Since our visit Stronsay Fish Mart has been completely refurbished to provide hostel accommodation. The cafe remains open, and historic photos, maps and other items remain on display. The heritage centre, which used to be housed in the Fish Mart, is awaiting a new home on the island. For the moment the rest of this page remains as written after our visit, but is out of date.
The Fish Mart in Whitehall, Stronsay's main village, is a long, single storey building whose rear wall drops directly into the harbour and which is next door to Whitehall's Harbour Office and one of its two piers.
It was built in the early 1900s to serve as the trading centre for Whitehall's booming herring industry. In much more recent times it has been put to good use as a Heritage Centre telling the story of the herring fisheries on Stronsay through words and exhibits. It also offers an excellent cafe and a hostel.
The story of the herring told in the Fish Mart had its origins in 1397 when the Dutch discovered that if you pack gutted herring in a barrel with lots of salt it is preserved and can be transported and traded over long distances. By the 1500s they had put this knowledge to good use, and their very large fishing fleet followed the annual migration of herring as it came from the west coast of Great Britain past Shetland and Orkney and then down the east coasts of Scotland and England each summer and autumn.
Their territorial and fishing interests led to three wars in the 1600s between the newly formed UK and the Dutch, which led to withdrawal by the Dutch and gave the herring something of a break for 150 years. But in 1816 a Kirkwall businessman working in partnership with a London fishing company build a pier at Lower Whitehall and an associated fishing station.
By the end of the 1800s it was said you could walk across the harbour at Whitehall from boat to boat without ever touching water. Over the years the boats got bigger and came from further afield. They delivered their catches to teams of gutters who passed through Whitehall each July and August before following the herring south in September: they were usually young women, many from the Western Isles or from the Moray Firth.
By the time the Fish Mart was built in the early 1900s, herring processed in Whitehall was going to markets as far away as Germany and Russia.
The fishery was interrupted during the First World War, but resumed through the 1920s, though at lower levels than previously. And in 1937 the herring arrived so late that the workforce needed to catch and process them had already left Stronsay. 1939 was another complete wash-out for the fishery and effectively brought to an end Whitehall's decades as a a centre of the industry, just as the war clouds loomed once more.