Friday, 14 June 2013

a song in the Orkney Islands

The Orkney Islands played an important role in the "Ultima Thule" northwards rush in the Victorian era. They were by the time 'discovered' as an important step in Pytheas's trip to the far north.

Pytheas of Massilia visited Britain probably sometime between 322 and 285 BC; he described then a northern tip called Orcas. Somewhere further north, he found a heavenly land he called Thule. Maybe he only made it to Norway or the Shetland islands, or did he go really far into the Arctic ? Anyway, the Orkneys were an important call in his arctic demand.

Three centuries after,  writing in the 1st century AD, the Roman geographer Pomponius Mela is the first to name the Orcades, which he finally defines and locates correctly.

'Old Man', Hoy, Orkney Islands

Stromness, the second largest town in mainland Orkney, is charming with fine unique architecture and winding streets.

Coordinates:  58.9°N, 2.9°W
Population:  ~ 2 200

A distinctive seafront - piers and a forest of chimneys over terraces of houses, enclosing spaces and sheltering from the wind. Two buildings emerge above the rest - the Town Hall tower and the Parish Church.

Typical houses are rectangular with gables looking towards the sea or the harbour. Many had a private pier, or 'noust' - some still do.

The port's sandstone jetties follow the shoreline:

Houses and shops nestle beside each other as they have for centuries.

The best view is from the ferry, as he approaches Hamnavoe harbour.

Quaint closes and narrow old streets, lanes and alleys huddled between stone buildings - so is Stromness.

The main street changes name as it winds and waves along the shoreline, often just one dwelling off the water’s edge  - Victoria Street, Dundas Street, Alfred Street.

Victoria Street, the Town Hall tower in the distance.

'Northlight Studio' blue art gallery, on meandering Dundas Street.

Melvin place

View from the Royal Hotel, Victoria Street.

House with 'noust'

The old North Church is now the Town Hall.

Stromness Hotel, on pierhead.

On the right side, the Lifeboat Station.

The safe harbour of Hamnavoe

Houses clustered tightly on the shores of Hamnavoe harbour.

By 1590, Stromness had established itself as a seaport. In the 17th cent. most of the people were in some way connected with the ships and the sea.

The 'Hamnavoe' ferry docks at Stromness, his home port (from a window of the Piers Art Centre).

The Piers Art Centre

This was the most important architecture project in Stromness waterfront in recent years. The old Hudson Bay "Haven" outpost was renovated, together with another old gabled house; and both received company of a new building. The Piers Art Centre was born, and changed also Stromness cultural life.

The Centre is housed in two 18th century buildings. Now a contextual building joins these gable ends facing onto the harbour. The complex is a modern and interesting art gallery.

Stromness hosts a number of artists and craftspeople; the now famous Pier Arts Centre offers a substantial gallery for artwork.

This centre displays a permanent art collection, but it is also used for itinerant exhibitions,which change during the seasons.

Some Shopping...

Stromness Books & Prints, 1 Graham Place - just books.

A precious shop: Waterfront Gallery, Dundas street

A Waterfront Gallery window's decoration; at left, a rectangular glasswork pictures the winding main street...

Argo's Bakery, since 1940

Stromness can evidently be a feast for the eyes:

In the warm morning light

Some History

As late as 1642, Stromness still consisted of five or six houses and a few thatched huts. From the earliest habitation of Orkney, the sheltered Hamnavoe would have been a favoured fishing spot for fishermen from the nearby farming communities. Norsemen named the bay Hamnavoe (hamna meaning small islands; voe meaning inlet). The modern name of Stromness reflects the meeting of sea and land: strom meaning tidal stream and ness, being the peninsula of land which protrudes to the south, creating the sheltered bay.

Stromness flourished in the 17th and 18th centuries as a result of increased trade with the New World. From around 1702 the Hudson's Bay Company began recruiting in Stromness, and by 1791 had appointed a Stromness merchant as their local agent. By the end of the 18th century, three-quarters of the Hudson's Bay Company's workforce in Canada was made up of Orcadians.

In the Napoleonic era (19th cent.), Stromness strengthened its position as an international trading and servicing port from a safe harbour to the Americas and mainland Europe. Distilleries, shops and taverns boomed, establishing a thriving main street. The ships of the Hudson's Bay Company watered and took on stores in Stromness until the early 1900s.

The buildings crowded around the harbour. Most of the houses were built gable end on to the street and the sea, with narrow closes in between. The larger houses were built above the town by wealthy merchants and sea captains in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The song:  Farewell to Stromness


NEXT: hopefully, a celebratory post, as 'Ultima Thule' reaches the 200 000 counted visits !