William Shearer

About Us

About Us

Founder William ShearerEstablished in 1857, the firm of William Shearer has been in the same family for five generations and is one of a select few Orcadian firms with pedigrees stretching back to the 19th Century. The business is currently run by Richard Shearer, the fourth generation of the family in partnership with his wife Audrey and sons William and Raymond.

William Shearer, the firm's founder, was aged 21 when he decided to move to Kirkwall and open a shop. The second oldest of five sons and one daughter, he was born at Donnersbrae in the East Mainland parish of Holm.

The brothers, including William, were partners in a fish-curing business in St Mary's, Holm as well as a cooperage, coal and grain supplies and the farm of West Graves. Two of the brothers in addition owned boats and went to the herring fishing. William retained his interest in the family concern, returning each summer to Holm for the herring season.

Our first shop in Victoria StreetOriginally, William set up business at 55 Victoria street on Thursday June 11th, 1857. However, within two years he had outgrown the premises and moved to 71 Victoria Street, where the shop has remained ever since. At first William rented the premises, but in 1902 William bought the property outright.

The business in those early days concentrated mainly on grocery, but there was a growing interest in hardware and ironmongery, as well as the supply of fishing gear to the boats in Holm and the supply of seed to local farmers.

With the shop successfully established, William married Margret Manson of Highfield in the east end of Holm. They had three girls and two sons, John and James, who were to join their father in the business, taking over the reins on the death of William in May 1908.

In 1911, James and John greatly extended the store at the rear of the building, allowing increased storage for seeds below, with grates, fireplaces and stoves on the floor above. The endless chain used to lift these heavy items still hangs from the rafter above the trap door to the floor below.

Both John and James were pioneering motor-cyclists and among the first members of the Orkney motor club.Both John and James were pioneering motor-cyclists and among the first members of the Orkney motor club. They were also part time soldiers and members of the Orkney .R.G.A (Royal Garrison Artillery). On the outbreak of World War One, James was among the first to be mobilized and was posted to the island of Flotta where he received a commission and served with the Royal Marine Artillery at a number of shore batteries including Neb and Stanger Head. He was on parade at Stanger Head in June 1915 for the arrival on Flotta of King George V on his inspection of the Flow.

At that time Orkney was no stranger to famous visitors. In October 1913, Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, arrived in Scapa Flow on the Admiralty yacht Enchantress, accompanied by the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith and the Secretary of State for War Colonel Jack Seeley.

The story goes that Churchill and his companions entered the shop and purchased half a pound of mint humbugs. They had received a great deal of attention and, wishing to avoid the gathering crowd, persuaded the assistants to smuggle them out the side door, down through the garden and out onto Junction Road.

Between the wars the business developed and was one of the first to install a telephone (with the number 29). The brothers also had an internal intercom phone system between the shop and the store. The wet batteries and telephone remain in the existing store today.

James Shearer married Elizabeth Thompson (Elsie) in 1924. They had met during the war when Elsie's father Richard Thompson, an engineer and owner of the tug Jim Mcausland, moved to Orkney following the requisitioning of his vessel by the Admiralty. While her father was on duty in the Flow, Elsie and her mother took lodgings with Mary Spence at Spence's Square diagonally opposite the shop. Mary was the wife of David Spence the Broad street bookseller.

William Shearer shop front photo James and Elsie had one son, James Richard who was to be the third generation joining the business from school in 1939. As a member of the Boys Brigade, James delivered telegrams after hours from the then Post Office in broad street and joined the Home Guard in 1942. Called up in October 1943, James joined the Royal Army Service Corps and trained as a driver. He crossed to France in June 1944 and served in France, Holland and Germany, ending up on Luneberg Heath at the time of the German surrender. James Richard remained in Germany for some time and was in Nuremberg at the time of the Nazi war trials. He managed to secure a day pass to witness first hand Hitler's henchmen on trial. He was de-mobbed in the Autumn of 1947.

The brothers James and John died in the 50s, and the reins passed to James Richard Shearer who was joined in the firm by Jim Corsie, a member of the Corsie family best known for their lifetime service with the Kirkwall Corps of the Salvation Army.

At that time the firm was as diverse as it is today. For over 90 years the firm was agent for T.M Hunter wool mills of Brora, selling a wide range of knitting wools, blankets and travel rugs. Raw wool could be exchanged for the finished yarn with small knitting companies springing up all over the county during the 1970s. However, as the wool side of the business prospered, another side was on the wane. Stack nets had been an important part with the present store of junction road having been built in 1961 to house the ever increasing demand. Coir yarn was bought through an importer and shipped up to the Peterhead and Inverness prisons where the inmates made the nets by hand. The quality was excellent with nets being sold locally and wholesaled to firms in Shetland and Caithness. However, the advent of the combine harvester in the late 60s saw demand fall with the trade finally petering out in the late 70s. The wool trade too suffered as fashions changed and customers moved on the synthetic fibres with the automatic washing machine all but finishing hand knitted wools.

James married Mildred Leslie in September 1953 and had a family of four-two girls and two boys Richard and Charles. Richard joined his father in 1969 where he took a keen interest in the seed trade, expanding the business locally and in Shetland.

William Shearer shop front with family and staff after major refurbishment in 1964 A major redevelopment came in 1964 when the old three-storey building, which had served the firm from 1860, was demolished to make way for a modern shop fit for the next 100 years! It was a brave decision for James Shearer to make and it did take some time for the customers to get used to the new premises, but it secured the long term future of the business. James Richard Shearer died, aged 86 in October 2011.

Richard was joined in the business by his wife Audrey who has been instrumental in turning an ailing grocery department into a thriving part of the business offering an amazing diversity of food stuffs. We now stock a wide range of whole foods and local produce as well as everyday items. Her Christmas display upstairs in the seed loft is a particular favourite with customers who look forward to with anticipation to each November opening.

William Shearer's todayToday the firm continues to grow, with Richard and Audrey's two sons, William and Raymond – the fifth generation. Their Enthusiasm and dedication have seen the addition of fishing tackle (a trade we have not been associated with since the 1920s) under William's watchful eye and Raymond's fully stocked gun department. The firm is now Orkney's only Registered gun dealer.

Despite the many changes in Kirkwall and the ongoing changes in our own business, our core values remain the same. From the end of October to the middle of March each year, Richard and William travel to all corners of Orkney, Shetland and Caithness visiting farmer customers to discuss the past year and hopefully secure future business. Raymond then sees that deliveries arrive on farm on time. This tradition of buying, selling, blending and delivering has continued uninterrupted for over 100 years. Great changes have taken place in farming over the years and we continue to source the best and most productive grass varieties for our mixtures.

We hope that, on your next visit to William Shearer, not only do you find what you are looking for, but that you also experience something of what a traditional family run business is all about. Dedication to you, the customer.

Find us

How to find William Shearer, Kirkwall, Orkney - Click on the map for Google directions

Contact Us

William Shearer shooting and fishing supplies, general merchant, agricultural seeds - Kirkwall, Orkney71 Victoria Street
Kirkwall, Orkney

Tel 01856 873189
Fax 01856 870892

Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

William Shearer

  • Established 1857
  • Agricultural seeds and general merchant.
  • Registered firearms dealer and fishing tackle

Opening hours

Monday to Saturday: 9am - 5.30pm
Sunday: closed