Stronsay: Records of a Bygone Age – Destructive Fire

This article was first published in the January edition of the Stronsay Limpet

By Ian Cooper

The late Jim Work of Holland and Daisybank was born at the Lodge in Stronsay in February 1922 and lived there until 1945, when his parents bought the farm of Holland and the Work family moved there to farm. Jim always had fond memories of the Lodge and had many stories to tell of his time there and of the people and events in the surrounding area of Aith and Grobister.

Before this the Twatt family, who were close relations of the Works, had farmed at the Lodge for many years until, in 1919, Jim’s parents Bill and Lizzie (nee Learmonth) moved there from Shapinsay, where Lizzie’s father was manager at Balfour Mains.  Jim spoke of tales passed down to him regarding two serious fires at the Lodge in the second half of the nineteenth century and I thought it may be of interest to recount them here.

The first fire I was told about at the Lodge was a long way back – I think maybe in the 1850s – and was all caused by some of the workers needing to get a brew of ale bottled!

There was a cask of home brew all ready to bottle and the young servant boy decided to look out the bottles and corks to be ready for the bottling. He was short of some corks for the bottles and thought they might have rolled under the bed so he took the candle and crawled in under the bed to look for them.

Of course, the mattresses at that time were just big sacks filled of straw and when he was under the bed, the candle set light to the straw in the mattress. The straw was cracking dry and just went up like a torch as the boy scrambled out from under the bed but instead of shouting for help as you might have expected, he took to his heels and ran off. Of course, he likely thought he was going to be in big trouble but if he had just raised the alarm at the time there could have been a fairly different outcome.

I think it was old John Twatt that owned the Lodge at that time and he was pretty much an invalid, in bed most of the time. John’s wife and his son were the only other folk in the house at the time and, by the time they discovered the fire they were lucky to get out with the clothes on their backs. They lost everything in the house, and not a thing insured of course. It was thought that they were maybe lucky in the end that it was just the house that was lost as it could so easily have been the steading, the cows, the horse – the lot!

It is interesting to compare Jim’s tale, passed down by word of mouth for 150 years, with the account of the fire as reported in ‘The Orcadian’ of the time.

From ‘The Orcadian’, Monday, January 18th, 1858

Destructive fire

On the evening of Monday 4th January a fire broke out at the farm house of Lodge, occupied by Mr John Twatt, island of Stronsay, and entirely consumed the dwelling house including about 40 pounds sterling in money. The fire originated, we believe, by the head boy going under the bed with a light to look for something about nine o’clock when some straw hanging from the bottom of the bed caught fire and, before the alarm was given, it was impossible to save anything.

Mr Twatt, an old infirm man, his wife and his son were the only parties in the house at the time. The son, immediately on discovering the fire, made every effort in his power to extinguish it but, failing in this, his next effort was to save his aged parent and before this was effected the whole house was in flames. The boy with whom the fire originated, observing the bed to have ignited, instead of giving the alarm cowardly absconded through mistaken fear. The sight of the flames brought up almost the whole inhabitants of the island by whose assistance the fire was prevented from spreading to the office houses, one of which at least was in imminent danger, and but for timely assistance must have also fallen a prey to the devouring element. The house was well furnished, but not an article was saved except what the inmates had on the backs, some of whom were not even in full dress, the fire occurring at the time when they were preparing for bed. The furniture, bed clothes and wearing apparel were all consumed and the works of an eight day clock were melted into a shapeless mass like a blacksmith’s cramp.

One hundred and fifty years of being told and retold down through the generations and Jim’s account of events is still faithful to the report written at the time!

The story of the second fire at the Lodge will appear in next month’s Limpet.

Bay of Holland Stronsay by Claire Pegrum

Bay of Holland Stronsay by Claire Pegrum


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