When going to the cinema in Orkney was run by the Education Department

Going to the Pictures has been a popular pastime in Orkney since the very earliest days of cinema.

Orkney Herald and Advertiser 1st July 1936

Kirkwall had the Albert Kinema and when that was destroyed by fire in 1947, the Temperance Hall was brought into use. Throughout World War 2, cinemas were also established where there were large numbers of service personnel based. You can see the remains of one in Flotta and at the aerodrome, HMS Tern in West Mainland. That one is now being lovingly restored by volunteers from the Birsay Heritage Trust.

The front of the World war 2 cinema at HMS Tern, Twatt, Orkney, now with glass windows in and repairs to the brick work
the front of the cinema at HMS Tern

The cinemas were also used to bring variety concerts and sporting events to the men and women stationed in Orkney.

After the war the Phoenix Cinema opened in Kirkwall in 1955, which many readers will have happy memories of. Orkney’s main film theatre is now within the Pickaquoy Leisure Centre, still named the Phoenix, and still showing a huge variety of films to audiences.

looking up from the front to the rows and rows of seats in the Phoenix cinema today

But before television came to the islands and wireless kept you connected to the world of popular entertainment how did people outwith Mainland go to the movies without a trip into Kirkwall?

It may seem strange but the delivery of cinema to Orkney’s islands was in the hands of the council’s Education Department. Film was seen as a very important way to not just entertain but to educate – and as a means to stemming depopulation.

Post war government at all levels was extremely concerned about depopulation in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland (Power For The People) . Depopulation and a lack of affordable housing are still key issues today for Orkney.

In 1946 capital expenditure of £800 was approved to buy the equipment necessary for the Rural Cinema Service in Orkney.

The initial exhibition route for the scheme would take in the isles of Rousay, Shapinsay, Eday, Stronsay, Sanday, and Westray with the subsequent addition of the most distant northern islands of North Ronaldsay and Papa Westray. Within two years of operation the scheme covered all of the occupied islands.

Goode, I. (2011) Cinema in the country: the rural cinema scheme – Orkney (1946-67). Post Script: Essays in Film and the Humanities, 30 (2). ISSN 0277-9897

In October 1949 the Education Department decided to extend the scheme to Egilsay. At the time the island had a population of 55 and this was thought to be a way to retain that number. Alex Doloughan, who was in overall charge of the scheme visited the school where the equiment was to be located.

Orkney’s Rural Cinema Service was non profit making:

  • Capital outlay £1,217
  • Annual running cost £1,207
  • Admission prices 1/6 Adult, 9d Child

the service was delivered personally by a single operator Sandy Wylie, who travelled to the islands with projector, screen, speaker, transformer, gramophone, records, sundry cables and spares—as well as films

Goode, I. (2011) Cinema in the country: the rural cinema scheme – Orkney (1946-67). Post Script: Essays in Film and the Humanities, 30 (2). ISSN 0277-9897

In ‘Stromness News’, Orkney Herald of 8th of March 1949 we are told of the popularity of film shows.

“A new branch of Youth Club activity, and a very popular one, is the fortnightly cinema service, conducted by Mr Doloughan. The first film, a fortnight ago, was “Gallant Bess”, and the next one booked for the Sunday coming will probably be “Pennsylvania”. These cinema shows are part of a religious service, which includes devotions and hymn singing. Mr Doloughan himself is the cinema operator. All interested young and old and invited to the cinema shows.”

Clearly a different film going experience from going to the Albert Kinema in Kirkwall.

With the burning down of the Albert Kinema, plans were soon established to develop a purpose built cinema by Dougie Shearer. In 1947 it was proposed to build a ‘stadium type’ cinema constructed of concrete blocks and steel 140ft long and 50 ft wide. The facade would be an imposing one with two wide glass entrance doors and large windows. A spacious canopy will stretch the full width of the theatre, above which will be a distinctive window. The front will be finished in cream.

But for the folk of Shapinsay the Rural Cinema Scheme opened its doors on January 5th 1948, creating history in that island when for the first time the films were being shown by Orkney’s Education Department.

The films shown in 1948 by Orkney’s Rural Cinema Scheme included: ‘Mad About Music’ starring Deanna Durban; ‘The Talk of The Town’, starring Cary Grant; and ‘Mr Deeds Goes To Town’ starring Gary Cooper.

Ian Goode has an excellent account of the service here: Goode, I. (2011) Cinema in the country: the rural cinema scheme – Orkney (1946-67). Post Script: Essays in Film and the Humanities, 30 (2). ISSN 0277-9897

Fiona Grahame

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