Archives » History

Scapa by James Miller

Britain’s Famous Wartime Naval Base

Birlinn, 2000, 191 p.

 Scapa cover

As its subtitle implies this is a short history of the use of Scapa Flow in Orkney as a base for British naval operations. These had marginal beginnings in the Napoleonic Wars but the emergence of Germany as a potential enemy and a threat to North Sea and Atlantic shipping during the run up to the Great War led to proposals for the main British fleet to be stationed there. The outbreak of war saw these brought to fruition and Scapa and Orkney quickly became a home to thousands of men – and in World War 2 many women, who on their nights out were apparently strictly chaperoned. The locals were also in great demand for dances and such. Unlike in the rest of the UK in wartime food was reasonably plentiful on Orkney due to its fertility. Eggs were in good supply and there was never a shortage of mutton!

The book is replete with photographs, with a readily accessible text. The caption to a photo of the men of the Ness Battery in front of a hut mentions the strap designed to hold the hut down during strong winds.

The main incidents are all here; the HMS Vanguard explosion, the loss of HMS Hampshire, the collision of HMS Opal and HMS Narborough, the internment of the German High Seas Fleet in 1918, its Grand Scuttle in 1919, the sinking of HMS Royal Oak, the building of the Churchill Barriers and the Italian Chapel. A quick, easy history of the UK naval presence in Orkney.

Pedant’s corner:- fiand (find – all five instances of this word in this book were spelled in that odd way,) Grand Fleet commander Admiral Sir George Callaghan (is referred to thereafter as Cunningham,) stripped the ships off anything of use (stripped the ships of anything of use.)

Barony Mill, near Birsay, Orkney

This is the last working mill in Orkney but it isn’t commercially viable. It opens in the summer for tourists but does grind grain in winter – the local bere barley etc – for some local consumption and to keep the tradition going.

The young lad that showed us round (off to University later this year) said it was his grandmothe who was the last full-time miller there. Pictures of her at work were on the walls. Quite a thing back then for a woman to be in a job like that.

Barony Mill, near Birsay, Orkney

Old water wheels. They may get round to recommissioning these one day:-

Old mill wheels, Barony Mill

I took four videos. Click on each picture to get to its video.

Water Wheel:-

Barony Wheel Driving Wheel


Gearing, Barony Mill

Lower level workings:-

Barony Mill, Lower Level Workings

Upper level workings:-

Barony Mill Upper Level Workings

Ness Battery, Stromness

The main World War 2 defence artillery battery for the Sound of Hoy was the Ness Battery. A few buildings remain. They have that vaguely Deco style of a lot of World War 2 fortifications. We missed the guided tour so didn’t get the full access. We’d only gone out for an evening stroll.

Ness Battery, Stromness

Ness Battery, Stromness  2

Ness Battery, Stromness 3

Shore Battery. Atlantic/Pentland Firth beyond:-

Shore Battery, Ness Battery, Stromness

Graemsay and Hoy from Ness Battery:-

Graemsay and Hoy from Ness Battery

Forgetting History

Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian on how T Ronald Dump crossed a line when he failed to condemn neo-Nazis after Charlottesville.

The worst thing was that the incumbent President of the United States – supposedly the leader of the free world – conveyed moral equivalence between Nazism/fascism and those who oppose it. That is breathtaking in its lack of awareness and abdication of responsibility for decency.

I have read an article which claimed that just because you opposed Nazism it didn’t mean your cause was necessarily good. What?


(The rationale was that Stalin fought fascism/Hitlerism, the implication, that since Stalin was bad then so, if you fight Nazism, are you.)

[I hesitated to post the link here as I didn’t want to encourage the writer in his false comparisons but finally decided to. (Here.)]

Quite apart from the outrageous insult his proposition is to those Allied soldiers who signed up to fight in the Second World War and even more so to those who gave their lives doing so, (it implies they were fellow travellers, duped) what a despicable piece of whataboutery that false equation represents. It gets the whole thing exactly the wrong way round.

The true state of affairs is that if you don’t fight Nazism/fascism then your cause is bad.

Apparently 9% of US citizens polled after Charlottesville believe that neo-Nazi or white supremacist views are acceptable. If the poll is representative that means 30 million people in the US share those beliefs. That is a forgetting of history right there.

How did it come to this? How did people come to forget those vile views (and the actions which resulted from them) were what their grandfathers had to fight against? How can a belief in the US as a bastion of freedom co-exist with an ideology whose aim is to extinguish freedom? (Even as that ideology is dressed up as a crusade for freedom of expression – or historical memory.)

A Professor Halford E Luccock of Yale University is quoted in the New York Times of 12/9/1938 as saying, “When and if fascism comes to America it will not be labelled “Made in Germany”; it will not be marked with a swastika; it will not even be called fascism; it will be called, of course, “Americanism”.”

Beware those who fly flags of whatever colour.

Links Battery Stromness

A spit of the Orkney mainland, a ness, juts down from Stromness towards Hoy. To defend the Sound of Hoy from the 1860s onwards artillery batteries were sited on the north shore of the Sound of Hoy.

We strolled down one evening not knowing there were remains still there. I suspect these are all World War 2 vintage.

Site of Volunteers Battery, Stromness:-

Site of Volunteers Battery, Stromness

Nissen Hut, Volunteers Battery, Stromness. I supose they kept ammunition and such here. I suspect it’s now used by Stromness Golf Club:-

Nissen Hut, Volunteers Battery, Stromness

Gun Emplacement, Links Battery, Stromness, Hoy in background:-

Gun Emplacement,  Links Battery, Stromness

Closer View, Gun Emplacement, Links Battery, Stromness:-

Closer View, Gun Emplacement, Links Battery, Stromness

Searchlight Emplacement, Links Battery, Stromness:-

Second Gun Emplacement,  Links Battery, Stromness

Reverse View Links Battery, Searchlight Emplacement. Mainland Orkney in background, island of Graemsay to right:-

Reverse View  Links Battery, Second Gun Emplacement

Sound of Hoy and Hoy from Links Battery Searchlight Emplacement:-

Hoy from  Links Battery Gun Emplacement

Remains of Gun Batteries, Stromness Golf Course, in middle ground:-

Golf Course Gun Batteries, Stromness

Italian Chapel, Lamb Holm, Orkney

During World War 2 Italian prisoners of war were held on Orkney. After the sinking of the Royal Oak, Churchill ordered the gaps between four of the islands at the southern end to be filled in. These links between the islands came to be known as the Churchill Barriers. One of the photos in the link shows – still there over 70 years later – the remains of a pre-barrier block ship that was sunk early in the war before the barriers’ construction.

The Italians were set to work on building them. At first they objected as the barriers were military measures on which they were banned from working by the Geneva Conventions. When it was suggested to them that they were being built to improve civilian communications between the islands they happily acceded.

Another part the prisoners’ legacy is the ornately decorated chapel that they built (see pictures here) on the island of Lamb’s Holm, plus the statue of Saint George nearby.

The Italian Chapel is now a tourist attraction in its own right. It was quite busy when we visited so I only photographed the outside.

Italian Chapel:-

Italian Chapel, Lamb Holm, Orkney

Statue of Saint George:-

Statue of Saint George by Italian Chapel, Lamb Holm, Orkney

Approaching Orkney

Island of Stroma, Pentland Firth. Stroma is not part of Orkney proper but lies to the south:-

Island of Stroma, Pentland Firth

A fortification on Flotta, Orkney. Hard to tell at the distance; it may have been from the Great War, World War 2 or both:-

A Fortification on Flotta, Orkney

Fortifications on South Ronaldsay, Orkney. World War 2 vintage:-

Fortifications on South Ronaldsay, Orkney

More Fortifications on South Ronaldsay. Artillery emplacements. These are almost Art Deco in style:-

More Fortifications on South Ronaldsay, Orkney

Round Church, Orphir, Orkney

Dedicated to St Nicholas this was one of only two round mediƦval churches in Scotland.

Remains of Round Church, Orphir, Orkney

Opposite view. Scapa Flow to rear right:-

Round Church, Orphir, Orkney

Round Church window:-

Window, Round Church, Orphir, Orkney

Earl’s Bu, Orphir, Orkney

Orphir is on the south of mainland Orkney, near the ferry terminal at Houton. We visited it the day before Lyness as we were scoping out the possibilities of taking the car over to Hoy. It turned out you had to book that two or three days in advance. We ended up as foot passengers.

At Orphir there is a Visitor Cente devoted to the Orkneyinga Saga as it was here there was a Viking drinking hall and where a certain Sven Breastrope (Sveinn Brestrope) was murdered. There are the usual display boards and also a video dramatising the relevant bit of the saga. Unlike at many Orkney attractions we were the sole visitors.

A modern cemetery lies to the south of the site.

Plaque on cemetery wall. Bu means residence:-

Plaque at Earl's Bu, Orphir, Orkney

Remains of Viking drinking hall from northeast:-

Drinking Hall, Earl's Bu, Orphir, Orkney

Remains of Viking drinking hall looking southeast:-

Reverse Angle, Drinking Hall, Earl's Bu, Orphir, Orkney

Remains of Viking drinking hall looking south:-

Drinking Hall, Earl's Bu, Orphir, Orkney

Remains of Viking drinking hall looking north from cemetery wall. Orkneyinga Saga Visitor Centre to left rear, farm buildings to right:-

Earl's Bu, Orphir, Orkney, Drinking Hall from Cemetery Wall

Arctic Convoy Memorial, Lyness, Hoy, Orkney

Almost the first thing you notice making your way out of the ferry terminal at Lyness on Hoy, apart from the last remaining oil tank servicing what was the naval base there and the building housing the Lyness Naval Museum is two flags and two upright stone markers.

This is the Arctic Convoy Memorial. Some of the convoys’ ships sailed from Scapa Flow.

Memorial from road:-

Arctic Convoy Memorial, Lyness, Hoy, Orkney

Memorial Plaza:-

Arctic Convoy Memorial, Lyness, Hoy, Orkney Plaza

Memorial Dedication:-

Arctic Convoy Memorial Dedication

Russian Inscription and Flag. (I note that the flag, strictly, should be that of the USSR):-

Arctic Convoy Memorial, Russian Inscription and Flag

Russian inscription:-

Arctic Convoy Memorial Russian Inscription Close-up

British Inscription and Flag:-

Arctic Convoy Memorial British Inscription and Flag

British Inscription:-

Arctic Convoy Memorial British Inscription

free hit counter script