' What makes Stromness special? The sense of community spirit, friendly people and being able to bring up children in a safe environment. '
Karen Gunn, local resident
Stromness is recognised in Orkney as a centre for the arts, in all its forms. Among the most famous Stromnessians are a number of renowned artists and writers, and many artists, writers, craft makers and musicians live and work in the town today and contribute to its lively cultural community.
The annual Orkney Folk Festival is the highlight of the musical calendar in Stromness. Attracting big names in the traditional music scene for concerts, ceilidhs, dances and open sessions, the Festival is now recognised throughout the UK and beyond as one of the leading events of its kind. One of its particular charms is the way local and internationally known artists mingle throughout - including at the now famous Orkney v the rest of the world football game at the end of the Festival!
Stromness plays host to the annual midsummer festival of arts St Magnus International Festival in June with renowned classical musicians from around the world performing at venues in the town.
There is a long tradition of music in the town’s hotels. During the Second World War, when the town was swarming with troops, Gracie Fields sang from the balcony of the Stromness Hotel. Details of music venues can be found below.
Formed in 1980 the Stromness Pipeband plays regularly at local events - and travels to take part in piping competitions around Scotland. Membership is open to all who wish to learn and play bagpipes and drums.
Stromness Town Hall is an excellent concert venue with arguably the best acoustics in Orkney, which has hosted musicians such as Eddi Reader, John Fratelli and many others as part of the Orkney Folk Festival. It offers seating for up to 300, up to 40 square metres of modular staging and a Steinway Piano, plus a completely renovated new kitchen. Its past life as a church, with its oak flooring and stained glass windows, makes the Town Hall a stunning wedding venue.
If you’d like to hear live music while enjoying a drink or two, pubs in the town often host music nights. Find out what’s on here:
Stromness is home to the renowned Pier Arts Centre founded by Margaret Gardiner in 1979, who generously donated her fine collection to the people of Orkney with whom she had formed a bond through frequent visits.
Based in the former headquarters of the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Centre is a Recognised Collection of National Significance to Scotland, and is a partner of the Tate gallery.
As well as drawing visitors to Stromness, the Pier Arts Centre contributes greatly to life in the town, and the rest of Orkney, through its educational programmes and other outreach activities, hosting visits from artists, writers and poets from around the world.
A number of celebrated artists lived in Stromness - among them Stanley Cursiter and Sylvia Wishart, whose original studio space was in the building now occupied by the Centre.
This tradition has attracted a variety of artists and craftspeople to make the town their home.
The much-loved Orcadian writer George Mackay Brown is one of Stromness’s most famous sons, whose prose and poetry captured, better than any other, the spirit of the town. Today his legacy lives on through the GMB Fellowship set up to encourage creative writing in the islands.
There are reading and writing groups for adults and children which meet regularly at the public library.
As Stromness developed along a main street, this was the focus of both work and leisure activity in the town for hundreds of years. While some traditions continue to this day, such as the street parades during Stromness Shopping Week, some have fallen by the wayside.
There were two 'Ba games' for men and boys up until the 1920s (when it was deemed too dangerous as Italian Guilio Fugaccia had installed a large plate glass window in his cafe at 41 Victoria Street, now The Quernstone).
The Yule Log tradition
The Yule Log tradition continued a little longer. On Christmas Eve the Northenders and the Southenders would fight for a ‘log’. This may originally have been a cut log, but it became a tree, felled in secret, which was dragged through the streets, scattering debris as it went! The goals were Ma Humphs (on the site of the temporary whalers’ hospital in Alfred Sq) for the Southenders and the Pier for the Northenders. The game stopped around 1930 (to the benefit of the town’s remaining trees!).
During the annual Folk Festival the streets come alive (weather permitting!) with musicians of all shapes and sizes enjoying the opportunity to play with others from near and far; and crowds soak up the atmosphere.
Guy Fawkes Day is known in Stromness as 'Pop Day', referring to an unusual Bonfire Night tradition in the town.
While children elsewhere may be heard calling for 'a penny for the guy', those in Stromness would visit houses seeking a 'Penny tae burn me Pop' or 'a penny for me Pop' ... The 'Pop' in question is a neep (turnip) carved into a ghoulish face and held on a stick. The Pops are then thrown onto the bonfire at night.
Stromnessians are reviving this centuries-old tradition, which has all but died out in the town. Like the Guy Fawkes ceremony, which began as an anti-Catholic demonstration, the 'Pop' in question was originally a reference to the Pope. These days, the Pops have as much to do with the Pope as fireworks do with Catholicism, but as a unique tradition local people are understandably eager to make sure it doesn't die out.
Stromness Community Centre, situated in the heart of the Town, has long been a popular meeting place for locals and visitors alike. It offers a warm and friendly welcome along with a wide range of facilities and equipment including a large games hall, children’s playpark, coffee bar and activities rooms as well as snooker, table tennis, carpet bowls and badminton.
Stromness has a number of live music venues (see above).
There’s lots going on for kids of all ages.
Mums & toddlers
Junior (P4 - P7) and Senior (P 7 - S6) Youth Clubs meet up in the Community Centre September - May and are open to all children in the area from the age of 8 upwards.
SteptOZe Yard is a waste and recycling facility - but it’s so much more.
Check out their facebook page for the latest events (sales of bikes, baby stuff, old computers ...) and ideas for reuse and recycling, reducing food waste ... This is a community committed to reducing their environmental footprint!