Scapa Flow has been as an important haven for over 1,000 years. This stretch of water, very roughly 20km from east to west and 15km from north to south lies, atoll-like, within the shelter of the surrounding Orkney islands. The result is one of the largest natural harbours in the world.
Today's Scapa Flow is home to a major oil terminal at Flotta. Here up to 10% of the UK's oil arrives by pipe from North Sea oilfields before being transferred to tankers for shipment around the world. Traffic through these busy waters is overseen by the Scapa Flow Control Centre at Scapa Bay, a mile south of Kirkwall.
With a flat bottom at depths of between 60 and 150 feet, an absence of strong currents, and an abundance of wrecks, it is also the centre of a major tourist diving industry, based primarily at Stromness. A significant number of dive boats cater for many the thousands of divers who come to Orkney each year to dive Scapa Flow.
Though no evidence remains, Scapa Flow was probably used for fishing by the builders of Maeshowe, 5,000 years ago. But it first came into recorded history with the Vikings. Their world extended from Iceland to Ireland, and from Scandinavia to North-Eastern England, and Orkney lay at its centre. The name comes from the Old Norse, Skalpeid-floi, or Bay of the Long Isthmus.
In 1670 Stromness, already a whaling and fishing centre, became the main European base for the Hudson's Bay Company. Later, in 1813, commercial shipping going around the north of Scotland to northern Europe to avoid French ships in the English Channel and North Sea came under threat from US privateers supporting the French. This resulted in the first shore defences overlooking Scapa Flow, with the construction of the Hackness Battery and two Martello Towers protecting Longhope Sound, at the southern end of Hoy. (Continues below image...)
But Scapa Flow would probably have remained no more than a natural wonder had not war clouds gathered over Europe in the early 1900s. With a war with Germany in prospect, the Royal Navy needed a base for the Grand Fleet better located to counter the German High Seas Fleet based in Baltic ports. Scapa Flow was chosen, and many thousands of service personnel were based on the surrounding islands, and on Hoy and Flotta in particular.
In 1919 the German High Seas Fleet was brought to Scapa Flow after the German surrender. A misunderstanding over the progress of the peace talks led the German commander, Admiral von Reuter, to believe that war was about to resume. To avoid his fleet falling into British hands he ordered the scuttling of the 74 German battleships and other warships at anchor in Scapa Flow, on 21 June 1919. Many of these were salvaged for scrap after the war, but others still remain on the sea bed as a magnet for divers.
1939 brought war with Germany again, and Scapa Flow was reactivated as the main base for the Royal Navy. One of Scapa Flow's most tragic events took place when, very early in the morning of 14 October 1939, the German submarine U-47 found a way through the sunken blockships intended to seal off the narrow eastern approaches to Scapa Flow. It torpedoed HMS Royal Oak, at anchor in the mouth of Scapa Bay, and made good its escape. 834 members of the Royal Oak's crew were killed. HMS Royal Oak remains on the floor of Scapa Flow as a war grave, and diving it is not permitted. The Royal Oak Memorial Garden at Scapa Bay commemorates the tragedy.
This event led to a visit by Winston Churchill to Orkney and the starting of the building of the Churchill Barriers, causeways linking together the five eastern islands of the group and ensuring that side of Scapa Flow would in future be completely secure. The barriers were completed in May 1945, and remain in use as causeways today.
WWII left other legacies around Scapa Flow. Every headland on the surrounding islands seems to carry a disused lookout and a gun emplacement or two. And on Hoy it can seem that many of the structures are military in origin. During WWII, Orkney's pre-war population of a little more than 20,000 people was tripled by the 40,000 or so military personnel based here: with exact numbers varying over time and depending on the number of ships at anchor in Scapa Flow.
During the early years of WWII, up to 12,000 personnel were based in and around Lyness to support the defences of the naval anchorage at Scapa Flow and the ships that used it. To put this in context, the population of Kirkwall in 2011 was a little over 9,000. To support this huge population, what amounts to a large town was built.
Only a tiny proportion of what once stood here still remains, but it is easily enough to give a sense of how this place must have seemed in the early 1940s. The Scapa Flow Visitor Centre is a "must see" for anyone visiting Hoy. When we last visited in September 2018, the visitor centre was closed for renovation. It reopened in July 2022. We've included on this page a couple of photographs taken inside the visitor centre in 2002: which are now obviously out of date. Another must see on any visit to Lyness is the deeply poignant Lyness Royal Naval Cemetery.
You can also get a real sense of the defences of Scapa Flow during WWII at the Ness Battery, just outside Stromness, which was one of the many coastal batteries that helped defend Scapa Flow in two world wars. The mess hall at Ness Battery is home to some remarkable murals.
Scapa Flow is an atmospheric place. Today's intense oil-related activity exists alongside the relics of many earlier periods of use, both on land and under water. The history of Scapa Flow is intimately intertwined with the history of Orkney, and an understanding of one requires some understanding of the other.
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Scapa Flow In Fiction
Bloody Orkney by Ken Lussey (29 June 2021).
It’s November 1942. Bob Sutherland, Monique
Dubois and the Military Intelligence 11 team fly in to review security in Orkney. But an unidentified body has been found.
It becomes clear that powerful men have things they’d rather keep hidden and MI11’s arrival threatens the status quo.
Parts of the novel are set around Scapa Flow.