Orkney Islands Council
Working together for a better Orkney

Two hundred years of diaries at Orkney Library and Archive

Two hundred years of diaries at Orkney Library and Archive
31 May 2017

Two centuries of everyday moments captured by people around the world is on show in Kirkwall and Stromness libraries, in a collaboration with London-based artist Dylan Stone.

The '200 Years of Diaries – Life’s Documents Chronicled from 1800-2000' exhibition walks viewers through every year in the period, offering glimpses of the lives and momentary thoughts of people through documents they have left behind.

The diaries - and other documents such as shopping lists and postcards found folded within them - are displayed chronologically at both the Orkney Library and Archive in Kirkwall and the Warehouse Buildings in Stromness.

Dylan Stone has exhibited in Europe and the United States. The previous presentation of this exhibition, 100 Years of Personal Pocket Diaries from 1900 to 2000 was in New York City in 2013, at Ruth Phaneuf Fine Arts.

He was drawn to running an exhibition in Orkney after he was struck by the deep sense of community during a visit to the county in 2016.

Dylan explains: “Orkney is a universe in itself encapsulating every aspect of what a community is - diaries reflect these aspects in the voices and lives of the individuals they represent, so I felt there was a good fit.”

The exhibit includes writings from a boy scout noting everything he hears on the radio during WW2; a farmer seeing a car for the first time; all the films a teenager sees in the 1950s; an elderly woman in New England eating Thanksgiving dinner alone; a Belgian schoolgirl on a trip to Paris in 1906 who sees the headlines announcing the earthquake in San Francisco; the flight schedule of an airline pilot from the 1960s and 1970s; a visit to a sickly relative in 1900 and a musician travelling to concert engagements around Europe in the 1980s.

Alongside the almost 500 diaries in the exhibit are contributions from the Orkney community with diaries from their own family archives, as well as items from the Orkney Library and Archive.

Assistant Archivist Lucy Gibbon said: “We had quite a few local families come forward with material, so we have farm diaries including those of William Tait from the period 1880-1930 – each day he has recorded the weather and notes about how many cart loads of neeps were brought in – so an obsession with weather was quite clearly a feature of past generations of farmers too!”

Other items on display from the Archive’s collection include:

  • Several diaries by well-known 19th century Orkney writer Thomas Stewart Traill, documenting his journey round war-torn Europe during the Napoleonic wars.
  • Diaries by local historian Ernest Marwick and filmmaker Margaret Tait.
  • Salvage log books recording the retrieval of WWI German warship Kaiserin in 1985.
  • Intricate estate management records in Orphir from the Halcro Johnston papers.
  • Diaries from the Omand family recording an 1823 trip to Glasgow and an 1860 visit to Orkney.
  • The diary of a Westray man aged 54 recording his first ever train ride in 1993 – in Chicago.

Lucy adds: “The diaries we have on display from the Archive and the wider exhibition are like little windows into life in Orkney and around the world at various points – it shows how despite change some things remain constant – people worry about the future, they make lists, they obsess about the weather – and they gossip.”

Senior Archivist at the Orkney Library and Archive, David Mackie, said: “We’re delighted Dylan approached us to be a venue for this exhibition. We’ve taken the opportunity to showcase some of the diaries from local people as part of the display, to highlight the Archive’s work in collecting and conserving social history for future generations to learn from and enjoy.”

Dylan has collected diaries from around the world for decades. He says he is especially drawn to diaries as artefacts which shed light on both the human condition, as well as how life has changed – or stayed the same – over the generations: “Historically artists - notably Rembrandt and Van Gogh - have collected everyday objects, prints, drawings and other item, to help inform their work.

“Throughout the exhibition, you will see the life of another person, from another era and different part of the world doing entirely different things with their life - or possibly something very similar. These are voices of people who could easily have been our friends, relatives or neighbours.”

Dylan hopes people are inspired by the exhibition – and says libraries as 'a centre of learning at a myriad of levels…as a place of research or where one’s imagination can be fully enriched' are the perfect locus for this: “A simple universal pocket diary may be a record of appointments, or a person’s private thoughts.

“These become of historical interest, and an exhibit like this becomes a place where people can research a specific time in history or get ideas for a piece of creative writing.

“So a novelist may also be inspired to fictionalize the life of a person who wrote one of these diaries, or a local drama group could create a piece of theatre from many of these diaries that cover decades of personal and world events.”

The exhibition runs until 11 July 2017.