LINKLATER - Aith, Sandwick, Orkney


The people and place in Orkney

Work in progress.

The last of my immediate ancestors to be born and bred in Orkney was James Stevens Linklater, born on the 25th October 1850 in AITH in the parish of SANDWICK, Hrossey as the island should be called. He was the son of David Linklater and Janet Linklater née Irvine, herself born and bred in Aith and subsequently died there some 77 years later in 1902. Census records show that Irvines occupied various properties in Aith all within easy hailing distance of eachother - see the O.S. map further down. David, Janet's husband, was born in Kirbister, about 2½ miles south of Aith at the northern end of Stromness Parish. David's future wife, Janet, was born ‘under a cloud’ on the 19th August 1825, ten years and a day after David, an event somewhat tetchily recorded by the Rev. Charles Clouston thus;


See Janet Linklater for the details. Rev. Charles Clouston, then aged about 24 and brimming, no doubt, with youthful zeal, must only recently have assumed duty as assistant minister to his father, the Rev. William Clouston, who was then Minister of the ‘United Parishes of Sandwick and Stromness’. Charles Clouston was a providential choice to preside over parochial affairs. He was a keen and energetic scientific observer of everything from botany to meteorology, both of which he studied at Edinburgh and on which he kept meticulous notes, contributing items on meteorology to Encyclopaedia Britannica and adding several new species of plant to the Orkney flora. As well as theological studies enabling the proper care of immortal souls, he obtained a degree in medicine while at Edinburgh and was subsequently generous in the application of his knowledge to the care of his parishioners' sinful bodies, often gratis. Having joined his father William in 1825 as assistant, he succeeded him as sole Minister of Sandwick in 1832, the very year in which the previously combined parishes of Stromness and Sandwick were separated. He was also a willing and able writer. His account of Sandwick for the ‘New Statistical Survey of Scotland’ written in 1839 and revised in 1841, the whole of which can be seen here, is among the longest and most detailed that were returned, as was that of his father a generation earlier in about 1795. The Rev. William Clouston's account of the ‘United Parishes of Sandwick and Stromness’ was composed for inclusion in Sir John Sinclair's groundbreaking initial ‘Statistical Survey of Scotland 1791-99’ some of which is reproduced HERE. Charles Clouston was also the first president of the Orkney Natural History Society which founded the Stromness Museum in 1837.

The Rev. Charles Clouston is also credited with burying the infamous Orkney Black Book, whose origins are shrouded in the sulpherous smoke of Orkney mythology. Its possession conferred upon its owner supernatural powers. As with all such things, there was reputedly a heavy price to pay. Auld Hornie required his pund o flesh, or, in this case, your immortal soul. The only way to avoid the proverbial fate worse than death was to sell the book for less than it had been bought. Inevitably “a simple-minded servant lass bought the infernal volume for a farthing; and it seemed she was stuck with it till her dying day; after which her soul would have to bear it down to the fires where it had originated. But the lass was not so simple-minded after all. Beset with anguish and terror, she carried The Book to the minister, Rev. Charles Clouston of Sandwick, who solemnly buried the accursed thing in his garden; after which nothing more was ever heard of it.” [Brown, 1975]

Sandwick was formerly divided into North and South Sandwick before being united with the Parish of Stromness. As the division of parishes was essentially a church matter, combined parishes were considered less than ideal and Charles Clouston explains why in due course. However, with the increasing size and importance of the town of Stromness, the parishes were separated in 1832, about ten years before the Rev. Charles Clouston wrote his account of Sandwick for the New Statistical Survey. However, he himself had a taste of ministering the two conjoined parishes on his first arriving back in Orkney to assist his father who presided over the ministry of Stromness and Sandwick until his death in 1832 at which point Charles was appointed sole minister in charge of Sandwick. The border of Stromness Parish is about 2 miles south of Aith. There is a separate page dealing with Sandwick in even greater detail!

Much of what Charles Clouston wrote for the ‘New Statistical Survey of Scotland’ will be quoted here, my purpose being to reflect as accurately as possible what daily life was like in mid-19th century Orkney for James Stevens Linklater and family. The Rev. Charles Clouston lived in Sandwick Manse. If this is one and the same property as that indicated on the ‘Manse’ on the 1888 O.S. map less than half a mile south of Aith, he must have known all the residents of Aith well - certainly by sight and probably by name. In all likelihood he would also have known everyone in the parish because firstly, as the officiating minister, he would have been responsible for church attendance. [Here, once I have the facts, I will add information about church tokens, dissenting and secessionist congegations in Sandwick, and who was responsible for recording data in the Parish Registers.] But secondly, in addition to knowledge gained in his ministery the Rev. Charles Clouston took the trouble to take an unofficial census of Sandwick in 1833 which I don't believe was ever published but of which I have a copy, relevant excerpts from which can be seen HERE. The original, D3.357, is in the Orkney Archives.


I still don't know with any certainty when James finally left Orkney to seek his fortune ‘abroad’ in Scotland. The 1851 Census noted his presence in ‘East Aith’; that for 1861, the last record of him in Orkney, placed him in ‘Aith’. Others in the same household in 1861 were his father, David, ‘head’, aged 45 described as a Merchant; Janet, his wife and James' mother, aged 35; Helen, a sister aged 12, and a “scholar” as were ‘our’ James aged 10, Jannet [sic] aged 8, and Barbara aged 5. ‘Scholar’ does not signify that the family was bursting with grey matter; it was simply the term used for anyone attending school. From 1911 the more prosaic ‘School’ was recorded rather than scholar. At the same property in Aith three ‘Servants’ were recorded; William Garson aged 16, a Ploughman; Ann Moar, a ‘Domestic Servant’ aged 22; and Caroline Linklater aged 17, a ‘Dairymaid’. The latter was probably a daughter of David's half-brother John.

Janet and David had no further children that I know of after Barbara, and come the next census, of those recorded in 1861 only Barbara and her parents remained in Aith, the others having ‘gone about their business’. In James' case that was to Leith at 72 Great Junction Street. Thereafter each census recorded him at 14 Summerside Street, Leith. According to his death certificate he died at 11 Claremont Crescent, Edinburgh, 21st August 1899, although he still owned 14 Summerside Street. He also seems to have owned property in Aith, of which more anon. As for his siblings, Helen married Peter Wishart of Howaback who farmed around 90 acres and by whom she had at least seven sons one of whom, David Wishart, subsequently lived with and worked for his grandmother Janet, by then running ‘Sandwick Post Office’. She died on the 17th September 1902 in Aith where she had lived her whole life, her grandson, David Wishart, being the ‘informant’ on her death certificate. Janet's husband, David, had died about twenty-eight years earlier under somewhat mysterious circumstances just a couple of miles from where he had first drawn breath; “on the evening of Friday the 16th of October [1874] between 6 and 7 p.m. on the Public Road leading from Stromness to Sandwick in the Parish of Stromness and about 1½ miles distant from Stromness.” [Quotation from his death certificate. ‘1½ miles distant from Stromness’ is about level with the H of STROMNESS PARISH on Thomson's map below.] Of James' sister, Jannet, I have found no trace after the 1861 census. Barbara died of tuberculosis in Edinburgh when she was only 17, James witnessing her death certificate. See Flitting the Isles for all the census data I have concerning Aith relevant to us, together with some for Stromness and David Linklater's family. In common with the population of Orkney as a whole, Linklaters peaked in Aith in 1861.

Aith is sometimes referred to as “Aiths Town” or “Aithstown”. I will stick to plain simple Aith, which clearly is not, nor ever was, a town, but a tunship. A tunship, or township as they became known, and a town are not synonymous in Orkney. A tunship was a taxable entity comprised of a number of separate but related dwellings enclosed by a common turf dyke [boundary wall] within which the land was divided between the various properties in heritable proportions. Until the agricultural reforms of the mid 19th century, i.e. the date of James' birth, the land thus divided, rather than being in solid blocks, consisted of a patchwork of strips of land arranged run-rig. An owner might have several such strips dotted about within the tunship. Outside the dyke was the commonty, or common land, which again, until the land reforms, was unenclosed and on which the occupants of the tunship had certain clearly defined rights and responsibilities. The former included the right to cut peat in those places boasting a peat moss. Sandwick was poorly endowed in this respect and people living there had a long-standing arrangement allowing them to cut peats in the adjoining but landlocked parish of Harray, the quid pro quo being to allow the partans, or ‘crabs’ as the residents of Harray were jocularly known, access to the coast to launch their boats. The Agricultural Revolution came very late to Orkney but its improvements were implemented very rapidly and can be dated pretty precisely as taking effect from 1845 to 1880, the very period of James' upbringing. What follows includes excerpts from the Rev. Charles Clouston's Description of the Parish of Sandwick for the ‘New’ Stistical Survey.

Aith is usually said to derive its name from the Old Norse eið meaning an isthmus or neck of land or, as Ployen defines it “a tongue of land between two bays.” [Ployen, 1894]. Whether actually in Aith or merely contemplating it on an Ordnance Survey map it is not at all obvious what persuaded Norse toponomysts to call it an isthmus. The possibility that the eið was that between the Loch of Skaill and Loch of Clumly or Loch of Skaill and Loch of Harray, none of which were so named at the time, seem unlikely; there are more obvious candidates for Aith that were not so called, i.e. the eið between the north-western end of the Loch of Skaill and the coast - which does not seem to have been called anything. A far more convincing eið is that in Stronsay, separating the Bay of Holland from St Catherine's Bay. However, Gregor Lamb [c. 1993] suggests the Sandwick eið is a misnomer and in fact derives its name from aeð whose literal meaning is a vein but was “also used metaphorically as a gushing well or stream... The puzzling placename Aith in Sandwick with several goods wells in the vicinty may also have its origins in this Norse word.” In Aith today the presence of water is obvious whereas anything resembling an isthmus completely absent. The elephant in the room is the Loch of Skaill which nowadays might give rise to a name such as Lochside or Lake End; why such a name did not commend itself to the literal-minded Vikings is unclear. It is possible that the Loch ante-dates the Vikings; it might even be of artificial construction. Mills were an important source of income for landowners, to the extent that possession of a quern stone was pronounced illegal [by Patrick Steuart?] Skaill is an old and important settlement which may well have had its own mill. The Loch of Skaill would have provided ample power. Although there appears no sign of any such mill today at Skaill House, a couple of hundred yards to the north there is a ‘Mill Croft.’ and half a mile east of Aith is the Mill of Rango with its own attendant lochan, the ‘Mill Dam of Rango’.

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© 2018 Duncan Linklater Sennachie.