By Fiona Grahame
For just over one hundred years of publishing, from 1860 to 1961, The Orkney Herald newspaper delivered honest and well informed news every Tuesday to islanders. Its ‘golden years’ were those when it was under the editorship of Jack Twatt from 1951 to 1961. Amongst its notable writers were the poets George Mackay Brown and Robert Rendall. It published a wide range of articles including those in the Orkney dialect at a time when the Director of Education felt that use of Orcadian should be discouraged.
The tone of a newspaper reflects the character of its editor and The Orkney Herald did just that under Jack’s leadership. Its wide variety of articles and factual reporting was enhanced with humorous cartoons.
Jack Twatt was born in Seven Kings, Essex, in 1910, where his father James, from an Orkney farming family, had moved to. When Jack was 11 the family returned to Orkney. His father and uncle, George Leonard, had bought The Orkney Herald printing works, newspaper and stationery shop. James had served an apprenticeship at The Orkney Herald before he had moved to London so he was a skilled printer.
The family home was always busy with music and the church both important in Jack’s upbringing. It was a childhood where Jack and his brother Jimmy were encouraged to experiment with electronics including building their own devices.
After Edinburgh University where he studied philosophy, psychology, Latin, mathematics and English Jack returned to Orkney to work alongside his father on the newspaper. During the war his expertise in wireless technology saw him placed in the Royal Corps of Signals as an instructor. It was at this time that he developed the use of VHF radio communication instead of land-lines.
In 1946 he married Georgie Gibb and returned to Orkney with his new wife. The Orkney Herald had kept going throughout the restrictions of World War 2 but now had a much diminished workforce. It must be remembered that printing newspapers in those days was quite different to today and it involved a lot of skilled staff who had served an apprenticeship of 5 years.
To start with, Jack did most of the writing and editing but gradually he built up a team who were to produce the best years yet of The Orkney Herald.
In 1951 on the death of his father, Jack Twatt became the sole editor and owner of the business. With incredible energy he kept Orcadians informed, reporting on council meetings, sheriff court proceedings and the farming scene. Every Sunday afternoon was spent finishing writing the columns ready for the printers who would need to set it up the next day. The newspaper was printed using very heavy Victorian machinery that was prone to breaking down. Jack and Fred Grieve would work from Monday evening and into the early hours of the next morning so that it never missed being on shop shelves on the Tuesday. This is an incredible feat for any newspaper delivering to so many island communities.
On Tuesday 10th of January 1961 The Orkney Herald announced ‘this is the last issue of this paper’. Despite its popularity and quality, many factors, including spiralling costs had led Jack to make what must have been an extremely difficult decision. Although it was the end of the newspaper the other parts of the business continued and the family run Orkney Herald print shop is still in Kirkwall today.
He is best described by his daughter, Kim Foden.
“ Jack was the best dad in the world. I love the smell of printer’s ink on his tweed jacket and was wary of the pens sticking out of his breast pocket when he lifted me up as a wee lass for a cuddle.”
“He could see things from other people’s position and was very sensitive to feelings. He was a good listener and offered good advice.”
“As an elder of the kirk, he took classes for teenagers wishing to join the church. He always told them to keep an open mind and listen to everyone’s point of view, whatever their beliefs.”
“He was honest, caring, considerate and fair. He never had a bad word to say about anyone.”
Jack Twatt’s love of all things electronic never waned. In his fifties he was employed at the DECCA navigation station and his great escape was the amateur radio shack he built in his home.
Jack Twatt died in 1980 from cancer.
Many thanks to Jack’s daughter, Kim Foden for the use of the photographs.
This article first appeared in Issue 60 of iScot Magazine.