Thesis: To Be Human

This post is one of a serialisation of key (edited) extracts of my thesis, “Digital Ethnography and a Virtual Orkney: The Role of Folklore in Creating an Online Orkney Place”, submitted and completed in 2018. You can download the full text below, with all footnotes, full data quotes, and list of references. I have left the original numerical chapter navigation in this post, for ease of reference.

7.2 To Be Human

Orkney’s sense of place is based on much more than just Orkney’s physical environment. It could be argued that the human element of Orkney is, in fact, much more important than the physicality of the islands in the creation of a sense of place. This has been made even more clear with the advent of the internet and the explosion of social media, and availability of significant potential datasets for analysis.

The link between folklore and the essence of elements of humanity was evident in the data collated during the #OrkneySupernatural Twitter Hour. The role of folklore as being important in terms of interpreting life events was noted, drawing together elements of human experience and using natural occurrences to explain events. There are links here with the anthropomorphic characteristics of Orkney’s physical environment, previously discussed.

Folklore also offers a way of being able to explain or describe emotions, without needing to be explicit about details; providing individuals with a way of feeling, and a way of channelling emotion and understanding how to feel.

Folklore, particularly a traditional understanding of folklore, is also important to that key element of human nature: storytelling. It is no surprise that Orkney hosts a popular Storytelling Festival (and, in fact, some of the Twitter Hour participants were involved in the running and organisation of the festival).

All of these elements offer an opportunity to understand key features of humanity, supporting Wilson’s statement that folklore is what it means to be human (1981).

7.2.1 Shared Knowing and Humour

A key element which arose from the data analysis was that of shared knowing and humour. The characteristics of the sea, sky, and wind (as discussed above) are frequently referenced beyond merely factual statements: they are imbued with additional meaning and respect. The way in which these environmental features are discussed, with a nod to anthropomorphic entities, is beyond merely identifying key characteristics: there is a further depth to the way in which they are understood by users online. In this way, such understanding is tethered directly to the physical environment of Orkney. This is an example of a shared understanding of how features are (perhaps unconsciously) portrayed.

Humour, too, is a specific example of shared knowing. The style of jokes and the content of jokes offer some context in which Orkney is considered by those resident on the islands or discussing Orkney with some prior knowledge of the local character. Though there were several instances of humorous stories and memories being recounted, or distinct jokes being relayed, to some extent the more interesting element of humour is that which is associated with the character of Orkney in the form of a specific attitude and approach.

The Giddy Limit comic strip mentioned previously is a perfect example of capturing the humour of a place; created both by the place (specifically, in this instance, an artist based within the place) and for the place. Aside from the fact that instances of such humour are usually much more widely accepted than those poking fun at places from outwith the immediate groups associated with that place, they are usually all the more perceptive; as if there is an acknowledgement that no-one can poke fun at you as much as you can yourself. This is affirmed by Brinklow, writing about Newfoundland, when she confides: “And I’ll let you in on a secret: the Newfie jokes are written by Newfoundlanders” (2011).

Aside from comments acknowledging the weather (“Despite the mixed weather at the shows this year, we had a great time…”), there were other distinct types of shared knowing and humour demonstrated within the data. On an image shared of one of the lighthouses of Graemsay (there are two: High Sound High, and Hoy Sound Low; more commonly referred to locally simply at Hoy High and Hoy Low), the original poster added “Got a light beuy?”, incorporating Orcadian dialect into the quip and tethering it specifically to the local place. A combination of Orkney humour, perfectly captured in dialect and personality, can be found in Johnston’s ‘Stenwick Days’. In ‘The Ghost of Ezekial Drever’, the tale of “a man of few words” who disappeared for ten years, concludes as follows:

This story would be incomplete without a mention of Ezekiel’s return to his own croft. He walked in just before midnight, said “Ay” to his astounded wife, glanced broodingly at the parrot, and sat down before the fire.

“Ezekiel Drever,” cried his wife when she had recovered from her astonishment, “thoo’re a fine wen, wackin’ in here efter all this time, cheust as if noathing hid happened. Whar er thoo been boy, for mercy’s seck? Whar er thoo been?”

“Oot,” said Ezekiel briefly, and lit his pipe.

(Johnston 1984, p.150)

Pained common misinterpretations relating to Orkney’s history and heritage were also a feature of demonstrated shared experiences and understanding. One user, on an image shared on Facebook, commented “Could somebody please paint out the horns on those ‘Viking’ helmets…”, referencing the common misconception of what Viking dress looked like, which has dominated the public consciousness since the second half of the nineteenth century. Many of the humorous comments required some degree of an understanding of Orkney; at times not just a passing understanding, but one which required more in-depth knowledge of Orkney. One such comment made reference to the “layout for the County Show” (and included the County Show hashtag), something that likely required attendance in person, if not an even more detailed understanding of the event.

7.2.2 Food and Drink

Food and drink offer a helpful focal point to discuss the role of Orkney’s historical folklore and Orkney’s folklore as understood in the current day. Jones, discussing Fijian foodways from an archaeological perspective, states:

In almost all human societies food plays a central role. Social interactions surrounding foodways and the items consumed are steeped in symbolism, ritual, and meaning. Some researchers have even argued that food is the key to our humanity (Warangham; Pollan). All creatures must eat to live, but the nuanced expressions of human foodways and their associated meanings crossculturally are highly varied.

(2015, p.64)

Though focussing predominantly on place-based humour rather than food and drink, Yelenevskaya notes the frequency with which food and drink items appear on the comic lists discussed, “as if to testify again that this feature of material culture is not only among the most accessible ones for observation, but is also meaningful for comparing different life styles” (2012, p.36).

Food as something which plays a significant part in defining individual identity (as well as group identity) is discussed by Kelly and Morar:

Not every act of eating is equally representative of a deep self, but people’s identities are often inscribed in their diets and food practices; there are distinctively Italian ways to cook and eat pasta that many would consider central to being a true Italian, or particularly French ways to taste and appreciate pungent cheeses that many French people would consider an important part of their self-conception (de Solier).


This draws an interesting parallel with the conversation about clapshot in one of the Facebook Groups. When revisited in the context of social norms, as discussed by Kelly and Morar, the interaction between individual users and the reaction of the group to statements which were not widely accepted as being the true Orkney way in which clapshot is prepared becomes more pertinent. By using the folklore of the food of Orkney, the group identity of those associated with Orkney becomes more cohesive. It is interesting that some of the comments diverting from the norm of the socially accepted Orkney recipe for clapshot are presented in a particular tone; not necessarily apologetic, but in a manner in which it is obvious that the user understands that they are indeed deviating from the norm (and, therefore, from the group). In such ways, individual users acknowledge not only their understanding of what is accepted within the group, but also feel able to convey their own personal taste, reiterating what Kelly and Morar describe in terms of identity and self-awareness: “[b]roadly construed, identities include a person’s personality and sense of themselves, as well as other people’s sense and recognition of who they are” (2018). An awareness of individual identity in this way is complemented by considering the context of folklore within wider groups (either formally or ‘spontaneously’ organised), as discussed by Jones in his 1991 article ‘Why Folklore and Organization(s)?’ (1991)

Food and drink are something accessible and understandable by all and, as a result, offer an insight into the past and present of a place. Ethel Findlater, recorded in 1969 discussing what was eaten throughout the winter in Orkney when she was younger, mentions several features of Orkney cooking which, if not still commonly prepared and eaten today, nevertheless remain a part of the Orkney psyche. Findlater describes the preservation and preparation of sillocks, to be eaten with buttered bannocks (Findlater & Bruford 1969). Both hung sillocks and bere bannocks remain features of contemporary Orkney, whether associated directly with Orkney’s past such as the presence of hung fish in Kirbuster Farm Museum (a maintained traditional ‘firehoose’) or the promotion of beremeal and bere bannocks as something distinctly of Orkney.

Throughout the data, discussions relating to older recipes and practices were popularly received, even if the food and drink to which they referred was no longer commonly understood as something from Orkney. This data and the examples discussed provide evidence that food and drink offer an insight into the way Orkney’s legacy of folklore is still maintained and considered in the twenty-first century, whether by continued and fiercely (if jovially) defended traditions, or by acknowledgement of Orkney’s past and the role it plays in the creation of folklore. This is perhaps additionally pertinent given Orkney’s not insubstantial diaspora, and the need for those whose families emigrated to maintain clear cultural links to the essence of Orkney, specifically (in this example) folklore (cf. Mintz 2015). As Baldacchino states in “Feeding the Rural Tourism Strategy? Food and Notions of Place and Identity”:

Food encounters connect locals with visitors, with members of the diaspora and with absolute strangers; while lingering, rediscovered or invented recipes provide economic lifelines, and new markets, to local produce.

(2015, p.224)

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