Thursday, 20 October 2011

The great smell of fish guts in the morning

Herring gutters at work in Stromness, photographed by W. Hourston

The plans for the regeneration of Stromness Pier Head are moving slowly ahead so I thought it might be a good time to look at how the area was used in the past in case they need any ideas.

Stromness had a relatively brief spell as a base for the herring fishing fleet, from the mid 1880s. At the height of the industry there were 38 fishing stations spread along the Stromness shoreline with as many as 2000 gutters and packers hard at work. The arrival of the fishing fleet gutters and curers every year must have been a considerable boon to the economy of the whole town. The population of Stromness at that time was approximately 1700 but, for that few weeks of the year, this would be increased by up to 5000 fishermen and fish workers.

Unfortunately nobody told the herring when they were expected in Stromness and they had the annoying habit of not turning up when they should. The total catch for one year could be disastrously low, then the next year an all time high. This unreliability was to prove too much of a risk for those involved, and the fishermen and curers began to desert Stromness. By 1908 it was all over.

But wait, maybe not! In 1927 three curers were rented space by the Harbour Commissioners at the pier head. The venture caused much excitement in the town and the Orkney Herald newspaper included regular reports on its progress. The curers arrived in early May and set to work. By the start of June it was reported that the herring fishing was successful and that more curers had been attracted to the town, but by the end of the month this optimism proved unfounded as boats left for more profitable areas and the curers troughs remained empty. Herring fishing at Stromness was no more.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Friday Thought for the Day

No. 534 – Men of genius are often dull and inert in society, as the blazing meteor when it descends to earth is only  a stone. – Longfellow

Taken from The Book of Wise Sayings by W A Clouston, 1893

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Here comes the rain again

D51/3/7: Weather chart for October 1917

It's another day of cloud, rain and wind in Orkney today. So to cheer everyone up I thought I'd look back at the weather of the past when summers were long and skies were always blue. The chart above records the weather for October 1917 so that we can compare.

Systematic weather observations were begun in Orkney in 1827, by Rev Charles Clouston, minister in Sandwick. Although reputedly the second oldest complete set of weather records in Scotland, the records held by the Archives begin in 1890. The first recorder of these was Magnus Spence F.E.I.S. in Stenness who carried on until 1919.

So let's take a look...

This part of the chart gives a brief description of the weather on each day. Day 1 is overcast and foggy, day 2 is overcast and cloudy, day 3 is overcast and cloudy, day 4 is overcast and cloudy. I think we can detect a pattern here!

So there it is readers, the startling news that the weather was just as rubbish 94 years ago as it is today. Oh well, time to unpack the long johns.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Boom, bang a bang

American minesweeper clearing a mine, from the Tom Kent Collection

On this day in 1919 Kirkwall was officially closed as a British Naval Base after the First World War. The day after also saw the last of the American minesweeping fleet leave Orkney.

Massive quantities of mines were laid, by both sides, during the First World War with the Americans concentrating on the seas between Orkney and Norway. In 1918 alone they laid more than 56,000 mines in this area. As a result, after hostilities had ceased, the big clean up began in 1919 with a large fleet of American minesweepers operating from Kirkwall Bay.

The ships would leave Kirkwall Bay for three or four weeks at a time, with the working day commencing at sunrise and continuing until sunset. The fleet also celebrated Independence Day in Kirkwall. This was actually not the first time the 4th of July had been celebrated in Orkney. In 1918 thousands of american sailors, stationed in Scapa Flow, got leave to celebrate.

In 1919 the minesweepers had been at sea for three weeks and were looking forward to a well earned rest. Friday the 4th of July was declared a holiday for the Flotilla and the ships were all decorated with flags. The celebrations started in the morning with a regatta for rowing boats, and continued in the afternoon with sports at the Bignold Park. In the evening a banquet was held, at which the Freemasons of Kirkwall were entertained by the Freemasons from the Flotilla. Elsewhere, an evening of entertainment was enjoyed at the YMCA hut by a large crowd of crewmen. The entertainment provided included one Mademoiselle Peter, female impersonator, who danced the Salome Dance and the Dance of Death.

The minesweepers and their crews began to leave Orkney around the middle of September 1919. They had been popular visitors and many a local would have been sorry to see them leave. As the local newspaper rather quaintly put it, “more than one american had found his affinity in some fair Orkney maid”!