When Provost George Robertson opened the first Shopping Week, on 18 July 1949, he told the crowd that the whole event had only been thought up three weeks earlier. The idea was proposed by Mr WC Howard, manager of Argo's, at the very first meeting of the Stromness and Orkney West Mainland Chamber of Commerce. He sketched the outlines of a plan which, according to The Orkney Herald "in addition to stimulating trade in the burgh, will bring colour and gaiety to a town which, after all, has long claimed to be 'the Venice of the North.'"
Although it was very short notice, the third week in July was chosen because it was the week of the Kirkwall monthly holiday and the Stromness Regatta.
The Chamber of Commerce was formed following the pattern of other Chambers, with seven town members and three rural. The president was William Towers, the vice-president was James Wilson and the secretary and treasurer was John M Robertson. The rural members were George Learmonth, Pow, Sandwick; David Linklater, Stenness and WD Firth, Harray. The town members were WC Howard, James Wishart; Mrs Bevan, who managed Porteous' bakery; PL Johnston, Captain Bremner , Frank Turmeau and J Angus.
On 28 June, The Orkney Herald reported, "There will be Fancy Dress Parades, open-air dancing and music, gala football, golf, and putting games, special mystery tours by sea and land, and the town will be hung with flags and bunting. One local gentleman [a bit ahead of his time] has proposed a marathon race round the town, open to competitors from everywhere. Another suggestion is that an Art Gallery should be on show during the week, comprising those works of art which have been produced in Orkney, or about Orkney, during the past year. Headed by Stromness townsman Mr Stanley Cursiter, Orkney has at the moment a flourishing and talented art colony, and it is felt that a memorable show could be put forward." The writer concluded by suggesting that, "if all Stromnessians do their best to make it a success, it may well be that mid-July will be Carnival Week in Stromness every year from now on."
As Provost Robertson went on to say in his speech, Shopping Week's aim was "to keep Stromness very definitely on the shopping map for our old friends from the country and our own South Isles folk."
Other than during the war years, Stromness businesses have always had to work hard to attract customers and he reminded the crowd of an old Stromness story.
"Said a business man to his neighbour, 'How's business the day, William?' 'Oh,' replied he, 'canna compleen, canna compleen - selt a Christian Herald, changed a penny and shawn a man whar the auld kirk is.'"
Thanks to the work of the Chamber of Commerce, the whole-hearted support of the town and the visitors that poured in from all parts of Orkney, the week was a resounding success.
All the shops decorated their windows and offered prizes and discounts. There was no Council-provided bunting but everyone hung out what they could find and an estimated nine hundred flags brightened the street. Merriman's electrical shop, then half-way up Porteous Brae, on the right, put out 'illuminated decorations' and hooked up loudspeakers to provide music for the passers-by.
It apparently wasn't possible to arrange an art show in three weeks, but it was a highlight of the second Shopping Week. Instead, there was the SWRI (Scottish Women's Rural Institute) Handicrafts Show, which seems such a recent addition to Shopping Week. It was held in what was then known as Corrigall's shop and is now the Macinnes' Café at the pier head. Another popular attraction which ran for the entire week was the amusement arcade in the Transit Shed, which used to stand at the top of the North Pier, and the side-shows at the Market Green. The travelling "showies" at the Market Green even included chairoplanes and there were fortune tellers and shooting galleries in the Transit Shed.
After the opening, the only organised event on Monday was a five-a-side football tournament on the Market Green in the evening. Twelve teams competed in games which just lasted five minutes each and Thorfinn beat Stromness Wanderers 2-0 in the final.
The main attraction listed for Tuesday was the arrival of RMS Orcadia, bringing over one hundred visitors from the South Isles. Later in the day, there was the mystery bus tour. Provost Robertson had suggested that the tour might take its passengers to "parts of the mainland you have never seen since you were last carted there to a Sunday School picnic 20, 30 or 40 years ago". He urged his audience to book in advance so that the necessary buses would be on the stance. Of course, this didn't happen and only one bus was laid on. Another five had to be hurriedly brought from Wishart's Garage, to take the large crowd on a tour of the West Mainland.
That evening there was singing and country dancing, led by the Girl Guides and GTC (Girl's Training Corps) on the North Pier, followed by a dance to David Thomson's Scottish band and Jim Robertson's swing band. The Orkney Herald described the scene, "Remember, for the sake of atmosphere, that the stalls were doing a roaring trade at the Transit Shed; that from the wireless shops of the town sweet music was being relayed by loud-speakers; that the flags, in ever-increasing number, were fluttering chimney-high in the wind; and that you had only to go into any shop in the town, look at a jar containing peas (or beans, or buttons, or currants, or matches) guess the number of them and you qualified for the big prizes."
The organisers wisely concentrated a lot of their effort on Wednesday, Kirkwall's half-day closing. There was a Bring and Buy Sale in the North Church, now the Town Hall. It's hard to see where they can have fitted in seven stalls, amusements, ices, teas, forty-two helpers and a crowd big enough to spend £425 2s 11d, equivalent to over £11,300 today.
On the same afternoon, a surprising variety of sporting competitions were staged on the golf course, putting green and tennis courts at Ness. There was obstacle, ladder and clock putting; pitching and driving and novelty bowling and, on the 16th fairway, men's and women's five-a-side hockey tournaments. There were fourteen women's teams and six men's teams and Dounby as The Orkney Herald put it, "laid low the flower and manhood of both Stromness and Kirkwall", winning both competitions. The men's final was described as being played "with a speed reminiscent of ice-hockey and an enthusiasm to win that might have been more appropriate on the battlefield".
The golf course was to prove a very useful venue over the years and, on Thursday, it hosted the County Sheepdog Trials. The local dogs were described as putting on a "very diverting, if on the whole, somewhat disappointing show… On two occasions the four sheep were lost entirely, to the great amusement of the onlookers."
The large number of spectators could find tea and refreshments in two large marquees which had been erected on the town's playground, just outside the golf course.
In the evening there were novelty sports at the Market Green: races, tug o' war, pillow fights and the greasy pole. Archie Bevan was described as showing his all-dominating prowess as a pillow fighter. The sports were followed by a Veterans v Youths football match. Showing no respect for their elders, the youths won, 7-1.
Friday was Kirkwall's monthly holiday and the day of the Stromness Regatta. Regattas attracted more attention in those days. The Orkney Herald wrote, "For the afternoon the whole town - piers, bedroom windows, Brinkie's Brae - was transformed into a grandstand, and the blue surging sea as far as Clestrain was the arena where the combat, at once virile and beautiful was fought over." A Swimming Gala was arranged, between the North and Warehouse Piers, to entertain the crowd waiting for the finish of the all-comers race in the afternoon. Competitors dived off a wooden platform attached to the side of James Anderson's boat, the 'Alec King'.
The Orcadian reported, "Never in the 132 years of its existence as a burgh has there been such a day in Stromness as there was on Saturday. From morning until night the streets were thronged with people from all parts of the county. The weather was perfect and the week's entertainment reached its height with the evening's fancy dress parade."
"Headed by Kirkwall's City Pipe Band, the [100-yard long] procession was soon lengthened by hundreds of wildly excited spectators. The 900 flags which bedecked the streets were lit up by brilliant sunshine. The skirl of the pipes and the non-stop Cuban music provided by the Hill Billy Orchestra rigged out in new costumes brought the finishing touches to a triumphant carnival display. When judging and the presentation of prizes took place, four thousand spectators were lining the Market Green four deep."
Most of the parade was on foot, some were mounted on bicycles or ponies and there were only two tableaux: an operating theatre on a lorry and the crew of the Pole Star, blacked up as a negro chain gang. The prizes had clearly been donated by the local shops and included 40 cigarettes, brylcreem, a pair of braces and a fretwork set.
Later that evening Provost Robertson announced the winners of the more substantial prizes in the shop competitions; a pair of blankets from JB Rosey, a pressure cooker from Sinclairs' Supply Stores, a fireside rug from HW Leask, a bedroom armchair from WS Baikie and dozens more.
The Orkney Herald summed up the end of the week. "The shadows of Saturday evening fell. The floodlights lit the faces of the dancers, flushed and happy, at the North pier. The tireless Hill Billies on the platform still discoursed music in the modern style. Three quarters of Stromness's population were jammed in the small area of the pier-head as the summer darkness, mild and warm, came down. Southwards, only an isolated figure, here and there, moved on the streets. Then midnight struck, and Stromness's phenomenally successful Shopping Week, which has brought life, gaiety and money to the town in a rich flood, came to an end."