Owner of the isle of Stroma

Born: April 5, 1928;

Died: June 2, 2019

JAMES Mowat Simpson, known as Jimmy, who has died aged 91, was the owner of the now uninhabited island of Stroma in the middle of the Pentland Firth. He operated its near-1000 wind-swept acres as a sheep farm, but he became best-known to visitors as the genial Stroma boatman, ferrying hundreds of visitors each summer to the island.

Amongst the visitors was the Duke of Rothesay who made several trips. Prince Charles painted water-colours of abandoned Stroma croft-houses, that he subsequently used as prints on his Christmas cards.

When Jimmy was a youngster, the island was home to a bustling crofting and fishing community of around 200 people. Most of the inhabitants made a living by catching cod, which was said to have the firmest white flesh of any caught from British waters due to having to continuously swim in strong currents. The fish were bled, salted, dried in the open and baled for export to Mediterranean lands.

Jimmy attended the island’s primary school, and, like most islanders, gained an intimate knowledge from his early years of the firth’s tide-streams. He was also steeped in tales of the rescue of ship-wrecked sailors by daring islanders in the wild, often dark, winter conditions.

In the immediate post-war years, he moved with his family to a cottage at Tang Head, near Scarfskerry on the north coast of Caithness. He bought an ex-Army truck and embarked on a career in road-haulage, specialising in livestock transport. His real innovation, though, was in establishing the first direct road service to Billingsgate fish market in London from the Pentland Firth with loads of live lobster; there had been complaints about delays in rail services that had cost fishermen dearly.

In the early 1960s Mr Simpson sold his haulage business to a local family. By then, he had become the unexpected owner of his native isle. The Yorkshire umbrella-maker John Hoyland had purchased Stroma, essentially a crofting estate, in 1947, but by the late 1950s he was desperate to get rid of it because the population was declining rapidly, meaning a loss of rent.

Mr Simpson was in Wick seeing his accountant when they discussed stories about the then laird allegedly being in negotiation with a New York TV channel to have Stroma offered as the top prize in a quiz show. The accountant suggested that he talk to a solicitor in the town, who was handling the local end of the proposed sale.

Mr Simpson asked the price, did a few quick sums in his head, convinced himself he could make a go if it and had signed a statement of his intended purchase before leaving the lawyer’s office.

As well as running his farm business, he laid on boats for competitors in sea-angling contests and galas and he lived long enough to become aware of the Inner Sound becoming the test-bed for demonstrating to the world that tidal streams could be a valuable future source of renewable electricity not only locally, but nationally and internationally.

Jimmy Simpon was married to farmer’s daughter Lena for almost 63 years. She survives him as well as his children, William, who runs the livestock business at Stroma, and Christine Robertson, whose husband Gordon runs a local contracting and quarrying business nearby at Barrock, Caithness.