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Armchair - Orkney Chair

Orkney Chair

  • Object:


  • Place of origin:

    Kirkwall (made)

  • Date:

    1971 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Eunson, Reynold (maker)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Japanese oak frame, back filled with oat straw, and seat upholstered in sea-grass

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    Furniture, Room 133, The Dr Susan Weber Gallery, case BY3, shelf WALL

This chair is a traditional type that has been made in the Orkney Islands since the early 1700s. (The Orkneys lie off the north-east coast of Scotland.) During the 1900s there was a revival of the craft of making such chairs. The tall backs were made of oat straw or bent grass, bound together in small bundles and attached to the wooden frame. Often the back was finished with a semi-circular hood. Such ‘heided stüls’, as Orkney islanders called them, gave even more protection from draughts. Orkney was not the only place where straw was used for furniture. The tradition of ‘lip-work’ continued well into the 1900s in south Wales, the Welsh borders and Gloucestershire.

Physical description

The form is based on traditional Orkney chairs with their iconic high back made from straw. The chair is created by building a back onto a traditional stool made with drop-in seat.
The frame is said to have been made from fumed Japanese oak and is held together by hand cut mortise and tenon joints and by large, visible round-headed screws. The legs and stretchers are of simple, square-sectioned form. The four legs are slightly tapered on their inner faces and supported by four stretchers.
The high back is curved to enclose and protect the sitter from draughts. The bottom third of the back is straight from side to side to support the lower back of the sitter but bulges out on top to allow for more space and comfort. The chair back is made from three sheaves of white oat straw. The straw is twisted by hand into a continuous rope that is then laid in layers to fill the back, each layer bound in with thinner threads of twisted straw. Sea grass is used for the final row to give an even edge. The straw back is lashed into the wooden vertical uprights that are fixed with one screw to the rail below the seat and fixed with two screws onto the stretcher between the legs. The uprights are tapered below the seat and the seat frame is cut out to allow the vertical uprights to run through. A second, smaller vertical upright supports each arm and is screwed in the same manner as described above. The back edge of the arm is cut away to provide a housing for the upright. This join may be dowelled but its form cannot be seen. In plan the arm is S shaped with a tight scroll on the front edge.
The seat frame overhangs the seat rails on all four sides and is probably cut with mortises to receive tenons from the legs. The drop-in seat has a rectangular frame of pine with oak veneer laid onto the exposed corners, and is woven with sea-grass in a traditional rush-weaving pattern that shows as four triangles meeting at the centre.

Place of Origin

Kirkwall (made)


1971 (made)


Eunson, Reynold (maker)

Materials and Techniques

Japanese oak frame, back filled with oat straw, and seat upholstered in sea-grass

Marks and inscriptions

'DM Kirkness
Made in Scotland'

Stamp on back of front seat rail

'R E'
Stamp on back of front seal rail

Pencil mark on back of front seat rail


Height: 106.2 cm, Width: 63.2 cm, Depth: 48 cm

Object history note

The Orkney chair is a traditional piece of furniture dating back many hundreds of years. While many of the old straw crafts have died out, the Orkney chair is still in production, taking pride of place in the home of many Orcadians as well as being shipped all over the world. Originally the chairs were made completely of straw, the only wooden part being the four feet protruding from the bottom. Due to the lack of trees suitable for furniture production on the islands, driftwood, mainly from shipwrecks was often used. Developed through local tradition, the Orkney chair originated from a simple piece of furniture that the islanders could make for themselves with the materials readily available.
In its very early stages it was nothing more than a low round stool covered with straw. It was then developed into a low chair by the addition of a straw back some two feet in height. The short stumpy legs of older chairs kept the person sitting in the chair close to the ground to avoid the smoke from the open fires, which were in the middle of the room in the old farm crofts. The addition of a hood to the chair gave the occupant shelter from draughts, but not all people liked the idea of being enclosed. A drawer was also added for the man of the house to keep his personal belongings in.
A chair back that has a proper shape should rise up straight for some fourteen rows, depending on arm height, and then start to slope outwards, thereby supporting the lower and upper back of the sitter. Originally designed by crofters, the chair is an optimum shape that keeps the heat in and the coldness out. Nowadays the Orkney chair is displayed with a decorative as well as functional purpose. One very important feature that has remained unchanged is the way in which the Orkney chair is constructed. Only locally grown straw is used to make the backs which are intricately woven by hand. The chair frames, originally made from driftwood, are now generally made from the best quality wood available and beautifully finished by hand.

The standardisation into the form Orkney chairs still retain today can be traced back to the work of David Munro Kirkness of Kirkwall in about 1890. The four versions Kirkness established were a large hooded type with a drawer with a ring handle, a standard version for a gentleman and one for a lady with an optional drawer as well as a child's version. (The differentiation into chairs for men, women and children refers to Victorian social conventions as well as consideration of human frame and was intended to increase sales by attracting diverse customers.) 'Kirkness's chairs all had the same form, with curved arms terminating in a flat carved spiral, on neatly tapered supports fixed with brass or copper round-headed screws - a large one at the top and two smaller at the joint with the stretcher…Chairs were supplied in fumed and oiled solid oak or in white deal stained either 'myrtle green' or 'bronze green' and varnished. They could be made with a wooden seat or a 'rush' drop-in seat, which was usually of seagrass. Kirkness apparently made these himself because he had a knack with the material but the straw backs were done by outworkers.' (Carruthers: 6f)
Outworking had advantages and would have been a reason for standardising the chair. There were other craftsmen making chairs in Orkney at that time but most of them as their secondary business and probably no one in a comparable quantity to Kirkness who produced about 400 chairs per year. (In an obituary a total figure of 14000 chairs made in the course of his more than forty year career is mentioned.) Only a small amount of orders came from Orkney, most from Scotland but a considerable amount from England and some even from the rest of the world. Direnesss was instrumental in making the chair available for an international market, as early as 1890 he showed two versions of the chair at the International Exposition of Science, Art and Industry in Edinburgh (resulting in a considerable order by Liberty in London).
Several makers of Orkney chairs established themselves within the 20th century, basing their chair design on the form refined by Kirkness from the vernacular with rare adjustments.
Reynold Eunson revived D.M. Kirkness's business after the II World War. He claimed that for making straw-backed chairs Kirkness, his father and grandfather had used gauges and templates, which he acquired with the workshop in 1956. As for others, chairmaking seemed to have been a secondary occupation of the joinery firm. Eunson used Kirkness's models and even stamped his chairs with the initials 'DMK' as well as 'RE'.

Descriptive line

Orkney chair made by Reynold Eunson, Kirkwall, Orkney Islands, 1971.

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Annette Carruthers, The Social Rise of the Orkney Chair. In: Journal of Design History. Volumne 22, Issue 1, 2009, p.27-45.
H. Trevor-Roper, 'The Invention of Tradition: The Highland Tradition of Scotland'. In: E. Hobsbawm and T. Ranger (eds), The Invention of Tradition.Cambridge, 1983, pp,15-42.
B.D.Cotton, Scottish Vernacular Furniture, London 2008.

Labels and date


Made by Reynold Eunson (British), Kirkwall, Orkney, Great Britain, 1971
Fumed oak frame with brass screws, 'sandy oat' straw back strengthened with twine

Although associated with the Orkney Islands, this variant of the rural frame and straw chair was made in different parts of Great Britain in the early nineteenth century. Its manufacture in the twentieth century demonstrates the strength of the vernacular tradition and the continued influence of the Arts and Crafts tradition.

Circ.120-1971 [1989-2006]
‘Gentleman’s Chair’
Based on design by David Kirkness (1855–1936)
Made by Reynold Eunson (1932–78)

Orkney Islands (Kirkwall)
Frame: Japanese oak
Back: straw (probably black oat) sewn with bent grass
Seat: rush over Japanese oak

Museum no. Circ.120-1971

Orkney wood carver Eunson took over the Kirkness chair workshop in 1956, making use of Kirkness’s original gauges and templates. He maintained the tradition of producing the same designs with both cheaper pine and more expensive oak.

Local production of Orkney chairs continues today, using driftwood and a range of other woods, as well as local oat grass dried to straw.


Japanese oak; Oat straw; Sea-grass




Furniture; Scotland


Furniture and Woodwork Collection

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