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21 August 2014
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Graham House
Stromness and Kirkwall have always vied with each other as the two major towns in Orkney, but this friendly rivalry has not always been limited to sport and jokes about the neighbours. In the age of Mercantilism this rivalry could often mean the difference between a town thriving or disappearing off the map altogether.

In the Eighteenth Century, Scots Law decreed that only those towns designated as Royal Burghs could take part in foreign trade. In Orkney this was a serious business as only Kirkwall held the status of Royal Burgh despite the majority of trade passing through Stromness.

The trading success of Stromness was not appreciated at the other end of the Mainland, where Kirkwall had to stump up the tax to the government liable from the Stromness merchants. Unsurprisingly, the Kirkwall residents decided that measures musty be taken to redress this, and in 1719 they came up with a plan.

Stromness merchants were now to make payments directly to Kirkwall, a system that was an unpopular in Stromness as the previous one had been in Kirkwall! This agreement held in place for over twenty years, until one Stromness merchant decided enough was enough.

In 1742 John Johnston refused to make the payment to Kirkwall, setting off a chain of non-compliance. However, Johnston died soon after, and it looked like the Stromness campaign would flounder without leadership, until local merchant Alexander Graham stepped in and carried on Johnston's action.

Stromness Harbour
Stromness Harbour

The merchants were sued by the Kirkwall authorities and lost the initial round of litigation. However, they managed to put in an appeal and the row carried forth all the way up the legal system until it finally reached the supreme arbiters in the House of Lords.

The Lords pronounced their verdict fifteen years after the protest began, and the result was in Stromness's favour. Graham and the other merchants had won, no more taxes would be paid to Kirkwall. But victory came at a price, Alexander Graham, who had led the campaign for over a decade, was now completely ruined.

The town however, went from strength to strength. In 1817 it became a Burgh of Barony and thereby entitled to hold its own fairs, and with its new found trading freedom, Stromness was ideally placed to take advantage of the herring boom of the later 19th Century.

Indeed it is hard to imagine how the town of Stromness could operate successfully today as the main port of the islands and the ferry terminal had it not been for the single-minded doggedness of Alexander Graham and his group of merchants over 250 years ago.

Directions: Start at Dundas St in Stromness. The town of Stromness is built along one main road. Begin walking along it at the northern end and you will soon see the Graham House on the left hand side.

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