The 70 islands of the Orkney archipelago, located a 45-minute ferry
ride north of the Scottish mainland, have their own unique culture.
Like the Shetland Islands further to the north, the Orkneys were
settled in prehistoric times. Archaeological ruins abound, including
the famous village of Skara Brae, which dates from about 3100 B.C.E.
The islands' contact with Norse Vikings, who arrived in the 9th
century C.E., has heavily influenced their contemporary culture.
In fact, the Orkneys belonged to Norway until 1472, when they were
transferred to Scotland as part of a royal marriage dowry.
With sturdy frames and high, curved backs, Orkney chairs furnished
in Orkney homes throughout history. Before central heating, their
unique shape helped keep Orcadians warm in cold, drafty homes. Because
of the strong North Sea winds, almost no trees grow on Orkney, and
wood has always been too valuable to be used for everyday items.
Orcadians became experts at using straw for baskets of several kinds
(kaesies, cubbies, luppies), mats (flackies), and straw ropes (simmens),
as well as for bedding, shoes, and furniture.
The best straw for making Orkney chairs comes from black murkle
oats - a variety that grows on poor soils and can withstand strong
winds and rain. It is harvested in the fall and after it dries,
the grain head is cut off and the straw dressed (loose leaves removed),
bundled together, and nailed or laced into the chair's wooden frame.
Today's style of Orkney chair developed about 100 years ago when
David Munro Kirkness (1854-1936), a joiner based in Kirkwall, Orkney's
largest town, began to make and market Orkney chairs to the Scottish
Chair-makers Jackie and Marlene Miller are both Orcadians. Jackie
learned to make chairs from older members of his family. Today,
they use only locally grown straw to handcraft Orkney chairs at
their shop, Scapa Crafts, in Kirkwall.