The Orkney Islands are made up of roughly 70 islands with 980km of coastline to keep you suitably distracted. The archipelagos are home to a ridiculous number of Neolithic sites that span back over 5,000 years and are lit up in the winter months by the Aurora Borealis. But I’m not here for that. I’m here for the oldest public library in Scotland.
Kirkwall is the capital of the mainland and home to the library. You know you’re getting close when you spot the tip of St. Magnus Cathedral and its red sandstone which has been worn away by fierce winds over the centuries. According to David M.N Tinch, the Cathedral possibly held the first collection of books as far back as 1544 for use by the clergy. But as these were all written in Latin they didn’t serve much use to the general public.
William Baikie, a local gent and bibliophile, was persuaded to bequeath his ‘eight score’ volumes to Kirkwall given that he was a confirmed bachelor. He agreed, and by his death in 1683 the first Publick Bibliotheck of Kirkwall was formed. His collection contained mainly theological and polemical works which make for a bit of a dry read but were indicative of reading habits of the time. At first they lived in the home of Reverend James Wallace, but were later transferred to the Cathedral where the collection began to grow. In 1740 the books got their own space thanks to revenues from a recently built Tollbooth. During this period libraries of an ‘improving’ kind had also started to develop, supplying books to the Highlands and surrounding islands.
By the 19th century there was a greater demand for a broader range of books and after a public meeting on 17 March, 1815, an appeal led to a donation of 200 books and £70. This resulted in the formation of the Orkney Library, intended for use by the entire country. Baikie’s Biblitheck was incorporated into the library.
Although it originally used the Subscription Model, the library was flexible, allowing strangers to borrow books without charge. Lending times were determined by your postal code, with those living on the periphery of the mainland given three weeks to loan a book. Gradually public libraries started to pop up across the islands in Stromness, Sandwick and Birsay. In Westray, Thomas Belfour started a free library for people unable to buy books and in 1903 Andrew Carnegie, who had made previous donations to the community, offered £1,500 for the erection of a Free Library Building on condition that Kirkwall Council guaranteed an annual sum of £80 to ensure the libraries continual development. Many of the older books, including the original Bibliotheck, were deemed unsuitable for a modern library and sold to raise funds. These were purchased by Archdeacon Craven and now reside in the University Library, Aberdeen in the collection Bibliotheck of Kirkwall. The library at Aberdeen featured in a previous post.
The library was completed by 1909 and Andrew Carnegie attended the opening, declaring ‘It is the mass of the people who will benefit by it, and who must consider it as their special institution.’ But it wasn’t until 1946 that the library service really started to develop with the appointment of Orkney’s first County Librarian, Mr. Evan MacGillivray. MacGillivray was a real force of nature with a strong vision for library provisions that were delivered with military precision up until his retirement in 1973.
By 1954 he oversaw the amalgamation of the County Library and Kirkwall Free Library. This was followed by the appointment of three full-time assistants who helped him implement his vision of regularly supplying books directly to homes, no matter how isolated or hard to reach, known as the Family Book Service. The Family Book Service was in effect a personal door-to-door service that saw book borrowing in the outer islands grow from 3,846 to 57,752! The service was introduced by MacGillivray himself and resulted in 54 out of 56 households in North Ronaldsay giving it a go. In 1963 a similar scheme of mobile libraries provided service to mainland readers. The incredible impact of this personalised and professional service is worth bearing in mind today as volunteers are gradually replacing professional librarians across the UK as a result of government cuts.
When I started Dawn of the Unread I put forward the question as to whether it was possible for libraries to remain a focal point of the community in the digital age. In the Orkney Islands, perhaps because bandwidth is pretty poor and internet connections are intermittent, the library is at the heart of the community. During my visit I witnessed a celebration of Scottish Pen’s 90th birthday. This included readings in Orcadian dialect from Orkney Stoor, the latest publication from Duncan McLean’s small press. There was also a duet by a local songwriter and poet that was absolutely magical. Upstairs in the Archives is a collection of juvenile manuscripts known as ‘The Minervian Library’ created by 12 year old Maria Cowen and her 10 year old sister, Clara in 1864. This beautiful hand drawn collection is worthy of its own blog which I’ll publish next Monday.
The library itself saw a constant flow of people of all ages and I spent a good couple of days with the poet Aly Stoneman (author of our Ms. Hood issue) reading everything from the diaries of an Orkney farmer from the 1700s, to the poetry of George Brown Mackay, to the brilliant memoir The Outrun by Amy Liptrot. The librarians were fantastic, offering support and guidance to our endless questions, continuing the fine work started by Mr. Evan MacGillivray. But everything you need to know about the ethos and function of this library is in the motto on the County Library bookplate: “Faill not to keep your sone diligent reading and wreating, yt he losse not what he hes attained” William Baikie
Source: The Orkney Library, David M.N. Tinch
The best way to support libraries is to use them. Here’s my Orkney-inspired reading list.
- David M.N. Tinch (1983) The Orkney Library: A Short History
- Duncan McLean (1994) Bucket of Tongues
- Duncan McLean (2015) Orkney Stoor
- Maggie Fergusson (2012) George Mackay Brown: The Life
- George Mackay Brown (2014) Beside the Ocean of Time
- George Mackay Brown (2014) Selected Poems 1954 – 1992
- Amy Liptrot (2016) The Outrun
- Hermann Palsson and Paul Edwards (1981) Orkneyinga Saga: The History of the Earls of Orkney (Classics)