The arcadian days of the Orcadian

THURSDAY is the one day of the week when I try to get down to the village shop. That’s the day Orkney’s weekly newspaper the Orcadian comes out. I have no need to rush - the paper is delivered by ferry and tends not to reach our shop shelf until afternoon. So here on the islands we read our papers of an evening rather than over morning coffee with the rest of the world.

The Orcadian was established by one James Urquhart Anderson in 1854 and is therefore about to celebrate its 150th birthday. But in a sense its history goes back further than that. James’s father, Magnus, started the ball rolling by setting up a bookbinding business in Kirkwall in 1798. A very religious man, his mission was to bind and sell Bibles and collections of psalms. Some 20 years later James joined the business and added printing to their skills by way of a small Ruthven printing press.

Over the following decades the paper steered through rough seas, almost sinking through bankruptcy several times. At one point opportunist sales of sewing machines and insurance were the only thing keeping the Orcadian afloat. But the descendants of Magnus struggled on and by 1931 were able to buy the latest technology for a 1930s printing firm - a Cossar press.

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These days the Orcadian has a circulation exceeding 11,000, which ain’t bad considering Orkney’s total population of 20,000. A copy must find its way on to the majority of Orkney’s kitchen tables. I would not want to miss it. My daily dose of Orkney Radio and weekly dose of the Orcadian is what keeps me healthily up to date on all things Orkney. From the small ads ("Two cod for sale") to the big news ("Proposed international container trans-shipment hub development in Scapa Flow"), the ebb and flow of Orkney life is portrayed.

One of the heaviest books on my shelf (The Orcadian Book of the 20th Century: a chronicle of our times by Howard Hazell) is a mega-tome of excerpts from 100 years of the Orcadian. What I notice when delving into its pages is the prevalence of incidents at sea. Sinkings, drownings, lifeboat rescues, the ups and downs of the fishing industry and the years when Scapa Flow bristled with warships. Orkney lives and dies and conquers and thrives by the sea.

Today Nic and I are visiting the print rooms of the Orcadian at Hell’s Half Acre, Kirkwall. In a modern foyer we admire the huge and beautiful Cossar Press, now in full retirement. On the way to the print rooms we pass floor to ceiling glass casements, the homes of great stacks of leather-bound ledgers collecting every issue of the Orcadian from the very first four-pager printed in 1854.

Through another door we enter the realm of pre-press computers, scanners and image setters. Then come the print rooms busy with an impressive array of modern presses and printing machines.

I’m most fascinated by the big rollers and conveyer belts of the newspaper press. But I’m not really here to look at that. I’m here to see a man about a book ...

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