Day 10 – The Big Tree

Today I met Fran who is a custodian at the St Magnus Cathedral and organiser of the Storytelling Festival. She told me a bit about the history of storytelling on Orkney; that along with speaking Orkney dialect, the custom died out as it was not seen as something that educated people did and was discouraged. In the past few years, Fran told me, storytelling has undergone a revival in Orkney with events such as the storytelling festival and with Orkney storytellers being asked to tell stories in a variety of different situations from conferences to tours, it was gaining popularity again.

She also told me the story of the Big Tree which has stood in Kirkwall for as long as anyone can remember. During the Napoleonic wars trade with the Scotland was cut off from the continent and the lords of Orkney cashed in on the Kelp industry. The people who lived on the land collected and burned seaweed for Kelp ash which could be used in the production of soap and glass; this was sold by the lords making them a great profit. They decided to build grand houses in Kirkwall and lived together throwing opulent parties. One of these houses had a walled garden in which were planted three sycamore trees. When the war ended the bottom fell out of the Kelp business as trade with the continent returned and the lords could no longer afford to keep their town houses. The houses were sold to traders and the house with the garden was sold to a chemist. The chemist decided that the garden would have to go and had taken down the wall and felled two of the trees before anyone could object. However there was outcry from the locals and he was stopped from removing the last tree. The council bought the tree from the chemist for the sum of £5 and the promise that they would maintain and be responsible for it. And so it has stood since then, though there have been subsequent questions as to whether it should be taken out and even an official decision to remove it 25 years ago. This story demonstrates just how important the tree has been to the people of Kirkwall, they have had real relationship with it for over 200 years. The tree is in pretty poor health so it remains to be seen how much longer this relationship will last but I would seem that even if the tree was removed it would be commemorated in some way.

One last thing that Fran said has been circling in my thoughts tonight, a statement to ponder further…

“People need a narrative.”

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