The Orkney chair is probably one of the most iconic pieces of Scottish vernacular furniture.
The chair style that we know today was standardised in around the 1850s by David Kirkness of Kirkwall. It is assumed that the straw back was used in the Orkney, Shetland and Fair Isles as no trees are able to grow due to the extreme weather conditions, and on the older chairs the frames are usually constructed from driftwood gathered from around the coastlines.
The making of these chairs is a very sophisticated process. If you are lucky
enough to own an Orkney chair, have a look at the back and you will see that the coil of straw is one continuous rope from its beginning to the end. In other traditions of making this type of rope or coil a template would be used to ensure consistency but not with Orkney chairs – it is done by the eye of the chair maker. This great skill of consistency and weight is achieved through experience of making the chairs.
Marram or bent grass is used to tie the chair to the uprights of the chair. When the back is being made, the chair maker would grab a fistful of oat straw which has been threshed differently than regular straw, to ensure the minimum amount of breaks in the stalks. Working with the straw the chair maker starts the process of coiling, winding and tying. The first row is held in place by nails and thereafter held in position by different types of sea grass. The backs are shaped, again by the chair makers experience and skill.
Some Orkney chairs have solid seats and others have woven seats made from marram or bent grass. Most of the earlier Orkney chairs had solid seats and often have box panels on the front and sides, to keep off draughts and reflect heat from the fire. On occasion, you do find Orkney chairs with a little drawer on the front or side. This would have been used for the storing of documents, or perhaps a bottle of whisky or a bible.
In Northern dialect the chairs are known as stuls (stools), and an Orkney chair as illustrated here with a hood would have been called a ‘heided-stul’, enclosed to provide further protection from draughts. The chairs range in size from children’s, mid-sized, to large sized ones, and there are even the odd rocking versions. So popular were Orkney chairs at the turn of the last century that Liberty and Co. retailed them in their shop in London. They asked the makers to put a slight curl at the end of the arm to stylise it a bit more, and this has become a standard feature on the chairs today. Even members of the Royal Family were collectors at the beginning of the last century.
The Orkney chair has evolved over time but has probably reached the end of its evolution now, yet it is so well designed that there was very little that could be done to improve it. Here at Georgian Antiques, we usually keep about 30 Orkney chairs in stock, so the next time you visit our Warehouse come and have a look at how stylish and beautifully made these chairs are.
(References: Scottish Vernacular Furniture by Bernard D. Cotton, Liberty’s Furniture 1875-1915 by Daryl Bennett.)