Between Islands Online Exhibition

The Orkney Museum is excited to announce that the Between Islands Online Exhibition is now live. It looks at the heritage, arts and crafts of the three island groups, the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland. Here is a brief introduction to the exhibition.

Alex MacDonald, coordinator of the Between Islands Project writes:

I am delighted to say that the first of our Between Islands museum exhibitions is now online!

Orkney: Between Islandsexplores the inspiration and legacy of islands in the arts, crafts and literature of Orkney, Shetland and the Outer Hebrides. Material includes books and prints documenting island journeys and scenery, paintings by island artists, portraits of island writers and their publications, and examples of island crafts, with a particular focus on Harris Tweed and Fair Isle knitting, but also exploring the lesser-known Orkney and Shetland tweed industries and the promotion of contemporary makers by The New Craftsmen. Featured objects are drawn from the permanent collections of Orkney Museum, Orkney Library and Archive, Shetland Museum and Archives, and Museum agus Tasglann nan Eilean.

Material from the partner museums is complemented by historic photographs, archive recordings, interviews with contemporary artists and craftspeople, paintings, objects and links to makers and collections across Scotland which further illuminate the stories behind featured objects, places and personalities.

The Orkney Museum collection has been curated by Rachel Boak, and designed and produced by Rebecca Marr and Mark Jenkins of cultural heritage and arts creative partnership Kolekto.  Many thanks to them for all their hard work in creating this resource. 

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.

Knocking Stones

Knocking Stones in the Orkney Museum’s courtyard.

Tom Muir, Engagement and Exhibitions Officer. Photographs by Gail Drinkall, Curator of Archaeology.

When you enter the courtyard at the Orkney Museum you will see many large stone vessels, like mortars. These are ‘knocking stones’, which were used in the preparation of food for a family. They are ancient in origin but remained in use in Orkney until the 19th century.

A knocking stone made of red sandstone.
Side view of red sandstone knocking stone.

A knocking stone was used to husk barley, or other grain, in small quantities. Their use goes back into prehistory and they were mostly replaced with the introduction of the rotary hand quern. But knocking stones served a different function. While a quern could be set to grind out coarse or fine meal (flour) for the baking of bannocks, a knocking stone was used to pound the grain, to remove the husks and to bruise the grain ready to be used in cooking. ‘Burstan’ was a staple diet in Orkney, comprising of barley that had been ‘knocked’ in the stone and then roasted in an iron pot over the fire. Kirn milk (buttermilk) was then added and a simple porridge made. Burstan had its dangers though. If an uncooked lump of burstan was eaten its dry dust, if inhaled, caused extreme coughing. It is interesting to note that every island and parish in Orkney had its own nickname, known as a ‘tee-name’ or ‘teu-name’. The residents of the island of Egilsay were known as ‘burstan lumps’. This simple dish was an important part of any crofting families diet, along with dried fish. Very little meat was eaten, as people couldn’t afford to eat their animals, which were sold to those who could afford to.

A posed photograph by Tom Kent shows a woman grinding grain on a rotary quern. The mell, the mallet for use with a knocking stone, is seen on the left. (Orkney Library & Archive, Tom Kent Collection)

The implement used to knock the corn could be something as simple as a beach stone. Usually it was a mallet-like tool called a ‘mell’. My North Isles parents would have called it a ‘maal’. The mell was usually made of a hard wood, like oak, for the head with a handle of pine. The hole in the head for the handle was off-set to one end, so that the longer end could reach the bottom of the knocking stone. You can see an example in the photograph above.

A yellow sandstone example.
Side view.

There is a record from the 17th century of someone being sanctioned by the Kirkwall church for knocking corn on the Sabbath. The tell-tale sound of the thumping of the mell in the knocking stone was heard by an outraged individual who then informed on the hungry transgressor.

The extremely fine example in the three photos above is so well made that I have often wondered if it was a knocking stone at all, or an early font. It may have been reused as a knocking stone. Recycling is nothing new in Orkney. It was broken long ago and then mended in the 1990s by Colin Watson, who was the stone mason at St Magnus Cathedral at that time. It stood in the back courtyard of Tankerness House Gardens for a short time, along with other knocking stone, but vandals broke it again, with the aid of a stone mortar that was also on display in the gardens. It was decided to move the vulnerable artefacts into the front courtyard, which is secured at night. The knocking stones out the back may have been there since the Baikie family lived in the house.

A broken knocking stone.
Side view of broken knocking stone.
Another broken knocking stone.

When I was a child in Tankerness there was a knocking stone under construction that had been abandoned on the shore below the farm of Weethick, on Inganess Bay. It had been roughly shaped and a pecked circle on the top showed where it was to be hollowed out. Why it was never finished is impossible to know, but on a flat, rocky shore it stood out starkly compared to its surroundings. I used to stand on top of it when I was small and had a great attachment to it. Sadly, when I went to pay my regards to it a few years ago it was gone. I suppose it could be a garden feature now, but it was such a landmark to me as a child that I felt its loss very strongly.

So, the next time that you visit the museum, spare a thought for those knocking stones in the courtyard. They were the food processors of an earlier time.

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’.

Between Islands

Alex MacDonald, coordinator of the Between Islands Project writes:

Our final museum exhibition is online! The Hebrides display can be found here:

and of course all three exhibitions can be seen by visiting:

Many thanks to the Hebridean museum team – Caitriona MacCuish, Ashley Ferrier, Seonaid Macdonald and Isabel McLachlan – for all their hard work on this. Also Karen Mackay Graphics, a lovely job all round!

As if that wasn’t enough for today, our publication has also arrived! It will be available from An Lanntair in the run up to Christmas and in the new year I will distribute it on a wider scale. In the meantime I must thank authors Dr Ian Tait, Rachel Boak, Tom Muir, Professor Frank Rennie, Dr Emily Gal, Professor Donna Heddle and Dr Andrew Jennings for their contributions. Also, Margaret Anne and Agnes at Acair for all their help with producing the publication, another lovely product.

From Enemy to Friend: A Tribute to Coriolano Caprara, 1920-2020

WWII Italian soldier, Coriolano Caprara.
Coriolano Caprara with other Italian POWs in Camp 34, Burray.

Tom Muir, Engagement and Exhibitions Officer

Italian soldier Coriolano Caprara's POW ID.
Gino’s POW identification card.

It is with great sadness that I have to report the death of Coriolano Caprara, known as ‘Gino’ to his friends. He is the last of the Italian POWs who were held at Camp 34 on Burray, where they were used to build the Churchill Barriers.

Gino was lucky to be able to celebrate his 100th birthday in mid February this year (2020), just before lockdown was introduced in Italy because of the Covid 19 pandemic. It was heartwarming to see video footage of the party on Facebook, where Gino was singing ‘It’s Now or Never’ in English, as well as dancing. The party was attended his friends John Muir and Claire Louttit (John’s daughter) from Orkney. John is the President of the Italian Chapel Preservation Committee. With him he brought a gift for Gino, a painting of the Italian Chapel by Orkney artist Gary Gibson, who has been a long time supporter of the Italian Chapel. Philip Paris, who wrote a novel and a history book about the Italian Chapel, and Antonella Papa, who carried out restoration work on the chapel. Also among the guests were members of the Chiocchetti family, who presented him with a model of St George and the Dragon. Domenico Chiocchetti had made a statue of this before he started on the chapel on Lamb Holm, the other camp where POWs were held.

Letizia Chiocchetti, Gino Caprara and John Muir. The Italian Chapel, Orkney Islands, Scotland.
Letizia Chiocchetti, Gino and John Muir with birthday gifts. Gary Gibson’s painting shows the statue of St George and the Dragon and the Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm.

I first met Gino in 1995 when he was with a group of former Italian POWs who had returned to Orkney for a visit. This followed on from a visit in 1992, when they had taken part in a BBC documentary about their confinement and the work that they did on the Barriers. The Orkney Museum had an exhibition on the building of the Barriers, which featured the POWs and the magnificent Italian Chapel. The old men were rather quiet and subdued to begin with, but soon they were seeing themselves and friends as young men in the photographs. One old man tapped me on the shoulder and beckoned me to follow him. He pointed to a young man with Hollywood film star good looks standing by a home-made billiards table in one of the photos and then pointed to himself. “Me!” he said, “And I am still a good billiards player.”

A concrete billiards table made by WWII POWs from Italy in Scotland's Orkney Islands.
Italian POWs with a home-made concrete billiards table. The gentleman who spoke to me in on the front right.

Another wonderful happening during their visit to our exhibition was when one man recognized a cigarette lighter that he had made. They made many beautiful things, both as gifts and to sell locally. Many of these lovely things are on display in the 20th Century Gallery of the Orkney Museum (Covid 19 restrictions permitting).

East Weddell Sound causeway, Churchill Barrier no. 3. A part of the rock fill between the blocks has not yet been placed. Camp 34, Burray, in the background, as seen from Glimps Holm.
Burray, No 3 Barrier, with Camp 34 in the background.
Sports Day at Camp 34; WWII POWs in Orkney, Scotland.
Gino played the drums with a band in Camp 34. You can see him on the front right, behind the clown’s knee, during a sports day.
POW football team, Burray, Orkney, Scotland, Camp 34 WWII. Coriolano Caprara front left.
A football team from Camp 34, with Gino front left.

I met Gino again in 2014, at the launch of a proposed film project called ‘The Melted Heart’, written by the Italian translator, writer and actor, Inga Sempel. He was joined by members of the Chiocchetti family, as well as members of the Palumbi family – the man responsible for the metal work in the Italian Chapel. He was so full of life and fun, it was a real pleasure to meet him again. When my wife, Rhonda, and I started our own website,, I had thought of asking Gino to write something. It then occurred to me that I had been given an account of Gino’s time as a POW, which Inga had translated into English. I was able to get his address through mutual friends and wrote to ask his permission to publish it. He agreed immediately.

Gino Caprara, WWII Italian POW war veteran on his 100th birthday, with his translator, Inga Semple.
Inga and Gino in Orkney in 2014.

Coriolano ‘Gino’ Caprara died in his sleep last weekend. My thoughts and love go out to his family, especially his daughter Linda, who has been so kind and helpful in publishing his memoirs online. While Gino came to Orkney in the cold depth of winter in 1942 as an enemy, when he left in the summer of 1944 he went as a friend. Such is the way of war. He was a gentleman who I was honoured to have known, for his boundless enthusiasm, humour and kindness. There is still one surviving Italian POW from Camp 60, Lamb Holm, but he wishes to be left in peace and not to talk about his experience. I have always respected that and not tried to contact him. Everyone’s experiences are different and it is quite understandable that he wishes to let the past remain there.

My thanks to Orkney Library & Archive for the photos of the Barriers and the James Sinclair collection for the POW photos. Thanks also to Gino Caprara, Inga Sempel and Clair Louttit for their photos and to

For Gino’s memoirs in full, follow this link:

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

Image preview
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.

Between Islands Project, Film 21 (Western Isles/Shetland)

Alex MacDonald, coordinator of the Between Islands Project writes:

I will be sharing information and film pieces with you as they become available in the period leading up to Christmas. I am therefore delighted to share this piece with you today, recorded specially for the project by one of our Hebridean music project participants, Julie Fowlis. It tells a story that links Shetland and the Hebrides and you can view it here:

Between Islands Project – Music CD

Alex MacDonald, coordinator of the Between Islands Project:

Firstly, in the run up to Christmas we still have some important links to share with you – not least our remaining exhibition displays – so I will now be getting in touch as and when our information becomes available during that time.

Today’s news is that I am delighted to say that the Between Islands CD has arrived and will be available from tomorrow in the An Lanntair shop.  It features almost two hours of music from our exceptionally talented participants, both from previous live performance at Orkney Folk Festival and in An Lanntair, and entirely new work that has been created during lockdown. During that time our musicians worked not only across islands, but across their existing projects, creating new collaborations and resulting in some compositions which are premiering on this release. One such track is featured in our short film this week, and is written and performed by Willie Campbell from Lewis and Jenny Keldie from Shetland.  

Many thanks to all our Between Islands musicians both for their work on the recording and for preparing the online performances – more of which to come!  

Otherwise, this article appeared in last week’s Scotsman, focusing on the Shetland Skekler, one of the featured subjects in the upcoming Western Isles exhibition.