Ann Cleeves launches Orkney book box celebrations

Shetland Quartet author Ann Cleeves. Picture: Contributed
Shetland Quartet author Ann Cleeves. Picture: Contributed
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A VITAL book service which has delivered to the remotest parts of Orkney for 60 years has had its anniversary celebrations launched by renowned author Ann Cleeves.

The Family Box Service started in North Ronaldsay in 1954 and was then rolled out to Orkney’s other outer islands.

It proved immediately popular - 54 of the 56 households on North Ronaldsay signed up to receive the boxes.

Orkney was the first area in the UK to develop a book delivery service to remote areas.

North Ronaldsay and Papa Westray are the only communities in Orkney still receiving the service – the library’s mobile library vans can’t get onto the islands as the piers can’t accommodate the county’s ‘roll-on, roll-off’ ferries.

Nowadays, there are 40 households regularly receiving the service across the two isles.

Deliveries are made twice a week via plane or ferry, both with the logistical help of Orkney Ferries and Loganair.

Maureen Johnstone and her partner David and two children - Macsen aged 13 and Teigan aged 8 - have been receiving the Family Book Service since they first moved to the island three-and-a-half years ago.

Maureen said: “The service is fantastic – we don’t get into town very often, perhaps monthly, and when we do we’ve got so much to get done that it’s hard to slot in some time to wander about the library picking books.

“So when the box comes through every month it’s a little bit like Christmas – you never know what you’re going to get, and the children clamber about and shout ‘Don’t open it yet, I’m not ready’.

“You get books that you’ve requested, but there’s also sometimes books that you wouldn’t normally choose yourself – we’ve been introduced to some great new books and authors that way.”

Edie Craigie moved to North Ronaldsay with her husband Jimmy in April 1989.

Her two children were born there and they have been receiving the family book service since the early nineties.

She said: “The children are grown up now, but it was great when they were young - they’d get bored with their own books, and getting the box every month gave them some variety.

“It’s still great to get a box delivered – trying to carry a month’s worth of reading back with you on the plane after a town visit, on top of groceries, can be a challenge.”

Gary Amos, Orkney Library and Archive Manager, said “Orkney was ahead of its time back in 1954 in recognising the importance of providing a book service to remote areas, and it is thought that it was the very first example of this type of service anywhere in the world.

“We believe that we’re still unique in Scotland and possibly the UK in running one now. It’s a vital service and much-valued by our remotest residents. We are proud to still be providing what was an outstanding and innovative service alongside our more recent areas of innovation.”

Ann Cleeves, the award winning author of the Shetland Quartet, is a keen and vocal supporter of libraries.

During her visit, she hand-delivered a ‘Family Book’ box to families on North Ronaldsay.

She also talked to pupils at the school about her love of books and the importance of libraries - for learning, for recreation, for broadening horizons and for helping guide people to reliable information.

Ann said: “It was fantastic to talk to islanders about the box scheme and to share stories with the children and the adults. Tea, home bakes and chat about books: what a great way to spend a winter’s morning.”

There will be an exhibition later in the year at the Orkney Library and Archive showcasing the Family Book Service.