A dream of something new

Ola Gorie is one of Britain’s most important jewellery designers. A pioneer in the 1960s, she explored her Celtic and Norse heritage to find inspiration for stylish, wearable, modern jewellery. Her designs have continued to break new ground and influence a generation of designers. Most importantly, they are appreciated and loved by admirers all around the world.

Ola returned to Orkney from art college in 1960 with a dream of doing something revolutionary: drawing on her native islands for inspiration in the field of jewellery design. Her early pieces quickly gained approval at home and abroad, and her name became synonymous with stylish, finely crafted jewellery.

But where did a young woman from a tiny island group off the northern edge of Scotland find the inspiration for her novel venture? And where did she get the strength of character to launch into something quite unprecedented? The answers lie in Ola’s family history…

Years of great excitement

It was in 1859 that James and Margaret Kirkness opened their Family Grocer & Wine Merchant in the heart of Kirkwall, opposite St Magnus Cathedral. The 1850s were years of great excitement in Orkney, with train and steamship links to Scotland being established, and Orcadian farmers at last able to export their livestock and crops. Money and modern ideas flowed into Orkney, and life and opportunity improved enormously.

James Kirkness had been working as a carpenter, but when Margaret’s father died, leaving a shop premises to her, the couple seized the chance to do something much more innovative and daring. They opened a high-class grocery store selling the basics Orkney folk were used to, but also fancy imported goods like coffee, pasta and wine.

It might seem a long way from mid-Victorian groceries to 21st century jewellery, but we can see several connections. One is the dedication to the highest possible quality. Another is the mixing of local traditions with good new ideas from around the world. And, last but not least, there’s the idea of a woman playing an important part in the formation and running of the business.

That excellent policy

This last feature was to be strengthened in the next generation. James and Margaret’s son John Kirkness, who had taken over the business as his parents aged, died suddenly. Rather than one of his other brothers stepping in, responsibility for the shop passed to his sister, Mary. Mary and her husband, John Gorie - a native of the island of Stronsay - took over the running of the shop late in 1918. At which point, the sign above the door changed from James Kirkness to Kirkness & Gorie, the name by which it is known to this day. (www.kirknessandgorie.com)

John and Mary built on the business’s already excellent reputation. A quotation from Traveller magazine from around this time is the 1920s equivalent of a five-star TripAdvisor review. It speaks of:

"…the high standards and efficient service behind Kirkness & Gorie, Kirkwall, high class grocers. The house is one of the older trading establishments in the town, and, what is more important, has commanded the confidence of the buyer ever since its first inception. Started on the basis that good service is the first basic of efficient business, this house has continued that excellent policy down to the present day.
Particularly noticeable here is the friendly and interested relation maintained with the customer, whose needs are closely studied in each individual case. Courteous and efficient service backed by sound experience, indeed make it something of a pleasure to shop here.

Eventually their son Patrick took over the reins, with the help of his wife Minnie, a Stromness lass of seafaring heritage. In 1937 their first child was born, a daughter: Ola. The name was very rare, but not completely unknown in Orkney: the St Ola was the name of the passenger ship that Captain Swanson, Minnie’s father, sailed across the Pentland Firth for decades. A few years later, a brother for Ola was born, Bruce. He went on to run Kirkness & Gorie, but now our focus turns away from groceries and onto jewellery.

Seizing new opportunities

From an early age, Ola was interested in drawing, painting, and all kinds of art. Although her parents would never have considered themselves artists, Minnie was a skilled seamstress, and Pat a talented watercolourist. Maybe Ola inherited some of her ability from them. What she certainly inherited was a go-ahead character, and a willingness to push ahead with what she knew was right.

What was right for Ola was to leave Orkney to study at Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen. The post-war years meant that young Orcadians in the 1950s could take up educational opportunities unavailable to previous generations. Along with her friend, Stromness painter Sylvia Wishart, Ola made the most of the opportunity, and became in 1960 the first student to graduate from Gray’s in Jewellery Design.

A friend a decade older was George Mackay Brown, later to become Orkney’s most important poet and novelist. In the 1950s he was just starting to explore ways of telling the stories of Orkney’s history and community. It was an exciting time to be a young Orcadian.

Inspired by Orkney's Heritage

Ola returned to Kirkwall and started putting what she had learned into practice. She designed and made jewellery based on historical Orkney inspiration, in a makeshift workshop in a shed in her parents’ garden in Kings Street.

This was a bold and ground-breaking move at the time. There was no jewellery being made in Orkney, and there hadn’t been since Viking times, 1,500 years before. In fact, throughout Scotland, the craft industry as we know it today hardly existed. It was Ola, and others of her generation, who first studied craft techniques and Scottish history, and combined them in modern, affordable jewellery, ceramics, knitwear and much else. The 1960s was a forward-looking decade, but it was also a time when the past was rediscovered, re-examined, and mined for inspiration.

It's hard to believe now, when shops and websites the length and breadth of the country are full of arts and crafts interpreting Scotland’s history and culture, but when Ola launched her designs based on the Maeshowe Dragon, or the St Magnus Cross, they were perceived as revolutionary. No one had interpreted Orkney imagery like this before. (Just as no one had interpreted Orkney landscape like Sylvia Wishart in her paintings, or worked over Orkney legend and folklore as George Mackay Brown did in his writing.)

Ola enjoyed immediate success among Kirkwall folk, and the handful of local shops who were prepared to sell jewellery. This was the start of something. Ola even had to take on one or two assistants and train them to make her designs – she couldn’t keep up with demand!

So, was it all a straight line of growth and development from 1960 to date? Not quite! Love intervened…

Long distance design

James Arnold Tait from Tankerness had left Orkney for Canada a few years earlier to make a better life for himself – as so many Orcadians have left over the centuries. But he came home for a visit in the summer of 1961, which is when he and Ola met, fell in love, and after what can only be described as a whirlwind romance, got married on 25th August. At which point they left for Ontario.

Before she left for Canada, Ola gave hurried instructions to her co-workers in the tiny workshop, and above all to her mother, Minnie Gorie. It would be Minnie who kept the fledgling business going while Ola lived overseas.

Transatlantic phone calls were expensive in the 1960s, but Ola and Minnie were prolific correspondents – scores of their airmail letters to each other survive. They are full of news and stories about life in Orkney and Ontario, not least the birth of Ola and Arnie’s children: Ingrid in 1962, Shawn in 1964 and Neil in 1965.

Also included in the letters were Ola’s sketches and designs for new jewellery collections, which Minnie would develop with the workshop staff. The business continued to grow, and although demand was mostly still coming from local shops, there was definitely an interest in ‘what would Ola do next?’

What Ola and Arnie would do next – eventually – was return to Orkney. In 1969 Minnie and Patrick wrote to tell them that the premises next to Kirkness & Gorie’s grocery was coming up for sale. As it happens, it was a traditional jewellery and watch shop, run by William Brough. The Gories, being canny businesspeople, realised this would be an ideal base for Ola Gorie jewellery to be made and sold. The two halves of the family business would be side by side, in the shadow of St Magnus Cathedral. Existing customers of William Brough would surely keep coming in, and the growing number of people interested in Ola’s innovative designs would find her behind the counter, or through the back in the workshop that could be constructed there.

It would also mean their daughter and her family would come home from Canada.

And so it was, that in the bitterly cold winter of early 1969 – colder than anything they experienced in northern Ontario, Ola says – they moved back to Kirkwall, and into the flat above the shop. Renovation work began, and a new name for the shop was dreamt up: The Longship.

The connection to Orkney’s one-time Viking rulers was obvious. But The Longship also symbolised what Ola and Arnold intended to sell: the silver and gold treasure that was Ola Gorie Jewellery, and special design and craft from across the islands, and around the world. Their experience overseas had inspired and informed their vision, and they wanted to bring a little of that inspiration into everything they did now they’d come home.

Taking off

It was at this point that the trajectory Ola had started on 10 years earlier really took off. She could design and experiment in her workshop and sell what she made in her own shop: it was the ideal base from which to expand her activities. And in Arnold she had the ideal partner to organise her growing roster of staff, and to travel with her to the craft shops that had started to spring up around the country.

They also started to attend gift and craft trade fairs in Aviemore and even Birmingham, a new way for small producers to get their goods seen by new audiences. On the whole Ola and Arnold were warmly welcomed, and their jewellery received with enthusiasm. Occasionally there was prejudice against a business originating in a tiny community that was imagined by some city slickers to be isolated and backward. How could anything exciting originate there? And in a business led by a woman?

Partly to counter such prejudice, and to spread the word about Ola Gorie further than Ola and Arnold were able to travel, a series of increasingly sophisticated leaflets and brochures were produced. Early literature featured hand-drawn representations of Ola’s small range. The next step was to use photography – black and white, of course! – and typewritten information. Eventually there was a move to professional, colour photography, and beautifully designed brochures.

You may be thinking, ‘Wasn’t it obvious?’ Well, it is now, but back in the 1970s, it was another bold, ground-breaking step for Ola Gorie. But the risk paid off, and the renown of her designs spread far and wide and the orders flooded back to Orkney. There was steady business growth through the 1980s and 1990s, and a stream of new designs, many of which remain best sellers to this day.

Those who had doubted that innovative design could originate in Orkney, and from the mind of a woman, were well and truly converted.

By this stage, Orkney was the most important jewellery-producing area in Scotland. Ola had inspired and trained so many budding jewellers that multiple firms had been set up, some tiny one-person businesses, some large and ambitious. It is something that we’re proud of: Ola didn’t just make a reputation for herself, she helped make it for a community of jewellers and craftspeople. In doing so she helped raise the profile and reputation – and quality standards – of jewellery making throughout Scotland.

It was for this inspirational role – Services to the Jewellery Industry – as well as a designer, that Ola was awarded an MBE in 1999, the first person in Scottish jewellery to be so honoured. True to character, Ola was modest about this recognition, saying that the biggest thrill was not meeting Prince Charles in Holyrood Palace, but seeing how many other guests at the investiture were wearing Ola Gorie jewellery on their special day.

Sources and Inspiration

Back in the 1960s, much of Ola’s inspiration came from Orkney’s rich historical heritage. It’s hard to imagine these days, but at that time the archaeological wonders all around us were little appreciated. Sites like Skara Brae and Maeshowe certainly weren’t being reinterpreted by contemporary artists and designers. Orkney folk knew about these sites and were quietly proud of them, but they were perceived as relics from the distant past, of no relevance to modern life.

Ola, along with George Mackay Brown and a handful of historians like Ernest Marwick and W.P.L. Thomson, brought the wonders of the distant past to life through imaginative recreation. Suddenly a circular cross on the rear wall of Kirkwall Cathedral wasn’t just a worn medieval carving: Ola interpreted it in silver and gold as the St Magnus cross, and it’s now Orkney’s iconic symbol, portrayed everywhere from coasters to sports strips. Ola showed how runes from Viking times weren’t just scratchings in a forgotten alphabet, but beautiful marks made by our ancestors, that could still speak to us 1,000 years on.

Thanks to her endless curiosity about Scotland and the wider the world, Ola gradually came to find inspiration in further flung places, and in recent as well as distant sources. Brilliant art nouveau designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh, for instance, was almost forgotten outside his native Glasgow by the 1980s. Ola was an admirer of his work, and that of his wife and collaborator Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, and started reinterpreting their motifs in her jewellery. Mackintosh-inspired products became enormously popular, propelled to even greater levels when Glasgow became European City of Culture in 1990.

Back home in the peaceful countryside around her home by the shores of Stenness Loch, Ola took a different kind of inspiration from close observation of the wildlife about her: short eared owls, puffins, salmon, otters, flowers and grasses…

Ola has been a prolific and wide-ranging designer for over 60 years. We have so many collections to choose from that only a small proportion can be kept ‘live’ and displayed at any one time. But they are all resting safely in our archive, awaiting the right moment for rediscovery – just as Orkney’s past was waiting for Ola to rediscover it in the 1960s.

Passing the baton to the next generation

Ola’s honour came two years after she and Arnold had retired from day to day running of the business, passing on that responsibility to their three children, Ingrid, Shawn and Neil. Of course, a creative mind doesn’t stop being creative, and Ola has continued to come up with new designs since her retirement, working closely with Ingrid, who took over sole management of the business in 2007 after her brothers decided to do different things.

Over the years, Ola Gorie has appeared frequently in judges’ lists for prestigious awards such as the Scottish Gift of the Year and the Kayman Award. We were invited by the World Gold Council to participate in a global touring exhibition, ‘Evocative Gold: A New Renaissance’. One of our brooches was selected by the Goldsmiths Company for inclusion in the prestigious ’Celebration in Gold and Silver’ exhibition for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. In 2012 Ola was awarded an Honorary Degree by Robert Gordon University, home of Gray’s School of Art, the first Scottish jeweller to be so recognised.

The official recognition that perhaps meant most came in 2010 when the Orkney Museum held a retrospective exhibition, Celebrating 50 Years of Ola Gorie. It brought together many of Ola’s original drawings and designs, as well as their ancient inspirations from the museum’s archives, and much fascinating memorabilia. It’s not often – and in Orkney unprecedented – that an individual gets honoured in this way in a prestigious museum venue. Especially when they’re alive and kicking to go along and enjoy it with family and friends.

Still going strong

When Ingrid took over the reins in 2007, she continued the tradition of the business being led by a woman. She also continued to be innovative and ground-breaking, as at least four generations of the family had done before her. The jewellery industry in the UK – and around the world – was changing, and Ingrid decided that it was no longer viable or desirable to be constantly chasing back and forth across the country as her parents had spent many years doing. Luckily, technology was changing too, with a little thing called the internet starting to reveal its possibilities.

Ingrid’s bold decision was that Ola Gorie Jewellery would no longer be sold in dozens of shops in the UK and abroad, but only through our own Kirkwall shop, The Longship, and through our own website. This way we could ensure the jewellery was always presented as beautifully as it deserved, and always sold by expert staff who knew all about Ola Gorie’s designs and how to look after them. The fact that they all know Ola herself helps too!

For 15 years we have been following this approach. Our jewellery is designed and made here in Orkney, by highly skilled workers who have been crafting Ola Gorie for up to 30 years. Every piece that goes out our door is as special to us as it is to you. Every significant moment in your life that it marks – whether a birthday, an engagement, a wedding, an anniversary or just a visit to Orkney – adds magic to the jewellery. Thank you for reading our story, and for letting us be part of your story.

With best wishes, and thanks,