The Stromness Traders in Strawplait

At the turn of the 19th Century Stromness was a bulging and highly successful port. Basically it was one street running south to north with crowded houses filled with traders, workers, seafarers, shops and strawplaiters.

The Old Statistical Account records that in 1754 the population of the town was 1,000. By 1794 the town and the parish had grown:

no. of
no. of
Stromness parish184184346449795
Stromness town2223424938511344

Many able bodied men had to leave Orkney for employment: military service, as seafarers, Hudson Bay Company workers, whaling and emigrating. This left thousands of women in the islands as the main provider for the family while the men were away.

Strawplaiting – providing plaited straw for the bonnet making industry – was a boom sector in Orkney at this time and continued until its gradual demise as the century entered its second half.

Population of Stromness 1841 and 1851 census

MalesFemales% Total
% Females

Stromness, along with Kirkwall, was where the products were shipped from to ports south, travelling as far as traders in London. There were thousands of women employed in the industry in Stromness itself but as a major port, boxes of plait and bonnets were also brought into the town where there were several merchants trading in this commodity.

One of the most successful in Orkney was William Heddle. Born in 1791, Heddle was there at the start of the strawplait boom and as a young man made the most of this opportunity. In 1809 he married Euphemia Leask and together they would have a large family. William Heddle made a good deal of money from trading in strawplait and he was able to move from Main Street, Stromness to Quildon, a property of several acres overlooking the town. Like most successful traders he purchased land and holdings, pursuing debtors in the courts who owed him money. William Heddle died in 1849 of a ‘lingering illness’, as the strawplait industry was starting to slow down. There is a large tomb stone erected to him by his wife and children in the Stromness kirkyard.

Sacred to the mem of WILLIAM HEDDLE Esq of Quildon d 14 May 1849 aged 61, after a lingering illness endured with much Christian resignation & fortitude. Erected by his widow and children.

Andrew Young, born 1790, was another of the Stromness traders in strawplait who was there right at the start of the boom. Young lived in Main Street in the part now known as Alfred Street. As the industry began to wane Andrew Young returned to his work as a pilot. This occupation was a vital part of the busy commercial business of Stromness. His son, Hans was a tailor and daughters Ann and Margaret were seamstresses. This type of work, fine needle skills, were all linked to the strawplait industry. After his death aged 75 in 1855, Andrew Young’s wife, Barbara, made a living as a knitter and his children ran a shop with the family living above it.

James Sutherland, born 1801, did not have so many successful years in strawplait trading, but it was sufficient to set him and his wife Cecilia up in a grocer’s shop. James outlived his wife and in his 70s was residing with a brother in Dundas Street.

Hugh Leask was in at the very start of the trade but was already elderly and so did not live to see how massive the industry became.

Other Stromness strawplait traders included: James Corrigall; James Louttit; John Flett; John Fraser; John Leask; John Rendall; and Robert Clouston. In a bustling and close knit town as Stromness was, all of these traders would know each other, some would be friendly acquaintances, others not so , for it was a very competitive business.

John Rendall was involved in the industry till its demise when he ran a lodging house and a drapers shop in Church Road. The example of strawplait on display in Stromness Museum which won an award at the 1851 Crystal Palace Great Exhibition is by his wife, Jean.

straw plait Stromness Museum

John Rendall and his wife are buried in Stromness kirkyard. The gravestone is broken but reads:

in memory of JOHN RENDALL. Merchant, d. 14 Feb 1879 aged 77. JEAN ALLAN, his wife

There is a woman, Catherine Tait, listed in the 1851 census, as recorded as living as a ‘visitor’ at Queen Street, Stromness as a straw manufacturer. Was she a ‘manufacturer’ in the same way as the male traders listed above were ? Women were employed processing and plaiting the straw. The most skilled would sew some of the plaits into bonnets. The merchants were connected up with the supply and distribution chain, trading the goods onwards. Tied in with shipping and interconnected as these men were with social, family and church ties (especially in the case of the Kirkwall merchants) it is extremely unlikely that a woman would be a trader. This is most likely just the way her occupation was recorded by the census taker.

The Queen Street cottages in Stromness where the strawplaiters lived shortly before the buildings were demolished

There were many women employed plaiting straw in Queen Street and it can be reasonable to assume Catherine Tait would be one of those. Like so many women who had been earning a living as a strawplaiter, once the industry collapsed she earned income by knitting.

Like all industries which boom and then bust – there are winners and losers. Some of the traders were to make their fortunes enabling them to buy up land and properties. For others the loss of such a lucrative industry meant that they had to find another income source, some would turn to the sea and the work of the port, others to setting up shops or lodging houses, catering for the growing Stromness population.

This is part of ongoing research into the strawplaiting industry in 19th century Orkney.

Fiona Grahame

Other stories in this series:


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