A series of short ‘betweens’ from the Silent Eye’s ‘Pictish Trail’ and ‘Ancient Orkney’ workshops.
We’re having an after dinner walk along the night streets of Stromness, Orkney’s main ferry port and link with Scotland. My wife and I have stayed here once before. The ‘Ancient Orkney’ part of this Silent Eye trip has been so packed with exploring that this may be our only chance to wander along this fondly-remembered, but slightly deadly, ‘main’ road. Most of the shops are here, too; somehow squeezed and slotted into the irregular and curving stone contours.
I agree; it doesn’t look like a highway, but it is…
Orkney is an archipelago of islands, some connected by bridges, others by ferries of various sizes. Stromness is the main port for the west of the ‘Mainland’, as the largest island is called, and welcomes the majority of foot and car passengers coming to Orkney from Thurso’s port Scrabster, at the north-eastern tip of Scotland.
The historic main street is an organic and historic lane that curls and winds just behind the entire length of the seafront. It’s not even one-way, so vehicles and pedestrians are often to be seen doing a well- practiced dance of mutual avoidance…
It’s etched into the town’s history, and I suspect a badge of local pride, that, in 1814, Sir Walter Scott complained that the town couldn’t be navigated with a horse and cart because of the many steps built into the main street. The steps have gone, but were you to visit Stromness on a quiet day, you might feel that little else has changed….
Stromness is the most ‘different’ place I’ve ever been to. This main street (under no less than five different names) stretches for over a mile along the shore of Hamnavoe, an inlet of Scapa Flow protected by the islands of Outer Holm and Inner Holm. Scapa Flow was famously the home of the British Naval Fleet during the two major wars of the last century and has seen triumph and disaster.
The main thoroughfare, under whatever name you’ve reached on your stroll, is criss-crossed by smaller streets, lanes and passageways that on one side climb steeply up Brinkies Brae, the 300ft granite ridge that lies above the town, and on the seaward side, lead between close-packed buildings to the private wharves and docks that seem to lie behind every dwelling.
(Above: the view back to the port is never far away. Detour down any alley and you’ll find it!)
But the historical significance of Stromness does not rely solely on times of war. It featured strongly in the exploration of the northern seas, the Arctic and the relentless search for the Northwest Passage; the sought-after link between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. For centuries, ships heading north had made Stromness their final supply point before braving the increasingly icy waters beyond.
(Above) The main street finally emerges into a small water-side park area from which you can look back and see the whole of the port. We turned round, here. It had been a long day, and we needed to have an early start for what would be the final full day of the Orkney trip.
Returning the way we came, we emerged opposite the main dock of the ferry port from which we would, later in the week, sail back to Thurso on the Scottish mainland.
The town square opposite the main ferry dock (above) is home to one of Orkney’s proudest monuments – that of the explorer Dr John Rae. We were nearly back at our hotel, but stopped to review the story of this local hero.
(Above: Dr John Rae 1846-1854, Artic explorer. Portrayed in native Canadian Inuit dress)
Dr John Rae was born to a prosperous family on the Orkney island of Orphir. He became a respected surgeon and accepted an offer to accompany expeditions of the Hudson’s Bay Company, learning from the native people how to survive in the Canadian Arctic. He led three of the four expeditions in which he took part, travelling an astonishing 3,645 miles on foot and 6,700 miles by boat while tracing 1,765 miles of unknown Arctic coastline.
In 1854, he discovered Rae Strait, the last link in the first navigable Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Sadly, Rae’s reputation was damaged when, having examined the skeletons of the ill-fated Franklin expedition, in which all had perished, he pronounced, correctly, that the starving officers had resorted to cannibalism of the dead in order to try to survive.
The comments, though subsequently proved to be true, were vilified in the press and within the Admiralty. Franklin’s widow encouraged Charles Dickens to write about the conditions faced by Franklin’s crew in a way that scorned Dr Rae’s accurate findings.
Dr Rae was also disliked because he learned many of his survival techniques from the native Inuit people, with whom he mixed extensively. Despite discovering the final part of the Northwest Passage, Rae was never honoured with the usual recognition: a knighthood. Yet two of the senior officers of the failed Franklin expedition were posthumously knighted…
Dr John Rae’s reputation has been slowly reinstated by a determined local group on Orkney. His body is buried and honoured in the magnificent St. Magnus’ Cathedral in Kirkwall, Orkney’s capital.
St Magnus’s Cathedral was originally a Viking Christian building. The monument was unveiled on the 200th anniversary of Dr Rae’s birth.
Stromness is a pleasant and unassuming town. You wouldn’t think that it is a mere ten minutes by car from what was once the centre of a Neolithic civilisation with monuments more important than Stonehenge. The details of this will be covered in the normal sequence on the Silent Eye website: http://www.thesilenteye.co.uk as posts entitled ‘Two journeys, one destination’.
©️Stephen Tanham, 2020.
Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, a distance-learning organisation that offers a three-year journey of deepening the personality and aligning it with the soul.