Ernest W. Marwick: writer and scholar

Scholar and author, journalist and broadcaster, campaigner, and a true gentleman – who could so aptly fit that description but Orkney’s own Ernest W. Marwick?

An exhibition in Orkney Archive will touch on all aspects of his life and work, from his birth at Fursan, at Woodwick in Evie, to his writing and broadcasting.

Items on display will include some of the photographs in the Ernest Marwick Collection, and you can also hear some of the sound recordings that he made. The exhibition will also offer a glimpse into his personal diaries.

Ernest Marwick left school at just 10 years old after being diagnosed with scoliosis, but he did not let this hinder his education. Instead, he put the period of his illness to good use to read as much as he could.

Later he worked for a time on family farms, then moved to Kirkwall in 1941 to work in Stevenson’s Bookshop. In the mid-1950s he joined the editorial staff of the Orkney Herald. He wrote many articles and reviews and also a much-appreciated weekly column, ‘Sooan Sids’, bringing to the fore all kinds of aspects of Orkney life and culture.

He then left Orkney for a time to further his studies at Newbattle Abbey, where the poet Edwin Muir was the warden.

The exhibition includes extracts from the journal that he kept in these early years in Orkney, continuing until September 1953 and the last entry before he set off south to study:

“With to-day’s entry, I end this diary. It has been an experiment which has not been over-successful, owing mainly, I think, to my difficulty in giving frankly all my thoughts and impulses. Nevertheless it gives a skeleton account of a typical period in my life. I shall endeavour to begin another fuller diary at Newbattle Abbey.”

Unfortunately, if any diary was written at Newbattle, it is not in the possession of the Orkney Archive.

But he did continue to keep a diary when he returned to Orkney. The entry Sunday 16th September 1962 reads:

“A wild wet day. We managed, nevertheless, to have our usual walk round the pier between early communion and breakfast. The sea was choppy. And three Norwegian shark boats had taken shelter. One was very trim with white paint immaculate, and a green-painted upper deck.

“I recorded my talk successfully, then read some Orkney history in preparation of another onslaught on my book in the near future. Feeling frosty in the late afternoon, I walked again to the pier. The wind was now much higher, the storm cone was up at the Coastguard Station, and there were six Norwegians sheltering in the basin. It looked as if more might arrive, and the deputy harbour master, Peter Wylie was debating anxiously where he would moor them if they came. The wind was full of fine rain, but it was very exhilarating.


“After evensong, I went quickly across to the Scout Hall where I was to talk on Orkney words to a troop of scouts from Banchory! I was one of three speakers, and came last. They were a bit restive in the hall when my turn came so I decided to be bright and brief. I was successful in keeping them laughing, for what that was worth.
“I am reading John Moore’s ‘You English Words’ – a very attractive book.”

Town and Country

When the Herald closed he worked freelance, contributing regularly to The Orcadian, and his columns for the paper contain a wealth of information about Orkney’s history, from sea rescues to traditional food and from famous visitors to Orcadians abroad.

With his soft distinctive voice he made more than eight hundred broadcasts over a period of thirty years. He was one of the main contributors to the BBC’s first northern local radio programme “Town and Country”. His numerous radio interviews formed the basis for the Orkney Sound Archive.

He reflected on the work in a poem, ‘Recordings’:

On this machine (within that brown reel stored)

Dead voices still hold fast their transient world

So art thou, Logos, ours essentially,

Recorded from the first in stone and tree;

Heard as the seas resound or grasses stir:

Recorder and recording, speaker and listener.

While history and folklore were his major interests, he gathered information from a wide variety of sources. The depth of his knowledge was recognised not only through requests to contribute to books, conferences and radio programmes, but also in the award of an honorary degree from Edinburgh University.

Widely known and respected throughout both Orkney and Shetland, he was nonetheless a humble, private man who enjoyed close friendships with many other local intellectuals including George Mackay Brown, Robert Rendall and JDM Robertson.

His humility can be seen even in his writing as shown in the first few lines of this speech on a visit to Shetland to talk about folklore:

“Ladies and Gentlemen – One comes to Shetland to speak on folklore with feelings both of presumption and inadequacy.  There are I suspect many people among you who know far more of the actual folklore of Shetland than I do. To some of these people I have already had cause to be grateful for their generosity in telling me things I could not possibly have known otherwise. There are many names I could mention, but that would be invidious. Still, my first word is a word of thankfulness to those who have trusted me with their traditions, and who have done me the honour of believing that my love of your islands and of their lore is nearly as great as your own.”

Co-founder of the Orkney Heritage Society, he campaigned tirelessly to save historic buildings and to oppose plans to mine uranium in Orkney

A selection of Ernest Marwick’s writings has been published in two large volumes as An Orkney Anthology by his lifelong friend JDM Robertson.

He wrote poetry as well as prose, and the exhibition in Orkney Archive includes the words of a song which was set to music by Munira Bishop, the first verse and chorus of which are:

“Come to me dancing, dancing my dearest,

Light as the teebro, light on the hill,

Kind as the sun that shines on the islands,

Gay as the west wind working your will.

            Working your will, working your will,

            Come to me dancing, come to me dancing,

            Dancing my dearest, my joy to fulfil.


Centenary celebration

The exhibition in Orkney Archive is part of a group of activities marking the centenary of the birth of Ernest Marwick. Also in the Science Festival programme will be a One O’Clock Toast in the Peedie Kirk, An Evie Evening with Ernest Marwick, and The Light that Shines on Orkney’s Past.

The exhibition will be open through the Festival daily, apart from Sunday and Wednesday.

The last words from it must go to Ernest Marwick himself whose life’s work was dedicated to doing exactly what he describes in the last verse of this untitled poem:

“Where men worship tups and tractors

We must sing the songs we know;

We must fill the land with legends

Or our very souls will go.”

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