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Issue 96 - A Stromness Stroll

Scotland Magazine Issue 96
December 2017


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A Stromness Stroll

Stephen Roberts takes in the history of this small port village on Mainland Orkney

I love a plaque. If you see a greyhaired guy poised in front of a blue plaque (any form of plaque) and perhaps taking a photograph, it could be me. Plaques celebrate buildings and people that achieved notoriety through famous and sometimes infamous events. I’d love to have a plaque on my house one day; I must keep writing!

Sometimes you find places where these commemorative markers are in abundance. Stromness is a perfect example. In southwest Mainland, Orkney, it has so many that a Blue Plaque Heritage Trail has been established. Knowing the town to be a long-established seaport, I expected the plaques to tell me of Stromness’s relationship with the sea. I wouldn’t be disappointed, although there were surprises along the way.

I found several plaques that mentioned the Hudson’s Bay Company, which set me reaching for history books. Having visited relatives in Canada a few times, I knew the part of the world we were talking about and that the Company had enjoyed a monopoly on trade in the region around Hudson Bay. What I hadn’t appreciated was that the company dated to the later 17th Century and made its fortune trading chiefly in Canadian furs.

The plaques told pretty much the whole story of ‘The Haven’, a building where company agents worked and also the company’s recruitment centre on the island. There was even an impressive cannon that fired a salute each time one of the Company’s ships sailed in or out of harbour! The name ‘Login’ is prominent here, but it’s nothing to do with computers. If you start the trail to the south of the harbour, as I did, then one of the first plaques you come to is one for Login’s Well. This was the spot where ships took on water before heading off on voyages of commerce or exploration.

Not all plaques are sea related. Across the way is the former Login’s Inn, the birthplace of Sir John Login (1809-1863), who famously ended up as guardian of Duleep Singh, the deposed Maharaja of the Punjab. At just 10 years of age, he was put in Login’s care and exiled from his homeland to the UK. He came to be much admired by Queen Victoria and English royals, spending much time in their company. Singh spent his teenage years in Perthshire, based at Castle Menzies, and eventually bought the Elveden Estate, near Thetford in England. However, he died in poverty in Paris, aged 55, after becoming estranged from the British establishment. Sir John grew up at the inn, which was frequented by ships’ officers and passengers in the early 19th Century, then became surgeon to the East India Company, which is how he came into contact with the Maharaja. Beginning as his tutor, Login and Daleep remained lifelong friends.

Across the square was the home of George Mackay Brown (1921-96), a poet described as the ‘Bard of Orkney’, who lived here from 1968 until his death. Nominated for the Booker Prize in 1994, Brown was a wit and traditionalist, plugging away with a favoured biro. He was known for his love of words, always handy for a writer, and one of his favourites was ‘peedie’, the Orcadian term for ‘little’. George was concerned that vernacular such as this could die out and lamented the fact that alternative English words, such as ‘little’ or ‘small’, were nowhere near so much fun.

Moving on, the dangers of the northern seas are well illustrated by two plaques opposite one another. The plaque at Rae’s Close recalls Dr John Rae (1813-1893), an Arctic explorer who found the missing link in the Northwest Passage. He also solved the mystery of Franklin’s doomed Arctic expedition in 1845, when the whole crew perishing after they abandoned their icebound ships. Then we have Mrs Humphrey’s House, a hospital over 1835-36 for ‘scurvy ridden whale men who had been trapped in the ice for months’.

Lack of Vitamin C was a constant menace for men at sea and scurvy a nasty condition involving inflammation of gums and loss of teeth. In spite of the risks, Stromness men took on some of the most inhospitable voyages undertaken by the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Not far away, a plaque commemorates the importance of the Stromness Lifeboat to this community. Here is the former station of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (1901- 2001). Over the years Stromness boats saved over 300 lives. The bravery of volunteers is best illustrated by the story of an incident known as the Longhope lifeboat disaster (1969), when the entire crew of eight men perished after the lifeboat capsized while trying to help a stricken cargo vessel. Often calls for help will necessitate the lifeboat heading to open waters surrounding Orkney, where 60-foot waves can be encountered. The simple word ‘courage’ doesn’t go far enough in describing amazing people who have manned the Stromness boat for nearly 150 years.

Eliza Fraser’s house is an interesting one, for here is the story of a lady who was shipwrecked off Australia’s Great Barrier Reef in 1836. Captured by Aborigines, she thereafter became a legendary figure in Australian history. After returning to England, her story was sensationalised, picked up by writers, artists and even, in more recent times, filmmakers - with Susannah York playing the lead role of Eliza herself in the eponymous film (1976). She certainly cashed in on her fame and appears to have instituted a charitable appeal to support herself and her three children, claiming to be penniless after her husband’s death. However, Eliza conveniently forgot to mention to her patrons that she’d remarried and had already benefited from a fund set up in Australia.

Another notable resident, Alexander Graham, led a tax revolt as anger grew amongst Stromness merchants contributing to Kirkwall’s tax-revenues. These actions led to Stromness becoming an independent burgh and thriving as a trading centre during the 18th and 19th Centuries. It was an expensive fight, however, which went to the House of Lords and saw brave Graham, who led the campaign for over a decade, imprisoned for debt and financially ruined.

Miller’s House, tucked away up a flight of steps, is also worth finding, as here is a building with a stone doorway dating to 1716. It is the entrance to Stromness’s earliest dateable house, which belonged to a merchant family named Miller. Accompanying the date is a nice commentary on life’s good fortune: ‘God’s Providence My Inheretance’ [sic].

The last plaque, beyond the ferry terminal and tourist information, is located on a prominent building in John Street and concludes appropriately with a nautical theme. The Lieutenant’s House was built by Lt James Robertson RN who commanded HMS Beresford at the Battle of Plattsburgh, a sea tussle fought towards the end of the 1812 war with the United States. This fine building with commanding harbour views attests to Robertson's status, achieved by his sterling service during the Napoleonic Wars.

Finally, if you can bear to tear yourself away from the plaques, the Stromness Museum is well worth a visit. You can also pick up a leaflet showing locations of all the plaques before conducting your own tour.

In following the trail I learned lots about Stromness and its relationship with the sea. All those tales of derring-do made me feel less than intrepid, but grateful nevertheless to have solid earth beneath my feet


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