In 2021, archaeologists excavating a 5,500-year-old chambered tomb on the Sanday peninsula of Tresness, Orkney, discovered two ‘exceptionally well-preserved’ polished stone balls.

Each about the size of a tennis ball, the orbs differed from the majority of the 20 or so stone balls that have been found previously on Orkney that are carved and etched with patters or designs.

The rare discovery of two Neolithic balls together in their original location was met, understandably, with much excitement within the archaeological community. 

However, there’s a different set of similarly-polished balls to be found in Orkney that attract an altogether different level of feverish adulation, with tales of folk making ‘bucket list’ pilgrimages over land and sea to see them in person. 

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The balls in question are those which are located outside Orkney Library & Archive in Kirkwall - the oldest public library in Scotland

In recent years the library, which dates back to 1683, has become an Internet sensation for its hilarious account on X, formerly known as Twitter - one that has seen it significantly outperform that of the average Scottish arts or cultural account.

And part of that success involves Orkney Library & Archive regular updates on the state of the balls which adorn its exterior grounds to its 86,000-strong following on X. 

From their balls being “lightly perfumed by the scent of the nearby rosemary” to being cleaned until they are “glistening in the sun”, the library’s concrete balls have garnered a level of fandom online akin that of celebrity worship.

Calls have even been made online for the library to sell bumper stickers which read ‘I touched the Orkney Library balls’, while visitors have celebrated ticking-off a visit to see the balls on their ‘must see’ in Orkney lists alongside Maes Howe, St Magnus Cathedral and at least one broch.

Meanwhile, to satisfy the desires of those who have always wanted to visit the balls but have found them ‘just out of reach’, a Virtual Museum sharing aspects of Orkney's maritime culture  even made a 3D scan of them in 2018 for people to download. 

Then there’s the local ‘legend’ which claims that if the library balls cast a long shadow on a certain day then there will be six more weeks of winter, while no shadow means spring will arrive early.

Orkney Library & Archive's social media strategy has seen it receive numerous awards and be cited frequently among media scholars as a perfect example of how an institution can reach a wide audience in this digital day and age.

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Michelle Bond, Librarian for the Faculty of Science at Liverpool Hope University, even went as far as to say Orkney’s X account “is the one you think of when you think of library Twitter accounts”.

A case study on the library within The Scottish Library & Information Council’s Public Library Strategy for 2021-2025 noted how “the immediacy and consistency of posts as well as having the right person to deliver this service has been key to its success”, while the “correct blend of humour, current awareness and careful planning has helped to draw people in to unexpectedly discover more about the library and archive service, Orkney, or wider current affairs”. 

The library’s witty and off-the-wall tweets and “unique passion for books, balls and wordplay” - as social media management platform Sprout Social put it - has catapulted Orkney Library not only to great internet fame but also favour among celebrities and giants of the literary world, such as Stephen Fry and J.K. Rowling - who surprised staff by gatecrashing their book club in 2016. 

Speaking about the success of their X account, John Peterson, Library Assistant at Orkney Library & Archive, told The Herald: “I think it’s a real mix of things that have drawn people to the account. Some people just love libraries, others love to see books or old archives or photographs of our Mobile Library touring around the islands.

"Other people follow for the funny stuff or the wordplay or the terrible books puns or because they love it when a stray cat visits. It’s all stuff that just happens when you work in a library so we enjoy sharing it with our followers.

“There’s a lot of serious stuff going on all over social media and the internet so I think people just like following things that are fun or a bit interesting and people always enjoy seeing old books or nice photos of Orkney.

As for the fascination with Orkney Library & Archive’s balls, John admitted that staff probably get asked about them “more than anything else”. 

He said: “We regularly get sent photos from people who have spotted similar balls to ours on their travels around the world. We joked one time that we probably have enough to make a coffee table art book. 

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“It’s been really good fun to see how they’ve taken on a life of their own beyond our social media accounts. Visitors from all over the world have come along to take a photo of the balls or to pose for selfies. Any time we post anything about the weather in Orkney, whether it’s hot or cold, rain or snow we get people asking how the ball are coping!

As for the call for them to sell car bumper stickers about the balls, John wouldn’t rule it out completely in the future.

He finished: “Not at the moment but never say never. We do have a nice selection of Orkney Library & Archive tote bags which are available from the library or on our website.”

“They’ve become a favourite purchase for visitors over the years and it’s always nice to think of someone wandering about a distant corner of the world with an Orkney Library & Archive bag.”