Most Orkney chairmakers are unknown, their beautiful chairs surviving generations, but the maker long forgotten. Indeed, many of these makers would never have considered themselves craftsmen – they 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, but most crofting 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, offering warmth and protecting the owner from the draughts sneaking through old stone houses.
Orkney chairs 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 lives of a laird or large landowner. By contrast, crofting families made what they needed and were resourceful and self-sufficient.
In time, the Orkney chair became seen as a desirable artisan item. In 1890 a chairmaker named David Kirkness was invited to submit two Orkney straw backed chairs to the Scottish Home Industries Association display. This display was part of the fifth Scottish International Exhibition held in Edinburgh. Kirkness’ 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, gracing drawing rooms designed by Charles Rennie Macintosh amongst others. Kind Edward VII even had a set of two Orkney chairs. Inspired by this royal interest, orders from well-to-do families 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 straw back-makers as such a number of chairs would be impossible for a single person to accomplish in a lifetime.
Following his death, fellow joiner Reynold Eunson took over the workshop and continued to produce chairs.
Today only a few craftsmen in Orkney make Orkney chairs. Straw back maker Jackie Miller, and master joiner Ian Kirkness, supported by Marlene Miller’s specialist straw cleaning skills, are all proud to be part of this tradition and to be passing it down to the next generation.
The popularity of the Orkney chair is enduring. 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 remains a gift of real significance for all special occasions.