Northlink’s Hamnavoe entered Scrabster Harbour from Stromness, Orkney, just as day was breaking, the sky over the Pentland Firth being a mixture of mauves, lilacs and pinks, none of which were threatening – no ‘red in the morning, sailors warning’ applied.
It was calm enough, at least for the fabled Pentland Firth in midwinter. This time of year, Hamnavoe was only making two return crossings in the day, 90 minutes each way, and was only lightly loaded when I boarded. I counted just two trucks, a few small vans and hardly a dozen cars. It occurred to me that Orkney in the off season was well served. Apart from Hamnavoe, there would be the Pentalina of Pentland Ferries at the eastern end of the firth with a one hour crossing from Gills Bay, Caithness, to St Margarets Hope. Then Hamnavoe’s big sister Hrossey offers a 6hr link from Aberdeen and the Northlink freighters Hildasay and Helliar also linked directly to Aberdeen. And if I had wondered why that long distance link was still attractive to users compared to the short crossing over the firth, my recent drive at night and in poor weather up the tortuous A9 road from Perth and Inverness to Thurso for Scrabster had proven to me that a six hour voyage from Aberdeen direct to Hatston at Kirkwall, was a far more civilised and safer way to cover the distance than that road; especially for goods vehicles. Even a bad sea crossing would be preferable to driving that winding slow road in strong winds and rain, or even snow. Patches of snow were visible on the Caithness hills and a hint on the highest part of Ward Hill on Hoy, the highest in Orkney.
I am not superstitious, which is fortunate, as I noticed I was on the car deck next to a van sporting the name of a company specialising in ‘cremation services’, including “veterinary , agricultural, medical, marine and… human”. A 21st century version of the grim reaper? Instead of wearing a black cloak, a pointy beard and carrying a scythe, he had followed me onto the ship driving a white van. Not an auspicious start to the voyage. A second cause for concern at the passenger reception desk, was that I recognised the ship’s purser. At Lerwick, 15 months before, he had waited with barely concealed contempt while I failed to find the boarding card I had managed to lose in the 50 or so metres between the security kiosk at the terminal and the ship. I think it all came back to him once I had introduced myself. Give him his due, he did not throw me off the ship. As it turned out, this was his fi rst few days on the Pentland Firth after thirty years or so between Shetland and Aberdeen, so as a new boy himself, he didn’t come across as quite so superior or all-knowing.
Despite every appearance of being fairly calm in sheltered Scrabster, as we sailed the bridge announced there would be the inevitable swell coming in from the Atlantic and a fresh breeze so passengers should limit their moving about. And as we approached the spectacular cliffs and Old Man of Hoy, the surf on the shore and rollers we met around the west end of Hoy proved the skipper entirely accurate. For scenery, this has to be the most impressive of all ferry routes in the UK.
As we rounded the cliffs of Hoy and rode the tide into the western entrance to Scapa Flow towards Stromness, to Starboard on the small isle of Graemsay, the abandoned defence installations from two world wars which once guarded the ‘Flow’ were very evident, including gun batteries, searchlight and signalling stations. I recalled that before such wars, Stromness was a strategic port of call for whalers and especially for the Hudsons Bay Company picking up experienced and rugged Orcadian crews before sailing for the arctic whaling grounds and the extreme regions of Northern Canada. On my previous two arrivals at Stromness, the harbour had been busy with diving and charter boats attracted by the remaining WW1 wrecks of the scuttled German fl eet - but not this January. This time, the scene was of a few fi shing boats getting ready to sail with workboats engaged on harbour works and engineering projects around the Flow.
I was due to squeeze onto the Orkney Island Ferries’ Hoy Head on her crossing of the Flow from Houton on Mainland Orkney to Lyness on Hoy, the principle RN shore base of several around the fringe of the Scapa Flow anchorage. Today the Hoy Head besides Lyness serves Flotta oil terminal on the island of the same name at the eastern end of the Flow. The packed car park at Houton denotes where the local Orkney workforce leave their cars each morning to travel to Flotta where their cars would be just an encumbrance. Lyness ferry terminal, however, serves the community of Hoy and South Walls having a population of about 420, South Walls being joined to Hoy by causeway and separated from it by the inlet of Longhope. The ferry, as it is most days, was met by the Hoy and Walls Community minibus and two HGVs were delivering all manner of groceries and domestic fuel.
Some jettys at Lyness are relics of the Navy, one named Golden Quay because of its cost and length of time to construct during WW2. This has been refurbished and is handling renewable technologies including wave generation equipment, but the future may see a major investment for oil rig decommissioning here. Meanwhile, Lyness is a fascinating place not least to see the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre housed in remaining buildings from the naval base including in a WW2 oil tank which once held 12,000 tons of naval fuel. The visitor centre was being refurbished during the off season when I visited, but the manager showed me what she could with great enthusiasm and expert knowledge. There are outdoor exhibits and information to show the extent of the base in its heyday and there is plenty more to draw me back at a later date. The sheer extent of the shore facilities needed to support the largest naval fleet in the world is eye watering.
In WW1 colliers coaled the ships, but oil tanks were built as oil fuel became more prevalent. By WW2 massive investment in tanks holding 100,000 tons was followed by the hollowing out of the Wee Fee mountain behind the base to hold 120,000 tons more. There were gun batteries for anti-ship and anti-aircraft defence all around the Flow, while at Lyness, there was a paravane depot for minesweeping and a large facility for maintaining and storing anti-submarine netting and handling the boom defence vessels and their gear. Dozens of steam drifters and trawlers served as fleet tenders and on guard and inspection duties – and they all needed fuelling and maintaining.
Twelve thousand shore personnel were to live on Hoy including many ‘Wrens’ in what became a naval town with accommodation in huts and more substantial buildings for offices, communications, workshops, feeding and entertainment centres and churches. Many of these have gone, but a great deal remains, some reusable, others roofless shells of concrete and brick.