www.dsl.ac.uk
Website: Scottish Handwriting www.scottishhandwriting.com