Melvin Place by GMB

Melvin Place, 1928-34 George Mackay Brown
28 May 1992

Melvin Place (left) from the window of the old Stromness Library

Corner of Hellihole Road showing Melvin Place, from a collection of late 19thC photographs, Stromness Museum

I visited Melvin Place in Stromness yesterday evening, for virtually the first time since 1934. For six years, from 1928 to 1934 my family lived at 3 Melvin Place; we ‘flitted’ there from Victoria Street (Clouston’s Pier).

Melvin Place, a beautiful little complex of houses, is very much the same, structurally, as it was half a century ago, but of course there are variations.
The gardens and closes seem to be smaller than they were in my childhood. Just opposite ‘our house’ is a house known as the Doocot, where an old couple called Joe Renton and his wife lived. Joe Renton was a brother of the John Renton who was a castaway in the Soloman Islands in the mid-nineteenth century. The Rentons’ father had been a tailor and lived in the tall house immediately above.

At 1 Melvin Place lived William Rendall, the printer, whose little firm produced books like John Firth’s Reminiscences of an Orkney Parish and Goodfellow’s Two Old Pulpit Worthies of Orkney.

On the little branch-close leading on to Hellihole Road lived the Robertson family. Mr Robertson was engineer on the Ola. Higher up, the close narrows and leads between dark houses to a garden at the top where my mother hung up her washing to dry on a Monday. The garden belonged to Mr Rendall, and was full of bluebells, and teeming grass, and had two trees. I remember the garden and the trees because one day, at the age of seven or eight, consequent on some telling-off or misdemeanour at home, I decided to run away. So I hid myself in one of the trees, hoping to be persuaded with apologies or consolation. But nothing happened. No one came. The world, I concluded, was a heartless place… After and hour or two, I crept off home… In the end, everything was all right.

Further up still, right under a little crag that old folk called ‘the Hammars’, was a group of plots for growing vegetables. There my mother had the loan of a tattie plot from Mrs Robertson. From there you had a good view of the Town hall (now the Youth Hostel) and the Braes where Captain Swanney of the Pole Star lived with his wife and five sons. Just across the road was the Temperance Hall where the Salvation Army met… Sometimes a solemn procession followed the hearse up Hellihole Road to the kirkyard. Mr Couper of Quildon drove the splendid dark horse-drawn hearse: the mourners followed. In those days a funeral procession had to walk all the way to the kirkyard, in all weathers, at Warbeth two miles away.

We sometimes played football and even cricket in the little field above the Temperance Hall.

There were three sweetie shops within easy distance of Melvin Place – Mrs Hutchison’s beside the Lifeboat Station, and Miss Black’s at the foot of Hellihole, and Henry Carroll’s in Alfred Street. There we spent our precious Saturday pennies.

And in summer boys caught sillocks1 and crabs off Gray’s Pier- not possible any more because it is a built-up area, Gray’s Noust…
And sometimes the rockets went up, and then all the folk of the South End gathered at Gray’s Pier to see the launching of the lifeboat JJKSW…Down she went, and hit the water in a bursting flower of foam!
It was a great area, Melvin Place…Every Saturday we changed our library books at Peter Esson’s Library just across the way. I liked best school stories by a writer called Harold Avery.

The First Wash of Spring, 2006, pp.36-37

Other writers have lived in view of the windows of the old Stromness Library. Fiona MacInnes, poet and author of Iss lives across the way. Lesley Glaister and Andrew Greig, Lucy Ellman and Todd McEwen have all stayed in Melvin Place.


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