This week a Kirkwall institution is celebrating 125 years in its home at 16 Harbour Street.
The Orkney Club was formed on the 27th of January, 1826, by thirty Orcadian men with the best interests of Orkney at heart. In order to further husbandry and industry in the county, a billiards committee was established, and Mr. Samuel Laing of Papdale was elected the Club’s first president. Wives were not invited.
The original meeting place of the Orkney Club was the St. Ola Hotel, run by Mrs. Mary Geddes. Bar business was so good that she didn’t need to run her premises as a hotel at all. 125 years ago, in 1892, she had No.16 built two doors away. The new building doubled as both a meeting place for the Club, and her own residence. Mrs. Geddes then sold the St. Ola Hotel to a publican “fae sooth”, who was enraged to discover that the previous owner had taken all the business with her. This dispute resulted in an out-of-court settlement of £230.
In 1910 the Orkney Club members bought the premises from Mrs. Geddes, and in the 1920s a drinks license was obtained. A reading room was established with books borrowed from Edinburgh library, and members met for social activities such as snooker, billiards, bridge, and dining. With the exception of staff, women were not allowed on the premises.
Current member Roger Robson joined in 1961. At that time, membership comprised about 100 businessmen and farmers, mostly in their 60s and many from the isles. Roger remembers the Club as being rather hierarchical, used by few, and in need of new members to stay afloat. David Oddie and Russell Groundwater were amongst the new influx. They were attracted by the Club’s two great full-size snooker tables, and took it upon themselves to arrange billiards and snooker tournaments. Of the trophies, Roger says:
“None of the names were inscribed without a considerable amount of money being spent at the bar and lodged in the Honesty Box that preceded the cash machines beside the tables upstairs. So there was method in the committees’ madness!”
The Silver Cue snooker tournament, which is still going strong and open to all players in Orkney, has its origins in the early ’70s in a series of after-work snooker games between Roger and Tim Sinclair of the OIC. They found that there was sponsorship money available from the burgeoning oil industry in Flotta for social enterprises, and were able to secure approximately £900 in funding. Arnie Tait of ‘The Longship’ was charged with the task of producing a trophy, and ten miniatures for the trophy winners to keep for the first ten years.
In the 1970s Roger was “pitchforked” into the role of Club president. It was under his tenure that the first full debate on allowing female membership was held. At that time the members decided not to allow women to join. The argument that won the day was lack of facilities, but women were now permitted onto the premises as guests (though not into the reading or billiards rooms!
It was not until January 1994, under the presidency of Alistair ‘Toosh’ MacDonald, that women were properly allowed to join the club. This took place at a specially convened EGM, and was by all accounts a heated debate. Some members never returned, but few now would dispute that this decision was healthy for the club as a whole.
The Orkney Club now has in the region of 250 members, with 12 elected to the committee each year. Changes to the drink-driving laws, and to people’s general habits, mean the committee has to work hard to bring folk in. There are regular pool, darts and snooker competitions (of varying levels of seriousness), quizzes, whisky tastings, music, themed food nights, and so on. Several other organisations also make use of club facilities for meetings and functions.
In recent times the membership application process has been simplified so that any person invited in by an existing member can join on the spot. The Orkney Club exists for the benefit of its members, and will survive for as long as the members want it to – perhaps another 125 years.