Orkney – Nowadays the Shetland’s poorer cousin
This archipelago of 70 islands, to the southwest of the Shetlands made up 5/6th of Margaret of Denmark’s dowry – largely because its fertile soils supported more farming than its northern cousin. Today that relative valuation would not hold up, thanks to the discovery of North sea oil in the 1970’s and the role the Shetlands has played being more proximate to the fields. The difference in house prices on the two island groups is testimony to that – the oil industry-related job boom in the Shetlands has driven those up beyond the reach of Orkney islanders, the Shetlands even has its own “sovereign fund” as per Norway, thanks to oil – that has financed some generous public services over there.
But for sure the Orkney land remains more fertile, supports higher stocking rates, especially of the famed beef cattle and is not held back by the proliferation of peat bogs that hampers Shetland agriculture.
As we’ve bicycled our way across to Scapa Flow (‘bay of the long isthmus’) from Kirkwall, the Orkney capital, my memory of reading old world war histories has been rekindled. It was here in this harbour, the home of the British fleet for both WW1 and WW2 that the largest scuttling of warships ever occurred. They were German warships interned after the end of WW1 was declared in November 1918. That November 370 ships from the Allies Grand Fleet escorted 70 German warships from the Atlantic rendezvous point back to the Firth of Forth – from where they were then sailed by skeleton crews of German sailors to Scapa Flow for internment.
Here they stayed – with their German crews on board until June 1919 when the Treaty of Versailles that set all the terms between the Allies how to deal with war matters was finally signed. On the eve of the signing of the Treaty the German Admiral ordered his crews to scuttle all 70 ships. The German sailors immediately began to open seacocks – valves that allow water in – and smash pipes. As the ships went down they took to small boats to escape their sinking ships.
As they came aboard the British ships some were ordered back to close the valves. Some who refused were shot on the spot. These were the last deaths of World War 1. While some were salvaged overall the whole episode was an embarrassment for the Allies.
As we stand on the jetty at Scapa Flow and recall all this history it’s difficult to imagine so much activity at a site that these days has only a few houses lining the beach.