Cart Name Plates

Eric Annal writes about a Cart Name Plate which was found at Lythes, South Ronaldsay and now takes pride of place on his conservatory wall…

Long before the advent of vehicle registration plates in the UK, South Ronaldsay farmers were required by law to fit an identification plate to their horse drawn farm carts before going on public roads, or face a fine. These cart name plates (pronounced “kert” in the Orkney dialect) gave the farmer’s name and the name of his farm followed by a number indicating which of his carts this was. The extent to which cart name plates were used elsewhere in Orkney or in Scotland is not known to me; in fact I was surprised to find that the Tankerness House Museum in Kirkwall had no knowledge of them.

My interest in cart name plates began in 1999 when my wife, Katy, and I visited the Annal ancestral home of Lythes in South Ronaldsay. Lythes was in the Annal family from about 1831, when my great great grandfather Peter Annal married Ann Cromarty, until 1961 when it was bought by Mr and Mrs Benny Scott. When Peter died in 1892 Lythes passed to his oldest son James (1837-1921) and on his death to his oldest son James Christie Annal. During our visit, the Scott’s son David showed us a cart name plate which he had found in the farmyard some years ago. He had left it in an outbuilding and had not really thought much about it until our visit. The cart name plate, as can be seen in the photo, bore the inscription “JAMES ANNAL LYTHES No1” and had evidently belonged to my great grandfather or possibly to his son. The following year, when we again visited Lythes, the Scotts very kindly gave us the cart name plate and it now has pride of place on our conservatory wall.cart_plate
Considering its history, the cart name plate is in very good condition. It is cast iron, 9¾ ins. by 4½ ins., and was probably made in a foundry in Wick. Originally, it is likely that it was painted black with the lettering in white but I felt that leaving it with a light covering of rust gave it more character. When I was cleaning it up for display, I noticed that the “L” of “LYTHES” has been repaired.

​Whether the repair had been done at the time of casting or at some later date it is impossible to tell but a new matching “L” has been riveted on in a very professional way. The fact that someone bothered to make such a repair indicates that cart name plates were intended to last for the owner’s working life. No planned obsolescence in those days!

The question as to whether the cart name plate belonged to James senior or to his son can only be answered on the balance of probability. In the absence of information from the Tankerness House Museum I spoke to the South Ronaldsay blacksmith, Willie Mowat, MBE. Willie, who has several cart name plates of his own, believes our one to be at least 100 years old. This means that when the cart name plate was cast James senior would have been aged around 60 while his son was under 20. As Lythes was at that time still being farmed by James senior it is almost certain that the cart name plate was his. Furthermore, had the cart name plate been his son’s it would probably have been inscribed “JAMES C ANNAL” to differentiate it from his father’s so as far as I am concerned this is my great grandfather’s cart name plate.

Well you never know but perhaps on some other farm in South Ronaldsay there is a cart name plate belonging to one of your ancestors, just waiting to be reunited with its true family.

Eric Annal © July 2002, Edinburgh, Scotland

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