Walter Traill Dennison's Donation: Part 1
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 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.
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.