The Strawplaiters of Hoy, Graemsay, Walls, Flotta and Faray

samples of straw plait in Orkney Museum, Kirkwall

The number of women who participated in the Orkney strawplaiting industry in the first half of the 19th century, earning a few pennies for their skilled craft work, varied across Orkney. This article will relate how the manufacture fared in the island parishes of Hoy, Graemsay, Walls, Flotta and Faray.

Ward Hill from Rackwick Hoy, Photo Martin Laird

Hoy and Graemsay

The Statistical Account of 1841/42 records that there were 4 landowners dominating land ownership in Hoy at this time: Robert Heddle, John Balfour, Rev G Hamilton and Harry Cruickshank. The Rev Hamilton who also conducted the survey for the Statistical Accounts of the period states:

“The herring fishing is carried on in this parish to some extent, – seven boats being employed in it”. He also reports that there had been no recent improvements to farming and that there was an absence of wood.

There were 3 schools serving the area ‘the salary of the parochial teacher is the minimum, and his fees do not exceed £5 per annum.’

For the relief of the most poor there was parochial aid gathered through church collections which averaged £4 10/- a year. At the time of compiling the Statistical Account, Rev Hamilton records that 10 islanders were in receipt of this aid.

In 1841 the population of the islands of  Hoy  and Graemsay was 547. 16 women (3% of the islanders) were employed plaiting straw.  Compared with most of the parishes in Orkney this was a low percentage. For example in Stromness over 11% of the town’s population was engaged in strawplaiting.

One of the youngest workers in Hoy was Jean Lyon, 14, of Clett with the oldest being Ann Lyon, 55 recorded in the census as living in ‘A Chamber’.

The 16 women were:

  1. Jennet Thomson, age 33, Cot
  2. Kaithren Mowat, age 30, A Chamber
  3. Mary Mowat, age 20 Benalhall
  4. Jean Mowat, age 15, Benalhall
  5. Ann Lyon, age 55, A Chamber
  6. Isabella Linklater, age 14, A Chamber
  7. Ann Mowat, age 35, A Chamber
  8. Marget Oman, age 15, Upper Quoys
  9. Ann Oman, age 14 Upper Quoys
  10. Isabella Green, age 14, Manabreak
  11. Margaret ?, age 40, A Chamber
  12. Margaret Young, age 25, Winbreak
  13. Jannet Young, age 15, Winbreak
  14. Hellen Young, age 20, Winbreak
  15. Kaithreen Lyon, age 15, Lyon
  16. Jean Lyon, age 14, Lyon

By 1851 the population had increased slightly to 615 but only 5 women ( 0.8% of islanders) were employed plaiting straw. All the women lived in Graemsay. Of the 5 women 3 are single and 2 are widows. Widow Margaret Yorston is also the oldest at 50 years of age.

The 5 women were:

  1. Barbara Ritch, age 33, Nether Corrigall
  2. Elizabeth Omand, age 27, Broad Hill
  3. Margaret Yorston, age 50, Loan Lay ?
  4. Margaret Spence, age 23, Windbreak
  5. Elizabeth Spence, age 32, Braehead
Faray, Image credit George Brown

Walls, Flotta and Faray

The 1841 population for the islands of Walls and Flotta was 1,614. This was made up of Walls: 1,209; Flotta and Faray: 405. There were no women recorded as engaged in plaiting straw. One woman, Susan Wilson, 25, of Wyng, Walls, was making straw bonnets. Her father was a shoemaker and it was common for those two trades to be linked. After her father died Susan moved in with her sister Mary, brother in law, George Robson and their  family at Muirs. She was now working as a seamstress.

In the 1842 Statistical Account Rev Walter Weir reports:

‘Straw plaiting is also carried on to a considerable extent by the women. ‘ A comment which is at odds with the 1841 census. It could be that Rev Weir is recalling an earlier time. The straw bonnet industry had been introduced into Orkney in 1804 according to William P.L. Thomson in The New History of Orkney. By the time of the 1841 census, although it was still very strong, it was already in the early stages of decline.

By 1851 The population of Walls and Flotta had increased slightly to 1667. That of Flotta and Faray had increased to 441. There were no women engaged in either straw plaiting or the making of straw bonnets.

The industry was in decline all across Orkney as cheap imported long hanks of plaited straw was imported from China. This could be used on machines. It was the industrial revolution and an end to cottage based manufacture throughout many rural areas. It brought with it a boom in the growth of cities and large towns with the resulting public health issues arising from overcrowded housing conditions. 

It is possible to roughly chart what happened to many of the women and how they made their living. Most like Jennet Thomson earned money from knitting stockings. This was also a low paid form of employment and many were living in very poor conditions.  Ann Lyon and Mary Mowat both appear in the later census as paupers. For a few, employment was found in fine needlework which was slightly better paid. Elizabeth Spence became a dressmaker. It appears that most of the women did not move from the islands with the exception of Hellen Young who found employment as a domestic servant in Stromness.

The women were mostly single either unmarried or widows. Strawplaiting and bonnet making had provided them with an independent income source. When the industry collapsed almost overnight they had to find other employment mostly in knitting, domestic service and farm labouring. For those who had been making bonnets, shirt making and dressmaking ensured they had income coming in.

This is part of ongoing research I am conducting into the Straw Bonnet Industry in 19th C Orkney.

Fiona Grahame

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