A 1 day itinerary for exploring Stromness, Orkney
If you follow my blog, you may have noticed that I have been working with Destination Orkney to try out a range of 1 day themed itineraries which are part of their 'See You at The Weekend' campaign. They are perfect for any visitor but are particularly suited to those short on time or looking for things to do outside the busy summer season.
I have already covered a wide variety of topics including coastal walks, Viking history, wartime sites, world heritage attractions and locally made goods. You can find all these blog posts on my Orkney Islands page.
For this itinerary, I headed to the historic town of Stromness which is always a delight to visit. I don't think I'll ever get tired of wandering the characterful streets and taking in all the quaint and quirky details.
Stromness is a town that has been shaped by the sea, with maritime history running through the veins of its winding, narrow streets. Sitting on the fringes of a natural harbour used by Picts and Vikings, increased trade with the New World played a large part in its rapid growth as a town in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Wars between Britain and France made the route around the north of Scotland more attractive than the English Channel which resulted in Stromness becoming a popular stopping off point on voyages.
The Hudson's Bay Company would regularly stop en-route to and from Canada. Many Orcadians were recruited by them in Stromness and at one point Orcadians made up approx. 3/4 of their workforce in Canada. The town has also seen whaling fleets, herring fleets and even the Royal Navy Grand Fleet which was based in Scapa Flow during the First World War.
While various industries have come and gone, the surrounding waters have continued to be a valuable asset to the local economy. Today Stromness is at the cutting edge of marine renewables and is home to The European Marine Energy Centre which supports developers of wave and tidal energy devices and is the only centre of its kind in the world.
However, the town has managed to retain its historic character and in some places away from the cars, it is easy to feel like you have stepped back in time.
This suggested day out which starts at the historic harbour area is the perfect introduction to the sea-faring history and contemporary businesses that make Stromness so unique.
Since the harbour has played such an important role in the development of the town, it is the ideal place to start this itinerary. As you walk around Stromness Harbour today you will see a variety of fishing boats, dive boats and the local lifeboat. It also houses the ferry terminal for the Northlink Ferry that connects Stromness with Scrabster on the north coast of the Scottish mainland. The smaller ferry that provides a connection to the islands of Hoy and Graemsay also leaves from here, and in the summer the harbour also attracts small cruise liners.
A walk along the harbour towards the lifeboat gives a great vantage point of the town. From here you can clearly view the historic waterfront properties with their stone piers jutting out. It really gives you a sense of how much the sea has shaped the design of the town and understand how it continues to attract people and industry that supports the local economy today.
JOHN RAE STATUE
Just next to the harbour is a statue of Dr John Rae whose achievements as an Arctic explorer have generally been unrecognised until recently. He was born in Orphir, Orkney, in 1813 and enjoyed an adventurous outdoor life in his early years.
His father was the Orkney agent for the Hudson's Bay Company in Stromness and when Dr John Rae qualified as a surgeon in Edinburgh, he returned to Orkney and signed on as a Hudson Bay Company ship's surgeon on a voyage to Canada. He subsequently spent 10 years as a surgeon at Moose Factory, Canada.
During his time there, he studied with the Cree Indians and Innuit. He learned many Arctic survival and travel skills from them, while retaining a respect for their cultures and traditions. Something that wasn't always approved of at the time.
Dr John Rae went on to chart vast areas of unknown Canadian territories and his knowledge and skills were called upon in the search for the missing Franklin expedition. The British voyage of exploration went missing in 1848 while looking for the Northwest Passage, a navigable sea route that connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Rae's findings did not go down well as he determined the entire crew had died and that some had resorted to cannibalism in an attempt to stay alive. In the end it was Rae who discovered the linking channel through the Northwest Passage during the search, now known as Rae Strait. However, despite his many achievements, his gruesome accounts of the fate of the Franklin expedition and his closeness to the native people of Canada was deemed too controversial and he was pretty much written out of history.
He went on to survey telegraph routes between Britain and Canada, and then America and Russia. He died in London in 1893 and was buried in the grounds of St Magnus Cathedral in Orkney which also has an ornate memorial of the explorer inside the building.
THE PIER ARTS CENTRE
Established in 1979, this small but important art gallery has a mixture of permanent and temporary exhibitions. I like popping by from time to time to see what has changed and to enjoy the picturesque view of the waterfront from the panoramic windows. If you catch it in the right light, the perfectly framed scene looks like a work of art in its own right.
The gallery buildings date to the 18th and 19th century and were originally a merchant's home with stores and offices. Built in a traditional Stromness waterfront style, there is also a little pier at the back which is quiet now but like all the neighbouring piers, would once have been bustling with boats landing their cargo or catch of the day.
The buildings have had a varied history since then which has seen a cooperage on the pier, a base for Royal Engineers during World War II in the store and a lodging house and hostel. Since 1977 it has been owned by The Pier Arts Centre Trust which purchased the building and store to house the art collection donated by Margaret Gardiner.
Margaret Gardiner was an author, peace activist and philanthropist who first visited Orkney in the 1950s. She was well known for supporting artists and built up her own private art collection which included works by major 20th Century artists. She later converted the old quayside building to house her collection of paintings and sculptures.
The collection now contains over 180 works of art and is regarded as one of the finest collections of the period in the UK. Within the gallery you can also view pieces by local artists and artists who have spent time in Orkney. A major redevelopment in 2007 has created a light and calm interior, with well positioned windows that maximise the waterfront views.
Thanks to a free resources library, outreach programmes and regular events, the next generation of creative talent is also being nurtured. The gallery shop is also another good place to find locally made items.
WANDER THE HISTORIC STREETS
I just love wandering around the town centre where you can feel the history seeping out every building. There are so many small details to take in and narrow closes to explore as you stroll along the main street that snakes through Stromness.
Many houses have decorated their entrances with quirky coastal themed displays. Even some of the windows have interesting exhibits - the snowy model railway is one of my favourites! Look out for the blue heritage plaques that celebrate some of the notable people from the town and interesting objects like the Fitzroy Fisheries Barometer which was still in use until 2005.
There are also some lovely independent shops and galleries that specialise in Orkney made goods. Cafes and pubs offer a range of places to stop for lunch and the Bayleaf Delicatessen sells Orkney produce and great takeaway coffee.
Stromness Museum is a highlight of this itinerary. It has a great mix of exhibits and offers a completely different experience to Orkney Museum in Kirkwall. There are many local themes covered including Maritime, Natural History, Social History and Archaeology.
Even though I've been a couple of times before, there are so many wee details and objects to view that the museum really needs more than one visit to do it justice. My main focus this time was the Enthnography exhibits. Historic items from different cultures around the world are on display which were bartered for or collected on voyages by ships stopping off or travelling from Stromness. It is a great reminder that the sea has connected countries and continents for centuries, long before aeroplanes were invented!
Stromness Museum is also a good place to find out more about the explorer Dr John Rae as there are artefacts relating to him on display.
LOGIN'S WELL AND THE STROMNESS CANNON
If you follow the main street through the town from the harbour and beyond the museum, you will eventually come across two more points of interest that make up the many layers of maritime history in Stromness.
Firstly, look out for Login's Well, now protected by a glass case. Fresh water was essential for ships embarking on, or returning from, long voyages across the Atlantic and this was a popular supply. Reading the adjacent plaque gives you an idea of the notable ships that once passed through Stromness including Captain Cook's vessels, Resolution and Discovery. Ironically, the two ships, Erebus and Terror, from the ill-fated Franklin Expedition also stopped here. Personally I think it is quite mind blowing to think of the significant part Stromness played in countless nautical adventures, sometimes legendary and sometimes tragic.
The second point of interest is the Stromness Cannon which is reputed to have been salvaged from the American Privateer 'Liberty' in 1813. There doesn't seem to be any reliable information on how the cannon ended up in Stromness. However, it was put to use firing a salute to The Hudson Bay Company ships arriving in the harbour.
MORE THINGS TO DO IN STROMNESS
This itinerary is just a taste of what Stromness has to offer. However, if you have more time you might also want to join a tour of Ness Battery, regarded as one of Britain's best-preserved wartime sites. Alternatively, follow a walking trail along the coast starting next to the Point of Ness Caravan Site or take a walk up Brinkie's Brae for a fantastic viewpoint overlooking the town.
Stromness is one of those places that captures your imagination and keeps drawing you back so don't be surprised if your visit becomes the first of many!
Disclaimer - This blog post is part of a sponsored partnership with Destination Orkney to promote their weekend itineraries, however as always all experiences and opinions are based on my own personal experience
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