Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Witching the Archives

Annie Tailzeour, an Orkney woman, was accused of witchcraft in 1624. Among the evidence brought against her:

1. She took profit off cattle and off the corn
2. She predicted the finding of a whale
3. She cured a boil
4. A man recognised her face among a crowd of cats
5. She cast a sickness on a man, and then removed it
6. She sent a girl into a frenzy
7. She caused a storm to come up and the sea take a woman’s peats

She was sentenced to be “wirried at ane staik, and brunt to asses.”
“wirried” = “worried” = “strangled”; “brunt to asses” = “burnt to ashes”

She would have been dragged up to the top of the Clay Loan in Kirkwall, probably in an open cart, tied to a stake, garrotted by the hangman, then her body burnt.

Orkney Archives are full of fascinating documents stretching back centuries. This poor woman’s fate was recorded by Ernest Marwick whose papers the archives hold.

George Mackay Brown wrote about such a trial and execution in ‘Witch’, a story in his first collection A Calendar of Love 1967.

To the World

To be slightly odd or eccentric or mad in the seventeenth century was dangerous. To have mental health problems in the 21st century still attracts stigma, lack of understanding, sometimes mockery. The GMB Fellowship, Orkney Minds and See Me have combined efforts to produce To the World, a compelling, timely and very handsome anthology of creative writing by people in Orkney affected by mental health difficulties, as well as other interested contributors. The anthology grew out of workshops run by poet John Glenday and counsellor and writer Rosie Alexander.

This poem is by the library’s own Gary Amos:

Out in Rain

in my fumbling

folded in
on myself
too many times

in the landscape
as invisible

as the earth’s

on which
things tilt

but do not

Let’s face it, most of us experience these difficulties in our lifetimes, and when we’re not going through it ourselves, we know others who are.  Very many writers go through dark times.  Orkney’s own – George Mackay Brown, Edwin Muir, Ernest Marwick – all suffered from periods of deep depression.  And still they wrote.

To the World is available to buy from Kirkwall and Stromness libraries.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Reading the Trees

A beautiful day in Glasgow today. I walked through Kelvingrove Park to the Mitchell Library. The trees are every colour from pale gold to deep red with every shade of pink and orange between. I'm savouring them while I can before returning to Orkney where the wind has written off the leaves before they have time to show their true colours.


At last, I've caught up with the Gifted exhibition of the ten beautiful paper sculptures left anonymously in various parts of Edinburgh by someone thankful for books and libraries. I missed it in Edinburgh, was in Aberdeen just before it arrived, but here it is now in Glasgow at the Mitchell Library till the end of this week.

The photograph (right) doesn't do the poetree justice and it's impossible to read the caption which says in part: 

"We know that a library is so much more than a building full of books ... a book is so much more than pages full of words ... This is for you in support of libaries, books, words and ideas ... a gesture (poetic maybe!?)"

The exhibition is organised by the Scottish Poetry Library and you can see photos of all the book sculptures in the Gifted Tour

Re-reading Tolstoy

The first time I read Anna Karenina, I was in my late teens. My memory of it, reinforced by various films and TV series, was of a tragic woman who threw herself under a train. Not a bit of it! Well, it is  a tragic story about a woman who dies in this way. But it is also full of fascinating insights into other aspects of Russian society at the time. There are the aristocratic landowners bemoaning the passing of serfdom and decrying the fashion creeping in of more egalitarian farming methods. The character of Levin, generally believed to be a thinly veiled self portrait of Tolstoy himself, is at the centre of such discussions. He also describes a variety of farming methods as well as domestic arrangements. Jam making gets big licks. And he presents swathes of pages about mowing, using a scythe. It's not so long ago that scythes were still in use in Orkney.

Ah, Orkney ...

You may be treeless, or almost, but Tolstoy's scenes of mowing conjure up golden fields of hay against a blue sky and bluer sea. Worth leaving the blazing trees of Glasgow behind to see.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Reading in the Arctic

I paid a visit to the cathedral today. The cathedral we call it in Orkney, partly because it's the only one in the county, partly because St Magnus Cathedral is the most beautiful anywhere. In my opinion. 

I peered at the book held down by the butt of a rifle beside the statue of John Rae asleep in the Arctic, but couldn't make out the title. In Fatal Passage it's reported that Rae always carried a copy of Shakespeare with him wherever he went, so it may be that. Shakespeare in the Arctic, a thought to conjure with. "Blow winds and crack your cheeks ..."  It won't be Oliver Twist anyway, I imagine, since Charles Dickens joined in the howl of outrage at John Rae when he reported that the earlier expedition of Franklin to find the North West Passage ended in starvation, death and cannibalism.  Next year is the bicentenary of John Rae's birth. Maybe that will help to put the record straight:

Readers' Views

"Reading takes me to places I can only imagine and lets me meet people I would never know." Anonymous comment

"Reading is important to me because it's breathing for the brain. I learnt to read when I was three." Anonymous comment

Oral versus Written

I'm having a great conversation with Tom Muir, the Orkney Storyteller about the differences and tensions between the oral and written traditions.

"Some of the stories that I tell are from purely oral tradition, but most of them were written down. This did save them from being lost, but it also raises another issue. The book is a very powerful thing and once something is written down and published it takes on an air of authority and becomes ‘right’. 

I experienced this in the Faroes several years ago when I was working with my friend Lawrence Tulloch from Shetland running a workshop on telling stories. It became apparent that while Jakob Jakobsen saved many stories from oblivion, he had inadvertently created a monster in the form of the ‘right’ version. Stories are communally shared between families and districts, with variations from place to place. What many modern Faroese people didn’t appreciate was that the versions written by Jakobsen were only his version of one telling of the story. He would have found other variations of the same story on his travels but just selected the one which is now considered to be the ‘right’ version of the story and anyone who tells it differently is ‘wrong’. 

For this very reason a lot of American First Nation storytellers are reluctant to have their stories written down; to them the important thing it that they are told. While this is a nice thought it does leave the story vulnerable to be wiped out should the storyteller die without anyone else taking up the story."

You can hear Tom and other storytellers at the Orkney Storytelling Festival from the 25-28 October. Here is the link: 


Monday, 15 October 2012

Spaekan Orcadian

We've enjoyed a fantastic few days here in Orkney at Kirkwall Library with the Orcrime Festival featuring Lin Anderson, Ann Cleeves, Paul Harrison, Denise Mina and Tom Muir. All the author events were either sold out or pretty close. It was a treat to hear Ann, Denise, Lin, Paul and Tom speak about their work and their methods.  

Tom tells his wonderfully rich stories in the Orkney dialect and everyone sits on the edge of their seats to listen.  

But when it came to the Q&A from the audience at the end, there was a distinct absence of Orkney voices. Why is that? 

This is in no way an anti-incomer question; it was good that people were prepared to speak up and ask questions of the writers and storytellers. You could see that some of those who did had to screw their courage to the sticking place to raise their hand. But - apart from mine, modified by years sooth, and one or two library staff - not a single Orcadian voice could be heard asking questions of the writers. What is that about?

It's not an anti-Orcadian question either. Just a puzzle. Maybe by the end of my time here I'll have worked it out ...

Readers' Comments

"If I'm waiting to meet somebody or I'm early for an appointment, I'll come into the library, pick a book off the shelf, snuggle down and read a couple of chapters. This is the best library I've ever been to - and I've been all around."

"I read a lot. If I don't have a book on the go, I feel desperate. I get panicky."
Linda Shearer

Louise's Favourite Book

Louise is Assistant Librarian here. Her favourite book is The Gentle Art of Domesticity by Jane Brocket: She's borrowed it ten times with four renewals in the last two years. It covers many different domestic arts Louise wishes she had time to pursue. "I do wonder if I put it under my pillow, if I would learn it all by osmosis." It's available for anyone with a library card to borrow too - if you can wrest it from Louise's hands!

Recording Writers

I managed to make audio recordings of three of the writers who appeared at Orcrime, talking about reading, libraries, books. Two more to go. I'll be turning these into blogs when my tecnological expertise catches up with my good intentions ...

Leaving Comments

Please leave comments at the end about anything to do with reading, books, libraries.


Thursday, 11 October 2012

Murder in the Library

The library is full of scarlet women today! And the odd scarlet man too. It's the first day of the Orcrime Crime Writing Festival, organised by staff here, and the place is awash with red and black. Whodunnit? My money's on Miss Scarlet in the Library - but which one! 

We're awaiting the arrival of Ann Cleeves who wrote the Shetland Quartet, recently filmed for TV in Shetland, and the Vera books which also feature on the small screen. A thrilling event to be involved in my first week here. Ann will be revealing the winner of  the crime short story writing competition launched to coincide with the festival. There were many entries and the quality high, I'm told, so can't wait to see who has thrilled and mystified the judges most.

Readers Views

I spoke to a library user in the foyer today. He didn't want to give his name. Many of the Orcadians I talk to are reticent about being quoted in a public forum. But he was happy to tell me how books feature in his life and in that of his wife: "My wife doesn't keep very well and has to stay in bed a lot of the time. The library is a great thing for her because she can borrow audio books and can listen to the stories. She finds reading books too tiring. Mysteries, detective stories, humour - that's the kind of thing she goes for.

What about yourself, I asked him. "I've been a member of the library for over forty years, since I was at school and the library was in Laing Street. The library's well used in Orkney. I think it was the first library in Scotland. I tend to borrow factual books rather than fiction - science, history, metaphysical and mystical books. It's a lot cheaper than buying them!" 

Orcrime again

We're kicking off today with Broth and Breid. I don't think it's rhyming slang for anything deadly, or at least I hope not.

Now where did I put that packet of arsenic? 

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Reading the Sky

On my first night back in Orkney as Reader in Residence there was an amazing, spectacular show of the Aurora Borealis. Did I see it? No! I was in my bed giving it a row of zeds – zzzzzzzz – and missed the whole display.  The sky – I have it on good authority – was bright emerald green, as if a space ship was landing. Last night I slept with my curtains open but no green light insinuated itself into my dreams.

Settling in to Orkney Library remarkably quickly. It’s a great place to be – warm, welcoming, staff who love their work. I’m looking forward to collaborating more closely with them all.

Ali was sitting on the floor today with her seven month old baby Max in a beanbag beside her, wriggling in ecstasy as he leafed through a book. His mum says she only has to show him a book and he gets all excited: “Books help Max to engage all of his senses and explore more of the world. He especially likes the touchy-feely ones.”

I asked Ali what she reads herself and she said she likes the books she can take on walks, the 'food for free' books and the Collins Gems on birds, flowers, trees and edible plants. 

Borrow an e-book
Do you know that Orkney Library has just launched an e-book borrowing scheme? All you need are:

  • a library card for Orkney Library
  • an internet connection
  • free software available for download on the library’s website

Take a look on the website:

Murder in the Library
There's great excitement in the library today because tomorrow sees the start of the Orcrime Crime Writing Festival, Orkney Library's first. Here's a link to it on the website:

What a treat for me in my first week to get to hear Lin Anderson, Ann Cleeves and Denise Mina, as well as Tom Muir and Paul Harrison. The staff have been reflecting that they started organising the event back in March and here it is at last. 

Keep the knives in the drawer!

Good luck to everyone involved! 

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Reader in Residence

Reader in Residence

So what does that mean? Will you move your bed into the library, Tracy Emin style? Will it be in a glass case? Will you sit propped up against your pillows - reading? Oh, you're going to go out and read aloud to people? Bet they'll stick their fingers in their ears and go lalalalalala!

These are some of the mick-taking comments I've had from friends and family since I was lucky enough to get the job of Reader in Residence in Orkney Library and Archive. It's one of those fancy titles that invite teasing from people who do 'proper' jobs. But I don't care. I couldn't be happier being given the chance to spend a year talking about books and reading, encouraging other people to talk about books and reading and collecting views from people about the part books, reading and libraries play in their lives.

"Reading is so important for children. There are so many distractions for them these days. Reading a book gives them some space, a moment for themselves, for their own imaginations to develop. The library is such a nice warm place to take a child to sit in and read a book." 

Thelma Irvine in Kirkwall Library today with her young grandson.

It's always best to start them young and Orkney Library and Archive does just that. Louise Graham, Assistant Librarian, organises an impressive range of activities for children. You can check these out on the library website:  

I think I was six when I joined Orkney Library. At that time it was based in Laing Street in Kirkwall. The first book I borrowed was Russian Fairytales. I read it that evening and went back the next day for another book. 

Since Orkney has had a library since 1683, we may have become blasé about it, tend to take it for granted. But all over Britain at the moment, libraries are closing. One of the things I hope to do is to gather the views and memories of local people about their involvement with the libraries in Orkney over the years. 

If you have stories to tell about your experiences with the Orkney libraries, or your thoughts about books and reading, you can post comments in the comments window here.