Scarlet fever and Pirate Gow – A history of Stromness Library

This text is taken from the research of BOBBY LESLIE

Before the Stromness Public Library in Hellihole Road, there was the Subscription Library and it is thought that the Public Library was housed for a spell in the Town Hall at the South End, now Stromness Museum.

By 1899 the Stromness Town Council decided to support a library service under the Public Library (Scotland) Act of 1899 and the Public Library Act of 1887. A Library Committee comprising Town and Landward representatives was established. Click on documents for larger view.

Documents from Orkney Library & Archive ref S3/8/2 & S3/8/3 & S3/8/4

One of the first tasks was to find a suitable site for a new library. This was under the terms of the Skea or Corrigall Trust set up after Marjory Corrigall, a ship master’s widow, made the establishment of a public library the subject of her will. Sites were sought and initially one offered by Mr Robertson at Lyking was favoured but negotiations over the sale broke down. Five or six other sites were considered before the area offered by Mr Sinclair at Hellihole Road was accepted. Hew Morrison of Edinburgh Public Libraries was contacted for advice and Samuel Baikie, Architect, was appointed to draw up plans for a library and reading room.

Documents from Orkney Library & Archive ref S3/3 & Contract with Sam Baikie Architect ref S3/8/5/1

By 1906 the building was erected at a cost of £800 14/3 and ready for occupation. Andrew Carnegie, at that time an important library benefactor, had given £250 towards new books and 600 books were gifted by J Coats of Paisley. To aid with the purchase of books a subscription box was placed in the Reading Room. J B Rosey gifted 2 framed maps of Orkney for the library.

Mr James L Brass was appointed as librarian & caretaker. Renumeration was accommodation above the library of two rooms with fire and light and taxes paid and a salary of £6 per annum.

The Lending Library was open on a Wednesday from 2-4pm and a Saturday from 6-8pm. The Reading Room was open daily, except Sundays, from 10am to 9pm. The Reference Room was open daily, except Sundays, from 9am to 10pm.

In 1910 an outbreak of scarlet fever led to a suspension of the library service. No books were to be issued and books being returned from infected houses were to be left outside.

In 1913 books went missing from the Reference Room. Notices were put up in the Newsroom in the library and the matter was intimated by the Town Crier.

James Leask ‘Puffer’ Stromness Bell Man. Image courtesy Bryce Wilson

To help raise funds a maximum of 2/6 was being asked from library members in 1913 but this ceased the following year due to the war. During the First World War the library supplied the War Telegram Service.

In 1915 caretaker and librarian Peter Esson was appointed. Peter Esson would later be immortalised by George Mackay Brown in the poem ‘The Death of Peter Esson’.

The mid twenties saw the installation of a ladies toilet, there was already a urinal under the stairs, but the new toilet represented equality.

In 1928 a collection of 92 books and 3 maps was bequeathed to the library from Mrs Garson, it was her husband’s Orkney and Shetland books. Among the Garson Collection was the rare 1725 The Pirate Gow by Daniel Defoe.

Two glass screens with signage for ‘The Reading Room’ and ‘The Writing Room’ were installed.

In 1932 there was an agreement between the Education Service who ran the County Library Service and Stromness Library whereby the library would receive a regular supply of books to supplement their own stock. The following year a new service counter was put in to the Lending Library and alterations were made to the Reading Room.

In the mid thirties hot water and a bath were installed and in 1949 electric lighting came to the library.

In 1954 Councillor Archie Bevan and George Mackay Brown undertook to go through the library stock and report to the Library Committee. A couple of years later Archive Bevan proposed that late fines be abolished, this was agreed by the Education Committee.

In 1956 Stromness Library merged with the County Library Service though the building remained the responsibility of the Town Council. Mr R Inkster was appointed to succeed Peter Esson.

Taken from the notes of Bobby Leslie.

In 1968 the building was renovated and again in 1989. The library was refurbished in 1997. At some point during the alterations the upstairs accommodation was converted to the Reference Room, a meeting and gallery space, and eventually an office for the Registrar. When the accommodation area was remodeled the ornate toilet was given to the Stromness Museum.

Postscript: Dear reader, what we need here is a fulsome account of what happened at the library in the run up to the closure of the old building in 2015. It is time to get hold of Christine Harcus, who retired as cleaner at the library after many years service.


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