S t r o m n e s s | The Vikings named the area Hamnavoe, which meant ‘harbour inlet/ bay’, a safe anchorage. It was sheltered from everything but a south-easterly gale. Although it was a popular base for fishermen, Stromness didn’t really come into being as a settlement until after the 16th century. During the many wars between the late 1600s and early 1800s, ending with the Napoleonic wars, the English Channel was dangerous to pass through. Many ships passing to and from the Atlantic chose a northerly route, and called at Stromness for shelter, provision and ship repairs.
The early houses and piers of Stromness were built on the western shore of Hamnavoe. When they ran out of space, they began building on the opposite side of the street and up the hill. As well as businesses offering repairs and provisions for visiting ships, there were over 80 drinking parlours in Stromness; ranging from inns to enterprising people making a home brew in their kitchen.
The London-based fur-trading Hudson’s Bay Company became an important source of employment for Orcadians. They started recruiting in Stromness in 1702. Though the company’s ships set sail from London, they would make a last stop in Stromness to stock up on goods and crew before sailing across the Atlantic to Canada and their fur-trading posts around Hudson’s Bay. By the late 18th century, three quarters of the men employed by the Hudson’s Bay Company came from Orkney.
As the town grew in size and wealth, the merchants of Stromness sought the same rights of free trade as Kirkwall. After a long struggle that right was won in 1758. The town became a burgh in 1817 and shortly after its population peaked at around 2,500. It was during this period that the distinctive built form of Stromness took shape- houses and storehouses were built gable-end to the sea, with their own storehouses and piers furnished with cranes for loading and unloading the boats.