Monday 30 November 2020

Archive in a Pandemic A-Z: J is for


Never mind the long rumoured Friends reunion, the best reconnections this year have been with Orkney Archive and their visitors. Autumn/Winter usually brings our faithful local researchers back to the Searchroom and it was a very merry morning when Balfour Blogger and small island dwelling regular Island Hopper were finally able to book in again. Papers were spread out over desks, opinions sought and chatter was had.

The building reopened to staff in July and, whilst we were delighted to remake each other's acquaintance, without our researchers we felt adrift, hollow and without purpose. The archive staff are never happier than when pressing a box of old letters into the hands of an eager local historian or helping them track down a half-remembered photograph.

We also like eavesdropping on the conversations of others and felt sad when this could not be achieved.

Our requirement that users wear masks in the searchroom means that we are seeing slightly less of our lovely visitors but it has been a tonic having a (slightly) busier searchroom.

Long term research is currently taking place on the The Balfour family, Highland Park Whisky Distillery, Lady Burroughs of Rousay and Orkney & Shetland's place in 15th-18th century European Trade Networks.

Hurrah for jolly reunions!

Monday 23 November 2020

Archive in a Pandemic A-Z: I is for...


During the UK Lockdown from March 2020, all the staff in the Orkney Archive were separated. The Fonds and I carried on working but from our respective homes, and only came into the Archive once a week, on different days, to keep up with emails and general maintenance of the Archive Collections. The other staff members either worked from home too or were redeployed in the Community Hub answering phones and helping elderly, vulnerable and the self-isolating to adjust to Lockdown. 

All the staff talked to each other on the phone and online in various ways, but    it was just   not the same...

The Fonds said: "Lockdown began slightly strangely for me because I was on annual leave when the announcement was made. So I returned to an empty Archive to collect some work to take home. Having been unaware that such a dramatic step as Lockdown was imminent, I had no time to prepare for home working, and had no access to work emails, files, etc. so the first few days were a huge adjustment in terms of being able to work reasonably efficiently during the following weeks of Lockdown.

Of course, working in isolation from your work colleagues has more challenges than simply being able to complete tasks. A large part of any day in the Archive, before the pandemic, was spent speaking to researchers, other members of Archive staff and other council colleagues. That all came to an abrupt stop. One result of that was I found I was spending the best part of any day seated in my "home office", not moving around and not talking to another person. That's not good for anyone, mentally or physically.

I did adjust to working from home quite well, and there were certainly some good points. Going to work in slippers, sharing my "office" with the dog and the cat, and a better view out of the window, for example. However, despite these advantages, it was a relief to return to the Archive and get back to some form of normality. I like the separation between work and home, which was lost a bit during Lockdown, so I'm hoping that I don't have to return to home working in the future."

Archiver got creative and started a new Blog called Orkney Library & Archive Like where she shared some of our personal activities during Lockdown to cheer us up. It was fun to read what other members of staff were doing. Here is a screen shot of the title page: 

Archiver said: "During Lockdown I awoke at 6.30am every morning with children in my bed. The children required cereal and television immediately. Later, I sat hunched over a chest of drawers trying to decipher old handwriting on a screen whilst the children sat on my lap and wiped a mixture of crisp-dust and jam onto my laptop.

'This is intolerable', I whispered to myself as I saw yet another sour dough loaf being turned out by an internet person who was 'trying to fill their days'.

There were biscuits. Many, many biscuits. Was this many biscuits ok? Do biscuits count as essentials? Would I still fit into my work trousers when the Archive re-opened? I baked some home-made biscuits when the proper ones ran out. The children said they were 'rank' and then asked for their twentieth bowl of cereal that day.

When the Archive finally re-opened to staff, I stepped into a strongroom and shut the heavy door. Silent but for the relaxing hum of the air-conditioning unit, the room was clean, exactly 17 degrees centigrade and there was no jam anywhere. My work trousers protested as I lifted down a box of letters. 'Hello again my loves', I cooed to the archives. The archives said nothing."


we mostly worked alone, 

hardly seeing anyone, 

for months....

As I live alone, I am used to my own company and thought I'd be fine, but I soon realised that I really missed other people and I did feel very lonely at times. I looked forward to my one day of the week when I came into the Library and Archive building and really hoped that there would be at least one other person there to see and talk to.  Family and friends kept me company online in video chats, quizzes and even Countdown matches, but I missed seeing them in person and being able to hug them and play about and do daft things. During video chats, I would "take" my sister to the beach and she would in turn "take" me on walks up hills and in forests. We made do.  

I gained some comfort from cataloguing old documents, which was the main work task we could do from home. It was great to spend a bit more time than usual reading through the records and absorbing interesting stories and facts. My favourite new item was an account of a family who moved from Orkney to Australia, The George Irvine Saga (1841-1925). They too had to adjust to new surroundings and ways of living. They did not have the threat of a dangerous virus hanging over them, but times were harsh and some of the adults and kids died far too young. Through the account of George, his two wives and their 18 children (!!), are some great life stories spanning 130 years. 

Here is the description and some extracts:: 

The George Irvine Saga (1841-1925), compiled by one of his children. 48 typed pages. 

Chapter headings: Adventurous Early Days 1841/1882; Second Marriage 1883/1939; Forced retirement to Melbourne; Bereavements 1925/1939; Great Changes - World War II; Appendix I - Memoirs of the Irvine Family and Early Lake Rowan Days by Mrs E M Willis; Appendix II - Reminiscences of Lake Rowan, Memoirs of George Irvine. 

He was born at Garson in Sandwick and emigrated to Australia with his wife Margaret Groat from Westray, their first child was born on the boat over. They had nine children and eventually settled at Lake Rowan in Victoria on a 320 acre farm he renamed 'Garson'. 

Extract from George Irvine Saga Reference: D1/1715

His first wife, Margaret, sadly died in 1882 when their 9th child was just 2 months old. He married again in 1883 to Sarah Montgomery. They also had nine children. 

Extract from George Irvine Saga Reference: D1/1715

In 1902 George returned to Orkney after his brother (John) had died leaving him three farms in Sandwick (Garson, Buckan and Stokan). He also visited Westray and persuaded his first wife's nephew Tom Groat to go back to Australia with him. 

Due to ill-health, George moved to Melbourne in 1908 (his elder sons still living on the farm). One daughter Effie married Sydney Burley who was in the Royal Navy during WW1 and was in Scapa Flow, Orkney at the time of the German Fleet scuttling. He was on board HMAS Australia. 

After the war another Orkney resident, Dave Rendall, joined the family when they lived in Rankin Springs, he died while a POW during WW2.  George Irvine's second wife, Sarah, died in 1939. They were both buried at Lake Rowan cemetery. 

[The piece includes lots of family stories and births, marriages and deaths of all 18 children of George Irvine up to 1970]

Monday 16 November 2020

Archive in a Pandemic A-Z: H is for


Dusty has already explained that visitors to the archive are asked to wear stylish green gloves when handling the archives.

This is not required in the Orkney Room, but you will spy bottles of hand sanitiser dotted about the room. Users are asked to sanitise their hands before perusing the books. We have affixed these rather bossy seeming signs beside the bottles:






 Not just dry. Properly dry.

The reason we cannot recommend sanitiser before working with archives is that it is too harsh for our poor, delicate documents. We gently wash the search room tables with warm soapy water rather than anti-bac spray and sing softly to the archives as we unwrap them (which we did of course anyway.) We encourage the visitors to coo and/or sing to them too but uptake has been disappointingly low.

There are bottles of sanitiser in both staff and public areas, dispensers mounted on walls and little bottles in our bags and pockets. Our hands are really, really, really clean...

Monday 9 November 2020

Archive in a Pandemic A-Z: G is for


Green gloves in particular for us. Here is Archiver modelling them:

Gloves have become an important part of our day. We once only donned white cotton gloves to handle very old archives and the Fonds sometimes wore just one glove (not unlike Michael Jackson) when cataloguing photographs. But now we have changed to using these delightful disposable premium nitrile powder-free green gloves. 

Now we wear gloves when handling archives, when cleaning tables, chairs and equipment after use and when cleaning touch points around the building. Even the Library staff wear them! 

Is it me, or does this pic make Archiver's hands look enormous?

We also set a pair out on the Searchroom tables for the public to use when handling archives. If they really don't want to wear gloves, we ask that they wash their hands before handling the archives. In the long run, the green gloves are better for our archives, as turning pages of documents was often difficult with the cotton ones.  

I looked for gloves in our Archive collections and found one mention in the Balfour papers where a set of cotton gloves were sent to Master Edward Balfour around 1836, when he was aged 5.

 “for Master Edward Balfour with Mr. Maconochie’s kindest regards" From bundle D2/50/36

The original gloves were transferred to the Orkney Museum in 1990

We also have a letter written by Edward Balfour (aged 10) from Cliffdale in Shapinsay on 20th May 1841, not about gloves, but about apples. We just like it and want to share it with you. 

"Cliffdale, 20 May 1841. Dear Mama, I hope you are quite well. I am going to send you in some tansy for you to day if there any boat going. I was at the garden of Sound on Monday for the first time and I saw some little apples about the size of a pea. I hope you are all coming out soon. I have no more to say now. I remain your affectionate son, Edward Balfour." From bundle D2/50/36

Edward Balfour was born on 13th December 1831 in Shapinsay. His parents were Captain William Balfour and Mary Margaret (Baikie) Balfour. His father inherited the Balfour and Trenaby estate in 1842. His brother David inherited the estate in 1846 and engaged architect David Bryce to design and build Balfour Castle between 1847 and 1850. 

That was the only mention of gloves in the archive catalogue. 

BUT There are two people called Glover mentioned:

D1/1048/1: The Bismark Story - May 1941. A compilation by Gerry Glover (P.O./L.T.O.)

D85/1/12: Traill of Woodwick papers: Correspondence between Thomson Glover and John H Traill, 1887. 

Monday 2 November 2020

Archive in a Pandemic A-Z: F is for


We offer books, maps, census material, photographs and documents dating from the 1400s but the main pull of the Orkney Archive has always been the impossibly lovely visages of the staff. Sadly, you will no longer be able to examine these up close as we have been wearing face masks on the search room floor since re-opening.

Our original council-issue grey, flaccid rags made us feel sad/unstylish/like we were in prison, so we often wear our own. As expected, our masks reflect our personalities.


Staunch nationalist Dusty bought her mask from the same shop as Nicola Sturgeon and has installed a small speaker in the side which plays Scotland the Brave whenever a visitor arrives.

Our crafty and gardening-loving archive assistant HandyAndy made her floral delight with her own fair hands. Like her cakes and plants, each home-made mask is impeccably made and cared for.

Our library slash archive assistant Bootsy has, along with many fellow spectacle wearers, been suffering from steamy lenses. Tina Turner made steamy windows sound great but steamy lenses are both blinding and reminiscent of pervy nerds. Something had to be done. Her funky masks include the genius addition of an inserted pipe-cleaner to pin the top of the mask to her nose. 

I myself ordered an ecologically and morally sound face mask woven from left -over rice crispies who had stipulated in their wills that they wished to be fashioned into a mask after their deaths.

What about you readers, do you wear a sporty brand mask or is it long, fringed and scarf-like? Have you sent away for a personalised one or do you simply pick up a packet of disposable masks with your weekly shop? Let us see when you next visit us as we do require all archive users to wear a mask whilst walking around the building although you can remove it when sitting down to work.