In Print

Poem & 3 Stories


As constant traffic smooths the way,
So thoughts recurring day by day
For us long gone joys recast
And pluck the thorns from the past.

So dearer grows “Lang Syne” for me –
You gladden every memory.
Well I remember all thy charms –
The laird’s big house, the cheerful farms;

Gay festal board or humbler fare,
Each guest was ever welcome there.
No politics or worldly strife
Clouded the sunshine of your life;

Each morn brought with the rising sun
The daily task so gladly done.
Ah! how the bairnies loved to play
With father in the fields all day,

Returning home in huge delight,
And boastful tell of all their might –
How father let them “Auld Dick” ride
Whilst he walked, watchful, by their side:

You good old horse, how well you knew
What confidence we placed in you.
Then at tea-time, what news to tell –
Which lamb was ill, what calf was well;

How this or that quey milked to-day;
How many eggs the hens would lay:
With care they’d pay the grocer’s bill
And leave enough for home use still.

Next, while the gude-wife clears away,
Does the last milking for the day,
The husband, fishing by the shore,
Adds cuithes and sillocks to his store.

Ah! how the nights are then beguiled
By dances, games, or gossip mild;
Thus every day is made complete
With honest toil and joy discreet.

Nor should I here forget to state
How sport returns at each fixed date –
The peat-cut and the home-brewed ale,
With dinner taken in the vale;

Your “muckle supper” and the ball
The farmer gives in rustic hall;
The famed prize, the “bannock cake,”
For him whose luck it be to take

The last cartload of oats inside;
Then if he fail his prize divide,
With what wild fun he’s captive made,
The victim of a harmless raid;

It’s well if in escaping he
Hath no clothes seized as penalty.
Great the good-humoured rivalry
Betwixt your neighb’ring friends and thee,

Who first shall have their harvest in,
When he who has the luck to win
May mark his victory in the race
By that old emblem of disgrace,

The dog of straw placed in the night
Astride the roof to catch the sight
Of all who pass, that they may see,
And, knowing, laugh in cheerful glee.

Even your weddings are sublime
And give amusement for all time;
The bride’s own friends must duly meet
To wash that blushing lady’s feet.

Oh! there’s a fun in all you do;
Ah! ever to such ways be true,
And ne’er to modern customs bend,
Preserve your own unto the end,

Honest, noble, generous, kind,
And to all evil ever blind;
Minds uncorrupted, pure, and true –
Would that the world held more like you!

E’er to my mind you will appear
In peaceful dreams from year to year;
For the contentment you reveal,
A happier man myself I feel.

Though times were hard and profits small,
With hopeful hearts you faced it all;
In my most earnest heart I pray
You yet may have a richer day.

If I your thoughts could now inspire,
I’d beg you grant one last desire,
That you would sometimes think of me,
As I will ever think of ye;

My loyalty shall never shake,
My love for Rousay, ne’er forsake;
Nothing I’d write could do you due,
Therefore, farewell; once more, adieu.


[Published in the Orkney Herald – September 5th 1900]
© British Newspaper Archive



The article below, written by Mary Catherine Rose, was printed in
the Orkney Herald on February 5th 1919.
© British Newspaper Archive.

[In 1861 the Sourin Free Kirk manse in Rousay was occupied by the Reverend Neil Patrick Rose and his newly married wife Mary Catherine Leslie. He was the son of farmer Alexander Rose and Elizabeth Payne, and was born at Weydale, parish of Thurso, in 1832. He studied in Aberdeen and Edinburgh Universities, enrolling in New College, Edinburgh, 1854-58. He married Mary Catherine Leslie on September 24th 1860, at the home of the bride, 10 Broughton Place, Edinburgh. She was born on 15th June 1834, in Edinburgh, the fifth oldest of eleven children of John Leslie, house proprietor, and Mary Wallace.]

It is now over fifty years since I left my home in Edinburgh to settle in Rousay, one of the Orkney Islands. My husband was minister of the Free Church. I myself had been brought up an Episcopalian.

We started from Granton early in the month of October by steamer to Stromness, in the so-called Mainland of Orkney, near the great new Naval Base at Scapa Flow. After a few days at Stromness, we proceeded on our journey by road to Evie. We left Evie in a small open boat, expecting to reach our island home in the afternoon, but owing to the stormy weather the boat could not reach the shore near our manse, and we were landed some five miles away, with no road to take us to our house. A farmer kindly offered a cart to convey us home. It was now about eight o’clock in the evening and quite dark. The cart jogged along up and down over the rough ground, and, when we reached the Manse, we found a neighbouring farmer and his wife kindly waiting to welcome us. A dinner had been ready since three o’clock in the afternoon!

Next morning, on looking out, I saw curious little grey stone buildings here and there. I asked my husband if these were the byres and stables for cows and horses. “Oh, no,” he said, “these are the cottages where the people live!” I said nothing, but thought it was a strange place I had come to reside in! That afternoon my husband suggested that we should visit some of the people in these curious dwellings. I must confess I wondered how we would get in at the doors of the cottages; they were so low.

But the interiors were most interesting; and it turned out that while my husband was right in saying that the people lived in these houses, I had also been right in thinking that they sheltered the animals as well. There was only an earthen floor with a flagstone on the ground in the centre, and another large stone put up as a back. This was the fireplace of the apartment, with a hole in the roof to let out the smoke. The cow lived at the other end of the cottage, and I remember that during our visit that afternoon to one of the houses she gave forth loud groans.

The island is about 14 miles round, being five miles long by four miles broad. It is fertile, and rises to a height of about 400 feet. There were three churches in it in my time, and the population numbered about a thousand people. It had two shops, but no doctor. It is the best island for grouse shooting in the Orkneys, and there is good fishing in its six fresh-water lochs.

On Sundays the people turned out well to church. Many walked to the service, which began at midday, from the far end of the island. There was no hurry either on week days or on Sundays, and the people liked a long sermon. The Free Church people were fortunate in having a precentor who was very musical. After my arrival, he used to come to the Manse to hear our piano and our organ, there being no other instruments in the island. During the winter the choir met in the church once a week for practice. The precentor trained the choir well; they could even sing the Hallelujah Chorus. The small organ used to be carried down from the Manse to the church. It is not generally known that instrumental music was so early introduced to our island church in Orkney. We were using an organ every Sunday while the good people in the south were forbidding its use as a Popish invention! So in some ways at least we were ahead of the times, and not behind them !

The uncertainty of the post was one of the drawbacks of the island. Many times it would be a fortnight between the mails. The Manse was seven miles from the shore post office, and when it was thought that the winds and the tides and the currents would allow the boat to sail, a woman was engaged to take the letters to the boat. She left the Manse at 7 a.m., and got back at 6 p.m., having to wait for the return boat with the letters and papers from the south. For this journey on foot she was paid threepence and her tea. There were few newcomers to the island, but once a tramp succeeded in landing. He was a negro, the first specimen most of the people had ever seen, and he scared the inhabitants by wandering about the island wearing a minister’s gown. He met with no encouragement, and soon he was seen no more !

For many years there was not much progress in the island. The people were backward in regard to the cultivation of the land, etc. Then came a resident proprietor, who had a modern house built. He lived there most of the year, and things soon began to show signs of improvement. For instance, a road was made right round the island. When I first went to the island the people took no interest in flowers or vegetables. Now they win prizes at the Kirkwall Flower Shows.

M. C. R., in Oban Times.



“Orkney Mails” is the title of an exceedingly interesting article in the January number of “The Post Office Magazine.” The author is Mr Alex. Cameron, Head Postmaster at Kirkwall, who reviews the mail service in Orkney for the past 230 years. Transport pictures in the article range from the bullock cart of the old days to the modern mail ‘plane discharging at Kirkwall. Other pictures show the Shapinsay mail steamer s.s. lona under full steam and the South Isles mail steamer Hoy Head lying off Hoy Jetty while horse carts in the ebb are transferring goods from the mail steamer’s small boat.

The article is as follows: –

On most maps of Scotland the Orkneys are shown inset in the Moray Firth, but their position is almost 100 miles in a straight line north of that, and considerably more by the usual means of communication. They lie to the north of Caithness, separated from the Mainland by the Pentland Firth. Prior to the advent of steam there have been as many as twenty days without a mail crossing, and even the present mail steamer St Ola has failed on as many as five consecutive days to cross this turbulent stretch of water. When Captain Swanson will not cross with the St Ola, then you can rest assured that it is really “rough.”

When the first attempt in 1709 was made to establish a Post Office in Kirkwall the salary of the Postmaster was to be £5 a year, and the total cost each year for conveying the mail between Kirkwall and Wick via the islands of Burray and South Ronaldshay was to be £26.

In December of the same year the Town Council wished their Commissioner “to do all in his power to have a Post Office established in this toun upon the publict charges of the Government.” Their Commissioner was apparently not successful, for in 1714, when the Town Council wished to forward a Commission to the Convention of Royal Burghs and a letter to the Provost of Edinburgh, the Treasurer was instructed “to hire a post to go to Edinburgh.” The Treasurer was to “pay to the said Post twelve pounds Scots being the half of his wages with half-a-crown to buy shoes ere he goe of and other twelve pounds att his return.”

Long Lane to Edinboro’.

In 1713 it took a letter 8 days to reach Kirkwall from Edinburgh by the quickest route and sometimes 14 days “even when it was sent with despatch.” This proved awkward on at least two occasions when owing to the delay Kirkwall lost its vote in the return of a Member to Parliament. (Kirkwall was included with Dingwall, Tain, Dornoch, and Wick in what were termed the Northern Burghs).

Success ultimately must have been achieved, though they were rather unfortunate in their choice of one Postmaster, for it is recanted that in 1797 “Thomas Urqhart, Postmaster in the toun of Kirkwall and County of Orkney indicted at the instance of His Majesty’s Advocate of the crimes of Theft from the Post Office had falsehood and forgery,” was found guilty and sentenced to death. The sentence was duly carried out.

One hundred years ago the mail for the South was despatched from Kirkwall on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, by a foot post to Holm, a distance of six miles, where a boat with four men crossed this island to Water Sound whence by another boat with two men it was taken to South Ronaldshay. Through this island it was conveyed to the south end where yet another boat with four men took it over the Pentland Filth. Half-way across the Firth it was met by a boat from the South side. The mails and passengers, if any, were transferred in mid-channel and each boat turned on its homeward journey.

After sailing packets had been utilised a steamer service between Stromness, Kirkwall (Scapa) and Thurso (Scrabster) was introduced round about 1876, and in 1892 the present mail steamer St Ola, under Captain McBain, began her long period of service.

Era of the Air Mail

On Tuesday, 29th May, 1934, the first British inland air mail service was inaugurated between Inverness and Kirkwall, and since that date all first-class postal matter from the South for Orkney has been carried by plane without extra charge; a letter posted in London at 6.15 p.m. is delivered shortly after mid-day on the following day in Kirkwall.

It is interesting to note that the driver of Orkney’s first Post Office van to carry ail mails was Mr J. Barnett, a great-grandson of the first mail carrier ever employed in the Orkney Islands by the Postmaster General. The great-grandfather, Mr James Barnett, used to carry the entire Orkney South mail in one sack on his back along the route quoted above.

Kirkwall is the distributing centre for the Mainland and the North Isles, and the services are maintained by official van, steam, motor, and rowing boats. The mails for Rousay are conveyed by van to Evie, thence by motor boat to Rousay across a channel rendered dangerous by tides and which in 1893 was the scene of an accident when, owing to stormy weather, the mail boat capsized, two boat-men and four passengers losing their lives. An entry in the Head Office diary dated October 12, 1893, has a reference to the accident, and reads: “The Kirkwall to Rousay bag was washed ashore to-day. Newspapers loose in bag all in pulp. Letters tied in a bundle except outside letters were entire, ends slightly chafed. Letters duly delivered.”

The larger North Isles are served by steamer, which sails from Kirkwall four days a week in summer and three days a week in winter. North Ronaldshay, the most northerly island of the group, receives its mail via Sanday. It is conveyed across that island to Lady Shore whence a motor boat makes the crossing, and it says much for the courage and skill of the boatmen that their failures are so few.

The Isles

In common with all the channels between the islands there are always strong currents, and it is not often calm. One inland – Shapinsay – has a mail steamer all to itself with sailings so arranged that each day’s mail arriving by air is delivered in the island the same afternoon. The island of Copinsay, which has one lighthouse, one farm, and one school, receives its mail once a week by rowing boat, but receipt is governed largely by weather conditions. The mails for the South Isles are distributed from Stromness, whence they are conveyed by the steamer Hoy Head giving a four days a week service throughout the year. With the exception of Longhope (on the island of Hoy) where there is a proper pier, the mails for all the other calling places are taken by the steamer’s boat (which uses a sail and in addition to mails is generally well loaded with the merchandise required by the islanders) to the shore, where the Post Office takes charge. The place of call at Flotta depends entirely on weather conditions as to which of three landing places is used.

Then, are between 20 and 30 inhabited islands in the group, and on 16 of these there are Post Offices (46 in all). To visit each of these offices even once annually takes up rather more of one’s time than may be necessary to visit a similar number of offices on the south side of the Pentland Firth as so many of these visits necessitate overnight absences. The route generally followed is that taken by the mails, and the Department, recognising the prevailing weather conditions, have very thoughtfully provided the Head Postmaster with an oilskin coat and hat. It is often required.

The Surprise Visit

Almost every kind of transport is used except a railway train – steam, motor, sailing, and rowing boats; motor buses, motor cars and carts; and even the “flapper bracket” of a motor cycle, but the last is not recommended. On a recent visit to North Ronaldshay for survey and check of accounts the journey was made by aeroplane – time taken 30 minutes. (A direct steamer from Kirkwall takes three to four hours for this journey). On this occasion the element of surprise was undoubtedly maintained!

Extracted from the Orkney Herald, January 18th 1939.
© British Newspaper Archive


Slowly the boat backed out from Evie Pier, as if unwilling to break the peace of that lovely day. Then around with a sweeping curve, and we were on our way to Rousay, with its romantic hills and valleys. Overhead the sun blazed out from a cloudless sky, and as we crossed Aikerness Bay I could see the sand gleaming white through sparkling, fresh waters. All around was basking in Mediterranean sunshine, while a soft cool of wind came stealing from the west. The run across did not take more than a quarter of an hour, and with high hopes for a good day I left the boat at Hullion Pier.

On reaching the main road I put on my clips, and readjusting my lunch bag on my back, set out to explore the island. Rousay is encircled by a road, the road that never begins or ends. The road leads one through varying pictures of scenic beauty, by the seashore and over heather-clad braes. Fisher’s crofts stand by its side and cattle browse over the bounding dykes, and nowhere does it lead one out of the beautiful peace of a prosperous and contented countryside. Here indeed may be found that rural prosperity which Goldsmith so pathetically describes in his “Deserted Village.” Along the road I set out, and soon was gifted with a lovely view of Rendall’s shores, with Gairsay nearer at hand. The picture, with Wyre in the foreground, held one spellbound with the peculiar fascination of islands. The intervening sea was a study in colour for any artist.

Trumland Village

I pedalled on, and soon reached the village of Trumland. Here stands one of Orkney’s finest examples of domestic architecture, Trumland House. It looks down on a village which reminds one of fairy tales in its studied neatness. A few houses, a pier, a grocer shop, and joiner shop form the nucleus of Rousay’s social life. Once past Trumland Village the scene embodies more of the spirit of solitude. A few scattered cottages lie along the roadside, while the heather looks blacker and more untamed. One cannot say that this part of Rousay is not beautiful, however. On the contrary, that every sense of loneliness seems to impart a charm which is beauty in itself. The quiet road, the sweeping bays and the neat crofts carry with them a sense of lovely dignity which finds its zenith in the rugged, brown hills.

And then, around at the back of the island is the loveliest district of all. Wild and beautiful, its most striking characteristic is its natural touch. Here the hand of man has never hewn with devastating axe the beauties of Nature. Rather has he added to them, thus making the country, if possible, more beautiful. By the time I had reached here my watch pointed to five o’clock in the afternoon, and my appetite pointed to that bag on my back. It had been one o’clock when I had set out, and ten miles on the Rousay road will whet anyone’s appetite even although they are given four hours to cover them. Accordingly I halted and, seated at the side of the road, I regaled myself with a few sandwiches and milk.

Rousay’s Happy Medium

Sitting there smoking my after-meal cigarette, I thought that here, if anywhere, was a land of peace and plenty. The countryside bore every trace of being well farmed, and at no house could be seen any of those terrible signs seen elsewhere, denoting poverty and bad management among the farmers. That day I had seen flourishing crops and well-fed cattle; I might almost say I had been in a land flowing with milk and honey. What is the reason for this obvious prosperity of Rousay? The answer seems to lie in the fact that the farms are only enough to keep one family comfortably. Certainly there are big farms in Rousay, but the majority can be worked on the family principle. This method makes all more or less comparatively well off. I do not mean that the Rousay crofter is a rich man, but he is nevertheless a man in a secure position. Rousay seems to have struck its happy medium of giving all enough, but none too much.

I got up and slowly made my way along until finally I was coming back again to the mainland side of the island. Here, in the northern end of the island is a district bereft of humanity and left to the ravages of the wild north wind. Coming round towards Westness we pass land which was one occupied by fishers’ crofts. Here, where now is only barren waste, there once lived a happy and contented little community which has now gone forever. What a page in Orkney’s internal history has been left unwritten!

In a short time I was back again at my starting point. I had seen one of Orkney’s most prosperous and most beautiful of islands, and I came away with mixed feelings. I will not here try to analyse these feelings, but I may mention that it is my opinion that the world needs to copy Rousay in its industry and at the same time in its preservation of the natural beauties of the country. P.

Extracted from the Orkney Herald, March 29th 1939
© British Newspaper Archive