The Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership Scheme

Maritime Merchants: a view from Stromness Museum


The summer exhibition at Stromness Museum in 2009 was Maritime Merchants. The staff have very kindly allowed us to reproduce the text they used and we have simply added some photographs.

The town of Stromness takes its name from the parish in which it lies and is from the Old Norse straumr nes, meaning the headland in the tidal stream. The town grew up by the shores of Hamnavoe, Hafnarvágr, the haven bay, where ships could shelter safely in a deep water anchorage.

The writer Jo Ben refers to the suitability of waters around Stromness in an account from the mid 16th century. He states that "[t]he French and Spanish very often avoid storms here". It was the presence of these visiting ships that prompted William and Mareon Clark to build an inn on the shores of Hamnavoe around 1590, selling the ale that they made to passing sailors. This first building was not where the town was to develop, but on the north-east corner of the bay near to where the new Stromness Academy stands.

In the 1620s the Bishop of Orkney 'feued' (leased) land in what was to become the south-east of the town, to tradesmen and merchants. By the end of that century there were said to be six houses with slate roofs belonging to "two gentlemen of landed property, and two or three small traders". There were also "a few scattered huts" lived in by "a few fishermen and mechanics".

Even at this early date, there were two small ships of 30 tonnes working from Stromness, involved in fishing for cod and ling and also an annual trading voyage to Leith or Norway. This, and the growing number of foreign vessels using Stromness, attracted the attention of officials in Kirkwall who, in 1719, imposed taxes on all merchants involved with foreign trade. As a Royal Burgh, Kirkwall had been granted exclusive rights to foreign trade. This would lead to a bitter dispute later in the same century.

War and rice

Between the years 1688 and 1815 Britain was engaged in six major wars that raged for more than 60 years. This meant that the shipping route through the English Channel was too dangerous to navigate, so ships were obliged to sail northwards around the coast of Scotland. While ships were still in danger of attack from privateers (government-licensed pirates) they avoided warships.

When the Rev William Clouston wrote the entry for Stromness in the Old Statistical Account of 1794, the village of Stromness had grown to a population of 1,344 people living in 222 houses. Many of the inhabitants were shopkeepers and publicans who took advantage of the increased numbers of ships visiting the port. Piers were built so that small vessels could unload their cargo at high tide. Smugglers' tunnels ran under the street, hinting at an illegal trade in spirits.

The Seven Years War of 1756-63 saw American ships carrying rice from South Carolina using Stromness in the 1760s. This prompted local merchant James Gordon to build a warehouse at the north end of the town to store the rice. HM Customs used a hulk moored in Stromness Harbour to receive the rice and assess the tax to be paid on it. In three years, 19 ships landed 22,000 tonnes of rice.

However, merchants from Kirkwall managed to persuade the Americans to use their port, dismissing Stromness as "a small creek", and the HM Customs hulk was removed there. This coincided with the end of the war and the American ships abandoned Orkney in favour of the Isle of Wight. The cost of building the warehouse in Stromness bankrupted James Gordon.

The Hudson's Bay Company

War was also the reason why the ships of the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) first used Stromness, but they would prove to be regular visitors. The company had been set up by Royal Charter in 1670 to trade furs from Canada, especially beaver, which had almost been wiped out in Europe.

Orcadians were recruited as workers from as early as 1702, with Stromness as the gateway to Canada. For people accustomed to poverty and hard work, the Hudson’s Bay Company's wages seemed a fortune, while the Orcadian workforce was ideal for the needs of the HBC.

In 1791 the Stromness merchant David Geddes was appointed as the HBC's agent responsible for recruiting both skilled and unskilled labour. He was also responsible for paying bills and advances of wages, a sum amounting to between £2,000 and £3,000 per year. This was at a time when the total value of goods going out of Stromness was around £2,000. By the late 18th Century, Orcadians formed three-quarters of the HBC's workforce.

Cannon on the outskirts of Stromness

The HBC ships arrived in Stromness in June; their arrival being greeted by the firing of the cannon on the Ness Road, said to be taken from the ship Liberty, captured from American privateers. A ball was held on the quarterdeck of the principal ship where guests danced, sang, feasted and drank.

The Orcadians who stayed in Canada would send home orders for goods from Stromness, which would be sealed into wooden crates ready for the ships' return.

During the 19th century the need for immigrant workers in Canada decreased, while a better standard of living in Orkney made the wages less tempting. The last time the HBC ships visited Stromness was in 1891, although Leask's shop continued sending goods to Canada until 1913.

Stromness v Kirkwall

Alexander Graham

Under Scots law only royal burghs had the right to trade with foreign ports. In return for this privilege, they had to pay one-sixth of the land tax of Scotland. Kirkwall, as a royal burgh, had been granted the right to tax Orkney traders who lived outside its boundaries and who dealt with foreign ports.

In 1719 Stromness traders had agreed to pay a proportion of Kirkwall's taxes to the crown but, in 1743, a group of Stromness merchants, led by Alexander Graham, refused to pay. This was due to an anomaly in the law under the 1707 Act of Union, where one law said that Scottish royal burghs had the monopoly on foreign trade, while another law said that all subjects of the United Kingdom had the right to full and free trade.

The local court case found in favour of Kirkwall, but the appeal to the Court of Session found in favour of the Stromness merchants. Kirkwall had powerful backing, as this was a test-case for all the royal burghs in Scotland. In 1758 the case was heard at the House of Lords, which found in favour of the Stromness merchants, who no longer had to pay taxes to Kirkwall for foreign trade.

But it came at a high cost. Alexander Graham had been one of the richest merchants in Stromness, but the legal action resulted in bankrupcty. While his fellow merchants benefitted from his action, they did not support him in his hour of need. He tried to sue them for a share of the legal action, but this proved to be unsuccessful and he was eventually imprisoned for debt. The sale of some of his property gave him breathing space until his death in 1783. Alexander Graham, the hero of Stromness, was buried in an unmarked grave.

The Arctic Whalers

Oil from whale blubber was used as a means for lighting and lubrication, while the flexible strips of baleen in its mouth were used for such things as coach springs, umbrella ribs and corset busks. In the 18th and 19th centuries whaling ships from east coast ports like Hull and Dundee called at Stromness to take on water, provisions and crewmen.

Orcadians were much in demand by whaling ships, as they needed skilled boatmen who had the dangerous job of taking a small whale-catcher boat to within striking distance for the hand-held harpoon. Stromness merchants now took on the role of whaling agents for large whaling companies, while inns and ale houses flourished. There were complaints about the riotous, drunken whalers who roamed the street, which was little more than a dirt track.

By the first half of the 19th century the Greenland right whale had been hunted to the point of extinction. Now whalers had to spend more time searching for their prey, which meant they ran the risk of being trapped in the winter ice.

In the winter of 1835/6 eight ships were frozen in the winter sea-ice, at least two of them crushed. The ones that made it back to Stromness had lost many of their crew, while the survivors suffered from frostbite and scurvy. A hospital for these whalers was opened by Mrs Humphrey at her house from 1836/7. Whaling went into decline, with the last crew being signed up from Stromness in 1870, although whalers still took on provisions at Stromness until just before World War I.

Plaque commemorating the hospital opened by Mrs HumphreyShipbuilding

With ever increasing numbers of ships calling into Stromness there was a need for skilled men to carry out repairs. The first record of boatbuilding in Stromness was in 1759, but it was the 19th century that saw shipbuilding becoming an established trade. In a census from 1821 there were 16 boatbuilders and 12 apprentices, while blacksmiths were occupied in making nails for them.

In 1824 Stromness had a fleet of 14 merchant ships, many having been built by the four boatyards that served the town. The largest boatyard was opened at Ness by John Stanger in 1829. To start with it carried out repairs, but from 1840 it went into the business of shipbuilding. The paddle steamer Royal Mail, which introduced the regular sailing from Stromness to Scrabster, was built here in 1856. Stanger also built ships speculatively and used them in his role as sea-borne merchant until such time as he could sell them.

Stanger's failing health saw the brothers George and Peter Copland managing the yard up until his death on 21 December 1878. The following year they opened their own boatyard on the Garson shore, which ran successfully until the 1890s. John Stanger's son reopened his father's yard in 1882 and continued trading there until 1924. There is now only one boatbuilder in Stromness, Ian Richardson, whose premises are in the Cairston Road.


The rich fishing grounds around Orkney remained largely unexploited by local boats until the 18th century. A market for cod and ling saw fish being exported to London. From around 1775 London smacks took live lobsters to markets in the city. By the end of the century between 100,000 and 120,000 lobsters were being exported annually.

The huge numbers of herring that made their annual migration around the coast of Britain were largely ignored. The Stromness Herring Company was formed around 1819, but collapsed a few years later with heavy losses. In the 1830s there were between 20 and 40 boats in Stromness fishing for herring, but the migratory nature of the fish made it a precarious occupation.

From 1888 there was a huge boom in herring fishing, with as many as 800 boats in the harbour. Stanger's boatyard made Zulu herring boats, and had the quay built at Ness, along with wooden piers, to accommodate the herring gutters and packers employed to fill the barrels with herring and salt. More fish curing was established across the harbour on the Outer Holm.

The population of Stromness could rise by as much as 5,000 people during the herring season. The fishermen lived on their boats, while the girls who gutted the fish either looked for lodgings in the town or lived in wooden huts at Ness and the North End. Local coopers were also employed making barrels. The herring fishery ended before World War I, as the migratory nature of the fish proved too unpredictable and unreliable.

Orkney Fishermen's Society

In December 1952 a handful of Stromness fishermen formed a co-operative called Stromness Fishermen's Association. This was in response to low prices being offered for lobsters.

On 9 April 1953 the now enlarged Orkney Fishermen's Society (OFS) emerged from the association. At the forefront were local lobster fishermen George Linklater and Robert Greig, who were helped by local art teacher Ian MacInnes (later Rector of the Stromness Academy) to get the co-operative founded. Ian MacInnes was to become a major influence on the development of the OFS. Shares were first issued on 18 April 1953 and were bought by local fishermen and businesses.

The fishermen could now deal directly with the fishmarket at Billingsgate in London, or even abroad, flying live lobsters to Europe and Scandinavia. This bypassed the Kirkwall firm who had previously bought locally caught lobsters, but who also had to make their own profit.

Dr Derik Johnstone and Jimmy Anderson began experimenting with pre-cooked frozen lobster meat in 1959, which sold for 10 shillings (50p) per pound. Dr Johnstone later turned his attention to the processing of crab meat in an annex at his home, Ness House. Later, the Stromness Processors would cook and process crab meat until it was merged with the OFS in 1993.

Captain Robbie Sutherland, another leading light in the OFS, established the Sea School in 1967, where navigation and seafaring skills are taught to new generations of fishermen.

From a village to a burgh

The maritime merchants of Stromness relied on the sea as a means for transporting goods and the shore had numerous small piers and slips used by boats and small ships. Not a lot of attention was given to the street, where houses were built without regard for access.

During his visit in 1814, Sir Walter Scott complained that Stromness "cannot be traversed by a cart or even by a horse, for there are stairs up and down, even in the principal streets". Small burns ran down to the sea and were, by and large, unbridged. There was also a problem with dung heaps spilling over onto the streets and poor sanitation.

Flagged and cobbled street in StromnessOn 18 February 1817 Stromness was granted burgh status. This meant that Stromnessians now had their own council responsible for the running of the town. The charter also granted a weekly market to encourage trade (although a monthly one proved more convenient), as well as an annual fair in September.

The council was now responsible for law and order, passing by-laws and the prosecution of minor offenders. Despite being very poor to begin with, the council managed to pave the streets with flagstones and cobbles for the horses to get a grip on the road, introduce gas lighting in the streets, create a reservoir to supply clean water to the town and make improvements to the harbour.

While the annual fair has now ended, since 1949 Shopping Week has brought people into Stromness every July to spend their money in the town. The Stromness Burgh Council ceased to exist after the creation of the Orkney Islands Council in 1975.

Stromness wet and dry

When John Gow the pirate returned to Stromness in 1725 he is said to have drunk at the White Horse Inn, where he scratched his name on a window pane. The café at the harbour was once the Arctic Whaler, whose name hints at their target market. Login's Inn, called the Ship, was more up-market. Login not only supplied drink to the sea captains, but also water from the well for their ships.

In 1825/6 there were 12 pubs in Stromness with names like Britannia, Crown & Anchor, Jolly Sailor, Mason's Arms, Pilot's Inn, Rose & Crown, as well as three Ship Inns. There were also many private dwellings where home-brewed ale could be consumed.

The water of the May Burn flows past the Stromness Museum and into the harbour. It was used for whisky distilling, first by an illicit still hidden in a vault cut into the rock, then as a legal distillery. Stromness Distillery was opened by John Crookshank in 1817, producing a single malt called Man O' Hoy. In the space of 40 years it underwent six changes of ownership before falling into disuse in the mid-1860s.

In 1878 it was bought by Macpherson Brothers who renamed the distillery Man O' Hoy and the single malt that it produced was called Old Orkney. It was a popular malt whisky until the distillery was closed down in 1928 when Stromness was voted 'dry'. No alcohol was available in the town until after World War II. During the war soldiers washed in the distillery’s mash tubs, but the building was eventually demolished and Mayburn Court was built where it used to stand. This was the home of the writer and poet George Mackay Brown, who often made reference to the old distillery in his weekly newspaper column.The Distillery House The property is a B-listed building and was built originally as the pub for the Stromness Distillery.

Thornley Binders

In 1923 Fred Curtis Thornley approached the Provost and Town Council of Stromness with a proposal for setting up a factory making smokeless fuel briquettes. His plan was to use coal dust with sodium alginate (a waste produce from iodine manufacture) as a binding agent to hold it together. It was agreed that the Stromness Harbour Commissioners would dredge the harbour and extend the North Pier (where the ferry docks). A large shed to be used as a factory and a building to house the power plant were erected. The work was carried out, but the end product was not a commercial success. After some other unsuccessful business activities the Companies Registration Officer dissolved the firm in 1929

© Stromness Museum