The Urban and Historical Geography of Kirkwall and Stromness, Orkney

Luther-Davies, Susan (1974) The Urban and Historical Geography of Kirkwall and Stromness, Orkney. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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Settlements which have developed over a long period of time inevitably reflect the environmental and historical factors which have shaped their physical and socio-economic identity. It is the purpose of this thesis to trace the influence of such factors on the development of Kirkwall and Stromness and, in addition, to examine the elements of townscape which, in view of possible economic changes within the island group, may require careful consideration if the unusual character of these burghs is not to be lost by ill-considered development. Although lying only 8 miles from the north coast of Scotland, the Orkney Islands came under Norse influence during the earliest period of major settlement. The earldom which was created in the ninth century brought about the rationalisation of agricultural holdings throughout the isles and the foundation of an administrative capital adjacent to a sheltered lagoon towards the centre of the Orkney Mainland. Under successive earls Kirkwall developed in two distinct sections : the earl's town, a development of the shoreside fishing settlement, and the Laverock or bishop's town to the south around St. Magnus Cathedral and the Bishop's Palace. With impignoration of the islands in 1468 the Norse culture was superseded by that of the Scots. By a series of charters King James III gained control of both earldom and bishopric properties and in 1486 established Kirkwall as a royal burgh. Fluctuations in the power of the Scottish earls and bishops affected the development of the Orcadian capital and produced repercussions throughout the landward areas and islands. Further burgh expansion occurred, however, during the following two centuries ; the diversification of the economy attracting immigrants from the outlying islands - a trend that continues at the present time. Improvements in land and sea communications increased Kirkwall's sphere of influence and encouraged both a consolidation of the administrative function of the burgh and the development of service industries. With such socio-economic changes residential development was forced into the surrounding farm land while the former dwellings of merchant lairds and ecclesiastics along the main street were converted to commercial premises. In contrast no urban development had occurred around Hamna Voe in the West Mainland prior to 1590. However, in the early years of the following century a few artisans seised plots of land from the bishopric on the steeply sloping ground to the west of the bay, and the trading settlement of Stromness became established. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the economy flourished as a result of contacts with the 'New World' via the rice trade, the whaling ships and the Hudson's Bay Company. The increase in wealth in the community in turn attracted a considerable number of immigrants particularly from Northern Scotland and the South Isles, the maximum population being reached in 1821. Following the decline in overseas trading the economy became oriented towards home-based industry such as spinning, straw-plaiting, boat-building and fishing. The characteristic townscape of the settlement developed during this period : shore-line dwellings being constructed with their long axis to the sea, partially on individual stone wharves to maximise the use of building land and access to the harbour. During the present century many changes have been wrought both in the socio-economic structure and the townscape of the two burghs. The functions of Kirkwall and Stromness tend, at the present time, to be complementary and reflect local and National Government policies for development of what are essentially rural areas. However, economic expansion associated with the North Sea oil exploration is imminent - an expansion which may rapidly obliterate the historical character of both the burghs and submerge the Orcadian identity. It is obvious that the historical factors, mentioned in the thesis, have at various times had a considerable effect on the development of both burghs. Yet detailed studies of the present state, and particularly the townscape elements, of Kirkwall and Stromness indicate that the character of the settlements is the result not only of the periods of economic expansion but also those of economic and social decline. For this reason it is necessary to trace the influence of each factor and show how the possibly detrimental effects of further economic growth and urban renewal may be limited so that the character of the Orcadian burghs may be retained for future generations.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: Geography, European history, Economic history
Date of Award: 1974
Depositing User: Enlighten Team
Unique ID: glathesis:1974-78667
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 28 Feb 2020 12:09
Last Modified: 28 Feb 2020 12:09

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