Walter Traill Dennison Donation Part 1

Walter Traill Dennison's Donation: Part 1

Walter Traill Dennison’s great-grandson, Duncan MacLaren, with Orkney Museum curator Ellen Pesci displaying a fob watch belonging to Walter’s father.

When it comes to Orkney’s folklore and folk tales there really is only one true master. No, not me, I merely follow in the footsteps of the great man. Walter Traill Dennison (1825-94) was a gentleman farmer, living at West Brough, Sanday, but he was so much more. Writer, poet, antiquarian, historian, Walter’s 1880 publication, ‘The Orcadian Sketch Book’, contained stories and poetry with many written in the Orkney dialect. But this was not the first time that the Orkney dialect had appeared in print. Eight years earlier, in 1872, Dennison had published the book ‘The Loves and Death of Lady Sarah’, a long poem in English based on an Orkney legend. Accompanying this was a humorous poem in Orkney dialect, ‘Paety Toral’s Travellye’, the story of a love-sick young man who crawls onto a roof to get a sight of his beloved through the smoke-hole. Unfortunately, he falls through the hole, onto the fire, and gets his head stuck in a three toed pot. In the confusion a figure is sighted among the ash and steam resembling the Devil, complete with curved horns. Both of these poems would appear in ‘The Orcadian Sketch Book’.

Walter Traill Dennison. Orkney Library & Archive, L2973.

Walter also recorded folk tales that he heard from the Sanday crofters and cottars when he was a boy. These were published just a few years before his death, but sadly it was only stories of the sea that made it into print. Nevertheless, this is the most important collection of Orkney folk tales that have been preserved. The museum commemorated the centenary of his death in 1994 with an exhibition and also contributed to having his folk lore and tales republished by the Orkney Press as ‘Orkney Folk Lore & Sea Legends’ the following year.

Duncan MacLaren, Walter’s great-grandson, at the Walter Traill Dennison exhibition in Sanday, 1994. This exhibition was the first one that I ever researched and wrote. The exhibition was then displayed at Tankerness House Museum (now the Orkney Museum) before travelling to Bergen University Library and at other venues in Hordaland. Duncan and I have been in touch ever since.
Tom Muir and Orkney Museums Officer Bryce Wilson, at the Dennison exhibition in Sanday, 1994.

Last December I received a letter from Duncan MacLaren, Walter’s great-grandson, which left me speechless. I had been expecting a Christmas card, as we always exchange one every year, but this was the ultimate Christmas present. He was offering the Orkney Museum all of Walter’s artefacts that were still in the family. This included artefacts that had been in the Dennison family for centuries, with connections to the capture of John Gow the pirate, the Jacobite Rebellion and a bit of Spanish Armada thrown in for good measure. These were being given by Duncan and his sister, Jean McLeod. His son, Duncan Jr, was also giving the West Brough Scrap Book to the museum. I passed on the letter to Ellen Pesci, Social History Curator, and it was decided that the scrap book, and the catalogue of Walter’s private museum, should be handed over to the Orkney Library & Archive. This is the most appropriate place to house them and to give access to researchers. On the 27th May 2022 Duncan arrived with his son, Duncan Jr, and daughter Clare. We welcomed them warmly. Many of these artefacts were well known to me, from Dennison’s catalogue, but I had no idea that they were still in existence.

The MacLaren family, Clare, Duncan and Duncan Jr, showing some of their family treasures.
Duncan gives Ellen the watch that belonged to Walter’s father, James Dennison. James was born at Noltland Castle, Westray.
Assistant Archivist Lucy Gibbon,Orkney Library & Archive Team Leader Vikki Kerr and Orkney Museum’s Social History Curator Ellen Pesci look at the catalogue of Dennison’s private museum. Most of the archaeological artefacts were sold to the Kirkwall antiquarian, James Cursiter (uncle of the painter Stanley Cursiter) who donated them to the Hunterian Museum, Glasgow.
Just like Christmas.
Ellen loves a bit of bling!
A pipe made from the wood of the Spanish Armada ship, El Gran Grifon, wrecked on Fair Isle, 27th September 1588.
Armada pipe, with amber stem.
Duncan MacLaren Jr presenting the West Brough Scrap Book. Walter collected pictures, wrote poems and short stories and had friends contribute things to his scrap book.
Amazingly, Walter had cut out the signatures from family letters written by some of the major lairds in the 17th and 18th centuries. Lucy and Vikki were very excited about this, as those letters, minus the signatures, are now in the Library’s Archive.
Culture Team Manager Nick Hewitt, Lucy Gibbon, Vikki Kerr and Ellen Pesci, with the West Brough Scrap Book.
Duncan MacLaren Jr shows retired Orkney Museums Officer Bryce Wilson the West Brough Scrap Book.
The West Brough Scrap Book.

To make a donation to any of the museums please follow the link and support us. Thank you.

Scroll to Top