Author: orkneymuseum

The Swan Sketchbooks: John Cumming, 5th April – 29th May 2021

[John Cumming]

The work for this show has been significantly influenced by circumstances during the past year. Denied the opportunity to travel and research subjects, I turned instead to the sketchbooks I have filled over the past decade. Sketches which might have become prints or carvings in other circumstances have instead been developed in charcoal, graphite, oil pastel or clay.

Revisiting the sketchbooks has reawakened my deep love for the sea and for boats, and reengaged my concern at the loss of seabirds and those ecosystems which sustained them. The work bears references to a memorable week spent on the Minch aboard Song of the Whale as well as several trips aboard the Shetland Fifie Swan.

Last winter my sea-watching was limited to daily walks at Wharbeth with my dog, but the birds we saw there and the constant break on the Kirk Rocks has been added to new sketchbooks and further developed on paper and in clay.

East Foula.
Kirk Rocks.
Kirk Rocks 2.
Storm Ciara.
Venture Diary.
Waster Skerry.

The Swan Sketchbooks


John Cumming

5th April – 29th May 2021

Open Monday-Saturday, 10:00-12:00, 14:00-17:00

Admission Free.

To make a donation to any of the museums please follow the link and support us. Thank you.

A Small Norwegian Town: Kirkwall in the Middle Ages.

St Magnus Cathedral. Raymond Parks.

[Ali Turner-Rugg, Museum volunteer and former curator at St Albans Museum]

This map from 1766 shows the Peerie Sea linked to Kirkwall Bay with Kirkwall extending along its eastern shore. Orkney Library & Archive.

A small Norwegian town grew up in medieval times on a group of islands. It was on almost the same line of latitude as Bergen on the Norwegian mainland, 490km away across the North Sea. Founded according to tradition in the 11th century, at a spot where a stream ran into a sheltered harbour, it was in an ideal position relative to the Norse trade routes of the North Atlantic, and to the fertile farmland of the islands themselves. The islands were ruled by earls who owed allegiance to the king of Norway. That town was Kirkwall.

A hog-backed grave from St Magnus Cathedral.
The large triangular shaped piece of red sandstone in the museum’s courtyard is the hog-backed gravestone from St Olaf’s Church.

Because of a lack of historical references and of excavation in the area, very little is known of the earliest part of the town. The Orkneyinga Saga records that at this time “Kirkjuvagr” was a market centre with very few buildings. An arch from an early church in this area, the Church of St Olaf, survives, and the museum contains a hog-backed gravestone from St Olaf’s churchyard. An 11th -century earl was making preparations for entertaining his men during the winter in this area, shortly before he was murdered during a power struggle. This suggests that he must have had a feasting hall here.

St Magnus Cathedral. Raymond Parks.
St Magnus Cathedral. Raymond Parks.

The town received a boost about a hundred years later in the 12th century, when another earl, also murdered during a power struggle, was declared a saint. One of his successors built a small but extremely beautiful Romanesque cathedral to house his bones, a short distance to the south of the early settlement. The early settlement, ruled by the earl, became known as the ‘Burgh’, and the area around the cathedral, under the rule of the church, was known as the ‘Laverock’.

The wooden box in which St Magnus’ bones were found. It is on display in the Medieval Gallery of the Orkney Museum.

The little town developed along the natural shoreline, facing west over the bay. Today the line of modern Shore Street – Bridge Street – Albert Street – Broad Street – Victoria Street – Main Street follows that shoreline. Evidence from excavations suggests that although there was some reclamation during the medieval period, most of the infilling of the bay is 19th century. Originally the houses would have been built on the inland side of the street and only later, as land was reclaimed, on the shore side, like the 16th century buildings which are now home to The Orkney Museum.

Tankerness House, David Keith, 1950. The Orkney Museum.

Ships would originally have beached on the shore beside the little 11th century settlement, unloaded at low tide, and then sailed off on the next high tide. For traditional Viking trading ships, beaches were adequate, but cogs, which replaced them for carrying cargo around the North Sea during the 13th century, needed a wharf. There were probably timber wharfs along the shore to accommodate them, and a number of jetties have been found in gardens of houses on the west side of the main street. Remains of a small jetty were found during an excavation in the basement of The Orkney Museum, underneath the present curator’s office!

The jetty was found under the floor of the north wing of Tankerness House, to the right of the arch.

Orkney suffered badly during the epidemic of bubonic plague in the 14th century. There are few historical references to the “Black Death” in Scotland and Norway, but mortality was high and the economic effects far-reaching. The Icelandic “Lawman’s Annal” refers to the same disease affecting Orkney. The Little Ice Age was already kicking in, and the whole of Europe had experienced a series of famines, including a severe famine in the early 14th century, followed by a cattle plague. Orkney must have been affected by these events. By this time the Norwegian king ruled Orkney through Scottish earls, and links with Scotland were growing stronger. One of these earls, Henry Sinclair, built a castle on the seashore in 1379, defended by a curtain wall and a great tower. Unfortunately this castle was completely demolished in the 17th century, although foundations turn up whenever the council makes a hole in the road in the area of Castle Street.

Walls of Kirkwall Castle were uncovered during road works in the summer of 2019. Pete Higgins, ORCA (Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology).

A number of small excavations have taken place in Kirkwall over the years and have recovered many everyday items used by the medieval citizens of Kirkwall. Many of these can be seen in the Medieval gallery at The Orkney Museum. They cooked their food in unglazed grass-tempered cooking pots, which may have been made locally, and poured their ale from green-glazed jugs made of both red and white wares imported from Scotland. A group of glazed sherds found in the Tankerness House excavations were made of a ware produced in Yorkshire in the 13th and 14th centuries and found in medieval towns all along the east coast of Scotland and England. Some of these sherds, from the orientation of the glaze and wheel marks, may have come from a vessel called an “aquamanile”, used for pouring water over the hands into a basin held below.

Above and below: Unglazed grass-tempered cooking pot sherds from an excavation in Mounthoolie Lane.
Comb from the Earl’s Palace.

This 13th century antler comb (broken) with bronze rivets and end plate is thought to have been made in Norway. It probably comes from a waterlogged ditch excavated at the Earl’s Palace.

An annular brooch found in Kirkwall.
Gold ring from Waterfield Road, Kirkwall.

The better-off citizens of the town could afford to wear expensive jewellery. This man’s gold ring with the stone missing comes from Waterfield Road, Kirkwall and is probably mid 13th-14th century in date. It may have been made in the Low Countries or in Norway.

Leather shoe, found under Tankerness House. The chess piece (2) was also found in Kirkwall.

They wore decorated leather shoes, like those found with scraps of waste leather in a water main trench in Laing Street.

The 15th century saw the end of the small Norwegian town. It became a small Scottish town, when the King of Norway and Denmark couldn’t pay the dowry he had promised when his daughter married the King of Scotland. The Orkney Islands were handed over in 1468 as a pledge which was never redeemed, and were formally annexed by Scotland in 1472.

Medieval Gallery, The Orkney Museum.

For more information about the excavations at Kirkwall Castle, follow the link below.

To make a donation to any of the museums please follow the link and support us. Thank you.

Model Ship from Jack Webster.

Social History Curator Ellen Pesci with the model of a Tribal Class destroyer.

[Tom Muir, on behalf of Ellen Pesci, Social History Curator]

A recent donation to the Orkney Museum has a hidden story that we would like to try to find out more about. Bill Webster has donated a model of a Tribal Class destroyer, which his father, Jack Webster, had bought while stationed in Orkney during World War II.

Jack was born in Scarborough on the 10th October, 1909. When war came he was called up in January 1940, but it was decided that he was better employed on essential war work in Yorkshire. In the first year he installed tank traps, pill boxes and gun emplacements along the Yorkshire coast. Some of the gun emplacements were dummy ones, with telegraph poles painted to look like gun barrels. The second year saw him working on the building of a listening station at Scarborough and a radar station on the Yorkshire coast. He was then sent to Redesdale in Northumberland, where he continued to install defences.

Jack Webster, in his Royal Marine Engineers uniform.

In 1942 Jack was again called up and sent to the Royal Marine Engineers, doing exactly the same work as he had been doing as a civilian. After his training he was sent first to Iceland to construct defences before being stationed in Orkney in 1943.

Jack was stationed at ‘Scapa Camp, Scapa Flow’, which was at Scapa Beach, just south of Kirkwall. He was a joiner to trade. An officer asked him if he had any experience of fitting greenheart wooden piles to a pier. The pier at Scapa, he was informed, was damaging ships that tied up alongside it as it was bare stone. Jack said that he did have experience in fitting such piles, but that he needed specialised tools to do the job. He drew up a list of the tools that he needed and set to work with two other men. They worked from a raft, which could rise and fall with the tide.

The model Tribal Class destroyer, bought by Jack for his baby son, Bill.

It was when he was working on the pier that Jack met an old man who had been a boat builder, but was now too infirm to work. Instead, he made models of the ships that frequented Scapa Flow and sold them to sailors who were stationed there. He was also on the lookout for scraps of wood to build his models with, which the soldiers provided. When Jack’s son, Bill, was born on the 2nd January 1944 Jack bought a model of a Tribal Class destroyer from the old man, as a toy for his baby boy.

The other side of the model destroyer.

How much the model cost, Bill has no idea, but he thought that it couldn’t have been very expensive. Jack sent most of his army wages home to his wife and just kept a small amount as ‘pocket money’. He returned home after the war, where he lived until his death in 2000.

After having a clear-out it was decided to donate the ship model to the Orkney Museum, as Bill’s son and grandsons didn’t want it. Ellen Pesci, the museum’s new Social History Curator, is keen to find out who the mystery model builder was. He was an old man in early 1944, a former boat builder who was no longer fit to carry out his trade. He must have been active in the Scapa district, probably living in the vicinity of the camp. Do you have any idea who this man might have been? If you have any information, please contact Ellen Pesci at the Orkney Museum, 01856 873535 ext 2524, e-mail

Ellen with the model ship.

To make a donation to any of the museums please follow the link and support us. Thank you.

Between Islands Project: Latest Updates, Sam Macdonald interview.

Alex Macdonald, coordinator of the Between Islands Project writes:

Sam has both Orcadian and Hebridean family roots, and having grown up in Lewis, moved to Orkney where he taught art for many years. He now works solely as a sculptor and lives in Perthshire. [Sam has also exhibited at the Orkney Museum several times, as well as being a Ba’ player.]

I had the pleasure of interviewing sculptor Sam Macdonald recently for our “In conversation” film series, and the result is now online for viewing:

And we continue to receive positive reviews for the music project, the most recent posted here:

I will of course keep you updated as any other items wishes   

Alex Macdonald, Head of Performing Arts/Cultural ProjectsCoordinator, Between Islands Project

An Lanntair Arts Centre, Kenneth Street, Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, HS1 2DS   

Between Islands Project 

To make a donation to any of the museums please follow the link and support us. Thank You.

The Scuttling of the German Fleet: 2019 Summer Exhibition at the Orkney Museum. Panel 6. Salvage.

A German ship raised using compressed air.

[Tom Muir, Engagement & Exhibitions Officer]

Admiral von Trotha (right) welcomes Rear Admiral von Reuter and the German sailors on their arrival in Wilhelmshaven on 31st January 1920. While von Reuter had saved national pride with the scuttling, the order may have been passed on to him verbally by von Trotha when von Reuter was back in Germany for medical treatment in early 1919.
The light cruiser SMS Nurnberg ashore on Cava. The superstructure of the battlecruiser SMS Hindenburg can be seen on the left. Tom Kent Collection, Orkney Library & Archive.
SMS Hindenburg. Orkney Library & Archive.
The bows of the light cruiser SMS Bremse. It was towed into shallow water but turned over before it could be beached. Orkney Library & Archive.


Some of the German ships were beached and later refloated and towed away by the Royal Navy. Ironically, von Reuter’s flagship, the light cruiser SMS Emden was among those that did not sink that day. A British patrol boat had been lying alongside it at the time of the scuttling, and they were late in starting. In total, there were 19 torpedo boat/destroyers, three light cruisers and only one of the large capital ships – the battleship SMS Baden. Despite being a new ship, it was used as a target by the Royal Navy and sunk off Cornwall. There was one more destroyer captured. The B98 was the mail ship from Germany that arrived in Scapa Flow on the 22 June, the day after the scuttling. It was seized by the Royal Navy. During the attempt by the Royal Navy to tow seven German destroyers to Rosyth, a storm blew up, the destroyers broke their tow lines and most sank. One was towed back to Scapa Flow, but sank before arriving. The hapless B98 broke its tow line and drifted north, beaching at Lopness Bay in Sanday, where it was stripped of its valuable metals. The remains of its turbine engines can still be seen at low tide.

The destroyer B98 arrived after the scuttling and was seized by the Royal Navy. Tom Kent Collection, Orkney Library & Archive.
(Above and below) the remains of the German destroyer B98 at Lopness Bay, Sanday.

The Admiralty adopted a hard line when it came to deciding what should be done with the sunken ships. “There can be no question of salving the ships. And, as they offer no hindrance to navigation, they need not be blown up. Where they were sunk, there they will rest and rust.” But the sunken ships did form a hazard to shipping. The battle-cruiser SMS Moltke lay on its side, just under the surface at high tide, while the battle-cruiser SMS Seydlitz rose from the sea like a new island.

Beached destroyers. Orkney Library & Archive.
(Above and below) salvaging destroyers. Orkney Library & Archive.
Salvage workers on a destroyer. Orkney Library & Archive.

Eventually, small salvage teams would start to buy destroyers and raise them to be beached and broken up. In 1924, the scrap company Cox & Danks began to salvage not only the destroyers but the big ships, too. This was done by fitting air-locks onto the submerged hulls and filling the ship with compressed air. Teams of workers would then enter the hull and patch holes. They would divide the inside into air-tight compartments, ready to be filled with more air, which would float the ship up to the surface. The hull was cleared of obstructions by divers and then towed to the breakers yard at Rosyth. Ernest Cox, the engineering pioneer who solved the problem of raising huge, upside-down ships in deep water, bowed out in 1933 after making a loss with the salvaging. He sold his interests in Scapa Flow to Metal Industries Ltd, who continued to raise the big ships until World War II broke out in 1939. The remaining three battleships and four light cruisers were sold to small salvage businesses, who broke up the wrecks with explosives and lifted the scrap with floating cranes.

Diver Arthur Nundy during the salvage of the SMS Bayern. It was raised by Metal Industries Ltd. on 5 September 1934. Orkney Library & Archive.
Ernest Cox of Cox and Danks Ltd was a pioneer of salvaging ships. Orkney Library & Archive.
(Above and below) The upright battlecruiser SMS Hindenburg caused more problems than the upside down sunken ships. Here it is seen with superstructure cut away to lighten it. Orkney Library & Archive.
SMS Hindenburg kept developing a list when they attempted to raise it. Orkney Library & Archive. Orkney Library & Archive.
Two views of a salvage attempt on SMS Hindenburg. Tom Kent Collection, Orkney Library & Archive.
The light cruiser SMS Bremse being broken up at the pier at Lyness. Orkney Library & Archive.
(Above and below) Workmen cutting away armour plating and propellers before towing the hulks south to be broken up at Rosyth.
Airlocks were attached to the hull of the sunken ship and air pumped in to push out the water. A work crew would then have to work inside the upturned hull on the seabed, under pressure from the air being pumped in. This caused numerous cases of ‘the bends’. Orkneu Library & Archive.
(Above and below) Workers inside the upturned hulls of a ship on the seabed. They had to seal the hull into airtight compartments. Orkney Library & Archive.


The remaining wrecks are now recognised as an international destination for recreational diving and have developed into important marine habitats. Stromness Museum whose own 2019 summer exhibition focuses on the salvage and marine ecology aspects of the ships had an exhibition of German wreck material in 1974, collected during salvage work from as early as the 1920s. The exhibition went on to form a permanent display in the museum, which inspired a visiting journalist, Dan van der Vat, to write the book ‘The Grand Scuttle’ in 1982. This brought the story of the scuttling and the remaining wrecks to a larger audience for the first time. In 2001, the remaining seven wrecks were awarded ‘ancient monument’ status, giving them the same legal protection as Skara Brae or St Magnus Cathedral.

Much material has been stripped illegally by divers over the years and whilst attitudes have changed, heavy fines and protected status have not entirely stopped such thefts. The wrecks are now regarded as structures of significant cultural and heritage importance. While this has protected them from further salvage work, and has curtailed thefts, protected status cannot stop the elements and time from slowly destroying them.

A shortage of coal during the General Strike of 1926 left Cox and Danks with the problem of how to carry on work without the fuel for the salvage vessels. This was solved by Cox when he decided to cut into the hull of the battlecruiser SMS Seydlitz, which was lying on its side, exposing its coal bunkers. It was like having your own coal mine in Scapa Flow. Orkney Library & Archive,
Pumping compressed air into the ship made it buoyant again and it shot to the surface. Orkney Library & Archive.
Once on the surface the tall airlocks were replaced with shorter ones. Accommodation huts were built on the upturned hull for the maintenance crew who would sail with the ship when it was towed to Rosyth to be broken up. Orkney Library & Archive.
The maintenance crew on a hull under tow enjoy a game of cricket. Orkney Library & Archive.
The weather could make the trip dangerous. Note the man standing at the bow. Orkney Library & Archive.
SMS Kaiser under tow.
In the dry dock at Rosyth being broken up. Orkney Library & Archive.

To make a donation to any of the museums please follow the link and support us. Thank you.

The Scuttling of the German Fleet: 2019 Summer Exhibition at the Orkney Museum. Panel 5. The Murder of Kuno Eversberg.

Kuno Eversberg’s grave.
Postcard of SMS Frankfurt.
The light cruiser SMS Frankfurt in Scapa Flow, 1918. Kuno Eversberg was a mechanic onboard.

The Murder of Kuno Eversberg

At five minutes past midnight on the 24 June 1919 two German Prisoners of War were being escorted to the toilet onboard HMS Resolution by two armed guards. A shot rang out and one of the Germans, 19 year old Kuno Eversberg, moaned and stumbled, clutching his side. The guards’ rifles were checked and found not to have been fired. Able Seaman William Berry arrived quickly on the scene. One of the guards and the other prisoner helped Eversberg to the sick bay where he was examined before being transferred to the hospital ship HMS Agadir, where Surgeon Commander Frank Bolton operated on the perforated bowels. The doctor didn’t hold out much hope for Eversberg, and he died of Peritonitis (blood poisoning) at 9.40 a.m. on the 29 June. It was decided to offer his family £300 in compensation for the murder.

HMS Resolution.
SMS Frankfurt (left) with the battleship SMS Baden (centre right) and von Reuter’s flagship, the light cruiser SMS Emden (far right) beached in Sanbister Bay. Royal Navy ships can be seen in the background. The battleship HMS Resolution is on the left. James Omand. Orkney Library & Archive.

Captain Alington of HMS Resolution informed Rear Admiral Sir Sydney Fremantle of the shooting later the same day and was ordered to investigate. A search had found the murder weapon, a rifle, hidden next to B Turret, the upper of the two front gun turrets. Alington sent a telegram to Fremantle on the 20 July saying, “I regret it has been impossible to charge any particular person on board.” The Commander-in-Chief of the Atlantic and Home Fleet, Admiral Sir Charles Madden, was only informed of the murder on the 25 July – over a month after the shooting. He was furious that he had not been informed and that a court of enquiry had not been carried out. Also, Eversberg was listed among those killed on the 21 June in a document dated 29 June (the day that he died), which was sent to the German government in response to their request for the names of the dead. A court of enquiry was held but found out nothing. Among those questioned was William Berry, who said he knew nothing about the killing. A second court of enquiry was held, but this time it was more thorough. Berry had been unofficially told that he was the prime suspect and named Ordinary Seaman James Wooley from Blackburn, Lancashire, as the murderer. He was able to name witnesses who could verify part of his story.

SMS Frankfurt beached at Swanbister Bay, Orphir. Tom Kent Collection, Orkney Library & Archive.
Kuno Eversberg’s gravestone at the Royal Naval Cemetery, Lyness, with the incorrect date of his death. He died on the 29th June, but there was an attempt to claim that he died during the scuttling and so avoid the scandal of his murder while he was a Prisoner of War.

HMS Resolution had sailed for Invergordon a few days after the shooting, and the crew were given leave while it was refitted. James Wooley didn’t return and was reported as a deserter on the 30th July. He was arrested on 18th September and received 60 days detention. While in the naval prison he was informed that he was to be charged with Eversberg’s murder. A police sergeant from Orkney escorted him to Kirkwall where the charge of murder was brought against him. Wooley refused to make a statement. He stood trial at the Edinburgh High Court on the 9th February 1920. Berry said that on the 23rd June Wooley was drunk, having got German cognac from the crew of a drifter, and was saying that he was going to kill a German for revenge, as he’d lost two brothers in the war. Berry saw him later lying by B Turret with a rifle and again repeated that he “was going to get his own back.” Berry told him, “Carry on, but don’t mention my name.” The judge said that in his opinion Berry should be held as an accomplice. Another witness, Able Seaman John Copeland, had heard Wooley say he wanted to kill a German and had found him with a rifle and had taken the cartridge out of the chamber before Wooley turned violent and threatened him. Copeland hadn’t checked to see if Wooley had any other bullets on him, and he didn’t report it.

A newspaper cutting showing James Wooley (centre, wearing his sailor’s uniform) on trial for the murder of Kuno Eversberg.

Professor George Robertson MD said that having examined Wooley he found a slightly flattened spot on his skull, which was the result of being struck on the head by a stone when he was a child. He said that this old injury could cause problems in his mental state, aggravated by alcohol. The verdict was Not Proven, a Scottish law where there is insufficient evidence or doubt to convict a person. Wooley wept as his sailor friends cheered. He was discharged from the Royal Navy. A recommendation to discharge Berry and Copeland for their “low moral character” was later turned down. Whether Wooley was the real murderer remains a mystery – or was it Berry? He must certainly be considered an accomplice, as the judge observed during the trial. The medical evidence of his mental state might have helped the jury reach their verdict. Maybe it was just too close to the end of the war and a German nationals’ murder would not arouse any sympathy. Whoever the murderer was, Kuno Eversberg did not receive justice.

(Above and below) As part of the centenary commemorations of the scuttling of the German Fleet, which were held during 2019, Kuno Eversberg’s gravestone was altered to give the correct date of his death.
(Above and below) Kuno Eversberg’s old ship, SMS Frankfurt, was given to the US Navy and used as a target for aerial bombing in July 1921. This would prove that air power was of strategic importance in a war at sea.
SMS Frankfurt sinking by the bow.

To make a donation to any of the museums please follow the link and support us. Thank you.

The Scuttling of the German Fleet: 2019 Summer Exhibition at the Orkney Museum. Panel 5. The Aftermath.

Surrendering German sailors.

[Tom Muir, Engagement & Exhibitions Officer.]

Photographs by James Omand. Orkney Library & Archive.


The chaos that followed the scuttling saw acts of violence that the German government declared as war crimes. Seven men were killed that day, one died of his wounds the following day. One German sailor’s body sank was never found. There were also 21 inured, mostly by bayonet wounds, although the Royal Navy only officially recorded four. A ninth victim, Kuno Eversberg, would be murdered by a British sailor after the peace treaty had been signed. German sailors taken onboard Royal Navy ships were now classed as Prisoners of War and many were robbed and faced physical and verbal abuse from their captors. The eight dead German sailors were buried at the Naval Cemetery, Lyness, along with five other Germans who died of illness before the scuttling. A sixth sailor vanished on the night of 6th December 1918 from SMS Kronprinz Wilhelm, and his body was never found. In total, 15 German sailors would not make the journey home.

The battleship SMS Markgraf capsizing (left). Phorographed by James Omand. Orkney Library & Archive.
Four photographs of the sinking of the battleship SMS Markgraf. Her wreck is still in Scapa Flow. James Omand. Orkney Library & Archive.

Part of the German Government’s complaint of war crimes

Names have been removed as it is not known if this is an accurate account of events.

“When the German fleet was scuppered at Scapa Flow on 21 June 1919, Captain … issued an order to shoot at defenceless German officers and crews who floated in their boats or in the water. According to statements of the allied marine commission, 8 participants were killed and 4 seriously injured. The commander of the “Markgraf”, corvette captain Schumann, was shot on board his ship without any reason. A British officer held a pistol to Second Lieutenant Lampe of the VI. Flotilla’s forehead and pulled the trigger: the bullet only missed because the barrel slid off, but hair and skin were singed. Captain … issued the order personally to his officers to shoot Lieutenant Wehr immediately if his boat V43 sank, even though he knew that it was not possible to close the opened valves; only after a semaphore message from the British repair ship was the shooting abandoned.”

SMS Markgraf. Orkney Library & Archive.
Boarding party removing German flags from a destroyer. Orkney Library & Archive.

“The same fate impended on corvette captain Cordes. Even though he called out “don’t shoot, we surrender, shooting will be a horrible massacre”, the Second Lieutenant of the British trawler “Gamma” threatened him with execution by shooting. Second Lieutenant Horstmann of the “Baden” was bound and forced on the “Baden” and ordered to start the diesel engine under the threat of execution by shooting. On his refusal abuse followed. The shooting continued on the swimming men of lieutenant (junior grade) Hoffmann who had jumped into the water from the boats during the cannonade, likewise on the men from the groups of Nordmann and Klüber. The cannonades were under the leadership of the British naval officers of the armed trawler “Gamma” and “Truston”, as well as the buoy steamer “Bendoria” and aimed against the ships as well as the lifeboats, unmindful of the white flag that was shown and that the crew raised their hands. Civilians also participated in the shooting.”

Salvage work on SMS Baden.
SMS Baden was beached at Swanbister Bay, Orphir, along with the light cruisers Frankfurt (seen here on the left) and Emden.

“The crew under the command of Second Lieutenant Klüber were even forced to return to their sinking ship under the threat of immediate execution by shooting and after lifejackets and lifeboats were taken away they were left behind with the words “Then you shall die on board”. Second Lieutenant Zaeschmar with his men was also forced to return to his sinking boat V126. He had wanted to leave the boat in a cutter with 13 men when he came under fire by a drifter, on which civilians participated again in the shooting, by a destroyer and by the English on V45. The machinist Markgraf, Bleike and Pankrath were killed at this; furthermore Schröder, Hebel and Müller were wounded, so 7 of the 13 persons that were present on the cutter. By an abdominal bullet wound seriously injured, and later deceased, Pankrath was not allowed to be lifted from the alongside attached cutter, instead the cutter was left to drift into the surge with the seriously injured and the two dead, despite repeated pointers to this fact. Only after 2 hours, following multiple requests from “Sainthorst” [Sandhurst, depot ship], were investigations into the cutter pursued.

In general it can be established that ships and lifeboats, despite waving a white flag and raising hands, were shot at by destroyers, drifters and tugboats with machine guns, Winchesters and rifles, always under leadership of British naval officers and with involvement of civilians, and that the shooting was not even abandoned when people jumped from the cutters into the water.”

Surrendering German sailors, with a light cruiser behind them.

A statement given by a German sailor about his treatment onboard the Royal Navy battleship HMS Resolution is an insight into the treatment of prisoners on that ship.

Sworn statement of Lieutenant G.:

“The behaviour of the English crew from the ‘Resolution’ was quite beyond belief. At every available opportunity (fetching food, relieving oneself etc.) our men were insulted in the meanest manner, caps were struck from their head, navy cap ribbons were stolen etc.; these things happened even though two guards were always in attendance with bayonet fixed and a sergeant. The first mate seemed to be embarrassed by the unbelievable behaviour of his men, but was powerless against it. The examination of the luggage was performed under the supervision of two officers of the ‘Royal Marines’ in the presence of myself and the whole staff sergeants of the ship. The keys to their clothes bags had been previously taken away from corporals and crews by the English. Nevertheless not a single lock was opened, but every bag was sliced open, in some cases even lengthwise from top to bottom. The staff sergeants put aside whatever was at all possible during this examination, during which a mess was caused deliberately. Footwear, soles, razors, cigars, self-made works were cast aside inconspicuously despite my constant objection.”

German sailors and luggage under tow from a Royal Navy pinnace being taken to a British ship.
German boats under tow by a Royal Navy drifter.
British soldiers guarding a beached German destroyer on the island of Fara. Tom Kent Collection. Orkney Library & Archive.

To make a donation to any of the museums please follow the link and support us. Thank You.

The Scuttling of the German Fleet: 2019 Summer Exhibition at the Orkney Museum. Panel 4. Eyewitness Accounts.

Fleet tender Flying Kestrel.

[Tom Muir, Engagement & Exhibitions Officer]

The German ships in Scapa Flow. Tom Kent Collection, Orkney Library & Archive.
The 137 feet long tug and passenger tender Flying Kestrel was commandeered by the Admiralty during World War I and used as a tender to carry water to the ships in Scapa Flow.

Eyewitness Accounts

On the morning of Saturday 21st June 1919 a group of excited schoolchildren gathered at the pier in Stromness to board the fleet tender, Flying Kestrel. It supplied the ships with water from Stromness but today it was hired to take the children from Stromness Public School on a trip to see the German ships in Scapa Flow. At that time the Stromness Primary School and Stromness Academy, as they are now, were combined in the one place, the Stromness Public School. The children arrived at the school at 09:45 and proceeded to the pier. It would be a school trip like no other and one that would never be forgotten.

Ivy Scott, a pupil on the Flying Kestrel.

“It was a good day for a sea trip – a light breeze and the sun shining when we, pupils and teachers of Stromness Academy, set sail on the Flying Kestrel, which ran water out to the fleet from the Pump Well, in Stromness. This day she embarked us all for a trip down Scapa Flow to see the German Navy. A boy from my school group lived in Lyness, so he was an excellent guide, shouting in a loud voice the name, tonnage and gun power of each ship as we came along. Our headmaster, Major Hepburn, had given us instructions on how to behave in such circumstances. We simply stared, amazed. One of our party was handing around a poke of sweets, and we were all just chatting pleasantly.”

Peggy Gibson, a pupil on the Flying Kestrel.

[The pupils had been] “warned by the teachers that [we] hadn’t to make any noise or cheer. We were to show no signs of hate or anything, but no signs of friendliness either … I thought it was rather hard. And not to wave to the men.”

This photograph of the Flying Kestrel seems to show its decks full of small children, some standing on the lower railings. This must be the Stromness Children leaving on that fateful day, 21st June 1919. Orkney Library & Archive.
The Flying Kestrel at home in Liverpool. It used to take sightseers on cruises around the Irish Sea.
The German ships at anchor around the small island of Cava (middle right), as seen from Orphir. It was here that John Tulloch witnessed the scuttling from the Calf of Cava, the small lump of land that is held on to Cava by a narrow spit of land. It looks like another island in this photograph. Tom Kent Collection, Orkney Library & Archive.

John Tulloch, a small boy on Cava.

“As I sat upon my knoll, musing my childish thoughts and watching the cattle and arctic terns and the surrounding ships I saw a flag being hoisted on the flag halyards of the SMS Friedrich der Grosse, the ship nearest to the Calf of Cava. When the flag reached its highest point a light breeze caught it for a moment and it fluttered out, the iron cross and double eagle of Germany, then right behind it another red flag climbed the mast but no breeze stirred it, like a piece of old rag it hung in shame*. Then across the waters a bell began to ring, clang, clang, clang…” [the bell of the SMS Friedrich der Grosse]

“…I gazed around from ship to ship and could see that they were all now either flying flags or in the act of hoisting them, and a great number of the ships were listing over to one side. Returning my gaze to the Beyern** that was lying immediately in front of where I sat I could see that something most unusual was taking place aboard as she had now taken a dangerous list to the right. Many times before I had seen ships being listed over so that seaweed and barnacles could be scraped off their bottoms and at first this occurred to me, but as the Beyern kept listing further and further my mind panicked. “She has listed too far, they will never get her back.” I thought. By this time I was standing up with excitement, then from the far side of the ship appeared two boats loaded with sailors; they headed straight for the Calf of Cava, their nearest shore right below where I was standing. I was rooted to the spot in fascination as the Bayern continued to list further and further until she at last dropped over on her side, hesitated for a few moments before turning upwards, then with a slow motion the bows disappeared under the water, the stern shot up into the air and with a smother of foam and exploding bubbles of air she slid into the depth of Scapa Flow. For a while I stood in a daze watching fountains of water shoot up from where the SMS Beyern had disappeared. Then across the waters floated a German cheer, “hooch, hooch, hooch”. Suddenly my senses returned; I looked around me and on every side battleships, cruisers and destroyers of the German High Seas Fleet were sinking…”

*[John Tulloch had mistaken this red flag as Communist, when in fact it was the signal to attack the enemy.]

** [Actually the battleship SMS Friedrich der Grosse.]

SMS Bayern sinking. Orkney Library & Archive.

Kitty Tait, a pupil on the Flying Kestrel.

“We were looking at them and I saw what I would say would be one of the biggest ships – suddenly it shuddered and shuddered and shuddered and then suddenly it toppled over and I can remember seeing Germans coming off on rafts.”

James Taylor, a pupil on the Flying Kestrel.

[The German ships’] “decks were lined with German sailors who….did not seem too pleased to see us. Suddenly without any warning and almost simultaneously these huge vessels began to list over to port or starboard; some heeled over and plunged headlong, their sterns lifted high out of the water. Out of the vents rushed steam and oil and air with a dreadful roaring hiss. And as we watched, awestruck and silent, the sea became littered for miles round with boats and hammocks, lifebelts and chests… and among it all hundreds of men struggling for their lives. As we drew away from this nightmare scene we watched the last great battleship slide down with keel upturned like some monstrous whale.”

Boats leaving German destroyers. Orkney Library & Archive.
SMS Seydlitz lying on its side. Orkney Library & Archive.

John Tulloch, a small boy on Cava.

“The SMS Seydlitz was anchored in shallow water therefore did not turn turtle like most of the others, she heaved over on her side and there she lay like a monster whale with one half above water. The Germans must have had pigs aboard as one swam away squealing in terror until it eventually cut its own throat with its front hooves.

“The SMS Moltke turned turtle near the island of Rysa Little but as she was also in fairly shallow water we could hear the masts and superstructure crunching as it broke with her weight bearing down upon them into the sea bed. When she finally subsided her keel still showed above the water where it could be seen for some time afterwards, but she kept settling down until only her keel showed at low tide.”

The Royal Navy whaler Ramna grounded on the hull of SMS Maltke. Orkney Library & Archive.

Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter, Commander-in-Chief of the Interned Squadron.

“What a sight! In front of us the Grosser Kurfürst reared herself steeply into the air. Both cables parted with a loud clinking; she fell heavily to port and capsized. The red coating of her bottom shone wide over the blue sea.”

SMS Grosser Kurfurst sinking. Tom Kent Collection, Orkney Library & Archive.

Len Sutherland, pupil on the Flying Kestrel.

‘I saw at least one sailor shot on the deck of one vessel, but whether by a German officer or a British officer I could not say. There was chaos aboard the ship. Sailors were making rafts and jumping into the water.’

J.R.T. Robertson, pupil on the Flying Kestrel.

“On the way back we passed the sinking ships, very close to, and saw what appeared to be hundreds of men on the surface swimming. As we looked further away, we heard small arms fire – machine-guns. I can still hear it, and heavier guns; and eventually, of course, we got back to Stromness.”

Rosetta Groundwater, a pupil on the Flying Kestrel.

“Men were in boats, and I definately saw one man shot. He dropped right out of the stern of the boat. The other men were standing with their hands up. I presume it was surrender.”

Armed boarding party alongside a German destroyer. Eight German sailors were killed that day; a ninth would be murdered in Scapa Flow while a prisoner. Orkney Library & Archive.
Surrendering German sailors. Some were indiscriminately shot.

John Tulloch, a small boy on Cava.

“But they did not all sink without some effort from the few British ships still remaining in the Flow. Drifters were pulling at huge battleships like ants with large beetles. Two destroyers, the Westcott and the Walpole, were now tearing around the Flow blowing out anchor chains. The drifter Clonsis had the SMS Dresden in tow, but could not quite make it to Cava before it sank. The anchor chains of the SMS Nurnberg was somehow dropped and this ship drifted into the shore directly below my home on the island of Cava.”

“The SMS Derfflinger was anchored under the cliffs known as The Bring on the island of Hoy, and she made a great fuss about sinking. After listing over and over until she lay on her side then she turned turtle and her stern shot up into the air until she appeared to be standing on her bows, then she dived into the depth below, something aboard her exploded and fountains of water shot into the air, after a little while a second explosion sent more water rocketing out of the sea above her. The water around where she had vanished seethed and boiled for a long time after she had gone. She must have been a mighty Gladiator in battle and such an undignified death was hard to bear.

“The SMS Kaiser turned over at a great speed. I was watching her turn over and saw a steam pinnace that was in the davits on her off side soar into the air; the fastening ropes broke and it somersaulted over and over slowly in the air before it dropped down into the sea right side uppermost and floated away to drift in below my home and lie on the rocks until my uncle later salvaged it.”

The light cruiser SMS Nurnberg ashore on Cava. Tom Kent Collection, Orkney Library & Archive.
The battlecruiser SMS Derfflinger sinking. Orkney Library & Archive.

Peggy Gibson, pupil on the Flying Kestrel.

“As a child I thought, why shouldn’t they go down with their flags flying, even though they had been conquered. We felt sorry for them, you see – we felt sorry for those that were in the sea and the struggle with the ships. Being children, we didn’t think of them as being an enemy.”

Kitty Tait, pupil on the Flying Kestrel.

“At the time that they were sinking the ships my own mother was at the end of the pier and my eldest brother was home on leave out of the Navy. He was lying in bed, and of course they were all up the wall about us down there – frightened we were going to be pulled under with the suction of the ships going down. She surely ran upstairs to this older brother and shouted,

“James Robert, do you know what the Germans are doing?”


“They are sinking their ships rather than let the British get them, or the French or any of the Allies.”

And he just said,

“Yes, Mother, if that had been the British you would have said – ‘What brave men’.””

A German destroyer sinking. Note that it has been half painted. Orkney Library & Archive.
The battlecruiser SMS Hindenburg was the last ship to sink at 17:00. The light cruiser SMS Nurnberg is behind it, note the boats leaving. John Tulloch’s home is behind it on the island of Cava. Orkney Library & Archive.

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The Scuttling of the German Fleet: 2019 Summer Exhibition at the Orkney Museum. Panel 3, Part 4 HMS Vega.

HMS Vega.

[Tom Muir, Engagement & Exhibitions Officer]

1st Battle Squadron in April 1915. A much larger force than Vice Admiral Fremantle commanded in 1919, his squadron comprised the battleships Revenge, Resolution, Ramillies, Royal Oak and Royal Sovereign.
1st Battle Squadron in 1917, HMS Benbow leads HMS Marlborough and HMS Iron Duke.

HMS Vega

When the 1st Battle Squadron left to carry out exercises on the morning of the 21st June 1919, there were only a few ships left in Scapa Flow to guard the German ships. The German ships only had enough coal to keep steam pressure up in order to run generators to provide electricity for the ship. There was not enough steam for the ships to sail, so they were considered safe. The ships left behind were the depot ship Sandhurst and the former battleship Victorious, which had been stripped out and was used as a workshop. The force that guarded the German ships consisted of three destroyers, HMS Walpole, HMS Westcott and HMS Vega. The Vega and Walpole were undergoing repairs at the depot ship, while the Westcott was refuelling at Lyness. There were also several smaller vessels, mostly armed trawlers.

HMs Vega making smoke.
HMS Vega in Russia, 1919.
HMS Walpole, on service in World War II.
The depot ship HMS Sandhurst, ex Manipur, in Malta between the wars.
HMS Sandhurst still acting as a depot ship for destroyers in 1940.
HMS Sandhurts earlier in World War I when it was used as a dummy battleship pretending to be HMS Indomitable. It was later converted to a depot ship.
HMS Victorious in 1903. It was an obsolete warship by the outbreak of World War I. Its guns were removed and fitted on a monitor and it was converted for use as a workshop.

When news of the scuttling reached the Royal Naval destroyers, the ones under repair immediately raised steam to sail. HMS Westcott tried to use her guns to break anchor chains and beach German ships. When HMS Vega was able to sail, it rushed towards the German destroyers, anchored in Gutter sound between Fara and Hoy. On reaching them there seems to have been either a problem with the engine or communication between the captain and the engine room, but as a photograph taken at the time shows, HMS Vega rammed into the much smaller German torpedo-boat/destroyer. Maybe it was an attempt to push the German vessel ashore – it must be remembered that many of these small ships were not manned at the time.

HMS Vega rams a much smaller German destroyer during the scuttling on 21st June 1919. It suffered damage to its bows in this collision. Orkney Library & Archive.
HMS Westcott, the third destroyer in Scapa Flow when the German ships were scuttled, seen here on service in World War II.
German destroyers beached at Mill Bay, near Lyness. Tom Kent Collection, Orkney Library & Archive.
HMS Vega between the wars. Also seen is the aircraft carrier HMS Furious, the ship that Commander Edwin Dunning landed his Sopwith Pup on in Scapa Flow on 2nd August 1917; the first time an aircraft had landed on a moving ship. At that time it didn’t have a flat-top, just a flying off deck at the bow.
HMS Vega on escort duty in 1944.

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The Scuttling of the German Fleet: 2019 Summer Exhibition at the Orkney Museum. Panel 3, Part 3. The Scuttling.

SMS Bayern sinking by the stern, 21st June 1919. Orkney Library & Archive.

[Tom Muir, Engagement & Exhibitions Officer]

4th Battle Squadron of the Grand Fleet on exercises in Scpap Flow. The departure of the 1st Battle Squadron on the morning of the 21st June to carry out torpedo exercises in the North Sea left von Reuter free to carry out the scuttling unhindered.
German sailors abandoning a destroyer. Orkney Library & Archive.

The Scuttling

The 21st June was a lovely, sunny day. To Rear-Admiral von Reuter’s surprise, the guard ships of the 1st Battle Squadron sailed from Scapa Flow that morning to carry out anti-torpedo exercises with the Atlantic Fleet. The exercises had been postponed twice because of bad weather, and the commander-in-chief of the Atlantic Fleet, Admiral Sir Charles Madden, was keen that it should be carried out without further delay. To von Reuter, who was wearing his dress uniform and medals, it looked suspicious. He thought that the ships would return at speed and seize his ships. He decided that he could not postpone scuttling the ships any longer. He had the signal flags hoisted.

To all Commanding officers and the Leader of Torpedo Boats. Paragraph eleven. Confirm.

To which the reply was:

To the Commander of the Internment Force. Paragraph eleven is confirmed.

‘Paragraph Eleven’ was a 19th century student drinking term, which had a military tone, and meant ‘keep drinking’.

Admiral Sir Charles Madden, Commander-in-Chief of the Atlantic Fleet.
Vice Admiral Sir Sydney Fremantle on Arctic patrol, 1917. His actions of taking the 1st Battle Squadron away from Scapa Flow on such a sensitive date as the 21st June 1919 (when the Armistice was originally due to end) has led to criticism, which is unfair. He was following the direct orders of his superior officer, Admiral Sir Charles Madden, but he did raise his concerns about leaving Scapa Flow on that day.

When exactly the order was given is unclear, but it was some time between 10.00am and 11.00am. The order took some time to reach all the ships, as some were anchored out of sight of von Reuter’s flagship, SMS Emden, and had to wait until it could see the signal flags of other ships. The torpedo boat destroyers were the last to get the order. The crews of most of the ships had no idea what was going on, as the officers were instructed to keep it secret. Some did tell their crews when they guessed that something was going on. The concern was that the British might find out if everyone knew, or that the Soldiers Council would inform on them. The first sign of the scuttling came when one of the naval trawlers noticed flags flying on some of the ships and their crews taking to small boats. On closer investigation, the light cruiser SMS Frankfurt was seen to be sinking, but it was later beached by the British. A message was sent to Fremantle’s 1st Battle Squadron. The ships headed back to Scapa Flow at speed.

The battlecruiser SMS Seydilz was in shallow water and so lay on its side. Orkney Library & Archive.
The battlecruiser SMS Hindenburg sinking by the bow. This was the last ship to sink that day and the only one to sink on an even keel, remaining upright. The ships were scuttled in such a way that they would roll over as they sunk, which was thought to make salvage more difficult. It turned out to be the opposite and the upright Hindenburg proved difficult to salvage. Behind the Hindenburg, on the right, is the light cruiser SMS Nurnberg. The island of Cava is behind the ships. Orkney Library & Archive.

Around midday, the tolling of a ship’s bell was heard coming from the former flagship, SMS Friedrich der Grosse. This was the signal to abandon ship. At 12.16pm it rolled over and sank. The first of the 52 ships to sink that day was on its way to the bottom of Scapa Flow. A group of around 200 school children from the Stromness School was enjoying a sightseeing trip on board the tug Flying Kestrel when the German ships began to sink. It was an exciting and frightening spectacle for the children from the older primary school classes and the secondary school. The children didn’t know it then, but they were watching history being made.

SMS Hindenburg on the seabed. Orkney Library & Archive.

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