Hidden Treasures

From Ian Cooper’s excellent series ‘Records of a Bygone Age’, and republished here with kind permission of The Stronsay Limpet.

To better follow this story I think it would be helpful to first give some background information: When my wife Arna’s grandparents, James and Arnadyne Chalmers, retired from farming at the Lodge they moved to the Old Schoolhouse where they happily lived out their retirement and it was always a joy to visit them there as they sat beside the fire and regaled us with old stories and plied us with cups of tea. Hanging above that fireplace was an old framed picture of ‘The Stages of Life’, quite a well-known print depicting a man climbing a series of steps as he grew older until, after reaching the top of the steps in midlife, he descends the other side into old age. It was quite a memorable picture and, when James and Arnadyne passed away in the mid-80s another granddaughter, Arna’s cousin Jean Stout, who had always admired the picture, gave it a new home in her own kitchen, where it still hangs on the wall.

Taking a leap now to 2023, Margaret Cooper (nee Shearer) of Cott, who was originally a Shearer from Kirkhall, passed away in July. When the family cleared out the house they had a sale of some of the household items among which was a large framed picture quite similar in size and style to ‘The Stages of Life’ but this time depicting and titled ‘The Stages of a Woman’s Life’. On seeing the similarity between it and ‘The Stages of Life’ print Arna thought this might be of interest to her cousin Jean and bought it.

She took this into Kirkwall with her and handed it over to Jean, who was delighted with it and hoped to hang the two ‘Stages of Life’ pictures together in her kitchen. Before hanging the print in the kitchen Jean thought she would give the frame a bit of a revamp and, in doing so, took the back off the frame where to her surprise she found a document of some sort tucked away between the print and the back board. Her surprise quickly turned to amazement when she discovered that this document was a Long Service Certificate more than 100 years old and, following this discovery, Jean returned the certificate to Stronsay to see if anyone knew anything about it or was aware of its history.

On the left is Jean’s picture of ‘The Different Stages of Life’ and on the right ‘The Stages of a Woman’s Life’, such an appropriate place to find Jane Shearer’s certificate.

The certificate was in excellent condition and, although the ink of the hand written details was a little faded, the document itself looked as if it could have been printed last week! This ‘Certificate for Long Service’, dated March 1914, had been presented by the ‘Highland & Agricultural Society of Scotland’ (the Society was yet to gain its ‘Royal’ prefix) to Jane Shearer for 53 years of service and reads as follows:

Highland & Agricultural Society
Of Scotland
Certificate for Long Service
Awarded To
Jane Shearer, Whitehall
For Long and Approved Service of
53 years with Thomas Sinclair,
Mrs M L Sinclair and Robert B Bell
on Whitehall Farm, Stronsay, Orkney

3 George IV Bridge
Edinburgh March 1914

Jane Shearer’s certificate, still in pristine condition after over 100 years.

53 years of service on one farm was a remarkable achievement and, of the few who would have reached this milestone, it is unlikely that many would have been presented with a certificate to mark the event. Add to this the fact that, as a female in that era, it would have been unusual to see outstanding service of any kind receive the same recognition as that of a male counterpart and it becomes obvious that this was a most remarkable and noteworthy event for a woman of her time.

I found this a fascinating story and decided to try to find out a little more of the history of Jane Shearer and of how her certificate came to be hidden away in the back of a picture. I turned first to the Orkney Family History Society website, a great resource for any family history research, and checked the census records for the period Jane would have been in service. I soon found the 14 year old Jane in the 1861 census, staying with her parents at Whitehall and recorded there as an ‘agricultural labourer’. Although not always in the same house, Jane was to be found at or near Whitehall in every census thereafter, the last being in 1921 where, at the age of 74, her occupation was recorded as a ‘retired domestic’. Jane died the following year.

Although Jane herself had never married she had seven siblings and I quickly came to realise that it was going to be difficult to try to find the line from them to the Shearers who came to be in Kirkhall. One of the siblings, Peter, seemed a strong possibility but I discovered that Peter had married in 1876 and had eleven children, the eldest being Peter born in 1878 and the youngest Georgina born in 1900. These siblings went on to produce an awfy lot of Shearers and, unsure if I was even on the right line from the previous generation, I asked David (whose mother was a Shearer) and Carwin Miller from Wardhill for help. They were both as intrigued with the story as I was and, although David knew nothing of Jane or her siblings, he had a wealth of information about the more recent Shearers. He was able to tell me that his granny’s name was Georgina Shearer, born in 1900, and so with my having moved forward through the generations and David having moved backward we more or less met in the middle to establish the direct link to Jane that we had been looking for! David was also able to tell me that the Shearers had moved from Whitehall to Huip in the 1920s and had later bought Kirkhall, moving there in 1935. He also had memories of ‘The Stages of a Woman’s Life’ hanging on the wall in Kirkhall and, when his aunt Margaret Shearer married John Cooper and moved to the farm of Blinkbonny the picture went too, later moving with John and Margaret to Cott when they retired. None of the family had any knowledge of the treasure hidden behind the print nor yet how it came to be there but we can only surmise that it may have been put there for safekeeping after Jane died in 1922 – possibly even when the family was flitting from Whitehall to Huip – and then forgotten about. Although there was probably little thought of this at the time, to safely conceal this certificate in the back of the picture of ‘The Stages of a Woman’s Life’ for so long seems particularly appropriate.

Jane’s certificate, now framed and hanging in the Stronsay Heritage Centre

None of the family had any wish to keep the picture of ‘The Stages of a Woman’s Life’ and, if it hadn’t been bought on the off chance it might find a home, it could well have finished up in a skip, with Jane’s story vanishing along with the picture.

With the permission of the family, the Certificate has been gifted to the Stronsay Heritage Society and is again mounted in a frame, though this time in full view and proudly hanging on the Heritage Centre wall.

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  1. This is such a heartwarming and intriguing story! It’s amazing to think that Jane Shearer’s long service certificate was hidden away for over 100 years and has now found a deserving home at the Stronsay Heritage Centre. It’s a testament to her remarkable achievement and the importance of recognizing outstanding service, especially in a time when women’s accomplishments were often overlooked. Kudos to the family for preserving this piece of history!

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