Showtime! A celebration of tradition in Orkney

The first fortnight of August is a time of celebration in Orkney. Across the parishes of the Mainland, and on several of the outer isles, agricultural shows fill parks and community halls. They’re the highpoint of the summer for both exhibitors and audiences.

Sanday Show


Farmers bring the best of their livestock – cattle, sheep, goats and poultry – to be minutely examined by both show judges and the even more judgemental eyes of their neighbours. Horses of every shape and size, from mighty Clydesdales to mini Shetlands peering out from under their shaggy fringes, are paraded around the ring. Sleek ducks and plumed chickens populate the poultry tent. Dogs and rabbits are brushed and washed, ready for their chance to shine in the pet section.

Sanday show: rear of the year?


The show in St Margaret’s Hope is the oldest, having reached its 176th anniversary this month. The County Show is 135 years old, and by far the biggest. On the second Saturday in August, winners and should-have-been-winners from across Orkney gather in Kirkwall for the grand, final show of the season. Half of the population turns up to see the livestock, to browse dozens of arts and crafts stalls, to gawp at shiny new tractors and combines, and to eat local produce and drink local beer… Above all, it’s a time to bump into old friends.

Dounby show: a grand day out


In many ways, Orkney hasn’t changed much since the shows began. The mid-19th century was when agriculture became the mainstay of the island economy. Those new-fangled inventions, steamships and trains, made it possible for Orcadians to export beef cattle and other produce to big southern cities like Aberdeen and Edinburgh. Instead of subsistence crofting, we were transformed almost overnight into self-improving farmers and dedicated exporters. That’s why the shows were founded in the middle of the 19th century – to let Orcadians see the best of what the county was producing, and to learn from it, and be inspired by it. (And work out how to come back the following year and beat it!)

One thing that has changed is the proliferation of means of communication, and the ease with which we can stay in touch with our friends and neighbours. One important function of the shows when they were started is that they allowed folk to come off their farms and meet up with their peers for a bit of competition, a bit of business, and – not least important – a bit of socialising. News and gossip was shared. Tall tales were swapped. Romances blossomed.

All those things still go on. But they go on just about every weekend of the year, not just once a year. Nonetheless, there’s a special pleasure in chance meetings with friends and family by the show ring, or the dodgems, or the crab roll stall.

Dounby show fun


 Highland Dancers at the Dounby Show 


Another special pleasure, and one that ties into the urge that drove Ola Gorie to start designing jewellery, is to be found in the Industrial Shows that happen alongside the parish and island Agricultural Shows. The name is slightly misleading, as the produce celebrated in them is anything but industrial, being individually made, grown, or hand-crafted.

There is obvious agriculture-related produce like farm cheese, home-brew beer and a whole swathe of baking categories, from fattie cutties to clootie dumplings to shortbread. There are vegetable and fruit competitions, of great specificity: potatoes, coloured (four); pansies in a saucer (four); parsley (three sprigs on a paper plate.)

Best of all are the handicrafts. Different shows have different categories, but the quality and inventiveness of the crafts displayed never fails to amaze: knitting, sewing, ‘fancy work,’ floral art, photography, handwriting, glass art, pottery, ‘any article in wood.’ Adults put their all into the competition, and children right down to pre-school love the fun of creating entries for ‘painted stone,’ shell collecting or finger painting on paper plates.

Hoy Show: fruity creature


Our family business has grown up in tandem with the shows. The shops and studio on Broad Street, Kirkwall, are still in the same location as when our ancestor James Kirkness opened his grocery and wine merchant in 1859. The newfound agricultural wealth of the Victorian years in Orkney created a demand for imported food and drink just as it did for other things like local newspapers, drapers and even jewellery shops . And the long tradition of creativity and craftwork still celebrated at the Industrial Shows is undoubtedly fed into Ola’s vision when she started designing and making jewellery over 60 years ago.

We often celebrate Ola as a pioneer of Scottish craft and design. Quite right too: until she started in 1960, no one had made jewellery in Orkney since Viking times. But she was also part of a long line of highly skilled and imaginative island craftspeople, as we are reminded every showtime.


Sanday Show


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All photos courtesy of Rebecca Marr

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