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Looking back to the first Stromness Shopping Weeks

A scene from the very first Stromness Shopping Week in 1949. (pic by William Hourston / with permission from Liz Small)

By Patricia Long

The first Stromness Shopping Week was organised in three weeks. Mr W. C. Howard, manager of Argo’s, suggested it at the first meeting of the Stromness and West Mainland Chamber of Commerce, in late June 1949.

The best time for it was the third week in July, to coincide with the Kirkwall monthly holiday and the Stromness Regatta, so it was opened by Provost George Robertson on July 18.

Other than during the war, Stromness has always had to work hard to attract business. Provost Robertson said in his opening speech that the aim was “to keep Stromness very definitely on the shopping map” and he told an old Stromness story:

Said a business man to his neighbour, ‘How’s business the day, William?’ ‘Oh,’ replied he, ‘canna compleen, canna compleen – selt a Christian Herald, changed a penny and shawn a man whar the auld kirk is.’”

The week was a resounding success. All the shops decorated their windows and offered prizes and discounts. About 900 flags filled the street, as everyone hung out what they could find. Merriman’s electrical shop, then half-way up Porteous Brae, hooked up loudspeakers to provide music for the passers-by.

Even at such short notice, Stromness managed to get the “showies” to divert to the town. There was an amusement arcade in the Transit Shed, at the top of the North Pier, and the side-shows at the Market Green even included chairoplanes.

The mystery bus tour was on Tuesday. Provost Robertson had suggested that the tour might take its passengers to “parts of the mainland you have never seen since you were last carted there to a Sunday School picnic 20, 30 or 40 years ago”. He urged his audience to book but, of course, this didn’t happen and only one bus was laid on. Another five had to be hurriedly brought from Wishart’s Garage.

On Wednesday there were sporting competitions at Ness, which culminated in a five-a-side hockey tournament. The men’s final, won by Dounby, was described in the Orkney Herald as being played “with a speed reminiscent of ice-hockey and an enthusiasm to win that might have been more appropriate on the battlefield”.

The week also held the Stromness Regatta, a Swimming Gala, a Football Tournament, the County Sheepdog Trials and a Bring and Buy Sale in the North Kirk that raised £425.

The tightrope walkers, The two Waldix, performing at Stromness golf course in 1953 – one of the very first acts to be brought north for Stromness Shopping Week. (Pic: William Hourston)

The week ended, as it always has, with a fancy-dress parade. The 100-yard long procession was led by the Kirkwall City Pipe Band and followed by hundreds of excited spectators. 4000 spectators lined the Market Green for the judging and presentation of prizes.

In 1950, the main attraction was the Wick Girls Pipe Band but there was plenty of home- grown entertainment. Nannie Gowans organised a concert by the youth of the town in the Town Hall. When her brother Johnnie was appointed Shopping Week organiser a few years later she ably assisted him. They are still remembered in Stromness for developing a bigger programme of events and bringing in big attractions, such as tightrope walkers, motorcycle display teams and the Globe of Death.

There had not been enough time to organise the suggested art exhibition for the first Shopping Week but it was there in 1950, organised by Stanley Cursiter, in the building now occupied by the Ell & Co Café.

The Swimming Gala in the harbour included a water-polo match, “…in which it was difficult to know who was playing who” and a display of water-skiing but the big event was the March of Time cavalcade organised by the Young Farmers at the Market Green, showing how farming had developed over the centuries.

First of all came cultivation, beginning with the man with the spade and pick… We saw the genuine old wooden plough of our great-grandfathers…. The lovely and lovable Clydesdales drawing the long-boarded plough and the 1950 tractor carrying its two-furrow at the tail and jogging along with a jaunty air.

Sowing, harvesting, threshing and the farmhouse kitchen went through similar progressions, all with a commentary by JGS Flett from Harray. The final scene was the farmer in his feather bed “where he rests amid all possible blessings of State and personal luxury and indulgence.”

The week ended with the parade, open air dancing and the first Shopping Week fireworks: a 45-minute display from the Inner Holm.

Patricia Long is a tourist guide based in Stenness with a particular interest in social history. A longer and more detailed version of this article is available at her website, www.aboutorkney.com