Orkney Books

There are so many books about Orkney, set in Orkney or written by Orcadians that the Orkney Auction Mart has an annual book sale, at which there can be lively bidding for some of the older and rarer books.

Unfortunately, many Orkney books are languishing on the shelves unread, as their covers give no clue to the entertainment and information within. Here are excerpts to encourage those who are lucky enough to have the book to take it down off the shelf. Most Orkney books that are out of print can be obtained through inter-library loan or bought second-hand. If they can be read on-line, a link will be provided.

An Account of the Islands of Orkney

By James Wallace M.D. And Fellow of the Royal Society

Printed for Jacob Tonson with Gray's-Inn-Gate, next Gray's-Inn-Lane, 1700

This book was primarily written by James Wallace, minister of St Magnus Cathedral.

Wallace's son, also James, published this first description of Orkney in 1693. The second edition, with additional chapters listing local plants etc, was published under the son's own name in 1700.

James Wallace M.D. was never actually a Fellow of the Royal Society. He went to Panama on the first voyage of the Darien Scheme, the ill-fated attempt to establish a Scottish colony in Central America, and brought botanic specimens back to London. This seems to have lead Hans Sloane to propose him for fellowship of the Society and he was accepted, but never actually became a Fellow, probably because he never paid his subscription. He just went ahead and described himself as a Fellow anyway.

He had two articles published in Volume 22 of the Philosophical Transactions of the Society in 1700 A Part of Journal kept from Scotland to New Caledonia in Darien, with a short Account of that Country and an abstract from this book.

The People here are generally civil sagacious, circumspect and piously inclined: though Boethius reports them to be great Drunkards yet now it is not so; for though they use strong Ale and Beer (the nature of the Country requiring strong Liquor) yet generally they are Sober and Temperate, but withal much given to Hospitality and Feasting, very civil and liberal in their entertaining of Strangers, and much inclined to speak ill of those that are peevishly or niggardly disposed.

In many places the Landlord has his Tenant bound to give him and his followers, a liberal Entertainment once a year, especially at Christmas (at which time the People of this Country are generally inclin'd to Feasting) and the Tenant wont fail to have good Victuals and strong Ale (which they call Bummock) in readiness, and will be much offended if the Landlord refuse to make merry with them.

The People are generally personable and comely. The Women are Lovely and of a Beautiful countenance, and are very broody and apt for generation.

At Stennis, in the Mainland, where the Loch is narrowest, in the middle, having a Causey of Stones over it for a Bridge, there is, at the South-end of the Bridge, a Round set about with high smooth Stones or Flags, about twenty Foot high above ground, six Foot broad, and each a Foot or two thick. Betwixt that Round and the Bridge are two Stones standing of that same largeness with the rest, whereof one hath a round hole in the midst of it; and at the other end of the Bridge, about half a Mile removed from it, is a large Round about an hundred and ten paces in Diameter, set about with such Stones as the former, but that some of them are fall'n down; and at both East and West of this bigger Round, are two artificial (as is thought) green Mounts; both these Rounds are ditched about.

Some think that these Rounds have been places whereon two opposite Armies have encamped; but I think it more probable that they have been the high places in the Pagan times, whereon Sacrifice was offered, and that these two Mounts were the places where the Ashes of the Sacrifice was flung

In the Links of Skeal, (Skaill, where Skara Brae was discovered in 1851) where the Sand is blown away with the Wind, are found several places built square, with Stones well cemented together, and a Stone lying in the mouth, having some black Earth in them.


The Orkney Book

Compiled and Edited by John Gunn, M.A., D.Sc

Published by Thomas Nelson & Sons, Ltd 1909 Available as an e-book

The Preface says, "This is a book about Orkney, for use in Orkney, designed and for the most part written by natives of Orkney. It owes its origin to the Edinburgh University Orcadian Association, the members of which realized the desirability of preparing for use in the schools of Orkney a book adapted to the special conditions of the Islands."

The book aimed "to supply the irreducible minimum, suitable to all, in the hope that the book may find its way into every school in the county."

The book is an astonishing display of the Orcadian talent available at that time. The editor, John Gunn from Stromness, was the Chief Editor at Thomas Nelson & Sons. The articles which described the islands, their history, natural history and legends are mostly unsigned but the list of contributors included six future professors. James Drever, John Tait, John Bews, George Scarth, Robert Wallace and John Gunn (Kirkwall), than all in their twenties, would later hold chairs in psychology, physiology, botany, geology and pharmacology.

There is nothing about Maeshowe, or even about the Standing Stones, to attract the superficial mind, but to those who "wonder", and who can see things which vanished from outward view many centuries ago, those places are almost holy ground. They embody and embalm some of the deepest thoughts of a long-vanished people; and though we can hardly guess what these thoughts were, the monuments are sacred relics to us. They are milestones, we may say, marking early stages in the long advance of our race.

If Birsay were to display before our eyes this morning a pageant of her past history, the procession would be a varied one. The hunting-parties of the Norse Earls, the coming of the first bishop to teach the new faith, the building of the first Norse church, the burial of Earl Magnus, the procession of pilgrims seeking miraculous healing at his tomb, the removal of the sacred relics to the church of St Olaf at Kirkwall to await the building of a more magnificent shrine, the ruinous favour of the Scottish Earls, the raising of a second Holyrood in the old Barony whose stately splendour was the measure of the robbery and extortion suffered by the people, the passing of this incongruous pomp and the return of welcome obscurity and quiet - truly a long and picturesque procession!

At its southern corner we examine a large "Pict's House" now opened up - the "Weem of Scarabrae"

[Skara Brae had been discovered in 1851 and investigated by amateur archaeologists but wasn't conserved until the 1920s]

The Stromness boy will wander far and sail over many seas ere he will find a fairer scene than his island home; - fair when it lies before him under the pearl-grey light of its northern sky; fairer still, perchance, when the golden haze of memory gilds the landscape, and the joyous vision of the outward eye has given place to the wistful retrospect of the imagination

Not quite all the chapters were written by Orcadians, there were also sketches by the geologist, Hugh Miller, who took shelter from a sudden shower in the rock-cut tomb in Hoy known as the Dwarfie Stone.

I found, by stretching myself diagonally from corner to corner, no very uncomfortable lounging-place in a thunder-shower. Some provident herd-boy had spread it over, apparently months before, with a littering of heath and fern, which now formed a dry, springy couch… When tracing as I lay abed, the marks of the tool, which in harder portions of the stone are still distinctly visible, I just thought how that, armed with pick and chisel, and working as I was once accustomed to work, I could complete such another excavation to order in some three weeks or a month…

The pillow I found littered over with the names of visitors; but the stone - an exceedingly compact red sandstone - had resisted the imperfect tools at the command of the traveler and so there were but two of the names decipherable - that of an "H Ross 1735", and that of a "P Folster, 1830,". The rain still pattered heavily overhead, and with my geological chisel and hammer I did, to beguile the time, what I very rarely do - added my name to the others, in characters which, if both they and the Dwarfie Stone get fair play, will be distinctly legible two centuries hence.

Orkney writer and historian J Storer Clouston wrote vividly about St Magnus Cathedral and all the history it had seen in its eight hundred years. Although he was very active in Orkney life in his later years and became County Convener in 1930, his great passion was our Viking past and he held the strange belief that Orkney's glory days were long gone.

It is curious to think of: once, long ago, strange ships with monstrous figure-heads and painted sides, full of the northern actors of history, crawled with their lines of oars into the sounds and bays of these islands, till for centuries they became the stage for dramatic events and stirring personages… Then gradually the lights went out and the audience turned away to look at other things, and the Orkneymen were left to observe the Sabbath and elect a County Council

No earl's men or bishop's men quarrel in the streets; no one either fears or harries the islanders; the history of Orkney is written and closed and laid upon the shelf. The hands of the clock move evenly round, and the seasons change by the almanac.

Although the islands' kelp boom was long over, kelp was still made and Duncan J Robertson had written a fascinating article for Longman's Magazine, Among the Kelpers

Should the wind freshen to a gale duting the night , the diligent kelper is up and out before the first glimmer of dawn. Buffeted by the wind and lashed by the stinging spray, he peers through the darkness, watching for those shadows against the white surf of the breaking waves which he knows to be rolling masses of seaweed and wrack. He is armed with a "pick", an implement resembling a very strong hayfork, but with the prongs set, like those of a rake, at right angles to the handle. With this pick, struggling often mid-thigh deep in the rushing waters, he grapples the tumbling seaweed and drags it up the beach, out of reach of the waves. For the wind may change, and the "brook", as he calls a drift of weed, if not secured at once, may be carried out to sea again, or even worse, to some other strand where it will be lost to him.


The New Orkney Book

Compiled And edited by John Shearer, W Groundwater and J.D.Mackay

Published by Nelson 1966

Produced by the Director of Education and the Rectors of Kirkwall Grammar School and Stromness Academy, this book was modeled on the 1909 Orkney Book. Like its predecessor, it was mainly intended for the schools. Chapters on every aspect of Orkney were written by well-qualified Orcadians.

Chapters 4 and 5 by Ernest Marwick dealt with Orkney's development over the previous hundred years

It is astonishing how quickly agriculture began to flourish once the improvements were well under way. Owing to conflicting estimates we are unable to say quite how much arable land there was in Orkney when the improvements began, but there was at least two and a half times as much by the end of the century. The new breeds of cattle were far more valuable. By 1866 they sold for twice as much as they had in 1850, and four times as many were exported. The rise in the export of sheep was greater still. But the hen outstripped all competitors: from a hundred thousand dozen eggs sent out of Orkney in 1833 the figure mounted to one and a half million dozen by 1895.

Few fruits could be grown but rhubarb flourished like a weed in most gardens, and cupboards full of rhubarb jam might almost be noted as a distinguishing mark of Orkney life.

Travelling shops, loaded with all types of articles from cakes to paraffin, could be seen on most Orkney roads and one enterprising firm fitted out a series of little ships as 'floating shops', which traded with islands and remote communities in Orkney, Shetland, and the north of Scotland.

W.S.Hewison, who later wrote some great books on Orkney, including This Great Harbour Scapa Flow, was a reporter on The Orcadian. He wrote Chapter 6, on 20th Century Orkney.

Just after the war the prices for farm produce, especially for grain, fell sharply. Quick to adjust his economy to changing conditions, however, the Orkney farmer switched from trying to sell oats, which dropped from 62s a quarter to 22s in one year, and instead fed the grain to poultry. The marketing of eggs, which had long been a profitable sideline, now became a major item in the business for many years. At its peak over 70 million eggs were exported annually, bringing in a gross income of about £1.25 million.

The main effort of the island farmers for over a hundred years has been to increase the area and productivity of his arable land. It was possible to increase the area since most small farms included heath land and the process of reclamation began as far back as the mid-nineteenth century. Arable ground, from a figure of 72,000 acres in 1870, was increased acre by acre to over 90,000 by 1939, that is, at least 18,000 acres of previously useless land were brought into a condition suitable for the growing of crops.

Chapter 7, by Orkney-born statistician Robert S Barclay, was a bit more pessimistic than the preceding chapters. The change in Orkney's population from the mid 19th century to the time of writing made slightly alarming reading. The overall population had dropped from a peak of 32,225 to 18,650; eight islands had emptied completely

For many years, when the inhabitants of Orkney were too numerous to prosper by the natural resources of the islands, emigration brought a measure of relief; but its momentum has been too great, and now its effect is to reduce the population too far.

The outlook ahead is obscure. Further losses must be expected for some time; but it is possible that, eventually, the worth of the natural assets of the Orkneys will hold and sustain a smaller and more settled population, and that an era of stability will come. An increase of population might yet take place.

Almost as this was being written, things were changing. In 1971 the figures bottomed out at 17,254 but by then the unforeseen had begun to happen. Non-Orcadians realised that they wanted to live in Orkney. Our population has risen steadily since 1971: between 2001 and 2011 it rose by over 10% to 21,420, one of the largest increases in the country.

Ronald Miller from Stromness was one of the first students to graduate with an honours degree in geography from a Scottish university and became a professor at Glasgow University. In Chapter 12, Place and People, he covered some of the topics he later dealt with at length in his excellent book, Orkney.

If Fate has been fairly kind to Orkney in history, Nature has been no less generous in her endowment of the land of Orkney. Only a small area in the north of Graemsay and west of Stromness harbour is of Highland rock: the rest is built of sedimentary rocks, sandstones, and flagstones of Old Red Sandstone date…Above all, the varied flagstones yield on weathering a good mixture of fine and coarse material, just what is required to give a soil of reasonable texture. The lime content, also, tends to restrain the development of acidity which the cool moist climate encourages. Yet another valuable property of the flagstones is that they readily provide good building stone. Almost everywhere in Orkney it is easy to find a quarry which yields fairly regular blocks of stone, with two faces flat and parallel because they represent the bedding planes. Thus good building has always been cheap and easy, and no doubt this is one reason why Orkney has so many well-preserved monuments from prehistoric time and why every Orkney farmer was and still often is his own mason.

A large proportion of Orkney, in fact, lies at a most convenient slope - steep enough to give some natural drainage but not too steep for ploughing.

The sand here and on many other such beaches is made almost entirely from broken shells and is thus a form of lime. The sweetening effect of this on peat moor is very striking and must have attracted the earliest settlers, for many of the oldest farm-names and parish churches are in areas of blown sand.

Success in the face of difficulty is exhilarating, and not the least characteristic feature of Orkney is the high morale of its people.

Other chapters describe Orkney's climate, geology, birds, plants and sea-life and the books ends with excerpts from some of the great Orcadian writers such as Eric Linklater, Edwin Muir, George Mackay Brown and Walter Traill Dennison


Orkney, The Magnetic North

John Gunn, M.A., D.Sc

First published in June 1932 by Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd and re-printed fourteen times by 1949

Out of print but widely available second-hand

This book is described in the preface as having, "the simple and definite aim of revealing and interpreting the Orkney Islands to the people of the "adjacent island" of Great Britain".

John Gunn, the Orcadian Chief Editor of the publishing firm, described the islands as a harmonious embodiment of contradictions and went on to describe the islands and how to get to them and to suggest routes to take once you got here.

But if he [a visitor from London] lays his course as the compass needle points - "magnetic" north, which is about 16° west of true north - and keeps on this course for 500 miles, he will find the Islands right in front of him. Not only so, but on that course he will find no landing-place beyond that of Kirkwall. Orkney is literally the Magnetic North for him.

A surprising thing about Orkney is that, in spite of its remote situation and its thin soil, it is recognized by the Scottish Department of Agriculture as being the most progressive and prosperous agricultural county in Scotland. Its specialty is stock raising. The animals it exports fetch the highest price in Aberdeen markets, and provide the first grade of meat for the London butchers.

When the stranger comes to know the folk he is sure to be impressed with one unexpected feature - that though they are an island folk, remotely placed, they are singularly free from insularity in their outlook. They are, in fact, much less insular than the dwellers in large towns. They are more cosmopolitan in their interests than one would expect to find them. This is not a modern feature. When education became compulsory and school studies were prescribed by Government regulations, the people of some other islands of Scotland objected to their boys being taught Geography, lest they should learn things about other lands which might induce them to leave their homes. In Orkney quite opposite views were taken. It meant the opening of new doors and new prospects for the young. There were no laments at their setting forth to find a place in the sun. The Islands were their cradle, but the world was their home. To the islanders the seas are not limits, but highroads and lines of communication.

Snow-blocked roads are of somewhat rare occurrence in Orkney, and many years pass without such a happening. It is natural to expect, however, that with the increase of motor traffic, road blocks may become a little more frequent. This does not mean that the motors are affecting the climate: it only means that the petrol-engine takes a more pessimistic view of a snowdrift than the horse does.

There is more than mere curiosity in that gathering on the pier; [to meet the Aberdeen-Kirkwall boat] to many, indeed, it has rather a sacramental character. It was here, on this commonplace little pier with its maze of store sheds and all its litter, that those friends parted last year, or it may be five, ten, twenty years ago. And they have come back to-night, come from Scotland or England, from Canada, from the United States, from Africa, India, Australia, New Zealand - they must surely be met where they now set foot again on the shore of their Island home!... And then, when the friends actually meet, they greet one another as casually as if they had parted only yesterday. A cool handshake, if even that. No display of emotion, though gleaming eyes tell their tale. And if you see any greetings of a more demonstrative type you may be sure that those who give them are not Island born.

There are also a number of charabanc tours in summer from both towns to places of special interest, antiquarian or scenic, and as the number of visitors goes on increasing, the number of special motor tours provided for them will certainly increase also. Development in this direction is as yet at an early stage.

As we pass from island to island [on a tour of the North Isles] we are no longer wafted on our way by the breath of heaven, but by breaths from a quite different source - from the coal mine or oil well. The sheer delight of "riding the sea-king's horses" has gone; the rhythmic rise and fall of the sailing craft has given way to the inebriate stagger and roll of the motor or the steam engine. But we cannot altogether escape from the tyranny of speed, even in our resting times, and the new horses of the sea-king do have the merit of "getting there," for which we must award them due credit.