This article was originally published in the newsletter of the Orkney Heritage Society, this text is a slightly updated version. It originally formed part of my dissertation for an MLitt Orkney and Shetland Studies at the Institute for Northern Studies.
Faray is a very small island so any disruptive influence, whether real or perceived, would cause much unrest amongst the population. One such disruptive influence was in the form of a Mr George Kent, who lived in Faray for a short time in the 1890s. Together with his wife Joanna (nee Irvine, born in Westray in 1855), they had eight children, two of whom were born in Faray. George was born in Westray in 1839, but had worked and raised his family in Firth since the 1850s at the Stewart Endowment-owned croft of Quatquoy. The reasons for his departure from Firth are not known, but in a document by the Endowment lawyers they describe Kent as “most improvident and is a man of loose and intemperate habits, a quarrelsome neighbour, a bad farmer and a worse tenant.” After leaving Quatquoy he was rendered homeless and was temporarily accommodated at the farm of Burness where he and his family occupied a single room in the new ploughman’s cottage. The Stewart Endownment were asked to find him a new croft, and they found that Quoys in Faray had just fallen vacant. They were somewhat reluctant to take Kent on as a tenant but against their better judgement, and more from pity for his wife and children, agreed to allow him entry from Martinmas (11 November) 1892.
A document in the Orkney Library and Archive (OLA) tells us that the previous tenant of Quoys had been an elderly man who, though age and infirmity, had requested to be released from his tenancy. An agreement was reached with Kent to buy out the previous tenant’s stock and crop of turnips, and he moved his family in to the property in the summer of 1892, upon agreement with the former tenant. However, all was not well.
A report by the Stewart Endowment made it very clear that Kent’s “irregularities and intemperate habits and quarrelsome disposition” had proven a most objectionable situation in the island, and was most and detrimental in such a small community as Faray. The other tenants made no secret of their hopes that Kent’s stay would be a short one, and it was shown that the value of the croft was being seriously diminished through Kent’s failure to maintain the house and land.
In March 1894, giving no reasons, Kent wrote to the solicitors Macrae and Robertson in Kirkwall asking to be relieved of his tenancy. Of course, they had to make a show of objecting on principle in allowing a tenant to renounce their lease so soon into their tenure, but accepted that it was in the best interests of both the Endowment and the other tenants of the island to accept Kent’s renunciation. No doubt, there were great sighs of relief all round. Agreements were made that he should leave at Martinmas 1894, exactly two years after officially gaining the tenancy, and arrangements for a new tenant were made, the existing croft stock to be sold to the incoming tenant.
But Kent refused to go. He stated both in written and verbal form to Macrae & Robertson that he refuted his relinquishment, though at the same time started to make enquiries at agents across Orkney for another vacant croft. In October, Kent wrote to the solicitors claiming that he had changed his mind and did not intend to move, giving no reason for his decision. Between October and Martinmas Kent received many letters from his solicitors, all of which were ignored.
During this time, James Groat, the incoming tenant, had started to make his move, giving up his situation in Kirkwall and planning for his new life in Faray. However, when told that his croft was unavailable, he threatened the Trustees with an action for damages if he did not gain entry as arranged. When an action for the sum of £2 was lodged Macrae & Robertson did not argue, but raised an action of Ejection and Damage against Kent, who had been boasting to the island’s residents of his intention to defy the Trustees. The action was duly raised and accepted, Kent was fined £50 and was due all expenses of the case.
Kent left the island as soon as weather would permit on 19th December 1894. Weather had precluded an earlier departure, so Kent arranged with the incoming tenant to stay at the croft until a break in the weather. In exchange, he was to leave a quantity of peat at Quoys. When, finally, he was able to leave it was reported that he and his family spent their last night in Faray in a small henhouse on another croft in the island.
The Faray school had three of the Kent children enrolled by the time they left the island, Thomas, Joanna and Isabella, the elder George having already left to herd. The teacher at the time noted the children’s poor attendance at school throughout their tenue in the community.
This left the Trustees in a tricky situation. How should they punish this errant tenant and make an example of him in front of their other tenants? From the records held in the OLA, the tenants of the island were required to work at the kelp, for which they received payment. A letter from Macrae & Robertson to Mr Rannie, Trustee of the Stewart Endowment, is held in the OLA containing information on “bonuses” to be paid to kelp makers in Faray and Westray as an inducement to more kelp production, though unfortunately the list of tenants and the amounts collected is missing from the record. It’s not known if Kent was amongst those fortunate enough to receive a bonus, but the sum of £9.2s. 11d was due to him at the date of his departure. The rent of the croft amounted to £5 (the rental of Quoys did not subsequently go up for some years), but the claim for Ejection and Damage included a claim for unspecified monies. The Trustees decided to hold his payment until a decision could be reached, but in the intervening period it became widely known that money due to Kent was being held by the Stewart Trustees, so debtor after debtor filed claims against him. The solicitors refused to pay out any money to Kent, seeing it as “unsafe and improper but actually illegal” to pay up. Due to bad advice, Kent raised a Small Debt action against the Trustees, leaving them no choice but to consign the kelp money with the Sheriff Clerk under a multiple poinding – a Scots law term meaning something impounded – who would distribute the funds amongst Kent’s debtors accordingly. The Trustees were relieved of any responsibility, Kent’s debtors were paid, but it would leave Kent penniless, being left with the expenses of his Small Claim debt on top of all his other woes.
We next pick up the family in the 1901 census for Harray, Kent still has three children, aged 17, 9 and 7 living at home. Three more children also live in independently in Harray, but a seventh child, Jemima, moved from Faray to Eday to work as a servant with her aunt and uncle.
This is where I have more to add to the story than that published in the OHS newsletter. John Firth’s peedie booklet Harray, Orkney’s Inland Parish contains some information on our friend George under the category of the Congregational Church. He tells us that ‘some seventy years ago’ (which isn’t helpful, but his book was published in 1977) The Orcadian published a letter entitled “Harray Eviction” signed by George Kent. George was living in the house called the View in Grimeston [interesting but totally irrelevant note: while looking at the first OS map (1880s) it became clear that the north ends of both the Stoneyhill and Grimeston Roads had yet to be built. The Stoneyhill road did exist as a track, but the Grimestone road had nothing at all. The View is shown as Buckquoy Cottage to the west of the Congretional Chapel in this OS map from 1900].
Kent’s (unnamed) daughter had returned from Eday to live with her parents in Harray before getting married. The house proved somewhat of a squeeze, so Kent began to look for somewhere bigger. The manse being empty, he decided to take advantage and moved the family in. I’ve yet to establish exactly which manse this was, as we have an embarrassment of riches manse-wise within Harray. The problem with manses is that they generally have a role to fill, that of housing the minister. The minister in question was Mr Heggie who had at one time been in the insurance business, a role he returned to after some local litigation with his neighbours which precipitated him leaving Orkney. However, I’m getting ahead of myself. When Heggie arrived he was rather surprised to find his house occupied, and Kent was served with an eviction notice. Surprisingly, he was given the tenancy of a small house in Hindatoon (as in the township of Hindatoon, not the house that stands today) but he wouldn’t move. Again. The bailffs were called, amongst whom were the same Mr Heggie. Kent was given temporary shelter in the barn at Horroquoy, almost next door to Hindatoon where he was to have moved. Amazingly, the people round about took pity on the family, though I wonder if this maybe had more to do with the women in the family than Kent himself. They quarried stones, did the joinery work and built him a house, which was to become known as Myrtle Cottage, towards the north end of the Grimestone Road. The site had belonged to an active member of the Congregational Church, or ‘the Chapel’ as it was sometimes called and they were happy to donate it to the family.
Joanna Kent, George’s wife, died in 1916 and is buried in Firth. George later moved to live with his daughter Jemima in Eday, where he died at the age of 86 in 1925.