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

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, 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.

Picture The author with a portrait of George Mackay Brown, the poet who lived next door (Mark Seager)