Focus on Stromness – 1949, Part 1

As Stromness Shopping Week gets well underway we have looked back to that very first one in July 1949 Stromness Shopping Week 1949

Having come through the privations of the war years the week long events brought cheer and visitors back into the town. But what was said at the time?

This week, for one week only, Stromness will be the centre of Orkney. Some local merchants think it should be the centre of the islands all the time. That, in part, is why they are holding their Shopping Week there at the moment with all the star carnival attractions to give the quiet, rather sad, streets of the town at least an illusion of life.


It seems that prosperity, in terms of princely fortunes and rapid growth has passed Stromness by. Twice she has had the opportunity to become a major trading centre – during the Napoleonic Wars when the rice ships from America called in at the roadstead and the warehouses at the pier were hurriedly thrown up to accommodate the rich cargo. But the rice ships went , after all, to the Isle of Wight.

Then there was a period towards the close of the last century when Stromness blossomed as a herring fishing port. Quite suddenly its population shot ahead of Kirkwall’s, its harbour was crowded with red sails, its streets piers and closes echoed with the voices of canny fishers from the east coast, and Gaelic speaking girls with scrubbed bleeding fingers from the fish stalls.

Prosperity came once more to Stromness. At the pier head the Evangelists made gloomy thunder, and the tearful converted writhed in an ecstasy of repentance. The singing, swearing drunkards lurched about the closes. Life, crude and colourful, went on at every level. And much to the disgust of genteel people, the smell of rotten fish guts penetrated everywhere.


Would Stromness prosper this time?…The people had not long to wait for their answer. The herring shifted their grounds, almost overnight. The Gaelic girls went home, the red sails vanished over the horizon. The inflated population thinned out rapidly to its normal two thousand. The bustle, the whirlpools of humanity, left the pier-head, and the old sleepiness took possession again. The genteel folk were glad, for their nostrils were no longer assaulted by mingled fish stenches, nor were they in danger any more of being jostled by drunkards or insulted by gesticulating sin-obsessed evangelists. But, as far as trade and prosperity were concerned, the coin had once again come down against Stromness.

What of the future? Is Stromness rising to the crest of another prosperity wave? Or is our future settled for good and all, a quiet unspectacular future, where young men grown up with the lust of sea-faring in their veins and come home forty years later with a modest fortune, full of salt wisdom and old yarns, to retire and die?


The newly constituted Stromness Chamber of Commerce is hopeful that the business future is bright and full of promise. And after all these fellows should know how to fight for the ends they envisage. It was only two hundred years ago – not so long in the life of a community – that a Stromness merchant called Alexander Graham united his brother merchants in a great and glorious fight against the importunate demands of the Kirkwall magistrates. For once in its unfortunate history, the bells of Stromness rang victory. Graham didn’t hear them for he was lying in the kirk-yard. Orcadians are notoriously ungrateful to their great men. Graham’s posthumous award was to have a street named after him, and to have his name appended to an inelegant horse tough at the Pier Head.

Stromness’s future concerns all Orkney. But let’s forget for a moment that’s its end will be either prosperity or stagnation, and have a look at Stromness as it is today – at its people, its beautiful and ugly places, and at its changing surface.’….ISLANDMAN

Orkney Herald 19th July 1949

To be continued…..

 Between 1945 and 1956 George Mackay Brown used the pen name “Islandman” for his column in The Orkney Herald. 

The seal of the Burgh of Stromness with the motto per mare 1817 and a viking ship on it

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