The History of Stromness
For evidence of the earliest recorded settlement
in the Stromness area, we must look to the Orkneyinga
Within its pages were learn that Earl Harald Maddadson
took refuge in the "Castle of Cairston" in September 1152.
However, found on the western shores of the Bay of Ireland, this
site is some distance from Stromness town,
Although there were isolated settlements
and farmsteads scattered throughout the area surrounding Hamnavoe,
the town itself only began to develop in the 16th century.
A developing port
By 1590 Stromness had obviously established
itself as a seaport as an inn was built on the eastern shore of
Hamnavoe to cater for visiting ships.
By the 1620s early houses were beginning
to appear on the site of modern Stromness. Although these little
dwellings were quite small - usually nothing more than two rooms
and thatched roofs - records show that by 1624 the town had its
own slater. This would imply that there were obviously more substantial
properties in the area, properties with slate roofs that required
In 1627 the area was home to at least
500 or so people, the Cairston church records showing 480 enrolled
members. Most of these people were in some way connected with the
ships and the sea.
Stromness' real development as a
major town is owed primarily to a series of wars between Britain
Between 1688 and 1815, these conflicts
made the English Channel hazardous for shipping so the route around
Northern Scotland became the preferred one. The increased shipping
inevitably meant an increase in trade and Stromness grew rapidly.
By 1750, Stromness was home to 200
families, was half a mile long and expanding.
The Hudson's Bay Company
important source of employment for the islanders at this time was
the Canadian "Nor-Wast".
From around 1702 the Hudson's
Bay Company began recruiting in Stromness and by 1791 had appointed
Stromness merchant David Geddes as their local agent.
By the end of the 18th century, three-quarters
of the Hudson's Bay Company's workforce in Canada was made up of
Orcadians. The ships of the Hudson's Bay Company watered and took
on stores in Stromness until the beginning of the 20th century.
According to Scots Law only royal
burghs could engage in foreign trade, so the Royal Burgh of Kirkwall
ended up paying its share of the tax.
In 1719 an unpopular arrangement
was made for Stromness merchants to contribute by means of payments
to Kirkwall. The payments to Kirkwall continued for over 20 years
until in 1742. Then, shortly before his death, Stromness merchant
John Johnston refused to pay.
Johnston's action set in motion a
campaign of non-payment and, in 1743, a number of Stromness traders
carried on this action. The merchants were sued and the case went
against them. However an appeal was sought and following expensive
litigation the case went to the House of Lords.
The Stromness men won their case
but the action had a dire price. The leader of the merchants, Mr
Alexander Graham, was left financially ruined.
From the 1770s, whaling fleets bound
for the Davis Strait began to hire crew in Stromness - the young
Orcadian men sought for their skills in handling small boats. The
connection between Stromness and the whaling industry continued
well into the 1900s.
By now Stromness parish had a population
of almost 3,000 people and 385 dwelling houses. The main street
was rough, muddy and narrow. Measuring only 12 feet at its widest
point, the street shrank to as little as four feet in places. But
to a town that relied so heavily on the sea this narrow road was
not really a problem.
By this time many stone piers jutted
out from the western shore of Hamnavoe and most of the larger houses
along the west side of the street had their own pier and boat.
A Burgh of the Barony
In 1817, Stromness became a Burgh
of Barony and as such was entitled to attract trade by holding a
weekly market and an annual fair. Forty years later the Burgh adopted
the Police Act which empowered the town council to levy rates. The
streets of Stromness were paved, named and lit by flickering oil-lamps.
Trade continued to expand - with
exports from Stromness including hides, feathers, fish and kelp
- but in 1841 the parish population had decreased slightly to 2,785.
The number of dwellings however had increased to 500. At this time
the people of Stromness had four inns, 34 public houses, a parish
church, a post office, a library, three schools, a town hall, a
museum and three banks.
Stromness' long history of catering
for visiting ships had by this time developed into fully fledged
boat building with four boatyards in operation around the town.
Herring sees Stromness thrive
The herring boom of the late 19th
century saw Stromness grow considerably and for a time was larger
than its neighbour and rival Kirkwall.
From 1888 onwards, during
the herring season, Stromness harbour was packed with fishing vessels.
With often more than 400 ships lying at anchor, for six or eight
weeks the population swelled by an extra four or five thousand people.
To meet the herring fleet's demand
for berthing and shore facilities, wooden jetties were erected and
in 1893 facilities were built at the Point o' Ness. However, the
herring industry was fickle, depending as it did on the migratory
habitats of the herring, and Stromness' days as a herring port were
over before the First World War.
In 1901, the town was thriving and
the parish population reached a peak of 3,180. With the arrival
of the First World War, Scapa Flow became the base of the Royal
Navy's Grand Fleet and Stromness assumed the role of a Naval HQ.
The years of the great depression
between the wars saw the closure of Stanger's boatyard in 1926 and
high hopes of a revived herring season in 1927 came to nothing.
The North Pier was built about 1930 to provide facilities for a
firm processing seaweed or "tangles", but this venture
The Second World War saw another
influx of military personnel into the island and the Stromness Hotel
became the Orkney and Shetland Military HQ. The town itself supplied
the water and provisions to the Naval Fleet based in Scapa Flow.
After the war the population of Stromness
saw a slow but steady decline. By 1961 the population had fallen
below 2,000. However, 20 years later the trend had reversed and
the population had grown to 2,160.