The University of Edinburgh’s library is not the only literary depository with a cult social media presence; transport yourself 300 miles north and arrive at the outpost of Kirkwall, home to the Orkney Library & Archive, recently featured on BBC Radio 6 Music as part of their Love to Read series.
Cerys Matthews presents the programme from the cosy foyer of the library, which also serves as a meeting point and community hub. Local band Saltfishforty, a pun on ‘salt fish for tea’, open the show with their typically raucous slant on Orcadian folk music, setting a precedent for numerous live performance interludes from locally based and locally originated acts. The Norwegian influence upon Orkney music is discussed, in particular the mournful drone associated with Hardanger fiddle.
In attempt to set the scene, Matthews delves into the etymology of the archipelago, mentioning that Orkney means ‘islands of the seals’ in Old Norse. This has given rise to the manifold tales of selkies (half-human, half-seal creatures known to seduce the susceptible sailor or two in their time) popularised by the likes of author George Mackay Brown. The name in fact has much older, and much humbler, beginnings than this enigmatic myth: the Romans were first to draw the islands on the map under the ‘Orcades’, borrowed from the pictish word ‘orc’ meaning ‘pig’. Norsemen were only to misinterpret this and, in the process, added an enduring mystical quality to the isles.
Local historian and storyteller Tom Muir then speaks, giving more of a sense of the importance of the supernatural in Orcadian folklore. Talking about the trowies – elvish creatures said to live in mounds at the edge of farm steadings – he is quick to point out that all localities have their myths and traditions; we are, however, closer to these ideas by virtue of isolation, exposure to the extremes of the elements, and because of the desire to explain that which cannot be understood.
Also featured is the literary sensation, Amy Liptrot, who reads extracts from her award winning memoire The Outrun. The work explores the healing power of the isles’ natural landscape in a battle with alcoholism. It is a searingly honest and poetic account of a personal journey, but also a refreshingly accurate depiction of both island and city life.
Matthews speaks to Stewart Bain, who runs the library’s Twitter account, which has over 30,000 followers: one and a half times the population of Orkney.
@OrkneyLibrary maintains a friendly rivalry with its northern counterpart, the Shetland Library, and is celebrated for witty tweets based on the more obscure items in the collection. Bain shares an anecdote about how the library’s book club was treated to a spontaneous visit from Harry Potter author JK Rowling, as a result of her interaction with the Orkney Library on Twitter. Initially only a follow was requested – he is ‘very much a believer in if you don’t ask you don’t get’ – but the personal check-in was unexpected.
An interview with the ethereal Magnetic North, and live music from local band The Chair and renowned songwriter Kris Drever, interspersed the literary and cultural content. Author of the Shetland detective novel series Ann Cleeves also had a segment. This was, however, incongruous for several reasons, the most obvious being that her work pertains to the wrong archipelago. This was one of the few low points in an otherwise successful programme.
Image: Stewart Butterfield @ Flickr