Delivering the Post

The island’s main Post Office was at Hullion for many years, with smaller ones at Sourin and Wasbister. The mail used to be delivered by the post boat, which plied across Eynhallow Sound between Evie and Hullion pier. Each district had its own postman until the mid-1930s at which time a mail van was introduced to the island and one postman could cope with all the deliveries – except those in Sourin which were covered by a succession of postmen on foot.

The census of 1871 tells of two female letter-carriers, both of whom were 65 years of age. Barbara Craigie was one, living at Faro in Sourin. Betsy Craigie was the other, living at Roadside [Maybank] in Wasbister – known to one and all as ‘Post Betty’.

Above is the earliest photo of a Rousay postman, or ‘rural post runner’ as he was called in the census of 1901. He is Donald Baillie Mackay, who lived at Cruseday with his wife Mary Reid Mainland. Donald, or Danny as he was known, was the son of Mary Harrold, Gairsay, and Donald Mackay, and he was born in 1861. Mary was the daughter of John Mainland, Cotafea, and Mary Reid, Wasdale, and she was born in 1873.

Robert Craigie Marwick tells a story involving Danny in his book In Dreams We Moor: He was one of a group of men who had gathered at the Hullion shop one evening. There had been heavy rain and the nearby burn was in full spate. One of the group challenged Danny to leap the burn. Danny considered the matter for a minute and replied that he would be able to do it if he had a glass of whisky inside him. The drink was provided and Danny got ready for the dare. He took a good run at the burn but pulled up at the bank saying he was sure he could do it if he got another whisky. A second glass was produced and downed and Danny got set once more. This time he took a longer run, increased his speed until it looked as if he had enough momentum to take him across but again he pulled up at the edge. He assured his companions that just one more glass would do the trick. They debated the matter for a few minutes before consenting. After downing his third glass Danny removed his jacket, rolled up his shirt sleeves, tucked his trouser legs into his socks and took a very determined run at the burn. It looked as though nothing could stop him this time but he suddenly pulled up at the edge again. ‘What’s wrong this time?’ demanded his friends. ‘Boys’, replied Danny, ‘I doot I’ve had too much tae drink tae jump the burn the night.’

At the time of the 1901 census the Post Office at Avils, Hullion, was manned by 47-year-old post master John Inkster Craigie. He is pictured above with his wife Mary Sinclair of Stennisgorn, and their daughters Anna, and Isabella, who were employed as telegraphic clerks, and son John, who delivered telegraphic messages.

James Clouston was the sub-postmaster at Tou in Wasbister. He was the son of Magnus Clouston, Tou, and Jane Craigie, Quoyostray, and he was born in 1866. He was married to Annabella Craigie, daughter of James Craigie, Falquoy, and Janet Sinclair, Stennisgorn, and she was born June 1872. They had two children, Clara, who was born in 1892, and James, born in 1896. The family are pictured in the garden at Tou, with the Loch of Wasbister in the background.

John and Jean Inkster with their daughter Elsie and her daughter Thelma. Elsie, born in 1910, married Ronald Shearer, Curquoy, and Thelma was born in 1928.

Now we come to John Inkster, who, at the time of the 1911 census, was a crofter and rural postman living at Swartifield, Sourin. John was the son of Robert Inkster, Swartifield, and Mary Leonard, Digro, and he was born in 1864. He was married to Jane Irvine from Tingwall, Shetland, and they raised a family of eight children: Margaret Jessie, who was born in 1895; Mary Jane, in 1897; John, in 1900; William, in 1902; Samuel, in 1905; Robert, in 1907; Elizabeth [Elsie], in 1910; and Thomas, who was born in 1912. The family later moved to Essaquoy, John and his wife Jane finally living at Woo.

Here is an article from the columns of The Orcadian newspaper of 1932 recording the retirement of John Inkster:


Walked 65,000 miles in 35 years

Rousay publicly honoured Mr John [Alexander Leslie] lnkster, of Woo, at the Recreation Hall on Thursday evening, on the occasion of his retiral after 35 years’ service as postman in the Hillside district of Sourin. During that time, Mr Inkster estimates he has walked close on 65,000 miles. Mr W R Walls presided at the gathering and Rev. R R Davidson handed over a handsome chiming clock for Mr lnkster, and an umbrella for his wife.

Mr Inkster’s Career. Born on August 3, 1864, the fourth son of the late Mr and Mrs Robert lnkster, of Swartifield, Rousay, Mr lnkster, as a young man, spent some time at the fishing, and later took the tenancy of Housebay Farm. Appointed to the postal service in 1898, his round till 1914 was a daily one. During the War the service was reduced to three days per week, the daily service being resumed in 1931. Only five families occupy houses they were in when he started as a postman. Many homes he once called at are now in ruins.

Varied Activities. Apart from his work as a postman, Mr Inkster has taken a keen interest in Church and public affairs. He has been Superintendent of his Sunday School for 48 years, and an elder since 1894. In the social life of the island Mr Inkster has occupied an important part, and he is a popular chairman at social gatherings. Mr Inkster has acted as registrar for Rousay for 14 years.

He is a successful farmer also. Ten years ago he bought the holding of Woo in the Sourin valley, where he will spend his retirement. Two sons, Messrs William and Thomas lnkster, are now to work the farm. Mr lnkster won outright the silver cup, presented by Messrs Reith and Anderson, Aberdeen, for the best five lambs, at Rousay’s annual show a fortnight ago.

An Orkney-Shetland Wedding. Mr Inkster was married on December 28th 1894, to Miss Jane Irvine, a native of Shetland. Seven of eight children survive. The eldest son, John, served in the Seaforth Highlanders in the Great War and died in hospital in July 1918. The second son, William, is at home. The third son, Samuel, was a bridegroom in the double wedding recently reported in The Orcadian. He lives at Wasdale, Rousay. The fourth son, Robert, is in Canada, and Thomas, the youngest, works at home.

Maggie Jessie, the eldest daughter, is married to Mr A Donaldson, blacksmith, Orequoy. Jeannie is the wife of Mr A Harcus, miller, Rapness Mill, Westray. Elsie, the youngest daughter, is married to Mr Ronald Shearer, Curquoy, Rousay.


James Campbell Bruce Craigie – Jim o’ Deithe [1895-1977]. Jim started with the Post Office in the late 1920s. At first, deliveries were on foot, then by push bike. He is pictured above having just made a delivery at Cott, Frotoft. When mail vans were introduced fewer men were needed and Jim was offered a job as postman in Quoyloo. He accepted and was there for 17 years, until his retirement in 1955. He came back to Rousay in 1957.

I now occupy Jim’s old croft – Deithe, in Wasbister. When I moved in I found his postie’s cap – and it remains in good condition after all these years!

Postman John Marwick with his mail van in 1930 [above left], and a newer model while delivering at Avelshay later the same year. Below he is pictured with postmistress Sadie Gibson outside the Hullion post office at Avils.

Postman John Marwick lived at Breek, Frotoft. His daily sorting was done to perfection – never a wrong delivery. He was a stickler for time too, making sure his deliveries were made at the same time every day. He was the son of William Marwick, Essaquoy, and Sarah Leonard, Quoygray. He was married to Aggie Johnston, daughter of James Johnston, Breek, and Bell Corsie. John and Aggie had three sons, John, James, and Hugh, who was himself a postman in Harray for a number of years.

Postman Roy Russell, pictured above delivering at Tratland in 1960, was the son of James Russell, Brendale, and his first wife Agnes Munro. Roy was married to Anna Learmonth, daughter of Robert Learmonth and Violet Inkster, Cavit. Roy lived at Myres when he first became postman, and he used an autocycle to collect the van each morning returning home at night after garaging the van below Hullion.  His father lived at Burrian.  After a short time, he and his father swopped houses; Roy moved to Burrian, to save the journey to and from Myres each day, and his father went to live at Myres.  In the early 1960s he must have been able to garage the post van at home because he moved back to Myres and the van was then kept there. He left Rousay about 1967 and moved to Holm to become postman there.

Postman John Inkster, Craigearn, photographed above in 1975. In 1948 he married Dorothy Mainland, daughter of Hugh Mainland, Weyland and Gairsay, later Hurtiso, and Alice Craigie, Falquoy. They had four sons: John, Robert, Bryan, and Steven.

In those days the Sourin post office was based at Hurtiso, and in the early days of her marriage Dorothy stayed at her parent’s home and ran the office. The Inksters later moved to the “Cop” and John took over driving the post van from Roy Russell. Dot Munro ‘came with the shop’, and was a great help to Dorothy and John. She did part of the post run, covering Hillside Road and lower Sourin on foot, bike, and latterly moped. Apparently Dot’s mental arithmetic was phenomenal – as was her wit! John was in bad health, and was allowed to take early retirement. Despite that he was a busy man, what with the shop and a grocery van to run too. The postal delivery was done on a temporary basis by John’s sons Bob and Bryan, and Tommy Gibson took over on a more permanent basis in 1970.

In the 1970s the island’s post office was housed in a shed beside Brough, Frotoft, where Margaret Mainland was post mistress, and ably assisted by her mother – Jeannie o’ Broch’. After a succession of relief postmen Gary Jarvis, who lived at Braes, was appointed full-time postman on the recommendation of John Inkster. The first postbus, a Chrysler Avenger, came to Rousay in 1978. In the photo above left, Councillor Nigel Firth is handing over the ignition key to Gary, flanked by post office representatives from Kirkwall. Margaret then bought the first ticket from Gary, watched by a small group of islanders which included Mansie Flaws, Wyre, Robbie Kent, Scockness, Mary Gibson, Brinola, George Sutherland, Viera View, Tommy Gibson, Brinola, and Norman and Hilda Reed, Lower Hammerfield. The post bus not only provided a service for islanders – quite a few tourists visited Rousay with the sole intention of travelling round the island in the vehicle in order to tick it off their ‘post bus list’.

Billy Kemp took over as Rousay’s postman on Friday July 21st 1978. He is pictured above left at Ervadale with the Chrysler Avenger post bus c.1981, and above right with post mistress Margaret Mainland at Greenfield beside the new Austin Maestro post bus. After Margaret and her husband Hugh moved to Greenfield in 1979 a new post office was housed in an extension between the main house and the garage. The colour photograph below shows Billy beside his Peugeot 309 post bus, having been presented with his KW-region Postman of the Year award by Mrs Helen Firth at Vacquoy, in May 1995. The ‘KW-region’ includes Orkney, Caithness and part of Sutherland. Billy retired in 2014 after 36 years delivering the Rousay mail.

Margaret Mainland has the final word: “I enjoyed working with all the postmen. They helped out lots of people in the community, and never expected any thanks or reward for it – but usually were rewarded around Christmas with home knitted socks and a bottle or two in appreciation of their help during the year.”

My thanks to Margaret Mainland, Tommy Gibson, Billy Kemp, and Bryan and Stevie Inkster – all of whom supplied information and photographs.