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Stromness

A historical perspective, drawn from the Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland: A Survey of Scottish Topography, Statistical, Biographical and Historical, edited by Francis H. Groome and originally published in parts by Thomas C. Jack, Grange Publishing Works, Edinburgh between 1882 and 1885.

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Stromness, a town and a parish in the SW of Pomona, Orkney. The town, skirting the W side of a beautiful bay, by road is 14½ miles W by S of Kirkwall, and by water 27 miles NNE of Duncansbay Head, 35 NNE of Scrabster Pier, Thurso. With Kirkwall it communicates by public coach and steamer, and with Scrabster by steamer, as also with Leith, Aberdeen, Scalloway, Stornoway, Liverpool, and other seaports. At the beginning of last century it consisted of only half a dozen slated houses and a few scattered huts, the former inhabited by two gentlemen of landed property and two or three small traders, the latter by a few fishermen and mechanics; and it then had only two vessels, each of 30 tons, and both employed in catching cod and ling at Barra, and making an annual voyage to Leith or Norway. Its rising importance, from the visits of the American rice-ships, drew the attention of the burghers of Kirkwall, and brought upon it a persecution whose origin and upshot form an interesting chapter in the history of Scottish burghs. Founding on an obscure act of 1690, which declared that the export or import of native or foreign commodities, with some exceptions, belonged only to freemen inhabiting royal burghs, and on a subsequent act of 1693, which declared that the benefit of trade allowed to royal burghs might be communicated to other places on condition of their paying cess, Kirkwall made exactions upon Stromness with inequality of distribution, and with most vexatious, unrelenting, and illegal severity. - The people of Stromness complied with the exactions from 1719 till 1743; but, seeing ruin coming on their - trade, they then resisted, and entered on a successful litigation against their oppressors before the Convention of Royal Burghs, the Court of Session, and the House of Lords. In 1754 they obtained from the second of these courts a declaration that' there was no sufficient right in the burgh of Kirkwall to assess the village of Stromness, but that the said village should be quit thereof, and free therefrom, in all time coming;' and, in -1758, after their relentless persecutors had dragged them to the House of Lords, they obtained from that court of final appeal a decision affirming the declaration of the Court of Session. By this decision all the villages in Scotland became free and independent of the royal burghs; and Stromness grew rapidly in importance, in 1817 being erected into a burgh of barony. It has not, however, altered much since 1847, when Hugh Miller described it as' a narrow, tortuous slip of a town, nearly a mile long, and fairly thrust by a steep hill into the sea, on which it encroaches in a broken line of wharf-like bulwarks, where, at high water, vessels of a hundred tons burden float so immediately beside the houses, that their pennants on gala days wave over the chimney tops. This steep hill, 292 feet high, and called the Ward Hill, forms part of a granitic axis, about 6 miles in length by a mile in breadth, which forms the backbone of the district, and against which the Great Conglomerate and lower schists of the Old Red are upturned at a rather high angle.' The bay or natural harbour excels in safety and commodiousness the great majority in Britain. It extends 11/8 mile from S to N, and is entered by a passage ¼ mile wide, but expands in the interior to a width of 3 furlongs. Sheltered to the S by Graemsay Island, and at its mouth by the Inner and Outer Holms, it has a firm clay bottom, and sufficient depth of water for ships of 1000 tons burden, and is protected from the violence of every wind. Two substantial patent slips admit vessels of 700 tons burden; and a new and commodious pier was opened in 1879. The American vessels in the rice trade formerly unloaded here their cargoes for the different ports of Britain, but were afterwards induced to prefer the Isle of Wight. Many vessels, owing to the excellence of the harbour, call at Stromness for shelter, provisions, or men; and among them are annually the Hudson's Bay vessels. An agent of the Hudson's Bay Company resides in the town. A considerable number of vessels belong to the port; and many boats are employed in the local fisheries. Boat and ship building is carried on to a noticeable extent; but the manufacture of linen and woollen cloth has been long discontinued; and the making of straw-plait, which formerly employed a large number of women, is also quite extinct. A weekly market is held on Wednesday; cattle fairs are held on the first Wednesday of every month, the Wednesday before Wasdale Market, and the first Tuesday of September. Stromness has a post office, with money order, savings' bank, and telegraph departments, a submarine cable (1876) to Scrabster, branches of the Commercial, National, and Union Banks, two hotels, a gas company, a natural history society with a good museum, a courthouse, a reading-room, a lifeboat, etc. The parish church, built in 1814, contains 1200 sittings; the Free church dates from Disruption times; and the U.P. church, with 643 sittings, was erected in 1862. George Stewart, the' Torquil' of Byron's Island, a poem on the mutiny of the' Bounty' (1789), was the son of Stewart of Masseter, and lived in the White House, one of the earliest mortarbuilt houses in Stromness; and Gow or Smith, the hero of Scott's Pirate, was born in a house where now is the boat-building yard of Messrs Copland. He revisited Stromness in 1724, the year before his execution in London. Sir Walter himself was here in 1814, and Hugh Miller in 1847, when from the neighbouring flagstones was exhumed the specimen of Asterolepis, referred to in his Footprints of the Creator. It may also be noticed that in the churchyard is buried William Newlands (1782-1884), the' king of the Orkney Gipsies.' Sheriff small debt courts are held on the third Thursday of March, June, and September, and the first Thursday of December; justice of peace small debt courts on the last Thursday of every month. The town is governed by 2 bailies and 9 councillors, who also act as police commissioners under the General Police and Improvement (Scot.) Act of 1862. Its municipal voters numbered 158 in 1885, when the annual value of real property was £6090. Pop. (1831) 2524, (1841) 2057, (1851) 2055, (1861) 1795, (1871) 1634, (1881) 1705, of whom 1021 were females. Houses (1881) 370 inhabited, 8 vacant, 4 building.

The parish is bounded N by Sandwick, NE by the Loch of Stenness, SE by the Bay of Ireland, S by Hoy Sound, and W by the Atlantic. Its utmost length, from N to S, is 4½ miles; its utmost width is 4 miles; and its land area is 7618 acres. The W coast, 3½ miles long, rises everywhere sheer from the sea to altitudes of from 60 to 363 feet; exhibits terrific grandeur of scenery during storms; and terminates at the southern extremity in Breck Ness, flanking the entrance to Hoy Sound. It is pierced there by a cave, called Johnson's Cave, after a shipwrecked sailor who spent four days in it in 1834. A chain of hills, prolonged-southward from Sandwick, and attaining a maximum height of 518 feet above sea-level, extends from the northern boundary to within about 1½ mile of Hoy Sound; and commands impressive views of the hills of Hoy and the northern mountains of the Scottish mainland. Limestone abounds; roofing slates were largely quarried a century ago; and granite and lead have both been formerly worked. A mineral spring of some medicinal repute is in the vicinity of the town. The soil of the arable lands is variously a black earth, a sandy black earth, a stiff clay, and a mixture of clay and sand. Much has been done on the Cairston estate in the way of draining, building, and other improvements, the late J. R. Pollexfen, Esq., having expended £4000 thereon; and the bare hill at the back of the town has of late years been converted into useful pasturage by the feuars amongst whom it was divided. Breckness House, near the headland of that name, was built in 1633, as an Episcopal residence, by George Graham, the last Bishop of Orkney; and above the door are carved his initials, the date, and the Episcopal arms. A little SW of the town are the ruins of the old parish church, with the graveyard and the remains of an old monastery; and in other places are ruins of ancient chapels whose history is lost to record. Stromness is the seat of Cairston presbytery in the synod of Orkney; the living is worth £205. Two public schools, Kirbuster and Stromness, with respective accommodation for 65 and 443 children, had (1884) an average attendance of 40 and 264, and grants of £56, 5s. and £256, 8s. Valuation (1860) £3603, (1884) £6095. Pop. of parish, (1801) 2223, (1831) 2944, (1861) 2540, (1871) 2403, (1881) 2410.

An accompanying 19th C. Ordnance Survey map is available, or use the map tab to the right of this page.

Note: This text has been made available using a process of scanning and optical character recognition. Despite manual checking, some typographical errors may remain. Please remember this description dates from the 1880s; names may have changed, administrative divisions will certainly be different and there are known to be occasional errors of fact in the original text, which we have not corrected because we wish to maintain its integrity. This information is provided subject to our standard disclaimer

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