Civil Disobedience in Stromness

By Fiona Grahame  Images: Martin Laird

“the inhabitants of Stromness did resolve to assert their natural liberties and therefore did refuse any longer to submit to this imposition”

The latter half of the 18th C was a time of revolution and none more so in what was the little town of Stromness, Orkney where a battle took place which was to change the 1707 Act of Union.

In 1700 Stromness in the west Mainland of Orkney was  a tiny fishing village of about 6 houses but war in Europe and the opening up of the Americas resulted in the growth of trade across the Atlantic.

Stromness grew rapidly with its fine harbour which was able to accommodate the likes of Captain James Cook’s ships  Endeavour and Resolution. The Conquest of Canada had opened up opportunities for the Hudson Bay Company which even by 1702 was recruiting large numbers of its workforce through its office in Stromness. The Whaling industry took even more men where wages could be had far in excess of what was possible from remaining in the islands.

As trade from Stromness grew so it declined in Kirkwall where the Town Council was controlled by a small group of men. These were rich landowners and those of property with many coming from the same family.

The City & Royal Burgh of Kirkwall_v1

Kirkwall  had been a Royal Burgh since 1486 and that status granted it rights over the levying of taxes on trade – both imports and exports. The Convention of Royal Burghs, of which Kirkwall was a member, was a powerful body of men with representatives in the Scottish Parliament.

The entrepreneurial traders and merchants  of Stromness carving out new opportunities and making substantial profits were required to pay over taxes to the Royal Burgh of Kirkwall. They had no voting rights. They had no say in how things were run. This was ‘taxation without representation’.

As the dues being levied on Stromness grew in amount each year and those from Kirkwall diminished eventually something had to give. Stromness refused to pay.

Alexander Graham_v1

The merchant, Alexander Graham, emerged as the leader of non-payment.

On 23rd of June 1742 Alexander Graham took out his first action in the Court of Session. He also in that same year applied to the Convention of Royal Burghs for a ‘Communication of Trade’. This would have allowed for a compromise to be reached. His application was not heard until 7th of July 1747 where it was promptly remitted to a committee. The Convention did not budge on its position and supported the Kirkwall merchants.

The amounts (for the time) where considerable, Stromness was to pay £204 and 16/- Scots for each year from July 1742 to July 1748. They were also to pay one third of Kirkwall’s ‘stent’ (business profit) plus any increases.

In May 1750 all goods and merchandise in the hands of Stromness traders, or their associates was to be seized. This was not carried out but the threat of it had about 20 traders giving in and paying up. Alexander Graham and about 100 others continued to refuse to pay or to appear in court.

This had financial implications for Kirkwall who were now in arrears to the Convention of Royal Burghs and troops were quartered on the town for their non-payment. This was only resolved with a personal payment of their debt by their Edinburgh agent.

The legal wrangle continued with arguments, appeals and judgments being made and overturned in the following years.

Probably the most interesting aspect of the case for us today, although not much of it was made at the time, was the reference to the Act of Union.

‘since the Union any Englishman was entitled to import into England or Scotland and to sell to anyone’

It was not legal for a Scot to do this. Any Scot who did this could have their property confiscated. The Act of Union had safeguarded the privileges of the Royal Burghs.

Alexander Graham argued,

“How could the respondents (the inhabitants of Stromness) who had no representation or vote in the Convention of Burghs as Kirkwall had, submit to an arbitrary increase of the proportion of taxation at the pleasure of the Convention.”

In January 1758 the case was finally won by Stromness. The Royal Burgh of Kirkwall had its costs paid by the Convention but Alexander Graham had to pay his own.  He found no support in the traders of his town to help find the £587 13/- 9d Sterling he was required to pay. At his death in 1783 his wife was said to be living in ‘reduced circumstances’.

Alexander Graham fountain plaque in Stromness_v1

Alexander Graham, however, had challenged the 1707 Act of Union and won.

Reference: Inhabitants of Stromness v Magistrates of Kirkwall by Ian MacInnes

Seal of the Burgh of Stromness - note scales of justice (1)

This article first appeared in Issue 62 of iScot Magazine

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