After that lovely walk in the last blogpost, going in and out of the houses of the abandoned island of Stroma, you might be left with the question; why was the island abandoned?
Why do you want to leave such a beautiful island with good fertile soil and enough sandstone to build sturdy houses from? With a shop, a school and two churches? Where you can live self-sufficient and have a strong bond with neighbours. Sounds like an absolute dream.
OK, you had to work hard on your croft to make a living, endure very changeable weather conditions, no running water or electricity in your house. Having to cook and warm the house on a fire of dried cows poo because of the lack of wood to burn or gas or anything else to burn. And you had to row across the Pentland Firth when you needed stuff you could not get on the island.
So, what are the population numbers during the years?
Well, the decline of the population has several reasons.
Around 1900 the island was overpopulated. Families of 6 to 8 children were common. But there was just not enough work for everyone on the island. Herring fishing declined after WW1 and due to the lack of a proper harbour, the fisherman could not make use of larger boats or develop a modern fishery. Crofting became more difficult due to the fact there was just not enough land to grow sufficient food to feed all those mouths.
The young adult people often would leave the island for the mainland or emigrated to Canada or to America to find work.
Both the World Wars had a big impact on the population of Stroma, six islanders died in each of the World Wars. During the Second World War, a quarter of the population was on war service and didn’t always come back to the island.
But what really made an impact on the families on Stroma is the 11-plus exam which was introduced in 1944. This meant that all children over the age of 12 had to leave Stroma to complete their education at the secondary school in Wick. Because a daily commute between Stroma and Wick was not an option in those days, the children had to attend school as boarders. Just think about all the extra expenses for the parents…. We met an old chap on the island who boarded at his aunt in Wick as a child. He really hated his aunt and he was always looking forward to going home to his parents on Stroma. But often the weather was so bad, he could not make the crossing to the island and would have to spend Christmas at his aunty. Bummer, to say the least. Just imagine, being away from your parents at such a young age, that is stuff where childhood traumas are made of.
There are two other major factors that are often mentioned as the cause of the depopulation of Stroma.
The building of the nuclear power station at Dounreay in the 1950s, which created many new jobs on the mainland.
But the most important one is the construction of a harbour on the south side of Stroma on which many islanders were employed. The harbour seems to be the biggest incentive to leave. The work put a bit of money in their pockets and the islanders could pack their belongings safely. On the mainland, they would often be united with the family who already left the island to seek their fortune elsewhere.
The island was sold in 1929 and again in 1947. As the tenants left the owner could not find any buyers for the island. On the mainland, Caithness council was thinking of new schemes for Stroma, including a naturist resort (really, isn’t that a bit cold?) and using the island for a crematorium (isn’t that a bit hot?).
In the meantime, the local economy disintegrated, there were no longer enough able-bodied men to man the fishing-boats and de remaining facilities were closing down for the lack of custom. The shop closed down in 1956. The last three remaining families left in 1957 and in that same year the school closed because al pupils were gone. The post office closed in 1958.
In the summer of 1958, the owner offered Stroma to the American TV quiz show Bid ‘n Buy as a prize. But after an outcry on both sides of the Atlantic, the show’s producers settled for offering a car instead. I think I would have been happy with an island.
The lighthouse was automated in 1961 and the family who operated the lighthouse also left.
And since then it is very quiet on the island except for the bleating of the sheep.
In December 1960 Stoma was sold to an ex-islander named Simpon and is still owned by this family. You can still visit the island but before you go, please inform the owner you will be on the island and when you will be leaving. Otherwise, he will get angry. I’m not joking, he will.