The Orkney Chair belonged to a lifestyle which gradually disappeared as modern farming methods were introduced. Throughout the centuries until just after the second world war life changed little. Indeed stone cupboards very like those built into the walls of the 5000 year old houses at Skara can be found in traditional Orkney crofts dating to 19th century.
Crofting was a subsistence lifestyle with each family growing the crops and keeping the animals they needed to keep body and soul together and make a small living.
A croft would typically consist of about 10-30 acres, would grow oats and barley, root crops such as turnips and potatoes and keep a few cattle, sheep, hens and a pig. It was free range and virtually organic production with many of the animals as much pets as potential food sources.
Both Jackie and Marlene come from crofting families, Jackie family are from the island of Eday while Marlene came from Birsay on the West Mainland of Orkney.
Taking a break - above left, Jackie on the island of Eday with his father and dog at the peat cutting, peat provided an essential source of fuel for the fire for many crofting families and above right, Marlene's family harvesting oat sheaves, from right: her father beside the dog, grandfather, two aunts and uncle.
Harvesting oats the old way began early in the year when the seeds would be sown. Around September they would be cut, originally with a sythe and later with a binder which bound the oat crop into sheaves. These sheaves were then ‘stooked’ or leant against each other to allow the oats to dry and ripen further before before finally carted home and built into scroos. Sheaves were then taken from the screws as they were required, the oats of course being carefully separated and used to feed both the family and the cattle while the straw was to an ingenious variety of uses as chairs, baskets, rope, mattresses and even shoes. Harvesting involved a lot of hard manual labour as the old photos below show:
Jackie and Marlene's families working in the oats.
To get the long strong, golden straw preferred by Jackie for his chairs Keith Smith cuts early in the year, around August before the wind has time to damage the stalks. Unlike the people in times gone by it is the straw Scapa Crafts are primarily interested in rather than the oat crop. For the crofting farmers it was the other way round, the oats were the most important, with the straw turned to every use conceivably so nothing was wasted.