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STROMA: THE ISLAND THAT DIED
Visitors to the Caithness mecca of John 0' Groats usually assume that the deserted low green isle lying a mere 4 km offshore is part of Orkney. It is, of course, a segment of Caithness. According to legend a dispute once arose between the Earls of Orkney and Caithness as to which county Stroma belonged. The matter was settled by shipping some venomous animals (of unknown type) from Stroma to both Orkney and Caithness. Those that were dispatched to Caithness flourished, while those that were sent to Orkney died. The outcome of this singular case decided that Stroma should belong to Caithness.
From John O' Groats the visitor is unaware that Stroma is a deserted island. Gaunt houses now lie lifeless about the island that has lost its people. Over fifty dwellings (mostly roofed) still survive and something of the vibrancy of the former crofting life returns when you stroll along its "street" or tramp across the verdant acres of the eastern half of the island, which contrasts markedly with the coarser grazing land of the west.
At the turn of the century nearly 400 people lived on Stroma; by 1951 the total was sliding towards 100 and just over a decade later the resident population consisted of three lighthouse keepers.
POPULATION STATISTICS - STROMA
* No 1941 Census
It was a sad ending for an island which shows traces of archaeological evidence from Neolithic times to the Viking age when Stroma, lying in the heart of the Pentland Firth, held a strategic position between Orkney and the Caithness mainland. The Orkneyinga Saga relates that Valthiof the son of Olaf Rolfson lived in Straumsey (Stroma) (Anderson 1873). On Yule Eve, at the invitation of Earl Paul, Valthiof set off with his man in a ten-oared boat for Orphir on the south mainland of Orkney. The vessel and all hands were lost which was thought to be 'sad news as Valthiof was a most accomplished man'. The Earl later visited Stroma and granted Thorkel Fletir the farm which Valthiof had 'till such time as he should know where Swein was'. This Swein (Asleifson) was one of the most colourful, swashbuckling characters of Viking times and we encounter him later in the Orkneyinga Saga dashing to Stroma hotly pursued by Earl Harold. There was obviously bad blood between the two man, but as a gale arose they were forced to remain overnight on Stroma. A mutual friend, Amundi, acted as peacemaker by insisting that Harald and Swein share the same bed. This masterly, if eccentric, Viking diplomacy seems to have been effective!
Where might there have been a Norse stronghold in Stroma? In the south-west corner of the island on a small detached rock stack lies the fragmentary remains of Castle Mestag. As the building is some 4.5m from the cliff it could only have been reached by a drawbridge, unless costal erosion has removed a connecting natural arch. Castle Mestag, which was also known as 'The Robber's Castle' has a supposed association with Swein Asleifson.
The Norsemen, as Valthiof and his crew knew to their cost, would have been only too well aware of the treacherous eddies and currents in the often hostile seas surrounding Stroma, which they named Straumsey - Island in the stream. The flood tide from the Atlantic to the North Sea can reach speeds exceeding ten knots. To the west of Stroma it divides to the north and south of the island. If there is an easterly swell during this flood tide, a tumultuous stretch of water known as the 'Boars of Duncansby' can build up in the Inner Sound. When the tidal flow reverses, the 'Merry Men of Mey' dance in frothy anger. With the ebb tide a remarkable eddy called 'The Swelkie' Old Norse svelgr - (whirlpool) develops to the north of Stroma.
William Lithgow described a custom that was then in practice to allay the devil in the Swelkie. "These distracted tides whirleth ever about, cuting in the middle circle a sloping hole which, if either ship or boat shall happen to encroach, they must either throw something into it, as a barrel, a piece of timber and such like, or that fatal euripus shall then suddenly become their swallowing sepulchre" (Lithgow 1631).
An old Norse legend called the 'Mill Song' recounts the origin of 'The Swelkie' and how the sea became salt. A king of Denmark named Frode had among his possessions a pair of enchanted quernstones which could provide anything requested of them. So heavy were they that they could only be turned by two giantesses. Frode became so greedy that he gave the women no rest in producing wealth for him from the magic querns. One night when the king was asleep they changed their song and ground from the stones an armed host led by the Viking Mysinger. This warrior killed the king and his bodyguards, took the giantesses and the quernstones aboard his ship and ordered them to produce salt. Again the women had no respite. Ultimately the quantity of ground salt became so vast that the ship, crew and chattels all sank to the north of Stroma. Since then, the sea rushing through the centre of the shipwrecked stones has kept the oceans salt and the feared whirling Swelkie alive.
Norse myths might not have interested the Canisbay Kirk session whose 17th century records upbraided the people of Stroma for, amongst other things, visiting Popish chapels in mainland Caithness, profaning the Lord's day, being 'eall (ale) sellers and drinkers, and playing football and dancing on the Sabbath. The presbytery, meeting at Canisbay on mainland Caithness, found that the people of Stroma were spiritually much neglected "by reason of the dangerous passage to that place, especially in winter". The Canisbay minister was taken to task for only preaching twice a year on the island instead of four tines as his employers instructed.
This lack of ministerial continuity is highlighted by the commission of the General Assembly which visited the far north of Scotland in 1700 and enquired into the activities of an Arthur Anderson, a frequent visitor to Stroma "for several irregularities in marrying persons and baptising children".
An interesting name to appear as a church elder is John Kennedy of Kermuck (Aberdeenshire). In 1659 George, the 6th Earl of Caithness, granted him a wadset of the island of Stroma and Kennedy made his permanent home there in the north of the island (Sinclair 1899). Low in his Tour said that Stroma was divided into an Uppertown (south) and a Nethertown (north). In the latter area he saw on his visit in 1744, 'the remains of a pretty large house and gardens, once possessed by a gentleman, the proprietor of the island, who being forced to fly his native home on account of a duel, chose this for his retreat' (Low 1879). This was John Kennedy's house, the gardens of which grew 'plants that cured every disease'. Nothing now remains of the house but it has been claimed that the walled enclosure by Nethertown pier is the site of the Kennedy garden.
Apart from the proprietor's house the most notable building in the island was the Kennedy mausoleum whose upper storey contained a doocot (Beaton 1980). This imposing two-storey structure has an inscription I.K. (John Kennedy) and the date 1677 cut above the doorway.
In 1762 Bishop Forbes referred to the Kennedy mausoleum. 'The island is famous for having the dead bodies of men, women and children above ground, entire, and to be seen for 70 or 80 years, free of all corruption, without embalming or any other art whatsoever, but owing, it is thought, to the plenty of nitre that is there'. possibly the high salt content of the atmosphere helped to preserve the bodies. The Bishop related how he had spoken to William Sutherland from Caithness who had visited the mausoleum in the company of Murdoch Kennedy, grandson of John Kennedy, the builder of the tomb. To Sutherland's horror Murdoch set his foot on the partly mummified body of his father and caused it to 'spring up speedily'. He then allowed the body to repose before 'he beat a march upon the belly'.
Even during the 18th century, when Stroma had passed out of Kennedy hands, cultivation techniques do not have seem to have advanced much from Norse times as in 1726 it was recorded that all the arable land in the island was delved with the spade (Mitchell 1906-8).
Towards the end of the 18th century there were thirty families living on the island in the two straggling townships of Nethertown (belonging to the Freswick estate) and Uppertown (Mey estate) with a modest harbour on the south shore. Although the fertile eastern half of the island had the reputation of producing good corn, the people depended mostly on the sea for their living, with many men earning a useful living from piloting vessels through the Pentland Firth. Others followed the mercurial herring from Shetland down to the west Highlands. The quality of the produce of the sea is emphasised by Calder (1887) 'The finest cod in the north is to be got in the Pentland Firth... Large and excellent lobsters are caught around the island'.
Despite their renowned skills as boatbuilders and seamen, tragedy often struck the small community in the treacherous seas around them. These waters also claimed a large number of vessels that attempted passage through the Pentland Firth, leaving the islanders occasional and welcome windfalls of timber and goods. Stirring tales of contraband, illicit distilling and pursuit by the excisemen are numerous. The islanders had their own whisky still in a little cave called 'The Malt Barn' in the huge gloup (blow-hole) on the west coast.
The crofter-fishermen of Stroma had kailyards supplied from seed nurseries known as plant tofte or plant cots. The normal source of young kail plants was the Scarfskerry district of mainland Caithness
(Henderson 1812). The islanders also took cargoes of limestone across to the Canisbay area and brought back supplies of peat (Pococke 1888). Stroma folk were quite disparaging of Orkney islanders who used animal dung as a fuel source: 'The little island of Sanday where the coos shit fire' (Fenton 1978).
With their own 'distillery' rich fishings, piloting and crofting, life, superficially at least, seemed agreeable enough, but twentieth century man wanted broader horizons. By the end of the Second World War the economy of Stroma began to break down as the younger people were attracted to the mainland by higher wages. Parents often followed. The many jobs available during the construction phase of the Atomic Energy Authority's plant at Dounreay in the mid 1950s were, economically the final straw.
Following depopulation, the island was bought by Jimmy Simpson, a Stroma man, who now farms the land rearing large numbers of sheep and cattle.... The people have gone from Stroma but the expanding colony of Arctic terns gives vibrant life to the low green isle of the Pentland Firth.
Reprinted from "ESSAYS FOR PROFESSOR R.E.H.MELLOR", eds. W.Ritchie, J.C.Stone and A.S.Mather,
Aberdeen: University of Aberdeen 1986
Reprinted with permission of The University of Aberdeen
I wish to thank Mr. Jimmy Simpson (Gills), Mr. Jimmy Gunn (Reay) and Dr. Doreen Waugh (Edinburgh) for help with this text, and Mr. James P. Campbell (Halkirk) for permission to use the photograph of Stroma.