Storytelling brings the past to life

Storytelling has always been an important part of Orkney’s history. From the ancient sagas to literary icons like George Mackay Brown, the islands have long been full of folk tales, passed through the generations.

Now in its seventh year, the Orkney Storytelling Festival celebrates all that is inspiring about the spoken word and stories from both here and around the world. This year’s Festival gets underway on Thursday 22nd October and, as always, features a range of events and settings.

One unique location this time around will be the St Magnus Cathedral graveyard, which will host a special opening act for the 2015 Festival. Local storyteller and Cathedral Custodian, Fran Flett Hollinrake, will lead folk around the atmospheric kirkyard, right in the heart of Kirkwall. We’ve asked her to share some of her knowledge of the area, ahead of the Festival’s launch…

"Old graveyards are fascinating, and the St Magnus Cathedral graveyard is no exception.

St Magnus Cathedral, surrounded by its ancient graveyard in the heart of Kirkwall

For hundreds of years, the land around the Cathedral has been used as a burial ground, and each stone tells a story of a person, a family, a profession, or a tragedy; and sometimes there are mysteries too. Although many have been lost or are too weathered to read, there is enough there to provide a glimpse into the lives of Kirkwallians past.

Against the north wall of the kirkyard stands the stone of Buckham Hugh Hossack, author of the best-selling book, ‘Kirkwall in the Orkneys’, published in 1900, and never bettered as a history of the town. Hossack was born in Stronsay, and died in Kirkwall at Craigiefield, the house he built with his wife Sibla.

Not far away can be found Robert Garden, a name familiar to many Orcadians. Garden was originally from Aberdeenshire, and he arrived in Orkney in 1873, with little but a horse and cart to his name. Over the next few decades he built up a trading empire that included several floating shops and a manufacturing business that produced the famous Garden’s Oatcakes. His family donated money for Kirkwall’s first proper hospital, and today the offices of NHS Orkney are still known as Garden House. His daughter Dora married the minister of the Cathedral, William Barclay.

Stones of all shapes and sizes sit in the graveyard

One interesting feature of the graveyard is the use of different materials to make the stones. A granite or a marble headstone would have been a costly item, but they can withstand the Orkney weather much better. Many of the stones are made of Eday sandstone, which weathers and splits more frequently. Battered by two gales in 1952 and 1953, the pier serving the quarry was swept away, never to be replaced; thus there are few Eday sandstone grave markers after this date.

There is also one marker not made of stone at all, but wood; fitting as the person lying beneath it was a ship’s carpenter.

Some of the stones are elaborately carved; some simply have the dates of birth and death. Much of the detail will have been worn away over time, but we can see a wide range of occupations - from teachers to ministers, merchants to doctors. The graveyard’s most famous inhabitant by far was an explorer – Dr John Rae. He died in London in 1793, but his remains were brought home to Orkney and he now lies buried in the north east corner of the kirkyard beneath a simple grey cross.

The graveyard is set to be the focus of a special leaflet for visitors

Many Orcadians will have heard the legend that there is a gravestone where the date of death is given as 30th February - and it does indeed exist, up near the stonemasons’ workshop. But not many people know of the fellow who was so proud of his great age at death that it is carved in the stone….101 ½ years old!

Strangely though, some of the most poignant graves are those in the north west corner of the kirkyard. They have no stones, no memorials; indeed they were buried without coffins. This narrow patch of grass covers the paupers’ graveyard – the last resting place of those who had no family, or whose families were too poor to pay.

There are many more tales to be told in the graveyard, and the Cathedral staff are working on a kirkyard trail leaflet. It will hopefully be published by the end of 2015".

The Orkney Storytelling Festival runs between the 22nd and 25th of October. ‘Absent Friends’, a story tour of the graveyard with Fran Flett Hollinrake, will be held at 11am on the 22nd. Tickets are available from the Festival’s website.

There will also be a special Halloween tour of the graveyard as part of the Kirkwall BID scheme. Keep an eye on the BID’s Facebook page for more details. Newsletter

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