Between Islands Online Exhibition

The Orkney Museum is excited to announce that the Between Islands Online Exhibition is now live. It looks at the heritage, arts and crafts of the three island groups, the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland. Here is a brief introduction to the exhibition.

Alex MacDonald, coordinator of the Between Islands Project writes:

I am delighted to say that the first of our Between Islands museum exhibitions is now online!

Orkney: Between Islandsexplores the inspiration and legacy of islands in the arts, crafts and literature of Orkney, Shetland and the Outer Hebrides. Material includes books and prints documenting island journeys and scenery, paintings by island artists, portraits of island writers and their publications, and examples of island crafts, with a particular focus on Harris Tweed and Fair Isle knitting, but also exploring the lesser-known Orkney and Shetland tweed industries and the promotion of contemporary makers by The New Craftsmen. Featured objects are drawn from the permanent collections of Orkney Museum, Orkney Library and Archive, Shetland Museum and Archives, and Museum agus Tasglann nan Eilean.

Material from the partner museums is complemented by historic photographs, archive recordings, interviews with contemporary artists and craftspeople, paintings, objects and links to makers and collections across Scotland which further illuminate the stories behind featured objects, places and personalities.

The Orkney Museum collection has been curated by Rachel Boak, and designed and produced by Rebecca Marr and Mark Jenkins of cultural heritage and arts creative partnership Kolekto.  Many thanks to them for all their hard work in creating this resource. 

St Magnus Cathedral West Window

West Window, St Magnus Cathedral.

[Fran Hollinrake, St Magnus Cathedral]

If you have been inside or walked past St Magnus Cathedral any time since March 2021, it won’t have escaped your attention that there is significant work going on at the west end of the building. This is the first phase of a ten-year plan of remedial and conservation work, aimed at protecting our lovely cathedral for centuries to come.

The work currently being carried out is two-fold. Firstly, the previous wooden vestibule, installed in the 1920s, is being replaced with a new vestibule – there is an architect’s drawing of the finished article inside the cathedral at the moment. The second part of the work is the removal of 19th and 20th-century cement pointing, and its replacement with traditional lime mortar, which will help greatly with the problem of damp or wet stone. This phase of work should all be finished by the end of August.

For much of the past five months there has been a big scaffolding platform inside the west gable, which has enabled specialist glass conservators to clean the west window, inside and out, so it is looking really sparkly (I think that’s the correct technical term).

The scaffold platforms gave me the opportunity, hard-hatted and viz-vested, to climb the ladders under supervision, and examine the window close up – a rare privilege. I took some photos and shared them on social media, and they received many positive comments and questions, so I hope in this blogpost to answer some of those queries and reveal a few of the window’s secrets.

The West Window. Friends of the Society of St Magnus.

The west window was installed in 1987, to mark the 850th anniversary of the cathedral’s foundation in 1137. There were many events that year to celebrate this significant milestone, with gifts offered by the Norwegian royal family including a beautiful tapestry which hangs inside the south choir aisle. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II came to Orkney to unveil the window officially, and the cathedral has a large leather-bound book, signed by Her Majesty, which names all the individuals, schools, companies, societies and organisations who contributed to the window’s cost.

Th artist chosen to create the window was Crear McCartney, an artist from Lanarkshire who had studied at Glasgow School of Art in the 1950s. On graduating, he was approached by Dom Ninian Sloane of the recently re-established Pluscarden Monastery (later Abbey) in the north-east of Scotland to work with himself and Br Gilbert Taylor at the monastery’s stained glass workshop. McCartney stayed with the monks for several years, and during the first year he lived as one of them; rising before dawn for the early offices, attending all the services, speaking to only a few people at set times, and taking all his meals in the monastic refectory. As meals were eaten in silence, one monk read continuously from the Bible. By the end of his time at the monastery, McCartney knew the Bible well and drew on its imagery, symbolism and stories for much of his subsequent career. The Pluscarden monks signed their names OSB (Order of St Benedict), while McCartney, in playful tribute, signed his OPIC (Only Presbyterian in Captivity).

West end of the cathedral showing the window. Raymond Parks.

In the 1980s, some of the early twentieth century windows in St Magnus Cathedral were in need of repair; the work was done by Pluscarden monks; their mark can be seen on several windows. Then in 1987 McCartney himself was approached to design the cathedral west window. For many hundreds of years the window tracery had been filled with plain glass, although following the First World War it had been proposed to have a stained glass memorial to Lord Kitchener, lost on HMS Hampshire off the west coast of Orkney in 1916. This scheme was abandoned in favour of the stone tower at Marwick Head, unveiled in 1926. Thus the west window comprised clear glass well within living memory (indeed some Kirkwallians are still unhappy about the window being stained glass at all).

Over his long career, McCartney is thought to have made nearly 120 stained glass windows for churches and other establishments – not just in Scotland, but in England, Europe and America. According to one source, he experienced synaesthesia, when senses become crossed over – he ‘heard’ sounds as colours and particular musical keys were translated into different colour schemes. Whatever music he was listening to as he designed the windows would be expressed in the colours of the glass. Another inspiration was the delicacy and colours of butterfly wings, a visual image which in his mind easily translated into stained glass design.

Luckily for us, we don’t have to guess too much about McCartney’s inspiration for the west window. For every window he created he hand wrote, in exquisite calligraphy, a full explanation. We are fortunate (thanks to my conscientious predecessor custodians) to have retained our original hand-written documents; according to his son, many places discarded or lost them. The main theme, we are told, is that of light, specifically the light of God. McCartney cites George Mackay Brown’s observation that ‘nowhere is the drama of light and darkness enacted with such starkness as in the north’.

Terns and Primula Scotica.

The window, even from the ground floor, invites scrutiny of the details. The bottom right panel depicts a chunky Orcadian headland, in fact the cliffs at Yesnaby on Orkney’s west coast. Flying above the cliffs are two Arctic terns, birds often seen in an Orkney summer, flitting around the coasts. To the left of the headland is a lamb with a cruciform (cross-shaped) halo, representing the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) – a symbol for Christ referenced in the Gospel of St John. Around the lamb can be seen five deep pink flowers which botanists will recognise as the Primula Scotica, a rare primrose only found in Orkney and the far north of Scotland. There are five of them to indicate the five wounds of Christ. The artist explains in his exposition that these images were inspired by Edwin Muir’s poem ‘Transfiguration’, where he writes of ‘flower and flock entwined as in a morning field’.

Lamb of God.

Next to the lamb are ears of healthy grain, and below them fish swim happily. There is clear symbolism here of the Biblical tale when Christ fed the five thousand with just a few loaves and fishes. Fish appear many times in the Bible, from the calling of the Disciples (‘I shall make you fishers of men’) to the use of the fish as an early secret symbol of Christianity. But these images are also firmly rooted in Orkney, showing the islanders’ lives of fishing and farming.


The bottom left panel depicts a Viking longship, in reference to Orkney’s Norse past and its place in the great Icelandic sagas. More specifically it is said to represent Rognvald Kolsson, nephew of St Magnus, builder of the cathedral, and later saint in his own right. The Orkneyinga Saga tells us that following the foundation of the cathedral (most likely around 1150, when it was consecrated), Rognvald took fifteen ships from Orkney filled with friends and supporters, plus the Bishop himself, and set off on a three-year round trip to Jerusalem. Along the way he charmed a French princess and burnt down a Spanish castle; when he reached the Holy Land we read that as well as paying homage at the religious sites, he also enjoyed some healthy sporting competition with his friends by swimming across the River Jordan. On his return to Orkney, the sails from his ships were taken and stored in the cathedral to dry.


The four central panels of the window show strong Christian images in the form of four creatures that traditionally represent the four evangelists and gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Clockwise from bottom left they show an angel (St Matthew), an eagle (St John), a winged bull (St Luke) and a winged lion (St Mark). There are several explanations as to why this pictorial scheme, or tetramorph, has the saints depicted as living creatures, usually to do with the start of the Gospel, or the main theme, or how Christ is depicted in that particularly Gospel.

St Matthew.
St John.
St Luke.
St Mark.

To the right of the tetramorph is a beautiful blue cross, inspired by a silver cross found in Trondheim in Norway, thought to date to the 10th century. Now on display at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) Museum, this small artefact is a reminder that Norway gradually became Christian in the 10th century, and that when St Magnus Cathedral was built, Orkney was part of the Norwegian kingdom. Shortly after consecration, the cathedral became part of the archdiocese of Nidaros, with its magnificent new cathedral in Trondheim.

Blue Cross.
Silver cross from Trondheil. NTNU.

The blue cross is answered higher up the window. In the centre of the sun-like circle is a pink patterned cross, the design of which is thought to date back to when the cathedral was a site of pilgrimage. We sometimes forget that St Magnus Cathedral was not built as a parish church (St Olaf’s in what is now St Olaf’s Wynd served that purpose); instead it was built to house the shrine of a saint – later two saints. In its Medieval days, everything in the cathedral would have revolved around the high altar, the constant rounds of services, and the shrine of St Magnus. Pilgrims came from all over northern Europe to venerate the remains of Magnus and to ask for his help. Like all pilgrimage towns, Kirkwall would have been full of lodging houses, eating places, guides, and souvenir sellers. Pilgrims would have been keen to purchase a special badge from their visit, to prove that they had reached the shrine and also as a memento of the journey. Many pilgrims’ badges were made of tin or lead, cheaply made and affordable to most (although there were no doubt more expensive versions to be had), and it’s very likely that St Magnus had his own pilgrim’s badge. In the 19th century a brass mould, or matrix was discovered in a niche in the cathedral – it is thought to date to Medieval times. The mould would have been filled with lead to make little crosses for pilgrims to buy; we aren’t completely sure that this was the design of the pilgrim’s badge but it would certainly have been used to create objects for devotional use. Crear McCartney used the cross’s design as the centrepiece for his beautiful window to show this essential aspect of the cathedral’s history. The original mould is now on display in the Orkney Museum.

Pink cross.
St Magnus cross and mould. Orkney Museum.

Surrounding the cross is one of my favourite design elements in the window. Another stained glass artist, Christian Shaw, who worked with McCartney on many of his windows (and who has also worked on windows in St Magnus) said that McCartney had the ability to combine the very old and the very new into his designs; the great circle in the west window is a good example. The circle has been used in many religions and cultures as a symbol of the divine; it is a perfect shape, and has no beginning, middle or end. Here, it represents God. But the panes of coloured glass that make up the circle are not random – they are carefully shaped and spaced out to show the shape of Maeshowe Chambered tomb, and also the Ring of Brodgar stone circle, both prehistoric monuments. The glorious colours – red, orange, gold, yellow, not only depict the sun, but also the flare on the Flotta oil terminal, once a recognisable feature in Orkney’s night sky, as the chimney burnt off excess methane gas and made a ball of flame in the darkness. Old and new sites of power and technology, combined in one stunning image.

Upper part of the window.

Finally, at the apex of the arch is the crowning image of the whole window. In quite a small panel (requiring the viewer to step back to look at it) at the top is a triangular window showing two design elements. The first is a white bird – a dove. In traditional Christian imagery, the dove can be a symbol of peace; when Noah’s ark sent out birds to see if land had been found, it was the dove who returned with an olive branch (also a symbol of peace) in its mouth, showing that God’s punishment was over and the flood waters were abating. The white dove is also a representation of the Holy Spirit, and in religious art (particularly that of the Renaissance) the dove is usually depicted at the very top centre of the image, radiating spiritual love downwards.

But behind the dove lurks something more sinister, something that brings us right back to Magnus again. For here is an axe, which the saga tells us was used by the cook Lifolf to kill Earl Magnus Erlandsson, on the orders of his cousin Hakon. This is a symbol of Magnus’s death, some would say martyrdom, and it hangs above everything else as a reminder that it was this act of violence that led to Magnus becoming a saint, and this cathedral being built.

Dove and axe.

Because this window is at the west of the cathedral, above the main entrance, it is best seen in the afternoon or evening, as it picks up the light from the setting sun and throws intense multi-coloured splashes onto the arches and columns of the nave. The effects change according to the weather, the time of day, or the month of the year. At midsummer the cathedral plays host to the St Magnus International Festival, which puts on a variety of musical events over several days. On one glorious evening I watched from the west end lighting desk as the window colours crept down the north side of the nave, swung slowly round to the east, and shone fully gold onto the communion table and organ screen, where the shrine of St Magnus would have stood during the cathedral’s Medieval heyday as a site of pilgrimage. It was a magical moment. Another serendipitous occasion came when as part of the Festival, religious paintings by Norwegian artist Håkon Gullvåg were hung between the pillars of the nave. The light shining through the window produced some amazing effects as it fell onto the paintings. The depiction of Noah’s Ark, suspended in deep space, was bathed in a rainbow of colour from Crear McCartney’s window – very fitting as the rainbow is the Christian symbol of God’s covenant – a promise to people on earth that the suffering was over and that He would love them always.

A splash of coloured light.
Noah’s Ark by Håkon Gullvåg, bathed in coloured light.

When you first walk into St Magnus Cathedral and see the west window, the first impression is one of vibrant colour and dynamic shapes. But look a little closer, and the details begin to reveal themselves in all their beauty. Once the conservation work is finished at the west end, the window will look truly magnificent.

Coloured light playing around a pillar.

All photographs by Fran Hollinrake, unless otherwise stated.

To make a donation to St Magnus Cathedral, or any of the museums, please follow the link and support us.

Thank you.

Beside the Ocean of Time: The Centenary of George Mackay Brown.

[Tom] The Orkney poet, George Mackay Brown, was born in Stromness on 17th October 1921. This, being his centenary year, the Orkney Museum are celebrating his life and work in the exhibition, ‘Beside the Ocean of Time’, named after his last novel. I thought that I would give you a taste of the exhibition, which will be on show until 30th October 2021. This ‘summer exhibition’ runs later than usual, and begins a month later too. This was to fit in with Covid 19 restrictions, allowing the previous exhibition to run a bit longer, due to the restriction on visitor numbers. It also takes in the date of his birth; it would seem strange if we ended it before the actual centenary. The reason that we are holding the exhibition in Kirkwall rather than it being in his home town of Stromness is that Stromness Museum had a wonderful exhibition that people were not able to visit last year, so that remains open. I worked closely with Stromness Museum and the Brown family in the creation of this exhibition. To simply ignore the centenary was not something that we could do. George is a major figure in not just Scottish poetry but is internationally respected and loved.

The exhibition includes many pieces belonging to George. The roundels depicting the cathedral builder, Jarl Rognvald Kali Kolsson (above, centre) is flanked by his father, Kol Kalisson (left) who oversaw the building of the St Magnus Cathedral, and Biship William the Old (right) who had Magnus cononised and who consecrated the building. These images were painted by the Orkney artist, Stanley Curister, as a working design for decoration for the St Rognvald Chapel in the cathedral. He eventually had full length figures carved by local craftsman and artist, Reynold Eunson to decorate the chapel, which is in the east end of the cathedral. The story of St Magnus and his nephew Rognvald in the Orkneyinga Saga was a major influence on George. He returned to the martyrdom of Magnus and Rognvald’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land in both stories and poems.

George was a highly sensitive child who hated school. He did remain there to take his highers, after which he was drafted to serve in the war. In 1940 he had a medical and was found to have tuberculosis, which meant he was unfit for service. He was sent to East Bank Sanatorium in Kirkwall, but at that time a diagnosis of TB was practically a death sentence. He responded to treatment and was allowed home, where he was cared for by his Sutherland born, Gaelic speaking mother Mhairi Mackay. His father had died suddenly of a heart attack that same year.

George attended Newbattle Abbey College under the mentorship of the Orkney poet Edwin Muir, who was the Warden of this new adult education college. While attending a second year there George took ill and had to return home. He was once more diagnosed with TB and was sent back to East Bank Sanatorium. While there he started a magazine called ‘Saga’ (above), which he edited and wrote for. Also in this picture is ‘Per Mare’, a pageant to mark the 150th anniversary of Stromness being made a Burgh of Barony in 1967, which was written by George. He also wrote a very popular weekly column for The Orcadian newspaper under the title of ‘Under Brinkies Brae’. Examples of his original hand written manuscripts can be seen here (bottom left). He wrote all his work in longhand.

The cartoon by ‘Spike’ in The Orkney Herald features George, who was a reporter for the newspaper under the name of ‘Islandman’ (bottom right). He is wearing his trademark scarf. This refers to a football match between Orkney and Shetland, which he was covering for the newspaper.

A portrait of George, with his scarf, by his school friend Ian MacInnes.

‘Rackwick’ by Sylvia Wishart. The valley of Rackwick in Hoy was a huge inspiration to George. Sylvia rented a cottage there, which was a gathering place for George and other poets.

George’s diploma from Edinburgh University.

George was awarded the OBE in the New Year Honours List in 1974, but it was a title that he never used.

Honourary degrees from The Open University and Glasgow University.

Original artwork by Bryce S. Wilson for ‘Four Poets for St Magnus’, which he contributed a poem to, along with his friends Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney and Christopher Fry. It was done as a fund raiser for restoration work on St Magnus Cathedral.

‘Window in Rackwick’ by Sylvia Wishart is the view from her rented cottage, North House. This painting Sylvia gave to George as a gift. A study for a version of this painting can be seen below.

George’s jacket, jumper and lamp, which he used to write by.

‘The Saltire Society Andrew Fletcher Award 1991 For Services to Scotland George Mackay Brown’. The sculpture was designed by the Orkney artist Ian Scott.

A special binding of George’s novel, ‘Beside the Ocean of Time’ made by the Booker Prize Award when it was shortlisted in 1994.

‘Brodgar Stones’ by George, with artwork by his nephew, Erlend Brown.

Text panel showing the artwork in Rose Street, Edinburgh, based on George’s poem ‘The Beachcomber’.

As well as text panels which tells the story of George’s life and works, there are also many photographs, both from his own photo album and from the Gunnie Moberg Collection in the Orkney Library & Archive. These photos shows some of the famous poets and musicians who came to Orkney because of the St Magnus Festival, which was founded by George and the composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, who features in three colour portraits above.

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

Inspired by the Huntscarth Clothing, Orkney Museum. Poems by Lydia Harris.

[Tom Muir] The Orkney Museum is not only the islands’ treasure house that holds precious artefacts from prehistory and historical times, but is also a valuable resource for creativity. Many pieces have been reproduced as jewellery, artists sketch them, musicians drawn on a story as inspiration for a piece of music. It is also a gift for the poet. Lydia Harris contacted us regarding the Huntsgarth Clothing and her poetic response to it. They were discovered by George Spence while cutting peats in May 1968 and are all that is left of the burial of a child from sometime in the 18th century. As the burial was in peat the clothing survived, but the child’s body did not. All that was left was fine, fair hair, thought to have belonged to a child of around four years of age (this was also based on the size of the clothing). The clothes were made from good quality cloth, reused as a shroud for the child. A man’s bonnet was laid over the child’s face, While the clothing are now brown, stained by the peat, the bonnet would originally have been green. But who was this child and why was it buried in a peat bog and not in a kirkyard? These are questions that we cannot definitively answer.

[Lydia Harris]

Lydia Harris
The Huntsgarth Clothing, right.

My poetry pamphlet ‘A Small Space’ is to be published this summer by Paper Swans Press. It won first prize in the 2020 Paper Swans pamphlet competition. The poems it contains are inspired by the Huntscarth Clothing; clothes from 18th century child bog burial, on display at the Orkney Museum, Tankerness House.

The bonnet.

The big Scots bonnet is what you notice first. Placed on the small plaid sleep suit, in a glass case upstairs, next to the lump of bog butter. When you read that these are a child’s burial clothes you are drawn into the long ago drama of death and burial in a peat bog far away from any human settlement.


You can’t knit a whole baby
but you can a bonnet.
You can’t knit the pulse in the fontanelle
but you can twine horsehair to one side.
No one can knit a chin,
but shrink wool to felt as proof against weather.
The yarn won’t form the space behind the eyes
You can start from the underside of the brim.
You can’t stop blood or flex muscles,
but you can increase the count.
You can’t knit a slowing pulse,
but you can decrease to five stitches
drawn together at the crown.

I have stood beside the Huntscarth clothing many times. Spent visits looking closely at the plaid garment, at the spiral of careful stitches in the bonnet. A S Henshall, distinguished archaeologist, wrote an account of the burial, noting the nature of the cloth and the style of the bonnet. She described the process of recording and preserving. Her article animated the find for me. I began to see the small body, the folks who gathered to bury it.

A. H’s Typewriter

ogles finger tips with fish eyes,
is bonsaied, tortured and espaliered.
AH’s typewriter is quietly spoken
with a hint of the north east,
well-oiled, its hidden places titillated
with bristles from the brush clipped in the lid.
The e is a half moon, occluded.
The space bar smells of pistons in an engine house.
It sounds like the upstairs dance class,
Grade Four tap, Tuesday evenings.

The more I read, the more I felt close to A S Henshall too. The final steps in my acquaintance with the clothing came when I explored the Lyde Road, first on the map and then in person. The burial was uncovered at the Harray end of that lovely track. I began to see the dead child amidst those hills, on the braes there, beside the burn.

Will I know the place again?

a hole dug in the peat bog
it can hardly be doubted, a child
a body could not be proved
it seems it lay on its back
arms across the chest
bonnet on top

Bog butter.

I mentioned that the clothing is displayed next to a lump of bog butter. This is one of the wonders of museums. The way they offer context and insight. Bog butter is a mystery too. Why it was buried, even what it is! But all bog burials remind us that bog lands have long been understood as half way places. Entrances to other hidden worlds.

Lydia Harris lives in Westray and has published three poetry pamphlets. Her first full collection is to be published by Pindrop Press in 2022.

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

Hoy and Walls Wartime Trail

The Hoy and Walls Wartime Trail was written by Ian Collins and Gavin Lindsay and is available as a leaflet at Orkney museums and other places. To get the information to as many people as possible it is being published here, online so that everyone can see it and learn about the military history of this important area.

(Captions L-R) Hackness Mortello Tower, Ore Farm, 17a REME Workshop and 17b REME Garage, 10 Crockness Camp, 21 Garrison Cinema, (22) HMS Iron Duke, HMS Exmouth, 25 H4 HAA Battery, Hills of Wards.
(Captions L-R) RAF Hydrogen Bottling Plant, RN Firefighting School, RAF Barrage Balloon and Caustic Soda Store, RN Torpedo Attack Teacher, RAF Hydrogen Plant, RN Night Attack Teacher, Generator House, Radar Training School.


George Manners.

[Tom Muir] I received a message from Mary Manners about her father’s war record, and a piece of World War II history that is not well known these days. I suggested that she send me any information and images that she had with which I could create a blog. The following is her tribute to her father, which I am sure you will find interesting.

by Mary Grace Manners

The mast at HMS Ganges naval training base in Suffolk.

I write this as a tribute to my father George Edward Manners who served in the Royal Navy from 25th November 1926 to 9th February 1953. I have researched archives and records and found much information which either was not previously known or only minimal details of events. He served for 27 years, 2 months and 12 day

George’s naval career started in November 1925 when he was just 14 years old. This came about when George attended a club in Goldington, Bedford, where he lived, which was run by a Commander Lionel Skipwith (retired) to teach boys boxing and life skills. For George boxing was to be a life- long passion.

HMS Arethusa, a veteran of the Crimean War, was reused as a training ship from 1874-1933.

Commander Skipwith realised George had a very keen interest in the Navy and after discussing this with Georges parents arranged for George to join the training ship Arethusa. George was with Arethusa for one year and was transferred to HMS Ganges in November 1926 as a Boy 2. HMS Ganges was another training institution for the Royal Navy. Life at Ganges was hard, very hard by today’s standards. Up at 5.00am to scrub floors and latrines and showers were across the parade ground and boys were made to run across the parade ground from the shower block in rain and snow to their dormitories unclothed. If caught smoking the punishment was harsh ….the culprit was made to chew and swallow the remainder of the cigarette! This did not stop George smoking and he did so until he died at the age of 87!!

Mess Hall at
Accommodation hut at HMS Ganges.
Boy sailors at HMS Ganges (shore establishment) in 1926, showing George front left.

I have been to the HMS Ganges museum at Shotley, Ipswich and although the camp has long since been closed it stands as a memorial to the young boys who trained there, many of whom, like George, stayed in the navy for many years.

The museum has the ‘button’ from the top of the mast which stood at the far end of the parade ground and was climbed by the boys as part of their training. The boys who climbed to the very top were known as’ button boys’ as they had stood on the button at the summit. George was proud to say he was one of the button boys.
Over the years it has become a respected title to have been a Ganges Boy.

Boys on the mast at HMS Ganges. Note the ‘button boy’ at the very top.
HMS St Vincent training base.

George was at HMS Ganges until May 1927 when he was in the first group to be transferred from HMS Ganges to HMS Vincent which had just opened as yet another training institution. This meant George was one of the first to be trained at St Vincent. On 31st July 1927 George graduated once more within St Vincent to a Boy 1.

The St Vincent museum is now just one room on the site of the training shore establishment which has now become a college. George left St Vincent on 17th October 1927 to join HMS Effingham on the 18th October 1927. On the 10th August 1927 he was made Ordinary Seaman whilst serving on HMS Effingham.

HMS Effingham, between the Wars.

George left HMS Effingham on 31st March 1930 and went to HMS Victory – a shore establishment at which further training and naval exams were taken and further qualifications gained. George was there for 6 weeks after which he joined HMS Champion on 17th May 1930 to September 22nd 1930. On September 23rd 1930 George joined HMS Royal Sovereign and was promoted to Able Seaman on 15th April 1931.

HMS Royal Sovereign in Scapa Flow during World War II.

17th October 1932 George left the Royal Sovereign to return to HMS Victory (shore establishment) where he stayed until he left on 16th January 1933. January 17th 1933 George left Victory to go to HMS Excellent (another shore establishment) for further training and exams. George left Excellent on 30th August 1933. The next day, 31st August 1933, George joined HMS Hood.

HMS Hood was the pride of the Royal Navy.

He served on HMS Hood as an able seaman for three years until he left on 10th August 1936 which was his 25th birthday. George loved HMS Hood and a brass replica which was made by able seaman Tilley from brass shells from the Hood’s ammunition and mounted on wood from HMS Hood was pride of place on the wall (along with his medals and silver oars won in rowing competitions on board ship) where ever we lived. My elder brother Ray now has the care of this and dads medals which are proudly displayed at his home.

George Manners in 1938.

11th August 1936 saw George back at HMS Excellent for more training and exams until he left on January 4th 1937.
Then he was back to sea to join HMS Suffolk on 5th January 1937. He was made leading seaman on 6th December 1938.

Whilst serving on HMS Suffolk he was based at the China Station in Hong Kong and Wei-Hai-Wei. On 21st November 1939 George was made Acting Petty Officer (this was the initial stage before becoming a Petty Officer).

George Manners (back row left) with the Rowing Team from HMS Suffolk while stationed in China.


HMS Suffolk was deployed from the China Station and after a brief stay at Portsmouth was sent to Scapa Flow…a remote Naval Base at Lyness. This is situated on the Orkney island of Hoy. Dad remembered it as remote, cold, windy and very wet!!! it must have been a shock after the bright lights of Shanghai!!

HMS Suffolk.

During the Norwegian campaign HMS Suffolk was deployed to Stavanger (a Norwegian port) to shell it from the sea. This was to be done as the Germans had invaded Norway and Stavanger Airport would have been very useful to them in their mission.

HMS Suffolk was dive bombed by German aircraft all the way home to Scapa Flow, She was so badly damaged the Captain had to order her to be beached before reaching Lyness to save her. Her stern was under water and she was in real danger of sinking completely.

Senior personnel from Lyness were alerted and sent across Hoy Island to Long Hope beach where Suffolk lay to get the injured back to the base hospital and to remove the dead.

The bodies of the dead are interred at the Royal Naval Cemetery at Lyness. All 32 men from HMS Suffolk who either died on September 17th 1940 or survived the night and died on 18th September 1940. George was awarded a DSM for his bravery that day.

Royal Naval Cemetery, Lyness. Rhonda Muir/ .
George Manners DSM.

The London Gazette of Friday 4th October 1940 reports:

The King has been graciously pleased to give orders for the following appointments to the Distinguished Service Medal and to approve the following awards:

For gallantry and devotion to duty when engaged with enemy aircraft off the coast of Norway:

Acting Petty Officer George Edward Manners P/JX 128640

The crew of HMS Suffolk, including George Manners, 1938.

In July 2011 I was able to visit Lyness. After searching various archives I found an eyewitness testimonial of the events of 16th/17th April 1940 written by a stoker on HMS Suffolk. He wrote a brilliant account of that day which brought the event to life.

HMS Suffolk on the River Tyne.

I have copied his transcript as it shows a very personal view of that day. [Courtesy of Orkney Library & Archive, ref. no. D1/930]

At 16.37 hours on the 16th April 1940 HMS Suffolk, an 8” gun cruiser of the County Class, slipped her moorings at Scapa Flow and headed out into the North Sea. She was escorted by four destroyers – HMS Juno – HMS Jason -HMS Kipling and HMS Hereward indicating a mission of some importance.

We, on the lower deck ( I was a stoker at the time) knew nothing of our destination. All we knew was that over the last few days all our armour piercing shells had been off loaded and replaced with some alternative, that latrine buckets had been distributed throughout the ship and that no hammocks were to be slung. Our objective was a matter of much speculation.

And so began OPERATION DUCK.

We had sailed from Portsmouth in the late evening of September 6th 1939 and as we sped westward down the channel with the ships sides freshly camouflaged and completely blacked out (no striking matches or lighters on the upper deck) we were actually aware that our lives had changed. Gone were the carefree peacetime days, the make believe war games….this was for real and I remember my thoughts were a blend of excitement and apprehension.
We had previously been engaged in patrolling the Denmark Straight north of Iceland – a monotonous activity –carried out in semi darkness- the sheer boredom of which tended to allay any anxieties.

But this was something quite different. We were off on an unknown and possibly aggressive adventure and again I experienced a feeling of excitement tinged with trepidation. Supper came and went with an unusually subdued atmosphere and then came the announcement that the Commander would shortly be addressing the ships company.
The eagerly awaited address by the Commander duly came.

“ We are proceeding to Stavanger in Norway to bombard the airfield there. The enemy is in occupation and using it to advance their push northward. Our objective is to render the airfield unusable. We expect to reach the target area at 04.00hrs. Ships Company will go into action stations at midnight and you are advised to be wearing clean underwear!”

Luftwaffe in Norway
Luftwaffe seaplanes near Sola Airport, Stavanger, 9th April 1940.

This ominous announcement conjured up rather unpleasant possibilities and then when the padre followed with a few prayers the reality of the situation really struck home and we wondered what the next few hours might bring.
At midnight the mess decks emptied as we went to our action stations. For me this was standby on the turbo-generators in the forward engine room. I descended down the two ladders into the engine room. The two generators were situated at the rear accessible only by a cat walk from the main deck plates and down another short ladder to the bilge plates, a position virtually at the bottom of the ship, well below the outside water line.

At my control position I stood in front of the generators looking aft about 10ft from the bulkhead which rose some 40ft up to the deck-head behind which lay the after engine room. On either side of me and approximately eight feet above me were the thrust blocks from which the main shafts revolved and which passed through the bulkhead then on through the after engine room on its way to the propeller. It was quite a pleasant place to keep watch, clean, well lit, pleasantly warm and despite the drone of the generators and the rumble of the propeller shafts, not excessively noisy. For company I had my watch keeping colleague and a leading stoker looking after the lubricating pumps.

The middle watch passed uneventfully and at 04.00hrs we changed watches. My colleague was taken over by the new stand-by watch-keeper and I took over the watch. At the same time I could hear the engine room telegraphs clanging and the revolution telegraph pinging then the main shafts began slowing down. Obviously we were nearing our rendezvous point but we down below could only assess what was going on from the sounds we could hear from up top.

Stavanger after the war.

At 04.14 hours, although we knew nothing about it at the time, Suffolk had located HMS Seal the submarine designated to mark the position for us and our two Walrus aircraft were catapulted off to spot for the gunners in the bombardment soon to commence. A RAF Hudson was to drop flares to pinpoint the target but apparently these could not be identified due to the anti-aircraft fire and rockets of the airfields defences.

A Walrus seaplane being launched by a catapult from HMS Bermuda.

Our speed had now been reduced to about 15 knots. At 05.13 the bombardment began.

As the 8” guns let drive the ship shuddered violently [NB: it is very likely that George Manners would have been manning the guns at this time as he was a trained gunner]. The vibration of the guns dislodged debris from the masses of steam pipes passing across the deck-head to the after engine room which rained down like confetti. Blue smoke belched in with the air supply fans accompanied with a strong smell of cordite.

We seemed to be swinging back and forth firing in violent bursts. This continued for almost two hours in which 217 rounds were fired and at 06.04 hours the bombardment ceased.

Apparently the observing Walruses were unable to maintain radio contact due to local interference but some damage was done and fires had been started. During the engagement a torpedo was seen to just miss our stern. After withdrawing we proceeded northward to intercept five destroyers reported to be in the area but failed to make contact. Again we knew nothing of this but we were well aware of the revolution telegraphs persistently pinging and I could see from the main shafts that we were increasing to high speed.

HMS Suffolk.

The mission obviously complete and now bowling along at around 30 knots tension relaxed and we all felt a great feeling of relief. At around 06.30 hours we were allowed to send someone to the messes for bread and butter and the galley also produced a boiled egg each.

Just before 08.00hrs it was announced there would be no change in watches and that we were to remain where we were. All in all we were pretty pleased everything had gone so well and that we were speeding back home. Normal chatter and banter resumed heightened by a sense of achievement.
But our euphoria was short lived.

The stoker on the telephone bellowed from above “enemy aircraft approaching”.

Anti-aircraft guns on HMS Suffolk.

Very soon we could hear the sharp crack of the anti-aircraft guns and at 08.26 hours the first bombs came down…….not all that close at first and sounding like depth charges. There followed a period of quiet and then the ship made a violent turn causing it to heel at almost 45 degrees. Buckets, toolboxes, and anything loose rattled across the deck plates whilst we had to cling to the handrail to maintain our balance. Simultaneously more bombs fell – closer this time – with shrapnel clanging against the ships side. There followed another period of peace and then came a sharp heel and more bombs. We were being attacked by waves of three aircraft at high level and apparently the Captain was sighting the bombs as they fell and taking evasive action accordingly.

Below decks we soon realised that the ship heeling and having to cling desperately to the handrail was the signal that more bombs were imminent. Each time we wondered if one would come crashing into the engine room. Some near misses were barely 5 yards away, the shrapnel making a fearful clattering. The situation, the sharp heeling, the clinging on and the clattering now became a pattern.

On either side of me the propeller shafts were rumbling noisily at around 280 rpm and I could imagine the conditions in the two boiler rooms – each with four boilers – at this speed of something over 30 knots. Each boiler front would be pulsating alarmingly as twelve sprayers roared into each furnace like giant blow lamps and the air supply fans screaming to maintain pressure.

Occasionally we could hear the rhythmic thump- thump of the pom-poms and we learned, later, that at times we were being dive bombed. At 10.57 hours, after enduring these attacks for over two hours, we felt a violent shudder and the ship seemed to dip momentarily.

Anti-aircraft guns on HMS Suffolk.

A large flash came from the generators and I could see from the ammeters that something drastic had happened. Nevertheless we kept going but a while later I saw water gushing in from the propeller shaft’s glands in the bulkhead.
I hurriedly informed the chief Engine Room Artificer and each of us taking a spanner tightened the glands to reduce the water flow. Quite clearly the after engine room was flooding – the engines obviously out of use and with just the two engines now running our speed would be no more than 18 knots

.Our avoiding actions became sluggish and we now presented a far more vulnerable target. My thoughts were that as we had sustained a hit at 30 knots how much easier it would be for the German Aircraft to hit us only travelling at 18 knots.

Still the attacks came.

Suddenly water started spurting over the deck plates from about 10ft up – drenching the telephones on the bulk head.
A seam on the plates had lifted. Even more alarming was the creaking of strained rivets some 20ft up where a large bulge had appeared with numerous further gushes of water. If the bulkhead gave way, releasing tons of water into the engine room there would be no hope for the ship or her crew.

But the danger had been seen and pandemonium broke out. Much shouting and clattering of feet came from the cat walk. Planks and tools were hastily brought down and the shipwrights amid frantic sawing and banging began shoring up the bulkhead. Anxiously we stood looking up…the bulkhead cracking…shrapnel battering outside…fully aware that another direct hit would be fatal. After a tense half hour the shoring was complete and seemed to be holding. Water streamed down from the innumerable splits…the flooding kept at bay by a furiously thumping bilge pump.

Junker JU 88 bomber, the same as the aircraft that seized Sola Airport on 9th April 1940.

We then heard that a fire was raging in one of the cabin flats and the whole after part of the ship was flooded. Only the battened down tiller flat remained dry. Part of the quarter deck was under water and we had a list to port. The generators were running but serving no purpose. We were now relying on the other two generators buried deep below the bridge to maintain power.

The attacks continued with monotonous regularity. 12.00 hours came. Then 13.00hours….At 13.05 power to the steering motors failed….Temporary repairs restored power for a time but at 13.25 hours all power to the motor was finally lost. Sometimes the period between attacks lengthened but just as we began to hope they had given up another attack would come with its explosions and clattering shrapnel.

It was not until 15.12 hours that the Germans finally withdrew. We had been under continuous attack for 6 hours and 47 mins. 33 attacks on us. Nearly 100 bombs aimed at us. A dive bomber had achieved just one hit with a 1000lb bomb which had exploded in the spirit room. It burst into the adjacent after engine room and disabled both X and Y turrets, lifting the top of X turret and killing all the crew inside.

Junker JU 87, or Stuka, dive bombers. It is likely that JU 87s were used to dive bomb HMS Suffolk, while the official report also mentions high level bombers, most likely JU 88s, which were stationed at Sola.

At 16.20 hours HMS Repulse and HMS Renown came to our assistance and when I was relieved at 19.00 hours I had been down below for 19 hours, we were surrounded by at least a dozen warships.

We limped into Scapa Flow early the next morning listing heavily to port……..our quarter deck awash having steered the last 164 miles by main engines only. The Commander gave the order for HMS Suffolk to be beached at Long Hope, Hoy to prevent her from sinking completely.

One officer was killed Thirty one ratings were killed. 35 ratings had been wounded.

A few had scrambled out of the engine room but were badly burned and died that night.
Only one do I recall who survived and he was receiving plastic surgery still many years later.

Two enemy aircraft were shot down. Three enemy aircraft were damaged.

Our two Walrus planes made their way back to land in lochs in Scotland.

Little if anything has ever been publicised of this – what I suppose was considered a minor incident in the history of the war. It was not a great success as the aircraft attacks against us cruelly testified. But we did what we were asked to do and 32 good men lost their lives.

For them, now resting in the bleakness of Scapa Flow some recognition of their sacrifice seems long overdue.

George Reed, Stoker, HMS Suffolk.

HMS Suffolk beached at Longhope.

As I previously stated I had the privilege to visit the war graves of all 32 servicemen who died on Suffolk during this mission. I was pleased to see a beautiful cemetery with flower boarders and trees overlooking Scapa Flow a fitting resting place for these hero’s.

(Above and Below) The Royal Naval Cemetery, Lyness. Rhonda Muir/ .

A prefix to this report of that day:

Years later my father was back at Chatham Docks, Kent and as he was passing through the barrack gates he was approached by a man who had an artificial arm. He asked if he (dad) was George Manners. George replied ‘Who wants to know?’ The man then explained that he had been serving on HMS Suffolk on that campaign and he wanted to thank George for saving his life by pulling him out of the burning turret. This relates to the ‘one survivor’ in the eye witness account who was still receiving plastic surgery for his injuries years later.

On board HMS Suffolk in Scapa Flow.

Another incident which happened that day:

After the main hit when the Suffolk was being shored up, above deck the order was given to seal the doors to the flooding section immediately so as to save the entire ship from flooding and ultimately sinking. George was the Acting Petty Officer and it fell to him to carry out this duty. He knew there were marines still in that section but it had to be done to save the ship and all the rest of the crew.

Having read the above eyewitness account it would seem the bomb had killed the marines prior to the doors being sealed but this event haunted George and he rarely spoke of it although confessed to thinking of it almost daily.

Copy of a photograph of Chief Petty Officer George Edward Manners DSM (far  right... on eHive

George Manners was awarded the DSM for his actions that day which included rescuing colleagues from the burning turrets whilst still being bombed and one colleague, George Courtney, related years later that George had thrown live bombs overboard.

It was also reported that because the Suffolk has already carried out their bombardment on Stravanger (and used most of her ammunition in that mission) whilst being attacked on their return they very soon ran out of ammunition thus leaving themselves with no power and nothing to fight back with.

After this HMS Suffolk was temporarily repaired then sent to Clydebank where she was restored to her former glory and returned to action within a year. George never returned to HMS Suffolk but she and HMS Hood remained his favourite ships. Georges naval record shows him leaving HMS Suffolk on 27th May 1940 but being as she was out of commission from 17th April 1940 it is likely this time would have been spent at Lyness Naval Base

HMS Manestheus was a Blue Funnel liner that was requisitioned by the Royal Navy and used as a minelayer.

28th May 1940 George was back at HMS Victory shore establishment. He stayed there until 7th June 1940.
George joined HMS Menestheus (minelayer) on 8th June 1940. During his time on Menestheus George was made Petty Officer on 21st November 1940. Once again he returned to HMS Victory on 31st December 1940 and stayed there until January 10th 1941 and returned once more to HMS Excellent on 11th January and studied there until 11th August 1941.

12th August 1941 saw George joining HMS Laforey (Destroyer) until 23rd August 1942. It was during this time that George received a scarf from the young ladies who knitted for sailors….one of George’s shipmates received a sweater and with it a note with an address. George asked if his mate was going to write to her and he said no so George wrote instead. This was to be to his future wife, Rene Nott.

HMS Laforey, 1942.

Rene did knit him a sweater …….George did not have it for long as HMS Eagle was sunk in a battle which HMS Laforey was also engaged in and Laforey picked up some survivors from HMS Eagle and George gave his jumper to one of the survivors. When Rene heard of this she went round all the shops in Lewisham to get enough wool to knit him another – wool was rationed and could only be bought with coupons.

George on horseback in Canada.

June 1943. I believe this time was spent on courses such as gunnery, torpedo etc. as George was a Torpedo Coxswain and was also a Gunner. On 1st July 1943 he went out to Canada and while he was there worked in the sugar factory and rode horses! His purpose in Canada was to crew HMS Antares back to England which he joined on 23rd August 1943 until 14th September 1943.

November 1943 George was awarded the 1939-43 Star. October 22nd 1944 George was awarded the Long Service and Good Conduct Medal. He remained on HMS Antares until 2nd March 1945. The next day he joined HMS Thisbe.
On 7th January 1946 George became Chief Petty Officer (Torpedo Coxswain). On 23rd February 1946 he joined HMS Thruster and left inn April 1946 when he stayed ashore at Victory from April 1946 for two years. On 22nd September 1946 George married Rene. They had been exchanging letters and meeting up when George was on shore leave ever since the episode with the scarf and sweater on Laforey!!

HMS Whitesand Bay, 1945.

Then in April 1947 when his son Raymond George Manners was 6 months old George was sent out to Malta to join HMS Whitesand Bay (Frigate) He first served on HMS Whitsand Bay in the Mediterranean and in August 1948 the ship had the honour to carry the Olympic Torch from Greece to Italy. The HMS Whitesand Bay then went on to the West Indies.

In the summer of 1949 after the ‘Amethyst Affair’ (when the communists fired on HMS Amethyst in the Yangtze River and she escaped to Hong Kong) HMS Amethyst was moored alongside Whitesand Bay in Hong Kong Harbour. George always remembered that Amethyst had an armed guard on board.
…Whitesand Bay did not!

George also remembered Amethyst being famous for her ships cat – Simon –known as Able Seaman Simon- who was awarded the Dicken Medal (the animal Victoria Cross) after being wounded in service and for being a comfort to the ship’s crew.

Able Seaman Simon, 1949.

In September 1949 George was presented with:
1939-45 Star
Atlantic Star
Italy Star
War Medal

George came home in February 1950 and returned to HMS Victory until June 1950 when he went to Pembroke at Chatham. A sister to Raymond was born at Canada House Naval Maternity Home, Gillingham, Kent on 3rd March 1951 Mary Grace Manners.

HMS St Kitts.

19th April 1951 George went back to sea aboard HMS St Kitts and to celebrate the Festival of Britain toured around England visiting the ports of Great Britain.

On 21st August 1951 George left HMS St Kitts and returned to Pembroke until 9th February 1953 when he retired at the age of 41years.

George joined HMS Ganges on 25th November 1926.
Commenced 12 years service on 10th August 1929.
Commenced 10 years pension 10th August 1941.
He Served the Royal Navy for 27 years 2 months and 12 days.

Watford Boys Grammar School.

After his Naval Career, George went on to be a school caretaker at Watford Boys Grammar School. On 10th April 1958, Rene and George had a second daughter, Jacqueline Wendy Manners.
George retired in March 1976 and lived with Rene in Eastbourne for 18 years. Later he moved to Somerset where he died on 5th August 1999.

Rene now lives in Tolleshunt Knights, Essex. She is 95 years old! (written in May 2021)
George is interred at Old Cleeve Church Somerset. It was the place he chose as it overlooks the sea.

His remembrance stone reads:


[Tom] HMS Suffolk, along with HMS Norfolk, went on to play a crucial role in detecting and shadowing the German battleship Bismark in the Denmark Strait between Iceland and Greenland in May 1941. This would lead to the destruction of George’s other favourite ship, HMS Hood, which was blown up by Bismark. The Bismark would be sunk on 27th May. For the official report of the attack on HMS Suffolk during Operation Duck, see this website.

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

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.

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