Stronsay: Island of Bays

This article was first published in iScot Magazine.

Stronsay is one of Orkney’s most fertile of islands. It established the first Agricultural Society in Orkney in 1783, a year before the  ‘Highland Society of Scotland’ (the forerunner of the ‘Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland’) was established in Edinburgh in 1784.

A peedie Stronsay fermhoose Image credit Martin Laird

The Norse settlers recognised the importance of the island both for farming and seafaring. The farm at Housebay was for them a central place as a large manor farm. Not only did the land have great fertility but it had an administrative function where the Norse Earl would collect rents and rule on matters of justice. From Housebay, at the South East extremity of Stronsay, the Earl could control the main navigation route leading east from Orkney across the North Sea to Norway.

Udal land ownership in Orkney remained mostly unchanged even after they became part of Scotland (1472), until the mid 16th Century with the sweeping changes which took place with the Reformation. The exception to this was in 1535 when Sir James Sinclair of Brecks received a feudal charter granting him the lands of Sanday, Stronsay, North Rondalsay, Papa Stronsay and Auskerry for an annual payment of 200 merks. This charter ignored the rights of the landowners who had Udal possession and gave him the right to leave the feudal lands to a single heir. This was contrary to Udal law where the land was divided up equally between heirs.

Land reform by the ‘improvers’ was slower to take place in the islands than elsewhere in Scotland but come it did and by about 1760 it was Kirkwall merchants who became the lairds in Stronsay. The first manufacture using kelp in Orkney was by James Fea in Stronsay in 1721. This was not long after the earliest experiments were made in the Forth, Scotland.

Kelp, the gathering and burning of seaweed, was used to produce an alkaline ash, a vital component in the bleaching of linen and in the manufacture of soap and glass.

Orkney, almost overnight, became the main centre of production of kelp ash in Scotland. The process needed little outlay and was labour intensive. Lairds were able to ‘compel’ tenants to harvest and process the kelp, working extremely long hours from early morning to late at night, to the detriment of their own crofts and farms. The Orkney Lairds were already merchants and ship owners so the distribution chain was readily set up. At the height of the kelp boom 60,000 tons of wet kelp were harvested per year. Over £1million was generated in wealth for The Orkney Lairds over its 50 year period of production.

Captain William Richan, who had been retired from the Royal Navy when the guns on his vessel were discovered to be packed with contraband of tea and tobacco, owned some of the most productive kelp shores in Stronsay and Westray. Seriously in debt and very slow at paying his accounts, he built an impressive house in Kirkwall, now the West End Hotel. The Kirkwall Lairds and Merchants profiting from Kelp held great parties within these big houses. The Captain’s wife, Esther Richan, took part in a bet at one of these infamous occasions. It is said that in answer to a challenge as to who could eat the most expensive breakfast that she  placed a £50 note between two slices of bread and proceeded to eat it.

Esther Richan’s expensive breakfast by Martin Laird

Once the kelp industry boom was over as the price of ash collapsed, the landowners required another way to make money. In 1814 David Drever of Huip in Stronsay was the first to start in the herring fishing but it was not until Kirkwall’s Samuel Laing got involved that it really took off. Samuel’s brother Malcolm owned Strenzie (Whitehall) in Stronsay. Another brother, James, was a successful sugar planter in the West Indies. The connection was made to supply salted herring as a cheap source of food for the slaves on the plantation. In 1816 six fishing boats were engaged in fishing for herring. The following year 400 Orkney boats were fitted out for herring. A new pier was built in the village of Whitehall and housing sites were designated for the fisher families coming in from Caithness and Fair Isle. Even after the trade with the plantations in the West Indies ended, the herring boom continued as markets in the rest of Britain and Europe were being supplied.

The Herring Industry in Stronsay grew to enormous proportions. Even after the First World War, 300 drifters were calling in mainly from the north east ports of Banff and Buckie. The 12 week season added in 4,000 people to the island’s population. Stronsay had 10 general merchants shops, 3 bakeries, 5 butchers, 5 ice cream parlours and the longest bar north of Inverness.

Passing storm over Rothiesholm Sand Image credit Martin Laird

Today, Stronsay, still has its beautiful beaches and fertile land. Its community is supported by a Development Trust and there is an excellent heritage centre where you can learn some of the island’s past. There are electric bikes you can hire to get about and explore the beauty this island has to offer. The economic boom and bust years of the schemes of the Lairds has been replaced by hopefully a more sustainable future for the Island of Bays.

Dyke near Stronsay airfield Image credit Martin Laird

Fiona Grahame

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