TWO of the last remaining makers of Orkney and Fair Isle chairs are taking part in a special event to try to help turn round the fortunes of their endangered crafts. 

The Fair Isle and Orkney Chairs Weekend will run from Friday 2 September to Sunday 4 September at Marchmont House in the Scottish Borders.

The crafters hope the event will help raise interest in a range of crafts, currently on the Heritage Crafts Association “Red List” for endangerment.

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The traditional wooden framed and straw-backed chairs were ideal for the often harsh climates and draughty cottages of Orkney and Shetland – made both by crofters and professional craftsmen. 

Despite these challenges, interest in these traditional chairs - and in heritage crafts more generally - is growing, according to Marchmont House. This, they state, is partially due to the fact that these traditions are sustainable and environmentally friendly, and have potential to provide fulfilling, creative careers. 

The traditional wooden framed and straw-backed chairs were ideal for the often harsh climates of Orkney and Shetland.

Mary Lewis, the association’s Endangered Crafts Manager, said the craft was part of an “intangible heritage”.

She added: “These crafts are centuries old and as much a part of our cultural heritage as much as a museum or an art gallery or ancient monument.  

“The difference is that they are intangible skills, it's intangible heritage, contained within people. If we lose those skills that are within us, then we lose a little bit of our cultural heritage. And once you lose them, they're quite difficult to recover. 

“There are just two remaining makers of Fair Isle chairs, so they are critically endangered. There are more makers of Orkney chairs but still very few, so they're an endangered craft. In both cases there’s a risk that the skills won't be passed on to the next generation.” 

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Kevin Gauld, who set up business as The Orkney Furniture Maker in 2007, said: “I left school at 16 and knew I wanted to work with wood and that I didn’t want to leave Orkney. That probably meant being a carpenter or a joiner on a building site. But it happened to come up in conversation one night that a local chairmaker was looking for an apprentice.  

“The moment I went in the workshop, I thought, if I could spend the rest of my life doing this, I'd be happy. I just knew from the start that it was the job for me. I’ve never looked back.” 

With a single chair taking 70 hours to make, Kevin’s company manufactures around 50 a year, with half sold in Orkney and the rest heading south – often to people with Orkney links. 

There are now just three other professional makers Kevin knows of, and he has real concerns for the future of a craft that he believes is of great value. 

He said: “They have a real uniqueness and romance about them, and such a such a strong link to the world around us, the landscape and weather. All these things are important to carry on because so many traditional crafts have died out.” 

Eve Eunson, who works as an architect on Shetland’s Mainland, learned how to make them in part because she wanted to work with wood and partly because of her own roots. 

The traditional wooden framed and straw-backed chairs were ideal for the often harsh climates of Orkney and Shetland.

She said: “I grew up on Fair Isle and have very fond memories of the people and the culture. I can remember well, as a small child sitting on my great uncle's knee on these chairs and being told stories about shipwrecks and about the history of the island and of the furniture. So that was something that I was very connected to.” 

According to Eve, the chairmaking tradition emerged from both need and a desire for creative expression: “They were made by the island’s men out of necessity. There was no other option for getting yourself something to sit on.  

“Fair Isle is famous for things like its knitting, its female crafts. But these chairs were an artistic outlet for the men, who were spending their winters making some really special things.

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"There's obviously a lot of love and care that went into making the chairs and while some were quite utilitarian, others were particularly nice with a lot of attention to detail and decoration.” 

The event includes talks, Q&As and demonstrations of the straw techniques.

Guests can attend for the weekend, or just Saturday. Places are limited and must be booked in advance. 

Marchmont House is the home of the Marchmont Workshop, which was set up to save the Arts & Crafts ladderback chairmaking tradition.