LINKLATER - Aith, Sandwick, Orkney


The people and place in Orkney

Soil. The soil of Sandwick is of very different kinds in different places. Immediately east of the bay, it is nothing but sand, which blows about with the wind. In other places, there is a poor yellow clay, formed by the wasting of the clay flag; and our best soil is a rich black clayish loam. These are mixed together in infinite proportions; but there is no depth of mossy soil or gravel. The clays particularly rest on a retentive rocky subsoil, many parts of which would be much improved by draining.

Zoology. Rabbits are very numerous in the sandy parts of this parish, and hares, which were only introduced into Orkney a few years ago, are now beginning to show themselves. Thousands of gulls, of different species, with scarfs [cormorant] and other sea birds, as well as common pigeons, build on the shelves of our precipices, and some hundreds of the pewit, or black-headed gull, on a little artificial holm in the Loch of Skaill. A few pairs of wild swans remain some months in winter in the Lochs of Stenness and Clumly. Wild geese visit us every spring, and several species of duck are found in all our lochs in considerable numbers. There are no trout or other fish of any importance in our lochs ; but in the Loch of Stenness, trout, flounders, and various other species are got; and there is great variety in the Atlantic, on our west shores; however, it is only when the sea is smooth that boats can get out to fish. Lobsters are caught in the bay for the London market.

Land-owners. The property is divided into very small portions here, as in the neighbouring parishes. William Graham Watt, Esq. of Breckness, holds about a third, and resides on it, cultivating a considerable part. The Crown holds about a fifth; and the remainder is held by nearly seventy other proprietors, most of whom cultivate their own little farms.

Little is the operative word. The first year in which census data recorded farm sizes was 1851. The next two censues continued in the same train. Taking 1861 as the ‘mean’ it is remarkable how many ‘farmers’ there were with holdings no larger than what today might be considered a decent sized garden. Farmers of 100 acres or more were then the exception rather than the rule. By today's standards, 100 acres would be considered a small, barely-viable farm. Historically Sandwick was regarded as one of the most fertile parishes in Orkney, which was reflected in the skatt valuation. The following figures from the 1861 Sandwick census must be approached with some caution. There are a number of occasions on which neighbouring properties report being occupied by farmers of identical acreages e.g. 1/46 U[pper] Stove, 1/47 M[iddle] Stove and 1/48 L[ower] Stove are each recorded as occupied by a farmer named Kirkness farming 57 acres. Whether each Kirkness was in fact farming one and the same farm of 57 acres or whether each Kirkness had inherited exactly one third of a farm of 171 acres is unclear. Compiled from the raw data the following chart plots individual farms by size, each blue diamond representing one farm. Notwithstanding possible inclusion of anomolous data as mentioned above, the charted data shows 144 farms in Sandwick ranging from the smallest of 1½ acres to the largest of 380 acres. Out of these 144 farms, over 100 are of 50 acres or less and only 12 are larger than 100 acres.


The amount of the population at each census, taken at the four last periods, was 970, 922, 930, and 973, or, including 46 seamen, 1019 ; but when I took an account of my parishioners in 1833, visiting every cottage, I found it amounted to 1088, and, according to the present return for this Account, it is 1056.

The following are the population figures for Sandwick according to census data held by O.F.H.S.

Year 1841 1851 1861 1871 1881 1891 1901 1911
Sandwick 1033 1100 1225 1153 1198 1109 1071 985

Tfigures above mimic the modern population trend of Orkney as a whole which peaked in 1861 with a total of 32,225. Thereafter the population declined steadily every decade till its nadir of 17,077 in 1971. Since then the population has increased slightly and fluctuates around the 20,000 mark. The exceptions were the war years when the massive influx of service men and women double or trebled the normal population. Thus James Stevens Linklater was in the vanguard of leavers. The situation today is somewhat precarious, especially for the outer isles, in the sense of being able to maintain a viable resident huiman population. Sheep are, of course, less demanding.

  Category Communities Characteristics  
  Strong Kirkwall, Finstown, Holm, East Mainland, Papa Westray. Growing population, high rates of economic activity and positive age profile.  
  Stable Stromness, West Mainland, Burray, South Ronaldsay. Growing population, reasonable levels of economic activity but an older population profile.  
  Marginal Hoy, Westray, Shapinsay. Population growing or stable, below average economic activity and poorly balanced age structure. Reliant on inmigrants to sustain population.  
  Becoming threatened Stronsay, Sanday, Rousay, Egilsay & Wyre. A low proportion of children, high reliance on in-migration, with below average economic activity.  
  Threatened North Ronaldsay, Graemsay & Flotta, Eday. Declining population with an elderly profile, few children and a low proportion of economically active in-migrants.  

Gaelic has never been spoken here ; and I know of no customs, games, or amusements, peculiar to this people.

If the work of cleanliness has begun, it is yet far from perfected. In their persons and dress, I believe there has been some improvement in this respect, but it must be very limited, till they have houses that are clean, in which it would be possible to keep their persons so. At present, most of them are wretched hovels, with holes in the roof instead of chimneys, which permit that part of the smoke to escape, that is knowing enough to find it; but most of the soot attaches itself to the roof and rafters, whence it descends again on the inmates.

Another hole in the roof, about six inches square, and often without glass, is the substitute for a window ; and cows, calves, pigs, geese, and fowls, share the benefit of the peat fire, placed on the middle of the floor for the accommodation of all. Their food is as simple as can be imagined. Oat and bear-meal, with milk in various forms, potatoes, cabbage, and sometimes fish, is their ordinary diet ; and most indulge in a little flesh and ale at Christmas, or other holidays. Of their poor cots, many are only tenants at will, and on this account, as well as others connected with their state of vassalage, though many have peace and plenty, I cannot say that all enjoy, in a reasonable degree, the comforts of society and civilization, as so much depends on their landlord.

I hesitate to question the word of a man of the cloth but it is hard to reconcile the above with the reality on the ground. I dare say they exist, but I have not seen any dwelling that does not have some sort of chimney. See for example the images of Nether Benzieclett. Such buildings may well have existed in the mid-19th century but can only have been inhabited by the poorest of the poor and been unfit for use either as a Post Office or for lodgings. What remain of old ‘but and ben’ dwellings have chimneys showing every sign of having been integral to the construction of the building rather than later additions.

The general character of the people, intellectual, moral, and religious, is, I believe, much like that of their neighbours, who have been placed in the same unfavourable circumstances, living in a parish united to another, with public worship only once a fortnight, and no resident clergyman. I have the gratification of noticing in the sequel their late improvement, in these respects.

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© 2018 Duncan Linklater Sennachie.