£115,000 US study to look at isles life
THE neighbouring islands of Westray and Papa Westray first attracted the attention of James Wood and his wife Pat Johnson four years ago, when they went there as tourists. Later this month they will begin a more detailed journey, making their way through 300 years of the communities’ past.
Mr Wood, a professor of anthropology and demography at Pennsylvania State University, and Ms Johnson, an associate professor in the same field, are heading an ambitious research project into the history of the two Orkney islands. They have been awarded a grant of over 115,000 from the US National Science Foundation over the next three years.
The project aims to detail how the population, landscape and way of life have altered over three centuries with the help of today’s residents and historic documents, including censuses and parish registers, information from headstones and evidence on emigration from family documents and records of the Hudson’s Bay Company, a big employer of Orcadians.
It will look at the impact of the rise and fall of the kelp and herring industries, the reorganisation of farming and the collapse of the white-fish industry, as well as population loss.
Students will work with the Westray Buildings Preservation Trust to document, map, and begin restoring the abandoned croft complex of South Hammer, dating mainly from the mid-19th century, which was recently bought by the trust. One of the houses was occupied until 1989 and still contains a box bed, a hand reel for winding wool, paraffin lamps, and homemade utensils.
Westray and Papa Westray (known as Papay) are two of Orkney’s most northerly islands. Settlement dates back about 5,000 years - but Westray’s population fell 15 per cent in two years in the 1990s to under 600. Papay’s fell to 70.
Prof Wood told The Scotsman: "We chose Westray because we visited there as tourists and fell in love with it. A trip to the local heritage centre convinced us that an excellent foundation already existed for doing research on historical demography and historical archaeology.
"We’re including Papay because its demographic records have been kept with those of Westray, so it makes sense to do them both at once."
The information the team collects will be kept as a larger database that will become part of a survey of all the northern islands of Orkney.
Prof Wood said: "This project will be the first to combine the analytical methods of historical demography with the field-based approaches of household ecology, settlement archaeology and landscape history."
He said Orkney was an attractive site for research of this kind: "There has been almost complete continuity of settlement since the remote past: many islanders have emigrated over the years, but few people have moved to the islands from outside Orkney.
"As a consequence most residents view aspects of the earlier landscape, including old farmhouses and fields, as parts of their own family history and are often keenly interested and knowledgeable about them.
"In addition, historic archaeological remains, parish records and other documents allow the detailed reconstruction of population, subsistence and settlement patterns under the traditional agricultural system that prevailed before the beginning of agricultural ‘improvement’ about 1850."
He said since the late 1700s the islands have experienced economic, demographic, and environmental shocks and almost 150 years of depopulation and population aging.
Westray and Papay were at the centre of Orcadian kelp-making during the industry’s boom in 1780-1830. The population increased then, but when the industry collapsed, the islands had to rely again on a traditional agriculture that could not support them and the era of emigration and depopulation started again.
Nancy Scott, of the trust, said: "We were delighted when Pat and Jim started their work here and indicated their wish to let us have access to their research. It will fill gaps in the information we can provide for genealogy researchers as well as being of great interest locally.
"We do not have the manpower or the time to undertake research on this scale."
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