STRAW

The earliest Orkney chairs were made entirely of straw. With wood being hard to come by in the islands, its use was often limited to the feet of the chair. Driftwood was used and the creation of a box-type seat reduced the time and skill required to make the chairs so was generally adopted.

The typical shapes are the low-backed and hooded chairs. Traditionally, the low-backed chair belonged to the wife so that she had a view of the room, while the hooded chair belonged to her husband who was given added protection from draughts and activity around him. Both types of chair could have drawers in the base in which items, such as knitting or a Bible, could be kept for easy access.

^ Tom Kent, Threshing machine for preparing straw for Orkney chairs
© Orkney Library & Archive

Unknown maker, Armchair, Orkney, nineteenth century, pine and oat straw
© Orkney Islands Council

While originally made for use in the home, Orkney chairs were produced for larger markets by local carpenter, David Kirkness (1855-1936), from 1876 onwards. He made the frames, while the backs were woven by workers in the islands. The chairs were then assembled and shipped to customers in mainland Scotland and further afield, including London stores like Liberty. The local, hand-made character of the chairs and use of natural materials appealed to followers of the Arts and Crafts movement and the Kirkness pattern of chair was sold up until World War II.

> Tom Kent, Orkney chairs made by D. Kirkness, spinning wheel and bride’s cog presented to Princess Mary (1897-1965) on the occasion of her marriage to Henry Lascelles, later sixth Earl of Harewood, in 1922
© Orkney Library & Archive

From 1956 the business was revived by Reynold Eunson (1931-1978), who also carved the wooden figures designed by Stanley Cursiter for St Magnus Cathedral. His chairs were sent all over the world and the Orkney chair continues to have an international audience. Current makers are listed on the Creative Orkney webpage and further examples of historic chairs are displayed in Orkney Museum, at Corrigall Farm Museum and Kirbuster Museum.

^ Selection of Orkney Chairs from the Orkney museums’ collections
© Orkney Islands Council

^ Tom Kent, R. Foubister and his daughter Lizzie making an Orkney chair, Nessie, Deerness
© Orkney Library & Archive

^ David and Margaret Burgher of Cubbiegeo, Westray, making a straw-backed chair, c. 1970s
© Orkney Library & Archive

HEAR JAMES FERGUS, WESTRAY,
ORKNEY CHAIR MAKER 1986
ORKNEY LIBRARY & ARCHIVE
HEAR CONTEMPORARY ORKNEY CHAIR MAKER
KEVIN GAULD 2020

^ Robert Stuart Clouston (1857-1911), Rest After Toil, 1885, oil on canvas; ref. no. PCF 7
© Orkney Islands Council

^ Anna M. B. Guthrie, Old Man in Orkney Boarded Chair, early twentieth century,
oil on board; acc. no. 1992.41
© Orkney Islands Council

Straw-back chairs are found in Fair Isle, and very occasionally in Shetland, but there are distinct differences in frame structure and straw-stitching or knotting techniques. Many chairs, particularly in Shetland, are completely boarded, around the base and seat. In the corner of the ‘but-end’, or main room of the house, there would often be a small hooded chair, usually reserved for an elderly or infirm member of the household.

This hooded chair is from Dunrossness and is on display at the Croft House Museum, Shetland. The seat’s hood, which slots into the arms of the chair, protects the individual from draughts. In some instances these chairs had a pocket or drawer built into the hood where important personal items were kept.

^ Hooded chair, Dunrossness
© Shetland Museum & Archives

Shetland croft homes were full of various types of chairs and stools. These were never bought from a shop but skilfully hand-crafted. The wood was mainly acquired from the shore but sometimes decommissioned fishing boats were used. This straight-backed wooden armchair came from a croft house at Kurkigarth, Olnafirth. It is made from the wood of the Viscount Arbuthnot, an old Shetland fishing boat that was broken up after running aground in 1914. The wood from the boat was bought by John Johnson who used its planks to build a porch for his house. The leftovers were made into various pieces of furniture like this chair.

< Straight-backed wooden armchair, Shetland
© Shetland Museum & Archives

Fair Isle straw-backs differ in construction from Orkney straw-backed chairs in subtle ways. The front legs support the arms which are fixed with the narrow edge of the wood uppermost. The uprights for the straw back are set into the side rails and the base is usually partially, or fully-enclosed. The straw is knotted, rather than stitched in place, and wooden dowels are inserted at the corners of the back to assist this process. Eve Eunson, born in Fair Isle, has researched the origin and differences between Fair Isle and Orkney straw-backed chairs and identified the features listed here.

This side chair from Fair Isle may have been made for a special occasion, such as a wedding. It includes the initials ‘BW’ and a compass-like carving in the centre of the splat, or chair back.

^ Side chair, Fair Isle
© Shetland Museum & Archives

^ Straw-back chair, Fair Isle
© Shetland Museum & Archives

Baskets, known in Orkney as cubbies or caisies depending on shape, size and use, were made in the Scottish islands out of materials including straw, heather and dock roots, grass and willow.

Cubbies were tightly-woven straw baskets for indoor storage of items such as bait, salt or spoons. They could also be used as muzzles for horses or cattle, for sowing or winnowing, or as an enclosure in which hens kept indoors would be encouraged to lay eggs.

> Display of cubbies and caisies at Orkney Museum;
from top, spoon cubbies to heather-made baskets for bait at bottom
© Orkney Islands Council

Caisies were usually made for outdoor use and had a more open-weave. A rope strap was often attached so that the caisie could be carried on the shoulder or back for turnips, peats, fish, even children. They could also be worn as panniers by a horse, donkey or ox.

^ Tom Kent, Making a caisie, Orkney
© Orkney Islands Council

^ Kibber saddle straw caisies with heather maisies (ropes)
© Orkney Islands Council

Selection of cubbies and caisies
© Orkney Islands Council

^ Tom Kent, Willow baskets and straw products made by John Harvey, Birsay
© Orkney Library & Archive

^ Tom Kent, John Harvey, a blind basket-maker from Birsay
© Orkney Library & Archive

Straw-plaiting tools and samples, Orkney, early nineteenth century

Straw-plaiting frame; acc. no. 29
© Orkney Islands Council

Straw-plaiting was a brief and profitable industry in Orkney in the early nineteenth century, established by a London bonnet-maker, and chiefly employing women. While the supply from Livorno or Leghorn in Italy was interrupted because of war across Europe, straw-plait from Orkney was shipped south to Scottish cities and London. The trade continued after the end of the Napoleonic wars, but had died out by the 1840s because of changes in fashion.

Rye straw was originally imported to Orkney for plaiting, but soon local farmers began to grow it. In Reminiscences of an Orkney Parish (1920), which looks back over the previous century, John Firth describes the processes of cutting and bleaching straw, the different styles and gauges of plait, and the final stages of smoothing plait between rollers and smoking it with sulphur to remove the smell of peat and whiten the straw.

The top end of the stem produced the finest and most expensive plaits, while the thicker strands were plaited into wider and coarser designs which were correspondingly cheaper.

Straw bundles and samples of Orkney straw plait consisting of a gentleman’s hat, lady’s bonnet and bundles of straw plait; acc. no. 30
© Orkney Islands Council

Samples of Orkney straw plait
© Orkney Islands Council

Top: Wooden mangle for straw; acc. no. 636
© Orkney Islands Council
Bottom: Wooden straw hat mould; acc. no. 637
© Orkney Islands Council

^ Bronze medal from Great Exhibition 1851,
awarded to Mrs J. Rendall of Stromness for straw-plaiting; acc. no. A656
© Stromness Museum