THERE is something otherworldly about the bleak beauty of Stroma. No matter the light and time of day – be it a sun-dappled morning or a dreich, rain-lashed afternoon – its craggy form rising from the slate-grey waves of the Pentland Firth holds your gaze.

It is the history that draws you in. The haunting sight of a smattering of deserted and decaying buildings dotted around the island – crumbling cottages, outbuildings and even a church – are visible off the Caithness coast near John O’Groats.

Today, Stroma is uninhabited, save for the sheep grazing on its green slopes and the myriad seabirds that can be seen soaring high above the towering cliffs. Yet, over the years, a rich tapestry of human life has been interwoven with this rugged landscape.

A welcome sanctuary from the area’s treacherous tides and currents, Stroma may have been a base for Pictish seafarers, while the Norse later called it Straumey, meaning “island in the stream”. In more recent centuries, Stroma gained notoriety as a hub for smuggling and illicit distilling.

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The island population peaked in 1901, when it was home to a 375-strong fishing and crofting community. However, numbers went into steep decline as the largely self-sufficient way of life became untenable due to economic issues, forcing many to leave and seek opportunities elsewhere.

By 1961, only 12 residents remained. A year later, they too had gone. Stroma was bought by one of its former inhabitants Jimmy Simpson, who died in 2019, and used as a pasture for sheep and cattle, a practice that his family continues.

Prince Charles has made several trips to Stroma and painted watercolours of the abandoned houses, subsequently using the artwork on his official Christmas card.

It is easy to see why it appealed to his eye. Earlier this autumn, on holiday in Caithness, I spent countless hours looking out at Stroma, constantly marvelling at the island’s shape-shifting abilities.

Somehow it possesses a curious quality where it can seem both ethereal and utterly wild. You can imagine how living there might feel cosseted from the wider world, yet, at other times, dangerously cut-off.

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Testament to this stark juxtaposition is Stroma’s weathered red telephone box. Once a vital lifeline link to the mainland, photographs taken in recent years show it languishing in a forlorn state, the vivid scarlet paint now faded and flaking, its cracked windows like jagged teeth.

Stroma swirls with ghosts of the past. A powerful emblem to the extremes of island life.


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