Stromness Maritime Merchants – Trades and Industries that Forged the Town

1 May 2010 in Heritage, Orkney

Stromness Museum, Stromness, Orkney, all summer 2010

Janette Park, Social History Curator, Orkney Museum and Stromness Museum, with Bryce Wilson at the opening of the exhibition.

Janette Park, Social History Curator, Orkney Museum and Stromness Museum, with Bryce Wilson at the opening of the exhibition.

WELL, THIS is a nostalgia trip for me. I was that fifties bairn with me socks and sandals, me navy blue knickers and me Saturday sixpence, off down the street to enhance the coffers of the local entrepreneurs.

The Stromness Museum is a jewel for lots of reasons – principally because it believes in quietness, no daft crowd pleasing Yorvik nonsense, and quirkiness. It seems to me that we have lost the reason why museums exist – they were places where boys (usually) sent things from places they’d visited, so their mums could go on a Sunday and see shrunken heads and alarming gourds, appended by a hand written notice saying: gifted by James Flett from Sri Lanka.

Stromness Museum honours that tradition – stuff that got kept by, or sent on, is important. We’re a trading place, and have lots and lots of Inuit things, South African things, Russian things. But this exhibition celebrates wur locals. The business people – local boys who done good, profiting by the kelp trade, or the fishing, or the tourism. Canny men and women who knew how to turn a coin or two.

The writers and adventurers who visited Orkney from the 16th century onwards display an endearing sense of surprise: the food is fresh! The tailor makes a good fist of a suit! The beds are warm and the breakfast sumptuous! Perhaps they had been led to believe we were all savages (and Walter Scott had a hand in that) – and were gratified to discover it wasn’t true… or perhaps they just thought anybody living so far from Edinburgh must be compromised culturally.

Here are showcased the people on the Stromness Street, their products, their adverts, their crazy optimism. Would an ice cream parlour make a profit in 50s Orkney? With a mosaic floor? Well – you can only try. Guilio Fugaccia did, and here’s his ice cream scoop to prove it.

I remember many of these shops, these traders. It seems odd to see their pictures, caught in Kodak. I remember them over a counter, being polite. I went with my mum to the draper’s shop, P L Johnston (tailors and general outfitters, Aquatir and Wayfarer Rainbows, LYBRO & Sweet Orr Overalls…) and watched the girl hurl the change from one end of the shop to the other.

There was a roll of fabric that you knew would be twenty dresses come summer. My father worked for J A Shearer, delivering rolls on his bike, hot from the bakeries. There were several – Porteous specialised in soda scones, but my nana never shopped there, though it was just across the road – she went to the other end of town. The other end of town had two more bakeries and several butchers. Ah well.

Peter Drever – there he is, peeping out of his shop door; I was a bit afraid of him, though he was always friendly – but he was so voluble, so talky. He gave you apples, shined on his shoulder.

Here’s the advert for Wrights Shoes – Boots, Shoes and Bends. His shop was like a cave with an elf in it – he really did tap away on a last. You could smell the leather.

The hotels – their adverts take you back to a John Buchan world, where chaps are meeting up for the fishing season. At Mackay’s a cold lunch costs 2/-. A boat and two boatmen for sea fishing, shooting or excursions costs ten shillings – and you are directed to enjoy the view of the Pierhead pump, at which the horses ‘drink largely.’

At Flett’s Commercial Hotel, a Dog Cart is kept for the convenience of parties staying. Here’s John Rae’s, with the postcards kept outside on a rack. Nobody nicked them. And here’s J D Spedding the chemist, offering Embrocation (specially strong) and Invigorating Hair Tonic for one and threepence – and Oatmeal Soap, Specially prepared for Stromness Water, 6d per tablet.

It’s an innocent world, and a hard working one. There’s a suit made by Dodo Marwick, on his own customised hanger – he always wore a skull cap, and, according to Johnny Pottinger, whose reminiscences enliven the exhibits, in his shop ‘always a lady or a gent would be industriously hand sewing.’ His advert promises ‘many fresh and novel ideas for the coming season.’

The distilleries, of course, are represented, as is the passionate poem by the Sons of the Knight Templars, exhorting the populace to:

‘work together with your might
to save your native land
from alcohol the nation’s curse
for ever set it free
No more let Stromness streets resound
to drunken revelry.’

With limited success, it has to be said… in 1825 there were twelve pubs. For old Stromnessians, this exhibition is a walk down memory lane. For newcomers, it’s an education – look at the story of the boat builders, and admire their glue pot. Look at Mowatt’s limeade – a ‘crystal clear product’ ‘ deposit refundable on return’ – (oh, to be back in the world where deposit was refundable) and be aware that what you miss out on, being new folk, is the memory of Mowatt’s lemonade and Argo’s cream buns, brought on the baker’s head still warm, when the School Sports was just coming to its climax and nobody knew whether Magnus or Rognvald was winning.

Enough, or I’m going to drown in nostalgia. This wee show is testimony to the resilience of local traders, and subtly, the text reminds us of that boom times came and went, but the street survived. Maybe it still can. Go and see it, it’ll make you fond of people who tried.

© Morag MacInnes, 2010