Meeting Mr Cursiter: A 19thC Visit to Orkney

The weather is always the talk of both visitors and islanders in Orkney. And so it was even for Victorian tourists.

In a previous article we published part of an account from The Orkney Herald by an American Professor who visited Orkney in 1890. Seeking the Stones: A 19thC Visit to Orkney

Stenness Loch Image credit: Bell

Running out of time to visit what he referred to as the ‘Weem of Skara Brae’, our American Professor who was on foot, had to make his way between the Stenness and Harray Lochs after visiting the Stones of Via to catch the return coach to Kirkwall.

‘As I crossed the elevation between the two lochs upon which stand the rings of Bukan and Brogar, I enjoyed a very fine spectacle. In the west, brilliant sunlight, with fleecy clouds and afternoon lights and shadow, was playing over the landscape.

In the north a storm was gradually moving eastward, following the line of the central ridge, broadening also southward as it rose above the horizon. I have seldom noted a more sullen aspect in an advancing storm, seldom a more sombre deeper purple. Upon the one loch fell the shadows of the storm while the other still rippled with sunbeams or reflected fair-weather clouds. I had to repay later my loitering to admire nature’s contrasting phases; for the coach lingered and the storm came, deluging me with a torrent of drops that were more like buck shot than innocuous spheres of watery vapour. However, the coach came at last, and I ended the day with a well cooked dinner at the Castle Hotel and a pleasant chat with the local archaeologists.

Mr Cursiter showed me, in his collections, two large burial urns of steatite, one quite perfect, the other complete in form but reduced almost to a shell. These had been taken from Mounds in the islands. The incinerated bones were still in their receptacles. He mentioned an interesting fact, drawn from his own experience – often where inhumation has been practised in the lower part of a Mound, incineration occurs above. His explanation was, that the Norsemen had utilised at times these burial mounds of an earlier race for the conservation of the ashes of their own dead. ‘

The next day our American professor walked to Scapa with Mr Cursiter to look at two brochs but he doesn’t’ say much about them as he thinks the best examples of what he calls ‘Pictish Castles’ are in Shetland.

‘But amid the stones and other debris , my friend showed me fragments of incinerated or crushed bones, the teeth of some domestic animals, and two querns. The one an earlier type was oblong and had been employed as a support upon which to fret the grain, while another stone was quickly drawn over it, crushing the kernels. The second quern was rounded and perforated in the centre. I longed for my modern Viking craft again, or steel bound capacious trunk, but the querns remained in situ.

large quern stone
The Early Neolithic quernstone found at Saverock in 2021 after recovery. Credit Ragnhild Ljosland University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute

Before leaving Orkney the American Professor revisited sites in Kirkwall he had gone to when he first arrived: the Cathedral, The Earl’s Palace and the Bishops Palace. He describes the two palaces as being in ruins.

The Mr Cursiter our American Professor speaks of is James Cursiter.

“James Cursiter’s father was a wealthy grocer and baker based in Kirkwall. The money from the family business allowed Cursiter to indulge his passion of collecting curiosities for his own private museum and specialist books for his library.

Cursiter seems have developed his interest in antiquarian pursuits through his collection of fossil fishes, rocks and minerals. He had been recognised as a collector in this field for many years and sold many important specimens to the Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow over a long period. He had one of the most significant collections of fossil fish of his time in Scotland. According to the memoirs of Sir John Flett, an eminent geologist and friend of Cursiter, “Orcadian archaeology he knew as well as anyone then living in the county and he had a remarkable memory and a great store of knowledge…”.

When Cursiter retired in 1912, aged 61, his library was sold and the remainder of the fossil fishes in his collection went to the Hunterian museum. Flett records that no-one knew what became of Cursiter’s antiquarian collections. It now transpires that Cursiter’s collection was donated to the Hunterian Museum in about 1920 as, at that time, there was no public museum in Orkney.

It appears that the collections of Cursiter and Bishop [Andrew Henderson Bishop (1874 – 1957)] arrived in the Hunterian at some point between 1914 and 1920 but were catalogued together. This has resulted in Cursiter’s collection, which contains many important and rare artefacts, being effectively hidden from public view and inaccessible as a resource for Orcadian archaeology. Due to the unique labels on the objects, many in Cursiter’s own hand, it is possible to attempt to recreate his collection and engender a new appreciation for Cursiter’s contribution to Scottish archaeology. The potential of this material for research collaboration, reinterpretation and display with Orkney Museum is currently being investigated.” – The Hunterian

Fiona Grahame

The stone of stenness by Martin Laid . Three upright stones and two smaller ones
Image credit Martin Laird

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