And so the long awaited evening at Lana’s arrived. After a little bit of confusion in finding her house, we were welcomed warmly by her husband, Billy. I immediately recognized him from my visit to their shop in Kirkwall nearly ten years ago. What followed were four-and-a half hours of some of the most pleasant, interesting and informative conversation I have had in a long time. Little bits about each of our lives were the warp into which talk of Orkney, its culture, history, and folk tales were woven.
Lana and Billy Fotheringhame own a shop on Bridge Street in Kirkwall called Orcadian Crafts. It is an homage to the hand-crafted goods that have been made in Orkney for generations. As previously mentioned, Lana is a master knitter, knitting intricate patterns from memory and with such ease that she was able to switch between patterns and techniques as she demonstrated them to Marsha. Under the name Glengarth Knitwear, the hats of hers that I have are variations on the Fairisle pattern Northern Star (yes, that’s plural; the next day we went to Orcadian Crafts and I walked out with another hat and a sweater).
Billy also knits, using wool from the Northern Shorttailed primitive breeds of sheep that live on the beaches of North Ronaldsay and eat only seaweed. He is also an award-winning weaver using the local specially-threshed and cleaned oat straw to weave baskets and other items. Called “straw coil work” from the technique of adding bits of oat straw as the weaving progresses to make one long coil, knowing just when and how much straw to add and when to tie it off with twine made from seagrass is an art. Billy’s work includes picnic baskets, cubbies, shopping baskets, and the famous style of Orkney chair. Known locally as stuls (stools), Orkney chairs were designed with a hooded back, a heided-stul, which gave protection from drafts and kept the warm air from the fire close to the person sitting in it. Sometimes the chairs have drawers in them underneath the seat; a nice place to keep one’s knitting, a book, or perhaps a flask of whisky.
One of the other guests was Neil Leask who is the Custodian at Corrigall Farm Museum and Kirbuster Museum. Kirbuster Museum is the last un-restored firehoose in Northern Europe. Occupied until the 1960’s, Kirbuster house (near Birsay) dates from the 16th century, and is an excellent example of a central hearth croft house. There have been expansions and improvements over the years but the original dwelling housed the animals as well as the people, all warmed by the peat fire in the center of the building. Corrigall Farm Museum (near Harray) is an example of a 19th century but and ben house, from the Scots to describe a two room dwelling where the outer room was the kitchen, the but, and the inner room for sleeping was the ben.
Neil is an extraordinary teller of folktales. I first heard him tell a couple of tales on the CD that Lana had recommended to me, Orkney: Land, Sea & Community. Part of the Scottish Tradition series from the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh, there are thirty-four cuts on the CD. Lana and Neil both contributed to this marvelous compilation of music, song, history, culture and folklore. He has that kind of storytelling voice that makes one want to listen, and I was happy that he had come prepared to tell a few more stories.
Another guest, Christopher, is a native of Orkney who works as an archeologist (MA, Orkney College, UHI) and tour guide at the Ness of Brodgar site. He is a wealth of information about the history of Orkney and we enjoyed being able to hear him talk about some of it with us. The Ness of Brodgar excavations began in 2003 and cover nearly 6.5 acres. By all accounts, the site could end up being more important than Stonehenge. It dates from 3000 BCE and is believed to be the largest structure of its kind in northern Britain, and possibly the center of ceremonial life of the Mainland. Unfortunately for Marsha and me, the dig had been closed for the year in August.
One story that was very intriguing to both Marsha and me was the telling of the story and the history behind the Kirkwall Ba’. For over 300 years the men of the Mainland have gathered in front of St. Magnus Cathedral on Broad Street in Kirkwall on New Year’s Day (now on Christmas and New Years) and then spent the rest of the day and into the night vying for control of a three pound leather-covered, cork-filled ball. The teams are divided in to two factions: the “Doonies” originally hailed from north of the Cathedral and the “Uppies” from south of it, although now it’s more a familial bond and less a geographic one. There is some reference in this designation to a rivalry between the King’s Earl who lived in the north (“The Burgh”) and the Bishop who lived in the south (“The Laverock”). The goal of the game for the “Uppies” is to get the ba’ to the wall in the south end of town, and for the “Doonies” to get it in to the water of Kirkwall Bay in the north. The game begins at 1:00 PM with the Cathedral chiming the hour. The ba’ is thrown into the crowd from the Mercat Cross at the edge of Broad Street in front of the Cathedral. After that, there do not seem to be any rules except against blatant misbehavior. The game lasts for hours while the teams scramble up and down the town trying to get the ba’ to their goal by any means possible. Windows and doors along the streets have been boarded and bystanders are well advised to keep their distance.
This yearly pandemonium is based in folk tale which is based in history. There is a folktale of an Orcadian traveling to Scotland to kill a tyrant named Tusker and then, having done so, tying the severed head of the tyrant to his saddle while riding back to the Pentland Firth (Pettland, “the Firth of the land of ‘the Picts). On the way, he was scratched by one of the teeth and by the time he crossed the Firth again and reached Kirkjuvagr (Kirkwall), he was near dead from the infection. With his last bit of strength, he reached the Mercat Cross and threw the head into the crowd standing there. They took their rage about the death of one of their own out on the severed head by kicking it all over the town. There is an historical account from the Orkneyinga Saga (“The History of the Earls of Orkney” written c.1230) about Orkney’s first Earl, Sigurd Eysteinsson, traveling to Scotland and killing his enemy, the Scottish Earl Maelbrigte Tusk. The account of the severed head, the scratched leg, and the death from infection is the same.
We then segued into talking about traditional dancing and music, and how it has woven its way over to the US from Scotland via the immigration patterns. This is a rich traditional culture that I became very familiar with during my summers in the Blue Ridge Mountains. One of my aunts was well-known for her singing and guitar renditions of the old songs. Lana had invited us to stay over the weekend and join them all in the weekly dances held on Monday nights by The Orkney Traditional Dance Association, of which they are all members. We wished we could have, but our travel schedule wouldn’t allow for it. As the clock neared midnight and the time for leave-taking, we got to quickly meet Lana and Billy’s two dogs, a beautiful white Samoyed and a Parson Russell Terrier.
The next morning found us in Orcadian Crafts with Marsha getting another knitting tutorial and buying one of the little stools that they had woven with seagrass, and me just enjoying the last bit of time with these extraordinary, and extraordinarily kind, people. I bought one of Billy’s woven baskets as well as a sweater. Oh, yeah. And that second hat.