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A Brief History of Scapa Flow
Courtesy of Tom Muir
Scapa Flow lies in the south of the Orkney Islands and is an area of 50 square miles of deep water surrounded by islands. The name, Skálpeiðflói, was given to it by the Vikings and means ‘the bay of the ship isthmus’, as longships were dragged the short distance overland from Kirkwall Bay to Scapa to avoid the long sea journey. The number of archaeological sites dotted around Scapa Flow show that people had lived by its shores for thousands of years before the Vikings arrived from Scandinavia.
Scapa Flow has seen more than its fair share of warlike activity over the years. Viking longships sheltered there before setting off on raids south. In 1263 King Hakon of Norway’s battle fleet sailed to the Hebrides to assert his claim over the Scottish islands. Defeated at the Battle of Largs, his remaining ships wintered along the shores of Scapa Flow, before sailing back to Norway with the body of the king, who had died in Orkney. In 1529 a rebellion against the Scottish King James V saw a hostile fleet sail across Scapa Flow. Lost in the fog, they landed on a beach in Orphir, probably Waulkmill, before being defeated by the Orkney men in the Battle of Summerdale. In 1812, during the Napoleonic Wars, a convoy system was introduced for sailing ships trading with Baltic ports, and two Martello Towers were built on either side of Longhope in Hoy to protect them from enemy ships until a man-o-war arrived to escort them.
By the time that World War I broke out in 1914 the Royal Navy was using Scapa Flow as their main naval base in the north. The British Grand Fleet sailed from Scapa Flow to do battle with the German High Seas Fleet in the Battle of Jutland in 1916. A few days after the battle HMS Hampshire, carrying the War Minister, Lord Kitchener, was lost off Marwick Head. The battleship HMS Vanguard blew up at anchor off Flotta in 1917 with the loss of 843 lives. The Royal Navy carried out a blockade of Germany during the war years, which led to shortages of food and materials and ultimately led to the defeat of Germany. As part of the Armistice agreement the German High Seas Fleet were interred in Scapa Flow from November 1918 until they were scuttled by their own crew on 21st June 1919. Salvage work between the wars saw most of the ships raised, but seven still lie on the seabed, a magnet for sport divers.
At the beginning of World War II in 1939 the anchorage’s defences proved to be inadequate, resulting in a German u-boat gaining entry and sinking HMS Royal Oak with the loss of 833 lives. The Churchill Barriers were constructed to seal the eastern approaches, and the Italian POWs who worked on them left the beautiful Italian Chapel as their lasting monument. Early air-raids were repelled by the ‘Scapa Barrage’, when every anti-aircraft gun fired rapidly over a period of three minutes, spreading a deadly curtain of shrapnel over the anchorage. The earlier oil storage facilities at Lyness were greatly enlarged, and huge oil tanks were built underground in Wee Fea Hill to feed the storage tanks by the shore. Some of the major naval battles of the war were fought by ships sailing from Scapa Flow, like the hunt for the Bismarck, an air attack on the Tirpitz and the sinking of the Scharnhorst.
The rise of the aircraft carrier during the war made large battleships redundant, and Scapa Flow was no longer used as a naval base. Now tankers visit to collect oil from the terminal in Flotta, where it is pumped from the North Sea oil fields.