James Kirkness founded a grocer and wine merchant shop at No 15 Broad Street in the summer of 1859. After his retirement, the business was taken over by his daughter Mary Kirkness, who was married to a Stronsay man called John Gorie… and so Kirkness & Gorie acquired the name by which it’s known to this day.
But shortly after its founding, the business nearly collapsed in scandal. In 1875, James Kirkness was found guilty of smuggling contraband gin into Orkney. Under cover of darkness, he had rolled several barrels from the Corn Slip all the way to his back yard – where our shop stands today – but was caught by Customs & Excisemen, who were keen to stamp out the old Orkney tradition of trading freely with Scandinavia and Europe.
Although fined, and banned from selling sprits for several years, James managed to salvage his reputation and build his shop into one of the most respected and best-loved local retailers:
‘The house is one of the older trading establishments in the town, and, what is more important, has commanded the confidence of the buyer ever since its first inception. Started on the basis that good service is the first basic of efficient business, this house has continued that excellent policy down to the present day. Courteous and efficient service backed by sound experience, indeed make it something of a pleasure to shop here.’
The Traveller, c1910
Kirkness & Gorie prospered throughout the 20th century. Right from the start, the goal was to supply a mixture of everyday essential foods and exotic specialities. Receipt books from a century and more ago show us selling fine French and German wine, pasta, and coffee, as well as bread, potatoes and jam. Whatever was sold had to be of the highest quality.
Our customers were a mixture of Kirkwall folk doing their daily shopping, wealthy landowners ordering cases of Claret for delivery to their big houses, and naval vessels anchored in Scapa Flow. For a time in the 1970s, we even had our own bonded warehouse – the smallest in the UK, reportedly – so we could supply duty free alcohol and cigarettes to foreign fishing boats anchored out in Kirkwall Bay.
From 1978 to 2007, Kirkness & Gorie held a royal warrant for supplying Orkney honey to the Queen. (Do we still sell Orkney honey? Yes, but it always sells out very quickly: supply is lower and demand higher than when we used to drive off to one of the palaces with a case of honey in the boot.)
In recent years, our old-fashioned approach seems to have become more appreciated. People are more aware of the quality of what they eat and drink, and are interested in the provenance of what they are buying. Where does this wine come from? Who makes that cheese? Is it organic? Can I have a taste?
As we approach our 160th birthday, we’re proud to be carrying on the long family tradition of supplying our customers with the best produce, and the friendliest advice, for many miles around.