Thursday, 28 February 2013

Betty's Reading Room

The other day at the Radio Orkney studio, Fionn McArthur asked me if I'd been to Betty's Reading Room yet. I hadn't, though I'd seen Fionn's report on BBC Scotland News and was intrigued.

Well, it was a beautiful day for a drive out the West Mainland to Tingwall Jetty, so I seized the moment.

I wasn't disappointed. Crammed with books and strategically placed sofas, with all sorts of quirky and interesting objects round about, Betty's Reading Room is a place you could easily lose yourself and shed the stresses of the world for an hour or two.

The Reading Room came into being when Craig Mollison and Jane Spiers lost a good friend, Betty Prictor. What could they do, they wondered to commemorate her life and spirit.

They renovated an old cottage at Tingwall, donated to them by the farmer who owned it, and turned it into a truly inspirational tribute to their old friend.


Boats and books, hares and books, cows and cats and hares and books, lamps and pictures and books  ...

And outside hens pecking about in the grass.

Here's reading to you, Betty! Thank you Jane and Craig for a lovely place to take time out.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Orkney Book Festival 11-14 April 2013

I've had a great time being involved in the planning for Orkney Book Festival with the George Mackay Brown Fellowship.

Orkney Book Festival 
11-14 April 

I mentioned all the Margaret Tait events in yesterday's blog. Today I'll tell you about some of the other stars of the festival.

Magi Gibson

Magi Gibson, as well as presenting Glasgow Women's Library's film, Margaret Tait: Film Poet, will be playing several other roles in the festival. She will be reading her work, running a workshop for school children, judging the finalists and presenting the prize to the winner of the Children's Writing Competition. She will also be appearing with me, her fellow Reader in Residence, in a joint session, yet to be devised!

In 2009, Magi became Stirling's first Makar for 500 years. Her poetry collection, Wild Women of a Certain Age, attracted critical acclaim and enthusiastic reader appreciation, a magical combination not always enjoyed by poets.

With another hat on - and another 'g' in her name - Mag(g)i Gibson has written a successful series of children's books featuring Sassy Wilde - her name says it all - called Seriously Sassy. Check it out by clicking the link left.

Like me, since October last year, Magi has been one of Scotland's five Readers in Residence. While I am based in Orkney, Magi's residency is at Glasgow Women's Library. Also like me, she has been writing a regular blog. Have a look, but remember to come back here!

Ian McPherson

Ian MacPherson is a writer and comedian of note - who nevertheless didn't buy himself a goat! Instead he's written several funny books and has been awarded the Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship which allowed him to be flaneur-in-residence in Grez-sur-Loing in France - lucky fella!

He is currently dining out on the stories from The Autobiography of Ireland's Greatest Living Genius which may or may not be about himself.

In the Orkney Book Festival he will be reading from his own work and teaching local writers how to coax a chuckle out of their writing in a Comedy Writing Workshop. He will also be playing host to a cabaret style event where he and the budding comics - and maybe some others - will have a chance to read their work.

And rumour has it that Magi and Ian are an item. If this photo's anything to go by, I think the rumour may be true!

Poetry, Film, Stories, Music, Comedy
an Extravaganza of Delights 
at the Orkney Book Festival
11-14 April 
Don't miss it!

More about the Festival anon. Next time - the John Rae connection.



Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Time for Reflection

Two blog-free weeks and I feel I've lost the knack! It's not easy to live your life AND write about it. When I'm busy it seems like there's no time for reflection. 

And then there's what to write about? There's a lot going on now: groups set up and running as part of the residency; input into Orkney Book Festival which will happen in April; the ongoing work of promoting services; the eventual relaunch of a service in the library aimed at using books as ways of helping readers out of the doldrums. And much 

There has been a couple of weeks of absolutely glorious weather. The photograph above is of Stromness harbour at sunset on the 17 February. I was there to join the George Mackay Brown Fellowship Group to discuss the upcoming Orkney Book Festival. Much of the festival is being run in collaboration with other groups - the Pier Arts Centre, Westside Cinema, Glasgow Women's Library

There are several strands to it: Margaret Tait, the Orkney film maker and poet will be featured through her films and her poetry. I will publish the full programme nearer the Festival, but meantime, here is a taste of what's to come:

Margaret Tait
There will be a screening of Blue Black Permanent, Margaret Tait's only feature length film, introduced by Sarah Neely and Gerda Stevenson, who stars in the film and knew Margaret Tait well.
Gerda Stevenson

The George Mackay Brown Memorial Lecture will be about Margaret Tait and will be delivered by Dr Sarah Neely of Stirling University.

Sarah Neely

Sarah also edited a book of Margaret Tait's poetry and other writings and there will be screenings of some of Tait's shorter films as well as readings of her poetry.

And another treat in store is Glasgow Women's Library's film: Margaret Tait: Film Poet by Marissa Keating, Michael Thomas Jones and Laura Dolan.

If you click on the link in the film title above, you'll see a fabulous trailer for it. It attracted four star reviews at its recent outing in the Glasgow Film Festival.

The film is being brought up to Orkney by Magi Gibson, Glasgow Women's Library's Reader in Residence. Magi will be playing a big part in the festival along with Ian MacPherson, Canadian novelist Struan Sinclair and many more!

See the blogs in the next few days to read more about the visiting writers and the organisations collaborating to bring you the festival. 

Monday, 11 February 2013

Beat the Blues Writing Group

Beat the Blues:
Got the winter blues?
Is it too much effort to get out of bed in the dark mornings?
Too cold and wet to go out for a walk?
Too easy to sit slumped in front of the TV?

Why Write

Writing is one of the tools we can use to help us feel better about ourselves and life.

Reading work by other people who have faced similar struggles and written about them can help too.

And sharing your work with the other folk in the group can build a feeling of safety and solidarity.

What is the course?
The course will be run by Rosie Alexander & Alison Miller for six Saturdays and contain lots of activities & opportunities to read and write.

You don’t need to have written before, all you need is a willingness to give it a go.

Why not come and see if you can learn to write and read your way through the Winter Blues and look towards Spring? 

Where?     The Blide Trust, 54 Victoria Street
When?      16th February
Time?        1.30pm-4pm

What next?
If you would like to book a place on the course then please contact Rosie or Alison. Rosie and Alison are also happy to talk to people who might be interested in the course before booking a place.

Rosie Alexander e-mail:
                      phone: 07835250745

Alison Miller      e-mail:
                      phone: Kirkwall Library: 01856 873166

This course is free of charge to participants.

(We  gratefully acknowledge the support of ‘See me’, Orkney Minds, the George Mackay Brown Fellowship, the Blide Trust, Orkney Library & Archives and Scottish Book Trust)

To the World

The course has grown out of a series of workshops which Rosie Alexander ran last year along with poet John Glenday.

Out of those workshops a book was produced, called To the World.

It contains poetry, prose and images from people struggling with the various knocks life delivers.

The poem below was written by Laura Grieve on a weekend workshop aimed at people with cancer.

This is it
The moment I knew
It was happening to me
The way it happened to her
Long ago
A chance moment
A chance movement
Quite unique
Had I ever stretched
Just in that way
And probed in just that place
To soothe an itch
I'm sure I hadn't
I think to myself
This is it
Happening to me

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Sylvia Plath aged only thirty. She left behind a powerful body of work. The story of her life with fellow poet Ted Hughes and of her suicide after they split up have become the stuff of legend - and many hundreds of academic studies. Though she didn't survive the turbulent darkness that engulfed her, she wrote till the end of her life, poems that tried desperately to comprehend and express the anguish she felt.

“And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” ―Sylvia Plath

This is winter, this is night, small love -
A sort of black horsehair, A rough, dumb country stuff Steeled with the sheen Of what green stars can make it to our gate ...

From By Candlelight

The Poem's the Thing

Two new poetry reading groups will start this week, one in Kirkwall and the
other in Stromness Library.

The Poem's the Thing
Wednesday 13 February
1.00-2.00 pm in Kirkwall Library
6.00-7.00 pm in Stromness Library

The groups will run on the second Wednesday of each month. 

Put the dates in your diary!

The Way We Were in Orkney

I promised more images from Orkney Photographic Archive. The ones below are by Tom Kent and William Hourston.
Tom Kent - Haying Time in Birsay

On the Orkney Library & Archive website, you can find information about all the photographers whose work is preserved in the Archive. Not all photographers' images are digitised, but Tom Kent's are. Here is a brief biography taken from the website:

"Tom Kent is probably Orkney's most famous photographer. He was born in the island of Eday in 1863 but the family moved to the Parish of Firth on the Orkney Mainland soon after. It was after emigrating to America and becoming a student of renowned Chicago photographer M.J. Steffens that he learned the skills that allowed him to set up shop on his return to Orkney. More than just a recorder of events he had an eye for composition as well as a seemingly unerring ability to be in the right place at the right time. He used the most sophisticated equipment available at the time, but that would still mean having to carry around a large heavy wooden camera and a quantity of glass plates, no mean feat in itself.

The quality of Tom Kent's photographs was recognised outside Orkney and he contributed regularly to professional magazines as well as pictorial publications such as Country Life. Sadly Tom seems to have fallen on hard times in later life and when he died, on 11th August 1936, his passing went almost unnoticed, a sad end for a man who had played such an important part in documenting life in Orkney."

William Hourston - Transporting Sheep

Land and Sea

The images show how the land and the sea are central to the history of Orkney. Fishermen with Ploughs they may have been, but they were also Country Women with Sickles & Quernstones, Rakes & Hens.

Tom Kent - Milling Grain by Hand
Tom Kent - Gathering Whelks 

William Hourston - Salvaging the Scuttled German Ships in Scapa Flow

"William Hourston was born in Evie in 1895. He moved to Stromness in the 1930s and originally ran a billiard saloon and Barber shop, but his true interest was photography. The raising of the scuttled ships of the German High Seas Fleet in Scapa Flow gave him an opportunity to exploit his photographic skills and he produced many memorable images of the work over the years.

William had a good eye for the picturesque and took many photographs of Stromness and further afield, producing calendars and postcards of his work. He had trained as a joiner and was able to make a lot of his own darkroom equipment. He was also, for a time, an occasional Lighthouse Keeper on Suleskerry, an isolated rocky outpost about thirty miles west of Orkney. Of course, he took along his camera and recorded the huge numbers of sea birds and seals that frequented the area.

William Hourston served in both World Wars, receiving injuries during the 1st World War that affected him all his life. He continued to live in Stromness, taking photographs late into the 1950s, remaining in the town until his death in 1968."

William Hourston - Plucking a Hen on the Shore

Tom Kent - Transporting a Cow (or is it a horse?) on the Steamer

Tom Kent - Not a Character from Tolstoy
Tom Kent - Scything Hay

William Hourston - After a Day's Work

The Roll of Photographers

There are many more photographers featured in the Archives: William H Wood, Robert H Robertson, David Horne, Wilfred Marr, Dougie Shearer & Donald Shearer of Phoenix Photography, Jack Walls. Their work is not yet digitised, but you can still see it if you go into the Archives and talk to Colin Rendall. 

You'll hear more stories of the chancy ways the archives come to hold the images: Wilfie Marr's work is here after Colin bumped into his widow in the supermarket. Dougie Shearer didn't think anybody would want his images, but Colin assured them the Archives would, and thank goodness for that, for Dougie Shearer captured many of the events, big and small, that happened in Orkney in the second half of the twentieth century.

Bobby Leslie told me that Jack Walls worked in the Kirkwall Hotel, appeared in local operas and carted his equipment up Wideford Hill to take photographs of the surrounding countryside. And it was somewhat heavier than a digital camera!

Orkney Through the Eyes of Women

More recently, women have taken up the camera and added other images of Orkney into the mix. Gunnie Moberg took her camera up high and photographed Orkney from the air; and got right in close and captured details and patterns in rock and weed and flower.

Here is Gunnie Moberg in her garden photographed by Alistair Peebles (copyright Alistair Peebles).

You can see some of her beautiful images in the book on which she collaborated with George Mackay Brown, Orkney: Pictures & Poems.

I think the book is still available to buy from Tam's Bookshop in Stromness.

And of course - if you are a library member - you can borrow it from Orkney Library & Archive!

Copyright Rebecca Marr

Rebecca Marr came to Orkney as Artist in Residence at the Pier Arts Centre in 2007 and loved it so much she stayed. She looks up to Orkney's big skies and down to the amazing shapes at our feet, including the seaweed round our shores.

And there are many others - men and women - capturing the islands as they are today! 

Saturday, 9 February 2013

National Library Day

Orkney Library & Archives in Kirkwall
Responses from Orkney folk when I asked them about their libraries ...

I’ve never known a better library * they are outstanding. Kirkwall Library is a friendly, fun place with helpful, cheerful staff. The atmosphere is great & the reading groups very enjoyable KGS library is also excellent – provides varied opportunities for students to learn & actively encourages reading. (The librarian is largely responsible for this) * Overall a very good service. I have used the internet services and compared to other libraries it is very nice and clean. I also like the casual newspaper area at the front. It feels welcoming. * Well rounded. There is always something for everyone. Easy to find something new. * Very good. Helpful staff. Use of computers. Meetings for work. So work and leisure Meetings in the MacGillivray RoomGood! Better now than ever before. * Very positive – although I have not had the time of recent years to use it – demands of work and family precluded that (and I have thousands of books at home). Have appreciated their short read books at airport & at hairdresser. Any dealing I have had with Orkney Library staff has been exceedingly positive. Staff have been pleasant, helpful, knowledgeable and gone out of their way to help. I intend to use the library much more now that my lifestyle has changed. * I love the Archives. It's such a wonderful resource for research, family history, creative writing. And the Photographic Archives are a treasure trove of Orkney images. * BRILLIANT – the folk are helpful and knowledgeable, funny and always welcoming. * brilliant. I use the mobile library as well as the Kirkwall one and the staff couldn’t be nicer or more helpful Really good and very long time * very goodExcellent, helpful staff. BROWSING, serendipity are important. * Excellent In the Orkney Room they have everything and all the staff are helpful. * fantastic – what a brilliant facility and the engagement of the staff with the readers is tremendous. *excellent. The team is consistently helpful, courteous and innovative Brilliant! * A1 ExcellentFriendly, helpful staff in Kirkwall where I live, and in Stromness, where I go once a fortnight for the Stromness Writing group. We are v. proud of Stewart’s computer skills!! 
Stromness Library

Excellent. I have only used Kirkwall Library. It’s a warm, welcoming, enjoyable building to come in to. The staff are friendly and helpful. I enjoy the Facebook page too! * They are excellent Very friendly staff and a good selection of books. Also no finer!!If all libraries could be like Kirkwall then things would only improve in the world of literature.* Great good very good. With children + by self * brilliant. Lovely staff, very helpfulexcellent. They provide a wide range of books and staff are helpful and willing to order anything not available at once. * Excellent. Very friendly informative helpful staff with a good range of books to borrow. The website has a lot of very useful information too * very positiveCompletely positive. They are both - Stromness & Kirkwall - my home from home. * extremely positive. Very friendly staff, great resources. Good collection + mix of novels + non-fiction. Bookbug sessions are wonderful Excellent. The staff are so friendly & helpful. They suggest books that they think might be interesting. * Excellent. Staff are courteous and extremely helpful. * excellent Having recently moved to Orkney and not knowing my way round the library I have nothing but praise for the staff and selection of books. * totally positivehelpful, welcoming, lively Very helpful + innovative All are excellent. * warm and welcoming and helpful. * Brilliant!!Very good. Staff are extremely helpful. * grand places!Very good, welcoming, helpful staff and family friendly. * very good! – good range of fictional and academic books - a real asset to my academic studies - staff are very genial! * very good choice and friendly staff * excellent First class service. Excellent staff. * Excellent – great range of titles and media, very well-informed and helpful staff, enjoy book groupthe best of all the ones I have been to in Scotland. V positive with helpful, friendly staff * Excellent Orkney library and the very nice staff make it a really important place for me. * great!  a lovely booky atmosphere, the library is splendid in all sorts of other ways – PLUS GREAT STAFF!! * The Home Library Service is an excellent service. It's one of the things I rely on. I like large print. I don't choose the books myself, Steven does; he knows what I like. I'm very well looked after. * I used to go to the library regularly till my mobility deteriorated. So I was really glad to discover I could have books delivered to me. I need good books to turn to. We're very lucky in Orkney. When Steven comes with the van, it's another contact - somebody bringing news from outside. With Steven choosing books for me that I might not have thought of, this service has expanded my reading, widened it. I like something fresh. I would be lost without this service.

This is the Wordle poster of the above words: ORKNEY LIBRARIES

Whether in Kirkwall or Stromness, in the Archives, the Photographic Archives, on the road with the Mobile Library, or receiving boxes of books at home with the Home Library Service, I think it's fair to say that Orkney folk like their libraries! Long may they flourish!  

Thursday, 7 February 2013

In the Tardis with Orkney Photographic Archive

It's impossible to spend only a day in the Photographic Archives at Orkney Library & Archive and get to grips with what an amazing place it is and what a resource for the community.

Only the other day on Radio Orkney, I heard a piece about the Westray Heritage Trust who are mounting an exhibition of photographs by Robert Heddle Robertson from 100 years ago, and inviting today's islanders to take photographs of the same locations, in the same seasons. It will give a fascinating insight into how Westray folk lived then and how they live now.

Many of the photographs by RH Robertson came from Orkney Photographic Archives which holds over 2,500 of his glass plates. 

Senior archivist, David Mackie, manages the archive and Colin Rendall looks after it and does the printing of negatives for members of the public. He is passionate about the value of them as an historic collection and as a resource for Orkney, the islands they depict through the ages.

Colin gave me a tour of the archives. First, he invited me into his Tardis, a cylindrical division between the public office and the dark room, where he time-travels regularly back to far off days in Orkney. Well, at least as far back as photography goes.

He told me that the earliest dated photographic print held here is this one from 1863 of the Channel Fleet in Kirkwall Bay. It came as a surprise to me to think of photography being around at the same time as a naval fleet made up of sailing ships. There are possibly earlier photographs too among the collection, but with no dates on them, that can't be verified.

Waving in the Light

While I was there, Colin was dealing with a customer who wanted a print of an aerial photograph of East Road in Kirkwall. In the dark room, he showed me the process he goes through to create a negative from the existing print and then develop it. 

As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I noticed Colin waving his fingers above the developing photograph. This, he tells me, is how you control how much light gets through, so that more detail will show up on dark areas of the print. And sure enough, suddenly the dark shadows at the edges lifted to reveal bushes and plants. 

To an amateur like me whose only experience of manipulating photographs has been in the digital age through Photoshop, this was fun!

Equipped to Develop

I'm used to the slick-looking tools of the digital era, so the machinery housed in the back rooms of the archives look like museum pieces. And in a sense they are. Except that equipment like this which will develop film, is increasingly hard to come by. As Archive Technician, it is Colin's job to keep the machines in good working order, so that they will continue to provide prints of the thousands of glass plates and film negatives stored by the archive. 

Negative to Print

Colin looked out an example of a glass plate and the print that was made from it so that I could photograph them - with my little digital camera! - for the blog.

Glass plate negative

The print from the negative

This is a Tom Kent photograph of two little girls standing in Dundas Crescent, Kirkwall, taken between 1898 and 1936, the period covering his work, but clearly, going by the style of the clothes, dating from the earlier years of the 20th century if not the end of the 19th. The details, the 'nowness' of the instant captured, with the long shadows cast by that day's sun, are astonishing.
Tom Kent

The Drowned & Stony Road to Conservation

Colin is quite convinced that digital photography will never match film for the quality of light and detail, so it is in all our interests to preserve what we have in Orkney Photographic Archive and guard it with our lives. 

But there has been many a blood-curdling mishap in the process of collecting and safeguarding the work of our early photographers. In the 1930s two young boys came across some dirty old pieces of glass down a lane off Broad Street in Kirkwall. They lined them up against a wall and threw stones at them. What lay in smithereens at their feet when they'd finished were some of Tom Kent's plates. 

RH Robertson
A truck load of the glass plates of RH Robertson was intercepted on its way to be dumped in a quarry in Westray. 

And a diver diving in Stromness harbour found some funny looking pieces of glass with dark markings on them. They turned out to be the photographic plates of William Hourston.

William Hourston
Luckily, the archives still hold 4,830 of Tom Kent's plates, 2,917 of RH Robertson's and 1,045 of William Hourston's, as well as many images by other photographers. Between 1867 and 1914, forty two photographers were listed as working in Orkney.

I asked Colin what message he'd like to get across to people in Orkney about the archives. In the mildest, gentlest tones possible, difficult to convey in the bold type necessary to make it stand out, he said,

'Don't throw away old photos or negatives. I've had folk saying to me, I wish I'd known this place was here, I wouldn't have burnt my granny's old photos. I didn't think they would be of any interest. 

'Please let us be the judge of that. Take them here and we can make copies of them and give you back the originals. Or we can keep them here and preserve them. Family photographs can be valuable social documents, showing how work, culture, customs, clothes, buildings or even scenery in the background have changed over time in Orkney.'  


I had to work quite hard to extract permission from Colin to show the photo above. A talented photographer himself, though modest to the point of self-effacement, he took this picture in February 1978. It looks so like the big seas we've had in Orkney in the past few days, it seemed an apt image to end with. My digital photo of the print doesn't nearly do it justice.

Dougie Shearer
Colin learned his photography from another notable Orkney practitioner, Dougie Shearer, who was also his fiddle teacher. He taught Colin how to process negatives and how to alter the appearance of a print while it was in the developing fluid by lifting out a bit you wanted lighter, and splashing bits you wanted darker. An even earlier version of waving your fingers over the developing print! Colin told me that Dougie was so particular and careful that he passed on a deep and serious knowledge of the processes of photography that has stayed with him ever since.

Thank you to Colin Rendall, David Mackie and Bobby Leslie for the information in this blog. And thank you to David for permission to use information from a paper he produced for the New Orkney Antiquarian Journal Volume 5, entitled, The Orkney Photographic Archive.

Look out for the next blog for more images and information about the different photographers.