Connections across firths and oceans

The Ditty Box

Every culture has developed its own design of travelling container for the portage of food, tools and valuables on journeys.  With multiple and sometimes generational usages, these objects acquired a unique character and patina.

In the United Kingdom the ditty box became a standard issue item to Royal Naval seamen and marines in 1870.  This small chest, originally 12 x 6 x 8 inches, was used to carry private documents and personal items.  In the busy space of a sailing ship’s forecastle, these caskets became intensely personal.  The Scandinavian ferdaskrin and bösts used by sailors from Orkney and Shetland are very likely to have been put to alternative uses in many spheres of island life, but at sea they provided a tangible link between home, family and voyage.  Historically this makes them a poignant symbol of a unique time and lifestyle.  As with the standard issue ditty box they were crafted according to needs, available skills and materials. 

Objects of transition

The containers pictured below, if found in Norway, might otherwise be referred to as Ferdaskrin or trine. They are travel caskets likely to have been made in and brought from Norway.

Box, Stenness, Orkney. Date: possibly 19th Century
This box came to the Stromness museum around 1954, from Savedale, Stenness. It contained the title deeds of the farm owned by the family who had donated it.
Stromness Museum


Box, Stenness, Orkney. Date: possibly 19th Century
Stromness Museum

The casket, shown above, is in the Stromness Museum’s collections, and can be seen on permanent display there. It is a whitewood box with a curved top, sliding lid, and a drawer beneath the main compartment.  The construction utilises wooden pins. The lid is incised with a key pattern and one side with a diamond and crosshatch pattern.

Sailor’s ditty-box, Orkney. Date: possibly 19th Century
This rectangular whitewood box has a curved top and a sliding lid.  There is a drawer beneath the main compartment. It is lightly incised with an all-over diamond pattern and is covered in the remains of dark brown paint.
Orkney Museum 1989.020

This very similar example from The Orkney Museum, Kirkwall, was recorded in the museum’s records as having been a ditty box. It is also a rectangular whitewood box with a curved top and a sliding lid.  There is a drawer beneath the main compartment. It is lightly incised with an all-over diamond pattern and it is covered in the remains of dark brown paint. It measures 350mm x 160mm x 170mm.

Our research has revealed that these are the only examples of such boxes known to be in Scottish museum collections, at present (in 2019). These caskets might have arrived in Orkney through trade or fishing connections. At the time of including them in this virtual museum, they appear to represent a unique link, possibly through the association of particular personal connections, between Orkney and Norway.

The Norwa bösts

These pine boxes were imported from Norway. They were most likely brought back with mariners who sailed north for the timber trade, so important for the Northern Isles, where trees are few. The word böst is derived from an old Scots word for box. As well as being used as ditty boxes they were used to store personal items or food.

Large böst , Orkney.  Date: probably 19th century
This type of box is also known as a Norwa böst.  It is a lidded Scandinavian sailor’s travel casket, constructed by traditional steam-bending, as well as lacing techniques employing tree roots.  These wooden containers have a long history in Scandinavian sea voyaging and are common objects in the Northern Isles, where they often found a second use in the home. It measures 400 x 300 x 220 mm
Orkney Museum 1999.19

Large böst , Orkney.  Date: probably 19th century
Showing detail of the pokerwork decoration.
Orkney Museum 1999.19

Common in both Orkney and Shetland, where they are prized both as functional containers and as decorative objects, examples of Norwa bösts have also been recovered from Norwegian Viking ships dated to as early as 840 CE.

Click here to see EULAC’s 3D model of a Norwa böst, from Yell, dated to theh 1780s. It is a Scandinavian bent-wood, lidded casket with remains of black varnish on surface.  It was made using steam bending and lacing tree roots, possibly from a birch tree.  The lid has been broken into three pieces and repaired with twine and the casket shows evidence of extensive use.  The lid and handle are decorated with a notched pattern. Its unique identifier is: Shetland Museum and Archives CON 8153

It belonged to Theodore Johnson (1814-1883) who was a haaf fisherman, working from the Federland Station in North Roe.  He kept his food, or in our dialect: faerdie maet, in it when out at sea fishing. The böst is believed to have been made in 1782, and so would have been a passed-down item when Theodore used it. It is also thought that it was brought back by a mariner, possibly one of Theodore’s relatives, returning from a season whaling in the Arctic region.

To see a film of Orkney boat builders Jeff Mackie and Ian Richardson using steam bending while building a contemporary wooden boat in Stromness, click here.

Atlantic connections across time and occupations

Against the Greenland Whaling’. Date: 18th Century
This manuscript advertisement by John Bruce Stewart raises concerns about young men going to the Greenland whaling, leaving ‘their parents at the season of the year when they have most need of them’.
Shetland Museum and Archives D1/135/p.105

The excerpt above is from a polemic composed by John Bruce Stewart, who was born in 1690 and died in 1742. He was a landowner in the parish of Bigton, Dunrossness, in Shetland’s South Mainland. His condemnation of the 18th century Arctic whale fishery, may well have been nailed to church doors throughout Shetland, a signal of official disapproval towards the industry.  Whaling was seen by Shetland’s powerful elites as undermining the stability of social and economic order within island communities. Shetland’s lairds did not want to lose the labour force that powered their industries – the domestic, commercial white fish fisheries, known locally as ‘da far haaf’. They would not have been able to sustain their wealth and position without the local fishers who took out the boats owned by these landowners and returned the catches that these lairds and merchants then exported as cured products to locations throughout Europe.

Model of Whaling Ship Hope built by Hall of Aberdeen. Date 1873
The whaling ship Hope of Peterhead was a steam driven ship, captained by John Gray junior of Peterhead.  Screw (propeller driven) steamers proved to be much more resilient than sailing vessels in Arctic waters, but by this time the Scottish whale “fishery” was in decline.  Stocks of harp seals and bowhead whales had been seriously depleted.  Hope was sold to a new owner in Newfoundland in 1891. Whaling harpoons are visible through the display case.
Shetland Museum and Archives SEA 8043

Whaling ships coming out of Britain’s large east coast ports including Peterhead, Dundee and Hull traveled north to hunt whale either in the Greenland Sea or west, across the Atlantic and north onto the Davis Strait. This may be the origin of the Northern Isles term for this industry: the Norwast. First stops on these long journeys were Orkney and/or Shetland, where the ship’s captains would recruit islanders to join their crews. The captains may themselves have been Orcadians and Shetlanders. Whaling provided an opportunity for employment for cash, away from truck system-based employment at home. The arrival of the whaling ships also offered the opportunity for Orcadians and Shetlanders to trade their own produce, from knitted goods to geese eggs, with the crew and passengers on board.

Sailor’s fid made from walrus tusk. Date: possibly 18th or 19th century
This tool, used for splicing and knotting jobs, cleverly exploits the natural form of the walrus tusk to create an artefact that is both functional and beautiful. The original tusk was probably a product of the Arctic sealing and whaling industry.
Old Haa 2005/0001

This sailor’s fid shown above is from the collections at the Old Haa, Burravoe, Yell. It is an intensely tactile tool, redolent of the hands which made and used it. It may have seen use in the Arctic whaling, an industry where sailor’s lives were harsh and often brutal, and where rewards depended on a risky and fickle industry, as opposed to a fishing where men had ownership of their own fate and a prospect of decent rewards for their labour.

The fid can be seen as a useful symbol of the sea-farer’s changing roles and identities in Shetland over centuries. It was given to the Old Haa by the son of Bob Hay, former skipper and part owner of the seiner Golden Grain. The original tusk almost certainly found its way to Shetland or North-East Scotland via the Greenland seal and whaling fishery.

Lerwick registered fishing boat in Lerwick harbour. Date: late 20th century
Yell fishing boat Golden Grain LK 717 at the old fish market in Lerwick.
Shetland Museum and Archives HU05435

The Golden Grain, was a wooden hulled, cruiser-sterned seiner, first registered in Macduff in 1958 and later registered as a Lerwick fishing boat.  In Shetland Golden Grain was skippered by Bob Hay, whose family moved to Burravoe, Yell, from the Moray Firth.  Many families moved from ports in North-East Scotland to Shetland, at this time, in order to take part in the islands’ booming fishing industry.  Known locally as “Scotties”, they made a significant contribution to Shetland’s economy and culture.

Please cite New Connections Across the Northern Isles (2019) when referencing materials from this virtual museum.

Find out more

To see Shetland fiddler Catriona Macdonald sharing how fiddle music has been shared by mariners and others migrating across the North and West Atlantic, and further, and to hear some of the tunes they played, click here

Find out more about changes in maritime industries, technologies and innovations in Shetland by clicking here.

To find out more about whaling in the North Atlantic in the 18th and 19th centuries visit the SCRAN pages on the Arctic Whaling out of Peterhead by clicking here and here.

Visit the Old Haa Museum website by clicking here.

Visit The Orkney Museum website by clicking here.

Visit the Stromness Museum website by clicking here

Visit the Shetland Museum and Archives site by clicking here.

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