Exploring Stromness – From Orkney to the Arctic

Stromness emerges from the sea fog as the ferry comes past the guiding light on Graemsay. An old town, it is protected from all but the south-easterly winds by its sheltered position beneath Brinkie’s Brae, tucked behind the mountains of Hoy in the Orkney archipelago.  The town sits along the water’s edge, undulating with the rise and fall of the shoreline, higldy pigldy houses with slips to the water’s edge stretch from Point of Ness to the harbour. The bright red old lifeboat station and the protruding long since used piers bring back memories of the trading and whaling expeditions that left from this harbour are unique to this small town.  

town from sea with hills behind

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The Scrabster to Stromness ferry that runs from the northern tip of mainland Scotland to Stromness is called the Hamnavoe after the first village founded on the shore.   Arriving in Stromness is a relief and the Orcadian attitude and take on life takes over as the cars come off the ferry from Scrabster near Thurso on the Scottish Mainland.  Exploring this small, but history packed town is easy with quiet streets and interesting past.  

Self Guided Walking Tour of Stromness

Stromness has a number of walking tours online to discover but by following the main road through the town and exploring the small lanes and piers you will discover the town and its hidden secrets. To make the most of the town visit early in the day and avoid the arrival of the ferry when traffic can get a bit mad. .

Herring fishing and the Harbour

Stromness has a rich fishing history and even today creels are still used to catch crabs and lobsters.  In the 18th Century a seasonal trade in herring fishing brought hundreds of boats to the harbour.  In the summer months between 300 and 400 boats crammed into the harbour to make the most of the transient shoals of herring.  At the same time the piers became busy with women and girls who would gut the fish ready for curing on the numerous piers of the town.  This also meant that other businesses boomed in the town as all the fishermen and women needed bakers and butchers.  There was also a trade in barrel making for the storage of the fish as well as traditional skills in birch and oak hemped nets and sails.  The atmosphere must have been amazing for those short weeks each year.  The herring (silver darlings) fishing moved on as the shoals were no longer in the seas around the islands, but sadly by 1908 only the herring fishing on Stronsay survived.

Today the harbour is still in use with fishing boats coming and going mixed with dive charter boats heading out into Scapa Flow to dive the remains of the German High Fleet. Looking over the comings and goings of this small port is the statue of Dr John Rae one of the great but mostly forgotten explorers of the 19th Century. This is the easiest place to start a walk around the town. If you are travelling from Stromness to Scrabster then this small harbour will be your last view of the town.

Stromness town with blue sea and blue sky from the ferry

War in Stromness – the Stromness hotel

The Stromness Hotel is one of the first buildings that is found after stepping off the ferry.  It is imposing with lots of windows and was key to the protection of the islands during the Second World War.  Scapa Flow is a natural harbour with Stromness being tucked away in the north-west corner.  During the First World War, Scapa Flow was a strategic position for the British fleet as it was a large safe harbour with access to both the Atlantic and the North Sea.  During the Second World War the hotel was the headquarters for the Orkney and Shetland Defences.   The town saw a large influx in inhabitants and many of the houses were used to support and entertain the troops.

Houses and Streets

Wandering along the main road through the town, there are lots of small closes and piers.  The main street is uneven with tightly packed shops and houses, many three stories high.  Every so often there is a glimpse of the sea as a close leads down to a pier, used by the local merchants to trade with the fishing boats and merchants passing through the harbour. Some of these can be explored and still have the cranes and winches in place. 
Many of the houses in Stromness have small windows with thick walls and crow-stepped gables (look at the roof and it has stepped blocks rather than normal straight gables) end-on to the shore to insulate against the harsh and sometime wild environment.  The main street is cobbled with smaller stones in the middle to ensure the horses did not slip when the larger cobbles were wet.  Every corner presents a new little close or set of steps heading inland away from the sea. Look at the names and take time to wander the little lanes, how did the Khyber Pass end up in Stromness?

Hudson Bay Company and Whaling – stromness Museum

Stromness was key to the whaling industry and was one of the first stops on the journey back from the Arctic on whaling expeditions.  Mrs Humphrey’s House was used as a hospital for the sailors returning with scurvy and frostbite after months of being trapped in the ice and is found on a zig zag on Alfred Street with a blue heritage sign.
The Arctic explorer  Dr John Rae also lived in the town and is responsible for finding the last part of the North-West Passage through the Arctic.  It is hard to imagine how this now quiet corner of the town was once full of sailors returning from the Arctic.  Dr Rae was an explorer for the Hudson Bay Company and the company recruited many men from the town to work in outposts around Hudson Bay in Canada.  His childhood home called Hall of Clestrain is on the road from Stromness towards Houton and his grave is in the graveyard of St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall.

Statue of john rae in Stromness

The Stromness Museum, is a tiny museum full of small reminders of the Hudson Bay Company and Dr Rae as well as the history of Orkney through the ages and the natural history of the islands.  A little further up the road from the museum is Login’s Well which supplied water to the ships of the Hudson Bay Company and the Franklin and Cook expeditions into the Arctic.

Lighthouses and Harbours

The harbour is large and from the southern end the whole town can be seen, clinging to the shore line.  The harbour is sheltered by two islands called the Holms.  All of the piers can be seen protruding into the calm seas, birds litter the shore and seals potter around the harbour and piers.  At the far end of the town is a cannon, believed to be from the privateer ‘Liberty’ which surrendered in 1813. For many years it was used to signal the arrival of the Hudson Bay Company ships into the harbour.  After the cannon the houses start to disappear and there is a rocky shore to explore.  This leads out to the Point of Ness campsite with views across to Hoy and the lighthouses and eventually round to Ness Battery, a gun battery that is now a small museum.

Photography Notes

  • Arrive early in the day before shoppers are out and about.
  • Walk the main street and small lanes in different directions as the roads snake and wind and look completely different from the opposite direction
  • I think Stromness looks lovely after a rain shower. For some reason the paved roads and lanes almost glow after rain
  • In the winter months when daylight is limited the quiet streets of Stromness lend themselves to night street photography
  • If you leave Stromness on the ferry to Scrabster go out on deck to photograph the town from the top deck as you leave
  • Stromness is a great place for phone photography, most of these images were taken on an iphone

Essential tips

  • Make sure you park in the car parks and bring change for the parking meter
  • Unless you are heading to Point of Ness or are staying somewhere with parking it is much easier to use the car parks
  • Don’t attempt to drive down Dundas Street or Alfred Street, they are far too narrow and much better explored on foot
  • Make sure you have waterproofs, rain can appear from nowhere
  • Avoid the times when the ferry is arriving or departing
  • Allow time for lunch at one of the small tea rooms and cafes

Stromness Walk Details

Distance: 3km depending on the paths you take
Minimum time: 1 hour
Ascent: 2m
Suggested Map:OS Explorer 463: Orkney – West Mainland
Start and Finish: Stromness Harbour
Road: A965
Parking: 58.96419°N, 3.29594°W
Nearest Town: Stromness

Places to Stay in Stromness

Stromness has a wide choice of places to stay from camping to small hotels. Some are boutique in style which is a splash of indulgence but basic, bunkhouse accommodation is also available. If you want to come to the town in the summer months then it is essential that you book in advance.

Getting to Stromness

Stromness is located in the south-west of Orkney Mainland and is about 30 minutes drive from the islands capital of Kirkwall. It is an easy drive on the A965 which links Kirkwall to Stromness.

The islands can be reached by ferry from Scrabster to Stromness or Gills Bay to St Margarets Hope on South Ronaldsay. Both run daily and take just over an hour depending on the weather conditions.

You can also fly to Orkney with LoganAir wit the airport at Kirkwall having reliable and reasonably priced car hire. You do need to book in advance to ensure a car is available when you arrive.

What’s Nearby

  • Brinkie’s Brae – the hill behind the town with exposed walks and stunning views over the town and across Scapa Flow
  • Warebeth Beach – a beach with stunning views across to Hoy, once important for seaweed harvesting. Park at the cemetery and follow the path to the beach
  • Standing Stones of Stenness and Ring of Brodgar – neolithic stone circles, part of the Heart of Orkney UNESCO world heritage site
  • Yesnaby – A special place with raging seas and stunning sea stacks. A single track road ends on the cliff top with walks in both directions.