Monday, 11 February 2013

The Way We Were in Orkney

I promised more images from Orkney Photographic Archive. The ones below are by Tom Kent and William Hourston.
Tom Kent - Haying Time in Birsay

On the Orkney Library & Archive website, you can find information about all the photographers whose work is preserved in the Archive. Not all photographers' images are digitised, but Tom Kent's are. Here is a brief biography taken from the website:

"Tom Kent is probably Orkney's most famous photographer. He was born in the island of Eday in 1863 but the family moved to the Parish of Firth on the Orkney Mainland soon after. It was after emigrating to America and becoming a student of renowned Chicago photographer M.J. Steffens that he learned the skills that allowed him to set up shop on his return to Orkney. More than just a recorder of events he had an eye for composition as well as a seemingly unerring ability to be in the right place at the right time. He used the most sophisticated equipment available at the time, but that would still mean having to carry around a large heavy wooden camera and a quantity of glass plates, no mean feat in itself.

The quality of Tom Kent's photographs was recognised outside Orkney and he contributed regularly to professional magazines as well as pictorial publications such as Country Life. Sadly Tom seems to have fallen on hard times in later life and when he died, on 11th August 1936, his passing went almost unnoticed, a sad end for a man who had played such an important part in documenting life in Orkney."

William Hourston - Transporting Sheep

Land and Sea

The images show how the land and the sea are central to the history of Orkney. Fishermen with Ploughs they may have been, but they were also Country Women with Sickles & Quernstones, Rakes & Hens.

Tom Kent - Milling Grain by Hand
Tom Kent - Gathering Whelks 

William Hourston - Salvaging the Scuttled German Ships in Scapa Flow

"William Hourston was born in Evie in 1895. He moved to Stromness in the 1930s and originally ran a billiard saloon and Barber shop, but his true interest was photography. The raising of the scuttled ships of the German High Seas Fleet in Scapa Flow gave him an opportunity to exploit his photographic skills and he produced many memorable images of the work over the years.

William had a good eye for the picturesque and took many photographs of Stromness and further afield, producing calendars and postcards of his work. He had trained as a joiner and was able to make a lot of his own darkroom equipment. He was also, for a time, an occasional Lighthouse Keeper on Suleskerry, an isolated rocky outpost about thirty miles west of Orkney. Of course, he took along his camera and recorded the huge numbers of sea birds and seals that frequented the area.

William Hourston served in both World Wars, receiving injuries during the 1st World War that affected him all his life. He continued to live in Stromness, taking photographs late into the 1950s, remaining in the town until his death in 1968."

William Hourston - Plucking a Hen on the Shore

Tom Kent - Transporting a Cow (or is it a horse?) on the Steamer

Tom Kent - Not a Character from Tolstoy
Tom Kent - Scything Hay

William Hourston - After a Day's Work

The Roll of Photographers

There are many more photographers featured in the Archives: William H Wood, Robert H Robertson, David Horne, Wilfred Marr, Dougie Shearer & Donald Shearer of Phoenix Photography, Jack Walls. Their work is not yet digitised, but you can still see it if you go into the Archives and talk to Colin Rendall. 

You'll hear more stories of the chancy ways the archives come to hold the images: Wilfie Marr's work is here after Colin bumped into his widow in the supermarket. Dougie Shearer didn't think anybody would want his images, but Colin assured them the Archives would, and thank goodness for that, for Dougie Shearer captured many of the events, big and small, that happened in Orkney in the second half of the twentieth century.

Bobby Leslie told me that Jack Walls worked in the Kirkwall Hotel, appeared in local operas and carted his equipment up Wideford Hill to take photographs of the surrounding countryside. And it was somewhat heavier than a digital camera!

Orkney Through the Eyes of Women

More recently, women have taken up the camera and added other images of Orkney into the mix. Gunnie Moberg took her camera up high and photographed Orkney from the air; and got right in close and captured details and patterns in rock and weed and flower.

Here is Gunnie Moberg in her garden photographed by Alistair Peebles (copyright Alistair Peebles).

You can see some of her beautiful images in the book on which she collaborated with George Mackay Brown, Orkney: Pictures & Poems.

I think the book is still available to buy from Tam's Bookshop in Stromness.

And of course - if you are a library member - you can borrow it from Orkney Library & Archive!

Copyright Rebecca Marr

Rebecca Marr came to Orkney as Artist in Residence at the Pier Arts Centre in 2007 and loved it so much she stayed. She looks up to Orkney's big skies and down to the amazing shapes at our feet, including the seaweed round our shores.

And there are many others - men and women - capturing the islands as they are today! 


  1. Thank you for this lovely, informative blog post.

    The Mermaid Bride and Other Orkney Folktales is a favourite book of mine because the stories put you in Orkney and you feel the sensibilities.

    My dream is to come to Orkney for at least a year and write about the experience. I have lived nearby huge cities in California my entire life (61 years), but when my youngest son and I came for a visit in 2007 and spent a week on Orkney mainland, my heart was taken captive, and I've longed to return, learn, and write to share the magic that is Orkney.

    My husband's grandpa grew up in a croft house on Rousay, and his grandma was born on Stronsay. Shona Linklater who lives in Kirkwall is one of our family members we found in 2007.

    I just signed up to follow your blog. I write a blog at, and I've written and published a book called Dueling With Dementia: Not The Love Story We Planned.

    Take care,

    Kathleen Leonard

    1. Hi Kathleen. Thank you for the lovely comment. I passed your comment about The Mermaid Bride on to Tom Muir who wrote it. You can see a little piece I wrote about Tom Muir in the blog post, Orkney Monster:
      and hear an interview I did with him on SoundCloud:

      I'm glad you liked Orkney when you visited. My father's family came from Stronsay too.

      I hope you do manage to realise your dream of coming back to Orkney. I've just realised mine!

      All Good Wishes


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