Memories of hostel life as 70th anniversary celebrated
Former residents gathered this week to mark seven decades since the opening of Orkney’s original school hostel.
The Hostel for Girls in Old Scapa Road first opened its doors in 1947 to girls from the isles attending Kirkwall Grammar School.
On Tuesday 20 June, some of the hostel’s original intake enjoyed a celebratory lunch at the modern-day Papdale Halls of Residence, after a tour of a facility that is very different to the one that provided them with a home-from-home.
Built originally to accommodate postal service staff during the Second World War, the building that housed the Hostel for Girls still stands today and serves as a Youth Hostel.
In 1947, there were 36 residents and their hostel, according to a report in The Orkney Herald, had facilities which included ‘comfy’ two-bed dormitories, a study area, dining room, and a kitchen with eight sinks, ‘one tremendous coal-burning range’ and an electric hot-plate.
“The fittings in this well-planned ‘nerve centre’, include an electric toaster, an electric kettle, an electric steamer for puddings, a potato peeling machine, a chip-making machine, a bread cutter, a meat slicer, a knife cleaner a ‘Tip-Top’ tin opener, and a wringer.”
The same report describes a kitchen garden ‘mostly confined to cabbages’, and a brick former air raid shelter which ‘makes an ideal cycle shed’.
In charge was a house parent known to the girls as matron, who is remembered today as formidable but kind.
Among the first residents was Nan Scott – 17-year-old Margaret ‘Nan’ Pottinger from Westray – who was the eldest of the girls at the hostel. Bessie Muir (nee Scott), from North Ronaldsay, was the youngest at 12 years old.
Bessie said: “I can remember the walk up Old Scapa Road with my suitcase, on my way to my first day in the Hostel. And I remember being woken by a bell in the mornings.
“In the early days we shared the dining area with the post office staff who were still based there too. Matron would put out nice biscuits for them, and the plain ones for the girls.”
Nan, who can remember those plates being switched on occasion, added: “Food at the hostel was good - but it was just after the war, so there was not a lot of choice and we didn’t have as many treats as seems to be the way these days - just the one bit of cake.
"We had roast beef on Sundays, and I remember lots of sausages and beans, and Welsh rarebit. But it suited us better than digs. There was always something going on you could join in with – playing cards, table tennis, and there was a gramophone. We did a lot of knitting to pass the time.”
The first matron was Isabella Walker, from Aberdeenshire, who is said to have been ‘agreeably surprised’ to find no cockroaches, beetles or mice in the kitchen.
Speaking just after the hostel opened to a reporter from The Orkney Herald, she said: “Usually you will find them all in hotel kitchens as a matter of course.”
The newspaper reported that the girls living there ‘were as healthy, bonny and well-made lasses as you would find anywhere’ and ‘were all very happy and contented’.
Its report concluded: “Orkney has been in dire need of a girl’s hostel for many, many years. The county now has a truly magnificent ‘home away from home’ for the many country girls attending Kirkwall Grammar School. To my mind this is easily Orkney Education Committee’s greatest effort – an outstanding milestone in the history of education to the county.”
Harvey Johnston, Convener of Orkney Islands Council, will attend the 70th anniversary get-together.
He said: “The opening of the Hostel for Girls was a remarkable milestone in the social and educational history of Orkney.
“The 70th anniversary is a time for reminiscence and shared memories for the original ‘girls’. It made made it really special that staff at the halls of residence helped to mark the occasion with a celebratory lunch for the ladies.”
Councillor Johnston added: “Providing education for young people in a scattered island community like ours has always presented challenges. The opening of the hostel represented a big step forward for girls from the isles who had previously lived in digs, as boys continued to do for some years to come.
“But for the girls themselves it can’t have been easy. Today young people from the isles have the opportunity to travel home each weekend. In those days the girls stayed at the hostel for a whole term at a time.”
After their lunch, the ladies had the chance to meet and share stories with some of today’s residents at the halls of residence.