For many arriving from the Scottish Mainland, the beautiful waterfront town of Stromness is their first taste of Orkney. Stromness Harbour is sheltered by two small islands - the Holms, and in Viking times the anchorage was called Hamnavoe (safe harbour).
The origins of the word Stromness come from the bay's sheltering southern arm, meaning point of the tide stream so we get 'strom' meaning tide stream and ness meaning headland, Stromness.
The second largest town in the Orkney Islands, Stromness is a quiet and distinctive town with small shops selling special things and a meandering narrow main street. George Mackay Brown described the street as 'The street uncoiled like a sailors rope from North to South'
The town of Stromness emerged from the bay of Hamnavoe and is squeezed between the sea and Brinkies Brae (from the old Norn meaning 'fire hill'), the granite ridge that forms its Western edge, and thus, the houses have been built on what space there is. Houses jut gable end out onto the waterfront and many have their own piers. Others climb the hill in a random fashion and follow labyrinthine closes. The main street is extremely narrow in places, and is made of flagstone. The overall effect is extremely picturesque.
Stromness, like the rest of Orkney, is steeped in history. In 1590 Stromness was firmly established as a seaport when an inn was built to cater for visiting ships. Between 1688 and 1815, war between England and France forced shipping to avoid the English Channel and the route around Northern Scotland was preferred. This increased shipping and trade and Stromness grew rapidly. In the 19th century Stromness had 34 public houses!
Ships of the Hudson's Bay Company were regular visitors - in 1670 the town was chosen as the first and last port of call for supplies for the Hudson Bay Company vessels setting off across the Atlantic to Canada. As well as providing trade links, the Hudson's Bay Company were good employers and Orcadians were known to be hard workers! From around 1702 the company recruited islanders in Stromness to work in Canada. By 1799, Orcadians made up 416 of 530 on the Company's overseas payroll. By 1800, there were 222 houses in Stromness, of which 130 had slate roofs, a sure sign of wealth. Stromness' relationship with the Hudsons Bay company lasted until the beginning of the 20th Century
Whaling fleets were also regular visitors to Stromness and in 1836 a hospital was opened to treat scurvy and frostbite in sailors who had been icelocked all winter.
Herring fishing fleets arrived in Stromness in 1887 and briefly inflated the town's population. Early last century Stromness was recorded to have a larger population than Kirkwall!
The fishing industry has declined in recent years, and Stromness as a major fishing port gently declined over the years inspiring George Mackay Brown to say of his beloved home town - 'Stromness after a boisterous youth of 300 years sank prematurely into a silver grey age, old and grey and full of sleep' However, these days many of the old fishing boats are used now to transport divers to the wrecks of Scapa Flow and the harbour is busy again.
Stromness has also received a new lease of life from the renewables sector in recent years. The European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) is based in Stromness, and devices which can generate electricity from the tide are tested at nearby Billia Croo. With the dawn of a new age, doubtless more sea salted tales and characters will emerge.
As for other interesting facts about Stromness - the town had its own newspaper to rival the Orcadian for six months in 1884. It also once had its own Ba game - which was abandoned in 1924 after local businesses installed plate glass windows. Stromness was also the home to Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown and famous Arctic explorer, Dr John Rae. Highlights of Stromness include the museum, dedicated to Stromness's rich history at the south end of the town, the Pier Arts Centre, the library and the local golf course, which has stunning views and a large salt-water hazard near by!
From 'Hamnavoe' by George Mackay Brown
The streets uncoiled like a sailor's rope from North to South
And closes swarmed up the side of the hill
Among garden and clouds,
And closes stepped down to the harbour
And the nets and whitemaas