Orkney’s First Motor Vehicle Passenger Services

Taking up with new ideas and introducing a different way to travel has been in the news over the last few weeks with the introduction of an additional evening bus service as a way of getting more people to leave the car at home. Stagecoach, the company which runs the public bus service in Mainland, Orkney, has also brought in new low emission vehicles which have replaced the ageing fleet it had.

image credit Nick Morrison

Today buses run between the two main towns of Kirkwall and Stromness, the X1, extending down into St Margaret’s Hope, throughout the day and into the evening. But how did it all start?

In the summer of 1905 a large motor car arrived on the Steamer St Ninian. It was capable of carrying 16 people and was described as being ‘long-looked-for‘. Its first appearance in Stromness attracted a large crowd. Owned by E.J Robertson Grant it was said that ‘the owners of horses are afraid to meet it.’ Orkney Herald and Advertiser 12.07.1905

The vehicle had a top speed of 15 miles per hour and it was hoped that it would be a boost to the tourism industry and for the many sportsmen who visited the county.

Its arrival had a mixed response and its supporters said that of the objectors there were ‘too many people among us who have no desire to move out of the old groove.’ Orkney Herald and Advertiser 12.07.1905

There was already at this time a frequent service run by horse drawn carriage which because of the initial price of motor vehicles was less expensive to operate.

The fares were also an issue and brought up the old rivalries between the two towns. The motor car ran twice a day and the fares were as follows:

  • Kirkwall to Stromness: 2/-, 14.1 miles
  • Stromness to Kirkwall: 2/-, 14.1 miles
  • Kirkwall to Finstown: 9d, 6.9 miles
  • Finstown to Stenness: 9d, 3.5 miles
  • Finstown to Stromness: 1/- 6d, 7.2 miles
  • Stromness to Stenness: 6d, 3.8 miles
  • Stenness to Kirkwall: 1/- 6d, 10.4 miles

An aggrieved letter writer from a Stromness resident told readers of The Orkney Herald and Advertiser, 16th August 1905,

“These prices can only have one meaning., viz. that passengers from and to Kirkwall are to have all the advantage, and that people in the west are not wanted. I have no desire to give a gratuitous advertisement in favour of the motor car, nor is it my intention to take up a hostile position with regard to it, but until such time as the charges are based on a given sum per mile, there is little fear of it injuring very seriously the daily coaches, which seem to be as well patronised as ever. I am etc Stromnessian.”

Other criticisms were that motor vehicles were short-lived compared to coaches, the roads were not able to take them and that there would be serious accidents.

There is an image of a motor vehicle take by Tom Kent of “a Daimler fitted out to carry eight passengers on a trial run around Kirkwall. A second vehicle had been ordered with the purpose of forming a company ‘The Orkney Express’ to run a motor service between Kirkwall and Stromness. “

In 1906 a new much larger vehicle arrived. This green motor was added to the now operational two white vehicles. The larger motor would now only take 1 1/2 hours to travel between Kirkwall and Stromness. What’s more the driver would be able to keep to this time as he had a carriage clock fixed in front of his steering wheel. This vehicle could take many more people with 29 passengers recorded on one evening trip to Stromness.

Click on this link for an image of “A very early bus with a full load of passengers, registration number is S 486. This was in fact the first bus to come to the Northern Isles. The Stirling built in 1905 was made at Granton, which was one of two identical vehicles in the Orkney Motor Express fleet operated between Kirkwall and Stromness by a syndicate of local businessmen headed by E. J. Robertson-Grant of the Highland Park Distillery, Kirkwall, Orkney Isles, seen here at the wheel. The Stirling proved unreliable and by 1909 the buses were withdrawn and the service reverted back to horse-drawn coaches”

1907 Orkney Herald And Advertiser

The Orkney Motor Service Fleet, now with 3 vehicles, did have difficulties over the three years it was in operation. For the passengers it was a rather shoogily journey and there were breakdowns, although at least one of those appears to have been malicious. In March 1908 the service was prevented from operating when a person/persons unknown tampered with a cylinder and damaged it during the night.

Tragically there were accidents and in July 1908 Thomas Cumming was fatally injured whilst travelling on the motor vehicle. The motor had slowed down to pass another vehicle on the road as it was leaving Finstown on its way to Kirkwall. Thomas Cumming had been sitting in the smoking compartment and decided to move to another seat. As the bus lurched forward he was thrown to the ground where he sustained serious injuries. On arrival at Kirkwall he was taken to a nearby house, Mr Hewison’s in Junction Road, and attended by Dr Heddle and Dr Scott. He was then transferred to his own home in Victoria Street where he died of his injuries a few days later.

Stromness Hotel image credit Bell

In 1909 John Mackay of the Stromness Hotel set up a service with 2 runs each day. This would compete with the service now running by Leslie and Leonard of Kirkwall.

Orkney Herald and Advertiser 1909

The great difficulty for all of the services was the expense of running them and having the passenger numbers to keep them viable.

There would, however, be no holding back the privately owned motor car in Orkney:

“The first car register in Orkney was actually BS – 3 on 21st January 1904, with BS -4 next on 27th January. Thereafter BS-5 on 2nd February, BS – 6 on 2nd March, BS- 7 on the 3rd March and BS -1 on the 15th of March. BS – 2 was a latecomer on the 25th of June 1904”

Bill Spence, from 1903 And All that, in Orkney Heritage Society Newsletter, 2002 – 2003

Fiona Grahame

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