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Standing Stones Hotel – the first 50 years

An early coloured postcard of The Standing Stones Hotel, with tennis court and cannons

By Patricia Long

When John Mackay came to Orkney to run the Masons Arms Hotel in Stromness, he saw the potential for a hotel for fishermen. He bought a field from William Isbister of Kethesgeo and hired Samuel Baikie. Baikie’s obituary says that he designed the hotel but the local story was that it had been a show-house at the 1888 Glasgow Exhibition. Perhaps the plans came from the Exhibition.

Good though the fishing was, John Mackay wanted to make it even better. He got some trout spawn and put the fry he had hatched in a specially built pond at Stairwaddy. A year later, he had a lot of good- sized fish.

The hotel opened in June 1896. It had a coffee room, drawing room, smoking room, fifteen bedrooms, lavatories and one bathroom. The Orkney Herald thought for beauty and comfort it could not be excelled in the north. The first phone line in Orkney connected the hotel to the Masons Arms and this featured in the advertising.

In 1911, Mackay had an “Illustrated Guide to Orkney” printed. The useful information included the charges for Maeshowe:- sixpence for one person; one shilling for more than one, up to four persons; and for more than four, threepence per person, up to ten shillings, the maximum charge for one party.

In WWI, Houton was the main seaplane base but late in 1917 it was decided to increase the number in Orkney from 18 to 36, to fight the threat of submarines, and a camp was built in Stenness. The Admiralty had not listened to the locals but soon found out that they were right, and the loch was too shallow. The planes were moved to Houton but the hotel remained the HQ of the Naval Air Service.

At the end of WWI, another long running battle restarted, as John Mackay fought the Temperance movement. Stromness was dry from 1920 to 1947 and campaigners were determined that Stenness would be the same. Successive owners promised not to sell drink to locals, but it was no use, the petitions kept coming.

John Mackay died in 1928 and the hotel was briefly owned by Mrs Jessie Smith. The Misses Catherine and Jessie Harper from Thurso took it over in 1936, announcing they were going to bring it up to date.

  • For the full article, see page 30 of this week’s The Orcadian, in shops and online now.

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