Thursday, 7 February 2013

In the Tardis with Orkney Photographic Archive

It's impossible to spend only a day in the Photographic Archives at Orkney Library & Archive and get to grips with what an amazing place it is and what a resource for the community.

Only the other day on Radio Orkney, I heard a piece about the Westray Heritage Trust who are mounting an exhibition of photographs by Robert Heddle Robertson from 100 years ago, and inviting today's islanders to take photographs of the same locations, in the same seasons. It will give a fascinating insight into how Westray folk lived then and how they live now.

Many of the photographs by RH Robertson came from Orkney Photographic Archives which holds over 2,500 of his glass plates. 

Senior archivist, David Mackie, manages the archive and Colin Rendall looks after it and does the printing of negatives for members of the public. He is passionate about the value of them as an historic collection and as a resource for Orkney, the islands they depict through the ages.

Colin gave me a tour of the archives. First, he invited me into his Tardis, a cylindrical division between the public office and the dark room, where he time-travels regularly back to far off days in Orkney. Well, at least as far back as photography goes.

He told me that the earliest dated photographic print held here is this one from 1863 of the Channel Fleet in Kirkwall Bay. It came as a surprise to me to think of photography being around at the same time as a naval fleet made up of sailing ships. There are possibly earlier photographs too among the collection, but with no dates on them, that can't be verified.

Waving in the Light

While I was there, Colin was dealing with a customer who wanted a print of an aerial photograph of East Road in Kirkwall. In the dark room, he showed me the process he goes through to create a negative from the existing print and then develop it. 

As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I noticed Colin waving his fingers above the developing photograph. This, he tells me, is how you control how much light gets through, so that more detail will show up on dark areas of the print. And sure enough, suddenly the dark shadows at the edges lifted to reveal bushes and plants. 

To an amateur like me whose only experience of manipulating photographs has been in the digital age through Photoshop, this was fun!

Equipped to Develop

I'm used to the slick-looking tools of the digital era, so the machinery housed in the back rooms of the archives look like museum pieces. And in a sense they are. Except that equipment like this which will develop film, is increasingly hard to come by. As Archive Technician, it is Colin's job to keep the machines in good working order, so that they will continue to provide prints of the thousands of glass plates and film negatives stored by the archive. 

Negative to Print

Colin looked out an example of a glass plate and the print that was made from it so that I could photograph them - with my little digital camera! - for the blog.

Glass plate negative

The print from the negative

This is a Tom Kent photograph of two little girls standing in Dundas Crescent, Kirkwall, taken between 1898 and 1936, the period covering his work, but clearly, going by the style of the clothes, dating from the earlier years of the 20th century if not the end of the 19th. The details, the 'nowness' of the instant captured, with the long shadows cast by that day's sun, are astonishing.
Tom Kent

The Drowned & Stony Road to Conservation

Colin is quite convinced that digital photography will never match film for the quality of light and detail, so it is in all our interests to preserve what we have in Orkney Photographic Archive and guard it with our lives. 

But there has been many a blood-curdling mishap in the process of collecting and safeguarding the work of our early photographers. In the 1930s two young boys came across some dirty old pieces of glass down a lane off Broad Street in Kirkwall. They lined them up against a wall and threw stones at them. What lay in smithereens at their feet when they'd finished were some of Tom Kent's plates. 

RH Robertson
A truck load of the glass plates of RH Robertson was intercepted on its way to be dumped in a quarry in Westray. 

And a diver diving in Stromness harbour found some funny looking pieces of glass with dark markings on them. They turned out to be the photographic plates of William Hourston.

William Hourston
Luckily, the archives still hold 4,830 of Tom Kent's plates, 2,917 of RH Robertson's and 1,045 of William Hourston's, as well as many images by other photographers. Between 1867 and 1914, forty two photographers were listed as working in Orkney.

I asked Colin what message he'd like to get across to people in Orkney about the archives. In the mildest, gentlest tones possible, difficult to convey in the bold type necessary to make it stand out, he said,

'Don't throw away old photos or negatives. I've had folk saying to me, I wish I'd known this place was here, I wouldn't have burnt my granny's old photos. I didn't think they would be of any interest. 

'Please let us be the judge of that. Take them here and we can make copies of them and give you back the originals. Or we can keep them here and preserve them. Family photographs can be valuable social documents, showing how work, culture, customs, clothes, buildings or even scenery in the background have changed over time in Orkney.'  


I had to work quite hard to extract permission from Colin to show the photo above. A talented photographer himself, though modest to the point of self-effacement, he took this picture in February 1978. It looks so like the big seas we've had in Orkney in the past few days, it seemed an apt image to end with. My digital photo of the print doesn't nearly do it justice.

Dougie Shearer
Colin learned his photography from another notable Orkney practitioner, Dougie Shearer, who was also his fiddle teacher. He taught Colin how to process negatives and how to alter the appearance of a print while it was in the developing fluid by lifting out a bit you wanted lighter, and splashing bits you wanted darker. An even earlier version of waving your fingers over the developing print! Colin told me that Dougie was so particular and careful that he passed on a deep and serious knowledge of the processes of photography that has stayed with him ever since.

Thank you to Colin Rendall, David Mackie and Bobby Leslie for the information in this blog. And thank you to David for permission to use information from a paper he produced for the New Orkney Antiquarian Journal Volume 5, entitled, The Orkney Photographic Archive.

Look out for the next blog for more images and information about the different photographers.      


  1. Great blog, Alison. You've really captured Colin's enthusiam for the photos. Let's hope the word gets around and we get some more photos or negatives for our collections.

    1. Thank you, Dusty! I appreciate that. Hope Colin feels the same way. And yes, I hope it will make some folk think before they torch - or smash or drown - valuable visual records of life in Orkney. Bring them into the archives instead. :)

  2. Really enjoyed this. Photos are amazing. Thanks, Alison!

  3. Fascinating, and wonderful photos. Thanks Alison, really enjoyed the visit. Judy

    1. Thank you, Judy! I'm glad you enjoyed the visit Alison

  4. Thank you Alison - and of course, Colin for an absolutely fascinating piece by the pair of you (and the others 'behind the scenes'.)It's prompted me to climb up into my loft and dig out my old enlarger, developing tank and dishes etc....-although no doubt by now it will be impossible to obtain all those smelly chemicals I used to be able to purchase from the local chemist - 'Health & Safety'(or maybe a call from the Constabulary - "Just WHAT do you want Silver Nitrate for, Sir?"). I think one can still purchase black and white film stock though, so maybe I should turn my attention to my beloved 2X2 Corfield 66 single lens reflex...or my even older Russian Zorki 35mm? Ho hum - digital is certainly a lot easier - but not nearly as much fun! (Now where did I put my Weston exposure meter?)Thanks again folks!

    1. Thank you Wullie! I'll pass this on to Colin. If you do start taking photos on film (of Orkney), mind and give a copy to Colin in the Photo Archives.


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