Sunday Evening Reflection – The Way Things Were

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Orkney, with its well documented Neolithic and Viking heritage attracts visitors from around the globe. We are enticed by the narrative of our ancient past that is shrouded in the mist of long ago. We come to find the stories, to feel the kinship of humanity, to marvel at how we have prevailed over the millennium.

Orkney has many historical moments that speak of courage, determination, perseverance that are closer to our time. Tonight, I am remembering the way things were in the not so distant past. Join me as I enter the world of Kirbuster farm, where farmers shared a connection with the land.

Orkney’s soil is fertile. Even today, agriculture is the most important sector of Orkney’s economy, with most of its land taken up with farming – grazing for sheep and cattle as well as for cereal production. Farming today may be more efficient, but one thing that remains the same – Orkney’s farmers, over the centuries, have held a great love and respect for the earth.

Special thanks go out to my dear friends, Lorna and Carrie of See Orkney Tours, for giving us the most amazing Orkney adventure.

Kirbuster Farm Museum in Birsay provides a fascinating glimpse into life on a traditional Orkney farm during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The farmhouse was occupied until the 1960s before being reopened as the musum in 1986. It’s the last un-restored example of a traditional ‘firehoose’ in Northern Europe, with the house built around a central hearth and peat fire. There is also a stone neuk bed and a peat fire, with the rooms full of old household implements and furniture.Kirbuster Farm Museum

27 thoughts on “Sunday Evening Reflection – The Way Things Were

  1. Wonderful! We are booked to go back for our next Orkney holiday in May 2021, so it is lovely to have this little Orkney boost in the meantime 😍😍😍

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    • Orkney is spectacular, with so much to see and do from ancient times to now. I loved just meandering the streets of Kirkwall. With every step that I took in St. Magnus Cathedral, I knew that I was covering centuries of history. I did not know that a Cathedral could have a dungeon.

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  2. What a wonderful step back in time, Rebecca! 😀 The photo of the hats hanging up I find particularly evocative and as if the owners have just gone out of the house for a moment without them, due back any time.

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    • I especially appreciated the smell of peat burning. Photos can capture moments and stop time, but they have difficulty with the aromas and scents. Kirbuster was a remarkable place, make even more memorable with the excellent volunteers who had been residents of Orkney in the 1960s and could give details. Consider that only 70 years ago, this was a working farm. I can only imagine the stories this house could tell beginning with your thought that the owners had just gone out of the house. Goosebumps.

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      • Yes, you’re right the stories must be incredible. I visited a similar place in Sweden where the whole homestead was a museum from the early 1900s. The artefacts were astonishing and the lady who owned the house was the great granddaughter of the original owners and wow, she could tell stories! A personal three hour tour across five buildings! I came away writing the stories down, creating my own, meaning to write a post but didn’t know where to start! One day perhaps … your post brought all this to mind!

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      • What an extraordinary moment. You heard stories that will never be heard again. I am so glad you are a writer and I look forward to that post that will be written when it is supposed to be written. These are complex stories because they are generational. I am slowly gathering my mother’s story via podcasts. Her grandparents came from Sweden and Denmark. Step by step we travel far…

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    • Did you know that Orkney and Shetland are just a hop, skip and a jump from Finland. Visiting this farm reminded me of my discussion with Frances. There were so many similarities between Nebraska and Orkney. Our generation thinks we are the first ones to connect globally, but I have a feeling we have always be global and loved the idea of exploration. The idea of boredom comes out so beautifully in Onegin. Our curiosity needs to be satisfied – so we are ever moving, ever discovering.

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    • You would love Orkney, Julie. It is indeed remote and mysterious, with a page-turner history. In 2018, we took the ferry from Aberdeen, Scotland to Shetland, then to Orkney. The winter before our trip, we watched the Shetland series which is based on the brilliant English crime-writer, Ann Cleeves. As you know, I love the north and fell in love with the landscape just watching the series. It was an unforgettable adventure – would love to go back!

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  3. So fascinating to peep inside this humble home which when one has a good look around, has everything a family would need. I see that this family was deeply religious and I can imagine them gathered around the organ singing hymns together. The lace work around the mantelpiece and on the table would no doubt have been lovingly homemade by the women. It’s a very touching glimpse and seeing their hats hanging on the hooks, really personalises it.

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    • Oh Sylvia, I felt that, at any moment, the family would come through the door. Yes, there was a deeply religious sense that was felt throughout rooms, which reminded me of my grandparents home. (I remember the piano was the centre of family life that provided entertainment and a wonderful feeling of camaraderie when we came around to sing together.) I found the newspaper article of the royal wedding a confirmation that, even in a remote farming community, news came through. And then there was the wedding photo of a couple that was placed close to this newspaper clipping. So many stories – if only the walls could talk.

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  4. I love museums like this, a direct window into the past. Can you describe the scent of peat burning? You’ve piqued my curiosity. You’re right that scents and aromas make up a very important part of how we experience a particular place, both those new to us and also those we’re already familiar with.

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    • I share your love of museums. I felt like I was in a time warp that allowed me to enter a past decade. I expected the family to come through the door. I had looked forward to experiencing a peat fire. Peat is still being used and there are areas that are set aside for harvesting peat throughout Orkney and Shetland. After living in Northern Manitoba , I was used to the smell of wood burning. Peat is entirely different – is smells like the earth, almost an ashy smell. It reminded me of smoked fish or meat. And it didn’t make my eyes water like wood when you get too close to the flames. So many memories comes from smells – bread, chocolate chip cookies…..

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  5. A couple things impressed me in addition to those mentioned in these wonderful comments. Their hard work and all the little niceties filling the home, either purchased or passed down as heirlooms. How uncomfortable their chairs appear and how wonderful lying down to sleep at the end of their labors must have felt! I imagine they had little time for relaxing in front of the fire. Beautiful photos, Rebecca…

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    • We always travel on the off-seasons which means that this visit happened in early spring when the chill was still very much with us. The daffodils had just appeared. The peat fire brought warmth to the room, but we still had our sweaters on. I tried to imagine what it was like during the winter, and reflected back to my visits to my grandparent’s farm. I agree – there was very little time for relaxing in front of the fire. There was always something that needed care and attention. I always enjoy Wendell Berry’s thoughts on farming: “Farming cannot take place except in nature; therefore, if nature does not thrive, farming cannot thrive. But we know too that nature includes us. It is not a place into which we reach from some safe standpoint outside it. We are in it and a part of it while we use it.”

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    • Thank you, Jean-Jacques! I admire these industrious and courageous farmers. It was not an easy life, but there is clear evidence of the community spirit that supported all their endeavours.

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      • I concur, thus so as on my mother’s side of the family, it was that kind of living on a farm in Clides Corner, a hamlet five miles (Imperial measure then) from the town, you know as Huntington, Quebec. Basically a dairy farm in that beautiful but rocky area. Not an easy life indeed though during the depression and war years it did help feed the big city part of the family.
        The likes of your magnificent posts are not only interesting and informative but there marvelous story telling subjects stir up old and memorable life experiences. Thank you for th that, Rebecca!

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      • Thank you, Jean-Jacques. I am finding (maybe it is that the aging process has influenced my thinking) that we cannot fully grasp our position within a wider narrative of humanity, unless we have an understanding and respect for what has come before. Our history books only provide the context, even the details, but they cannot capture the soul of history for that is written in the heart and efforts of individual who have given much without thought to having their names remembered beyond two or three generations. We stand on the shoulders of giants. Sending warmest greetings and hugs to you and Marianne.

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