Tuesday, 15 May 2012


S.S. Orcadia, photographed by Tom Kent c.1900

Summer is drawing near (we hope!) and tourists are beginning to arrive and take advantage of the many and frequent ferries that make it easy to travel between our islands, but things have not always been so straightforward.

In the years before 1865 the north isles of Orkney led a far more isolated existence than today. Sailing boats had plied the routes before that time, but journeys were often long and unpleasant with the boats at the mercy of wind and tide. Some sailed so low in the water that they were described as “specially constructed for the immersion of passengers”! Consequently, travel between the islands was a rarity for most of the inhabitants. This was all about to change.

In February 1865 a new steamship, S.S. Orcadia, was being fitted out at Leith and was expected to arrive at Kirkwall within the next few weeks. She was 95 feet (29 metres) in length, had a 20 feet (6 metres) beam and an average speed of 8 knots. The sole owner and operator was Captain George Robertson, a native of Stronsay, and he proposed to sail between the North isles on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays of each week. On Thursdays she would travel to the Moray Firth, returning on Friday.

S.S. Orcadia made her first trip on Wednesday 15 March 1865, when she was greeted at Westray and Eday by the firing of guns. Within the first week of the service S.S. Orcadia had begun to change life in the outer isles. On one market day in Kirkwall she arrived with forty passengers, able for the first time to arrive early enough to reap full benefit from a day in town. The return journey northwards included one passenger, a Kirkwall resident, who had been born and brought up in Pierowall, Westray, but had not returned to her home in the intervening eighteen years.

Such was the success of Captain Robertson’s venture that S.S. Orcadia soon became inadequate for the demand. A larger vessel was beyond the means of one man so the Orkney Steam Navigation Company came into being in 1868, with George Robertson as manager. The records of this company (1867 - 1962) are available to view in Orkney Archive, collection D25.

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