ISLANDS AS INSPIRATION

Scotland’s islands have long been perceived as remote from centres of population and, for many years, were not included or were inaccurately represented on maps. Early accounts of Orkney include James Wallace’s A description of the Isles of Orkney (1693), Daniel Defoe’s A tour through the island of Great Britain (1724-1727), George Low’s A tour through the islands of Orkney and Shetland (1774), and George Barry’s The history of the Orkney Islands (1805).

^ Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) et al, A tour through the island of Great Britain, vol. 4 Scotland and isles,
eighth edition, 1778
© Orkney Islands Council

From the late eighteenth century and through the nineteenth century, as travel became easier and mass printing enabled people to read about or see the inhabitants and landscapes of Scotland, curiosity about life in the islands increased. For some visiting artists, photographers and writers, this fascination led to highly romanticised or anthropological representations, viewing islanders as different from people elsewhere in the British Isles.

< Detail from James Wallace’s A description of the Isles of Orkney (1693)
© Stromness Museum

Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) et al, A tour through the island of Great Britain,
vol. 4 Scotland and isles, eighth edition, 1778

Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) et al, A tour through the island of Great Britain, vol. 4 Scotland and isles, eighth edition, 1778
© Orkney Islands Council

The English author Daniel Defoe published A tour through the island of Great Britain in three volumes between 1724 and 1727 as a series of letters. His journey began in the east of England, before heading west, and then north. It is unlikely that Defoe travelled personally to all of the places included, and the northern and western isles of Scotland are mentioned in terms of geographical facts, rather than detailed descriptions. This edition is described as “Originally begun by the celebrated Daniel De Foe, continued by the late Mr. Richardson, author of Clarissa, &c. and brought down to the present time by gentlemen of eminence in the literary world…with great additions and improvements.”

This copy is from the library accumulated by Robert Baikie (d. 1817), seventh Laird of Tankerness, whose Kirkwall residence now houses Orkney Museum.

< Unknown artist, Robert Baikie (d.1817), seventh Laird of Tankerness,
early nineteenth century, oil on canvas;
acc. no. 1605
© Orkney Islands Council

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), The Pirate, vol. 1, 1822;
Orkney Library & Archive

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), title page of The Pirate, vol. 1, 1822
© Orkney Library & Archive

In 1814 Walter Scott was invited to join the commissioners of the Northern Lighthouse Board on a tour of lighthouses around the coast of Scotland, including Orkney, Shetland and the Outer Hebrides. While he was in Orkney, Scott heard stories of pirate John Gow (d. 1725), an account of whose life had been published by Daniel Defoe. Scott also dined with Robert Baikie, seventh Laird of Tankerness, whose library includes volumes of Scott’s poetry. Scott used elements of Gow’s history and the scenery he saw in Orkney and Shetland in The Pirate, first published in 1822, and an immediate popular success.

> Engraving from The Pirate
© Shetland Museum & Archives

^ John Horsburgh (1835–1924) (attributed to), Hunter Thoms as Magnus Troil, 1881,
oil on canvas; acc. no. ART 8684G
© Shetland Museum & Archives

George Hunter Thoms (1831-1903) was Sheriff of Caithness, Orkney and Zetland from 1870 to 1899. He is portrayed as Magnus Troil, a character from Sir Walter Scott’s novel, The Pirate. The occasion was a fancy dress ball in Edinburgh hosted by the St Andrews Boat Club on 26th February 1878. The artist and photographer, John Horsburgh, was born in Peeblesshire. By 1863 he had a studio in Edinburgh. His son, John A. Horsburgh (b. 1862), was also an artist and became partner in the business in the late 1880s. It is possible that the picture of Sheriff Thoms was painted from a photographic portrait taken at the event in 1878, rather than from sittings.

William Daniell (1769-1837), The Old Man of Hoy, 1820
& Tower of the Bishop’s Palace, Kirkwall, 1821; aquatint;
from A voyage round Great Britain

William Daniell (1769-1837), The Old Man of Hoy, 1820; acc. no. 1990.61
© Orkney Islands Council

William Daniell (1769-1837), Tower of the Bishop’s Palace, Kirkwall, 1821; acc. no. 1990.59
© Orkney Islands Council

The dramatic action, landscape and language of The Pirate, and descriptions of Scotland as a distant and forbidding wilderness in travel literature, found their way into early nineteenth-century visual depictions of the islands too. William Daniell began his project to record places of interest around the coast of Britain in 1813. When Daniell visited Edinburgh on his journey north in 1815, Walter Scott advised him on Scottish locations. The trip included Harris, Lewis and Orkney, and the sketches he produced were engraved and published between 1815 and 1821. Daniell made several prints of coastal features and historic sites in Mainland Orkney, Hoy and Sanday. Here, the Old Man of Hoy’s height has been exaggerated by the scale of the people on the cliff and in the boats below, while the ruin of the Bishop’s Palace in Kirkwall is the backdrop for rustic working girls clad in tartan, not a fabric that was historically produced or worn in Orkney.

^Jack Peterson, Old Man of Hoy
© Orkney Library & Archive

> Jack Peterson, Earl’s Palace, Kirkwall
© Orkney Library & Archive

Tom Kent (1863-1936), born on the island of Eday in Orkney, was one of the islands’ most famous photographers. He moved to America and became a student of Chicago photographer, M.J. Steffens, enabling Kent to establish himself as a professional photographer on his return to Orkney.

^ Tom Kent, The Bishop’s Palace, Kirkwall
© Orkney Library & Archive

His pictures record significant moments in Orkney’s history, such as the internment and scuttling of the German High Seas Fleet in 1918 and 1919, but he also experimented with photography as an art-form, taking pictures of sunsets, archaeological sites and portraits of ordinary people, as well as images of Orkney’s famous buildings for postcard series.

^ Tom Kent, Workmen employed in the restoration of the Earl’s Palace, Kirkwall
© Orkney Library & Archive

R.W. Billings, Noltland Castle, Westray,
engraved by J. Godfrey,
published by William Blackwood & Sons, 1848

R.W. Billings, Noltland Castle, Westray, 1848, engraving; acc. no. 1980.30
© Orkney Islands Council

Like the Daniell views of Orkney, the artist R.W. Billings has created a romanticised view of Noltland Castle on Westray for this print. More of the courtyard wall and building footings remain than shown here, and the artist has added large pieces of fallen masonry and an onlooker contemplating an inscription to emphasise the sense of ruin.

< Tom Kent, Kitchen at Noltland Castle, Westray
© Orkney Library & Archive

Sir Henry Dryden (1818-1899), View in the Insulated Rock, Waes (sic) Parish, In the Island of Hoy, Aug. 11th 1857, watercolour on paper

Sir Henry Dryden (1818-1899), View in the Insulated Rock, Waes (sic) Parish,
In the Island of Hoy, 1857, watercolour on paper; acc. no. 2020.3
© Orkney Islands Council

Sir Henry Edward Leigh Dryden, fourth Baronet Dryden of Canons Ashby and seventh Baronet Turner of Ambrosden, inherited the family estate of Canons Ashby in Northamptonshire in 1837. Known as ‘The Antiquary’, Dryden travelled all over Britain and Europe making drawings and notes on sites of historic and picturesque interest. His collection of prints and drawings was presented to the town of Northampton by his daughter, Alice, after his death.

In addition to this painting of the natural arch at Snelsetter, South Walls, which was recently acquired by Orkney Museum, there are watercolours of the living room of a farmhouse in Orphir and St Magnus Kirk, Egilsay, in the Sir Henry Dryden Collection at Northamptonshire Central Library. Two views of Shetland have also been added to the collection of Shetland Museum.

^ Sir Henry Dryden, Foula, Shetland
© Shetland Museum & Archives

^ Sir Henry Dryden, Mavis Grind, Shetland
© Shetland Museum & Archives

James Valentine (1815-1879) and George Washington Wilson (1823-1893), photographs of Orkney, Shetland and the Outer Hebrides, 1860s-1890s

James Valentine, Earl’s Palace, Great (Banqueting) Hall, Kirkwall, Orkney, 1888; ref. no. JV-10064
Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Library

James Valentine, Yesnabie (sic) Castle, Stromness, Orkney, 1888; ref. no. JV-10408
Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Library


James Valentine founded his photographic company in Dundee in 1851. Having started out with a printing business, he added portrait and topographical photography and, later, picture postcards. Valentine’s younger contemporary, George Washington Wilson, was born in north-east Scotland and trained in Edinburgh and London. In the 1850s he established himself in Aberdeen as an artist and photographer. By 1860, he had been appointed Photographer Royal for Scotland because of the relationship he had built with Queen Victoria and her family when they visited Balmoral each summer. Valentine also received the Royal Warrant in 1867.

^ George Washington Wilson & Co., Hole O’ Row, Sandwick, Orkney, 1853-1908; MS 3792/A0590
By kind permission of the University of Aberdeen

^ George Washington Wilson & Co., Queen Street, Stromness, Orkney, 1853-1908; MS 3792/A0254
By kind permission of the University of Aberdeen

Wilson travelled all over Britain capturing views of landscape and life, including the Outer Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland. He also sent photographers abroad to locations such as Australia, South Africa and the Mediterranean. Valentine & Co. followed suit, beginning with Scotland in the 1860s, then, later in the century, once the company had been inherited by James’ sons, England and resorts abroad.

Some of Wilson’s images were used for magic lantern lectures, while Valentine & Co. produced albums of tourist sights. They were designed to appeal to audiences with rising incomes and increased ability to travel to previously remote places. The photographs of the islands shown here contrast natural wonders with significant historic buildings and with views meant to show typical island life.

^ George Washington Wilson & Co., Muness Castle, Unst, Shetland, 1853-1908; MS 3792/D2036
By kind permission of the University of Aberdeen

> George Washington Wilson & Co., Shetland Knitter, 1853-1908; MS 3792/F0752
By kind permission of the University of Aberdeen


^ George Washington Wilson & Co., The Dune (sic) of Carloway, Lewis, 1853-1908; MS 3792/C7032
By kind permission of the University of Aberdeen

^ George Washington Wilson & Co., Wool Washing, South Harris, 1853-1908; MS 3792/C4241
By kind permission of the University of Aberdeen

For islanders themselves, the interest must have seemed very odd since their way of life had been much the same for centuries. Their creativity is reflected in the necessities of everyday living, from spinning and weaving, to basket and creel-making, oral traditions and tunes. As emigration, forced or voluntary, and mechanisation of farming and fishing changed life in the islands, artists and writers took on an important role as recorders of disappearing cultures.

In Orkney, writers, such as Walter Traill Dennison (1825-1894) and Ernest Marwick (1915-1977), collected and published local stories, legends and traditions.

< Ernest Marwick
© Orkney Library & Archive

^ Paul Strand, Croft, Lochcarnon, South Uist, Hebrides, 1954,
gelatin silver print
Philadelphia Museum of Art: The Paul Strand Retrospective Collection,1915-1975,
gift of the estate of Paul Strand, 1980, 1980-21-346
© Paul Strand Archive/Aperture Foundation

In the Inner and Outer Hebrides, American photographer, Paul Strand (1890-1976), visited South Uist for three months in 1954, documenting the land and people, while US-born Margaret Fay Shaw (1903-2004) lived and worked alongside islanders in South Uist, Barra, Mingulay, Eriskay, Syke, Canna and St Kilda from 1928 until her death, creating a record of their activities, homes and personalities.

^ Mrs Kennag MacRury of Stilligarry, South Uist, spinning and carding, captured by Margaret Fay Shaw, 1929; ref. no. 05954
Courtesy of the Canna Photographic Collections, National Trust for Scotland

< Mhàiri Òg: an ‘Eriskay Wife’ knitting, captured by Margaret Fay Shaw, 1937; ref. no. 03515
Courtesy of the Canna Photographic Collections, National Trust for Scotland 

In an essay on the exhibition Pier & Ocean by the artist Erlend Brown, at the Pier Arts Centre in 1993, George Mackay Brown (1921-1996) wrote, “There ought to be no distinction between the craft of a good dry-stane dyker, or boatbuilder, and the arts of painter, musician, poet, potter, weaver, dancer; they are all together in the good brotherhood of ‘the makars’”, (by permission of the Estate of George Mackay Brown). This exhibition examines the fruits of “the makars” from, or inspired by, Orkney, Shetland and the Outer Hebrides as a celebration of island life.