Manufacture of Straw Articles in Orkney

By Walter Traill Dennison from Orcadian Papers 1905

straw-2356440_960_720The Orkney peasantry of the last bygone two centuries lived in a poor country, destitute of wood, iron, and hemp from which to construct necessary implements and rope; a country ground down by the tyranny and exorbitant taxations of greedy and unscrupulous rulers; a country whose inhabitants had neither the raw material from which to construct nor the means of purchasing necessary utensils, and it is certainly interesting to see how our forefathers adapted themselves to and overcame the sinister circumstances with which they were surrounded.


The materials from which articles of straw were made were principally bent, and the straw of black oats. Bent, after being cut, was loosely bound in rough sheaves and exposed to the open air to dry and wither. It was then firmly bound into neat sheaves, called baets, the legal size of which used to be two spans in circumference. Each baet was carefully plaited at the upper end, gradually tapering upwards till it ended in a cord which served the purpose of binding two baets together.

Each pair of baets so fastened was called a “band of bent” twelve of which formed a thraive. From bent was made cords, always called bands, used in the manufacture of straw, the thickest being called tether bands, and the finest stool bands. During the long winter evenings each ploughman was required to wind into cord one baet of bent. Such cords were spun by the fingers, and consisted of two coils or folds first twisted singly then into each other, the tendency of each coil to untwist being dexterously used as a means of maintaining the two coils together when united.

Oat Straw

The next raw material of our manufacture is common oat straw. For purposes of manufacture, the straw of the common Orkney black oat is the best, uniting in itself more than any other cultivated kinds the qualities of toughness and flexibility. The straw to be used is not threshed with flails, as this would spoil it, but it is selected from the sheaves held in a bunch between the hands, and beaten on some hard edge to remove all grain. Such straw is called gloy.

From these two materials, bent bands and gloy, it will be seen that the Orcadians manufactured a large number of articles not only useful but absolutely necessary to them. In saying this I am quite aware that heather was largely used instead of straw, but I confine myself to the latter material.

The articles made from straw may be classified as follows:- The flexible, the semi-flexible, and the inflexible. The first to be noticed under the flexible, are straw and bent ropes and cords. The simplest and most primitive of these is the sookan, or, according to its older name, the wislin.

The Sookan

The sookan is simply straw twisted together in one fold so as to form a loose cord, suitable only for temporary use. It is much used for tying straw into bundles, called hallows; and from the nature of its twist had to be wound round what it held together while being made, or else had to be wound up in a clue so as to preserve its twist.

The sookan was once much used for making what was called strae buits. A fine loop of the prepared sookan was passed under the instep, the sookan being thereafter wound round the ankles and the lower part of the leg. Such straw boots formed the most comfortable part of a peasant’s winter dress. He had no hard roads to negotiate, and with his straw-lined rivlins and straw boots could travel in comfort, the gentle friction of his feet on the soft ground or cold snow sending a genial glow over his whole frame. Clothed in his straw boots, the Orkney peasant sat for hours in miserably damp churches with greater warmth and comfort than ever came from the French topped boots or warming pan; and his rivlins bred no corns.

N.B. Bent is a reedy grass

Next week : the making of simmans, flackies, the miels-kaesie and more

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