A Brief History of Stromness

The town of Stromness takes its name from the parish in which it lies and is from the Old Norse straumr nes, meaning the headland in the tidal stream.

The town grew up by the shores of Hamnavoe Hafnarvágr, the haven bay, where ships could shelter safely in a deep water anchorage. The writer Jo Ben refers to the suitability of waters around Stromness in an account from the mid-16th century. He states that “The French and Spanish very often avoid storms here.”  It was the presence of these visiting ships that prompted William and Mareon Clark to build an inn on the shores of Hamnavoe around 1590, selling the ale that they made to passing sailors. This first building was not where the town was to develop, but on the N.E. corner of the bay near to where Stromness Academy now stands.

Old image of Stromness. Image © Stromness Museum.
Old image of Stromness. Image © Stromness Museum.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, Stromness was at the crossroads of a maritime world which stretched from the South Pacific to the North Atlantic. The ships of the Hudson’s Bay Company made annual recruitment calls in Stromness, and large numbers of Orcadians joined them to head to Arctic Canada. These connections are reflected in the large numbers of exotic artefacts that were brought back from across the world in the 19th and 20th centuries. Many of these objects remain on display today, and contribute to the Museum’s outstanding Ethnography, Social History and Maritime History collections.

​In 2017, Stromness celebrated a huge milestone in its history by marking 200 years since it became a Burgh of Barony, allowing the town to take control of its own affairs and establish a town council.

Further reading

  • Wilson, Bryce. (2013) Stromness: A history. Kirkwall: The Orcadian Limited (The Kirkwall Press).