Queen Street Stromness: Strawplaiters & Soldiers

Strawplaiting became a major industry in the town of Stromness in the first half of the 19th century. By the 1841 census 18% of the female population was employed producing straw plait or making straw bonnets. By this time the sector was already showing signs of decline as industrial mechanical methods of production were being introduced. There were also many straw plait merchants living in Stromness utilising the excellent facilities the town had for cheap, skilled labour and an excellent port enabling the import and export needed for the trade.

One of the many centres where the women lived was Queen Street. Although they are long demolished, a row of cottages existed in Queen Street with gardens. In 1892, the Dundee Courier’s special correspondent to Orkney reported that “ there is an old world quaintness about Stromness.” He went on to describe a situation many will find familiar about Stromness today:

‘Wheeled vehicles could not pass each other in the main street of Stromness, unless at certain parts, which seem to have been constructed for that purpose’

Writing about Queen Street he says:

‘A glance at Queen Street Stromness and one is at once transported in imagination away to some old Highland village, where all live under one roof, a pleasant and happy family.”

The cottages in Queen Street were very old by the time of the Dundee Courier’s report. In 1968 they were still there but much dilapidated.

“This picturesque street of old-world cottages remained a constant link with the past and in their unique and commanding setting, lent a certain charm and atmosphere to the town.” Stromness Round and About, The Orcadian.

One or two in the 1960s were still occupied and the last one with a roof was used as a trout hatchery.

Quite a change from the vibrant working place of so many Orcadian families in the 19th century.

It is part of the folk history of the town that soldiers were billeted in the cottages at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. The Queen Street cottages were filled with young women, employed at plaiting straw, and it is suggested that the name of the street derives from the word ‘Quean’ meaning a young girl.

A closer look at some of the families bears this out.

John Murray, an army pensioner, lived in the cottages and married a local woman. Three of his daughters were employed plaiting straw: Janet, Margaret and Isabella. In 1838 Janet gave birth to a son William. She was unmarried. William’s father George Moar was a seaman. Janet’s sister, Isabella  married sailor John Smith and their surviving son, Thomas also went to the sea. He ended up staying with Janet and Margaret, his two maiden aunts who were now getting by as knitters.

This was all fairly typical of a busy port. Young men were often away for long periods of time working out at sea, in the army, or for the Hudson Bay company. Families supported one another with relatives taking care of one another when the need arose.

Catherine Tait was married to a fisherman. All the women in the family were employed plaiting straw: daughter Catherine age 15, Jane also possibly 15 and Isabella age 6. The young boys of the family were not so employed. The skills necessary for strawplaiting were transferrable when the industry went bust. Those women who did not take up knitting (mostly stockings), used those skills as seamstresses or in the shoe trade.  

The families residing in Queen Street tend to have names well known as ‘Orcadian’. The Baikie’s was another household where all the women were plaiting straw whilst their brother William was a fisherman. He married Mary Anderson a strawplaiter who also lived in the row of cottages. This was the way it was. A close knit community supporting one another. Mary died young and eventually William returned to living with an unmarried sister, Anne who earned some money knitting stockings.

In the  1842 Statistical Account, Rev Peter Learmonth says of Stromness:

‘There are a few straw plait manufacturers, who employ a number of women in the town as well as in the country. This manufacture has been, for some time past, upon the decline; and being at all times dependent upon the caprice of fashion, has lately afforded a scanty subsistence to the many young females who totally depend upon it for their support. They are now allowed to plait in their own homes, which has been found more conducive to their health and morals, than doing so collectively, in the houses of the manufacturers, which was the original custom.’

By 1851 the decline had set in hard. From the 18% recorded as being involved in plaiting straw in 1841 by 1851 that had declined to 6%. It basically collapsed overnight leaving these women, most of whom were single, without paid employment. The work they did pick up as knitters was also poorly paid. The majority, who were unmarried, had no male income coming into the home, and unfortunately the older women like 80 year old Marion Inkster and 63 year old Cameron McKay had to rely on charity as paupers.

The Queen Street cottages may no longer be there but we can still see the stone dykes up Brinkies Brae built by the soldiers stationed in the cottages. Take a closer look next time you wander up Back Road Stromness.

Back Road Stromness

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Fiona Grahame

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