Category: Bits and Bobs

Model Ship from Jack Webster.

Social History Curator Ellen Pesci with the model of a Tribal Class destroyer.

[Tom Muir, on behalf of Ellen Pesci, Social History Curator]

A recent donation to the Orkney Museum has a hidden story that we would like to try to find out more about. Bill Webster has donated a model of a Tribal Class destroyer, which his father, Jack Webster, had bought while stationed in Orkney during World War II.

Jack was born in Scarborough on the 10th October, 1909. When war came he was called up in January 1940, but it was decided that he was better employed on essential war work in Yorkshire. In the first year he installed tank traps, pill boxes and gun emplacements along the Yorkshire coast. Some of the gun emplacements were dummy ones, with telegraph poles painted to look like gun barrels. The second year saw him working on the building of a listening station at Scarborough and a radar station on the Yorkshire coast. He was then sent to Redesdale in Northumberland, where he continued to install defences.

Jack Webster, in his Royal Marine Engineers uniform.

In 1942 Jack was again called up and sent to the Royal Marine Engineers, doing exactly the same work as he had been doing as a civilian. After his training he was sent first to Iceland to construct defences before being stationed in Orkney in 1943.

Jack was stationed at ‘Scapa Camp, Scapa Flow’, which was at Scapa Beach, just south of Kirkwall. He was a joiner to trade. An officer asked him if he had any experience of fitting greenheart wooden piles to a pier. The pier at Scapa, he was informed, was damaging ships that tied up alongside it as it was bare stone. Jack said that he did have experience in fitting such piles, but that he needed specialised tools to do the job. He drew up a list of the tools that he needed and set to work with two other men. They worked from a raft, which could rise and fall with the tide.

The model Tribal Class destroyer, bought by Jack for his baby son, Bill.

It was when he was working on the pier that Jack met an old man who had been a boat builder, but was now too infirm to work. Instead, he made models of the ships that frequented Scapa Flow and sold them to sailors who were stationed there. He was also on the lookout for scraps of wood to build his models with, which the soldiers provided. When Jack’s son, Bill, was born on the 2nd January 1944 Jack bought a model of a Tribal Class destroyer from the old man, as a toy for his baby boy.

The other side of the model destroyer.

How much the model cost, Bill has no idea, but he thought that it couldn’t have been very expensive. Jack sent most of his army wages home to his wife and just kept a small amount as ‘pocket money’. He returned home after the war, where he lived until his death in 2000.

After having a clear-out it was decided to donate the ship model to the Orkney Museum, as Bill’s son and grandsons didn’t want it. Ellen Pesci, the museum’s new Social History Curator, is keen to find out who the mystery model builder was. He was an old man in early 1944, a former boat builder who was no longer fit to carry out his trade. He must have been active in the Scapa district, probably living in the vicinity of the camp. Do you have any idea who this man might have been? If you have any information, please contact Ellen Pesci at the Orkney Museum, 01856 873535 ext 2524, e-mail

Ellen with the model ship.

To make a donation to any of the museums please follow the link and support us. Thank you.

A Cruise Mould

A stone mould for making a cruisie lamp.

[Tom Muir, Engagement & Exhibitions Officr]

The courtyard of Tankerness House, which houses the Orkney Museum, has a number of interesting artefacts displayed around the walls. Among the knocking stones and querns there is a piece of red sandstone with strange carvings cut into it. You can be forgiven for not knowing what it is, as they are no longer common and not used any more. But what is it? The answer to that is that it is a mould for making a cruise lamp. What is that? Read on…

Entrance to Tankerness House, home to the Orkney Museum.
Looking out – disabled access is, of course, provided.

Cruisie lamps were used in homes in Orkney from the 1600 to the 1800s. They are simply oil lamps, made by hammering thin sheets of iron into a mould cut into a stone, then the metal was trimmed and filed smooth.

The cruise lamp mould in the museum courtyard.

As you can see in the photograph above, the cruisie lamp is made with two pans, one slightly larger than the other. The larger pan (left in the photo) is the lower one while the smaller one was suspended above it. Oil from the lamp may drip from the wick of the upper pan, but the lower pan would catch it. Oil was too precious to lose, so the lower pan prevented waste.

A cruise lamp. Orkney Library & Archive, Tom Kent Collection.

The upper pan was hung on a ratchet (see photograph above) which could alter the angle of the pan, to keep the oil flowing slowly forwards. The metal fixing at the top could be used as a hook or driven into a stone wall. The oil used was mostly derived from fish livers, which were boiled and the oil skimmed off the top of the water. Dogfish were popular for this purpose as their livers provided a quantity of oil and they made good eating as well. The blubber of seals and whales was also used, if available.

The fireplace at Corrigall Farm Museum, Harray, with a cruise lamp hanging on the right-hand side of the mantlepiece. Dr Raymond Parks.
This detail of the fireplace at Corrigall Farm Museum shows the cruise lamp in use. It didn’t produce a lot of light, but it was better than just the light from the fire. Dr Raymond Parks.

The wick used was made from the pith found inside rushes (known as ‘rashes’ in Orkney). If you inserted a thin nail through the rush and held the top of it fast between your teeth, then with one quick movement you pull the nail forward, the soft inside of the rush would pop out. It is a long white spongy material which looks like it was man-made. Once dried it would soak up the oil and burn for quite some time.

A stone cruisie mould with lamps on display in the Orkney Museum.
In this photograph of Kirbuster Museum, Birsay, you can see, on the right, an ‘L’ shaped wooden frame fixed to the wall with a cruisie lamp hanging from it. This could swing out from the wall, into the room, so that the light from the lamp could be brought nearer to where a person was working in the evenings. Dr Raymond Parks.
It has been argued that the shape of a cruise lamp was probably influenced by that of a shell, probably a whelk shell. Here we see one that has been used for that purpose. It was photographed by Tom Kent in the early 20th century. Note the wick is a piece of string. Orkney Library & Archive.
A free standing cruisie, without a bottom pan to catch drips. Orkney Library & Archive, Tom Kent Collection.
What looks like a fragment of a gravestone from the 1600s reused as a cruisie lamp mould. Orkney Library & Archive, Tom Kent Collection.
Above and below: a collection of cruisie lamps, with a rare example of one that could hold four wicks (centre). Orkney Library & Archive, Tom Kent Collection.

The Orkney Museum has lost an important part of its income from donations and shop sales during the pandemic. If you would like to support the museums (or one in particular) then you can donate to us online by clicking on the link below. Every penny is appreciated. Thank you.

The Big Tree, Tree of the Year Award Winner 2017

The ‘Big Tree’ in Albert Street, Kirkwall.

Dr Tom Rendall, Orkney Museum

Where is the Big Tree?

What is the history of the Big Tree?

Why is it important?

What does it mean to folk?

How did it receive nationwide recognition in the last few years?

This photo by shows how the big tree dominated the street in late 19th century. It was still within the bounds of a garden but its leaves and branches spread out to the other side of the street. This old photograph has been copied by Tom Kent. Orkney Library & Archive, Tom Kent Collection.

The Big Tree stands in Albert Street in Kirkwall and was planted by Robert Laing (1722 -1803) The Laings were prominent in the kelp industry and two sons Samuel and Malcolm became successful in politics and travel writing. As the kelp industry faded the Laing sold the property. The Big Tree originally stood with two others in the grounds of a grand house. So in 1870 the house was sold to a chemist who decided to fell two trees. This caused a public outcry, which saved the third. The Council bought the tree for £5 and pledged to look after it. As Kirkwall grew, the Big Tree eventually found itself in a street rather than a garden.

This 200-year-old sycamore is a well-known and much-loved landmark in Kirkwall, used as a meeting place by generations of Orcadians. As we can see the Big Tree has been the source of inspiration for art and photographs over the past millenia.

The ‘Big Tree’ as it was c1900. Note the large diagonal branch on the right. Orkney Library & Archive, Tom Kent Collection.
Here we see the large branch (on the left) has been removed. Orkney Library & Archive, Tom Kent Collection.

In more recent years, public concern in 1995 once again saved the Big Tree when the Council wanted to remove it. In poor health due to its challenging location, and its hollowed-out trunk supported by a metal rod, the Big Tree nevertheless continues to find a special place in the hearts of Orcadians. This metal rod is the source of some amusement with some folk wondering how long the tree can survive.

David Horne wrote this about the tree:

Auld sycamore,

brucked by the world’s coorse naevs,

Gizzened by summer suns,

an’ stiff wae rheum

That gnaws baith man and tree

ye mind the hour

Th’ relentless worms o time

can never cloom.

Orkney Library & Archive, Tom Kent Collection.

Visitors have commented:

“The tree is in pretty poor health so it remains to be seen how much longer it will last,but I would hope that even if the tree was removed it would be commemorated in some way”

Local folk have said:

“It’s been here aal me life – it is just pairt o’ the history o the toon”

“I think that the tree is an iconic feature in the middle of Albert Street”

Gavin Barr – Director of Development and Infrastructure Services at Orkney Islands Council gave this reassurance:

“ The big Tree is an important Kirkwall landmark and we want to keep it in good condition and in place for as long as it remains safe to do so”

The image, taken by Tom Scott, shows the tree as it was in 1960. It was still very prominent and covered a fairly large area over the shops beneath its branches.

Tree of the Year Award

The Big Tree was nominated by Kirkwall and St Ola Community Council and Andrew Richards for Scotland’s Tree of the Year 2017. It was short-listed and, after an online public vote, it won this prestigious award. I remember when the Clerk – Hazel Flett – mentioned to me that she had received a letter from the Woodland Trust with regard to entering a competition for the Tree of the Year in Scotland. After a brief discussion around the table I said to Hazel “just fill it in anyway- you never know we might win”

Nothing was heard for several months and then Hazel was contacted by the Trust inviting someone from the Community Council to come down to Edinburgh for the ceremony.

Dr Tom Rendall, Chair of Kirkwall and St Ola Community Council, travelled to Edinburgh in December 2017 where he accepted the award at an event at the Scottish Parliament.

Tom Rendall and Liam McArthur MSP with the Award at the Scottish Parliamen

The Woodland Trust along with the Postcode Lottery also awarded £ 1000 to be spent in the upkeep of the Big Tree through practical and educational activities.

It was a great honour to go down to Edinburgh to receive the award so I had to fly down during the day in order to attend the ceremony in the evening. It was a windy morning as I set off by bus to the airport for my return journey. I had made arrangements, with the help of Liam McArthur (pictured above) to take the award in the cabin with me – where it occupied the seat next to me. To my surprise – when the pilot welcomed us all on board he said “….and a special welcome to Dr Tom Rendall in row 4 who has been down in Edinburgh collecting an award for the tree of year”. A mixture of delight and profound embarrassment was felt as the other passengers applauded. It was a bumpy flight but I managed to get the award safely back to Orkney.

The Kirkwall and St Ola Community Council had to return the original award to the Woodland Trust after one year but a smaller replica award was sent up to the Community Council. This replica is now in the 20th Century Gallery of Orkney Museum at Broad Street in Kirkwall.

Note the railings around the ‘Big Tree’. Orkney Library & Archive, Tom Kent Collection.
Orkney Library & Archive, Tom Kent Collection.

So, after 200 years, the Big Tree is still standing in Albert Street but how long will it be there? Will the trunk become too unstable and how important is it to save the tree anyway? Those are questions that may be asked by some of the folk who live in Kirkwall and, indeed, throughout Orkney. Visitors are often bemused and amused by the support metal rod that holds up the tree.

The Big Tree is still an important part of the heritage of Kirkwall and reminds us of the past history of the town centre. It has become almost a symbol of longevity and would be missed if it was removed from Albert Street. It should be preserved for as long as it is safe for it to be there . When it is gone then seedlings have been propagated and there are small offshoots of the Big Tree in different locations throughout Orkney.

The photo shows the tree at present and is taken in December – the barricades are up in preparation for the Ba. Clearly visible is the metal rod inserted by Orkney Islands Council to prop up the trunk which has deteriorated over the past 20 years. The branches are also bare and there is almost a forlorn appearance showing the vulnerability of the Big Tree.
The ‘Big Tree’ as it is today.

Barbara Yule’s Ba’, 75th Anniversary of the Women’s Ba’, 1945/6-2020/1.

Barbara Yule’s Ba’, right.

Tom Muir: Engagement & Exhibitions Officer

The Men’s Ba’, Christmas Day 1925, the year that Barbara Yule was born. (Tom Kent Collection, Orkney Library & Archive)

The Ba’, as it is simply known (meaning ‘ball’) is not being played this year due to Covid-19. Christmas Day 2020 is the first time that the game has not been played since New Year’s Day 1945, as the Ba’ was suspended during both World Wars. But when it restarted after World War II, on Christmas Day 1945, there was a new addition to the ancient game – a Women’s Ba’.

A group of men and boys pose with the Ba’ outside the gates of Tankerness House (Orkney Museum) on Christmas day 1912. (Tom Kent Collection, Orkney Library & Archive)

The Ba’ was first recorded in Kirkwall around 1650, but it was said to have been an ancient game even then. It is likely that it dates back to at least Medieval Times when mass football games were played as part of the Yule celebrations. In the 1650s it was a fast-moving football game, using an inflated pig’s bladder as the ball, which was played on the ‘Ba’ Lea’, the area of rising ground to the east of St Magnus Cathedral. It later moved onto the streets of Kirkwall around 1800, but was not picked up and played in a rugby style scrum until the 1850s. This meant that the fragile inflated pig’s bladder was not suitable and it was instead made from panels of leather stitched together and filled with cork dust, which was used as packing in barrels of grapes. This style of game has survived until the present day.

The Ba’ scrum against the archway at Tankerness House, New Year’s Day 1912. (Tom Kent Collection, Orkney Library & Archive)

The Ba’ had always been a male only sport, although women had unofficially joined in on occasions. There was a Boy’s Ba’ in the morning, usually at 10.00 a.m. and for a short time from 1892-1910 there was a Youth’s Ba’, played around 11.00 a.m., then the Men’s Ba’ at 1.00 p.m.

The Ba’ is ‘thrown up’ at the Market Cross in front of St Magnus Cathedral to the waiting crowd. There are two teams, Up-the Gate (Uppies) and Down-the-Gate (Doonies), who have to get it to their respective goals; the Doonies have to get it into the harbour while the Uppies have to get it to Mackinson’s Corner, where Main Street meets New Scapa Road. This was originally the site of Burgar’s Bay, the southern most part of the Peerie Sea, so it was a water goal for both teams until reclamation of the Peerie Sea during the 19th and 20th centuries. There are no restriction on numbers on either side and no rules. It has been suggested that the divisions was the area of Kirkwall that belonged to the Earl (Doonies) and the Bishop (Uppies). The term ‘Gate’ is from the Old Norse word for a street. What team you played for depended on where in Kirkwall you were born, or where you first entered the town. These days it goes with family tradition, as all babies are now born in hospital rather than at home.

The Ba’ in Victoria Street. (Tom Kent Collection, Orkney Library & Archive)
The Boy’s Ba’ in Albert Street. (Tom Kent Collection, Orkney Library & Archive)

The Ba’ was by no means unique to Kirkwall as most of the islands and parishes in Orkney had their own games. It was dying out by the early 20th century and World War I saw it end in many places. After the men returned from the war there seemed to be a lack of enthusiasm for it. A few islands and parishes restarted their own games, but gave up after a year or two. Only the Kirkwall and Stromness games continued. The Stromness game, which was a transplant from Kirkwall, ended in the 1920s when a large plate-glass window was installed in a cafe in the street and the local council refused to pay for any damages to it, so banned the game. Attempts to ban the game in Kirkwall, or move it to a designated field outside the town, failed. To this day you can see the barricades going over shop and house doors and windows on the run-up to Christmas. Outside of the season the round metal fittings, threaded to take a bolt, can be seen on shop fronts along the streets.

Ba’ barricades along Albert Street. (Tom Kent Collection, Orkney Library & Archive)
(Tom Kent Collection, Orkney Library & Archive)
(Tom Kent Collection, Orkney Library & Archive)

But Christmas Day 1945 was a see a change; if only for one season. After World War II the women demanded their own Ba’ game. It was greeted with hostility from the men, but amazingly it went ahead. The Orkney Museum is fortunate to have the first Women’s Ba’ that was played for in our collection. We display many Ba’s, as they not only show the different styles over the years, but also it is to honour the families who have donated them. The Ba’ is awarded to a long-serving player on the winning side at the end of the game. For a Ba’ playing family this is a huge honour and the Ba’ is treasured. It is a big thing for anyone to offer a Ba’ to the museum, and so it was for the Clitherow family of Edmonton, London. On the death of Barbara (nee Yule) in December 1999 her husband and children contacted the museum to offer us the Ba’. It was her wish that her Ba’ should “go home”.

Ba’ display, showing a variety of Men’s, Youths’ and Boys’ Ba’s, as well as figurines based on the game.

On Christmas Day 1945 between twenty and thirty women gathered on Broad Street for the throw-up at 11.30 a.m. This was a controversial game and there was some hostility from the men. Soon after the game started the Ba’ was stolen by a man, so the New Year’s Day Ba’ had to be sent for. Before it arrived the missing Ba’ was found hidden in the graveyard of St Magnus Cathedral and was thrown-up for a second time. The two sides were evenly matched, but the Uppies got the upper hand and the Ba’ went up Victoria Street. The Doonies rallied and the Ba’ went back to Broad Street and down Castle Street into Junction Road. Here the Ba’ became stuck at the old police station (on the site of the new Orkney Library & Archive) and it was decided that it should be thrown-up a third time. This time the Uppies took possession of the Ba’ and it reached their goal just before 1.00 p.m. The Ba’ was awarded to Barbara Yule, Wellington Street, Kirkwall, who was regarded as being the leading player in the game.

The New Year’s Day Women’s Ba’, 1946, also went up in under five minutes and was awarded to Violet Couper, Watergate, Kirkwall, who was a student at the Kirkwall Grammar School. It was said that the Women’s Ba’ was a much faster-moving game than the Men’s Ba’, which relies on force to push the scrum along the streets.

Barbara Yule’s Ba’, with a photograph of her (right).

This was to be the only season in which women had their own game. There was protests from men that it was ‘unladylike’ and it was abolished. An attempt to have a Women’s Ba’ in 2000, as part of the Millennial celebrations, was turned down by the Ba’ Committee.

Barbara Yule left Orkney soon after to make a new home for herself in London. Here she met John Clitherow, who was a cousin of her sister Rose’s husband. They were married in 1950 and had four sons and one daughter. They owned a grocers shop in Tottenham for several years, before it was bought by the council as the area was to be redevelopment. They bought another shop, opposite Tottenham Hotspurs football ground and later moved to a house in Edmonton in the London district of Enfield.

Barbara had to stop work due to arthritis. She was later diagnosed with amyloidosis in 1999 and died a few months later on 22nd December. It was always her wish that her Ba’ should return to Orkney, so in August 2000 members of her family took the Ba’ ‘home’ to Orkney and presented it to the Orkney Museum. As a tribute to his wife, her husband, John, wound a few strands of Barbara’s hair around the end panel of the Ba’.

The Women's Ba in the Orkney Museum
The Ba that Barbara Yule won on Christmas Day 1945 was not a new one. The scarcity of materials meant that old Ba’ had to be played for until 1952. This Ba’ was originally won by Andrew Shearer for the Uppies on Christmas Day 1934. For him to donate his treasured Ba’ for a women’s game showed that not all men were opposed to the Women’s Ba’.

The Eynhallow Laments

How the Fin Folk Lost Eynhallow. Bryce Wilson.

Tom Muir, Engagement & Exhibitions Officer

During the Orkney Storytelling Festival in 2019 one of the guest storytellers, Gordon MacLellan, invited Fran Flett Hollinrake and myself to contribute something towards an environmental arts project called CelebrationEarth! The idea was that it would be a storytelling event in 2020, but that obviously wasn’t possible. Instead we contributed other things. Fran, who is the Visitor Attraction Officer at St Magnus Cathedral, decided to combine music and story to give an account of the spiritual and the strange within the cathedral. You can view it in another blog page (see ‘St Magnus Cathedral’ in the Main Menu).

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Gordon MacLellan, storyteller, poet and artist.

For my piece I decided to revisit poetry, for the first time in years. A storytelling event was fine, but this saw me outside of my comfort zone. I decided to focus on the tiny island of Eynhallow; Eyinhelga in Old Norse, meaning the holy island. I decided to write three prose poems that dealt with different aspects of Eynhallow. I used folklore, medieval history and an invented boating disaster in the 19th century as the basis for the poems. They take the form of three laments, giving the trilogy the title of ‘The Eynhallow Laments’

The Fin Folk’s Lament

There was a folk tale about how this was one of the vanishing islands of the Fin Folk, a magical race of beings who lived under the sea, but whose summer homes were islands that float on the surface of the sea. These islands were normally invisible to mortal eyes. A local man, whose new wife had been abducted by a Fin Man, seeks his revenge and gains the knowledge of how to see the island and to win it from the Fin Folk. He and his three sons reach the island, but the Fin Folk conjure up magical sights to frighten them off, but to no avail. The island was taken when nine rings of salt was sown around the island and nine crosses cut into its turf. The youngest son had big hands, so the last ring was not completed. I decided to write it from the perspective of a Fin child who was there that day and witnessed the tragedy that befell her people.

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Eynhallow Church and monastery, 12th century. Gordn MacLellan.

Brother Dagfinn’s Lament

The second poem is told from the perspective of a monk living on Eynhallow in the 12th century, and draws heavily from the Orkneyinga Saga. He is at peace now, but he reminisces about witnessing the martyrdom of St Magnus and his own fate for disobeying the orders of jarl and bishop. Again, the constant here are the selkies that sing on the shore. They appeared in the first poem and will play a more prominent role in the third and final one.

Eynhallow (centre) as seen from Rousay. Max Fletcher.

Clara’s Lament

The third, and final poem had to be the most challenging for me. It is set in the 19th century and told from the perspective of a young woman who had just been widowed when her husband’s boat is capsized in the Eynhallow Sound. It brings in her grief and her feeling of hopelessness. Here the old tales and beliefs come together to create the final conclusion. I had originally wanted to have a young woman read this, but Covid 19 and the lockdown made that more difficult than it would have been normally. Having to read it myself I decided to just be me, no Monty Python type impressions of a female voice. It is not comedy. So, I had to read it as the writer, but using my storytelling skills I had to put as much emotion into it as I could. I had to feel Clara’s grief and despair. It is not up to me to say whether it worked or not, but I did have tears in my eyes after I had finished recording it in a small attic bedroom in our home.

One of the powerful ‘roosts’ that lie on either side of Eynhallow. For the scale of these waves, note the seagull in the bottom right of the photograph. Max Fletcher.
Selkies. Tom Muir.

For more information on the CelebrationEarth! project, follow this link.

For more information about Eynhallow, follow this link to Max Fletcher’s excellent ‘Rousay Remembered’ website.

The Unsilent Cathedral

St Magnus Cathedral. Dr Raymond Parks.

Tom Muir

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Gordon MacLellan.

During the Orkney Storytelling Festival in 2019 one of the guest storytellers, Gordon MacLellan, invited Fran Flett Hollinrake and myself to contribute something towards an environmental arts project called CelebrationEarth! The idea was that it would be a storytelling event in 2020, but that obviously wasn’t possible. Instead we contributed other things. Fran, who is the Visitor Attraction Officer at St Magnus Cathedral, decided to combine music and story to give an account of the spiritual and the strange within the cathedral. The music and story are all Fran’s own work. My contribution will appear in another blog. Here is Fran’s piece, ‘The Unsilent Cathedral’.

For more information about CelebrateEarth! you can follow their blog here.