Thursday 21 December 2023

Let this bear our Christmas Greetings!

Aah Christmas.  That time of year where we lowly archive workers dust off our tinsel, string up some lights and overindulge in all things mince-pie related.  Our history-addled brains naturally turn to thoughts of Christmas past, so we thought it would be interesting to explore what our strong rooms hold in the way of festive greetings.  Well, hold on to your Santa hats, cos we found some crackers!

Undated Christmas card
D15/39 Halcro Johnston Papers

The custom of sending printed cards began in 1843, when Sir Henry Cole commissioned an artist friend to create a festive design.  This depicted his family feasting and raising their glasses in a toast, while around the edges people were shown engaging in charitable acts of giving.   This dichotomy seems rather odd, and a few Victorian eyebrows were also raised at the scandalous depiction of children imbibing glasses of wine.  Not much worse than me wrangling a Snowball from my son’s grasp at a recent Christmas party, or the Great Babycham Scandal of 1979, when Grandma wondered where her perry had gone…

Unfortunately, we don’t have any of these very early Christmas cards, but we are lucky that Colonel Henry Halcro Johnston kept many cards he received over a 50-year period.  Henry was born in 1856 and the earliest Christmas related item we found in his papers (D15/39) is not a card, but a Rebus, named after Scotland's famous literary Detective Inspector.  We knew Ian Rankin was a clever chap, but didn't imagine time travel to be in his skill set.  This picture puzzle story was given to Henry when he was six, from John, his elder brother.  Sadly, we have only half of it, the top of the first page, and bottom of the second.  

Top half of a rebus from 1862, designed by Catherine Sinclair
D15/39 Halcro Johnston Papers

The small postcard below is the earliest found in our archive which bears a date.  Some may be older but often there is nothing written on the cards to ascertain the year as they would likely have been accompanied by a letter reporting the sender’s news.  Cards featuring unseasonal flowers were common in the 1870s, bringing some colour and joy in the depth of the dark, dreary winter.  They may also have conveyed a specific sentiment, and while a forget-me-not might be welcome, one may be distraught to receive a hydrangea for heartlessness!

Sent in 1878 to Henry Halcro Johnstone "with Betsy Gairdner's good wishes"
D15/39 Halcro Johnston Papers

A year later Henry received this slightly more seasonal looking card. Eyre & Spottiswoode were the official printers to the Queen, and began producing Christmas cards on a grand scale in 1878.  These were very popular as the cards were renowned at the time for their ‘good taste, respect for elegance of design and artistic excellence’.  "Heaps of pudding" certainly conveys good taste to us.

Sent in 1879 to Henry "With Bessie’s love + wishes to recall an oft repeated phrase, “Boys” etc" 
D15/39 Halcro Johnston Papers

Among the undated cards, we found some beautifully illustrated seasonal designs:

Undated cards received by Henry Halcro Johnston
D15/39 Halcro Johnston Papers

Our modern festive celebrations are often derided for their lack of reference to the Christian tradition and one might expect Victorian Britons to be more mindful of Christmas as a time of religious observance.  You may be surprised that we unearthed no nativity scenes, wise men or guiding stars, finding only one card featuring a religious greeting:

Undated Christmas Card
D15/39 Halcro Johnston Papers

The style of Victorian cards changed through the decades, and while many, like those above, featured familiar imagery such as holly and robins, others are more unusual, with witty puns designed to raise a smile at this often gloomy time of year.  

This one left us bemused, and we were more than a little nervous about doing an internet search for the 'Big, Big D'...  

Undated Christmas Card c1880
D15/39 Halcro Johnston Papers

We needn't have worried though, it's all very innocent.  It probably relates to the Gilbert & Sullivan opera HMS Pinafore, which features the Captain singing:

"Bad language or abuse,
I never, never use,
Whatever the emergency;
Though "bother it" I may
Occasionally say,
I never use a big, big D —"

The ‘Golden Dustman’ may be Nicodemus ‘Noddy’ Boffin, from Charles Dickens’ book ‘Our Mutual Friend’.  Dickens was inspired by his friend Henry Dodd, who made his fortune removing rubbish from the streets of London.  Presumably, you'd want to be at home when he called to ensure he didn't nick your Christmas presents! 

The card is undated but similar scallop-edged cards from the same pun-loving printer are from around 1880.  Our Mutual Friend was published in 1865 and HMS Pinafore was first performed in 1878, so this date seems plausible.

Of course, no Christmas card blog post would be complete without an array of weird and wonderful creatures from the 1880s, like these festive frogs below. Maybe there is a symbolic connection to Christ's birth, as apparently in Renaissance art, the shape-shifting transformation from spawn to tadpoles to grown up frogs meant they were regarded as symbols of rebirth.  So I am toad anyway.

Undated Christmas cards c.1880
D15/39 Halcro Johnston Papers 

Maybe this moggy could teach us a thing or two, or these monkeys will remind us to stay mischievous and have plenty of festive fun:

Undated Christmas cards c1880
D15/39 Halcro Johnston Papers

We have many lovely cards in other collections, but chose to focus on the Halcro Johnston ones or we'll all be here until 2024, and I'm sure you deserve your festive break too.  We are closed from 3pm on Friday 22nd December and reopen at 10am on Monday 8th January, when we welcome you back to our search-room, and you can see these cards and many more in our Christmas Card display until the end of January.

However you choose to celebrate, hope you keep your monkeys in a row and have a lovely Christmas and a fabulous New Year.

Monday 18 December 2023

The Sound of Christmas

 All organised for Christmas readers? Neither are we! Fear not for we have the perfect present for that hard to buy for relative or acquaintance: the dulcet tones of Orcadians reminiscing about the festive period. We have a new compilation of Sound Archive material exclusively covering Christmas and New year. Topics covered include stockings, gifts, food and New Year celebrations. There is also a rendition of the New Year's Song at the end. Be warned, however, that some of Santa's secrets are revealed so perhaps give it a play after wee ones have left the room...

MP3s are available for £8.50 and can be emailed out until the morning of Friday 

A full transcription is also included. Click below for a wee snippet:

Click to enlarge if you would like to read along.

Tuesday 5 December 2023

Snowy Pictures and Sweaty Men

 What is more Christmassy than a snowy picture? We have many lovely examples in the photographic archive, some of which can be seen below. If you fancy making an Orcadian themed Christmas greeting or would like a print made of your favourite then do contact us and make us an offer we can't refuse. (Only kidding, a high resolution scan is £8.50 and an 8 x 6" photographic print will set you back £8.80. Some larger prints are available but will run out fast!)

Kirkwall images are by Tom Kent and Stromness images were taken by Robert H Robertson.

Alternatively, if snowy winter wonderlands fill you with disgust and you wish to adorn your walls and emails with images of sweaty, Orcadian men fighting over a ball, then perhaps some of these may tickle your fancy:

You can click on the galleries to enlarge them. 

Monday 27 November 2023

Accreditation Joy!!


You may remember us tooting upon our own trumpets a few years ago dear readers when we were first given accredited archive status? Well please excuse us as we parp upon the brass again as we have recently been re-assessed and re-accredited, hooray!!

Archive Accreditation is the UK quality standard which recognises good performance in all areas of archive service delivery, and achieving this Accredited Status demonstrates that Orkney Archive has met clearly defined national standards relating to management and resourcing, collections care and meeting the needs of all stakeholders.

For more information on Archive Accreditation see Archive Service Accreditation - Archives sector (

Orkney Archive first received Accredited Status in 2017 and all accredited archive services must apply for accreditation six years after the initial reward to retain their accredited status.

By achieving accreditation for the second time, Orkney Archive have been able to demonstrate their commitment to continuing development of the archive service and effective management of change.

The Accreditation panel which made the award commended the archive service on its  

"really impressive engagement activity and its strong understanding of the island communities it serves. There is a responsive and positive approach to engagement work and also to developing digital capacity."

 The award gives recognition to the enormous hard work carried out daily by all the Orkney Archive staff, and helps informs the service priorities over the coming few years.

Join us do as we dance around the archives singing the Record Breakers theme tune and playing our (imaginary) trumpets.



Accredita-tion, that's what you need!


Saturday 9 September 2023

Doors Open 2023

Bessie Grieve, AKA 'Countrywoman'

We have been working hard at digitising our wonderful sound archive to make it more accessible and to back up our vast collection of tapes and reel to reels.

As part of Doors Open 2023, we have made a short presentation to illustrate the breadth of our collection...


Saturday 19 August 2023

Royal Visits to Orkney

For the Orkney Vintage Rally this year, I was asked to create an exhibition of Archive photographs of Royal Visits to Orkney. The photos I chose to show are just a tiny proportion of the images we have collected over the years and they are not all the usual faces... I hope you enjoy them. 






Our favourite photo of Queen Elizabeth, laughing at Prince Philip trying to drive the school bus. 


Our new favourite photo of Prince (now King) Charles with some adoring fans.