Orcadian Stories

This article was first published in Issue 83 of iScot Magazine

We have lost the tradition of passing down stories orally and how many of us write any down? Last year Martin Laird and Fiona Grahame took on a project to record in filmed interviews a few of the untold stories of Orkney from those who were there at the time. Filmed over many months the interviews recount events from the 1970s to the present day.

All the people were folk that just work away quietly, behind the scenes locally and who have (and are still) contributing positively to our community.

Along with the series of films, which can all be viewed on The Orkney News YouTube channel, we held an exhibition of portrait photographs taken by Martin during the filming. The exhibition at The Northlight Gallery, Stromness was part of the St Andrews Fair events with any funds raised going to Orkney Rape and Sexual Assault Service (ORSAS).

Speaking about the project Martin said:

“I thought it would be interesting to record the personal stories of people who have given much of themselves without seeking attention. I’m very grateful to those who agreed to be interviewed and photographed for this project. There are no doubt many other people in Orkney with interesting stories to tell, and I only wish we could have spoken to them all.”

There are thirteen films altogether.

  1. Kim Foden: The Televisor
  2. George Rendall: The Rive Gauche
  3. Norman Rushbrook: The Men in Black
  4. Eleanor Turner: A Small Cog
  5. Bruce Fletcher: The Stronsay Limpet
  6. Andy Swain: Shoulder to Shoulder
  7. Denize Lace: Head Above Water
  8. Simon Brodie: The Veterans’ Breakfast
  9. Joe Horrocks: A Little Monkey Puzzle
  10. Trish Spence and Elke Pearson: For The Makers
  11. Theophilus Ogbhemhe: Clapping Hands
  12. Mhairi MacInnes: Keep Orkney Green & Attractive
  13. Kim Foden: Homecoming

We were supported in the project with funding from The Year of Stories 2022 Community Stories Fund. The fund was delivered in partnership between VisitScotland and Museums Galleries Scotland with support from National Lottery Heritage Fund thanks to National Lottery players.

portraits of all the interviewees with the Orcadian Stories title in the centre

The films have an original music soundtrack composed by local musician Eamonn Keyes. The inspiration for the music came from the sound of the ‘Televisor’, a working replica of a television receiver made by Kim Foden.

In the  filmed interview with Kim we hear about her father Jack and uncle Jimmy Twatt who in the early days of wireless built their own sets in Orkney using the designs of John Logie Baird. Their Televisor was able to pick up , in Orkney, the broadcasts being transmitted in London. We find out how those early boyhood experiments in wireless played a part in later inventions, including World War Two Submarine Warfare.

 A further filmed interview with Kim takes us on a very personal journey for her when a chance encounter with a visitor from Canada to Orkney leads to a discovery of cousins in the Cree people of the Sturgeon Lake First Nation. Magnus Twatt, like thousands of men left Orkney in the 18th century to take up employment with the Hudson’s Bay Company. Kim had known nothing of Magnus and the legacy he left both in the islands and in his life in Canada. This is a film of discovery, of family, and of two very different cultures coming together through the life of one man.

The highlight of the cultural year in Orkney is the internationally renowned St Magnus Festival held every June. Orcadian Stories features three short films of people who remember what it was like when the festival was first launched. Norman Rushbrook led the team of ‘Men in Black’ who provided the volunteer stage crew, setting up lights and sound, in a vast variety of locations for everything from full scale orchestras to soloists. George Rendall and Eleanor Turner, were involved in the organisation of the festival but were also performers, singing in the Festival Choir. The films include many untold stories about how the community came together to support the artists visiting the islands.

In 1980 The Yellow Cake Review was performed at The St Magnus Festival. Farewell to Stromness by Peter Maxwell Davis has become a popular tune with many but its creation emerged from  the Uranium Protest campaign in Orkney. In her film, Mhairi MacInnes speaks about the successful campaign to prevent the mining of Uranium and the leading role of her father, the artist and rector of Stromness Academy, Iain MacInnes.  Taking place as it did when Mhairi was a teenager, the campaign shaped the way she thought of the natural environment.

Orkney is an archipelago of islands and keeping people informed about what is happening within their community in Stronsay is the work of Bruce Fletcher who runs an online publication, ‘The Stronsay Limpet’. Bruce prints off a few copies for those without the internet but being online means that the publication can reach not just people on Stronsay but around the world. The website is funded by the Stronsay Development Trust but it falls to Bruce as the volunteer editor to put it all together. It connects up islanders with important events, advertises local businesses but also includes superb articles for ornithologists and local historians.

The island of Hoy is Orkney’s largest island after Mainland. During the 2020 Covid lockdowns islanders, except for frontline workers, were unable to leave. Denize Lace speaks frankly in her interview about the challenges islanders faced and how by working together, solutions were found in providing emergency food and supplies. Denize runs the living aids centre, a superb facility located at the island surgery which means people can access products which will enable them to live more independently.

Solutions to challenges faced across Orkney are often found within the community itself and through the actions of volunteers. Both the Orkney Men’s Shed and the Orkney Military Veterans’ Breakfast Club are in their own way contributing to the wellbeing of their members. The Vets Breakfast club is an informal gathering once a month and its loose structure is held together by Simon Brodie who arranges the places where the Vets can gather for breakfast and a meet up.

The Orkney Men’s Shed meets up twice a week at its own premises in Stromness. The building has workshops, a computer room and importantly a kitchen. Andy Swain is the secretary of the Shed. In his film he explains the service the Shedders provide to the community and its importance as a place where men can just meet up for a cuppa and a chat.

Outdoor spaces are vital for wellbeing and when he returned from service in World War 2 Edwin Harrold started to plant trees around his cottage. Since Edwin’s death the woods, known as Happy Valley, are being looked after by the Friends of Happy Valley. Filmed on location, Trust member Joe Horrocks, gives us an insight into the work of the Friends, the future for the woodland and the legacy of Edwin Harrold for generations of Orcadians to come.

Situated in the linked South Isles in the village of St Margaret’s Hope is the Loft Workshop and Gallery. This is a co-operative for crafters founded in the 1980s. Orcadian Stories features two of the women, Trish Spence and Elke Pearson,  who started the venture off from an inkling of an idea to the very successful shop and gallery it is today.

Tackling the prejudices and racism in Orkney starts in the schools. Theophilus Ogbhemhe, who first came to the islands as a probationer teacher inspires the students at Kirkwall Grammar School through his class work and after school clubs. He was the first recipient of the Saroj Lal from the GTC which recognises exceptional teachers who promote a culture of equality and diversity by actively challenging discrimination. Theophilus was a founder of ‘Orkney Oot Wae Racism’ and he has addressed the Scottish Parliament in a Moment of Reflection.

There were many more stories we would have loved to cover but within the time constraints of our funding award we simply couldn’t do it. Stories for another day. Commenting about the films Marie Christie, Head of Development at VisitScotland said: 

” Events play an important role in our communities as they sustain livelihoods and help to celebrate and promote our unique places, spaces and stories.

“By supporting events taking place within our communities, including ‘Orcadian Stories’, new opportunities will be provided for locals and visitors to come together and find out more about the diverse stories, past and present, that our communities have to share.” 

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