By Ian Cooper from his excellent series, ‘Records of a Bygone Age’, in The Stronsay Limpet and republished here with their kind permission.
I recently came across a Statistical Account of Stronsay, compiled in 1950 by long-time headmaster John Drever. As part of a Scotland-wide initiative to complete a Statistical Account along the same lines as the Statistical Accounts of 1795 and 1845, it was an interesting snapshot of 1950s Stronsay but, due in great part to a national lack of funding, the project failed dismally in achieving the national picture of the time it was supposed to represent.
John Drever’s factual account of island life and culture is nevertheless an interesting and thought provoking document and, I believe, well worth picking out some of the details and comparing some of them to today’s Stronsay.
In his introduction he comments on how Stronsay used to have two harvests – one of the land and one of the sea – and goes on to state
This reference to the herring fishing, although it had come to an end 11 years earlier, was alluded to on several occasions and was obviously still fresh in his mind.
Papa Stronsay too gets a glowing reference, where he recounts
He also explained that all the gutters’ huts on Papa Stronsay had recently been dismantled and taken across to Stronsay by two joiners, where they had been made into henhouses.
At the time of this report, with the break-up of much of the large estates in the 1920s, most of the farmers had been owner/occupiers for nigh on 30 years with only Whitehall Farm and Dishes still being part of the Balfour estate and here Mr Drever added his thoughts that the proprietor of Whitehall would earn more in fishing rights, drying nets etc. than he would in selling the farm. With little fishing being pursued at the time it seems he may not have been quite on the ball with that comment and indeed both farms were sold quite soon afterwards.
A short chapter on Stronsay’s history then followed, including sea communication, shipping tragedies, the fire destroying the Stronsay Hotel and concluding with the beaching of almost 100 pilot whales on the Rothiesholm Sands only a few weeks before his report was written. The secular history of Stronsay was also touched on, describing how there were two churches in Stronsay up until they united in 1929 to become the Church of Scotland as we know it today. He also wrote of the anticipation of a new church yet to be built with a bequest left to the island by Alexander Moncur, a jute manufacturer in Dundee.
In agriculture he reported that tractors were now in common use, with reapers and binders replacing the scythe which was now only used to cut ‘roads’ for the passage of the tractor, and that a working horse was getting to be an uncommon sight.
The local population numbered a little over 600, with Chalmers and Fotheringhame the commonest names, closely followed by Caithness, Cooper, Fiddler, Maxwell, Miller, Shearer, Sinclair, Stevenson and Swanney. Of these, nearly all would have been native Orcadians. This compares to today’s population hovering around 300, with no Caithness, Fiddler, Fotheringhame, Sinclair or Swanney names still to the fore, one solitary Maxwell and only a handful each of Chalmers, Coopers, Millers, Shearers and Stevensons.
Moving on to Education, Mr Drever notes that in 1921 there were 180 pupils on the roll but this had fallen to stand at 94 in 1950. Of these, 71 were attending the Central School, with the other 23 in attendance at the North and South Schools. The Rothiesholm School had closed in 1947 and the only school pupil on Papa Stronsay was presently being ferried across to Stronsay and then driven to school. These pupils would have been in the age range of 5 to 14 years old and, the report states, were taught English, maths, science, art and singing, with either French or Latin taught to the Secondary pupils, together with sewing and cooking for the girls and woodwork for the boys.
The roll today I believe stands at around 42, ranging from 3 year old nursery children to 16 year old senior pupils and, with the last ‘side school’ having closed 65 years ago, all are taught at the Central school. There are more resident teachers at the school now than in Mr Drever’s day and, with specialist itinerant teachers flying in on a daily basis, these children are receiving an education as good as could be had anywhere. This enables the pupils to stay at Stronsay school until they are 16, allowing them to gain the necessary qualifications to move on to further education if they so desire. Another difference to be noted from the school of 1950 is the provision of school lunches, which began in the late 1950s. No longer did pupils have to take a ‘piece’ to school, to be washed down with cocoa provided from the kettle boiling away on the solid fuel stove!
The school photo would have been taken in the late 1940s and shows John Drever with his senior pupils all, I think, Orkney born and bred and displaying a good cross section of the old Stronsay family names.
Back row: Jim Grieve, David Shearer, Douglas Cooper, Erlend Wilson, Tom Stout. 2nd row: Headmaster John Drever, Erlend Stout, Davina Williamson, Caroline Fiddler, Agnes Dalziel, Isobel Fotheringhame, Barbara Chalmers, Margaret Shearer, Margaret Scott. 3rd row: Billy Miller, Donny Cooper, Patricia Cooper, Catherine Sinclair, Elizabeth Stevenson, Megan Fotheringhame. Front row: Peter Smith, Jack Chalmers, John Grieve, Jimmy Stevenson, Billy Stout, Francis Williamson.
The 1950 school roll and population as a whole would have been almost entirely Orkney born and bred. Compare this with around 2/3rds of today’s population who have moved here from outside of Orkney and, of the school pupils, only a handful have two Orkney parents. It’s hard to imagine how our island would have looked today without this influx of fresh blood!
The water supply in the village was provided from a tank on the road to Whitehall Farm, pumped there from the Ayre of the Myres, so there would be little change there other than a replacement tank recently erected in the same area and the water being supplied by boreholes rather than a spring. The houses in the rest of the island had to collect rainwater or carry or pump water from wells and the concept of mains water was still just a pipe dream. (That just had to be said, didn’t it? ☺)
Commenting on the housing stock, Mr Drever noted that this had improved immensely during the current century and there were now as substantial and commodious houses as one would see anywhere in the country. There was no lack of housing as so many people had left the island and the bigger farms were employing far fewer workers. Many of the houses, he said, were just a ‘butt and a ben’ with a small room called a closet between and only around 20 houses had bathrooms at that time, with most of those only recently installed.
Heat was provided mainly by coal, although the folk of Rothiesholm still burnt peat, and light was provided by oil lamp or Tilley type lanterns. A few had lights powered by Calor gas and some had electricity provided by battery. Strangely, Mr Drever makes no mention of any engine driven generators although I’m sure there must have been a few around by 1950.
There were about 30 private cars on the island, plus two more available for hire, and 3 lorries also for hire. Mr Drever added that there were very few gigs still to be seen on the road at the time of his account.
In 1950 Stronsay had 8 shops – 5 in the Village, two in the centre of the island and one in Rothiesholm – along with two bakeries, both in the Village, and a butcher shop.
With the demise of the kelp industry in the mid-1930s and the herring fishing ending soon after, farming was by far the biggest industry and mainstay of the island, with oats, bere, turnips and potatoes being grown in rotation, hay being made as part of the cattle’s winter ration and some farms growing a little kale for their sheep in the winter. Hens were being reared and eggs shipped in ever increasing numbers.
There were a few fishermen still working, mainly setting creels for lobsters, although he reported that two boats still went deep sea fishing, sometimes landing their catch in Kirkwall. Another part-time winter occupation mentioned by Mr Drever was catching rabbits for shipment south. Tangles were being laid up to dry that year and, although it isn’t made clear, it seems that the tangles may have been a comparatively new industry – now long gone too of course.
In his closing remarks, John Drever once again has a nostalgic look back to the days of the herring fishing where, he comments,
“There was a feeling of expectancy. We welcomed the fisher folk as we now welcome the corncrakes.”
and goes on to say
With so many changes in the island in the intervening years, and those same corncrakes welcomed by Mr Drever now but a dim and distant memory for most folk, I wonder just what his impressions of Stronsay 2023 would have been ?
The full version of John Drever’s Statistical Account can be found in the Stronsay Heritage Centre