A stone ship gone ashore

Gable-end to the Atlantic, the Stromness Museum is packed with the flotsam and jetsam of Orkney’s past. The poet Kathleen Jamie combs through its treasures

Kathleen Jamie | March/April 2013

It was 30 years ago that I first saw the Orkney islands, a teenager lured by archaeology and wild shores. The attraction still holds. I’ve never tired of crossing the Pentland Firth, looking out for birds and dolphins if it’s calm enough, then entering the waters of Stromness harbour. I’m always glad to see the low hills behind the town, and the waterside houses, each standing on its own pier with its gable turned toward the sea. The sky here seems vast, whatever the weather.

The Orkney islands are many things, but they have never been "remote". Vessels have sailed to and from Stromness since Viking times, Neolithic even. For some ships, it was the last port of call before they set off on voyages of discovery, often taking Orcadians with them. Whalers likewise left from Stromness to head up to the ice. Not all returned, but those that did came back laden with strange tales and artefacts and whale oil. It’s an atmosphere you can still taste; the town’s long 19th-century street is in itself a maritime museum. The houses are tall "brownstone" affairs, built by prosperous sea captains and pilots. Starlings squabble on their chimney pots. Their old derricks and net-houses still stand, and blue plaques have been fastened to some walls, hinting at horrible adventures. Here lived Eliza Fraser who was shipwrecked off the Great Barrier Reef and made it ashore, only to be captured by aborigines. There stood Mrs Humphrey’s scurvy hospital, where whalermen recovered after being trapped in the Arctic ice. Here is Login’s well, where noteworthy ships took on water. Captain Cook put in here, as did Sir John Franklin, en route to seek a Northwest Passage in 1845. Cook’s vessels returned without him. Franklin’s disappeared.

Stromness Museum, domestic in scale, is a stolid, two-storey stone building on its own pier, side-on to the sea. I make a point of going there when I’m in town. A rainy afternoon is best, especially in winter, when dusk falls by three. That way, you feel the atmosphere of the place, and it will not be busy—at least not with visitors. It will be busy with things. From the moment you pass beneath the stuffed eagle that presides over the door, your attention is courted by objects, arranged mostly in discreet displays. The rooms are in no wise incoherent. They are simply full.

The museum is the responsibility of the Orkney Natural History Society Museum Trust, which sounds Victorian, and was. The society was founded in 1837, this building erected in 1858, specifically for the purpose. And here the collection has remained. Knowing that their museum has itself become a museum piece, the trustees have opted to retain its Victorian high-minded enthusiasm (and glass cabinets) and to display as much as they possibly can. What cannot fit in a cabinet has been tucked into a corner, hung on a wall, or stowed under a table: a clamour of objects is preserved in an old-fashioned hush of feather and polish and wood. The museum is dedicated to maritime and natural history, and there is something very satisfying in this union. As if ships were animate, and birds and animals were messengers from distant shores.

Today, I buy my ticket from the custodian behind his desk and, as ever, wonder where to begin. Beside him is a little wooden cabinet with eight or ten shallow drawers, so I opt for that and open one of the drawers, not without trepidation. It slides out willingly. Within are rows and rows of moths, all pinned down. Some are still iridescent, others minuscule, with a wingspan no wider than my thumbnail. Each moth’s marvellous name is written on a label beside it. All were collected on these islands years ago, so the custodian tells me, by a Mr Lorimer, who wrote the definitive "Lepidoptera of the Orkney Islands". Who would have thought there were so many moths in this windswept place? We might quail nowadays at the thought of gassing moths and butterflies and pinning them down, but had Mr Lorimer been less assiduous in his collecting, what would we know of the Brown-line bright-eye, the Red Sword-grass or the Shark moth? 

Closing the moth drawer, which actually smells of mothballs, I am attracted to an object made of light, high in a niche on the other side of the room. Were the moths alive, they would surely flutter toward this glinting thing. It’s a lighthouse lens, and it occupies its space like a tabernacle. Properly speaking, it’s a catadioptric lens with a silver-plated copper reflector. The label says it belonged to Hoy Low Lighthouse, which stands across the water on the island of Graemsay. Now, it forms the centrepiece of a small display about lighthousekeepers and their families. These people are also represented by a ship in a bottle, a dinner plate and a chronometer from Sule Skerry—which truly is a remote place, just a rock in the sea 40 miles west of here. An early photograph shows a lighthouse family in a rocky inlet on the Pentland Skerries. Presumably they have just landed, ready to spend months on that scrap of land. One young woman is mounted on a donkey, the creature all but obscured by her skirts, while another is holding a baby. Around them stand their men, the uniformed, capped, bearded bearers of a great maritime responsibility.

This is how I spend my visit, alighting on this, then that, becoming absorbed here, then there. I peer into glass cabinets and see a real pirate’s pistol, a herring lass’s creel, a buoy made of dog skin. There is even a whale’s skull. Of course there’s a whale’s skull! How could there not be, in a place like this? For want of anywhere else, it has been left on the floor under a table. It’s small, as whale skulls go, otherwise they’d never have got it through the door. The long jawbone is grey with age. Moths in a drawer, a whale under a table, a lighthouse in a niche and, on top of the cabinets just under the ceiling, a fleet of model ships sailing by; I’ve only been here half an hour, and already I’m filled with stories, curiosities, tales. Also, with respect for the skills of our forebears. Who now can sew a sail or fashion a buoy from dog skin, or navigate by the stars? 

Every Victorian museum needs a hero, a 19th-century reformer or philanthropist, a missionary or explorer. In the case of Stromness, the hero is Dr John Rae, the subject of the museum’s only diorama, which has pride of place. Rae was an Arctic explorer, and the life-sized model shows him in a scene from 1848. Bearded, with a fur cap and mittens, he’s kneeling in a canvas dinghy crossing a fibreglass river. Oddly, for a man who survived by adopting Inuit technology, he’s paddling with two tin dinner plates. Like many Orkneymen, Rae sailed to Canada as an employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company. He became a first-rate explorer and surveyor who travelled light and fast, covering huge distances on snowshoes. Nearby are his shotgun, fiddle and quadrant. He carried a few books, thawing them with his own body heat.

It was Rae who discovered the fate of the 1845 expedition. Franklin’s two ships had been lavishly fitted out, but they and all their 128 men had simply vanished. A huge search operation was mounted and many ships sailed north, but it was Rae who, by talking to Inuit people, pieced together the ghastly story and brought it back. Franklin’s ships had been icebound, then sunk, so the survivors had begun to trek south toward the mainland until, starved and deranged, they had resorted to cannibalism. All were dead. For his efforts, Rae was vilified by the navy and the English establishment. It was years before he was vindicated. He did all right though. Weary of his extreme bachelor life, he married, when he was 46, a girl of 21, and they lived happily between Orkney and London. Next to the model of her husband is a picture of the young Mrs Rae, corseted and crinolined, alongside notes in Rae’s own hand on how to build an igloo.

This museum has kept faith with the objects in its care, with their ability to carry meaning all on their own, free of didactic intervention. A label, a little context, and that’s all. We visitors are left alone to browse as we will, at close quarters. Model ships, whalebones, lighthouse lenses all become homely and companionable, even as they suggest far-off places and times. 

A few objects really are domestic. Next to Rae’s boat and snowshoes stands a rocking chair. Whether by accident or design, it symbolises a wholly different way of human life. It belonged to George Mackay Brown, Orkney’s great 20th-century poet, who lived in a small flat overlooking the museum. He never left his islands if he could help it, and ranged abroad only in imagination. But what imagination! Somewhere he wrote, "It is as if the past is a great ship that has gone ashore, and archivist and writer must gather as much of the rich squandered cargo as they can." His own poet’s chair now forms part of that gathered-up cargo, next to a portrait of him, and a vase of silk daffodils.

If the ground floor belongs to all things maritime, the airy upper floor is for the birds. The natural-history gallery is preserved in its Victorian splendour. Aside from electric lights, nothing modern intrudes. You climb a turning stair, and enter a room of silent birds perched in elegant cabinets. Long-dead finches cling to twigs, their wings extended; seabirds stand on model ledges, waders peer sightlessly at the shelf below. All the birds of Orkney are assembled here, avidly collected long ago. So much shooting! I drift along, peering at wrens and twite and owls. Fastened to the wall is a huge turtle, which must have followed the gulf stream, only to find itself in an Orkney net. There is a walrus skull with tusks, and a coconut that somehow bobbed ashore after drifting thousands of miles. I’m losing concentration, and thinking about going outdoors, before dark. That’s all right; a museum should leave us ready again for the here-and-now, after it has drawn us in and revealed its wonders.

What makes me pine for the outdoors are two Bombycilla garrulus, or waxwings. The label says they were shot at Harray, Orkney, in November 1935. The taxidermist has mounted them on a slim branch, in the act of eating berries. That must have been a "waxwing winter"—one of those years when thousands of these exotics arrive in Britain from Scandinavia. As chance would have it, this year is one too. Local birders say there are waxwings in town, alive and garrulous and eating rosehips in the gardens. I remind myself what to look for by studying these stuffed specimens, their long crests and cappuccino-brown backs and yellow-tipped tails. And I almost forgive the collectors of yore, with their hungry nets and guns. 

Stromness Museum Open all year round; see orkneycommunities.co.uk/stromnessmuseum/

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