Orkney – Stromness to Burray (around Scapa Flow) – Section 6 | Day 6

The Baton has now reached Orkney! And it is on a beautiful June morning that Orkney Rowing Club gathers together in Stromness for the start of our row along Scarpa Flow, some 24 nautical miles in total. In the water ready to go are our two St Ayles Skiffs Freya and Orkney Gold along with our three Yoals, Rinansey, Fridarey and Spangalang.

Stromness is an old town grown up at the side of a sheltered bay. It has played an important part throughout history with many ships stopping to take on fresh water and supplies. Franklin stopped here en route for his water and supplies for his ill-fated expedition into the Arctic Circle to seek out the North West Passage.

Ingram Dearness, who has kindly agreed to shadow our trip as our safety boat with his 17.5 foot Warrior called Signus, completes his radio checks with all the boats and VTS as they will be keeping an eye out for us as well – Scapa Flow can be a busy place.

Leaving at 7am with a couple of hours flood tide still to run should give us quite a fast run through Hoy Sound; this should also mean we will miss most of the dive charter boats and creel boats heading out for the day.

As we head out from the shelter of the harbour, the sight in front of us is that of Ward Hill, the highest point in Orkney standing at 481m, and to the right stands the Cuilags, 435m, the second highest hill in Orkney. They are both situated on the South Isle of Hoy.

Lying in their shadow is the small island of Graemsay, sometimes referred to locally as Orkney’s green isle, due to its lush green vegetation cover. Graemsay has two lighthouses and the first one that we see is known as The Hoy Low Light standing at 12m. Both lights were built by Alan Stevenson in 1851.

Here as we turn a little to port to nearly South East we start to get carried through Hoy Sound on the flood tide. It’s not long before we come to the end of Graemsay and are passing its second lighthouse on our starboard side, this is The Hoy High Light which stands at 33m.

On our port side standing up from the shore is The Hall of Clestrain. This property was built in 1769 for Patrick Honeyman on his estate. The estate had come into the Honeyman family as the dowry of Cecillia Graham, daughter of Harie Graham of Breckness, when she married Robert Honeyman who was grandson of Andrew Honeyman, Bishop of Orkney from 1664 to 1676. The former hall nearby (now the storehouse nearer the shoreline) was raided by the pirate John Gow on 10 February 1725.

The Honeyman family later moved to the mainland, and the house was occupied by their agent, John Rae. This hall was the birthplace of the famous Arctic explorer Dr John Rae in 1813. Sir Walter Scott visited Rae’s parents at the house in August 1814, while touring the north of Scotland.

Looking back towards Houton Head, Hoy Sound, Graemsay and Ward Hill & The Cuilag
While making good speed with the flood tide we are soon around at the mouth of Houton harbour. With no crew changes planned, or comfort stops required, we push on.

Here is where we see a lot of activity from the dive charter boats. Scapa Flow is the top diving destination of the northern hemisphere and home to the scuttled German High Seas Fleet. On 21 June 1919 more than 70 ships, almost the entire German Navy, were scuttled under the orders of Admiral von Reuter.

Today, the main seven surviving wrecks lie between 20-45m below the surface of the sea. Being almost fully enclosed by a ring of islands, there is a sheltered site in Scapa Flow in almost all weather conditions within the diving season which runs from March to November.

Rowing in a North Easterly direction along the coast we see heaps of seals lying around on the shore in the morning sun. Some of the seals take to the water and come a little closer to check us out; they mostly head back to their sunbathing but three decide to follow us for about 15 minutes, popping up behind different boats having a good look and then submerging again.

Waulkmill Bay

As we row past the mouth of Waulkmill Bay, we can see the beautiful golden sand glistening in the sun. But on our starboard, out in the deep water, there is a rain shower passing over a couple of oil tankers that have been doing a ship-to-ship oil transfer. In Orkney it’s not strange to have all four seasons in one day so t-shirts one minute and then brollies the next – unless the wind starts to blow a hoolie in which case leave the brolly down!

We now start to keep our eyes peeled along the cliffs to see if we can spot the resident pair of peregrine falcons souring above but unfortunately there wasn’t any sightings today.

Along these cliffs there are quite a few small sea caves where the wave action has washed away the softer sandstone. Above these cliffs are where the famous Highland Park distillers have their peat banks; peats are cut, dried and burnt to flavour the whisky.

Looking in a Southerly direction above Scapa Beach looking out into Scapa Flow
Scapa Distillery overlooking Scapa Beach

The coffee and goodies
We pull the boats up on the beach so that we can have some lunch and refreshments. Here we were met by the rowers that are going to change over so that they can row for the next stages. After about an hour of chin wagging and eating and the facilities used, with some new rowers on board we set off again.

Amazingly the weather is still being kind to us and the earlier shower didn’t come to much thankfully.

We head in a roughly South South Easterly direction towards our next important marker for today.

The Royal Oak buoy marks a war grave
At 12.58am on 14 October 1939 German torpedoes struck HMS Royal Oak. The battleship sank quickly with the loss of more than 800 lives. HMS Royal Oak was a Royal Navy battleship under Captain WH Benn. She had been moored off the cliffs of Gaitnip, in the north-east corner of Scapa Flow, so her anti-aircraft guns could help defend against any air attack on the vital Netherbutton Radar Station which stood above the cliffs.

On the night of 13/14 October 1939, German submarine U-47, under the command of Kapitänleutnant Günther Prien – one of the three recognised U-boat aces of World War II – crept into Scapa Flow through Kirk Sound, between the block ships which were meant to have made the Sound impassable to enemy vessels.

Royal Oak was sighted. U-47 fired three salvoes. The first landed a minor hit which the crew of the battleship mistook as a minor internal explosion, rather than a sign of attack. Despite the second salvo missing, the confusion surrounding the first hit gave Prien time to return to his original firing position, reload, and fire again. This third salvo delivered the fatal hits.

The ferocity of the explosions caused the ship to heel over alarmingly and she sank with frightening speed. Those men that managed to escape the initial explosions and ensuing fires were faced with a swim through chilling waters thick with oil. Few survived the half-mile swim to shore
From the crew of more than 1,200, 834 were lost. Recent careful research has better established the casualty list, 833 having been the figure commonly given in the past.

Captain Benn was one of the survivors and both he and his crew were credited with doing all they could to save their ship.

We continue with the same heading, with cliffs on our port side; there are a good number of seabirds flying around. We pass some salmon farm cages along this stretch just before we head into St Marys Bay. The crews stop briefly in the Holm village for a comfort stop after all the tea and cakes at lunch time.

As we row along the length of No 1 barrier, the spire of the Italian Chapel is visible on the other side of the barrier.
After the sinking of HMS Royal Oak, Winston Churchill ordered the building of these causeways to further strengthen the defences of Scapa Flow after the block ships were breached. Balfour Beatty Construction was awarded the contract. To enhance the manpower, Italian prisoners of war were brought in. At first they objected, claiming it was war work but they were convinced that it was to join the different islands.

The Chapel was built by the prisoners with whatever they could lay their hands on and make use off. The legacy that they have left is truly amazing and beautiful.

Lamb Holm is where the Italian prisoners were camped and it was also where the massive 10 Tonne and 5 Tonne barrier blocks were fabricated.

No 2 barrier under construction with one of the original block ships clearly visible
As we row around Lamb Holm and the length of barrier No 2, Ingram from the safety boat radios us to say that he’s just had a call to say that there is a pod of killer whales entered Scapa Flow on the west side. It would be brilliant to get another rowing encounter with killer whales as they seem to like the noise of the rowing boats and actually have swum under us in the past; fingers crossed they head our way.

Heading South westerly to take us out around Hunda we see an accommodation rig being towed into Scapa Flow through Hoxa Sound. It is only within the last five years that oil companies have been using Scapa to moor these rigs. Scapa Flow has lots going on all the time – a real safe heaven.

Around Hunda and just the final stretch into Burray where we can get the boats out of the water and loaded onto trailers. And for those not driving, we head for a lovely cool drink in the Sands Hotel. An absolutely amazing day on the water with a truly brilliant bunch of people.

HUGE THANKS TO ALL INVOLVED!