Orkney Chairs

The 70 small islands (17 inhabited) of the Orkney archipelago are located only 6 miles north of the Scottish mainland but have culture all their own. The Orkneys, like their sister islands further north the Shetlands, were settled in prehistoric times and have a strong association [later established] with Norse and Viking cultures. UNESCO World Heritage sites Skara Brae and Maes Howe, which date from about 3100 B.C., are just two of the archaeological ruins found in great abundance at these latitudes.

Trees don't grow in the Orkneys because of the strong North Sea winds, making wood too valuable to be used for everyday items. In absence of wood, Orcadians became adept at weaving straw, left over from threshing oats, for baskets called kaesies, cubbies and luppies, for mats called flackies, but also to provide bedding as well as for shoes. Thick, straw ropes called simmens even formed the base for roofing a house wherein layers of turf and thatch would complete the job, often the whole being held down against winter winds additional ropes.

Orcadians have always looked to their shorelines for useful timber deposited by the Gulf Stream from shipwrecks or wayward logging. The Orkney Chair with its short legs and frames made of driftwood together with a woven straw back has, for hundreds of years, blended frugality and necessity in creating a unique and beautiful piece of furniture. A stone and thatched cottage is no match for gale force winds. The high, curved back of the Orkney Chair helped keep Orcadians of old warm in those cold, drafty two-room cottages called "but-an-ben".

There are only a handful of craftspeople with the expertise and patience capable of making the historic Orkney Chair. Using the local Black Murkle oats straw, every chair maker follows a slightly different, intricately woven pattern by hand.

As a standard, on a full size chair there will be approximately 50 stitches in the first row and the distance between stitches should be roughly the same as the thickness of the row. Hoods, where fitted, should be a continuation of the back and not made by adding rows of straw. While it's certainly possible to order a chair with matched lumber, the driftwood, having been immersed in the sea, takes on a unique patina. Each chair requires up to six weeks of labour, the waiting list can be 50 clients long, but in that every chair is individually crafted, special requirements can be accommodated.

Your patience will have its own reward.

Contemporary Orkney Chair by Scapa Craft »
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