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There's nowhere quite like Stromness. It stretches for over a mile along the shore of Hamnavoe, an inlet of Scapa Flow sheltered by the islands of Outer Holm and Inner Holm. Yet the core of the town is just one main street that twists and turns narrowly between the shoreline and the hillside behind. This main street goes under at least five different names as it makes its was through the town. It is intersected by streets that on one side climb steeply up Brinkles Brae, the 300ft granite ridge that lies behind the town. On the seaward side they make their way between close-packed building to the private wharves that seem to lie behind every house and shop.
In 1814 Sir Walter Scott complained that the town couldn't be traversed in a cart or on a horse because of steps built into the main street. The steps may have gone, but catch Stromness on a quiet day and you could feel that little else has changed. In more recent times the town has grown further up Brinkles Brae, and it has also extended further to the north. This has brought benefits, especially in the form of an alternative higher level road that allows most traffic to avoid the main street.
The name Stromness comes from the Norse Straumrnes, or point of land by Hoy Sound: though it is probable that the natural harbour here was used by the Picts before the Vikings arrived. By the 1300s the name was recorded as Strumnay, and "Stromness" first appears in records in 1544.
Stromness was still a very small village of just 13 houses when in 1670 it was chosen by the Hudson's Bay Company as the first and last port of call for their ships en route to and from Canada. This led to a boom that marks the real start of the town of Stromness you see today. By 1794 it had grown to a settlement of 222 houses, of which 130 had slate roofs, a sure sign of wealth.
The Hudsons Bay Company said that they found Orcadians to be more sober than the Irish and prepared to work for less than the English. They offered annual wages of around £15 for labourers and £25 for tradesmen in their Canadian settlements at a time when the annual salary of the Stromness schoolmaster was under £10. Little wonder that Orcadians, and those from Stromness in particular, saw much more of the world than most populations of equivalent size at the time. And many, having made their fortunes with the Company, returned to Stromness to build a house.
By 1743 Stromness was large enough to challenge the taxes paid to Kirkwall on its growing trade. Alex Graham, a merchant, launched a legal battle that was to last for fifteen years, but which ended with the removal of the taxes paid by smaller towns to Royal Burghs like Kirkwall across Scotland.
Later years saw fishing also grow in importance, and Stromness became the centre from which the lighthouses around Orkney were manned and maintained. It is also recorded that in the 1820s 10% of the entire local population was employed making straw hats. Stromness acquired a legal distillery in 1817 (it had earlier had a number of illegal ones), though what was by then called the Man o' Hoy Distillery only survived until 1927.
Stromness is today a bustling and charming town. It retains its remarkable main street in which pedestrians have to dodge cars, and cars one another. And there are few places that so amply reward exploration. The narrow passages and roads and the private wharves on the shore side are fascinating, as is the network of steep streets and paths lead up the hillside. One of the streets climbing Brinkles Brae between high walls rejoices in the name of the Khyber Pass. This is either a descriptive joke that stuck, or a celebration of Empire: take your pick.
The main harbour and its quays are now found towards the northern end of the centre of the town, and benefit from access via a new road along the shore that keeps traffic out of the north end of Stromness. This is a busy and interesting place, as well as one that gives the best views of Stromness itself. The harbour is also the terminal for the passenger-only ferry that connects Stromness with Graemsay and the north end of Hoy.
Stromness is now home to a number of businesses serving the needs of divers wanting to explore the remains of the German fleet that was scuttled in Scapa Flow in 1919. This draws together the town's strong nautical past with the modern tourist industry in a way that helps build further on Stromness's very attractive atmosphere.
A little north from the harbour is the terminal for the main ferry linking Orkney with Scotland, to Scrabster, near Thurso. This is operated by NorthLink. Visitors to Orkney can choose between the Scrabster service or the Pentland Ferries service linking Gills Bay near John o' Groats and St Margaret's Hope on South Ronaldsay.