Most Orkney Chairmakers are unknown, their beautiful chairs surviving generations but the maker long forgotten. Indeed many would never have considered themselves craftsmen but were simply what we in Orkney would call "well-handed" or good with their hands at making things. A few in the community may have stood out as particularly good at it but mostcrofting men could have turned their hand to making an Orkney Chair. They would have made Chairs from whatever wood could be gathered from the shore and from the oat straw each family grew. The Chairs were practical, for warmth, protecting the owner from the draughts sneaking through the old stone houses. They were also a necessity, buying furniture would have been considered an extravagant expense which a crofting family could ill-afford. Bought furniture and chairs belonged in the homes and lifes of a laird or large landowner, crofting families made what they needed and were resourceful and self-sufficient.
As modern times approached the Orkney Chair became regarded as a craft and a desirable purchase. In 1890 a chairmaker named David Kirkness was invited to submit two Orkney Strawbacked Chairs to the Scottish Home Industries Association display. This display was part of the fifth Scottish International Exhibition held in Edinburgh. Kirkness's Orkney Chairs attracted widespread interest, their design and natural materials striking a cord with the growing Arts & Crafts movement. From being tucked beside the fire of a stone croft house Orkney Chairs began to be ordered by monied families to grace drawing rooms designed by Charles Rennie Macintosh among others. Kind Edward V11 even had a set of two chairs. Led by the king , orders from well-to-do families for Orkney Chairs flowed in with retailers such as Liberty in London taking over 40 chairs per month to satisfy demand.
The worldwide export of Orkney Chairs also began in this era. The aristocratic ladies of the Scottish Homes Industries Association promoted the Orkney Chair at exhibitions throughout the British Empire and David Kirkness became very busy indeed with an estimated 14,000 chairs leaving his Workshop in Kirkwall during his lifetime. He had a team a joiners and strawback-makers, such a number would be impossible for a single person to accomplish in a lifetime.
Following his death a fellow joiner Reynold Eunson took over the workshop and continued to produce chairs.
Today only a few craftsmen in Orkney make Orkney Chairs. Strawback-maker Jackie Miller and master joiner Ian Kirkness backed by Marlene Miller's specialist straw cleaning are all proud to be in this tradition and to be passing it down to the next generation. The popularity of the Orkney Chair remains: Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, was said to have been very fond of the Hooded Chair she kept at the Castle of Mey in Scotland and the Orkney Chair is the present of choice for all special occasions.
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