Alexander Graham

Alexander Graham v. the Royal Burgh of Kirkwall

Alexander Graham protesting unfair tax levied on Stromness, standing behind a wealthy Kirkwall burgher with a protest placard.
Alexander Graham v. the Royal Burgh of Kirkwall. Acrylic & gouache, 2020.

Alexander Graham was a merchant who lived in Stromness, Orkney, in the 18th Century. At the time Stromness was growing from a tiny fishing village to a sizeable town due to its convenient location on the North Atlantic trade routes. This put it in competition with the Royal Burgh of Kirkwall and the wealthy landowners who ran the Town.

Following the 1707 Act of Union with England (itself partly the result of a trade war), Royal Burghs across Scotland enjoyed special tax-raising privileges designed to protect the power structure of the Union. It was legal for an Englishman to import and sell goods anywhere in Scotland or England, but the same was not true for all Scots.

Welcome to the City and Royal Burgh of Kirkwall. Road sign with daffodils overlooking Kirkwall.
Welcome to the City and Royal Burgh of Kirkwall.

Kirkwall was a member of the Convention of Royal Burghs, and the Town Council used its power to levy ever-increasing taxes on merchants and traders from Stromness (who had no voting rights on the matter). Eventually they rebelled.

Alexander Graham became the leader of the non-payment tax resistance movement, and spent many years battling the Magistrates of Kirkwall in court. In 1758 he won. The Act of Union was amended, and trade was freed up for townspeople throughout Scotland.

The victory cost Alexander Graham dearly. He had to fund his own legal costs, and found no help from fellow traders in Stromness who would have benefited from his actions. He died in poverty in 1783.

For more on this story read Fiona Grahame’s article Civil Disobedience in Stromness, first published in iScot magazine and now available online via The Orkney News.

A note on the painting

The Kirkwall Councillor in the painting seen above is based on a portrait of Thomas Balfour of Huip, which I used purely for costume reference as he was a wealthy Orcadian landowner and merchant from the period. This painting is in the collection of the Orkney Museum in Kirkwall.

Plaque on the fountain in Stromness dedicated to the memory of Alexander Graham, who amended the Act of Union and freed up trade across Scotland.
Alexander Graham memorial fountain plaque in Stromness.