By Beverley Ballin Smith FSAScot
It is always a great loss when a colleague who enriched one’s life and memories is no longer with us. Raymond Lamb, Orkney’s first islands archaeologist, and a friend and colleague to me and many others, died recently in Moray. He was a special person, generous, but an eccentric.
Raymond was born in Braintree in Essex and was an only child. He graduated in archaeology from the University of Birmingham and was awarded his PhD in 1973. His first visit to Orkney was probably in 1968 as an undergraduate student working on the Birmingham Archaeology Department’s excavations at Skaill, Deerness. After a post-graduate fellowship at the University of Newcastle, and four years as the County Archaeologist for Warwickshire, he arrived on Orkney for an interview in 1978 for the post of Resident Field Archaeologist, to which he was appointed. The post was created through the foresight of the Orkney Heritage Society, and with funding from Occidental, at a time when there was a developing interest in the richness of Orkney’s archaeology and its potential for tourism.
Raymond’s post was essentially underfunded with little extra support for equipment and travel expenses. He worked largely alone from the old police station at 48 Junction Road where he systematically and thoroughly recorded the sites and monuments for each of the Orkney Islands, beginning with the northern isles first. Everyone knew Raymond then, or knew of him, and he was very supportive of university archaeology departments that came to work on the islands. He expanded knowledge through his deep research of old and new sites, and updated the 1946 HMSO Inventory of Orkney. He was widely read and his observations led to new research and excavations on islands which for many decades had not attracted archaeological attention.
His research for his PhD, undertaken by cycling to remote coastal sites in Orkney and Shetland, and swimming to offshore rock stacks before climbing to the top of them to survey and record their remains, has not been repeated. His ideas and breadth of knowledge of these sites has, however, withstood the test of time. His experience of Shetland before the oil boom coloured Raymond’s personality and he led a relatively simple life largely free of modern conveniences.
The development of the early church in Orkney from Pictish beginnings to the establishment of a Norwegian monastic system, the ecclesiastical centre of Birsay, the establishment of the cathedral in Kirkwall, and the early development of the town were part of what occupied his mind over the next few decades. His publications on these subjects were often considered challenging by colleagues with overlapping interests, so much so that Raymond was somewhat irascible when confronted with differing views.
In the 1980s computers became widespread and Raymond’s paper records were digitised using a small team of young people on an MSC scheme. He was very proud that the Orkney Sites and Monuments Record was the first of the local SMRs to be digitised in Scotland and that he was at the forefront of innovatory technological change. 48 Junction Road became unsuitable for continued occupancy and Raymond and the SMR were moved to the old Academy buildings in Stromness. However, the loss of his team and the continual battle with administration and finances made him tired and very frustrated. By the middle of 1997 the frustration came to a head and Raymond left Orkney for Thurso, taking up a lecturing position at the North Highland College, University of the Highlands and Islands.
He probably thought that his discontent would disappear with a change of career, an improvement in his working conditions and financial position, but the decision to leave Orkney was a major one for Raymond, and one he probably deeply regretted.
In his work on the Orkney SMR and with his thorough knowledge of Orkney he realised the great potential archaeology had for tourism on the islands. In this, he was ahead of his time and many of his original ideas have come to fruition long after he left Orkney, including his abiding ambition to promote Orkney as a centre for cultural excellence. It was also Raymond who pushed for, and justified from his research and accumulated knowledge, the whole of Orkney to have been put forward for UNESCO’s World Heritage status.
He settled in Thurso but travelled back regularly to Orkney to give lectures to Master’s degree students and became the Director of Studies for the first archaeology PhD at the UHI. Around 2010, he became disheartened with his situation, and contact with friends and colleagues ceased. He eventually moved to Keith with his friend and partner Ruth Anderson, and contact with his former life came to an end.
Raymond was a pioneer in terms of Orkney’s archaeology. He left a legacy in the SMR, in his academic works, and in his inspirational teaching of young people, but he was also a friend whose merits will not be forgotten by those who knew him.
Printed in The Orcadian newspaper 29 October 2020
I could not have written this without the help of Andrewina Ross, Barbara Crawford FSAScot, Chris Morris FSAScot, Howie Firth FSAScot, Pat Hourie and Sarah Jane Gibbon FSAScot, who all generously shared their memories of Raymond.
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