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Kirkwall calligraphy

August 2, 2010

I love old street signs and quirky details on buildings. (One reason why I enjoy the daily photos of the very aptly named Diligent Observer so much.) While we were in Orkney, I noticed several that tickled my fancy in the capital, Kirkwall. Orkney is a gift to the pictorially inclined and I took far more photos than I showed in my post about the islands. Prompted by a post about wonderful old advertising signs on buildings in Toronto, over at the ever-entertaining Violet Sky, I’d like to offer a few of these oddments for your delectation.

The Kirkwall hotel overlooks the harbour. I was struck by the rather Book of Kells style of ornament on the ‘K’, which makes it look as if it should be in Dublin rather than the Norse isles of the north. Even more striking is the erosion of the once-grand column by the front door: it speaks of the ferocity of the winter gales more clearly than any words.

Kirkwall is the first place that I can remember seeing Art Nouveau street signs. You might expect them somewhere like Vienna or Darmstadt, but they were a happy surprise here. Notice the square stone on the edge of the building: it has ’34’ carved on it, also in an early 20th Century font.

Yes please! I wonder how long these have been on offer at this corner?

What a glorious name for a lane! A ‘hoolie’ in Scots is a party, a rather ramshackle, boisterous, noisy one. Mounthoolie Lane is probably nothing to do with such things – I don’t know the origin of its name  – but it still makes me smile. As for the barber shop: do you suppose one can expect a nice tasse du thé there if one drops in on spec?

Pottering on up the road, we come at last to St. Magnus Cathedral. Its ancient, worn sandstone walls are embellished by doors with the most fabulous ornate iron hinges. As far as I know, these hinges are the original medieval ones. I include them in this series on street calligraphy because they are so clearly inspired by the curling, foliate decoration of medieval manuscript illumination.

Incidentally, those look a little like oak leaves to me. If so, they are a rarity on the Orkney Mainland!

Before we go, let’s just step inside the cathedral to see one or two final examples of fine writing and quirky detail. I loved the vigour of these seventeenth century grave slabs, several of which are propped against the south wall of the side aisle.

Though time runs out and death comes for us all (as the sand-timer and skull signify), yet Elizabeth Cuthbert sleeps ‘In Hope of a Blessed Resurrection’. Her eyes are fixed on her heavenly crown; above the starry firmament, wry-faced angels await.

On this slab, an entire family of Kirkwall burgesses is commemorated. The calligraphy is so strong and vivid: I particularly like the double vees of the Ws and the inverted points of the cross bars on the As. It is interesting to see what virtues were considered most worthy of honour at this time: ‘Heer Lyis Ane Honest Gentlman John Edmonstone…Heer Also Lyis Ane Discreit Woman Anna Edmonstone His Daughter’. There is a whole essay which could be written on patriarchy’s fear of women’s wagging tongues and its elevation of the feminine virtues of silence and modesty. But in the end, I think I would be grateful to be remembered as honest and discrete. Especially in such wonderful carving.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. August 2, 2010 5:43 pm

    I am so glad I prompted you to post these wonderful finds!
    Do you think Kirkwall was, perhaps, putting on airs with its fancy art nouveau script? And that hinge, taking up the whole of the narrow door commanding as much repect as the wider doors!
    Now, I must go check out A Diligent Observer.

    • dancingbeastie permalink
      August 2, 2010 7:34 pm

      I wonder…it doesn’t strike me as a town that would ever have put on airs. It has such a strong character of its own. Perhaps it just happened to have an unusually artistic town planner at the crucial moment!

      • August 4, 2010 10:19 pm

        You’re right – putting on airs is a *very* UnOrcadian thing to do! I just loved this post. You have a such an eye for detail. I shall now have to go to Kirkwall and look more closely!

  2. dancingbeastie permalink
    August 5, 2010 11:54 am

    Sometimes it takes a visitor to notice the details, I think. You will easily be able to plot my progress up Bridge Street next time you are in Kirkwall, Sian!

  3. August 8, 2010 8:34 pm

    Yay someone else notices details like that and takes photos!

    • dancingbeastie permalink
      August 8, 2010 9:10 pm

      Oh yes, there are plenty of us out there!


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