When choosing our goods from the supermarket shelf, how many of us reflect on how much the methods of shopping have changed during the span of one generation. Many elderly inhabitants of the Northern Isles of Scotland can still recall when a good day's shopping depended on the weather.
The floating shops of Orkney were a feature of island life from as early as 1897, although many smaller islands did not receive this service until 1910. These sturdy vessels continued to brave the vagaries of the Pentland Firth until the first world war, and for a few years after 1918 the service was resumed with engine driven ships.
Robert Garden, who was born in Rayne Aberdeenshire, was to become the biggest merchant in Kirkwall at that time. A floating market must have seemed an obvious business opportunity, when all around him, in the Shetland Islands, the North and South Islands of Orkney, and the northern coast of Caithness, lay many potential customers.
Each floating shop had a crew of three, and each man was in charge of a department. These men must have had a hard working five hours or so in their often hot, cramped premises. Frequently too, there was a strong swell causing considerate discomfort to some of the women customers, who had never had the chance to develop ‘sea legs.’
The grocer had his domain nearest the bow. Along the bulkheads and sides of the ship were shelves on which the groceries were displayed. Bars of wood were nailed along the fronts to stop the goods tumbling off in heavy seas.
Midship was used for the meal and feeding stuffs. A large weighing machine stood in the centre, and sacks of flour, oatmeal, bran and corn were built up along the sides.
At the stern, and the least busy, was the drapery. The draper had shoes, boots, rolls of wax cloth, oilskins, overalls and other items of clothing set out on a bench, as well as on barred shelves and hanging on lines above his head. When a lull came, he was expected to jump on deck and deal with incoming lobsters and fish. Because as well as selling, the merchants of the floating shops also bought the local produce of the islands.
At the sight of the white sails approaching from Orkney, word was passed around. The women folk gathered eggs into white enamel pails and lidded baskets. Fishermen set about preparing what they called ‘wet fish’. At the time of year when fish were plentiful, the excess was pickled.
When the fish were brought ashore, they were cleaned, split, boned and washed in fresh water. After being allowed to drip dry, they were laid, layer about with salt, in a barrel. Three days later, the fish would be afloat in a salt pickle.
When the floating shop was sighted, the fish were swished around in the brine to remove any slime, piled up, covered with canvas, and large stones placed on top to press out the water. Then in barrows and baskets, they were taken to the shore and loaded into boats. Boxes of lobsters were also put on board.
By the time the floating shop had reached its anchorage, the pier would be crowded with people. Not only did the adults set aside their tools, but the children took a holiday from school.
The local boats, with their loads for sale were ready to go out to the ship. The customers settled down to await their turn to be ferried out, three or four at a time in the ship’s own rowing boats.
These ships included Gleaner, Endeavour, Zoona, Klydon, Thankful, Aberdeen, Lizzie Bain, Star of Bethlehem, Summer Cloud and the Star of Hope.
One of the islands regularly served by these vessels was Stroma, Caithness’ only island. The Star of Hope called once a fortnight at the north end and the Endeavour came to the south side each alternate week.
There are a few expatriates who still recall the boats and their popularity, although at that time there were four other shops on the islands. The arrival of a floating shop is remembered as a time of great excitement, no matter what the weather, and for the children, it was an excuse to lay aside their slates and chalk.
The floating shops also brought employment to many of the womenfolk of Kirkwall. There are few alive who remember working for Robert Garden and packing boxes for the floating shops. They filled huge wooden boxes with boots, bales of men’s shirting, wool, and the half bleached cotton ladies used for making their underwear, all for six shillings a week.
James Allan, a resident of the North End of Stroma, recalled how the draper, when there was a lull in his trade, counted the lobsters brought by the fishermen and paid out one shilling or one and two pence each and packed them into the ship’s own boxes. Those when full, he dumped overboard to keep the supply fresh and alive. The fish were weighed on deck, giving about eight shillings to ten shillings per hundredweight, and then they were stacked and covered over with canvas. The grocer bought in the dozens of eggs at six pence per dozen and packed them between layers of straw in boxes.
I have been unable to find a report of any of the ships being lost.
Now with the depopulation of many of the smaller islands, and the advent of ferries to the places where supermarkets abound, there is no more need for the floating shops.
Robert Garden, described by The Orcadian as Orkney’s merchant Prince died in 1912. His legacy to the county would be what became Kirkwall’s Balfour Hospital after his widow bequeathed the money to erect in his memory, The Garden Memorial Building which opened in 1927.
Shopping methods of today.