LINKLATER - Aith, Sandwick, Orkney


The people and place in Orkney

Staying with the subject of names, it is not clear to me from the censuses exactly which properties are being referred to. For example, in 1821 is Eath, Aithstown an error? If so was it in the original reporting, or did it occur in transcription? Should the correct name have been East Aithstown? In 1841 I have no idea what property is referred to as ‘Chamber of Aith’. In 1851 East Aith seems to have expanded to the extent that 3 separately recorded dwellings, yet that does not sit well with the 1888 O.S. map. Again, in 1881 with Janet ensconced in solitary splendour in Aith Post Office, ‘strangers’ occupy 2 other ‘Aith’ properties as well as another occupying West Aith. Of particular interest to me is identifying the property or properties occupied by Janet. In 1891 she is recorded in Sandwick P.O. Was this the same building as Aith Post Office? There is a photograph dated 1900 of a female sitting outside a building clearly named Sandwick Post Office together with four males wearing what look like they might have been P.O. uniforms with a fifth bearded man in ‘civvies’. But it seems impossible that the female could be Janet, who in 1901, aged 75 was still described as Post Mistress, i.e. not retired, but living at Aith Post Office. Come 1911, after Janet herself had died, occupied Aith properties were recorded as Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 4. Again, the 1888 O.S. map provides no answers, nor is there much help to be had on the ground today i.e. 2016.

Sandwick map The name Sandwick is no doubt derived from the sandy bay, which is the principal one on the west coast between Stromness and Birsay, wick signifying a bay. The extreme length of the parish is fully 6 miles but various calculations and measurements convince me that its mean length is about 4½ miles, and its mean breadth about 3¾. It is bounded by Birsay on the north ; by Harray and the loch of Stenness on the east ; by the same loch and Stromness on the south ; and by the Atlantic on the west.

The bay is now called Bay of Skaill. When Clouston was writing, no distinction was made between the tidal Loch of Stenness and its more northerly, fresh-water twin, the Loch of Harray. He would now have to say that Sandwick was “bounded by Birsay on the north ; by the Loch of Harray on the east ; the Loch of Stenness and Stromness parish on the south.”

This parish cannot be denominated mountainous, nor even hilly, when compared with the neighbouring ones, being more flat and cultivated than any of them ; but a range of hills forms its west boundary except at the bay; and from these the hills of Gyran and Lingafiold [fiold means hill] stretch eastward near its south side, and those of Vestrafiold and Yonbell at its north boundary. These, as well as the lower lands and valleys remote from the sea, slope gently eastward towards the loch of Stenness, forming part of that extensive amphitheatre in the centre of the west mainland, the area of which is little elevated above the loch. Vestrafiold, or the west hill, is the highest, and may be about 300 or 400 feet above the level of the sea. A little east of the Sandy bay are eminences or low sandy hills, called Sandfiold and Kierfiold, which seem to be formed in a great measure of the sand blown from the bay by the west wind, which is prevalent and violent. The latter of these hills was formerly considered beautiful for its verdure, as it was covered with grass to the summit, but for some years it has been forced to submit to the plough, and I suppose it is more profitable, though less pleasing to the eye than formerly.

The map above by John Thomson, originally published in 1822, is pretty hopelessly inaccurate. Keen cartophiles will notice that, among other things, I have corrected the line taken by the road from Stromness to Stenness via Aith. Thomson's, in common with all previous maps, made no distinction between the Lochs of Harray and ‘Stenhouse’, but by 1887, if not before, the Ordinance Survey named the lochs separately. The Thomson map also indulges in the bad habit of calling Mainland ‘Pomona’, but most heinous of all, it fails to indicate Linklater, an omission I have rectified. I only include the map because it is pretty and might have been familiar to James and his family. The red and yellow boundaries differentiate Bishoprick from Earldom lands. Four properties referred to by me here and elsewhere are indicated; Nether Benzieclett - NB, Kierfold - K, East House - EH and Windywalls - WW. Ther latter is where David was born.

On the ground today, Aith is pretty much as it must have been when mapped in 1888. Starting with the building at West Aith, there is still an intact dwelling to be seen [in 2015] although orientated approximately east-west rather than north-south as on the map. [See photo.] Moving to East Aith, on the site of what was the School House is now a modern bungalow. South of that, the building indicated as ‘1160’ is now ruinous. [See image] Taking the road running eastwards past what is marked on the 1888 O.S. map as the Post Office, there are two buildings approximating to those marked on the map; the first is a modernised bungalow with adjacent outbuilding or barn which might, on further inspection, turn out to be the site of the old Post Office - ‘1168’ on the map. What is not shown on the map is anything at point X, whereas today there is a substantial two-storey building which I am told used to be ‘the ’ Post Office and outside which is a telephone box. [See image]. This can't have been where Janet lived, or surely it would haver featured on the 1888 O.S. map. On the other hand, it seems a more suitable building in which to accommodate paying guests, which, according to Peace's Orkney Almanac, Janet did.

Peace's Orkney Almanac and County Directory was first published in 1863 and contains a great deal of useful information, but not all of it totally reliable. For example, Janet's husband David died in 1874 yet was named in Peace's Almanac for 1875 as the Sandwick Postmaster. The almanacs for 1873 and 1874 also named David as postmaster. Prior to that a John Linklater was named as the Sandwick postmaster. Among six half-siblings from his father's first marriage, David had a half-brother called John [b. 1802 d. 1887]; whether this John was the Post Master is uncertain, but what is probable is that Caroline Linklater, recorded in the 1861 as a servant living at Aith with David and Janet, was the seventh of nine children born to this same half-brother, John. From 1876-1902 Peace's Almanac names “Mrs Linklater” as the Sandwick Postmaster (sic) as well as a “merchant”. This was ‘our’ Janet Linklater née Irvine. Published annually Peace's Almanac serves to fill in some of the blanks left in the decade-long gaps between censuses. Peace's Almanac names, among a great deal else, all those in business in each parish including tradesmen and postal workers. In all cases, whether for ‘merchant’ or ‘lodgings’ Janet's address is given simply as Aith. Come 1880, according to Peace's Almanac, Janet ceased to be a merchant and was listed as the only person in Sandwick providing ‘lodgings’. Things remained thus until 1903 except that others muscle in on the lodgings business, e.g. Wm. Davie at Smithfield Inn in 1882-95, which is in Dounby and still going strong [2015] although now a hotel. From 1897 to 1902 Peace lists Mrs Linklater, Aith as well as a David Allan also at Aith; whether under the same roof as Janet or in another property is unclear. Following Janet's death in 1902, the 1903 Almanac names D. Allan as Sandwick Postmaster as well as continuing to provide lodgings.

If the buildings currently observable at East Aith are those in which Janet took in lodgers, conditions must have been very cramped or extremely friendly. One of the reasons I obsess over the property is because I was keen to capture the view from their front door. Here is my best guess, taken from outside 1168 and facing south.


Meteorology. I have kept a register of the weather for the last twelve years ; the latter half only in this parish, and the former in the manse of Stromness, where there is no great difference in the climate. As the temperature and pressure of the atmosphere, the direction and force of the wind, with the state of the weather, were noted twice a-day, at ten A. M. and ten P. M. during all that period.

Our climate ... is more remarkable for dampness and storms, than for cold; the atmosphere being often loaded with sea spray in winter, and moistened with the constant evaporation in summer. Pulmonary and rheumatic complaints seem to be prevalent, owing to this peculiarity of the climate, and our sudden and frequent changes of weather. Some cases of cramp may also be ascribed to the dampness; and a neighbouring clergyman, who is afflicted with loss of voice, has, more than once, been immediately cured by the air of Edinburgh. Dyspeptic complaints are very common among the peasantry, but they are probably caused by poor diet.

In the seemingly unlikely event that atmospheric conditions in mid-nineteenth century Edinburgh were actually therapeutic, they failed to work their magic on David and Janet's youngest child, Barbara Watt Linklater. Having been the sole child recorded as still living at home in the 1871 Census, both she and her father were struck from the record after 1871. In David's case, as noted, he died suddenly on the road from Stromness to Aith, but Barbara died in Edinburgh on the 2nd May 1873 of tuberculosis of “uncertain” duration aged only 17. There was some compensation for living in a high northern latitude. Ironically, in 1923 the local health authority acquired part of the buildings at Houton, east of Stromness in the neighbouring parish of Orphir, which had formed part of the Scapa Seaplane Station during the First World War and which they opened subsequently as the Scapa Tuberculosis Pavilion. Not exactly the Swiss Alps and in any case too late for Barbara.

Of meteors, the polar lights are the most remarkable here, being often extremely brilliant and beautiful.

Climate. Our insular situation prevents the extremes of temperature that are felt in continents of such a high latitude, the surrounding ocean tempering the heat of summer, and the cold of winter ; so that for more than twelve years, the thermometer has only once fallen so low as 18° of Fahrenheit, and the snow does not lie so long here, as in the more inland parts of the south of Scotland, or, I believe, the north of England. Indeed, the mean temperature of every month was above the freezing point, except that of February 1838. Our mean annual temperature is 46° 25’, and the mean height of the barometer 29.640 ; but the nature of our climate will be more correctly understood by comparing the mean temperature of each month, as there stated, with that of other places. The huge accumulations of water that then roll after each other, foaming with terrible violence to the shore, impress the mind with their irresistible power, and might well give a stranger a feeling of insecurity ; and, when they dash themselves against the precipice, it seems half sunk, for a time, like a wrecked vessel amid the waves ; sheets of spray are thrown far up into the air, and carried over all the country, making springs a mile from the coast brackish, for some days, and encrusting every thing with salt, even fifteen or twenty miles off. The west or south-west wind is understood to be the strongest and the stone and lime on that side of a house most exposed to it, are generally the first to give way. A gale from that quarter is frequently prognosticated by the great swell of the sea, which rages even during a perfect calm.

Aith is only 1½ miles inland from the west coast of Mainland whose sheer rampart takes the brunt of whatever the Atlantic choses to hurl at Orkney. On the 5th June 1916 this included the few survivors from H.M.S. Hampshire which had sunk 1½ miles offshore. Of those who made it as far as the coast only 14 survived, more of whom could have been saved had it not been for naval interference, reputedly at gun-point, forbidding any attemps at rescue. The total number lost was 737 one of whom was Lord Kitchener.

V. Alluvial Rocks. The alluvial formation of Orkney is not particularly interesting ; but we have plenty of clay, in most places abundance of peat, though there is little in Sandwick, and, in many districts, marl. Bog-iron ore is very common on some of our hills ; and along our sandy bays, nature frequently erects a barrier of a sort of indurated sand, apparently formed by the mixture of siliceous particles with fragments of shells, which serve for cement. In our peat-mosses, roots of large trees are often dug up, and they have also been found in Sandwick Bay, where they are generally covered by the ocean. Hazel-nuts, deers' horns, &c. have likewise repeatedly been found imbedded in our peat and this makes it probable that forests have formerly grown in these islands, where there is nothing now that deserves to be called a tree, except in gardens.

Peat was the only source of fuel readily obtainable in Orkney for several thousand years. Norse spin-doctors claimed in the Orkenyinga Saga that it was Einarr Rognvaldarson who ‘discovered’ peat and introduced its use to the dim-witted occupants of Orkney earning him the sobriquet of Torf-Einarr. In reality peat was used in Orkney for many centuries before the Vikings' arrival, and remained in use until well into the 20th century. Coal was imported in the 19th century but was a luxury affordable by only a few. Since publicly owned gas and electricity were introduced after the 1st World War, use of peat has steadily declined. Its further demise was hastened by the use of North Sea oil and gas. Today the largest user of peat in Orkney is the Highland Park Distillery which cuts some 300 tons annually. I have four issues of Peace's Almanac for the years immediately ptreceeding the 2nd World War which were evidently the property of John George Pottinger, a small farmer. Each year he recorded the dates of the various stages of his peat-cutting operations; after cutting came spreading, raising, stacking then carting. It's not clear where he was cutting peats, but there are farming references to Twatt and Barnhouse. In general however, little peat was cut in Sandwick whose residents went east to the adjoining parish of Harray which had ample peats. The quid pro quo was that the landlocked residents of Harray were permitted to launch their boats from the few safe launch sites on Sandwick's otherwise inhospitable coast.

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© 2018 Duncan Linklater Sennachie.