NE Scotland, Orkney & Shetland

Children's Victorian library collection unveiled in Orkney

Image from collection

A library created by children in 1860s Orkney has gone on display.

Maria Cowan, 12, her 10-year-old sister Clara, and their young cousin Isabella Bremner began producing their own library in 1864, sometimes with the help of other children.

They named it Minervian Library and it is held at Orkney Library and Archive.

A selection of the short stories, fairytales, poems, plays and newspaper articles is now on display in the Orkney Museum in Kirkwall.

Image caption Prof Kathryn Gleadle said the collection was of great significance

Tankerness House, where the Orkney Museum is based, was once the summer home for the Cowan family.

Prof Kathryn Gleadle, from the Gender and Women's History department at Oxford University, said it was one of the most extensive collections of children's writing from the period that has come to light in recent years.

'Social tensions'

She said: "Archives such as these have great significance in helping us to reinterpret the lives of Victorian children, who for so long were seen simply as the recipients of repressive educational and child-rearing practices.

"These texts illuminate how children were actually engaged in independent educational and cultural activities.

"For example, many of the stories feature rebellious and dominant heroines intent on exploiting opportunities for independence - this provides a strikingly different view of Victorian girlhood than the pious models of innocence and submission which are assumed to have been the accepted ideal.

"The children's texts poke fun at local religious ministers, teachers, debates on local town improvements, missionary projects and so on.

"These are not young people who felt they should be 'seen and not heard', but lively and knowing commentators on civic life.

"So the Minervian Library is a window on the cultural and social tensions which were also a feature of local life during this period of flourishing economic activity on the part of the lairds."

Lucy Gibbon, assistant archivist at Orkney Library and Archive, added: "It is a pleasure to see these items on display in the place where they were written and to share this wonderful collection with a new audience."

Image caption Gillian Molony travelled from New Zealand to see the collection

Gillian Molony, whose great grandfather Alfred Cowan wrote some of the material, travelled from New Zealand to see the work.

She said: "I've never obviously met the man but I gathered he had loads of siblings and they've done all these wonderful poems and things about which I had no idea about, so it's fantastic to see it.

"It's funny because it's such a small little exhibition really and yet the consequences are quite big - it ripples out - there is a lot of information there which you can draw conclusions from.

"For example, I kind of had in my mind that Alfred was this bad-tempered, gruff-looking old soul, but perhaps living on the islands gave them more freedom than other Victorian children."

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