Northabout with Duncan Mclean


A long tradition of fine wine and exotic food has its roots in wars with France


The Orkney Islands might seem a surprising place to find one of the longest-established wine merchants in the country. But Kirkness & Gorie is busier than ever, 163 years after its opening was announced in the pages of The Orcadian in June 1859. It’s still in its original location in the heart of Kirkwall, opposite St Magnus Cathedral, and still owned and run by the same family.

Which shows either remarkable persistence on our part, or a terrible lack of ambition.

For a century or so, we’ve thought land travel the best way to move freight across the country. Big stretches of water, fresh or salt, are obstacles that must be overcome by bridges or ferries. It wasn’t always that way. Until the mid-20th century, the sea was a much quicker and more reliable way for freight and people to move long distances.

So it was that Orkney – 20 miles off the north coast of Scotland – established itself as an unusually open and cosmopolitan trading centre a thousand years ago, and has remained so ever since.


Kirkness & Gorie around 1910


British wars with the French were of great help to Orkney. Rather than risk the dangers of the English Channel, shipping would go “northabout”, around the top of the country. Trade routes from London, Hull and Leith on the east, and Glasgow, Liverpool, and Cardiff on the west, all passed these islands. Stopping to refuel or shelter from bad weather was a frequent occurrence. Scapa Flow is, after all, the biggest and safest natural harbour in northern Europe. International shipping often docked too, whether to pick up supplies before a long ocean journey, or to recruit crew – Orcadians were born sailors.

So, it’s no surprise that, when money started flowing into the islands due to the export of cattle and other agricultural products in the 1840s and 50s, enterprising Orcadians set up businesses to capitalise on the availability of, and taste for, exotic food and drink. We have receipt books going back to the 1860s showing sales of Champagne, claret, and any number of obscure fortified wines as well as coffee, preserved fruit, and even pasta. For a while the shop advertised itself as an “Italian Warehouseman”, the generic name for fine wine and food shops before “delicatessen” entered English usage.

The biggest change since 1859 has been the democratisation of wine. It’s no longer the preserve of the landowners and lairds who came up to their island summer houses for a spot of hunting and fishing and ordered a few cases of Mr Kirkness’s excellent shop-bottled Margaux or Haut Sauternes. What was that exactly? I don’t know, but we still have the loose labels.

It’s true, the islands are popular with the upper middle classes of Islington and Morningside, but our shop can’t rely entirely on their short-season custom. Like the four generations of the family preceding us, we see local trade as our bedrock: farmers of cattle, fish and wind, butchers, teachers, and traffic wardens. (Actually, we don’t have any traffic wardens.)

After 163 years, I think we’re just about working out how to keep them happy.

Duncan Mclean is proprietor of Kirkness & Gorie, Kirkwall

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