The Orkney Chair

For those who don’t know,  the Orkney Islands are a series of about seventy islands which are just off the north east coast of Scotland, only sixteen of them are inhabited and it is to here I am journeying today in my virtual jaunt around British Isles.

Relief map of Scotland

The islands lie in the path of the Gulf Stream and so enjoy a climate milder than would be expected so far north. Being a very flat series of islands they are a tad windy, to say the least, and for this reason the islands are almost totally treeless.  Life in the Orkney Islands has always been mainly based around traditional crofting system of farming, which is a system of subsistence farming common in Scotland.

The Orkney Chair has evolved over time as a response to its locality and it is a really good example of how regional craft objects represent the culture, geography and social and economic history of an area.  Like many other regional crafts it is impossible to pinpoint when Orkney chairs were first made, but it is possible to chart how they evolved from simple stools to the full blown chair associated with the islands today.

Early Orkney Chair

Way back when, Orkney chairs were no more than stools and made almost entirely of straw, only the feet of the chair were wooden.  Now, this was because wood was in scarce supply on an island where there were no indigenous trees and it was sensible to make your furniture from material freely available locally and there was plenty of left over straw from the Black Oats, grown to feed the livestock.   This straw was used to make all manner of household items, not only on the Orkney Islands but in many rural areas across the country.  Referred to as lip work the straw was coiled into baskets (known as cubbies and lubbies on the Orkney Islands), twisted in rope known (simmens), formed into mats and used to create beds.

Orkney Chair Makers

As time went by people began to use driftwood, often from ship wrecks, to form the base of the chair, yet it was still no more than a stool covered in straw.  It will never be known who first had the bright idea of adding a low woven straw back, but someone, at some stage, got fed up of crouching on his stool and updated the design to include a back about two feet tall.  The chair was still kept low so people were able to sit close to the ground and avoid the smoke from the open fires burning in the centre of the room.

Cosy old chair

Later still people began to add hoods to the chairs to keep out the draughts and sometimes added a drawer under the seat.  Apparently this was for the man of the house to keep his ‘things’.  (This makes me wonder if the man in my house has Orkney roots as we currently have four ‘man drawers’ full of ‘man things’).

So the Orkney Chair evolved into chair fit for purpose, it is the perfect shape to keep the heat in and the draughts out and used throughout the centuries to provide a comfy seat.  They were made very upright though as nobody just sat they would be sewing, spinning, whittling or doing something.

Of course nothing ever stays the same and in the 1890s there was a bit of  a shake up in the Orkney chair world.  Up until this point the traditional Orkney chair had been made for use by the maker’s own family or to be sold within a small local market, but in the late 1880′s things started to change.

Countess of Rosebery

Firstly, in the later half of the the 1800′s the Arts and Crafts movement had gained in popularity both in England and Scotland and there was an increase in interest in hand made crafts as opposed to factory goods.  In 1889 The Scottish Home Industries Association was founded by the Countess of Rosebery.  Its aim was to promote and ensure a fair payment of, household crafts in Scotland.   It was probable she was influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, which was well established in Scotland.  The Association took the traditional crafts of Scotland and sold them to the great and the good ‘down south’.

Concurrently, or maybe as a result of this, a Mr David Kirkness, a joiner of Kirkwall, began to produce four standardised versions of the traditional Orkney chair.  By doing standard versions he was able to increase his output.  The straw backs were all stitched by outworkers, often fishermen and farmers who stitched in the evenings, or whenever they could.  It is estimated he made about 400 chairs per year, far more than other makers.

Orkney Chair with 'man drawer' by Orkney Furniture.co.uk

This new publicity and increased output meant Orkney Chairs became a must have item for the upper classes, Liberty’s of London stocked them, Queen Victoria had one and apparently even the Queen Mother was very keen to and had some too.  This definitely helped the long time survival of a vernacular design classic and Orkney Chairs are still very much in production today.

One very important feature, which has remained unchanged throughout, is the way in which the Orkney chair is constructed. Locally grown straw is used to make the backs which still have to be stitched by hand.  The chair frames, originally made from driftwood, are now more often made from the best quality wood available and beautifully finished by hand.  It is interesting that the chairs are still evolving.  Benches are now made as well as rocking Orkney chairs and fan backed chairs, all of which reflect a modern phenomena we are able to enjoy in this country – just sitting and relaxing!

Cosy Corner Bench by Orkney Furniture.co.uk

 

Buy an Orkney Chair from one of these lovely people;

www.orkneyfurniture.co.uk

www.scapacrafts.co.uk

www.orkneyhandcraftedfurniture.co.uk

www.orkney-chair.co.uk

 

Find out more about Orkney here; 

www.orkneyjar.com

Relax in Orkney here;

www.orkneyretreat.co.uk

This entry was posted in Basketry, Heritage Crafts, Orkney Islands, Traditional Crafts, Wood and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Orkney Chair

  1. Pingback: Chair Crush « summerfield

  2. Pingback: A Sense of Place · Spreading the Historypin word

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