About Orkney
 About the Site
 Search Site 
  Stromness - The Haven Bay

The History of Stromness

For evidence of the earliest recorded settlement in the Stromness area, we must look to the Orkneyinga Saga.

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 his services.

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 and France.

Stromness Panorama: Picture by Sigurd Towrie

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

An 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.

Stromness revolts

View from Brinkie's Brae: Picture by Sigurd TowrieIn 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.

World Wars

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 also failed.

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.