Obituary: Thora Bain, Orcadian dairy woman with a love of travel and a passion for history and community

Born: 14 February, 1917, in Kirkwall. Died: 22 September, 2012, in Stromness, aged 95

When Kirkwall’s St Magnus Cathedral celebrated its octo-centenary, in 1937, a young Thora Bain was cast as Ingeborg, the heathen maiden put up for sacrifice, in the event’s historic pageant.

That she still retained her costume 75 years on is testament to her love of drama, determination to preserve the island’s heritage and to her position as custodian of a great mine of Orkney lore.

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Writers and scholars would beat a path to her door for information or anecdotes on a range of subjects and her home was filled with slides, books and documents charting the island’s history.

Blessed with an amazing ability to recall incidents and events, she could hold an audience spellbound with her tales of Orkney life stretching back to her childhood and beyond.

The daughter of an Orcadian father and Aberdeenshire mother, she was born on the family’s dairy farm, Saverock, just outside Kirkwall, during the First World War.

The second eldest of a family of six, she had to trek to school in Kirkwall down a country track – only getting the benefit of a lift in the pony and trap if the weather was bad.

After leaving Kirkwall Grammar School at 16, she left the island to attend Craibstone College of Rural Domestic Economy in Aberdeen, where she studied subjects including dairying and proved to be an exceptional student.

Her grandfather, George Bain of Saverock, had built a dairy complex, having been approached by the county medical officer of health, in the days when Bovine TB was rampant, to set up a modern dairy operation.

And when she gained her qualification, she returned to Orkney, in the mid-1930s, where her working life would revolve around milk. By this time, her father had bought a dairy in Kirkwall where she went to work helping her mother. Milk was delivered by pony and cart, available in bottles or by the penny dispensed from two large churns on the back of the cart.

Miss Bain’s duties included filling and washing the milk 
bottles. They didn’t acquire a motorised vehicle for deliveries until the Second World War when they bought a small Morris van.

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And, as Orkney became an important naval wartime base, the family supplied the boats in Scapa Flow with milk, stretching their net further and further afield to source large enough quantities for the troops and support services. During this time, the Bains also started packaging milk in non-returnable cartons – a boon to the many small ships working the Orkney waters.

Although her father took over another dairy and named it the Orkney Creamery, she preferred the Saverock Dairy name. She and her brother Sandy ran the business after her father died and she continued working up until about 20 years ago.

Though effectively the boss, she still always considered herself a dairy maid. However, she was recognised as an employer who was always willing to give someone a chance to prove themselves, forever looking for the potential in individuals. Be it a young lad hoping to be a milk boy or a learned academic, she always saw the best in people. She never judged by appearances but took people as they were and valued their contribution to the common life regardless of their background.

She was endlessly inquisitive and seeking new knowledge, qualities that led to her being involved in the Orkney International Science Festival.

Festival director Howie Firth said: “We were very pleased to appoint Thora as our first Honorary Life Member as she encapsulated so much of what the Science Festival is about – taking a keen interest in the world about us, asking questions, and enjoying the search for new knowledge. She came to many talks and took a great interest in the festival, just as she did in any area of new ideas and insights.”

Although she spent all of her life in Orkney, she enjoyed travel, and her love of reading, people and history inspired her to explore the world. She visited America, Canada and Australia – climbing Uluru, formerly known as Ayers Rock, in a tartan skirt and woolly jumper in 46 degrees of heat.

Back home, she lived and breathed local history and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of Orkney family histories. A member of the Orkney Heritage Society since its inception and a founder of the Society of Friends of St Magnus Cathedral, she was also a member of the Family History Society, the Field Club, the Conservative Party, the St Magnus Guild, a vintage car club and Orkney Wireless Museum.

A dedicated supporter of both the Scottish Women’s Rural Institute and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, she organised the Lifeboat collections in the parish of St. Ola and, although she had a driving licence, she preferred to use the expertise of her three sisters and innumerable friends to drive her on her collection rounds.

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Regarded at times as an eccentric and a maverick, she had an acute appreciation of the value of community life and each person’s responsibility within it, and was not shy to voice her views. On one occasion, while walking along the street, a passing car-load of youths threw an empty chip wrapping out of the window. As the car drew to a stop further down the street she picked up the offending article, approached the vehicle and thrust the chip wrapper back through the window saying, in her inimitable way : “I believe you may have dropped this”…

“Thora was never afraid to express her own opinion, or correct an untruth,” said Orkney Heritage Society president, AJ Firth. “Orkney has lost one of its most endearing and hard working characters. “Thora was admired and respected by all who knew her.”

She is survived by her sister, Margaret.


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