Stromness Museum stands on Alfred Street in Stromness, one of the series of narrow, characterful streets that together make up the main street running along the length of the town, parallel with the waterfront. It is perhaps three-quarters of the way along the street if you are heading from north to south.
The story of Stromness Museum dates back to the foundation of the Orkney Natural History Society in 1837. Their museum was initially housed in a single room elsewhere in the town, before they hired space in Flett’s Commercial Hotel in 1854. In 1856 the Orkney Natural History Society and the Burgh Council jointly moved into the building occupied by the museum today. The Burgh Council originally had the ground floor, but moved out in 1862. Many of the display cases in use today were provided thanks to a grant from the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.
The museum is a remarkable place that takes you back in time in more ways than one. It describes itself as Orkney's Maritime and Natural History Museum, and that's a pretty fair description. There's a red telephone box standing in the street beside the main entrance. It really ought to be a blue police box, as a clue to what you will find inside a building that seems much larger internally than seems possible from the outside: it is a veritable TARDIS. (Continues below images...)
As the self-description implies, the two main themes that run throughout the museum are firstly natural history, and secondly Orkney's amazing maritime heritage. As its story implies, the museum retains the character of a traditional Victorian museum. The layout is not obvious or straightforward, and it pays to listen to the helpful directions given by the receptionist if you want to make the most of your visit: and to refer to the floor plans that are available.
You start by being immersed in nautical history. The left-hand side of the ground floor covers lighthouses, shipping and Stromness's history as a merchant town. The right-hand side, also home to the reception desk, looks at the story of Scapa Flow. This is also where you will find the museum's remarkable collections of research material; and their butterfly and egg collections.
A ramp leading up to a mezzanine area at the rear of the ground floor takes you into the world of the Hudson's Bay Company, complete with a life-sized diorama of one of Orkney's most famous sons, the Arctic explorer Dr John Rae. The upper floor of the main building is given over to an extensive natural history collection, and some fascinating material relating to Orkney's huge depth of archaeology.
Back on the mezzanine level, more steps lead to the upper floor of the neighbouring building, where you find a wonderful collection of ship models, and then you move through to a room looking at the age of trading in sailing ships. A set of steps leads you down to a ground floor area, part of which is set out as a sea captain's parlour. Here you find exhibitions about Orkney's whaling heritage and, perhaps of wider attraction, about the archaeological excavations at the Ness of Brodgar.
Part of the joy of visiting a museum - any museum, but especially a long-established one - is discovering artefacts that resonate, that stand out and impress themselves on you as an individual. We have to admit to passing fairly swiftly through the natural history collections, and while whaling is an important part of Orkney's maritime history, it's not something we stopped to absorb in detail. For us some of the most remarkable objects were in the archaeological sections of the museum's collections. The set of three carved stone balls was simply outstanding. The exhibits relating to the Hudson's Bay Company also seized our imagination, as did those about the use of Scapa Flow as a naval anchorage in the two world wars. And without being able to say why, we were also very touched by the presence of a serving bowl that was originally part of the dinner service of Captain James Cook, whose ships Discovery and Resolution called at Stromness in 1780 on their return voyage from the Hawaiian Islands, where Captain Cook had been killed.